Smart Jews

The Jewish impact on American intellectual culture.

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Hans Morgenthau also had been trained originally for the law, although later he acquired a German doctorate in political philosophy. Upon reaching the United States in 1937, Mor­genthau first earned his bread as a part-time instructor in government at the University of Kansas City. Six years later he was called to the University of Chicago. There he conducted an uphill battle against the "scientific positivism" widely in vogue, until his European emphasis on "philosophic coherence" began to take hold. Morgenthau pursued the approach in a wide series of books and papers on international affairs. Their influence on policy planners in Washington--among them, George F. Kennan--was enduring.

Yet, among this galaxy of intellects, it was Hannah Arendt who emerged as the most renowned of émigré political thinkers, indeed, as hardly less than an explosive force of intellectual virtuosity. Possessor of a doctorate in philosophy from Heidelberg, the Prussian-born Arendt fled to Paris after the rise of Hitler, divorced her first husband, married Henrich Blucher, a non-Jewish Trotskyite and fellow exile, and with him and her widowed mother finally managed to reach New York in 1941. There Blucher earned a meager livelihood as a night-course director for Bard College.

Hannah Arendt

Arendt churned out articles for the refugee newspaper Aufbau and for various Jewish philanthropies, and later worked as an editor at Schocken Books. It was during these early postwar years, upon mastering English, that she launched her American career with an electrifying series of review-essays in the Nation on a wide range of philosophical and political books. The articles evoked immediate attention and won Arendt the friendship of important literary and scholarly figures, among them W. H. Auden, Mary McCarthy, Edmund Wilson, Dwight MacDonald, Salo Baron, and Alfred Kazin. Kazin remembered her as "a blazing Jew," an "intense, dominating woman with a gruff voice" who "lived her thought, and thought dominated her life." It was Kazin who ar­ranged for Harcourt, Brace, and Jovanovich to accept her first book.

Published in 1951, The Origins of Totalitarianism was an almost obsessive interpretation of the horror of recent Europe. In impas­sioned, feverish prose, and drawing upon a lifetime of thought and anger, of apparently bottomless scholarly and linguistic resources, Arendt proceeded to analyze the phenomenon of anti-Semitism and imperialism as prefigurations of totalitarianism. Although uneven, the volume was a bombshell in the sheer ferocity and relentlessness of its argumentation, the originality of its insights, the breadth of its erudition. Within months of its publication, Arendt emerged as a major figure in the intellectual firmament. The leading journals com­peted for her articles. Universities vied for her lectures. In ensuing years she became a visiting professor at Princeton, Berkeley, Co­lumbia, and eventually at her permanent berth at the University of Chicago.

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Howard Sachar

Howard M. Sachar is the author of numerous books, including A History of Israel, A History of the Jews in America, Farewell Espana, Israel and Europe, and A History of Jews in the Modern World. He is also the editor of the 39-volume The Rise of Israel: A Documentary History. He serves as Professor of Modern History at George Washington University.