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German 'Collective Guilt' a Fallacy, Arendt States at Ford Hall Forum


Hannah Arendt attempted yesterday to clear away the confusion surrounding the moral dilemma which faced citizens of Nazi Germany.

The noted political scientist, whose recent book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report an the Banality of Evil, touched on heated controversy throughout the intellectual world, addressed a Ford Hall Forum audience on "Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship."

Miss Arendt referred to the post-war climate in Germany--where those personally innocent during the Nazi period all admitted to their "collective guilt" while the real criminals showed no remorse as "the quintessence of moral confusion." The concept of collective guilt, as opposed to individual guilt, is "senseless," Miss Arendt said, and only serves as an effective "whitewash" for guilty individuals to hide behind.

In the legal sphere, Miss Arendt condemned the "cog" theory as moral evasion. This theory argues that a functionary, like Eichmann, is not responsible for the criminal action of the government whose command he obeys. The courts should not deal with "systems" or "isms," but persons, she added.

Fixed Morality

Miss Arendt recalled that before World War II she and her contemporaries regarded morality as a fixed set of values.

They saw Nazi developments as "nothing more than a very complex political problems," with no moral implications. She noted "a deep seated fear of judging," to which all men were prey, that prevented many from discarding their given frame of moral references even in the light of contemporary events.

An instance of this human reluctance to judge, Miss Arendt said, was Pope Plus XII's refusal to condemn Hitler, which is currently being dramatized in Rolf Hochhuth's play, "The Deputy". Asked later if she felt Pope John XXIII would have kept silent under the same circumstances, Miss Arendt drew applause by saying she was "perfectly sure" he would not have done so.

New Nazi Law

For those who chose "political responsibility" and joined the Nazis, Miss Arendt said, it was remarkably easy to adapt the "cornerstone of the new law: 'thou shalt kill.' At the very moment of its collapse, morality stood exposed in its original meaning--as mores, a set of habits which could be changed as easily as table manners."

Only those whose "consciences did not function automatically," dared judge events for themselves, Miss Arendt said. Their choice not to participate was simply founded on the desire to "live at peace with themselves," she added.

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