Hannah Arendt, by Stephen J. Whitfield
A political theorist with a flair for grand historical generalization, Hannah Arendt exhibited the conceptual brio of a cultivated intellectual, the conscientious learning of a German-trained scholar, and the undaunted spirit of an exile who had confronted some of the worst horrors of European tyranny. Her life was enriched by innovative thought and ennobled by friendship and love. Although her books addressed a general audience from the standpoint of disinterested universalism, Jewishness was an irrepressible feature of her experience as well as a condition that she never sought to repudiate.
Hannah Arendt was born on October 14, 1906, in Hanover, in Wilhelmine Germany. Raised in Konigsberg, she was the only child of Paul and Martha (Cohn) Arendt, both of whom had grown up in Russian-Jewish homes headed by entrepreneurs. Arendt’s childhood was punctuated with grief and terror. Her father, an engineer, died of paresis (syphilitic insanity) when Hannah was seven, and episodic battles between Russian and German armies were fought near their home soon thereafter. Her mother married Martin Beerwald in 1920, providing Hannah with two older stepsisters, Eva and Clara Beerwald.
After graduating from high school in Koenigsberg in 1924, Arendt began to study theology that fall with Rudolf Bultmann at the University of Marburg. Also on the faculty was the young philosopher Martin Heidegger, whose lectures, which would form the basis of Sein und Zeit [Being and time] (1927), were already inspiring allegiance to and interest in the emerging Existenzphilosophie. Her brief but passionate affair with Heidegger, a married man and a father, began in 1925 but ended when she went on to study at the University of Heidelberg with Karl Jaspers. A psychiatrist who had converted to philosophy, he became her mentor.
In September 1929, Arendt married Günther Stern, who wrote under the name of Günther Anders. That year, she also completed her dissertation on the idea of love in the thought of St. Augustine and earned her doctorate. However, the rising anti-Semitism afflicting the German polity distracted her from metaphysics and compelled her to face the historical dilemma of German Jews. By writing a biography of Rahel Varnhagen, a Jewish salon hostess in Berlin in the early 1800s, Arendt sought to understand how her subject’s conversion to Christianity and repudiation of Jewishness illuminated the conflict between minority status and German nationalism. Rahel Varnhagen: The Life of a Jewish Woman was not published until 1958. By then, Arendt’s great historical subject was no longer the question of whether Jews were fit to enter the salons, but the question of whether Jews were fit to inhabit the earth.
As the National Socialists grasped power, Arendt became a political activist and, beginning in 1933, helped the German Zionist Organization and its leader, Kurt Blumenfeld, to publicize the plight of the victims of Nazism. She also did research on anti-Semitic propaganda, for which she was arrested by the Gestapo. But when she won the sympathy of a Berlin jailer, she was released and escaped to Paris, where she remained for the rest of the decade. Working especially with Youth Aliyah, Arendt helped rescue Jewish children from the Third Reich and bring them to Palestine.
In Paris, she met Heinrich Blücher, a formally uneducated Berlin proletarian, a communist who had been a member of Rosa Luxemburg’s defeated Spartacus League, and a gentile. After both had divorced, Arendt married Blücher on January 16, 1940. When the Wehrmacht invaded France less than half a year later, the couple was separated and interned in southern France along with other stateless Germans. Arendt was sent to Gurs, from which she escaped. She soon joined her husband, and in May 1941, both managed to reach neutral America, where her mother was able to reunite with them. While living in New York during the rest of World War II, Arendt envisioned the book that became The Origins of Totalitarianism. It was published in 1951, exactly a decade after she arrived in the United States and the same year she secured United States citizenship.
From two separate launching pads, Arendt’s career as an American intellectual took off. Her writing appeared early in Jewish journals such as Jewish Social Studies, and she was befriended by the editor and historian Salo W. Baron and his wife, Jeanette M. Baron. In magazines such as Jewish Frontier and Aufbau [Reconstruction], Arendt argued on behalf of a Jewish army and expressed the hope that Arabs and Jews might live together in a postwar Palestinian state. She also served as an editor at Schocken Books, a German Jewish publishing firm that reestablished itself in New York and in Palestine, and brought to the attention of English readers the diaries of Franz Kafka and the fin de sìecle Jewish polemics of Bernard Lazare. After the Holocaust, Baron put Arendt in charge of Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, the effort to locate and redistribute the shards of Judaic artifacts and other treasures that had been salvaged from a doomed civilization. Her second launching pad was a circle of mostly leftist intellectuals associated with Partisan Review, especially non-Jews such as Dwight Macdonald and Mary McCarthy. The critic Alfred Kazin, however, was also invaluable in enhancing the prose of The Origins of Totalitarianism, the work that made Arendt an intellectual celebrity in the early years of the Cold War.
