Arendt, Hannah (1906–1975)

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Arendt, Hannah (1906–1975)

German-American political theorist and philosopher famed for her analyses of totalitarianism and the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann. Pronunciation: AIR-ent. Born October 14, 1906, in Hannover, Germany; died on December 4, 1975, in New York City; daughter of Paul Arendt (an engineer) and Martha Cohn Arendt; attended Universities of Marburg, Freiburg, and Heidelberg; granted Ph.D, University of Heidelberg, 1928; married Günther Stern, in September 1929 (divorced 1936); married Heinrich Blücher, on January 16, 1940 (died, October 30, 1970).

Used home as underground railroad for fleeing Jewish refugees before moving to France (1933); visited Palestine (1935); worked to help Jewish refugees arriving in Paris (1938); placed in French internment camp (1941); came to United States (1941); worked for the Committee for a Jewish Army (1941–42); cofounded, with Joseph Maier, the Young Jewish Group as a replacement for that committee (1942); served as research director of the Conference on Jewish Relations (1944–46); named chief editor of Schocken Books (1946–48); appointed executive director of Jewish Cultural Reconstruction (1948–52); became a U.S. citizen (1951); won the Sigmund Freud Prize (1957), the Lessing Prize (1959), and the Sonning Prize (1974); taught at the University of Chicago, Princeton, University of California at Berkeley, the Rand school, Columbia University, and the New School for Social Research, among others (1950–74).

Selected works:

Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976); The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958); The Life of the Mind (London: Secker and Warburg, 1978); On Revolution (Harmondsworth: Pelican, 1973); The Origins of Totalitarianism (London: Deutsch, 1986).

Although she found herself a "stateless person" part of her life, Hannah Arendt considered herself to be the inheritor of the best of two worlds—the intellectual traditions of the Old World and the social and political standards of the New. Born and educated in Germany, but transplanted to the United States after the rise to power of Nazism, Arendt provided distinctive and iconoclastic explanations for the disasters that overtook Europe in the first half of the 20th century. Her analyses were often controversial, but they were rarely conventional and never simplistic.

An only child, she was born into a middle-class family in the German municipality of Hannover, a major maritime city. The Arendts

were economically well-off, as a result of her father's salary as an engineer. When Hannah was only four years old, they moved back to the family's traditional city of Koenigsberg, in eastern Prussia, where Hannah's father would be treated for an advanced case of syphilis, which he had contracted before his marriage. Eventually, he would be housed in a psychiatric hospital.

Hannah's mother, who kept a doting record of her child's intellectual and physical progress, noted in the journal that she tried to shield her daughter from seeing the toll wrought by the disease. Yet as an adult, Hannah Arendt recounted memories of watching her father struggle to walk and of hearing her mother play the piano to distract him from pain. She also remembered that her father's illness kept her from inviting playmates to visit. The year her father died, 1913, also saw the death of her beloved grandfather Max Arendt, who had often regaled Hannah with colorful stories during Sunday morning walks and who, with her grandmother, had accompanied her to synagogue.

Although young Hannah heard discussions about the need for a Jewish homeland, the family did not favor Zionist ideas. Her grandfather Max had, however, been a personal friend of Kurt Blumenfeld, the founder of the Zionist Organization of Germany. The sizeable Jewish community of the town served to protect Hannah from anti-Semitism, although she remembered a classmate telling her that her family had murdered Jesus.

Politically, the family favored the German Left—her parents considered themselves social-ists—although Arendt would remain relatively apolitical until the late 1920s. Her mother was an admirer of the German Marxist Rosa Luxemburg ; when Luxemburg and other German Marxists attempted to carry out a revolution in the country in 1919, Arendt remembered that her mother took her to a prorevolutionary rally and told her, "This is a historical moment."

World War I forced the family to leave Koenigsberg, which was vulnerable to attack from the nearby Russian border. During the first month of the war, the family moved to Berlin, and Hannah was enrolled in a girls' school in the Berlin suburb of Charlottenburg. When her mother married Martin Beerwald, a wealthy businessman, in 1920, their economic difficulties ended, at least for a time. The money was provided for her to prepare for a university education.

Arendt's chances for college seemed slim after she led a student boycott against a teacher whom she accused of insulting her. When the "independent and rebellious" Hannah was expelled from the girls' school, her mother arranged private study for her to prepare for the Abitur, the examination that was the key to entering a German university. A teacher at an all-male school was hired, and it was arranged for Hannah to take some classes at the University of Berlin.

