Hannah Arendt, Wesleyan University, c. 1961/62
Involuntary Euthanasia. Hannah Arendt’s work has warnings about totalitarianism; sadly, they seem today to apply to democracies also
By Luis Feduchi
It is surprising that the Aktion T4 program, forerunner of the plan to exterminate the Jewish people, is unknown to many Germans today. It is surprising because German society is not known for having turned its back on that fatal episode in its history, but also because an embrace of the idea that confronting the past ensures that it will not repeat necessitates the study of the past with as much or more diligence than the horror that it wrought.
The program to which I refer, whose euphemistic name perhaps reflects the difficulty of revealing its objective, was a death sentence exacted without consent upon terminally ill patients –a law whose title should have been that of this article. The ultimate name chosen for the action is an acronym of the Berlin street address where the plan was conceived: Tiergartenstraße 4.
In 1961, 20 years after her exile to the United States and with pride in her American citizenship (not so in her nationality), German-born Hannah Arendt was commissioned by The New Yorker to cover the trial set to take place in Jerusalem against the alleged war criminal Adolf Eichmann, the uncontroversial Nazi civil servant who had been found in Argentina a year earlier. The report would be published in installments in five successive editions of the magazine and later compiled in the book Eichmann in Jerusalem.
In her chronicle, Arendt refers, without mentioning it by name, to the involuntary euthanasia program as such: “There is the well-known fact that Hitler began his mass murders by granting ‘mercy deaths’ to the ‘incurably ill’, and that he intended to wind up his extermination program by doing away with ‘genetically damaged’ Germans (heart and lung patients).” [i]
A month after the Covid-19 pandemic began, while rereading this impeccable reportage, I noticed the parenthetical addendum “(heart and lung patients)”, which Arendt may have inserted to clarify which of her compatriots Aktion T4 targeted. It seems she wanted to make clear that Hitler’s operation extended beyond race and ideology, thus demonstrating that he had little or no compassion for the elderly or for those of weak health, those we have now come to refer to as the vulnerable.
Associating vulnerability with the fact of being explicitly marked to die is something that cannot leave us cold. When vulnerability is not only a product of congenital or unexpected disease, when ethnicity or social conditions become a shortcut to such vulnerability, when opposition to a political regime, as with many refugees, pushes groups into that state of fragility and lack of protection, we read Arendt’s words as an undeniable exhortation to what may be may transpire when the economic and social crisis exacerbated by Covid-19 soon manifests in full.
Whether it’s the kids children shot at by lockdown police in an East African slum, or the elderly who died at home for fear of going to crowded health centers during the peak of the pandemic in Southern Europe; be they the long-term deaths of despair caused by the loss of income that freedom of movement at least guaranteed, or the fatalities of the ongoing civil wars whose desperate conditions further intensify during confinement – what we cannot forget is that confinement, a measure that has placated the outbreak of the pandemic, can also be an instrument of dubious protection of citizens when not only in the hands of totalitarian authoritarianism, but also in the face of the social injustice that not even the most progressive countries have eradicated.
There are hardly any countries devoid of well-founded accusations of abusing the power that confinement has allowed. In this climate, it is surprising to see demonstrations fueling conspiracies in Germany or allegations of mismanagement in Spain and Italy, when in India, Brazil, Russia, Turkey, Burma, the Philippines – not to mention the United States and China, where uprisings in the former and unrest silenced are everyday news – the impact that confinement is having on minorities and abuse of power is adding to the daily toll. The risks do not come only from populist and authoritarian leaders, but also from uncontroverted civil servants and the complex state machinery of purportedly democratic regimes.
If, as Jürgen Habermas said, “the task of those who dedicate themselves to the profession of thought is to shed light on the crimes that were committed in the past and to keep awareness of them alive”, then Arendt’s work may suffer spikes of inattention as to the possible repetition of crimes that are difficult to foresee and almost impossible to believe. But what should surely remain in focus is the way in which even a brief passage from her oeuvre is able to shake us alert and inspire our vigilance to prevent such colossal crimes from happening again.
[i] Hannah Arendt, Eichmann and the Holocaust (London, Penguin, 2005), p.116.
Luis Feduchi is a practicing architect and academic.
June 23rd, 2020 — Rosa Mercedes / 02
The Reconstruction of Ukraine. Ruination / Representation / Solidarity, online symposium, September 9-11, 2022. “The Reconstruction of Ukraine: Ruination / Representation / Solidarity” devotes particular attention to cities, architecture, art, culture and psychological trauma – but the scope of the conversations it aims to start is broader. In due course, the discussions held during the symposium may coalesce into myriad projects, initiatives and experiments undertaken by government institutions, municipalities, educational and cultural bodies and other more interstitial actors. The ambition of this symposium is to establish a platform for dialogue, facilitating communication, collaboration and constructive argument between diverse actors and initiatives.