No book was more resonant or impressive in tracing the steps toward the distinctive twentieth-century tyrannies of Hitler and Stalin, or in measuring how grievously wounded Western civilization and the human status itself had become. She demonstrated how embedded racism was in Central and Western European societies by the end of the nineteenth century, and how imperialism experimented with the possibilities of unspeakable cruelty and mass murder. The third section of her book exposed the operations of “radical evil,” arguing that the huge number of prisoners in the death camps marked a horrifying discontinuity in European history itself. Totalitarianism put into practice what had been imagined only in the medieval depictions of hell. In the 1950s, The Origins of Totalitarianism engendered much doubt, especially by drawing parallels between Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia (despite their obvious ideological conflicts and their savage warfare from 1941 to 1945). The parallelism continues to stir skepticism in some readers, especially because of the unavailability and unfamiliarity of Russian sources when the book was researched and written. But Arendt’s emphasis on the plight of the Jews amid the decline of Enlightenment ideals of human rights, and her insistence that the Third Reich was conducting two wars—one against the Allies, the other against the Jewish people—have become commonplaces of Jewish historiography. Much of her book is stunningly original, and virtually every paragraph is ablaze with insight. More than any other scholar, Arendt made meaningful and provocative die idea of “totalitarianism” as a novel form of autocracy, as springing from subterranean sources within Western society, but pushing to unprecedented extremes murderous fantasies of domination and revenge. An expanded edition of The Origins of Totalitarianism was published in 1958, taking into account the Hungarian Revolution of two years earlier.
Arendt’s next three books–The Human Condition (1958), Between Past and Future (1961), and On Revolution (1968)–could be characterized by a yearning to reconstruct political philosophy rather than to explore the devolution of political history. Remarkably enough, in 1963 she also published what proved to be the most controversial work of her career: Eichmann in Jerusalem. In 1960, Israeli security forces had captured the S.S. lieutenant colonel who had been responsible for transporting Jews to the death camps. The following year, he was tried in Israel, where Arendt covered the trial as a correspondent for The New Yorker. Her articles were then revised and expanded for Eichmann in Jerusalem.
Her portrayal of a bureaucrat who did his duty and followed orders, rather than a raving ideologue animated by demonic anti-Semitism, was strikingly original. Far from embodying “radical evil,” Eichmann exemplified “the banality of evil,” Arendt argued-and thus the danger could not be confined to the political peculiarities of the Third Reich. While accepting the validity of Israeli jurisdiction and considering the Israeli court’s verdict imposing the death sentence on Eichmann just, Arendt also offered her own justifications for capital punishment. Eichmann had not wanted to share the earth with the Jews; therefore, the Jewish state had no reason to share the earth with him. Almost in passing, she also claimed that fewer than six million Jews would have died if the Jewish councils had not collaborated to various degrees with Nazis like Eichmann. Even anarchy and noncooperation would have been better, she stated, than the effort to act as though the occupiers were traditional anti-Semites who might somehow be bribed or appeased. Her attribution of some responsibility for the catastrophe to the councils (Judenräte) not only met sharp criticism, but also provoked a considerable historical literature that investigated the behavior of Jewish communities under Nazi occupation. The subsequent debate has often reinforced the picture of venality, delusion, fear, and selfishness that Arendt briefly presented.
The storm over the book’s apparent elevation of Eichmann’s character and denial of Jewish innocence frayed whatever bonds still tied Arendt to the organized Jewish community. Some segments mounted a propaganda campaign against the arguments that she advanced. Although Eichmann in Jerusalem is hardly free of factual error or bias, Arendt’s critics tended to miss her subtlety and to ignore the relation between her book and the grandeur of her philosophy. She held the victims of the Final Solution accountable for inadequate and ill-conceived political action, and offered the perpetrators a measure of empathy and an effort to understand-lest the horrors be repeated under different historical conditions. But Arendt also wrote as though the modernization associated with the rise of mass society made problematic the classical injunction to think clearly and to act according to conscience. Partisanship and nationalism (even sometimes on behalf of Jews) had obscured the ideals of rational speech and meaningful deeds that she especially celebrated in The Human Condition. But nearly all of her books suggest a struggle to reclaim the possibilities of freedom grounded in the sense of a shared world.
