Banishing Oblivion

It is true that totalitarian domination tried to establish these holes of oblivion into which all deeds, good and evil, would disappear; but just as the Nazis’ feverish attempts, from June, 1942, on, to erase all traces of the massacres – through cremation, through burning in open pits, through the use of explosives and flame-throwers and bone-crushing machinery – were doomed to failure, so all efforts to let their opponents “disappear in silent anonymity” were in vain. The holes of oblivion do not exist. Nothing human is that perfect, and there are simply too many people in the world to make oblivion possible. One man will always be left alive to tell the story.

            —Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem

Aung San Suu Kyi accepted her Nobel Peace Prize this weekend, 21 years after it was awarded. For over two decades since her landslide victory in what was then Burma and is now Myanmar, Suu Kyi has stood fast in her opposition to the military junta ruling her country. The junta has sought to make her disappear, suppress any mention of her, and violently repress all protest and dissent.

Until 2010 when, suddenly, the regime allowed Suu Kyi to stand for elections as the leader of the opposition. She is now a member of parliament.

In her speech accepting her Nobel Prize, Suu Kyi said of the Nobel Prize she won in 1991:

What the Nobel Peace Prize did was to draw me once again into the world of other human beings outside the isolated area in which I lived, to restore a sense of reality to me.

To be part of the human community is to be seen and remembered. It is to affirm that one has meaning and significance in the world. At a time when she had been hidden, silenced, and deprived of the right to speak and act in a way that matters in the world, Suu Kyi was in danger of disappearing. Hanging tenuously over the pit of oblivion, she felt her bond with the human community slipping away. “To be forgotten,” Suu Kyi said in Oslo, “is to die a little. It is to lose some of the links that anchor us to the rest of humanity.”

Suu Kyi was near to falling through the cracks of the world into a black hole of forgetting. It is such oblivion that Hannah Arendt saw to be the grave threat totalitarian domination posed to human beings. Totalitarianism threatens to acquire the ability not simply to oppress a people, but to do so in such a way that even their death and their oppression was senseless and powerless in the world. To deprive a person of even the right to die like a human being and to be remembered is, Arendt saw, the greatest imaginable attack on human dignity.

But such holes of oblivion do not exist. That is Arendt’s optimistic conclusion that she brings to bear upon the argument of a German Army physician, Peter Bamm. In his book The Invisible Flags (1952) Bamm distinguishes the SS mobile killing units from ordinary German soldiers. Arendt quotes his account of the murder of the Jews at length:

We knew this. We did nothing. Anyone who had seriously protested or done anything against the killing unit would have been arrested within twenty-four hours and would have disappeared. It belongs among the refinements of totalitarian governments in our century that they don’t permit their opponents to die a great, dramatic martyr’s death for their convictions. A good many of us might have accepted such a death. The totalitarian state lets its opponents disappear in silent anonymity. It is certain that anyone who had dared to suffer death rather than silently tolerate the crime would have sacrificed his life in vain. This is not to say that such a sacrifice would have been morally meaningless. It would only have been practically useless. None of us had a conviction so deeply rooted that we could have taken upon ourselves a practically useless sacrifice for the sake of a higher moral meaning.

If Bamm’s argument at first sounds “hopelessly plausible,” it trades in platitudes. Its power rests upon the assumption that deaths of resistance would have been in vain, that resisters would have disappeared in “silent anonymity.” Practical uselessness thus excuses one from courageous moral action.

Arendt’s faith in the symbolic power of moral action and the necessary failure of totalitarian suppression of that power underlies her stunning formulation of the Right to Have Rights in the Origins of Totalitarianism. Whereas much of human rights discourse in 1950 and still today imagines that there is a human right to life or to food or security, Arendt rejects those claims. Humans will die and some will starve. This is not hard hearted so much as it is a fact. Death and starvation can be unjust and tragic, but they are not inhuman thus not a violation of fundamental human rights. What is more, there are times when the most human thing we can do is to die and starve in ways that so exemplify our humanity.

The most basic human right is the right to know that whether we decide to live or to die, our choice will matter.  For Arendt, the truly human rights are the rights to be heard, to be seen, and to be meaningful. As humans, we have the right to belong to an organized community, where we can speak and act in ways that matter in the world. In other words, we have the human right to not be consigned to oblivion.

We have such a human right both in theory and in practice. Arendt is convinced that even at a time when technology allows totalitarian regimes to rewrite and even to rewire reality, facts have a stubbornness that allows them to surface. And moral action, even more than mere fact, has a power that is impossible to suppress. As long as the story of resistance can be told, totalitarian oblivion is simply a myth that excuses inaction.

The myth of oblivion is shattered by action in spite of totalitarian domination. One of Arendt’s favorite examples of such moral action is the German Sergeant Anton Schmidt. During the war, Schmidt assisted numerous Jews to escape by giving them passports, money, and papers. He never took money in return. He was indeed captured and executed. But his action was not in vain. For not only did he save individual Jews, he inspired them and others to continue their resistance. And his story today remains as a powerful reminder of the practical and moral importance of courageous self-sacrifice in the name of the good.

In her speech on Saturday, Suu Kyi said that the Nobel Peace Prize “opened up a door in my heart.”  The Nobel Peace Prize is often derided as political. That is often true. And yet there are times when the prize not only rewards sacrifice, but salvages a world in danger of being lost. The Nobel Prize can help illuminate those holes of oblivion that continue to exist, however temporary that existence might be. At its best, the Prize celebrates those like Suu Kyi who choose to dedicate their lives to the conviction that the truth will win out and the holes of oblivion cannot last.

-Roger Berkowitz


Posted on 18 June 2012 | 12:58 pm

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