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Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt

A Jewish refugee from Hitler, Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) analyzed major issues of the 20th century and produced a brilliant and original political philosophy.

Hannah Arendt was born in 1906 in Hanover, Germany, the only child of middle-class Jewish parents of Russian descent. A precocious child whose father died in 1913, she was encouraged by her mother in intellectual and academic pursuits. As a university student in Germany (1924-1929) she studied with the finest and most original scholars of that time: with Rudolf Bultmann in New Testament and Martin Heidegger in philosophy at Marburg, with the phenomenologist Edmund Husserl at Freiburg, and with the existentialist Karl Jaspers at Heidelberg. She remained close friends with Heidegger and Jaspers throughout her life.

After receiving her Ph.D. and marrying Gunther Stern, both in 1929, she worked on a biography of Rahel Varnhagen, a noted 19th-century hostess, which analyzed Varnhagen's relationship to her Jewish heritage. In 1933 Arendt was arrested and briefly imprisoned by the Gestapo for gathering evidence of Nazi anti-Semitism. She fled to France where she worked for Jewish refugee organizations until 1940 when she and her second husband, Heinrich Blücher, were interned in southern France. They escaped and made their way to New York in 1941.

Throughout the war years Arendt wrote a political column for the Jewish weekly Aufbau and began publishing articles in leading Jewish journals. As her circle of friends expanded to include leading American intellectuals, her writings found a wider audience. Her first major book, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), argued that modern totalitarianism was a new and distinct form of government which used ideology and terror to control the mass society that emerged as European nation-states were undermined by anti-Semitism, racism, and imperialism. As the first major effort to analyze the historical conditions that had given rise to Hitler and Stalin, Origins was highly acclaimed and widely studied in the 1950s.

Labor, Work, and Action

A second major work, The Human Condition (1958), followed. Here and in a companion volume of essays, Between Past and Future (1961), Arendt gave explicit and systematic treatment to themes which had been present in her earlier work and which were to characterize all her mature writings. First was the radical character of the modern situation. In the face of unprecedented problems such as totalitarianism, mass society, automation, the possibility of travels through space, and the eclipse of public life, humans were no longer able to find solutions in established traditions of political authority, philosophy, religion, or even common sense. Her solution was as radical as the problem: "to think what we are doing."

In The Human Condition Arendt rethinks the vita activa, the three fundamental human activities of labor, work, and action, and their relationships. These activities were properly arranged, she argued, only when they were seen in relationship to the distinction between the public and the private. In her view the public provided the space of appearances among humans which speech and action required, and the private protected labor, the interaction of humans with nature and their bodies, from public view. When this distinction breaks down, as it has in modern times, mass society results in which neither true individuality nor true common action is possible.

The Human Condition also developed two other major themes of her work, freedom and worldliness. She was fond of quoting St. Augustine (on whose doctrine of love she wrote her doctoral dissertation): "That there be a beginning, man was created before whom there was nobody." Freedom, or this human capacity for new beginnings, was the "lost treasure" bequeathed by no testament or tradition, rediscovered in every revolution, and radically threatened by mass society and totalitarianism.

The world, comprised of all fabricated things from houses to works of art, Arendt saw as providing a specifically human habitation which protected us and our creations from the ravaging processes of nature. Since this world existed before and continued after the appearance of each individual in it, it offered the possibility of a worldly immortality such that the character and achievements of humans could be remembered after they pass from the world. Here her thought had its most radically secular character. Action, the highest and most worldly human capacity, found worldly rather than divine solutions for its predicaments. Thus she quoted with approval Machiavelli's maxim to "love our country more than the safety of our soul."

The Human Condition established Arendt's academic reputation and led to a visiting appointment at Princeton— the first woman full professor there. Her Princeton lectures became On Revolution (1963), a volume which expressed her enthusiasm at becoming an American citizen by exploring the historical background and institutional requirements of political freedom.

The Banality of Evil

In 1961 she attended the trial in Jerusalem of Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi functionary who had been involved in the murder of large numbers of Jews during the Holocaust. Her reports, which appeared first in The New Yorker and then as Eichmann in Jerusalem (1964), were frequently misunderstood and rejected, especially her claim that Eichmann was more bureaucratic and banal rather than radically evil. Her public reputation among even some former friends never recovered from this controversy.

