Hannah Arendt was a humanist thinker who thought boldly and provocatively about our shared political and ethical world. Inspired by philosophy, she warned against the political dangers of philosophy to abstract and obfuscate the plurality and reality of our shared world. She fiercely defended the importance of the public sphere, but she was also intensely private and defended the importance of privacy and solitude as prerequisites for a life in public. Embraced by liberals and conservatives, she also enraged and engaged interlocutors from all political persuasions.
Why Hannah Arendt Matters
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Hannah Arendt, 1906–1975
She 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.
Childhood and Early Education
Hannah Arendt was born in Hanover, Germany in 1906. Her father died when she was seven and she was raised by her mother, Martha Cohn Arendt. At the University of Marburg, she studied philosophy with Martin Heidegger, with whom she also had a youthful affair; she later completed her doctoral dissertation Love and Saint Augustine at the University of Heidelberg under the supervision of Karl Jaspers.
From Nazi-Occupied France to New York
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.
Major Works of the 1950s and ’60s
The 1950’s saw the publication of Arendt’s major works: The Origins of Totalitarianism, her insightful study of the intellectual and historical foundations of the Nazi and Stalinist regimes, and The Human Condition, her account of the retreat of public life in the modern age. On Revolution, her third major book published in 1963, explored the genius of the American tradition of constitutional democracy and political freedom. Arendt wrote intellectual history not as a historian but as a thinker, building upon events and exemplary actions to reach original and pregnant insights about the modern predisposition to totalitarianism and threats to human freedom posed by both scientific abstraction and bourgeois morality.
Teaching Career and Publications
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.
The Eichmann Trial
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.
The Banality of Evil
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.
Hannah Arendt's Legacy
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.
Though often described as a philosopher, Hannah Arendt rejected that label on the grounds that philosophy is concerned with "man in the singular" and instead described herself as a political theorist because her work centers on the fact that "men, not Man, live on the earth and inhabit the world. Her works deal with the nature of power, and the subjects of politics, direct democracy, authority, and totalitarianism.
The Hannah Arendt Bluecher Literary Trust is a legal entity established in the Last Will and Testament of Hannah Arendt. Jerome Kohn is the Trustee of said Trust; Georges Borchardt Inc., is the Trust's literary agent. The Trust holds all rights of copyright to Arendt's writings. All inquiries about rights to publish Arendt's written or spoken words must be addressed, in as much detail as possible, to Valerie Borchardt at [email protected]; all inquiries about photographs and their reproduction must be addressed, also in as much detail as possible, to Michael Slade at Art Resource at [email protected]; other, more general inquiries may be addressed to Jerome Kohn at [email protected].