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The World of Hannah Arendt

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To enter the world of Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) is to encounter the political and moral catastrophes of the 20th century. Her life spanned the convulsions of two world wars, revolutions and civil wars, and events worse than war in which human lives were uprooted and destroyed on a scale never seen before.

She lived through what she called ‘dark times,’ whose history reads like a tale of horrors in which everything taken for granted turns into its opposite. The sudden unreliability of her native land and the unanticipated peril of having been born a Jew were the conditions under which Arendt first thought politically, a task for which she was neither inclined by nature nor prepared by education.

Insecurity and vulnerability are the general conditions, as she came to realize, in which an urgently experienced need to think is political, though not, to be sure, in a conventional sense. For the traditional view of politics, which may be summarized as the perceived usefulness of government in securing the people’s private interests, is in times of crisis precisely what has failed. In her determination to think through the darkness of the 20th century, Arendt discerned a radically different meaning of politics, whose source was the original clearing, in the midst of a plurality of human beings living, speaking and interacting with one another, of a public space that was brought into existence not for utility but for the sake of human freedom.

There is abundant evidence that Arendt’s understanding of what it means to think politically has struck a responsive chord in the contemporary world. In recent years, increasing numbers of people have turned to her as a guide they trust in their need to understand for themselves and realize in their own lives the courage it takes to be free. The earliest of Arendt’s writings in the collection dates from 1925, when she was 19, and the latest from 1975, the year she died. By far the greater part of them comes from the period after her emigration to the United States, in 1941, as World War II raged in Europe.

Born in 1906 into a well-established, nonreligious German Jewish family, Hannah Arendt was raised in Königsberg, the ancient capital of East Prussia. At the end of World War II, that strategic port on the Baltic Sea was ceded to the Soviet Union, its name changed to Kaliningrad, after the Russian revolutionary M.I. Kalinin, and its German population dispersed. The fate of Königsberg, today an all but unrecognizable ruin, was sealed when it fell under the sway of not one but two totalitarian regimes, first Hitler’s and then Stalin’s.

Unlike the city of Königsberg, however, Arendt could and did move. As a young Jew working for a Zionist organization, she was arrested, escaped and fled her homeland in 1933. By way of Prague and Geneva she made her way to Paris and from that moment on was in effect stateless, a woman without a country. She was to remain so for 18 years. She knew from her own experience how ‘the infinitely complex red-tape existence of stateless persons,’ as she wrote to Karl Jaspers in 1946, fetters free movement, and from that experience came her insight that the denial of the right to citizenship, prior to any specific rights of citizenship, is integral to the rise of totalitarianism.

Arendt believed that the right to citizenship, the right of a plurality of people ‘to act together concerning things that are of equal concern to each,’ is not only denied by totalitarianism, as it is by every despotism, but stands opposed to the principle that guides the acts of destruction that characterize totalitarian systems. That principle is an ideology explaining the entire course of human affairs by determining every historical event and all past, present and future deeds as functions of a universal process. Looking deeper into the phenomenon of totalitarianism Arendt saw that the ‘idea,’ the content, of the ideology matters less than its ‘inherent logicality,’ which was discovered separately and prized by both Hitler and Stalin.

In broad outline, ideological logicality operates like a practical syllogism: From the premise of a supposed law of nature that certain races are unfit to live, it follows that those races must be eliminated, and from the premise of a supposed law of history that certain classes are on their way to extinction, it follows that those classes must be liquidated. Arendt’s point is that the untruth of the ideological premises is without consequence: The premises will become self-evidently true in the factitious world created by the murderous acts that flow from them in logical consistency.

In their adherence to the logicality of two utterly distinct ideologies, one that originated on the far right and the other on the far left, Arendt found Nazism and Stalinism to be more or less equivalent totalitarian systems. If the ruined city of Königsberg could speak after having witnessed the terror, the killings by torture and starvation under the regimes of both Hitler and Stalin, it is doubtful that it would point out significant differences between those regimes. To focus on the different content of racist and communist ideologies only blurs what Arendt at first thought of as the ‘absolute’ and ‘radical’ evil they both brought into the world. Her emphasis on the logical deduction of acts from ideological premises, moreover, is linked to her later understanding of evil, stemming from the trial of Adolf Eichmann, as ‘banal,’ ‘rootless,’ and ‘thought-defying.’ The logicality of totalitarian movements accounts for their appeal to the atomized and depoliticized masses of mankind, without whose support those movements could not have generated their immense power. Thus Hitler’s ‘ice- cold reasoning’ and Stalin’s ‘merciless dialectics’ contribute to Arendt’s uncertainty as to whether any other totalitarian regimes have existed — perhaps in Mao’s China, but not in the despotisms of single-party or military dictatorships (see The Origins of Totalitarianism, ‘Introduction,’ third edition, 1966).

