Hannah Arendt




b. Oct. 14, 1906, Hannover, Ger.
d. Dec. 4, 1975, New York, N.Y., U.S.

German-born American political scientist and philosopher known for her critical writing on Jewish affairs and her study of totalitarianism.

Arendt grew up in her native Hannover, Germany, and in Königsberg, Prussia (now Kaliningrad, Russia). She attended the universities of Marburg, Freiburg, and Heidelberg (from which she received her Ph.D. in 1928). When the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933, she fled to Paris, where she was a social worker and in 1940 married Heinrich Bluecher, a philosophy professor. She again became a fugitive from the Nazis the following year.

In New York City she served as research director of the Conference on Jewish Relations (1944-46), chief editor of Schocken Books (1946-48), and executive director (1949-52) of Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, Inc., which sought to salvage Jewish writings dispersed by the Nazis. She became a U.S. citizen in 1951.

In her monumental Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), Arendt related the development of totalitarianism to 19th-century anti-Semitism and imperialism and saw its growth as the outcome of the disintegration of the traditional nation-state. Totalitarian regimes, she argued, because of their pursuit of raw political power and neglect of material or utilitarian considerations, had revolutionized the social structure and made contemporary politics nearly unpredictable. That work established her as a major political thinker. She served on the faculty of the University of Chicago (1963-67) and thereafter at the New School for Social Research, New York City.

In the controversial book Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963), based on her reportage of the trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961, Arendt portrayed that Nazi war criminal as simply an ambitious bureaucrat whose routine extermination of Jews epitomized "the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil" that had spread across Europe at the time. Among Arendt's other works are The Human Condition (1958), Between Past and Future (1961), On Revolution (1963), Men in Dark Times (1968), On Violence (1970), and Crises of the Republic (1972). Her unfinished manuscript on The Life of the Mind was edited by her friend and correspondent Mary McCarthy and published in 1978.


Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, Hannah Arendt: For the Love of the World (1982), is a biography. Analyses of her work include Margaret Canovan, Hannah Arendt: A Reinterpretation of Her Political Thought (1992); Lewis P. Hinchman and Sandra K. Hinchman (eds.), Hannah Arendt: Critical Essays (1994); Bonnie Honig (ed.), Feminist Interpretations of Hannah Arendt (1995); Richard J. Bernstein, Hannah Arendt and the Jewish Question (1996); and Larry May and Jerome Kohn (eds.), Hannah Arendt: Twenty Years Later (1996).

 (From Britannica.com)


Pode ler a tese de mestrado de Helena Claudia de Faria Guimarães de Sousa Pereira sobre o tema "DO DESERTO" - Pensar o Mal com Hannah Arendt aqui 

Adenda -  Março de 2012 – Foi publicado pelo Centro de Filosofia da Universidade de Lisboa o livro “A Geometria do Tempo em Hannah Arendt”, de Margarida Gomes Amaral,  que reproduziu a tese de doutoramento  “Alienação, Deserto e Naufrágio: três metáforas para uma compreensão da Geometria do Tempo em Hannah Arendt”, defendida na Universidade de Lisboa em 10-01-2011, com que a Autora obteve a nota máxima.




There are no dangerous thoughts; thinking itself is dangerous


To think and to be fully alive are the same.


Storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it.


We have almost succeeded in levelling all human activities to the common denominator of securing the necessities of life and providing for their abundance.


Action without a name, a "who" attached to it, is meaningless.


Fear is an emotion indispensable for survival.


The most radical revolutionary will become a conservative the day after the revolution.


The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be either good or evil.


Man's chief moral deficiency appears to be not his indiscretions but his reticence.


Some sites about Hannah Arendt:


Book - an introduction: http://www.upress.umn.edu/Books/M/mcgowan_hannah.html

Opinion: http://www.humanists.net/pdhutcheon/Papers%20and%20Presentations/arendt.htm

http://www.trincoll.edu/depts/phil/philo/phils/arendt.html (letters to Mary MacCarty)

Quotes: http://womenshistory.about.com/homework/womenshistory/library/qu/blquaren.htm

Hannah Arendt and the Meaning of Politics - afterword: http://www.upress.umn.edu/Books/C/calhoun_hannah.html

Letters in a Museum: http://www.dla-marbach.de/kallias/hyperkuss/a-19.html#Arendt,%20Hannah

Biography: http://www.dhm.de/lemo/html/biografien/ArendtHannah/

Heidegger and Arendt in love:: http://www.heartfield.org/love.htm 

Hannah Arendt et la question de l'absolu par Marc Chevrier: http://agora.qc.ca/textes/chevrier14.html

Directório: http://www.hannaharendt.net/links.html

André Enegrén,  Pouvoir et liberte, Une approche de la théorie politique de Hannah Arendt, http://www.philagora.com/ph-prepa/pouv-lb1.htm


November 5, 1995

Arendt's Relationship with Heidegger

William H. Honan

One of the gossipy curiosities of 20th-century philosophy is that Hannah Arendt, the German-born Jewish philosopher remembered for her fierce and unforgiving attacks on totalitarianism, had a youthful fling in the 1920s with Martin Heidegger.

Heidegger, the influential philosopher, later became a prominent Nazi and at one time aspired to be Hitler s chief ideologue.

