Hannah Arendt (1906-1975)

Although she first wrote about the Holocaust even before it had acquired that name, Hannah Arendt recognized it as the central event of the twentieth century and traced its origins and its effects on levels international and individual. Arendt's contributions--from her remarkable description of totalitarianism, to her insights into the meaning of identity in modern society, to her theories on the nature of evil and of thought-- were formed by the teachings of Martin Heidegger and his colleagues, Edmund Husserl and Karl Jaspers, but were transformed in the cauldron of Nazi persecution.


Hannah Arendt was born in Hanover, Germany, on 14 October 1906. Three years after her birth, her parents, Paul Arendt--an engineer--and Martha Cohn Arendt, returned to their hometown of Königsberg because of Paul Arendt's illness. He died of paresis (syphilitic insanity) in 1913, when Hannah was seven, leaving his wife, Martha, and their daughter in financial straits made worse by World War I. Hannah and her mother spent the early part of the war in Berlin, fleeing Königsberg until the advance of the Russian army was halted not far off. After the war, when Hannah was thirteen, her mother married Martin Beerwald, a widower with two daughters, Eva and Clara, aged nineteen and twenty. When young, Arendt later claimed, she had no sense of herself as a Jew, so thoroughly had she been raised in a secular, assimilated lifestyle. As she told Günther Gaus in a 1964 interview, collected in Essays in Understanding (1994), "I did not know from my family that I was Jewish . . . the word 'Jew' never came up when I was a small child." As she grew older, however, German anti-Semitism was ubiquitous enough to make the issue of her Jewishness unavoidable. Her mother, a politically active socialist, encouraged Hannah to face such bigotry with composure and dignity.

After graduating high school in 1924, Arendt matriculated at Marburg University; there she rejected the inevitable social limitations she encountered as a Jew and strove for intellectual emancipation. There she also met Heidegger: he was thirty-five years old, married, and lecturing at the university; Arendt, barely eighteen and in her first months away from home, was his student. By the spring of 1925 they were secret lovers. Much later, in "Martin Heidegger at 80," published in The New York Review of Books (21 October 1971), she recalled her initial attraction: "The rumor about Heidegger put it simply: thinking had come to life again." In particular, Heidegger's restatement, in existential terms, of central issues from classical Greek philosophy had a profound and lifelong influence on Arendt's methods and ideas.

In her affair with Heidegger, however, the life of the mind suffered from the demands of the heart, and, realizing that he would never sacrifice his marriage or endanger his career and social position for her, Arendt left Marburg in 1925. Yet, she remained involved with him: she followed his advice on where to pursue her studies, and for years she continued the affair at clandestine meetings arranged by Heidegger. The effects of the relationship were felt for decades in the published works of both--and, through those works, in the public arena of intellectual exchange. Heidegger later admitted to Arendt that she was his chief inspiration during the formative years of his most important book, Sein und Zeit (Being and Time, 1927). Arendt, on the other hand, expressed her indebtedness to Heidegger throughout her life, both publicly and privately, and renewed their friendship, if not their love affair, a few years after the war ended; in a letter to him dated 28 October 1960 Arendt wrote that her second book, The Human Condition (1958), "owes you just about everything in every regard."

At Heidelberg University, where she went after leaving Marburg, Arendt was a student of Jaspers who, together with Heidegger, was one of the two major figures of what she later called Existenz philosophy, to differentiate it from more traditional existentialism. Their mentor Husserl's advocacy of a shift in the focus of modern philosophy from epistemology (the reality of a thing) to phenomenology (how that thing is perceived) had encouraged Heidegger and Jaspers to reject the search for universal meaning and eternal certainties, and to concentrate instead on the relative truths of individual perceptions and experience, though in a more pragmatic way than traditional German Romanticism. Jaspers came to his study of philosophy after a successful career in psychology, and in his teachings Arendt found a humane and optimistic emphasis on consciousness more conducive to her own search for understanding than what she had encountered in Marburg.