George Edwards (Zetkin Collective) on war, nationalism and the “anti-climate lobby” (via Arts of the Working Class): “The latest prognosis of this particular war was spelt out in a flurry of reports from the IPCC; the most recent, described as ‘an atlas of human suffering’ by the chief of the UN, demanded ‘rapid, deep and immediate’ emissions cuts in all sectors to ensure an inhabitable planet for all. In step with the science, many wish this conflict to mark the beginning of an intensified programme of decarbonization, ridding economies of not only Russian, but all fossil fuels, wherever their geological source. But whilst political leaders scramble abroad to secure new sources of fossil fuels – sweet-talking sheiks and summoning LNG terminals from the ground – a resourceful and committed cohort, let’s call them the anti-climate lobby, refuse to accept this diagnosis. The partakers in the fossil industry have seized upon this crisis, sensing it as an opportunity to enlarge and entrench economic interests rooted in fossil fuels. As the course of action prescribed by the IPCC imperils this line of business, the attempts to secure fresh investments in fossil fuel infrastructures, to lock-in production and secure profits for the coming decades may feel all the more pressing. The solutions they pose also fit within the national frame and it is with nationalist political forces that they find their most ardent allies.”
July 31st, 2022
“The fundamental difference that we face in Europe at the moment between the Western approach characterized by the pursuit of peace and the Eastern one focused on liberation and independence poses a dramatic challenge – in order to survive and progress, democracy as a political regime has to be capable of defending itself also in a military way.” Armed Democracy revolves around the concepts of imperialism, liberation, fascism, autocracy, revolution, and militarization in pursuit of the world to come on Europe’s burnt out land. Conceived by the Kyiv Biennial and Biennale Warszawa from the East Europe Biennial Alliance, this special public program, curated by Vasyl Cherepanyn within the 2nd edition of Biennale Warszawa, the program is a first part of the series organized by the East Europe Biennial Alliance discussing Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine and taking place in Warsaw, Prague, Kassel, and Riga over the summer and fall of 2022.
Olena Lyubchenko on Whiteness, Expropriation, War, and Social Reproduction in Ukraine (via LeftEast): “[…] when we hear on the news that ‘Ukraine is fighting a European war’ and ‘Ukraine is defending Europe’, amid images of fleeing ‘poor white’ women with children prioritized over racialized ‘Others’, ‘Ukraine’ is being made ‘white’ in the global imaginary. That is, “the injunction to ‘return to Europe’ by way of Europeanization is enabled and conditioned on the mythologies of Western civilization, and that Europeanization at once marks (promulgates) and unmarks (naturalizes) racial whiteness” [Nadezhda Husakouskaya and Randi Gressgård]. The paradox is that Europe’s existence as such has only been possible precisely because of the exploitation of global working peoples through expropriation of resources and today neoliberal economic reforms and reproduced by feminized labour.”
Vasyl Cherepanyn about the “inertness, hiding behind the European Wall” (via L’Internationale): “Many Western institutions that have been claiming ‘radical political engagement’ for years, have simply resorted to a white cube radicalism and self-satisfying humanitarianism, too afraid of acting politically beyond their comfort zone and unsettling their publics and authorities by attempting to affect the decision-making process regarding the Ukrainian cause.”
May 28th, 2022
Tatsiana Shchurko on the War in Ukraine, Entangled Imperialisms, and Transnational Feminist Solidarity, via LeftEast (May 2, 2022): “[An] uneven knowledge production and the many implications of the war against Ukraine reveal the dire need to develop a feminist anti-capitalist critique of multiple imperialisms. This language should grow from within the occupied and suppressed communities of Eastern Europe and Eurasia. An anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist feminist positionality grasps that the local is part of a global in an effort to build transnational connections of mutual aid and support against state and corporate violence. For example, statements of solidarity with Ukraine expressed by the International Committee of Indigenous Peoples of Russia and Native American communities along with the anti-war feminist march in Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan) on March 8, 2022, pointing out that the war in Ukraine should be of concern for a broad transnational community, may serve as instrumental examples of alternative anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist solidarities that stretch beyond state regulations and macro-politics and foreground decolonial perspectives, necessary in addressing entanglements of multiple imperialisms. Such solidarities also bring to light hidden interconnections of the past that allowed for distant communities to survive and support each other against the violence of imperialist intervention and its attendant capitalist exploitation. Thus, the march in Bishkek reminds of the socialist roots of the International Women’s Day to call for internationalist, intersectional, class solidarity against imperialism and militarism.”
Vasyl Cherepanyn on that “It’ll take more than tanks to ease Germany’s guilt” (via Politico): “Since the Soviet Union’s collapse, Germany has been imposing neocolonial optics on its Eastern European ‘peripheries,’ and on the post-Soviet space in particular, where Ukraine was long considered a gray buffer zone about which the EU was ‘deeply concerned.’ Germany didn’t bother itself much with differentiating between former Soviet countries’ pasts. Even until recently, any Ukrainian agenda in Germany was often ‘balanced’ with a Russian perspective, so as to not exclude the latter by any means.”
An unnamed anarchist and art scholar, who joined the Territorial Defense Forces, quoted by Olexii Kuchanskyi in an essay on “Digital Leviathan and His Nuclear Tail” (via Your Art and e-flux notes): “At dawn, Dima and I talked about cinema. Dima believes that cinema is inferior to literature as a means of expression because you spend much more time with a book than a film. It’s a really interesting point, something to dig into. I studied at the department of art theory & history and I never thought of it. Dima served in the military after school and worked at the factory all his life. He listens to rap, smokes pot, and tries to have fun. He is thirty-eight, his child was born last year. He likes Wong Kar-wai and is a fan of Asian cinema in general. Dima communicates by quoting Omar Khayyam, Confucius, and other awesome guys.”
April 20th, 2022