Most scholars believed that by the 1930s Arendt and Heidegger had gone their separate ways and their early liaison could be dismissed as a short- lived dalliance.

But now a book based on their newly unsealed correspondence, "Hannah Arendt/Martin Heidegger" (Yale University Press) by Elzbieta Ettinger, has revealed that their affair was not evanescent but burned with white hot intensity for four years. Most disturbing to some scholars after the war, Arendt and Heidegger resumed their friendship.

And Arendt, whose fiery reproach had extended to European Jews whom she said had "collaborated" with the Nazis in their own destruction, did almost everything she could to whitewash the unrepentant Heidegger, who had succeeded in banning Jewish professors from the University of Freiburg, which he led from 1933 to 1934.

"She devoted herself to popularizing his philosophy in the United States and to vindicating his name in the eyes of his critics," wrote Professor Ettinger.

The revelations have stirred one of the most heated scholarly debates in recent memory, taking hold in publications and planned seminars that raise such issues as the extent to which influential thinkers should be judged by their private acts.

"The book shows that Arendt was so arrogant that she thought she alone could decide who should be forgiven and who should not," said Elie Wiesel, the Nobel laureate who has written of his experiences in the Auschwitz death camp. "I'm not so sure her moral stature will remain intact."

Ismar Schorsh, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, reacted strongly. "Arendt's reputation will not recover," he said. "Her defense of Heidegger, when she knew better, is hard to forgive."

Defensive of the reputations of both Arendt and Heidegger is Sandra Hinchman, a professor of political science at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y., who has edited with her husband, Lewis Hinchman, an anthology of Arendt's articles.

"Some of the greatest philosophers were despicable people," she said. "Rousseau abandoned his five children to a Catholic orphanage before writing 'Emile' his treatise on education. My fear is that if we concentrate on the lives of some philosophers we may become prejudiced against their work."

At the center of the storm is Elzbieta Ellinger, an M.I.T. professor who is a survivor of the Warsaw ghetto and author of many books including a biography of the socialist leader Rosa Luxemburg. Professor Ettinger said she first learned of the existence of the long-sealed Arendt-Heidegger correspondence in 1988 from Arendt's friend Mary McCarthy. Ms. McCarthy, Professor Ettinger said, encouraged her to write a biography of Arendt.

With Ms. McCarthy's support, Professor Ettinger obtained access to the correspondence in the Hannah Arendt Literary Trust in New York. Heidegger's correspondence with Arendt at the Deutsches Nationalarchiv in Marbach am Neckar. Germany, remains closed but Professor Ettinger was able to obtain copies of his letters and to paraphrase them without violating copyright law.

"The letters reveal that Arendt and Heidegger were emotionally dependent on each other for most of their lives," Professor Ettinger said. "She could have destroyed these letters but preserved them because she did not wish to be the invisible woman in Heidegger's life as Ellen Ternan was in Dickens's life. She was proud that the most important philosopher of the century had chosen her."

Arendt and Heidegger began their affair in 1924 when she, then 18, enrolled in his course in philosophy at the University of Marburg. He was then 35, married, the Father of two sons and was completing his masterwork "Being and Time", which would soon launch him into the top rank of modern philosophers.

Putting both his marriage and career at risk, Heidegger invited her to his office one evening and initiated the affair. Subsequently, they pursued this relationship with clandestine signals such as, "If you see a light in my office at exactly 9 P.M., you can come."

While she gazed at him adoringly, he expounded on ancient and modern philosophy, literature, poetry, Bach, Beethoven, Rilke and Thomas Mann. In 1929, she told him that "our love became the blessing of our life."

In 1933 in her last letter to Heidegger until after the war, Arendt complained of having heard that he was barring Jews from his seminars, refusing to speak to Jewish colleagues and rejecting Jewish doctoral students.

Heidegger, then the newly appointed rector of Albert-Ludwigs-University in Freiburg, had just joined the Nazi party and had delivered the infamous rector's address in which he declared his allegiance to Hitler. With heavy sarcasm, he denied Arendt's accusations.

The truth is, as Professor Ettinger points out, his anti-Semitism had been well established four years previously when he wrote to warn a high official in the Ministry of Education against the "growing Judiaization" of Germany's "spiritual life."

Among his more abominable acts while rector in Freiburg, Heidegger banned from the campus all Jewish professors including his mentor, the aging Edmund Husserl -- an achat is believed to have contributed to Husserl's death.

After the war, a de-Nazification tribunal informed of Heidegger's Nazi ardor and vicious anti-Semitism, brushed aside the fact that his intellectual work laid the foundation for much post-modern thought and banned him from university life.

Arendt was well aware of these proceedings. Referring to the death of Husserl in a letter in 1946 to the philosopher Karl Jaspers, Arendt called Heidegger "a potential murderer." But almost from the moment she was reunited with Heidegger in 1950, Professor Ettinger said, Arendt forgave him everything.

Writing a tribute to Heidegger in The New York Review of Books in 1971 on the occasion of Heidegger's 80th birthday, Arendt dismissed his Nazi past humorously by likening him to Thales, the Greek philosopher who while gazing at the stars stumbled into a well. Arendt died in 1975, a year before the death of Heidegger.