Jaspers' humanizing influence may be found in the subject of Arendt's doctoral dissertation, Der Liebesbegriff bei Augustin (translated as Love and Saint Augustine , 1996), which she published in 1929. In the same year she married Günther Stern, and they moved to Frankfurt. Stern, a leftist, was more politically active than Arendt, and they became involved with the Institut für Sozialforschung (Institute for Social Research), better known as the Frankfurt School, a group of Marxists that included Herbert Marcuse, Theodor W. Adorno, and Walter Benjamin. At the same time, Arendt managed to retain her contacts with Zionist circles, whose antipathy for the Jewish Marxists was returned by them in equal measure. Her grandmother's friend from Konigsberg, Kurt Blumenfeld, who became president of the German Zionist Organization, was as much a mentor to Arendt on things Jewish as Heidegger was on things philosophic. Although not a Zionist herself--that is, not one who advocated a return to the land of Israel as the best solution for the "Jewish problem"--Arendt shared with the Zionists a rejection of the assimilationist tendencies that could be found in German Jewish society in general, and among her leftist Jewish friends in particular. Arendt was especially disturbed by those who could not see the rising threat of the National Socialists for what it was, and she worked for the Zionists as a researcher on German anti-Semitism.

Arendt was also dealing with "the Jewish question" in her own writing at the time, in a biography of Rahel Varnhagen (1771-1883), an assimilated German Jew who hosted a salon frequented by the Romantics. Varnhagen's disappointment in love, resulting self-discovery, and eventual resurrection of her own Jewish identity seemed familiar enough to Arendt, who completed all but the last two chapters while still in Germany, though the book itself was not published for more than twenty years, appearing in English in 1958 and in German in 1959.

When the Nazis came to power in 1933, Günther Stern fled Germany, but Arendt stayed behind, perhaps trusting too much in her "neutral" status as neither Communist nor Zionist: she and her mother, who had been living with Hannah since 1929, were both arrested a few months later and held for eight days. Shortly after their release, they crossed illegally into Czechoslovakia and made their way to Geneva, Switzerland. Despite her mother's contacts with the League of Nations there, Arendt preferred to continue to Paris where, she later said, she intended "to do practical work . . . exclusively and only Jewish work."

With the German destruction of European Jewry as its background, the apparent ethnocentrism of that goal may seem entirely understandable--but that would be a mistaken impression of Arendt's interest in Jewish causes. As John McGowan explains in his Hannah Arendt: An Introduction (1998), Arendt was then, "as she remained, deeply committed to a pluralist model of a polity in which all citizens learn to live amid differences." She saw German anti-Semitism as an attack on that pluralism, and so her "Jewish work" arose from a commitment to diversity, not particularism. Looking to benefit one of the most vulnerable elements of her society, she took jobs with various Zionist groups, including a stint as a social worker between 1934 and 1940 for Youth Aliya, which supported the immigration of young Jews to Palestine, and she even accompanied one such group to Haifa in 1935.

Meanwhile, Heidegger, an early sympathizer with the Nazi Party, had become more active in the movement. After the Nazis came to power in 1933, he was appointed to the rectorship of Freiburg University, where he instituted the Hitler salute. Later that year he joined the Nazi Party. He had a leading role in the persecution of Jewish academics (including signing the expulsion notice for Husserl, his own mentor). Arendt rationalized his political activism as either simply careerism or the influence of his wife, Elfride.

Arendt became part of the Parisian intellectual world on the eve of the war, acquainted not only with other refugees, such as Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht, but with leftist French writers, including Jean-Paul Sartre and Raymond Aron. One refugee she became intimate with was Heinrich Blücher, a communist who had been a member of Rosa Luxemburg's Spartacist League. Blücher, like Arendt, was already married, but the two soon divorced their respective spouses. Perhaps nothing suggests Arendt's commitment to pluralism more than her second marriage, on 16 January 1940, to Blücher, a German gentile and political refugee; but it also suggests the eclectic nature of Arendt's perception of herself as a socially conscious, unassimilated Jew. Later, such details would exacerbate the reaction to some of her theories in the Jewish community; for the time being, however, survival was a more immediate concern for everyone. As German nationals, both Arendt and Blücher were placed under suspicion by the French authorities as war with Germany neared; after the defeat of France, they were in greater danger from the Germans themselves. Against all odds, however, the couple managed to escape individually, reunite in the relative security of Vichy France, and then, with Arendt's mother, leave for New York, by way of Lisbon, in May 1941.

After her alternately exhilarating and harrowing years in Europe, Arendt's life in the United States might appear rather tame, though this relatively placid existence seems to have freed her for greater intellectual exertions. For their first decade in New York, Arendt and Blücher lived--to use Alfred Kazin's phrase--"in a shabby rooming house on West 95th Street." She held a variety of German-language and Jewish-research positions, including preparing Max Brod's edition of Franz Kafka's diaries for Schocken Books, for whom she served as chief editor from 1945 to 1948, and documenting Jewish cultural and artistic works in German-occupied areas for the Commission on European Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, serving as chief director of that organization from 1949 until 1952. She wrote for Jewish journals, particularly the German-language periodical Aufbau (Reconstruction)-- a collection of Arendt's contributions to Aufbau, edited by Marie Luise Knott, was published in 2000. Little more than three years after arriving in the United States, Arendt published her first article in English, on Kafka, in The Partisan Review, and she became acquainted with American writers associated with that journal, including Philip Rahv, Randall Jarrell, Robert Lowell, and Mary McCarthy.

