Three years ago when I decided to host a conference celebrating Hannah Arendt's 100th Birthday (this was before the Arendt Center existed), the first email went to Christopher Hitchens. While he had not written on Arendt, somehow I knew that he was the right person to think with her in our times. He accepted immediately, graciously, and charitably and his talk, "Reflections on Antisemitism," was thoughtful, witty, and profound. He spoke with students and guests late into the night as he downed fine Scotch and smoked. His generosity, curiosity, and brilliance are exemplary.
He has cancer now and you can read his typically trenchant thought on his illness here.
My favorite of his books is: Letters to a Young Contrarian.
Below is the first few pages of his essay, Reflections on Antisemitism, which is now published in Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics.
In October 1956, exactly fifty years ago to the month that we celebrate Hannah Arendt’s one-hundredth birthday, the two Cold War colossi were being simultaneously convulsed by the uprising in Budapest and its repression by Soviet tanks. At the same time, the final act of Anglo-French imperialism in the Near East—you might prefer to say Middle East, or Western Asia—was taking place, in collusion with the state of Israel, with the invasion of Suez.
We know that the events in Hungary had an enormous emotional and intellectual impact on Hannah Arendt. The nature of this effect is somewhat enigmatic, which is why I want to begin with it. We know that she wrote a separate epilogue on these events for the second edition of The Origins of Totalitarianism, an epilogue she later removed. She didn’t airbrush it. She was candid about having removed it, as having, as she put it, “become obsolete in many details.” But she never actually said why it was that she had decided that her tribute to the Hungarian rebels wouldn’t stand the test of republication.
I want to begin by asking, “Why was that?” And that involves revisiting the events of 1956. Not alone were the Soviet tanks involved in the repression of the Hungarian revolution. There must also be dealt with, as was discussed by Hannah Arendt and many others, the betrayal of the Hungarian revolution by the statecraft of the United States—particularly by its Central Intelligence Agency, which, not unlike its performance in the year 1991 in Iraq, was content to issue incendiary broadcasts to the insurgents in Budapest, promising them help as long as they would continue to die. The poet e. e. cummings, I remember, wrote a song at that time called “Thanksgiving 1956,” which ends by saying:
“so rah-rah-rah democracy
let’s all be thankful as hell
and bury the statue of liberty
(because it begins to smell).”
If one takes the trouble to find her missing epilogue, one finds it’s full of surprisingly naive optimism—and surprisingly naive optimism is not a quality most saliently associated with the name of Hannah Arendt. I say it was naive because it stressed the spontaneous democracy of the worker’s councils that were set up in Budapest. I think perhaps here she was expressing a nostalgia—even a little romance—for the German revolutions of 1919 in Munich and elsewhere, in which her future husband Heinrich Blücher had played such an honorable part.
Arendt’s epilogue was naive also because it laid great stress on what she called the peaceful and orderly and good-humored crowds of Budapest. She rather romanticized the good-naturedness of the Hungarian revolution. Now, this optimism may possibly be justified in the long term, which is why it’s worth looking up that epilogue again. After all, in 1989, not more than three decades later, there was a peaceful, bloodless, and orderly velvet revolution; it had its beginning in Budapest when the Hungarians allowed their East German brethren to resist by transiting Hungarian soil without hindrance. It led, in the end, to the fall of the Berlin Wall. And that was a classic case of the recovery of what Arendt so beautifully called, I think, the lost treasure of revolution.
The lost treasure of revolution is the common property to which Hannah Arendt alludes, very lyrically, in the opening passages of her collection Between Past and Present. She describes this ability to recover freedom: the spirit of an unforced liberty that is latent, she thought, in all people and which she claimed to detect in “the summer in 1776 in Philadelphia, the summer of 1789 in Paris, and the autumn of 1956 in Budapest.” Which, as you can see, is putting 1956 in Budapest on quite a high pedestal and threshold. Now this concept of the hidden treasure, the treasure that’s always hidden but that can be reclaimed, is remarkable for its lack of what a Marxist would call concreteness. Here’s how it appears according to Hannah Arendt, this treasure: It appears only “under the most varied circumstances, appears abruptly, unexpectedly, and disappears again under different mysterious conditions, as though it were a fata morgana,” or, so to say, as a will of the wisp or ignis fatuus. The lost treasure of the revolution is a very, very elusive, almost ethereal concept for Hannah Arendt to be dealing with. And let me say, one of the nice things about reading and rereading Hannah Arendt is to discover how nice it is when she is fanciful every now and then.
But is the fantastical element of the lost treasure the reason why she so sternly decided to remove that epilogue? I think I know why she did it. Further research and disclosure of what happened that time in Budapest had brought it to her attention that those events in 1956 hadn’t been as beautifully spontaneous as she had supposed. Mixed into the grandeur of the Hungarian rebellion was quite a heavy element of ultra-Magyar, ultra-Hungarian nationalism. The revolution also included quite a lot of anti-Semitism, directed at the strongly Jewish membership and character of Hungary’s Communist elite. Many of the Jewish communist leaders had been denationalized from Hungary, having spent the war in the Soviet Union, in Moscow, some of them becoming Russian citizens. They came back to take over Hungary, which was still largely a Catholic, rural, and conservative country, and they did so only with the support of Red Army bayonets. The resentment aroused by the returning Jewish Communist leaders was considerable. The revolution did not lead to pogroms in the true, ghastly, meaning of the word, but there were some ugly lynchings of Jewish communists and some nasty rhetoric. And I think this must have weighed very much with her.