Since the Ettinger book was published, the academic community has him as a giant in the history of been commenting in journals. In a particularly scathing attack on Ardent, Richard Wolin, a Rice University historian and the author of "The Politics of Being: The Political Thought of Martin Heidegger" (Columbia University Press), declared in a long essay in The New Republic last month that the newly discovered correspondence casts the most controversial passages in Arendt's writing in an "even uglier" lighhan before.

Could it be, Professor Wolin asked, that Arendt's inflammatory charge in her report on the trial of Adolph Eichmann in Jerusalem that the Jews of Europe were partly responsible for their own slaughter was "meant somehow to absolve the magician of Messkirch [Heidegger] of his own crimes by showing that his victims were also guilty?" Clearly, Professor Wolin believes the answer is yes.

On the other side of the debate, Lisa Disch, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Minnesota and the author of "Hannah Arendt and the Limits of Philosophy" (Cornell University Press), scorned Professor Ettinger's book as "tabloid scholarship," adding, "It's a shame it's getting so much attention."

Dana Villa, a professor of political theory at Amherst College whose book "Arendt and Heidegger: the Fate of the Political" has just been published by Princeton University Press, said: "I think Ettinger gets it wrong in portraying Arendt as a dupe of Heidegger. She respected him as a giant in the history of Western thought, and she was influenced by him, but she wasn't uncritical. In her last book, she expressed her distrust of philosophy as pure thinking divorced from moral and political judgment."

Professor Villa also said that Professor Ettinger has exaggerated Heidegger's villainy. "He was an ordinary German," he said. "He believed the Nazi line and he was perhaps self-deluded, but he was not part of the apparatus of killing. He hurt some Jews but he also helped some. He was not unique."

Professor Ettinger said that in the final analysis the Arendt-Deidegger relationship was the stuff of poetic tragedy.

"No person who knows about love and passion will consider Arendt's forgiveness of Heidegger unusual," she said. "Americans have great difficulty understanding passion. When I discuss 'Anna Karenina' with my students, they can't understand why Anna gives up a loving husband, a beautiful home and a wonderful child for this jerk of an officer. I tell them to read 'Manon Lescaut' or D.H. Lawrence's 'Women in Love.' Then they understand. Love is irrational. There is nothing we can do about it."



Sunday, April 15, 2001

Arendt Arrogant, Catty and Loving in Letters to Husband

Reviewed by Cynthia Haven


The Correspondence Between

Hannah Arendt and Heinrich Blucher, 1936-1968

Edited and with an introduction

by Lotte Kohler

Harcourt; 458 pages; $35

In the current stoking of the Hannah Arendt industry, in which every scrap from her wastebasket is being blown into print, the latest installment, "Within Four Walls: The Correspondence Between Hannah Arendt and Heinrich Blucher, 1936-1968," has barely raised a spark.

Perhaps it's because it has so much company: Arendt's correspondence with Mary McCarthy was published in 1995, with existentialist philosopher and mentor Karl Jaspers in 1992, and her letters with Kurt Blumenfeld and Martin Heidegger found their way into German publication in the last decade or so.

Their publication tailgates the scandal surrounding the revelation of Arendt's youthful affair with her professor and mentor, the philosopher Heidegger. Yet another student-professor passion is hardly earthshaking. However, Heidegger's Nazi affiliations made news of his fling with his Jewish student, the future author of "Origins of Totalitarianism" and "Eichmann in Jerusalem." Their wary friendship over the subsequent decades (Arendt remained convinced of "a fundamental goodness within him") roused the animosity of determined Arendt-debunkers.

Hence, a rush to print anything that will clarify the mess. The letters to her husband, Heinrich Blucher (who died in 1970, five years before Arendt), published in German since 1996, will undoubtedly contribute to the scholarly factory and the gossip of aficionados. But for those of us with a more casual interest in the philosopher-political theorist, what are we likely to glean?

In the 1950s, Arendt told Jaspers: "I won't stop being a German. I will forge for myself neither a humbug Jewish past nor a humbug American past." The newest installment of Arendt's letters reinforces that position, sometimes with startling ramifications. They hold in amber the rich spirit of Old World learning and philosophy, an ethos as dead today as the Third Reich, and perhaps as incomprehensible. "Berlin: rebuilt!" she writes deliriously in 1959,

as if her 1940 internment at the hands of the Germans had never happened. "No trace of abject misery left. And, most important, it has suddenly dropped its provincial aspect again."

Visiting Jerusalem for "Eichmann in Jerusalem," in what is perhaps the most remarkable section of this book, she notes, "What has been achieved, often quite impressive, basically goes back to the German Jews in the cities and their social work. What would have been possible in this pigsty that calls itself the Near East is incredible." She decries Israel's "oriental mob" and its "unlearnable" language.

She notes, with unblinkered prescience, "they treat the Arabs, those still here, in a way that in itself would be enough to rally the whole world against Israel." In the same letter, she notes an imminent trip to Istanbul before returning to "civilized ground," Switzerland, the home of Jaspers, the purest hero of the letters: "He is filled like the sun with curiosity in his essential passion for fundamental illumination."