During the postwar period Arendt worked with Judah Magnes and others who were concerned about the direction of the Zionist movement. Among other goals, they promoted the establishment of a democratic state in Palestine that would be a home for both Arabs and Jews; they also sought to break David Ben-Gurion's control of the political machinery in the Yishuv, the pre-state Jewish settlement in Israel. Arendt's critics sometimes point to these activities in discussing her apparent bias against Ben-Gurion, especially in her account of Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963). However, Arendt's attitude toward Zionism and Israel was inconsistent at best: she worried that Israeli military success against Egypt might overshadow the importance of the Hungarian uprising in 1956, but was elated by Israeli victories in 1967 and 1973. Yet, her support for Magnes's proposed binational state after World War II was replaced by support of Meir Kahane's anti-Arab Jewish Defense League after the Six-Day War.

Similarly, her public denunciations of German mass murder can be seen in sharp contrast to the renewal of her friendship with Heidegger. In 1949 Arendt began to make lengthy trips to Europe for the Commission on Jewish Cultural Reconstruction. During one of these trips, in 1950, she traveled to Frieburg in order to meet with Heidegger. Elzbieta Ettinger, who traces their relationship over five decades in her 1995 biography, claims that "once the relationship was reestablished between the master and his disciple, there was nothing Arendt would not do for him. . . . Above all, she did what she could to whitewash his Nazi past." Her willingness to ignore Heidegger's Nazi past is one of the central paradoxes of Arendt's career--built as it was, or at least as it appeared to be, on a stringent appraisal of the participation of "average" Germans in the machinery of mass murder. Yet, her relationship with Heidegger must have exposed to Arendt her own conflicted problems of identity. Ettinger quotes from a letter Arendt wrote Heidegger on 9 February 1950, two days after their first meeting since the war; in it Arendt confesses, "I have never felt like a German woman, and have long since ceased to feel like a Jewish woman."

Her private identity crisis notwithstanding, as details of the German destruction of European Jewry began to be understood during the last year of the war, Arendt was motivated to plan a book describing the history of anti-Semitism, racism, and imperialism, which she alternately called "The Elements of Shame" and "The Three Pillars of Hell." That book, The Origins of Totalitarianism , was finally published six years after the liberation of the death camps, ten years after her arrival in the United States, and the same year, 1951, that she became an American citizen. The book was an immediate success, establishing Arendt among the leading intellectuals of the Cold War years. Though she had always been close to, if not a part of, left-wing political circles, her association of Joseph Stalin's Soviet Union with Adolf Hitler's Germany marked a conservative turn in her political alignment.

The Origins of Totalitarianism, the book that launched Arendt as an internationally recognized theorist, focused on Germany under the Nazis and the Soviet Union under Stalinism, repressive regimes that preoccupied world attention in the middle third of the twentieth century; like most of Arendt's best-known writings, it was highly controversial. Arendt's contention was that these two one-party states, apparently from the opposite ends of the political spectrum, were in reality closely related examples of a new political model, totalitarianism. Published in the early days of the Cold War, when mainstream American sentiments had just shifted from anti-Nazi to anti-Communist, Arendt's study positioned Hitler and Stalin at the end of an historical process involving anti-Semitism, racism, and imperialism--the "Three Pillars of Hell" of Arendt's working title for the book. Over the previous three centuries in Europe these forces had created an acceptance, according to Arendt, of a previously unknown level of state-sponsored inhumanity.

Arendt conflated racism and imperialism into one section of the book, recognizing the link between the rise of European nationalism and the subsequent Scramble for Africa, which led up to World War I. But she began her study with anti-Semitism, putting the "Jewish problem" center stage in the development of European political systems. She believed that the development of the European nation-state provided unusual opportunities for Jews, some of whom rose to the highest levels of politics and finance; however, these Jewish "parvenus" soon became "pariahs," to use Arendt's dichotomy. Bourgeois society at first welcomed emancipated Jews as an entertaining curiosity; explaining the attitude that Edward Said later linked to European "orientalism," Arendt claimed that "the Enlightenment's genuine tolerance and curiosity for everything human was being replaced by a morbid lust for the exotic, abnormal, and different as such." As the nineteenth century progressed and European society decayed, however, Jews became outcasts in society and targets for populist leaders espousing both nationalism, on the right, and socialism, on the left.

