A towering intellectual who theorized about the nature of totalitarianism and Nazi evil.
Hannah Arendt is perhaps most famous for coining the commonly misunderstood but oft-repeated phrase "the banality of evil," which sought to make sense of Nazi Adolph Eichmann's actions during the Holocaust. But a single catch-phrase cannot represent Arendt's intellectual impact and influence. Hannah Arendt was the first woman appointed to be a professor at Princeton, the first American to receive Denmark's Sonning Prize for Contributions to European Civilization, and the first intellectual to write about the ideological link between Russian communism and German fascism (in The Origins of Totalitarianism).
Hannah Arendt cut a dashing figure in 20th century intellectual history, not only through her groundbreaking political theory, but also through her romantic liaisons with some of the intellectual powerhouses of the day: Martin Heidegger, W.H. Auden, Hans Morgenthau, and Leo Strauss. As an immigrant and refugee from the Nazi regime, her allegiance to Jewish culture and the development of a Jewish state also fueled her passion, although as her scholarship progressed, she disagreed more and more with the mainstream American Jewish community. A fierce advocate for liberty, political action, and the moral power of thought, Arendt is still one of the most celebrated and carefully studied 20th century political theorists.
Born to secular Russian Jewish parents in Hannover Germany in 1906, the young Arendt was a voracious reader and precocious intellect, polishing off the major works of Western philosophy before the age of 16. She was particularly fond of Kant, whose writing on judgment was to strongly influence her work later in life. Arendt's father died when she was 7, a traumatic event which perhaps motivated her search for a collegiate father figure.
After completing her BA at Koenigsburg, she enrolled in a doctorate program in philosophy at the University of Marburg. At the time, Martin Heidegger was completing his masterwork, Being and Time, and his lectures captivated the young existentially-minded Arendt. Though he was married, Heidegger and Arendt commenced a tempestuous year-long affair, which might have ended when she discovered his involvement with the National Socialist party. Even after that, the two maintained a life-long correspondence despite their severely paradoxical politics: Arendt later became active in the German youth aliyah movement; after WWII, Heidegger was severely censured for his Nazi involvement.
The Third Reich
Arendt eventually relocated to Heidelberg, where she studied with the prominent existentialist Karl Jaspers. In 1929, she completed her dissertation on the concept of love in St. Augustine's thought. In 1930, she wed another young Jewish philosopher, Gunther Stern. Though she was duly qualified, Arendt could not find work teaching in German universities because she was Jewish, so she worked with the German Zionist Organization to publicize injustices committed by the Nazis. When she began researching anti-Semitic propaganda, she was thrown in jail by the Gestapo. She escaped and fled to Paris. There, she became active in efforts to rescue German Jewish children and send them to Israel. She also became friends with a circle of exiled intellectuals including Walter Benjamin, the mystic Jewish Marxist.
Did you like this article? MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.