The volume sheds some light on her decades-long preoccupation with her then- unpublished biography of Berlin's Rahel Varnhagen, Jewish woman of letters and progenitor of Germany's best-known literary salon around the time of Goethe. Arendt's deep identification with this conflicted Jew living among the goyim, who also married a non-Jew, brings into sharper relief Arendt's arguable status as the last descendant of this German Enlightenment.

The letters make manifest the limitations of communiques between husband and wife, separated by long spells, but together for even longer ones. They "speak the language of unconditional partnership," writes editor Lotte Kohler in her guiding introduction. Says Arendt, simply, "for God sake, you are my four walls." After the eloquent sexual display of their early courtship letters, in which philosophy, romance and confession mingle like kisses, Arendt and Blucher yield to the inevitable marital shorthand, peppered with acquaintances and minor figures of the time.

The notes don't always help: When Arendt comments on Jaspers, "He told me a few things about his relationship with me that I don't want to repeat; but it is what you always suspected, only he basically doesn't have a clue about it," well, what are we to assume? Is this characteristic Arendt self-flattery, or something more? It's not the role of editor, perhaps, to speculate, but readers without the lifeboat of pre-existing opinions are likely to flounder.

Critics may find more fuel in Arendt and Blucher's unrockable sense of their own superiority, their cattiness toward colleagues and Blucher's bottomless self-pity ("I can't save this place [Bard College, where he was a philosophy professor] on my own, and will no longer try to." ).

Frequently, one craves more greatness of spirit (surely humility is the hallmark of wisdom), and far less sniping at colleagues, fans and the institutions that often provided a livelihood for them both (Stanford, Berkeley and the Hoover Institute among them). Too often, the colleagues are professionally jealous, the women bitchy or menopausal. Of Heidegger's wife, Elfride: "The woman is half-crazed with jealousy, which has built up over the years, during which time it is obvious she constantly hoped he would simply forget me."

Unjust? Certainly. If one can't kvetch with one's significant other, who can one crab with? Is it fair, even, to criticize letters intended only for one's most devoted fan, even if that's somewhat fictive for people who suspected posterity's laurels?

After all, the words Arendt intentionally chose for the world she published in her lifetime. It's an argument for the traditional deathbed rite of burning one's papers. At least some of them. But don't hold your breath.

Cynthia Haven has written most recently for Stanford magazine and Minnesota Monthly.




February 26, 1995

Arendt and McCarthy; Friends in Adversity, Writers Write on Their Reviews


Friendship often begins inauspiciously. In 1945 Mary McCarthy's flip remark about Hitler incensed Hannah Arendt, a German-born Jew who had fled a French internment camp. Yet politics drew them together. "Let's end this nonsense," Arendt said three years later. "We think so much alike."

"Between Friends" is a collation of 25 years of letters between them, edited by Carol Brightman and published last month. Their relationship thrived on divergence and agreement -- an American orphaned at 6 and a European uprooted by Fascism. The letters began in 1949, ending in 1975 with Arendt's death, and show two intellectuals translating Latin as well as trading gossip.

In 1963 Arendt, whose first book, "The Origins of Totalitarianism," appeared in 1951, ignited controversy with "Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil," which recounted the war-crimes trial of Adolf Eichmann. Lionel Abel in The Partisan Review charged, Ms. Brightman writes, that "Arendt had made Eichmann esthetically palatable and the Jews esthetically repugnant." The same year, McCarthy's novel "The Group" was dismissed by Norman Mailer as a "lady-book" at the level of "the best novel the editors of the women's magazines ever conceived in their secret ambitions."

Their letters show a mutual support system that says: let false friends beware. Excerpts follow.

Dearest Mary:

. . . . Why did I not write earlier? Well, the truth of the matter is that I did not "feel fine." Heinrich [ Blucher, Arendt's husband ] has not been well, he is much better now, working as usual etc. . . Add to this the Eichmann-trouble which I try to keep from him as much as I possibly can -- and you will understand that I am in no mood of writing. You probably know that PR [ Partisan Review ] also turned against me in a rather vicious manner (Lionel Abel who anyhow goes around town spreading slander about myself as well as Heinrich), and generally, one can say that the mob -- intellectual or otherwise -- has been successfully mobilized. I just heard that the Anti-Defamation League has sent out a circular letter to all rabbis to preach against me . . . . What a risky business to tell the truth on a factual level without theoretical and scholarly embroidery. . . .
Sept. 16, 1963

Dearest Mary:

Our letters crossed and I am kind of sorry that I wrote you at a moment of depression. . . . That the "boys" have tried to turn against you seems to me only natural and I think it has more to do with "The Group" being a best-seller than with any political matters. . . .

My reason for breaking with the PR people has nothing to do with the content of Abel's review, but with the choice of the reviewer. What is involved is (a) that they knew that Abel had written a piece against me before . . . hence was hostile to begin with and (b) that they showed an extraordinary lack of the most elementary respect for myself and my work in choosing somebody like Abel as a reviewer.