But the decay of European society, and especially its class system, particularly under the pressures of excessive capitalization, had a dire effect on gentiles as well as Jews, according to Arendt: the evolution of the bourgeois into "the mass man," marked by "his isolation and lack of normal social relationships." Americans often believe that the "silent majority" lends stability to the democratic process, but Arendt argued that the mass man, in his isolation, actually undermined European attempts at democracy, preferring instead the sort of system in which public and private life are merged, in which national and personal values are synonymous. The resulting totalitarian form of government, then, is actually the choice of its people, and not something foisted upon them, in Arendt's view. Totalitarianism, she said, is "a system in which all men have become equally superfluous."

The Origins of Totalitarianism was widely read and widely criticized. Seemingly a chronology of political and social institutions, it is at heart neither history nor political science, in the conventional sense of those disciplines. Instead, Arendt used an almost intuitive approach, based largely on her own personal experience. Where that experience was lacking, as in the case of the Soviet Union, her examples and analysis were often weak or mistaken, and some of these sections were altered in later editions, as Arendt recognized the justice of her critics' attacks. Whatever its shortcomings, however, the powerful images, striking prose, and persuasive insights contained in The Origins of Totalitarianism served notice that Arendt had arrived as both writer and theorist. She revised the work for editions published in 1958, 1966, and 1973; the second and subsequent editions incorporate, as an epilogue, a translation of Die Ungarische Revolution und der totalitäre Imperialismus (Reflections on the Hungarian Revolution, 1958).

The acclaim that followed The Origins of Totalitarianism changed Arendt's life. She was named a Guggenheim fellow in 1952 and received an award from the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1954. Further recognition followed the publication of her next major work, The Human Condition , in 1958, including the first of two Rockefeller fellowships, 1958-1960, and the Lessing Preis, Hamburg, in 1959.

More than simply a study of political systems, The Origins of Totalitarianism is an analysis of the relationship between the modern state and the individual within it. In The Human Condition Arendt looked directly at that individual; and she did so by returning to her roots in philosophy, borrowing for the framework of the book the Aristotelian notion of the human condition--vita activa in the medieval Latin phrase that Arendt used most often, or bios politikos in Aristotle's Greek--that can be divided into three main types: labor, work, and action. Labor includes those endeavors that sustain the life cycle, involving food, shelter, safety, health, and so on.

According to Arendt, "Labor is the activity which corresponds to the biological process of the human body. . . . The human condition of labor is life itself." Work, in sharp contrast, "is the activity which corresponds to the unnaturalness of human existence. . . . The human condition of work is worldliness." Thus, subsistence, toiling to feed or clothe oneself, whether it involves earning money or not, is labor; but the earning of money in order to create or accumulate wealth or objects for their own sake is work. The third category, action, can best be seen as a form of authentic self-expression, whether that expression is artistic, social, or political in nature. "Plurality is the condition of human action," Arendt wrote, "because we are all the same, that is, human, in such a way that nobody is ever the same as anyone else who ever lived, lives, or will live."

Each of these elements of the vita activa has its purpose, in Arendt's view:


All three activities and their corresponding conditions are intimately connected with the most general condition of human existence: birth and death, natality and mortality. Labor assures not only individual survival, but the life of the species. Work and its product, the human artifact, bestow a measure of permanence and durability upon the futility of mortal life and the fleeting character of human time. Action, in so far as it engages in founding and preserving political bodies, creates the condition for remembrance, that is, for history.


In effect, then, Arendt is postulating a third element in the human condition, in answer to those who only recognize the Darwinian imperative of biological forces (labor), or the Marxist construct of materialism (work). Her action, which covers political and other intellectual activities, including art, is the authentic expression of the individual in society and therefore the antithesis of the sense of isolated uniformity by which totalitarianism controls men and women. For Arendt, "history is a story of events and not of forces or ideas with predictable courses," such as evolution or historicism.

Although by no means free of the controversies that dogged her political and historical writings, The Human Condition probably represents Arendt's most enduring contribution, comprising as it does the philosophical underpinnings of much of her other work. The apparent romanticism of her action, bringing to mind for some the image of a Nietzschean superman who breaks the old laws to make the new ones, is counterbalanced by Arendt's strong commitment to social diversity and human interdependence. The great event of the modern age, as described in The Human Condition, is not the development of new political or industrial systems but "the emergence of society . . . from the shadowy interior of the household into the light of the public sphere."

