Hannah Arendt Essay

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"Arendt" redirects here. For the surname, see Arendt (surname). For the film, see Hannah Arendt (film).

Hannah Arendt
Born(1906-10-14)14 October 1906
Linden, Prussian Hanover, German Empire
(present-day Hanover, Germany)
Died4 December 1975(1975-12-04) (aged 69)
New York City, United States
Alma mater
EraTwentieth-century philosophy
RegionWestern philosophy

Main interests

Political theory, modernity, philosophy of history

Notable ideas

Johanna "Hannah" Arendt[8] (; German:[ˈaːʀənt];[9] 14 October 1906 – 4 December 1975) was a German-born American political theorist. Her eighteen books and numerous articles, on topics ranging from totalitarianism to epistemology, had a lasting influence on political theory.[7] Arendt is widely considered one of the most important political philosophers of the twentieth century.[7][10]

As a Jew, Arendt chose to leave Nazi Germany in 1933, and lived in Czechoslovakia, Switzerland, and France before escaping to the United States in 1941 via Portugal. She became an American citizen in 1950, having been stripped of her German citizenship in 1937. Her works deal with the nature of power and the subjects of politics, direct democracy, authority, and totalitarianism. The Hannah Arendt Prize is named in her honor.

Early life and education[edit]

Arendt was born into a secular family of German Jews in Linden (now a part of Hanover), the daughter of Martha (born Cohn) and Paul Arendt.[11] She grew up in Königsberg (renamed Kaliningrad when it was annexed to the Soviet Union in 1946) and Berlin. Arendt's family was thoroughly assimilated and she later remembered: "With us from Germany, the word 'assimilation' received a 'deep' philosophical meaning. You can hardly realize how serious we were about it."[12]

Arendt came to define her Jewish identity negatively after encountering antisemitism as an adult.[12] She came to greatly identify with Rahel Varnhagen, a nineteenth-century Prussian hostess who desperately wanted to assimilate into German culture, only to be rejected because she was born Jewish.[12] Arendt later said of Varnhagen that she was "my very closest woman friend, unfortunately dead a hundred years now."[12]

After completing her high school studies in 1924, she enrolled at the University of Marburg, where she spent a year studying philosophy with Martin Heidegger. According to Hans Jonas, her only German-Jewish classmate, in her year at the university, Arendt began a long and problematic romantic relationship with Heidegger, for which she was later criticized because of his support for the Nazi Party while he was rector at the University of Freiburg. After a year at Marburg, Arendt spent a semester at Freiburg University, attending the lectures of Edmund Husserl.[7] In 1926 she moved to the University of Heidelberg, where in 1929, she completed her dissertation under the existentialist philosopher-psychologist Karl Jaspers. Her thesis was Der Liebesbegriff bei Augustin: Versuch einer philosophischen Interpretation (de) ("On the concept of love in the thought of Saint Augustine: Attempt at a philosophical interpretation").


In 1929, in Berlin, the year her dissertation was published, she married Günther Stern, later known as Günther Anders. They divorced in 1937. In 1932, Arendt was deeply troubled by reports that Heidegger was speaking at National Socialist meetings. She wrote, asking him to deny that he was attracted to National Socialism. Heidegger replied that he did not seek to deny the rumors (which were true), and merely assured her that his feelings for her were unchanged.[12] As a Jew in Nazi Germany, Arendt was prevented from making a living and discriminated against. She researched antisemitism for some time before being arrested and briefly imprisoned by the Gestapo in 1933.[13]


In 1933, Arendt left Germany for Czechoslovakia and then Geneva, where she worked for some time at the League of Nations. Then, in Paris, she befriended her first husband's cousin, the Marxist literary critic and philosopher, Walter Benjamin. While in France, she worked to help Jewish refugees. In 1937, she was stripped of her German citizenship. In 1940, she married the German poet and Marxist philosopher, Heinrich Blücher, a founding member of the KPD who had been expelled due to his work in the Conciliator faction. In May 1940, after the German Invasion of France, Arendt was interned as an "enemy alien" in Camp Gurs, but she managed to escape before the Germans reached the area.[14]

New York[edit]

Arendt left France in 1941 with her husband and her mother, traveling via Portugal to the United States. They relied on visas illegally issued by the American diplomat Hiram Bingham, who aided roughly 2,500 Jewish refugees in this way. Varian Fry, another American humanitarian, paid for their travel and helped obtain the visas. Upon arriving in New York, Arendt became active in the German-Jewish community. From 1941 to 1945, she wrote a column for the German-language Jewish newspaper Aufbau. Beginning in 1944, she was the director of research for the Commission of European Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, and in that capacity traveled to Europe after the war.[15][17]