At the University of Chicago (1963-1967) and the New School for Social Research in New York City (1967-1975) her brilliant lectures and affectionate concern inspired countless students in social thought, philosophy, religious studies, and history. Frequently ill-at-ease in public, she was an energetic conversationalist in smaller gatherings. Even among friends, though, she might sometimes excuse herself and become totally absorbed in some new line of thought that had occurred to her. Playful in the company of men, after the death of her husband in 1970 she attracted marriage proposals from W. H. Auden and Hans Morgenthau.

During the later 1960s she devoted herself to a variety of projects: essays on current political issues (the Pentagon Papers, violence, civil disobedience) published as Crises of the Republic (1972); portraits of men and women who offered some illumination even in the dark times of the 20th century, which became Men in Dark Times (1968); and a two-volume English edition of Karl Jaspers' The Great Philosophers (1962 and 1966).

In 1973 and 1974 she delivered the prestigious Gifford Lectures in Scotland, which were subsequently published as The Life of the Mind (1979). Conceived as a volume on the contemplative life parallel to The Human Condition on the active life, it too was intended to focus on three human capacities: thinking, willing, and judging. While all three were independent of the active life, the political role of each was also examined, from the role of thinking in opposing evil to the ability of judging to measure the achievements and failures of our public life. Only the first two topics were actually addressed in the lectures she delivered; she died of a heart attack in New York City on December 4, 1975, as she was beginning work on the third. Fortunately, earlier lectures on Kant's Critique of Judgment suggested what her approach to judging would have been, and these were published posthumously as Lectures in Kant's Political Philosophy (1982).

Honored throughout her later life by a series of academic prizes, frequently attacked for controversial and eccentric judgments, Hannah Arendt died as she lived—a brilliant and original interpreter of human capacities and prospects in the face of modern political disasters.

Further Reading

The definitive biography of Arendt is Elizabeth Young-Bruehl, For Love of the World (1982). It includes a comprehensive bibliography. Arendt's political thinking is summarized in Margaret Canovan, The Political Thought of Hannah Arendt (1974). Essays by Arendt on Jewish questions, Zionism, and the Eichmann controversy can be found in Ron H. Feldman, editor, Hannah Arendt: The Jew as Pariah (1978).

Several volumes of essays on Arendt have appeared. Melvyn A. Hill, editor, The Recovery of the Public World (1979) includes a a response by Arendt, and both Social Research (Spring 1977) and Salmagundi (Spring-Summer 1983) devoted issues to her. Her teaching style and its effect on students is described by Peter Stern and Jean Yarbrough in American Scholar (Summer 1978) and Melvyn A. Hill in The University of Chicago Magazine (Spring 1976). Of the many obituaries which appeared following Arendt's death, those in the New York Review of Books (January 22 and May 13, 1976) by Mary McCarthy and Robert Lowell are especially revealing.

Additional Sources

Barnouw, Dagmar., Visible spaces: Hannah Arendt and the German-Jewish experience, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990.

May, Derwent, Hannah Arendt, Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England; New York, N.Y., U.S.A.: Penguin Books, 1986. □

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Arendt, Hannah

Hannah Arendt

Born: October 14, 1906
Hanover, Germany

Died: December 4, 1975
New York, New York

German philosopher and writer

A Jewish girl forced to flee Germany during World War II (193945), Hannah Arendt analyzed major issues of the twentieth century and produced an original and radical political philosophy.

Early life and career

Hannah Arendt was born on October 14, 1906, in Hanover, Germany, the only child of middle-class Jewish parents of Russian descent. A bright child whose father died in 1913, she was encouraged by her mother in intellectual and academic pursuits. As a university student in Germany she studied with the most original scholars of that time: Rudolf Bultmann (18881976) and Martin Heidegger (18891976) in philosophy; the phenomenologist (one who studies human awareness) Edmund Husserl (1859 1938); and the existentialist (one who studies human existence) Karl Jaspers (1883 1969). In 1929 Arendt received her doctorate degree and married Gunther Stern.

In 1933 Arendt was arrested and briefly imprisoned for gathering evidence of Nazi anti-Semitism (evidence that proved the Nazis were a ruthless German army regime aimed at ridding Europe of its Jewish population). Shortly after the outbreak of World War II she fled to France, where she worked for Jewish refugee organizations (organizations aimed at helping Jews that were forced to flee Germany). In 1940 she and her second husband, Heinrich Blücher, were held captive in southern France. They escaped and made their way to New York in 1941.

Throughout the war years Arendt wrote a political column for the Jewish weekly Aufbau, and began publishing articles in leading Jewish journals. As her circle of friends expanded to include leading American intellectuals, her writings found a wider audience. Her first major book, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), argued that modern totalitarianism (government with total political power without competition) was a new and distinct form of government that used terror to control the mass society. "Origins" was the first major effort to analyze the historical conditions that had given rise to Germany's Adolph Hitler (18891945) and Russia's Joseph Stalin (18791953), and was widely studied in the 1950s.