"Reflections on Little Rock" is not one of Arendt's major works, but it deserves special attention because it was, at the time of its publication in 1959, and still is, a controversial and unpopular essay. Arendt originally wrote the piece for Commentary in 1958, at the time the Supreme Court upheld its 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka, Kansas and overturned the decision of a lower court allowing a delay in the integration of the public schools of Little Rock, Arkansas, which had been the scene of segregationist opposition since 1957. As she explained in her "preliminary remarks" to the article in Dissent a year later, however, the editors of Commentary decided that her "reflections . . . were at variance with the magazine's stand on matters of discrimination and segregation." The editors of Dissent prefaced the article with their own disclaimer, and then followed the article with critical commentary. And, though Arendt herself never revised her position on desegregation, she also never again trumpeted it quite as clearly as in this article.

The controversy related to Arendt's condemnation of enforced desegregation, which she saw as a violation of the social realm of life. According to Arendt, the social, unlike the political or private realms, must be kept free of legal entanglements, and in the social realm discrimination--even discrimination based on "profession, income, and ethnic origin"--is legitimate. As a result, Arendt concluded, "the moment social discrimination is legally enforced, it becomes persecution. . . . The moment social discrimination is legally abolished, the freedom of society is violated." School desegregation, for Arendt, was particularly egregious, because it also violated the private realm, depriving parents "of rights which clearly belong to them in all free societies--the private right over their children and the social right to free association." Yet, by her own admission, some areas of the social realm, including services, such as transportation, and public institutions, such as museums and theaters--in all of which "people obviously do not congregate for the purpose of associating with each other"--should be free from discrimination; and schools seem to fit among these categories.

But, even had Arendt recognized this contradiction within her essay, she could still argue that while outlawing discrimination may be proper in a free country, enforcing desegregation certainly is not. She made this point with reference to the antimiscegenation laws then on the books in twenty-nine states, which the Supreme Court decision never mentioned. In Arendt's view, therefore, the court's decision "left untouched the most outrageous law of Southern states [--] the law which makes mixed marriage a criminal offense." Arendt's standard of outrage is clear: segregation laws only transgressed against the social realm; the more offensive antimiscegenation laws violated the private realm and its "inalienable human rights," among them "the right to home and marriage." And the private realm is held sacrosanct by Arendt. In effect, then, Arendt was warning of incipient totalitarianism in America--the Supreme Court's order creating enforced desegregation was an invasion of the social and private realms by the political. Although consistent with her own theories, Arendt's position on court-ordered desegregation was both a surprise and a disappointment to those in the civil rights movement who had previously considered her among their supporters. That dispute, involving injustice in her adopted homeland, however, was soon overshadowed by another, which would take Arendt back to her European origins: her report on the trial of Adolf Eichmann for crimes against the Jewish people.

In 1959 Arendt became the first woman to be appointed full professor at Princeton University; after a year there as visiting professor she moved to Columbia University for another one-year appointment. She went on to teach at the University of Chicago from 1963 until 1967.

Published in 1963, Eichmann in Jerusalem is Arendt's best-known and most controversial book. Significantly, she was working on the text of On Revolution (1963) when she received the assignment to cover the trial of Eichmann in Jerusalem for The New Yorker. The five installments that became the book originally appeared in that magazine beginning in late spring of 1963. Revolutionary activities, as authentic expressions of the individual consciousness resulting in new political systems, clearly belong within the realm of action, as romanticized in Arendt's vita activa. The creation of Nazi Germany, however, might also be an example of such an exalted action, were it not for the lack of what Arendt terms "human togetherness." No doubt recognizing that this distinction between Nazism and her privileged political movements would be hard to substantiate, Arendt opted to consider the activities of Eichmann, one of those most responsible for the destruction of European Jewry, not as "action" but as "work." In this way Arendt excluded Eichmann from her loftiest category by treating him as a bureaucrat, a man not acting for himself but simply following orders. That sort of work is the most sterile and senseless endeavor in her vita activa, and the most banal. Indeed, Arendt's use of the phrase "the banality of evil," which became part of the subtitle of her book, is meant to reduce not the crimes themselves but the individual charged with them. The clichés that a fully composed Eichmann uttered at his own execution, according to Arendt, make him a fitting "lesson of the fearsome, word-and-thought defying banality of evil."

