About Hannah Arendt
Hannah Arendt was a philosopher who warned against the political dangers of philosophy. She fiercely defended the importance of the public sphere, but she was intensely private. Embraced by liberals and conservatives, she also enraged and engaged interlocutors from all political persuasions.
Hannah Arendt, 1906–1975She fearlessly raised unpopular questions about the thoughtless embrace of science, insisted that human rights were counter productive, and courageously questioned the forced integration of schools even as she defended strongly the rights to interracial marriage and civil disobedience. In the pantheon of great thinkers, Arendt articulated the richest and most compelling vision of the human need for a public and political life. For all these reasons she has become the most taught and arguably most influential political thinker of the 20th century.
In 1929 she published her dissertation and married Günther Stern, who wrote under the name of Günther Anders. They divorced in 1937. In 1933 Arendt was working for the German Federation of Zionists, led by Kurt Blumenfeld, when the political police arrested her. She fled to Paris, where she completed her biography of the brilliant 18th century German Jewish socialite Rahel Varnhagen, which remained unpublished until 1958.
While in France, she worked for the organization Youth Aliyah, which rescued Jewish youth. There she met the man who would become her second husband, Heinrich Blücher. Arendt was imprisoned in a detention camp in Gurs in southwest France. After escaping, she and Blücher fled Nazi Europe, coming to New York in 1941. Through the 1940s Arendt wrote essays on anti-Semitism, refugees, and the need for a Jewish army for Aufbau and other German émigré journals. She worked as an editor for Schocken Books and served as Executive Director of The Jewish Cultural Reconstruction organization. She and Blücher lived on Riverside Drive in NYC and in Kingston, NY near Bard College where Blücher taught for 17 years.
Fiercely independent, Arendt never accepted a tenure-track teaching job. She was nevertheless the first woman to be named a full professor at Princeton, and also taught at the University of Chicago, University of California Berkeley, Wesleyan University, and The New School. Living as a public intellectual, Arendt was a frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books, Commonweal, Dissent, and The New Yorker. She published three major anthologies in her lifetime: Between Past and Future; Men in Dark Times; and Crises of the Republic. Her unfinished last book was published as Life of the Mind and her numerous posthumous collections include Responsibility and Judgment, The Jewish Writings, and The Promise of Politics. Arendt died in 1975. She is buried alongside Blücher in the Bard College Cemetery.
In 1961 Arendt jumped at the chance to cover the trial of Adolf Eichmann, responsible for the detention and transportation of Jews to concentration camps. It would be her last opportunity, she wrote, to see a Nazi official in the flesh. Her essays on the trial appeared in The New Yorker and became the book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Widely misread, Arendt’s writings about Eichmann unleashed a storm of controversy.
Arendt argues that Eichmann was not a monster. She was struck both by the immensity of Eichmann’s crimes and the ordinariness of the man. It is one thing to kill out of malice. But how could a man responsible for transporting millions of Jews to their deaths insist he was a Zionist and seek understanding from his Jewish interrogators in Israel? Arendt saw that Eichmann became a mass murderer not simply from hatred—he never murdered anyone and initially resisted the physical killing of Jews—but from his fervent dedication to the Nazi movement. He was a joiner. In his own words, Eichmann feared “to live a leaderless and difficult individual life,” in which “I would receive no directives from anybody.” A bourgeois salesman down on his luck, Eichmann found in the Nazi movement a sense of importance. That desire to prove himself meaningful, combined with his use of clichés and bureaucratic role morality, rendered him unable to think clearly about what he was doing. This is what Arendt means by her famous and famously misunderstood dictum of the, “fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil.”
Arendt neither defends Eichmann nor denies he is evil. She recognizes he was an anti-Semite and she insists that he be hung for his evil deeds. But she also sees that his overriding motivations were neither monstrous nor sadistic. Eichmann participated in the greatest act of evil in world history because of his inability to think critically about his fidelity to a Nazi ideology that he clung to as a source of significance in a lonely and alienating world. Such thoughtless ideological zealotry is, Arendt concludes, the face of evil in the modern world.
Arendt never developed a coherent theory of politics, but sought instead to think, to understand the world as it is. As bad as things were, she took solace from the fact that no government could extinguish human freedom. And yet she saw clearly that modern society fears the disorderly life of democratic freedoms and embraces the comfortable security of administrative bureaucracy. In the face of such threats to public freedom, Arendt calls us to act in ways that surprise and to inaugurate new paths in history. Arendt’s lasting gift is the vital power of her defense of freedom in an increasingly unfree age.