Labor, work, and action

A second major work, The Human Condition (1958), followed. Here, and in a volume of essays, Between Past and Future (1961), Arendt clearly defined themes from her earlier work: in a rapidly developing world, humans were no longer able to find solutions in established traditions of political authority, philosophy, religion, or even common sense. Her solution was as radical (extreme) as the problem: "to think what we are doing."

The Human Condition established Arendt's academic reputation and led to a visiting appointment at Princeton Universitythe first time a woman was a full-time professor there. On Revolution (1963), a volume of her Princeton lectures, expressed her enthusiasm at becoming an American citizen by exploring the historical background and requirements of political freedom.

In 1961 Arendt attended the trial in Jerusalem of Adolf Eichmann (19061962), a Nazi who had been involved in the murder of large numbers of Jews during the Holocaust (when Nazis imprisoned or killed millions of Jews during World War II). Her reports appeared first in The New Yorker and then as Eichmann in Jerusalem (1964). They were frequently misunderstood and rejected, especially her claim that Eichmann was more of a puppet than radically evil. Her public reputation among even some former friends never recovered from this controversy.

Later career

At the University of Chicago (19631967) and the New School for Social Research in New York City (19671975), Arendt's brilliant lectures inspired countless students in social thought, philosophy, religious studies, and history. Frequently uneasy in public, she was an energetic conversationalist in smaller gatherings. Even among friends, though, she would sometimes excuse herself and become totally absorbed in some new line of thought that had occurred to her.

During the late 1960s Arendt devoted herself to a variety of projects: essays on current political issues, such as civil unrest and war, published as Crises of the Republic (1972); portraits of men and women who offered some explanation on the dark times of the twentieth century, which became Men in Dark Times (1968); and a two-volume English edition of Karl Jaspers's The Great Philosophers (1962 and 1966).

In 1973 and 1974 Arendt delivered the well-received Gifford Lectures in Scotland, which were later published as The Life of the Mind (1979). Tragically, Arendt never completed these lectures as she died of a heart attack in New York City on December 4, 1975.

Arendt was honored throughout her later life by a series of academic prizes. Frequently attacked for controversial and sometimes odd judgments, Hannah Arendt died as she livedan original interpreter of human nature in the face of modern political disasters.

For More Information

Kristeva, Julia. Hannah Arendt. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.

McGowan, John. Hannah Arendt: An Introduction. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998.

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Arendt, Hannah

Arendt, Hannah 1906-1975

BIBLIOGRAPHY

A political theorist endowed with a flair for grand historical generalization, Hannah Arendt focused contemporary thought, particularly in scholarly circles, on the novelty of the tyranny that afflicted Europe in the twentieth century. Her most influential book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, emphasized the parallels between the Third Reich under Adolf Hitler and the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin.

Arendt was born on October 14, 1906, to middle-class Jewish parents in Hanover, Germany. After studying theology and philosophy at the University of Marburg, she specialized in philosophy at the University of Heidelberg. As the National Socialists drew closer to power, she became a political activist and, beginning in 1933, helped German Zionists publicize the plight of the victims of Nazism. For the remainder of the decade, Arendt lived in Paris, aiding in the efforts to relocate German Jewish children to Palestine. In 1940 she married a former communist, Heinrich Blücher; later that year they were interned in southern France along with other stateless Germans and Jews after the Nazi invasion. Arendt and her husband landed in the United States in May 1941. While living in New York City during and after World War II, Arendt wrote The Origins of Totalitarianism, published in 1951, the year she secured U.S. citizenship.

No book traced more insightfully the steps that Hitler and Stalin took toward creating their distinctively modern despotisms, nor calculated more evocatively how grievously wounded civilization had become as a result of the concentration camps, the slave labor camps, the extermination camps. In exposing the operations of radical evil, she demonstrated that with the superfluity of life toward which it aimed, totalitarianism marked a crucial discontinuity in the very notion of what it has meant to be human. The Origins of Totalitarianism asserted that the hell that medieval visionaries could only imagine had been put into practice in Auschwitz and Treblinka and in the Gulag Archipelago.