According to Arendt, then, Eichmann had done evil not because he had a sadistic will to do so, nor because he had been deeply infected by the bacillus of anti-Semitism, but because he failed to think through what he was doing (his thoughtlessness). This theory led Arendt to conceptualize the neo-Kantian meditations on judgment in her posthumously published lecture collection The Life of the Mind (1978). While in Aberdeen, Scotland, to deliver these Gifford Lectures, she suffered a heart attack. A second coronary failure on December 4, 1975, while entertaining Salo and Jeanette Baron in her New York City apartment, proved fatal. (Blucher, to whom The Origins of Totalitarianism had been dedicated, had died in 1970.)
For well over two decades, Hannah Arendt was one of the nation’s most prominent intellectuals. However, she was also a notoriously private person who shielded herself as ferociously from interviewers and television cameras as she resisted Anglo-American philosophical tendencies such as pragmatism, empiricism, and liberalism. The first woman to become a full professor (of politics) at Princeton University, she subsequently taught at the University of Chicago, Wesleyan University, and finally the New School for Social Research. Her articles in the New York Review of Books in the 1960s and early 1970s criticized military intervention in Vietnam and the abuses of executive power associated, for example, with the “imperial presidency.” Her books exerted a major impact on political theory, particularly in North America, Europe, and Australia, where scholarly conferences and subsequent anthologies have been devoted to her work (as have over a dozen other books and numerous dissertations). In 1975, the Danish government awarded Arendt its Sonning Prize for Contributions to European Civilization, which no American and no woman before her had received. Her life even inspired a roman à clef, Arthur A. Cohen’s An Admirable Woman (1983), possibly because her allure was more than austerely intellectual-her suitors included Hans J. Morgenthau, Leo Strauss, and W.H. Auden, who was homosexual.
While her work has not yet been given any major feminist readings, Arendt’s critical intelligence has enriched Jewish studies. Jewish identity was so inescapable an aspect of her sensibility that, when beginning a lecture in Cologne less than a decade after World War II, she announced: “I am a German Jew driven from my homeland by the Nazis.” Her thought also registered the impact of Bernard Lazare, whose polemics combined hostility to anti-Semitism with opposition to the timorous parvenus who often fancied themselves the representatives of the Jewish masses. As her friend Mary McCarthy once recalled, Israel was “the prime source of her political concern,” and Arendt remarked that “any real catastrophe in Israel would affect me more deeply than anything else.” When such a disaster was avoided in 1967, the victory of the Israel Defense Forces in the Six-Day War thrilled her.
Yet her own knowledge of Judaism was apparently slight, and not always accurate. Arendt died unconsecrated by a religious ceremony (her ashes are buried at Bard College, where Blucher taught), and the obituary in the New York Times tersely noted that she had “no religious affiliation.” Her dissertation topic had been a Christian saint, and she later wrote dazzlingly on the goodness of Jesus. Yet it could be argued that the primary influences upon her thought were Hellenic philosophy-and German philosophy itself. Arendt denied harboring any special love for the Jewish people (ahavat Yisrael). Since Diaspora Jewry had been denied the public space in which she believed human excellence should be cultivated, Arendt admitted that she could neither admire nor “love” a collective so deprived of political possibilities. By 1950 or so, her disappointment with the dead-on-arrival idea of a binational state in the Near East quietly distanced her from the organized Jewish community, whose resources would henceforth be mounted on behalf of Jewish sovereignty in Palestine.
Although Arendt deeply appreciated the refuge that the United States provided (an appreciation that its academic institutions and audiences reciprocated by recognizing her gifts), it is difficult to detect any significant American influences upon her work. Arendt was supremely a product of Weimar culture. She had its awareness of both the brilliance of Jewish achievement and the fragility of the Jewish status. She shared its modernist sense of the disrupted ties to the classical heritage that her own political philosophy helped to elucidate, and its apocalyptic pessimism. Finally, she reflected its disdain for the petty compromises of electoral politics, and its valorization of creative thought and cosmopolitanism that transcend the tastes of the masses. Like Heidegger, she was entranced by the poetic and philosophical resources of the German language, and in 1967, the Deutsche Akademie fur Sprache und Dichtung honored the excellence of her German prose. Like many other Jewish intellectuals, Arendt noticed the strangeness of the familiar and sought to clarify the senselessness of modern history. But like very few others, Arendt managed to stamp with individual authority a body of work that is saturated with speculative daring.