In 1941, after France fell to the Nazis, Arendt escaped from an internment camp in unoccupied Vichy, first to Spain, then to Lisbon and finally to New York with little money and practically no English- language skills, once again a refugee from totalitarian persecution. But in America she found more than refuge. Within a year and consistently thereafter she published articles of a political nature, in a new and at first only half- mastered language, unlike anything she had written before leaving Germany. Only 10 years later, after assiduous work, she published The Origins of Totalitarianism, her first major book and a tremendously complicated one. That it was first conceived as a study of imperialism suggests that when Arendt started it she saw Nazism and Bolshevism as a radical development of the 19th century European phenomenon of colonization and as what she then called ‘full-fledged imperialism.’

The book, however, grew and shifted ground as it was written, and in its final form totalitarianism appeared as an entirely new form of government, one that had no historical precedent, not even in the harshest of despotisms. The book also underwent major revisions in subsequent editions. Its original conclusion was replaced by an essay written in 1953, ‘Ideology and Terror: A Novel Form of Government.’ An epilogue on the Hungarian Revolution was added in 1958 and later deleted, and substantial new prefaces were written in 1966 and 1967.

Although shortly after its publication The Origins of Totalitarianism was hailed as a justification of the Cold War, that was not Arendt’s intention. By that time the Cold War was being fought against the Soviet Union and its satellites and not against totalitarianism, which, according to Arendt, had ended in the Soviet Union, or at least had begun to end, with Stalin’s death in 1953. Furthermore, the Cold War obscured the fact that the historical elements that had coalesced in totalitarian movements remained intact throughout the world and by no means only behind the Iron Curtain.

‘Affidavit of Identity in Lieu of Passport,’ in which Arendt wrote, ‘I with to use this document in lieu of a passport which I, a state-less person, cannot obtain at present.’

Arendt’s portrait appeared on the cover of The Saturday Review of Literature, a popular American literary magazine of the day. Her fame, which at times approached notoriety, increased with her subsequent publications and has continued to grow posthumously. Today her place among a handful of profoundly original, influential and controversial political thinkers of the 20th century is secure. In 1951, the same year that The Origins of Totalitarianism was published, Arendt became an American citizen, formally marking a new beginning in her life.

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This new beginning in America and its political orientation, while constituting a break with the tradition of Western thought, has been misunderstood as a break with the past itself. Arendt made a decisive distinction between a fragmented past that can be retrieved to give depth to the present and the continuity of a past handed down from generation to generation (tradition) across many centuries. She did not deconstruct the past but dismantled its traditional structure as a uniform stream or unbroken thread that leads progressively from the past to the present and from the present into the future. She was convinced that the advent of totalitarianism in the 20th century had irreparably ruptured the continuity of history and that the complacency of the idea of historical progress is deleterious to political life.

Arendt saw the present as a ‘gap between past and future’ in which every individual’s active recollection and deliberately selective retrieval of the ‘no longer’ fosters responsibility for the ‘not yet.’ While the ability to respond to the past does not determine the future, it does throw light on it. In her seminars, which always had a historical dimension and which she conducted as if they were miniature public spaces, she urged her students to participate: ‘Insert yourself,’ she would say, “and make the world a little better.”

Arendt never forgot her foundation in the German language and in German philosophy, particularly in the thought of Immanuel Kant. She was only 14 when she first read Kant, who in the 18th century had also lived in Königsberg and, despite serious controversy with the Prussian autocracy over his teaching of religion, never experienced a need to leave it. The differences in the external circumstances of their lives notwithstanding, Arendt’s appreciation of Kant deepened as she grew older. She increasingly came to esteem the subtlety of his philosophically radical distinctions, the role of imagination in his critical philosophy, his equanimity in destroying the shibboleths of metaphysics, and his recognition of human freedom as spontaneity. To her he was more than the philosopher who reconfigured the European tradition by discovering the conditions prior to experience that make experience possible in our knowledge of the world, in our moral conduct and in our capacity to judge the beautiful and sublime. He was present to her — she used to say she sensed him looking over her shoulder as she wrote — as the last and greatest champion of humanity and dignity.

