Christopher Hitchens on Antisemitism

Christopher Hitchens has died. We and all the world are poorer for the loss.

Hitchens was not an Arendt Scholar, but he did deliver the keynote address at the Hannah Arendt Center’s inaugural conference, Thinking in Dark Times, in 2006.

I invited Christopher to speak for a few reasons. First, Christopher was constitutionally incapable of giving a bad speech. Having heard him speak many times, I can safely say that there is no one who consistently enthralled, provoked, and stimulated as Christopher did. Secondly, I invited Christopher  because it was clear to me that much of his writing at that time showed the influence of Hannah Arendt. If I disagreed with his support for the Iraq war, I had enormous respect for him as one of the few public intellectuals with the courage to express strong and often unpopular opinions. And I was always impressed at his ability to make me think, to argue for his opinions with unparalleled wit and elegance. So I took a chance and issued the invitation, along with an apology: As a brand new Academic Center with no sources of funding, we could only afford to pay him $300. I sent off my email with little hope of a response.

I did not have to wait long. Within about 10 minutes, Christopher had accepted my invitation. Indeed, he wrote, he had been thinking about Arendt’s work and was eager for a forum to engage with others writing and thinking about her. His excitement was palpable as was his generosity and magnanimity as we planned his talk and then continued our conversation after the conference. At the conference itself, Christopher reveled in conversations with Bard students and faculty, staying late into the evening, Scotch in one hand, cigarette in the other, debating and discussing with passion and joy.

The talk Christopher gave was “Reflections on Antisemitism.” It focused on the 1956 Hungarian Revolution and Arendt’s epilogue on that revolution, which she published in the second edition of The Origins of Totalitarianism. Arendt later removed the epilogue from future editions, and it is not widely known or available. Arendt never hid the original epilogue, but simply said that it had “become obsolete in many details.” Christopher wanted to ask why she had written it and, more importantly for him, why she had removed it. That is the question he sought to answer in his talk.

Christopher begins by noting something surprising: Arendt’s epilogue is full of optimism. Indeed, the epilogue on the Hungarian Revolution is one of those rare instances where one finds Arendt excited about the present and hopeful for the future. Having heard about how the Hungarian workers spontaneously organized themselves into workers’ councils, she allowed herself to dream of a return of political action. As Christopher said, in his inimitable and unmatched song of a voice, Arendt even waxed nostalgic.

I think perhaps here she was expressing a nostalgia—even a little romance—for the German revolutions of 1919 in Munich and elsewhere, in which her future husband Heinrich Blücher had played such an honorable part.

Christopher jumped on the optimistic, nostalgic, and naive tone of Arendt’s account, which was in many ways so out of character with the usual intensity and seriousness of her prose. What he found there was, perhaps, one of the most pure expressions of Arendt’s own ideal of political action and her faith in the possibility of the revolutionary freedom. It is worth quoting his account in full:

Arendt’s epilogue was naive also because it laid great stress on what she called the peaceful and orderly and good-humored crowds of Budapest. She rather romanticized the good-naturedness of the Hungarian revolution. Now, this optimism may possibly be justified in the long term, which is why it’s worth looking up that epilogue again. After all, in 1989, not more than three decades later, there was a peaceful, bloodless, and orderly velvet revolution; it had its beginning in Budapest when the Hungarians allowed their East German brethren to resist by transiting Hungarian soil without hindrance. It led, in the end, to the fall of the Berlin Wall. And that was a classic case of the recovery of what Arendt so beautifully called, I think, the lost treasure of revolution.

The lost treasure of revolution is the common property to which Hannah Arendt alludes, very lyrically, in the opening passages of her collection Between Past and Future. She describes this ability to recover freedom: the spirit of an unforced liberty that is latent, she thought, in all people and which she claimed to detect in “the summer in 1776 in Philadelphia, the summer of 1789 in Paris, and the autumn of 1956 in Budapest.”  Which, as you can see, is putting 1956 in Budapest on quite a high pedestal and threshold. Now this concept of the hidden treasure, the treasure that’s always hidden but that can be reclaimed, is remarkable for its lack of what a Marxist would call concreteness. Here’s how it appears according to Hannah Arendt, this treasure: It appears only “under the most varied circumstances, appears abruptly, unexpectedly, and disappears again under different mysterious conditions, as though it were a fata morgana,” or, so to say, as a will of the wisp or ignis fatuus. The lost treasure of the revolution is a very, very elusive, almost ethereal concept for Hannah Arendt to be dealing with. And let me say, one of the nice things about reading and rereading Hannah Arendt is to discover how nice it is when she is fanciful every now and then.