According to Arendt, the prosecutor, Israeli attorney general Gideon Hausner, attempted to portray Eichmann as evil incarnate and to blame him for every offense Germans had committed against Jews. In so doing, Arendt suggests, Hausner was acting as little more than a mouthpiece for the Israeli prime minister, Ben-Gurion. She, by contrast, saw Eichmann--who appeared in court behind bulletproof glass--quite differently: "medium-sized, slender, middle-aged, with receding hair, ill-fitting teeth, and nearsighted eyes," the epitome of the German civil servant. For Arendt to offer this portrait of the banal mass murderer is hardly surprising, since she gave voice to precisely such a profile in The Origins of Totalitarianism, apparently without having Eichmann in mind. There she argued that those who made the Third Reich and the Holocaust possible were "first and foremost job holders and good family men. . . . The mass man whom Himmler organized for the greatest mass crime ever committed in history . . . was the bourgeois who in the midst of the ruins of his world worried about nothing so much as his private security." Now, in Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt had only to show that the man in the glass booth had just such a mentality, by remarking that Eichmann could remember "the turning points in his own career rather well," but had an extremely imperfect memory when it came to such concerns as the history of the Third Reich or of the genocide it committed against the Jews. Such self-absorption, she believed, helps to distinguish the bourgeois from the zealot, the banal "worker" from the visionary "actor."

References to Arendt's concern with the banal can be found as far back as "Die Schatten" (The Shadows), an unpublished autobiographical sketch she wrote and sent to Heidegger during the summer of 1925. In her 1982 biography of Arendt, Elizabeth Young-Bruehl quotes a passage from the work in which Arendt, speaking of herself in the third person, claims that "she saw something remarkable in even the most matter-of-fact and banal things. Even when the simple and commonplace things of life affected her most deeply, she never suspected, in her thoughts or feelings, that what was happening might be banal, a mere unnoteworthy nothing which everyone takes for granted, which is not even worth talking about." Of course, these are the words of a young woman in love; but they may help to explain Arendt's attitude toward Heidegger's Nazism, as well as her approach to Eichmann. In Arendt's theory of the vita activa, she and Heidegger, as intellectuals as well as lovers, would take their places as "actors." And, though Heidegger and Eichmann may have been connected by their allegiances to the Nazis, Arendt would prefer that judgment of such allegiances be predicated on an appreciation of the difference between Eichmann's "work" and Heidegger's "action."

Arendt had left open the possibility of such an interpretation as early as 1945--that is, before the war was over, but after the Red Army's liberation of the camp at Maidanek, and so at a time when anyone interested in doing so could have a fairly detailed and accurate notion of the means and the extent of the German destruction of European Jewry. At that time, in an essay titled "German Guilt," first appearing in the journal Jewish Frontier in 1945 and republished in Essays in Understanding, 1930-1954 as "Organized Guilt and Universal Responsibility," she argued that, within the Nazi state, "the boundaries dividing criminals from normal persons, the guilty from the innocent, have been so completely effaced that nobody will be able to tell in Germany whether in any case he is dealing with a secret hero or with a former mass murderer." As a result, "everyone is either an executioner, a victim, or an automaton . . . everyone, whether or not he is directly active in a murder camp, is forced to take part in one way or another in the workings of this machine of mass murder." Eichmann, even as executioner (and Arendt never denies his guilt, though she questions the legality of the proceedings, the accuracy of the charges, and the relevance of some of the evidence), was only a cog in that machine.

What size cog? Arendt indicates that, despite the prosecution's vilification, Eichmann was a minor player in the Nazi "Final Solution," who would not have been tried at Nuremberg even had he been captured immediately following the war. "Only the 'major war criminals' had acted without territorial limitations," she claims, "and Eichmann was certainly not one of them." But, if he is not a major war criminal, why does Arendt go on to describe him as guilty of "a crime against humanity, perpetrated upon the body of the Jewish people," and to argue that as "a crime against humanity, it needed an international tribunal to do it justice"? The answer may lie in her apparent ambivalence toward the state of Israel and to post-Holocaust Jewish life in general.

Certainly, that is the source of the most controversial sections of Eichmann in Jerusalem--her discussion of Jewish collaboration with the Nazis. In a sense the attitudes Arendt voices are only an expansion of her 1945 claim that even "a victim . . . is forced to take part in one way or another in the workings of this machine of mass murder." Inexcusably, Arendt uses the example of the Jewish Councils, and even of those Jews whose work in the death camps was to dispose of their co-religionists' bodies, to attack "the prosecution's general picture of a clear-cut division between persecutors and victims." Yet, there is hardly a better example in human history of such a clear-cut division than the Holocaust. As the historian Walter Lacquer sums it up in an essay published in Encounter in 1979, Arendt's criticisms of these individuals "were almost inhumanly cold and they were based on a profound ignorance of the historical realities."