To plumb the depths of her fundamental concept of plurality as the essential condition of political life requires some familiarity with her unorthodox approach to Kant. In Kant’s late work on aesthetics Arendt discovered the political significance of common sense, the world-orienting sense that both unites what appears to the private senses and fits what is thus united into a common world. That discovery was crucial, for the agreement of common sense realizes a world that lies between human beings, keeping them distinct and relating them, a shared world in which they can appear and be recognized as unique beings. In the last analysis, recognition of human uniqueness is the same thing as equality in freedom, which for Arendt is the raison d’être of political life. Kant not only revealed to Arendt a way of seeing the crisis of the 20th century, i.e., the refusal of totalitarian regimes to share the world with entire races and classes of human beings and, before that, the superfluity of the world-alienated masses who supported those regimes, but also pointed a way to go beyond that crisis by accepting the challenge of restoring a common world.

The humanistic education to which Arendt was naturally drawn and received at the universities of Marburg and Heidelberg also deepened throughout her life. She studied philosophy, ancient Greek literature (poetry and history as well as philosophy) and Christian theology because she loved wisdom and tragic beauty and was puzzled less by the existence than the exactions of a transcendent God of love. The teachers who exerted the greatest influence on her were Martin Heidegger and Karl Jaspers, whose ‘existential’ philosophies were considered revolutionary by their peers and by themselves. With Heidegger and Jaspers, Arendt studied the tradition of philosophic thought from the vantage point of its self-conscious conclusion, and with them both she developed lifelong personal and intellectual relationships, equally meaningful but different in kind.

Heidegger awakened in Arendt a passion for thinking, and that awakening, sometimes acknowledged and sometimes not, pervades her work. With him she experienced the awestruck wonder of pure existence that begins the activity of thinking. What Heidegger called the ‘facticity’ (Faktizitat) and ‘thrownness’ (Geworfenheit) of human being, the ‘naked that it is,’ not how or what or where it is, at one time led Arendt to think that a new political philosophy might be developed from the shock of ‘speechless horror,’ akin to ‘speechless wonder,’ at the crimes of totalitarianism. She thought then that Heidegger indicated a way to ‘directly grasp the realm of human affairs and human deeds,’ which no philosopher had ever done. She gave up that idea, or at least altered it beyond recognition, because of what she also learned from Heidegger: Philosophical thinking is ‘out of order’ in the everyday world of common sense from which the thinker, the thinking ego, withdraws.

Although habituated to the activity of thinking, Arendt was haunted by this withdrawal. In the end she turned away from philosophy because she did not believe its truths were relevant to the realm of human affairs. Not the truth but the ever changing meanings of the phenomena of the actual world were the ‘products’ of thinking that increasingly concerned her. A philosopher such as Heidegger may dwell in a ‘land of thought,’ withdrawn from the world, but a political thinker like Arendt returns to the world where every nonanalytical truth becomes a meaning, in her case an often controversial meaning, an opinion among the opinions of others.

Karl Jaspers introduced Arendt to a trans-historical, public realm of reason where it was possible to exist in the present and think in living communication with thinkers of the past, which is one important way that she retrieved the past. From Kant via Jaspers she derived her notion of an autonomous faculty of judgment, and through active, public participation in the realm of reason she developed her own formidable power of judgment. If anything did, it was her exercise of that faculty that eventually reconciled her to what she once referred to as ‘this none too beautiful world of ours.’ That remark, made in 1944 at the height of the war against Hitler, is tempered by her belief that ‘all sorrows can be borne’ if, like the chorus in a Greek tragedy, their witness sufficiently distances himself from them, fits them into a story and tells and retells that story. Dramas are made to be repeated, stories to be recounted and retold, in order to keep their meaning alive. Although she did not write fiction, Arendt believed that stories and not the methods of social, political and historical science capture the contingency of human events; and like all great storytellers she realized that the meaning of a story can never be entirely abstracted from it.

What she said in 1944 also differs markedly in mood from what she wrote almost 30 years later, toward the end of her life, about our natural fitness to perceive the diversity and the beauty of the world’s appearances. That too is ultimately a function of judgment, of its ‘disinterestedness’ or disinclination to evaluate appearances according to the standard of their usefulness.