. . . There are some points in the report which indeed are in conflict with the book on totalitarianism, but God knows Abel didn't spot them. These points are as follows: First: I speak at length in . . . "Totalitarianism" about the "holes of oblivion." On page 212 of the Eichmann book I say, "The holes of oblivion do not exist. Nothing human is that perfect, and there are simply too many people in the world to make oblivion possible. One man will always be left alive to tell the story." Second: If one reads the book carefully, one sees that Eichmann was much less influenced by ideology than I assumed in the book on totalitarianism. The impact of ideology upon the individual may have been overrated by me. Even in the totalitarianism book, in the chapter on ideology and terror, I mention the curious loss of ideological content that occurs among the elite of the movement. The movement itself becomes all-important; the content of anti-Semitism, for instance, gets lost in the extermination policy, for extermination would not have come to an end when no Jew was left to be killed. In other words, extermination per se is more important than anti-Semitism or racism. Third, and perhaps most importantly, the very phrase "Banality of Evil" stands in contrast to the phrase I used in the totalitarianism book, "radical evil." This is too difficult a subject to be dealt with here, but it is important.
Sept. 20

Dearest Hannah:

. . . . I want to help you in some way and not simply by being an ear. What can be done about this Eichmann business, which is assuming the proportions of a pogrom? Whether you answer or not (and I still feel it would be best if you answered somewhere, even if not in PR), I am going to write something to the boys for publication.

. . . Nicola [ Chiaromonte, the Italian critic ] feels that the issues raised by your book ought to be discussed. Not the debater's points "scored" by Lionel [ Abel ] but the implications of your views about the role played by the Jewish Councils -- that is, what is implied about organizations in modern society generally. He would also like to know why you think the Nazis failed in their anti-Semitic program in Denmark, Bulgaria and Italy -- this apart from the presence or absence of Jewish Councils and from the sheer facts as you give them. Can a common factor be found to explain this? For if there is such a common factor, it ought to be cultivated and safeguarded by humanity for future emergencies. Or is there no such thing?
Sept. 24

Dearest Mary:

. . . I am convinced that I should not answer individual critics. I probably shall finally make not an answer, but a kind of evaluation . . . . I also intend to write an essay about "Truth and Politics," which would be an implicit answer. If you were here, you would understand that this whole business, with few exceptions, has absolutely nothing to do with criticism or polemics in the normal sense of the word. It is a political campaign, led and guided in all particulars by interest groups and governmental agencies. It would be foolish for me, but not for others, to overlook this fact. The criticism is directed at an "image," and this image has been substituted for the book I wrote.
Oct. 3

Dearest Hannah:

. . . In Paris I am assaulted by clippings about "The Group," many of them terribly hostile, and by requests for interviews and photos. Success seems to take so much of your time: you are devoured by it. And I confess I'm depressed by what seems to me the treachery of the New York [ Review of Books ] people. I suppose you saw the Mailer piece and the parody that preceded it. I find it strange that people who are supposed to be my friends should solicit a review from an announced enemy but even stranger that they should have kept pestering me to write for them while hiding from me the fact that the Mailer review was coming. . . . It parallels, as I foresaw, in a small way the Eichmann furor, but seems to lack even the hypocritical justification that Jewish piety there provided. It occurs to me that a desire to make a sensation has taken precedence in New York over everything else.
Oct. 24

The New


Snowblind: Martin Heidegger & Hannah Arendt
by Berel Lang

Read this article here     



THE TLS n.º 5452, September 28, 2007

A people apart

The modern Jewish experience as seen by Hannah Arendt, whose “instinctive penchant was to go against the grain, to cause disconfort, even outrage”

Steven E. Aschheim

Elisabeth Young-Bruehl

Why Arendt Matters

240 pp. Yale University Press,  £ 14.99 (US $22)

978 0 300 12044 8


Hannah Arendt
Edited by Jerome Kohn and Ron H. Feldman
359pp. Schocken. US $35.
978 0 8052 4238 6


The centenary of Hannah Arendt’s birth in 2006 was marked by a veritable orgy of celebratory events. Conferences in her honour were held in Australia, France, Israel, Malta, Portugal, Slovakia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden and Turkey. There were multiple such occasions in Germany and something like a dozen in the United States. Despite her still many detractors, these festivities merely reinforced an already intact cult status (Britain seems to be a notable exception in this regard). Over the years, Arendt has been at the centre of an ever growing academic industry, the subject of novels, plays, docudramas, films, exhibitions and iconographic artworks. A stamp, a prize, a research institute, an express train from Karlsruhe to Hanover and even a street – located directly adjacent to the new Berlin Holocaust memorial – bear her name and image.

A new generation, relatively unencumbered by the ideological and emotional baggage that so often characterizes Arendt scholarship, has opened up various fresh exegetical and critical perspectives on her thought. The political concerns that animate much of this fresh wave of scholarship are clearly related to recent developments. After the demise of the Soviet Union, the liberation of Eastern Europe and the collapse of apartheid, scholars have ploughed Arendt’s post-totalitarian musings on revolution, plurality, freedom and civil society for guidance and inspiration. The painful task of rebuilding these societies has endowed Arendt’s previously neglected ruminations on apology, forgiveness and promises, in political life, with a new freshness and relevance.