When she completed her Abitur in 1924, a year ahead of schedule, Arendt enrolled at the University of Marburg, where she began to study philosophy under the existentialist Martin Heidegger; she also had an affair with him. Later, after he proclaimed Adolf Hitler the savior of Germany in an appearance at a Nazi rally in the mid-1930s, she called Heidegger the "last great Romantic"—a man who feared "modern trends" and had a commitment to the "preindustrial."

After a year at Marburg, she left for a six-month term at the University of Freiburg, so that she could study with Heidegger's mentor, Edmund Husserl. She then moved on to the University of Heidelberg, where Karl Jaspers, another existentialist, would become one of the greatest intellectual influences on her career. An opponent of anti-Semitism (his wife was Jewish and would be in peril during the Nazi period), Jaspers sought to combine thought and action. He called for an emphasis on "the movement of philosophy," or the application of philosophical and ethical ideas in the practical realm, including politics.

The influence of Jaspers was apparent in Arendt's doctoral dissertation. Focusing on the concept of love in the thought of St. Augustine, the dissertation illustrated Arendt's interest in both Jewish and Christian thought, and emphasized such Augustinian concepts as redemption and forgiveness. Her first book, on the same topic, was published to good reviews in 1929.

The year 1933 proved to be pivotal: a year, she wrote, that made the most lasting impression on her. When the National Socialists took power in January, the new government began persecuting political opponents, especially after the Reichstag building was burned. Her first husband, Günther Stern, a socialist, felt so threatened that he left for Paris. Arendt remained behind for a while, working for the Zionist organization of Blumenfeld. Among her assignments was the job of compiling, from the Prussian State Library, evidence of anti-Semitic actions under way or being planned by German organizations and societies. Her apartment became an "underground railway" for Jews trying to flee Germany or Eastern Europe.

She resisted leaving Germany for part of 1933, telling Jaspers, "For me, Germany is mother tongue, philosophy, and poetry." Her mind was changed when the government arrested her and detained her for eight days. Finally, she left. It was a decision she never regretted, although she did feel some responsibility that so many of her friends who remained behind in Germany ended up in concentration camps. "This was such a shock to me," she wrote, "that I have ever since felt responsible." She resolved no longer to be just an "observer." "When one is attacked as a Jew," she later said, "one must defend oneself as a Jew."

Arendt and her mother traveled first to Prague and then Geneva before settling down in France. Relations with her husband cooled; by the time he left, alone, for the United States in 1936, the marriage was over in spirit if not in fact. They were divorced that same year. Her Paris years were ones of increasing involvement in Zionist causes. She supported herself by working for a French organization, Agriculture et Artisanat, which provided job training, including training in farming techniques, to young Jewish emigres who planned to move to Palestine. She visited Palestine in 1935, and in 1938 she became active in helping Jewish refugees from Germany and Eastern Europe settle in Paris.

As World War II approached, Arendt and her mother felt less secure. They worried about anti-Semitism in France. After the German invasion in 1940, they were concerned about the degree to which the French government in the unoccupied part of the country would cooperate with the Nazis in arresting Jews for "deportation" to concentration camps. Her second husband, Heinrich Blücher, a Communist whom she married in January 1940, was sent by the French to an internment camp for a time. Arendt herself was briefly detained.

Arendt and Blücher were among the fortunate few able to obtain American visas. French exit permits were not available, however. Traveling secretly to Marseilles, they were able to obtain the exit permits. But after police questioned the hotel management about the identity of patrons, Arendt staged an angry scene. She ranted that her husband had been taken to police headquarters, and she accused the hotel management of betraying him to the police. Meanwhile, while his wife was distracting hotel clerks with her diatribe, Blücher was fleeing the scene and the country.

Arendt managed to join Blücher in New York City in 1941, and her mother reached the United States a few months later. Arendt became active in World War II debates among Jewish emigres in the United States over the proper role of Jews during the war. She decided to support the idea of raising a Jewish army to fight against Nazism alongside Allied armies, even after the British government had rejected the idea. When it was revealed that the main organization supporting the project, founded by Ben Hecht, was being financed by an extremist and terrorist group, she became co-founder of a replacement organization, the Young Jewish Group. To support herself, she worked as the chief editor of a book publisher. In her columns for a German-language newspaper Aufbau, published in the United States, she rejected suggestions that Jews should have nothing to do with Germany when the war was over. For Arendt, there was no German "collective responsibility" for Hitler.