Arendt examined the intricacies of St. Augustine’s concept of love in her dissertation written under Jaspers’s direction, an extremely personal work composed in the dense style typical of German scholarship of the period. Although her dissertation bears no indication of any interest in contemporary politics, a decidedly nontraditional Augustine, less Christian than Roman, would later play a vital role in her rediscovery of the prephilosophical, political conception of action. In his De Civitate Dei, Arendt found the perfect representation of her view of human beings as beginnings: Initium ut esset homo creatus est (‘that a beginning be made man was created’) not only concludes The Origins of Totalitarianism but resonates as a leitmotif throughout her work. Nor is any political concern explicit in her second, ambiguously subjective, book, published in 1958, on Rahel Varnhagen, in which she dealt historically and critically with the question of Jewish social assimilation, in this case the vicissitudes of the life that an extraordinarily intelligent German Jew elected to live at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries. Arendt wrote most of the book while still in Germany (the first draft was completed in 1933) and completed it during the Paris years at the urging of Walter Benjamin and Heinrich Blücher — ‘rather grumpily,’ presumably because its subject had become ‘remote’ to her. By that time Arendt, as a Jew, had endured a rude political awakening, and the failure of Rahel Varnhagen to establish ‘a social life outside of official society’ would take on a far darker aspect in The Origins of Totalitarianism.

Arendt met Heinrich Blücher (pictured in photo above with Arendt, ca. 1950) in 1936 in Paris, where he was a non-Jewish political exile, and married him there in 1940. Under his influence, her mind was opened not just to Jewish politics but to the political as such. At the end of World War I, in 1918, Arendt was only 12 years old, but Blücher, seven years her senior, had fought in that war, experienced its devastation and at its conclusion became an active leftist participant in the riots, strikes and street battles that led to the establishment of the German Republic. A member of the Berlin working class who had a limited formal education, Blücher was politically savvy and aware, as Arendt could hardly have been at that time, of the fundamental changes taking place in those postwar political upheavals. Blücher revealed to Arendt a realm of political reality at the core of the actual world, a realm capable of generating human freedom and, when corrupted, human bondage. Although Arendt consistently avoided situating herself on the left, right or center of the political spectrum, Blucher became her political conscience, not only when she wrote The Origins of Totalitarianism, which she dedicated to him, but throughout their life together.

The intellectually and spiritually rarefied world of Hannah Arendt’s youth was to be shattered by the rise of Nazism in Germany. It is not possible to grasp Arendt’s meaning when she writes of the newness of totalitarianism without realizing that not only her own world but the greater German world of which hers was a part — the world of inherited religious beliefs and moral and legal standards thought to be eternal — would be swept away. It must have been as difficult for her as it is for us to comprehend totalitarianism as neither necessary nor entirely accidental, as something brought forth by human beings of her own country and her own generation right in the heart of European civilization and not as some monstrous thing that attacked it from the outside. It must have been difficult for her to write about what she wanted to destroy rather than preserve. And it must have been difficult for her to think about the evil of totalitarianism, since, as she eventually came to see, that evil defies thought.

But Arendt did think, write and try to understand what for her was the real turning point of the 20th century. As she put it in the preface to the first edition of The Origins of Totalitarianism, ‘The subterranean stream of Western history has finally come to the surface and usurped the dignity of our tradition. This is the reality in which we live.’ As her thought expanded beyond the framework of that work, her concern with the entire range of phenomena she associated with totalitarianism grew broader and deeper.

Among the most valuable and interesting features of the Arendt Papers at the Library of Congress is the presentation of her lecture notes and manuscripts, including those ostensibly dealing with Karl Marx but which in fact reach back to the beginnings of political philosophy. These documents furnish indisputable evidence that Arendt’s effort to understand totalitarianism continued in the early 1950s. Other documents make clear that her search for understanding continued beyond that period and underlies much of what she wrote in The Human Condition and On Revolution — which, when read apart from the archival material in her papers, have frequently been seen as distinct from that search. Indeed, it can now be said that Arendt’s effort to understand totalitarianism continued to the end of her life. Her work on the faculty of judgment, just begun at the time of her sudden death, was to have dealt with the way individuals bereft of moral rules and legal strictures can recognize evil and stand up and say no to it.

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