To be sure, not all these writings display equal distinction. Too often, they have been characterized by a sanctifying aura in which the Arendtian oeuvre has assumed the status of a kind of holy writ. This is painfully evident in a fluffy work – apparently commissioned for the centennial celebrations – by Arendt’s biographer, Elisabeth Young-Bruehl. In a primer entitled Why Arendt Matters, Young-Bruehl addresses herself “particularly to younger readers, students of the age I was when I became Arendt’s student in 1968 and she became for me and my fellow students . . . a light in dark times . . . . I think of what I am doing now as a conversation with her, a continuation into the present of the conversation I have been having with her in my mind since 1968”. In an increasingly ominous post-9/11 environment, Young-Bruehl wonders: “What would Arendt have said? What would she think of the world we live in, three decades after her death?”. And so she resurrects Arendt to confront some of the burning issues of our own – darkened – contemporary world. To be sure, many of Young-Bruehl’s observations in this respect are quite unobjectionable. Yet, the very exercise may violate a central tenet of Arendt’s legacy: her insistence on independent thinking and fierce opposition to being classified, pinned down. She may well have regarded some of Young-Bruehl’s projections of her positions into the present with a posthumously sceptical, mocking eye.

For Arendt positively revelled in adopting stances that were at odds with formulaic Left or Right positions and with liberal pieties. Where, for instance, do we place her 1959 “Reflections on Little Rock” which, in its advocacy of States’ rights, appeared to support the cause of American racial segregationists? (She argued that schools and children should not bear the burden of enforced Federal integration.) Her instinctive penchant was to oppose conventional stances, to go against the grain, to ruffle and cause discomfort, even outrage. To this day, admirers regard this as refreshing while critics view it as well-nigh demonic. Arendt, of course, was quite aware of this characteristic and the reactions it could evoke. Writing – the endlessly controversial – Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963), she told Mary McCarthy, was “morally exhilarating . . . a paean of transcendence . . . . You were the only reader to understand what otherwise I would never have admitted – namely that I wrote this book in a curious state of euphoria. And that ever since I did it, I feel . . . light-hearted about the matter. Don’t tell anybody; is it not proof positive that I have no ‘soul’?”.

Her book on the Eichmann trial made Arendt internationally famous – and infamous. Indeed, it is her Jewish writings in general, perhaps because they come so close to the existential nub, that still evoke the most impassioned controversy. In the Israel of 2007, Arendt – after years of contemptuous neglect – has become a highly charged, contested figure, central to the intellectual battle between the so-called post-Zionists (many of whom have rendered her the great prophet and advocate of their cause) and the centrist Zionist establishment (which continues its efforts to delegitimize Arendt as a species of Jewish self-hater, occasionally hinting at dubious connections – and even conceptual similarities – to Nazis and Nazism).

Certainly, her present fame – as philosopher and political theorist – goes well beyond Jewish interests. Yet much of her thought, biography and interlocutory polemics were passionately linked to core predicaments of the modern Jewish experience: the distorting psychodynamics of assimilation, and the fateful emergence of political anti-Semitism; the complex relation between Jewish self-definition and European culture; the infelicities of quietist Jewish cultivation, and the urgent need for an activist Jewish politics (during the Second World War she repeatedly called for the formation of a Jewish Army); the costs – and benefits – of Zionism; the rise of Nazism and totalitarianism; and the nature of the Holocaust and the evil that rendered it possible. Her wider philosophy and reputation are largely unintelligible without these roots and ongoing concerns. Indeed, her insight that the most clear-sighted intellectuals (such as Franz Kafka and Walter Benjamin) were led by their Jewish predicament “to a much more general and more radical problem, namely to question the relevance of the Western tradition as a whole”, surely applies equally to herself.

What is it about Arendt’s Jewish writings and persona that have rendered them so peculiarly divisive, and emotionally and ideologically charged? This too is related to her predilection to resist easy classification and simple self-definition, to question ideological platitudes, to provoke and to hold contradictory (some would say, perverse) positions. She incisively dissected the rise of modern political anti-Semitism – yet seemed to hold the Jews partly responsible for its emergence and success. She was ideologically and institutionally identified with the Zionist movement (it may come as a shock to recall that, in 1941, her later bête noire, Gershom Scholem, described her as “a wonderful woman and an extraordinary Zionist”) – and one of its most severe critics. She was one of the earliest and most concerned analysts of the “Final Solution” – yet, for many, her analysis of Adolf Eichmann’s banality and her indictment of the complicity of the Jewish Councils in the extermination process rendered her more of an enemy than a friend of the Jewish people.

The same complexity applied as much to Arendt’s personal life choices as it did to her philosophical positions. If her committed Jewish identity and politics seemed self-evident – the last chapter of her early work on Rachel Varnhagen is entitled “One Does Not Escape Jewishness” – Arendt always took care to challenge the non-reflective, self-celebratory nature of group affiliations. She took great pride in the complex and critical, perhaps even subversive, nature of her own intertwined commitments. Of her relationship to her second husband, the German radical and non-Jew, Heinrich Blücher, she wrote in 1946: “If I had wanted to become respectable I would either have had to give up my interest in Jewish affairs or not marry a non-Jewish man, either option equally inhuman and in a sense, crazy”. Her Jewish identification was strong and passionate – “I belong to the Jews”, she declared, “beyond dispute or agreement” – but was never absolute. It was most clear and decisive under conditions of persecution, where, as she put it, one had to “resist only in terms of the identity that is under attack”. “Politically”, she stated in 1946, “I will speak only in the name of the Jews”, but she immediately qualified this by adding, “whenever circumstances force me to give my nationality”. It is precisely this deep yet ambiguous involvement in existentially crucial Jewish matters, indeed, her partial “insider” status that still endow her, for many, with a troubling, even threatening, relevance. As a “connected critic”, a member of the family rather than an outsider or enemy, her arguments have standing and authority; they demand engagement rather than simple dismissal.