During World War II, Arendt worked for Youth Aliyah, a Zionist organization that saved thousands of children from the Holocaust and settled them in the British Mandate of Palestine.[18][19] She became a close friend of Karl Jaspers and his wife, developing a deep intellectual friendship with him.[20] She began corresponding with the American author Mary McCarthy around this time.[21]

In 1950, Arendt became a naturalized citizen of the United States.[22] The same year, she started seeing Martin Heidegger again, and had what the American writer Adam Kirsch called a "quasi-romance," that lasted for two years, with the man who had previously been her mentor, teacher, and lover.[12] During this time, Arendt defended him against critics who noted his enthusiastic membership in the Nazi party. She portrayed Heidegger as a naïve man swept up by forces beyond his control, and pointed out that Heidegger's philosophy had nothing to do with National Socialism.[12] She served as a visiting scholar at the University of Notre Dame, University of California, Berkeley, Princeton University, and Northwestern University. In 1959, she was named the first female lecturer at Princeton. She also taught at the University of Chicago from 1963 to 1967, where she was a member of the Committee on Social Thought; The New School in Manhattan where she taught as a university professor from 1967 until her death in 1975; Yale University, where she was a fellow, as well as the Center for Advanced Studies at Wesleyan University (1961–62, 1962–63).[23]

In 1961 while covering the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt wrote to Jaspers a letter that Kirsch described as reflecting "pure racism" toward Sephardic Jews from the Middle East and Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe. She wrote:

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 obey any order. And outside the doors, the oriental mob, as if one were in Istanbul or some other half-Asiatic country.[12]

Although Arendt remained a Zionist both during and after World War II, she made it clear that she favored the creation of a Jewish-Arab federated state in Palestine, rather than a purely Jewish state. She believed that this was a way to address Jewish statelessness and to avoid the pitfalls of nationalism.[24][25]

She was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1962 and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1964.[26][27]

In 1974, Arendt was instrumental in the creation of Structured Liberal Education (SLE) at Stanford University. She wrote a letter to the president of Stanford to persuade the university to enact Mark Mancall's vision of a residentially-based humanities program.[28]



Arendt died in New York City on 4 December 1975, at the age of 69, of a heart attack. She was buried alongside her husband, Heinrich Blücher, at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York.


The Origins of Totalitarianism[edit]

Main article: The Origins of Totalitarianism

Arendt's first major book, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), examined the roots of Communism and Nazism. In it, Arendt argues that totalitarianism was a "novel form of government," different from other forms of tyranny in that it applied terror to subjugate mass populations rather than just political adversaries.[30] The book was opposed by some on the left on the grounds that it presented the two movements as equally tyrannical. She further contends that Jewry was not the operative factor in the Holocaust, but merely a convenient proxy. Totalitarianism in Germany was, in the end, about terror and consistency, not eradicating Jews only.

The Human Condition[edit]

Main article: The Human Condition

In what is arguably her most influential work, The Human Condition (1958), Arendt differentiates political and social concepts, labor and work, and various forms of actions; she then explores the implications of those distinctions. Her theory of political action, corresponding to the existence of a public realm, is extensively developed in this work. Arendt argues that, while human life always evolves within societies, the social part of human nature, political life, has been intentionally realized in only a few societies as a space for individuals to achieve freedom. Conceptual categories, which attempt to bridge the gap between ontological and sociological structures, are sharply delineated. While Arendt relegates labor and work to the realm of the social, she favors the human condition of action as that which is both existential and aesthetic.[7]

Men in Dark Times[edit]

Her collection of essays, Men in Dark Times, presents intellectual biographies of some creative and moral figures of the twentieth century, such as Walter Benjamin, Karl Jaspers, Rosa Luxemburg, Hermann Broch, Pope John XXIII, and Isak Dinesen.

Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil[edit]

Main article: Eichmann in Jerusalem

In her reporting of the 1961 Adolf Eichmann trial for The New Yorker, which evolved into Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963), she coined the phrase "the banality of evil" to describe the phenomenon of Eichmann. She examined the question of whether evil is radical or simply a function of thoughtlessness, a tendency of ordinary people to obey orders and conform to mass opinion without a critical evaluation of the consequences of their actions. She was sharply critical of the way the trial was conducted in Israel. She also was critical of the way that some Jewish leaders, notably M. C. Rumkowski, acted during the Holocaust. This caused a considerable controversy and even animosity toward Arendt in the Jewish community. Her friend Gershom Scholem, a major scholar of Jewish mysticism, broke off relations with her. Arendt was criticized by many Jewish public figures, who charged her with coldness and lack of sympathy for the victims of the Holocaust. Because of this lingering criticism neither this book nor any of her other works were translated into Hebrew, until 1999.[31] This controversy was answered by Hannah Arendt in the book's Postscript.