Her book exerted its greatest impact during the bleakest phase of the cold war, because of Arendts insistence upon the resemblances between Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia. Such claims also engendered doubt among scholars, who noted her limited access to Soviet sources. Nevertheless, her emphasis on the precariousness of European Jewry while Enlightenment ideals of human rights were collapsing, plus her argument that Nazism was conducting two warsone against the Allies, the other against the Jewish peoplebecame truisms in the history of the Holocaust.

In 1963 came a sequel of sorts, and her most controversial work. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil did not portray the S.S. lieutenant colonel who had directed the transportation of Jews to their deaths as an anti-Semitic fanatic. He was instead an energetic organization man whose primary attribute was a sense of duty. Nonetheless, her book endorsed the Israeli verdict that he be hanged for his crimes. Arendts view that Eichmanns iniquity did not stem from sadistic impulses to orchestrate genocide, but was the result rather of sheer thoughtlessness (a failure to think through what he was doing), led her back in the final phase of her career to the formal philosophical approaches that had marked her German education. Arendt died in New York City on December 4, 1975.

SEE ALSO Totalitarianism

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Whitfield, Stephen J. 1980. Into the Dark: Hannah Arendt and Totalitarianism. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Young-Bruehl, Elisabeth. 1982. Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Stephen J. Whitfield

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Arendt, Hannah

Hannah Arendt (hän´ä är´ənt), 1906–75, German-American political theorist, b. Hanover, Germany, B.A. Königsberg, 1924, Ph.D. Heidelberg, 1928. In 1925 she met Martin Heidegger, who greatly influenced her thought and who became both her teacher and briefly her lover. Later, in Heidelberg, she became a student of Karl Jaspers, another important influence. A Jew, Arendt fled Germany in 1933, immigrated (1941) to the United States, lived in New York City, and was naturalized in 1950.

As her English improved, Arendt became a regular contributor of articles to leading American journals. Her wartime essays have been collected in The Jewish Writings (2008). Also a successful academic, she became a lecturer and Guggenheim fellow, 1952–53; visiting professor at the Univ. of California at Berkeley, 1955; the first woman appointed to a full professorship at Princeton, 1959; and visiting professor of government at Columbia, 1960. From 1963 to 1967 she was professor at the Univ. of Chicago, and in 1967 she became university professor at the New School for Social Research.

With the publication of Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) her status as a major political thinker was firmly established. In this book she examined the major forms of 20th-century totalitarianism—National Socialism (Nazism) and Communism—and attempted to trace their origins in the anti-Semitism and imperialism of the 19th cent. Her second major American publication, The Human Condition (1958), likewise received wide acclaim. Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963), her analysis of the Nazi war crimes based on observation of the trial of Adolf Eichmann, stirred considerable controversy and became known particularly for her concept of "the banality of evil." She also posited that Eichmann suffered from an "inability to think" and did not really understand Naziism, ideas that have been disputed by several later scholars.

Arendt also served as research director of the Conference on Jewish Relations (1944–46) and executive director of Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, New York City (1949–52). Her other writings include On Revolution (1963), Men in Dark Times (1968), On Violence (1969), and Crises of the Republic (1972).

See L. Kohler and H. Saner, ed., Hannah Arendt–Karl Jaspers: Correspondence, 1926–1969 (tr. by R. and R. Kimber, 1992), C. Brightman, ed., Between Friends: The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy, 1949–1975 (1995), and U. Ludtz, ed., Letters, 1925–1975: Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger (2003); biographies by E. Young-Bruehl (1982) and M.-I. Brudny (2008); E. Ettinger, Hannah Arendt, Martin Heidegger (1995), D. Villa, Arendt and Heidegger: The Fate of the Political (1995), and R. Wolin, Heidegger's Children (2001); studies by S. J. Whitfield (1980), L. Bradshaw (1989), and H. F. Pitkin (1998); B. Stangneth, Eichmann before Jerusalem (2011, tr. 2014).

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Arendt, Hannah

Arendt, Hannah (1906–75). Philosopher and political scientist, ending her career as Professor in the Graduate Faculty of the New School for Social Research in New York. She was deeply concerned with the way in which the atomization, alienation, and anomie of mass society left it open to totalitarian take-over. In her view, freedom and thought depend on the separation of political life (the public realm) from social and economic life (the private realm)—as in the Greek polis or in the system envisaged in the American revolution. The modern world has seen the advent of the opposite, with public and private realms coerced together into the social and economic sphere, depriving thought of its necessary privacy and converting politics into economic administration. This allows totalitarian ideology to take over, and opens the way to ‘the banality of evil’. All this keeps pace with anti-semitism, since the stateless Jew cannot rely on any vague notion of human rights: rights are subordinated to ends.

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