These few lines of Christopher’s show how insightfully he writes and thinks. He has caught sight not only of Arendt’s writing about the Lost Treasure of the Revolutions, but also of what might be called Arendt’s own treasure, the “experience of freedom” that is the fact and the dream underlying so much of Arendt’s political writing.

Christopher went on to make a novel and I think correct argument, that the reason she later removed the epilogue had to do with the antisemitism of many of the Hungarian revolutionaries. As she became aware of the dark side of the revolution, she rethought her initial optimism, and simply withdrew the epilogue.

Christopher then offered a thoughtful critique of Arendt’s rejection of eternal antisemitism. For Arendt, the assumption of “eternal antisemitism” wrongly gives an alibi for the horrors, for “if it is true that mankind has insisted on murdering Jews for more than two thousand years, then Jew-killing is a normal, and even human, occupation and Jew-hatred is justified beyond the need of argument.” What was needed, instead, was to take seriously why antisemitism reared its head in the 20th century, and also to what extent Jews themselves had a role to play in the rise of German antisemitism. In one of her many provocations in the name of telling the truth, Arendt argued that there was a way in which Jews themselves, wary of assimilation and the loss of their status as a distinct and special people, unknowingly and unintentionally played into the claims of their difference. This was a dangerous and difficult argument, one Arendt approached with her typical courage and force. She made it clear that she was in no way blaming the Jews or excusing the Germans, but was simply insisting that we confront the specificity of 20th century antisemitism. Unlike earlier antisemitism, modern antisemitism took place amidst the background of assimilation, and thus was different from earlier manifestations.

Christopher, who found out only quite late in life that he was Jewish, made a sustained argument that Arendt’s attempt to comprehend antisemitism—to find rational and logical explanations for its appearance—was misguided. Instead, he argued, antisemitism is an illogical, irrational, and inexplicable phenomenon. One that simply must be constantly called out and resisted, but never intellectually analyzed.  Here is how he put it:

When one has analyzed all the different strains and the contradictions that materialize or that constitute antisemitism, whether it’s the Jewish middlemen in the French scandal over the Panama Canal shares, or whether it’s the role of the Rothschilds in financing this or that bourgeois revolution, or whether it’s the extraordinary preeminence of Arendt’s hero and antihero Benjamin Disraeli in forwarding the cause of British imperialism in India, one is still increasingly impelled to doubt that the thing will yield to an analysis, even one that’s as deft and thorough as hers is. Kurt Blumenfeld once quoted an observation, with which Arendt greatly agreed, that was made by his friend and publisher Salmon Schocken as early as 1914. Schocken had said, “In the emancipation period for Jews, one asked: ‘What do you believe?’ Today one only asks: ‘Who are you?’” And the answer was always, to that question, as Arendt had to concede, that whatever you believe, you still have to answer that you are a Jew.  Now, this is a depressing conclusion, because it suggests that the analysis and combating of antisemitism lies somewhere outside the rationalist and Enlightenment universe.

Depressing, indeed, and yet spoken in the name of truth. The truth, Arendt thought, was often unpalatable, and yet always worthwhile. She spoke her truth. And Christopher responded with his. They were two of the bravest intellectuals of our time. And so it should not be surprising to see Christopher take Arendt on, again in the name of truth. It was a quintessentially riveting talk by Christopher Hitchens.

The entirety of Christopher’s talk at the conference is published in Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics. For a limited time, you can read his essay here. If you are so inclined, enjoy a glass of scotch while you do so.



Posted on 16 December 2011 | 4:29 pm

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