Arendt on the Crime of Crimes

Ratio Juris, Forthcoming

34 Pages Posted: 4 Apr 2015

See all articles by David Luban

David Luban

Georgetown University Law Center

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Date Written: 2015


Genocide - the intentional destruction of groups “as such” – is sometimes called the “crime of crimes,” but explaining what makes it the crime of crimes is no easy task. Why are groups important over and above the individuals who make them up? Hannah Arendt tried to explain the uniqueness of genocide, but the claim of this paper is that she failed. The claim is simple, but the reasons cut deep.

Genocide, in Arendt’s view, “is an attack upon human diversity as such.” So far so good; but it is hard to square with Arendt’s highly individualistic conception of human diversity, which in her systematic philosophy refers to the multiplicity of unique human individuals, never of groups. Indeed, Arendt is famously skeptical of views that subordinate individuality to group identity. That makes her theorizing an instructive test case of whether individualism can yield an account of why groups matter.

The paper analyzes several possible approaches to the problem of explaining the special value of groups, beginning with Raphael Lemkin’s theory of groups as contributors to universal civilization, and then turning to Arendt’s efforts. In the course of the argument, it examines her understanding of Jewish history, her ideas about “the social,” and her conception of “humanity” as a normative stance toward international responsibility rather than a descriptive concept. For Arendt, group identification makes sense solely as a political act of resistance to persecution. In the conclusion, the paper examines a remarkable moment during the trial of Radovan Karadzić, when a defense witness explained his conversion to radical nationalism by quoting “Mrs. Hannah Arendt, a prominent philosopher.” The moment illustrates how hard it is to maintain the stance of humanity while assigning political value to group identity.

Keywords: genocide, Jerusalem court, Eichmann trial, Jews, Holocaust, crimes against humanity

JEL Classification: K00, K30, K39

Suggested Citation

Luban, David, Arendt on the Crime of Crimes (2015). Ratio Juris, Forthcoming, Available at SSRN:

David Luban (Contact Author)

Georgetown University Law Center ( email )

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