Arendt had committed historical errors before-- for example, in discussing the development of the Soviet Union in Origins of Totalitarianism--and her intention in raising these points about the Eichmann trial was to show how a totalitarian system can blur the distinctions between guilt and innocence. Further, Arendt's criticisms of the legal proceedings have sometimes been misunderstood or misconstrued: there is much that is just in her attacks on the legality of the trial and the extralegal functions it was intended to serve; and her detractors sometimes reproved her unreasonably, simply for voicing any criticisms at all and thereby failing to show solidarity with Israel or Holocaust victims. Arendt certainly misjudged the effects of pursuing an academic construct in the emotional arena of public opinion. Nevertheless, the inaccuracies of Eichmann in Jerusalem created such a capricious distortion of history that her reputation never fully recovered.

In 1967 Arendt left the University of Chicago and moved to the New School for Social Research in New York City, where she became a professor on the Graduate Faculty of Political and Social Science, a position that she held for the rest of her life. She received her second Rockefeller Fellowship in 1969- 1970. In 1970 her husband, who had taught at Bard College, died.

At first Arendt enjoyed being at the eye of the intellectual storm created by Eichmann in Jerusalem, as she had initially enjoyed the uproar that greeted her essay on desegregation in Little Rock. But the reaction lasted too long, and the condemnation proved too widespread. Over the next several years the time and effort she spent defending herself limited what might have been her most productive period. The books she published during these years were mostly collections of older material, often essays that had first appeared in German, much of it biographies of those she considered exemplary individuals. Men in Dark Times (1968), for example, includes essays originally published in German as Karl Jaspers: Reden zur Verleihung des Friedenpreises des Deutschen Buchhandels (1958; translated as "Karl Jaspers: Reception Speeches for the German Booksellers' Peace Prize" ) and Von der Menschlichkeit in finsteren Zeiten: Gedanken zu Lessing (1960; translated as "From Humanity in Dark Times: Thoughts on Lessing" ). In the end Arendt was probably happy to leave the controversies behind and turn again to more speculative issues of philosophy.

The last years of Arendt's life were spent working on an inquiry into the essence of thought. In effect, this study was intended to serve as a companion piece to The Human Condition, which dealt with the vita activa, by describing the vita contemplativa, the contemplative life. In the tradition of another great theorist from Königsberg, Immanuel Kant, Arendt planned to address pure reason, applied reason, and judgment. Only two of these parts were completed at the time of her death on 4 December 1975, in New York City, of an apparent heart attack, and even those have a rough sense about them that further editing and revisions might have reduced, had Arendt not died. They were originally prepared for Arendt's Gifford Lectures at Aberdeen University, Scotland, in 1973 and 1974, and were published posthumously as the two volumes of The Life of the Mind (1978): Thinking and Willing. Arendt was organizing her notes for the final volume but had only typed the title--"Judging"--when she died. Since the final volume would have tried to solve some of the problems presented in the first two, scholars have speculated about what "Judging" might have contained; some have suggested that answers to this question can be found in Arendt's lectures on Kant's political philosophy, which were excerpted in an appendix to Willing before being published separately in 1982.

In her introduction to Thinking, Arendt traces her "preoccupation with mental activities" to the period of Eichmann's trial and her use of the phrase "the banality of evil." The question she poses in that volume is whether the activity of thinking itself could "be among the conditions that make men abstain from evil-doing or even actually 'condition' them against it." This is certainly the sort of claim for pure reason that only a philosopher might make, yet Arendt is conscious of the limitations of the "men of thought." By contrast, the second volume, according to Arendt, is "devoted to the faculty of the Will and, by implication, to the problem of Freedom." Because thinking is subject to what Arendt calls in the first volume "the axiom of non-contradiction, of consistency with itself," willing has "an infinitely greater freedom than thinking." And to deal with that greater freedom, she turns eventually to Friedrich Nietzsche and, especially, Heidegger, whom she terms "men of action," in the sense of the vita activa.

Not suprisingly, then, Hannah Arendt's last work begins with Eichmann and ends with Heidegger. It would seem that her life and career were spent somewhere between the two. Her writings are a challenge to understand totalitarianism and individual alienation, the hallmarks of the twentieth century, in terms of such basic concepts as the nature of thought and the origins of evil. Though she sometimes pursued her theories in ways that made even her supporters uncomfortable, Arendt's contributions to historical analysis, political discourse, and philosophical inquiry are beyond question.


From: Mesher, D. D. "Hannah Arendt." Twentieth-Century European Cultural TheoristsFirst Series, edited by Paul Hansom, Gale, 2001. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 242.