During the mid- and late 1940s, Arendt worked for the Commission on European Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, which sought to identify and locate books and manuscripts by Jewish authors that had been seized by the Nazis, or hidden from them. Her work took her back to Europe, where she had a frosty meeting with Heidegger, whom she labeled "just as much a liar as ever," and a warm and sentimental meeting with Jaspers, who, along with his wife, had been saved from imprisonment in a concentration camp only with the liberation of Heidelberg by American troops in 1945. One of her first postwar articles, entitled "What Is Existenz Philosophy?" was an attempt to introduce the thought of Jaspers to the English-speaking world.

Arendt increasingly assumed the role of mediator between the two worlds she had come to love—the Old World and the New. To Europeans scornful of American conformity, she explained that in the United States, a variety of social lifestyles could actually flourish without in any way endangering the political stability of the country. To Americans puzzled by European uneasiness about the atomic power of the U.S. military, she explained that Europe would probably be the major battleground of a future war. She told Europeans that their anti-Americanism might actually be opposition to modern trends, while she warned Americans that they tended to discount the destructive tendencies of new technologies.

Here was an intensity, an inner direction, an instinct for quality, a groping for essence, a probing for depth, which cast a magic about her. One senses an absolute determination to be herself, with the toughness to carry it through in the face of great vulnerability.

—Hans Jonas

Increasingly, she became involved in academia. She stayed with an American family in New England to try to learn the language better, and in the postwar years she taught at a variety of universities, including Columbia, Berkeley, Princeton, and the New School of Social Research. During these years, she received a number of honorary degrees from U.S. universities and was made a member of the National Institute for Arts and Letters and the American Academy for Arts and Science. The writer Mary Mc-Carthy became her closest friend and confidant.

Arendt now rejected the label of philosopher, preferring to think of herself as a political theorist. It was in that role that she began, in 1944, a work to try to explain to Americans what had brought about the Nazi catastrophe and the rise of dictators. The book was originally entitled the "Three Pillars of Evil," in reference to anti-Semitism, imperialism, and racism. When the book appeared in 1951, its new title was The Origins of Totalitarianism. Arendt was trying to address American concerns about the "spread" of Communism and the power of the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.

A major premise of the book was that the European intellectual tradition was not responsible for totalitarianism. Arendt made distinctions between "brilliant" intellectuals who had written on racism, such as the French Count Arthur de Gobineau—the first writer to use the term "Aryan" in a racial sense—and the "men who carried out the murders" in the name of race. Totalitarian regimes had arisen in the 20th century, wrote Arendt, because of causes such as overpopulation, economic expansion, and social restlessness.

There were, she wrote, up to then only two "authentic forms" of totalitarianism: the government of National Socialism after 1938, and the Communist government of Stalin after 1930 (the year of the first purges). In many ways, she conceded, they looked like variations of the same model. The differences between democracies and totalitarian government were not matters of free enterprise or class differences, but "a conflict between a government based on civil liberties and a government based on concentration camps."

The methodology of the Origins has frequently been criticized: she wrote from the viewpoint of an observer and political philosopher, rather than as a historian trained in the use of documents or as an empirical social scientist. Such an approach invited controversy. The most controversial section of the book concerned Arendt's attempts to explain to an American audience how European anti-Semitism had resulted in the Holocaust attempt to extirpate European Jews. Anti-Semitism, she wrote, had progressed as nationalism had receded. Political anti-Semitism developed because Jews were a separate body in European society; social discrimination had advanced because of the growing social equality of Jews.

To Arendt's critics, such an analysis raised the possibility that she was partly blaming European Jews for anti-Semitism—excusing rather than explaining. Arendt rejected such criticism, pointing out that her pro-Zionist activities had increased at the end of World War II. She insisted that "should catastrophe befall the Jewish state, this would be perhaps the final catastrophe for the Jewish people." And she added that "I have always regarded my Jewishness as one of the indisputable facts of my life." She supported Israel in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War and worked for the United Jewish Appeal and the Israel Emergency Fund.

Yet Arendt was a very independently minded Zionist, and her ideas regarding Israel were sometimes unconventional. She hoped to transfer the American principle of federalism to the Middle East, perhaps with a successful Israel-Arab confederation. She was just as unconventional in her thoughts regarding the trial in Israel of the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, who had been captured by Israeli agents in South America and transported to Israel in 1960.

Her critical assessment of the trial was published first as a series of articles in The New Yorker magazine and later as a book. She challenged the assumption that Eichmann was a major architect of the Holocaust. She suspected that the trial was a result of a backdoor agreement between the Israeli government and the West German government. In this agreement, she thought, high West German officials who, as former Nazis, had been just as responsible for the Holocaust (or even more responsible) would escape scrutiny. Arendt also challenged the legality of Eichmann's kidnapping by Israeli agents and questioned whether his trial was based on any international laws.

