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  • Loyalty as Betrayal:Hannah Arendt's Judgment of the Poet Bertolt Brecht
  • Jerome Kohn (bio)

For Frederick English

A poet's real sins are avenged by the gods of poetry.

—Hannah Arendt

in his memoir out of step (1987), the american pragmatist and sometime leftist philosopher Sidney Hook recounts an event that took place in 1935. The German poet Bertolt Brecht, in exile from Nazi Germany, was passing through New York, and Hook invited him to attend a gathering of the politically like-minded. Brecht accepted, and as the evening wore on, the talk became acrimonious in its condemnation of Joseph Stalin's preparations for the show trials to be staged in Moscow the following year. And show trials they would be: performed cavalcades of lies, whirlwinds of spurious denunciations, climaxing in the discharge of patently false judgments. Within a couple of years, the ranks of the original supporters of Vladimir Lenin, the strategists to some extent of the October Revolution and certainly of its aftermath—the founding fathers, one might say, of the USSR—would be decimated.

With few exceptions, perhaps the most noteworthy being Vyacheslav Molotov, these early revolutionaries were accused by their [End Page 651] erstwhile comrade Stalin of having betrayed the Bolshevik Party—the party of historical necessity—which they, together with Lenin and Stalin, had discovered and founded as their most compelling and, in that sense, useful political tool. Brecht remained silent as Hook and other anti-Stalinist New York leftists proclaimed the transparent innocence of those who would be brought to trial, found guilty, and executed. When Brecht finally spoke, what he said was: "The more innocent they are, the more they deserve to die." Hook and his company were outraged; Hook asked Brecht to leave his house, and the two never met or spoke again.

Hannah Arendt often distinguished between the loyalty of Nazi officials to Hitler's politically anti-Semitic ideology and that of Bolsheviks to the omniscience and omnipotence of the Communist Party. The moment Hitler died, she said, there was not an anti-Semite to be found in all of Germany. That was laced with sarcasm, of course. But during the Moscow trials, in sharp contrast, the men Stalin accused of betraying the Party were called upon to confess their guilt out of loyalty to the Party; some were tortured before confessing, to be sure. But what is crucial is that the condition under which the show trials could be convened was the identification of the all-knowing party and its offspring, the all-powerful state, with Stalin. His victims-to-be, many of whom had cooperated with him in purging any vestiges of the spirit of revolutionary freedom from the party's platform, would be called upon or coerced to forfeit not only their own lives but also often the lives of their families, just as they themselves had sacrificed the lives and families of those they regarded as "class enemies" in establishing the one-party state in the first place. Stalin's victims maintained their loyalty, the only "virtue" left them—if that's what it is—to the Party, to the "truth" of historical necessity.


on december 13, 2018, the new york times reported that president Trump's longtime former lawyer, Michael D. Cohen, was convicted of crimes that, according to the judge, imply "insidious harm to our democratic institutions" (New York Times 2018). Cohen accounted [End Page 652] for his crimes by calling them the results of his "duty to cover up [Trump's] dirty deeds." He said it was his own "blind loyalty" to Trump that led him to betray his voice of conscience, or, in his own words, "my inner voice and my moral compass." Later, in public testimony, he said, "I am ashamed of my weakness and misplaced loyalty" (New York Times 2019b).

While I want here to avoid to the extent possible specific references to Hannah Arendt's portrayal of Adolf Eichmann, it was during his trial in Jerusalem that she made a discovery relevant to these remarks. She discovered that what is commonly called the "voice of conscience" speaks before an act is committed; it commands whoever hears it not...


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