The publication of Jerome Kohn and Ron H. Feldman’s edition of The Jewish Writings will certainly not resolve the ongoing controversies – it may even fuel them once again – but Kohn and Feldman do provide the materials for evaluating more seriously and responsibly the trajectory of Arendt’s thought and commitments, and what she actually did say. Spanning from the early 1930s to the mid 60s, they cover the wide spectrum of her writings on Jewish topics. Some pieces – such as “We Refugees”, “The Jew as Pariah”, “Zionism Reconsidered”, her withering dissection of Stefan Zweig’s “cultured” but self-deceiving “apolitical” attitudes, and her reply to Scholem’s attack on her Eichmann in Jerusalem are well known. Others (which were either previously unpublished or appeared originally in German or French) will be new to the English-speaking reading public.

It is something of a surprise to see that Arendt – interested always in secular Jewish matters and hardly at all in Judaism as such – wrote an uncharacteristically admiring 1935 French piece on the romantic Jewish philosopher Martin Buber. There he is recommended as a “Guide to Youth”. But during the same period, and much more characteristically, she caustically dismissed Buber’s “attempts to explain Jewish ‘substance’ by way of pseudophilosophical profundity”. Efforts to fix foreignness in something substantial, she wrote, resulted in “a mad urge to define Jewry, Jew, Jewish, and so forth”. The very effort to do so – as Arendt demonstrated in various other works – derived from the torturous, fragmented nature of modern Western Jewish identity which, shorn of traditional objective characteristics of identification, became essentially “psychologized”, resistant to tangible definition.

The most important piece in The Jewish Writings is a previously unpublished manuscript from the 1930s entitled “Anti-semitism” (a kind of draft analysis which decades later informed the section of the same name in The Origins of Totalitarianism, 1951). There, in typically iconoclastic fashion, Arendt identified the core assumptions and strengths and weaknesses of the major Jewish historical and ideological schools of interpretation – and sought to transcend both:

Whereas nationalist historiography is based on the uncritical assumption of a distance on principle between Jews and their host nation, assimilationist historians opt for an equally uncritical assumption of a 100 per cent correspondence between Jews and their entire host nations. The advantage of the nationalist hypothesis over that of the assimilationists is a purely practical one: it does not lead to illusions that are quite so absurd . . . . But for Zionism – as for nationalist historiography – status as a “nation of foreigners” is just as undifferentiated as 100 per cent correspondence is for the assimilationists. Instead of one abstraction – the German people – we now have what are more or less two opposing abstractions: the German people and the Jews. This likewise strips the relationship between the Jews and their host nation of its historicity and reduces it to a play of forces (like those of attraction and repulsion) between two natural substances, an interaction that will be repeated everywhere Jews live . . . . Assimilationists were never able to explain how things could ever have turned out so badly, and for the Zionist there still remains the unresolved fact that things might have gone well.

Other unexpected emphases crop up in this wide-ranging essay. One of Arendt’s later, more controversial positions held that the specificities of German history and culture were entirely unconnected to the Nazi exterminations. In this earlier piece, however, Germany does indeed possess a rather radical (both positively and negatively conceived) Sonderweg, one clearly linked to later developments:

From Lessing’s Nathan the Wise to Rosenberg’s Myth of the Twentieth Century, every liberation and every catastrophe that has befallen the Jews of Europe has been able to borrow its theoretical foundation and its pathos from Germany – and always long before some practical application came due in Germany itself. A good hundred years lie between Lessing and emancipation; it did not take even sixty-five years to move from Marr, the founder of modern antisemitism as a political movement, to Hitler’s victory.

These pieces also soften the frequent claim that, as a secular, cultivated German-Jewish intellectual, Arendt shared a virulent prejudice towards, or at best had no empathy for, her more primitive East European Jewish and “Oriental” cousins. Her opponents have made plentiful use of her caustic comments – in a 1961 letter to Karl Jaspers – regarding participants in the Eichmann trial:

On top, the judges, the best of German Jewry. Below them, the prosecuting attorneys, Galicians, but still Europeans. Everything is organized by a police force that gives me the creeps, speaks only Hebrew and looks Arabic. Some downright brutal types among them. They would follow any order. And . . . the oriental mob, as if one were in Istanbul or some other half-Asiatic country. In addition, and very visible in Jerusalem, the peies and caftan Jews, who make life impossible for all reasonable people here.