  • Further Reading
    • Joan Nordquist, Hannah Arendt (II): A Bibliography (Santa Cruz, Cal.: Reference and Research Services, 1997).



    • Elizabeth Young-Bruehl, Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982).
    • Derwent May, Hannah Arendt (Harmondsworth, U.K. & New York: Penguin, 1986).
    • Elzbieta Ettinger, Hannah Arendt/Martin Heidegger (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995).
    • Hauke Brunkhorst, Hannah Arendt (Munich: C. H. Beck, 1999).



    • Steven E. Aschheim, ed., Hannah Arendt in Jerusalem (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001).
    • Dagmar Barnouw, Visible Spaces: Hannah Arendt and the German-Jewish Experience (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990).
    • Seyla Benhabib, The Reluctant Modernism of Hannah Arendt (Thousand Oaks, Cal.: Sage, 1996).
    • Richard J. Bernstein, Hannah Arendt and the Jewish Question (Oxford: Polity Press, 1996; Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1996).
    • Patricia Bowen-Moore, Hannah Arendt's Philosophy of Natality (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1989).
    • Leah Bradshaw, Acting and Thinking: The Political Thought of Hannah Arendt (Toronto & Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 1989).
    • Craig Calhoun and John McGowan, eds., Hannah Arendt and the Meaning of Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997).
    • Margaret Canovan, Hannah Arendt: A Reinterpretation of Her Political Thought (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992).
    • Canovan, The Political Thought of Hannah Arendt (London: Dent, 1974).
    • Lisa Jane Disch, Hannah Arendt and the Limits of Philosophy, second edition (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1996).
    • Shiraz Dossa, The Public Realm and the Public Self: The Political Theory of Hannah Arendt (Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1989).
    • Reuben Garner, The Realm of Humanitas: Responses to the Writings of Hannah Arendt (New York: Peter Lang, 1990).
    • Michael G. Gottsegen, The Political Thought of Hannah Arendt (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994).
    • Phillip Birger Hansen, Hannah Arendt: Politics, History and Citizenship (Stanford, Cal.: Stanford University Press, 1993).
    • Melvyn A. Hill, ed., Hannah Arendt: The Recovery of the Public World (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1979).
    • Lewis P. Hinchman and Sandra K. Hinchman, eds., Hannah Arendt: Critical Essays (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994).
    • Bonnie Honig, ed., Feminist Interpretations of Hannah Arendt (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995).
    • Jeffrey C. Isaac, Arendt, Camus, and Modern Rebellion (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992).
    • Peter Graf Kielmansegg, Horst Mewes, and Elisabeth Glaser-Schmidt, eds., Hannah Arendt and Leo Strauss: German Emigrés and American Political Thought after World War II (Washington, D.C.: German Historical Institute / Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995).
    • Julia Kristeva, Le genie feminin: La vie, la folie, les mots: Hannah Arendt, Melanie Klein, Colette, 3 volumes (Paris: Fayard, 1999).
    • Ursula Kubes-Hofmann, ed., Sagen, was ist: Zur Aktualität Hannah Arendts (Vienna: Verlag für Gesellschaftskritik, 1994).
    • Walter Lacquer, "Re-reading Hannah Arendt," Encounter, 52, no. 3 (1979): 73-79.
    • Larry May and Jerome Kohn, eds., Hannah Arendt: Twenty Years Later (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1996).
    • John McGowan, Hannah Arendt: An Introduction (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998).
    • Norma Claire Moruzzi, Speaking Through the Mask: Hannah Arendt and the Politics of Social Identity (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2000).
    • Andrea Nye, Philosophia: The Thought of Rosa Luxemburg, Simone Weil, and Hannah Arendt (New York: Routledge, 1994).
    • Bhikhu Parekh, Hannah Arendt and the Search for a New Political Philosophy (Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1981).
    • Maurizio Passerin d'Entrèves, The Political Philosophy of Hannah Arendt (London & New York: Routledge, 1994).
    • Robert Pirro, Hannah Arendt and the Politics of Tragedy (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2000).
    • Eleanor Honig Skoller, The In-between of Writing: Experience and Experiment in Drabble, Duras, and Arendt (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993).
    • Dana R. Villa, Arendt and Heidegger: The Fate of the Political (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996).
    • Villa, Politics, Philosophy, Terror: Essays on the Thought of Hannah Arendt (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999).
    • Villa, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Hannah Arendt (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000).
    • William Paul Wanker, Nous and Logos: Philosophical Foundations of Hannah Arendt's Political Theory (New York: Garland, 1991).