Hannah Arendt was an important and influential political theorist. German-born, she fled Europe during World War II and spent most of her life in America. Much of her work was concerned with understanding the conditions under which political action occurs. Arendt is most well known for her text The Origins of Totalitarianism which examined the pre-conditions and rise of anti-Semitism in Western Europe during the early to mid twentieth century. She’s also well-known for her report on the trial of Nazi SS-Obersturmbannführer Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem, which was published in The New Yorker. This text coined the phrase “the banality of evil”.
Johanna “Hannah” Arendt was born in 1906 in Hanover to a secular Jewish family. Arendt spoke of experiencing anti-Semitism early on in her life, and her mother reportedly stated that if she ever heard anti-Semitic remarks made by her teachers she was to tell her and she would lodge a complaint with the authorities. After reading Kant at age 14, Arendt became fascinated by human nature and the interest remained – in 1924, she attended the University of Marbug to study Philosophy and Theology. At university she began a romantic relationship with Martin Heidegger, who was her professor at the time.
After her PhD Arendt moved to Berlin in 1929. She grew disillusioned with her academic circle during the rise of the Nazi Party and become increasingly excluded from German intellectual circles. As a result, Arendt undertook work researching anti-Semitism for a Zionist organisation and for this, she was arrested by the Gestapo in 1933. She was released after eight days.
That same year, Arendt illegally left Germany and lived in Czechoslovakia, Geneva and Paris. In 1933, she began working for a charitable organisation in Paris which helped Jewish children find homes in Palestine. Arendt greatly enjoyed her work with this Jewish organisation and felt she was prompted to work for them at that particular moment because “if one is attacked as a Jew, one must defend oneself as a Jew.” Ironically, also in 1933, Heidegger joined the Nazi Party.
Although in 1934, Heidegger stopped going to Nazi Party meetings, he actually remained a member of the Nazi Party until 1945. In a letter which has been since lost, Arendt asked him about rumours she had heard regarding his sympathies with National Socialism. Heidegger replied in 1933 and, whilst he gave reasons for his actions, he reportedly did not refute a sympathy with the Nazi Party. During the war, Arendt was – at times – publically critical of Heidegger during the war. But in 1950, the pair met again, and they continued to be in touch throughout Arendt’s life. Many people – including Arendt – defended Heidegger’s involvement with the Nazi Party after the war as a personal error, but Heidegger himself never apologised. Furthermore, the recent publication of his Black Notebooks, which were written from 1939 to 1941, show an identification with the aims of the Nazi Party especially on anti-Semitism.
Arendt escaped Europe for New York in 1941 with her mother and became a naturalised citizen of the USA in 1951.
The Origins of Totalitarianism was Arendt’s first book. Published in 1951, it examined the historical and philosophical roots of totalitarianism, focusing on Germany under Hitler and Russia under Stalin. Arendt argued that imperialism and anti-Semitism created the atmosphere for totalitarianism with its simplification of traditional class structures, and the combined use of propaganda and terror creating the ideal circumstances. Arendt also asserts that totalitarianism was different to authoritarianism; authoritarianism sought absolute power whereas totalitarianism sought control over all areas of life as a precursor to global domination.
The book was hugely popular and remains highly influential. With the recent rise of right-wing populism across Europe and the United States of America, and fresh fears over new forms of authoritarianism, the work has even been in resurgence. Arendt’s contemporary relevance is also applicable in her writing on refugees and human rights. Indeed, she argued that the mistreatment of refugees during World War II showed the discrepancies of states who act in their national interests rather than in their commitment to human rights.
After 5 years in hiding Adolf Eichmann, one of the major organisers of The Holocaust, successfully fled Europe. During the summer of 1950 he arrived in Argentina and was captured there in 1960 to stand trial in Jerusalem. In 1961, Arendt reported from the trial for The New Yorker in a series of articles entitled Eichmann in Jerusalem. This was then expanded into her 1963 book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.
In her reports from the trial, Arendt described Eichmann as a relatively unintelligent bureaucrat who under the constraints of a higher power acted in the interests of his career. It was from this analysis that she described him as embodiment of ‘the banality of evil’. Eichmann in Jerusalem caused deep controversy, especially among Jewish readers and critics, and caused a huge debate among scholars of the Holocaust and public intellectuals. Arendt came under fire for her dismissive portrayal of Eichmann, believing his claim that he never harboured any ill feeling against his victims. She was also accused of victim-blaming as she suggested that Jewish Councils, established by the Nazi Party to manage the ghettos, were complicit in the Nazi regime.
Indeed, the first major criticism came in 1963 when Justice Musmanno labelled the work ahistorical because of the discrepancy between what Arendt states and what are facts. The debate over the book continued among intellectuals with Arendt’s friend Gershom Scholem accusing her of having no love for the Jewish people and Lionel Abel published a polemic piece against Arendt in Partisan Review. Arendt, in response to the criticism, believed that people had misunderstood or misread what she was saying in Eichmann in Jerusalem. This episode in her life is beautifully depicted in the 2012 film Hannah Arendt directed by Margarethe von Trotta.
Throughout her career, Arendt wrote countless essays and articles which explored power, violence, political governance and political theory. Arendt’s second book The Human Condition was published in 1958 and discusses active and contemplative life in European history. This was followed by On Revolution in 1963 which compared the American and French Revolutions. Her final book The Life of the Mind was published after her death and edited by her close friend Mary McCarthy.
In addition to her writing, Arendt was a visiting academic at University of California, Berkeley, Princeton and Northwestern. In 1959 she was named the first female lecturer at Princeton and went on to teach at the University of Chicago (1963 to 1967) and The New School in Manhattan (1967 to 1975). She was also a fellow at Yale University and Wesleyan University.
In December 1975, at the age of 69, Arendt died of a heart attack in New York City. She was buried alongside her husband Heinrich Blücher at Bard College.