Hannah Arendt

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.

Early Years

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.

hannah arendtAfter 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.

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.

Throughout her career and her more sophisticated writings on political theory, Arendt argued for the importance of deep thinking, dialogue, and the democratic state’s requirement for spaces of free discourse (such as the salon). Arendt often wrote about the idealized space of the ancient Greek polis as a model of public gathering and discussion. Politics, to her, was the gathering of citizens together for expressions of genuine freedom and action. She was concerned that political philosophy had gotten off track; she wanted to bring it back from the metaphysical and contemplative realm to the world of concrete, observable action.

The Banality of Evil

Arendt’s most well-known work, Eichmann in Jerusalem, was published in 1963. Israeli secret police had captured Eichmann–the S.S. lieutenant colonel who had run the death camp transportation operations–in Argentina in 1960. He was tried in a Jerusalem court and Arendt covered the story for the New Yorker. In Arendt’s view, Eichmann was the ultimate unthinking bureaucrat whose evil actions of “just following orders” were more a result of his lack of imaginative moral capacity than a deep intent to cause harm. In other words, Eichmann’s behavior was unthinkingly ordinary and banal, hence the term “the banality of evil.”

The hubbub surrounding this book led to Arendt’s further estrangement from the Jewish community. Many believed that she had not presented a picture of unassailable victimhood for the Jews killed in the gas chambers and had not universally condemned German behavior in the face of so much atrocity.

Arendt published three more books in the 1960s that further articulated her political philosophy. Teaching at Columbia, Northwestern, Stanford, the University of Chicago, Wesleyan University, and the New School for Social Research, Arendt also used her classrooms as a platform to spread her beliefs about freedom and political action. She joined with students in opposition to the Vietnam War and authored several articles that ruthlessly critiqued the American government for the imperialist direction of its foreign policy in the 1970s. Hannah Arendt died of heart failure in 1975, just a few months shy of completing her last book, whose title also serves as a fitting epitaph: The Life of the Mind.

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