"Eichmann in Jerusalem" warned against demonizing Eichmann, because Arendt feared the Eichmann and Nazi leaders might somehow be romanticized to heroic status. She strongly rejected the idea that Eichmann should be envisioned as an evil monster. He was an average man, and not even particularly intelligent. This very averageness was what was most chilling about Eichmann, she wrote, since it showed that the potential for evil was present in all persons—the "banality of evil," in her words.

"It is my opinion," she wrote, "that evil is never 'radical': that it is only extreme, and that it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimensions. It is 'thought defying'…because thought tries to reach some depth, to go to the roots, and the moment it concerns itself with evil it is frustrated because there is nothing." Many of Arendt's critics believed that she was minimizing the evil of the Holocaust, and they were particularly offended by her suggestions that Jewish councils in Europe had cooperated with Nazi efforts to "deport" Jews to concentration camps, even if the cooperation was not voluntary.

Although she worried that American intellectuals were too passive during the chilling days of the McCarthy era of the 1950s—when a Wisconsin senator named Joseph McCarthy claimed that Communists had infiltrated almost every aspect of American government and life—Arendt came to love many things in what was, after she became an American citizen in 1951, her adopted country. She was impressed that American intellectuals believed, as a matter of principle, that they should generally oppose many prevailing political or social trends. They did not "worship the God of success." She contrasted that with the opportunism of German intellectuals when Hitler came to power in her native country. Social nonconformism, she said, was the "sine quo non of intellectual achievement."

In her book On Revolution (1973), Arendt defended the American Revolution, which she thought Europeans failed to appreciate sufficiently. "The sad truth," she wrote, "is that the French Revolution, which ended in disaster, has made World History, while the American Revolution, so triumphantly successful, has remained an event of little more than local importance." She had gained, from her observations of Americans, an assurance that there would always be freedom for the "life of the mind" in the United States.

Politically, she thought of herself as being neither on the Left nor on the Right. When the political scientist and friend Hans Morgenthau, a fellow refugee from Europe, asked her if she was a "conservative" or a "liberal," she replied, "I couldn't care less. I don't think the real questions of this century will get any kind of illumination by this kind of thing."

Her political opinions on events in the United States during the 1960s were, in fact, sometimes on the Left and sometimes on the Right. She praised the Hungarian Revolution directed against Soviet control of that country in 1956, saying that it was "an uprising of oppressed people for the sake of freedom." She looked approvingly on student demonstrations against the Vietnam war, seeing these demonstrations as a "sign of profound change in American political life." She even gave approving speeches to groups of demonstrators.

And the civil-rights movement won her general support. She wrote that "as a Jew I take my sympathy for all oppressed and underprivileged people for granted." She thought integration would not be a simple process, however, and she believed that government could not legislate tolerance and understanding; it could only outlaw legalized segregation. She approved when President Dwight Eisenhower sent federal troops to Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957, in order to enforce a high-school integration plan. She warned, however, that the power of individual American states should not be ignored, since she thought that a division of political power between the states and the federal government was the best way to guarantee freedom and diversity "in the Republic."

Although she was at times confused by the politics of the Watergate affair, which resulted in the resignation of President Richard Nixon in 1974, she expressed outrage that Nixon was "behaving as a tyrant." It was her last major comment on American politics before she succumbed to a heart attack in 1975.

Arendt's work was the product of her own fierce individuality and the mixture of European and American cultures in which she worked. She expressed gratitude that she had "the freedom of becoming a citizen (of the United States) without paying the price of assimilation." She believed that the great ethical and philosophical ideas of Europe were important and relevant for the diverse society of the United States. She proudly told European friends that freedom and diversity were sehr amerikanisch—"very American."

But her roots, and her sentiment, remained with European culture. Traumatized by the rise of Nazism and the Holocaust, Arendt refused to hold the European intellectual tradition responsible for those disasters. While much of her writing after World War II reflected those traumas, she continued to think of herself as a transplanted European. In replying to one of her critics, she proudly said that "I am not one of the intellectuals who came from the German Left…. If I can be said to have come from anywhere, it is from the tradition of German philosophy."


Kateb, George. Hannah Arendt: Politics, Conscience, Evil. Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Allanheld, 1983.

Watson, David. Arendt. London: Fontana Press, 1992.

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


Papers and documents relating to Hannah Arendt are held in the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.; the Deutsches Literaturarchiv, in Marbach, Germany; and in the Bard College Library, Annandaleon-Hudson, New York.

suggested reading:

May, Derwent. Hannah Arendt. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986.

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

Niles R. Holt , Professor of History, Illinois State University, Normal-Bloomington, Illinois