Yet the present volume also makes clear that these nasty, but rather conventional, prejudices hardly gelled with her wider political outlook and emotions. Arendt’s Jewish national politics were consistently couched in terms of the priority of popular needs, and a critique of self-serving and manipulative elites. Her withering comments on “notable”, “educated” and “exceptional” Jews and their contempt for East European Jews pervade these pages. Moreover, she regarded with wonder and admiration those national historical forces that “taught both Eastern and Western Jews to see their situation in identical terms” and, in 1944, showered praise on the Jewish underground movements for their elimination of “any difference between Western and Eastern Jews, between assimilated and unassimilated . . .”.

These pages are particularly useful in tracing Arendt’s evolving understanding and critique of political Zionism. One dimension of her dissent flowed from her belief that Jewish national rights and politics had to be conducted in worldwide rather than Palestinocentric terms. But the real gist, and the contemporary relevance, of these essays lies in the conviction that the relationship with the Arabs constituted “the only real political and moral issue” of Zionist and Israeli politics. These pieces document her various attempts to think through options outside the conventional route. Writing prior to the creation of a Jewish-majority state in 1948, it seemed still possible and legitimate to envisage future alternative social and political orders that would satisfy both Jewish national aspirations and Arab needs. Though the possibilities of agreement and negotiated peace appeared increasingly unrealistic (to some, utopian in the extreme) as the situation worsened, Arendt variously advocated a (not always clear) series of binational, federal and confederative solutions.

These were connected to her earlier critique of the modern sovereign nation state and crucially informed by what she called “the latest phenomenon of recent history”: the European (and her own) experience of mass statelessness. The conventional identification of the State with a homogeneous majority rendered minorities inherently vulnerable, easily deprived even of “the right to have rights”. Her many blueprints regarding the Jewish-Arab conflict were designed in some way to deal with this dilemma on both sides. “A genuine federation”, she wrote in 1943, “is made up of different, clearly identifiable nationalities . . . that together form the state. National conflicts can be solved within such a federation only because the unsolvable minority–majority problem has ceased to exist.” As late as 1948 she supported a suggestion – floated by Abba Eban – of a federation consisting also of Turkey and Christian Lebanon, an arrangement that “would comprise more than the two peoples . . . and thus eliminate Jewish fears of being outnumbered by the Arabs”.

Arendt throughout, it should be clear, remained committed to Jewish national aspirations, but argued, perhaps counter-intuitively, that “a Jewish state can only be erected at the price of the Jewish homeland”. Her notions of an intact Jewish nationalism on a federative or a binationalist basis have thus far proved illusory, given the ongoing lack of political will on all sides for such an arrangement. Yet her fears about the inherent problems and consequences of the conventional national route were realistic enough. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, she sharply noted:

After the war, it turned out that the Jewish question, which was considered the only insoluble one, was indeed solved – namely, by means of a colonized and then conquered territory – but this solved neither the problem of the minorities nor the stateless. On the contrary, like virtually all other events of our century, the solution of the Jewish question merely produced a new category of refugees, the Arabs, thereby increasing the number of the stateless and rightless by another 700,000 to 800,000 people.

The seeds of that catastrophe lay, Arendt argued – in a provocative, rather untestable counterfactual claim – in the paradoxical distinctiveness of the Zionist project. She stressed that the “building of a Jewish national home was not a colonial enterprise in which Europeans came to exploit foreign riches with the help and at the expense of native labor”. Imperialist exploitation of the classical kind was “either completely absent or played an insignificant role”. The Yishuv was constructed as a parallel, separate society and economy. There was something grand in this adventure of independence and self-creation, she declared, but precisely this myopic separation from the local population sowed the seeds for future conflict and resentment. She summed up its ironic results in 1950 thus:

What had been the pride of the Jewish homeland, that it had not been based upon exploitation, turned into a curse when the final test came: the flight of the Arabs would not have been possible and not have been welcomed by the Jews if they had lived in a common economy. The reactionary Arabs of the Near East and their British protectors were finally proved right: \[in the words of Chaim Weizmann\] they had always considered “the Jews dangerous not because they exploit the fellaheen, but because they do not exploit them”.

What emerges from The Jewish Writings is that any ideologically fixated appropriation of Arendt’s writings on Zionism will run into trouble. Her reflections were the product of a time and context quite different from our own, and neither a simplistic Zionist condemnation nor an undifferentiated post-Zionist harnessing bears scrutiny: “Palestine and the building of a Jewish homeland”, she wrote in 1945, “constitute today the great hope and the great pride of Jews all over the world. What would happen to Jews, individually and collectively, if this hope and this pride were to be extinguished in another catastrophe is almost beyond imagining . . . . There is no Jew in the world whose whole outlook on life and the world would not be radically changed by such a tragedy.”

Ultimately, Hannah Arendt’s achievements and biases, her creativity and inner conflicts must be seen as part of the quite extraordinary history of post-emancipation German-Jewish intellectuals as they confronted German culture and its later breakdown, the experience of totalitarianism, and Jewish attempts at reconstitution. Her involvement with the Jewish world was always intense and complex, but so too was her simultaneous engagement in other cultural and political spheres. Precisely because she acutely and distinctively embodied the tensions and contradictions of these manifold worlds, she was able – sometimes more, sometimes less successfully – to grasp critically their interconnections and plumb both the despair and the possibilities of her fractured time.


 Other pages on Hannah Arendt in this site, here  and  here