Hannah Arendt

A towering intellectual who theorized about the nature of totalitarianism and Nazi evil.

Print this page Print this page

Three years after Arendt's arrival, she divorced Stern in order to marry Heinrich Blücher, a non-Jewish working-class German refugee who had been part of Rosa Luxemburg's radical Spartacus League. Imprisoned for a second time when the Wehrmacht invaded France, Arendt escaped from an internment camp in Southern France and joined her husband in the US.

The Origins of Totalitarianism

The U.S. offered Arendt the intellectual opportunities she had been denied in Europe. The journal Jewish Social Studies was the first American publication to feature her writing, publishing an article that argued for a bi-national state in Palestine. The journal's editor, Columbia historian Salo W. Baron, became one of her closest friends and advocates and appointed her director of a massive Jewish cultural reconstruction project that collected Jewish property and artifacts after the Holocaust. German-Jewish publishing house Shocken Books in New York City also seized upon her immense talent, taking her on as an editor, which allowed her to introduce American audiences to European writers like Kafka and Bernard Lazare.

At this time she also became acquainted with the intellectual circle surrounding the leftist journal Partisan Review and became close friends with the writer Mary McCarthy. In 1951, Arendt published her first English book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, which launched her career as a public intellectual. The book laid out the historical trajectory of fascist and communist terror regimes and articulated the now widely accepted premise that the Germans were fighting one war against the Allies and one war against the Jews. Her book met much criticism, as some thought she blamed the Jews for their complicity in the Holocaust.

In Part I of The Origins of Totalitarianism--"Antisemitism"--Arendt suggested that the Jews' attempt to integrate into German society created a new way of being Jewish. Whereas before, Jews could convert to Christianity and erase their status as Jews, in this half-way assimilated community, they had become indelibly Jewish, a racialized quality that society was no longer going to let them erase. Arendt believed that the Jews never recognized the part that they played in dissociating from Christian society. She thought that the Jews were never self-reflective enough about how their perpetuation of "chosenness" deliberately antagonized Christians. These ideas prompted Arendt's long-time friend Gershom Scholem to say that she had "no love of the Jewish people."

Yet Arendt was deeply motivated by her Jewish identity and her connection to the new Jewish state, always announcing publicly that she was an uprooted German Jew. In 1958 she published a book she had started during her graduate studies, and with which she strongly identified on a personal level. Rahel Varnhagen: The Life of a Jewish Woman told the story of one of the first Jewish women intellectuals involved in Berlin's thriving 18th century salon scene.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Jessica Kraft

Jessica Kraft is a writer, educator, and artist based in San Francisco, CA.