The controversy began by calling attention to the conduct of the Jewish people during the years of the Final Solution, thus following up the question, first raised by the Israeli prosecutor, of whether the Jews could or should have defended themselves. I had dismissed that question as silly and cruel, since it testified to a fatal ignorance of the conditions at the time. It has now been discussed to exhaustion, and the most amazing conclusions have been drawn. The well-known historico-sociological construct of "ghetto mentality"… has been repeatedly dragged in to explain behavior which was not at all confined to the Jewish people and which therefore cannot be explained by specifically Jewish factors… This was the unexpected conclusion certain reviewers chose to draw from the "image" of a book, created by certain interest groups, in which I allegedly had claimed that the Jews had murdered themselves.[32]

Arendt ended the book by writing:

Just as you Eichmann supported and carried out a policy of not wanting to share the earth with the Jewish people and the people of a number of other nations—as though you and your superiors had any right to determine who should and who should not inhabit the world—we find that no one, that is, no member of the human race, can be expected to want to share the earth with you. This is the reason, and the only reason, you must hang.

On Revolution[edit]

Arendt's book On Revolution presents a comparison of two of the main revolutions of the eighteenth century, the American and French Revolutions. She goes against a common view of both Marxist and leftist views when she argues that France, while well studied and often emulated, was a disaster and that the largely ignored American Revolution was a success. The turning point in the French Revolution occurred when the leaders rejected their goals of freedom in order to focus on compassion for the masses. In the United States, the founders never betray the goal of Constitutio Libertatis. Arendt believes the revolutionary spirit of those men had been lost, however, and advocates a “council system” as an appropriate institution to regain that spirit.

On Violence[edit]

Arendt's essay, On Violence, distinguishes between violence and power. She maintains that, although theorists of both the left and right regard violence as an extreme manifestation of power, the two concepts are, in fact, antithetical. Power comes from the collective will and does not need violence to achieve any of its goals, since voluntary compliance takes its place. As governments start losing their legitimacy, violence becomes an artificial means toward the same end and is, therefore, found only in the absence of power. Bureaucracies then become the ideal birthplaces of violence since they are defined as the "rule by no one" against whom to argue and, therefore, recreate the missing links with the people they rule over.

The Life of the Mind[edit]

Her posthumous book, The Life of the Mind (1978, edited by Mary McCarthy), remained incomplete. During Arendt's tenure at the New School, in 1974, she presented a graduate level political philosophy class entitled, "Philosophy of the Mind". It was during these class lectures that Arendt crystallized her concepts. The class was based on her working draft of Philosophy of the Mind, which was later edited to Life of the Mind. Arendt's working draft of Philosophy of the Mind was distributed to graduate students at the New School during her visiting professorship in 1974. Also, stemming from her Gifford Lectures at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, her last writing focused on the mental faculties of thinking and willing. In a sense, Life of the Mind went beyond her previous work concerning the vita activa. In her discussion of thinking, she focuses mainly on Socrates and his notion of thinking as a solitary dialogue between oneself. This appropriation of Socrates leads her to introduce novel concepts of conscience—an enterprise that gives no positive prescriptions, but instead, tells one what I cannot do if I would remain friends with myself when I re-enter the two-in-one of thought where I must render an account of my actions to myself—and morality—an entirely negative enterprise concerned with forbidding participation in certain actions for the sake of remaining friends with oneself.

Arendt's critique of human rights[edit]

In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt devotes a lengthy chapter to a critical analysis of human rights. Arendt isn’t skeptical of the notion of political rights in general, but instead defends a national or civil conception of rights.[33] Human rights, or the Rights of Man as they were commonly called, are universal, inalienable, and possessed simply by virtue of being human. In contrast, civil rights are possessed by virtue of belonging to a political community, most commonly by being a citizen. Arendt’s primary criticism of human rights is that they are ineffectual and illusory because their enforcement is in tension with national sovereignty.[34] She argued that since there is no political authority above that of sovereign nations, state governments have little incentive to respect human rights when such policies conflict with national interests. This can be seen most clearly by examining the treatment of refugees and other stateless people. Since the refugee has no state to secure their civil rights, the only rights they have to fall back on are human rights. In this way Arendt uses the refugee as a test case for examining human rights in isolation from civil rights.

Arendt’s analysis draws on the refugee upheavals in the first half of the twentieth century along with her own experience as a refugee fleeing Nazi Germany. She argued that as state governments began to emphasize national identity as a prerequisite for full legal status, the number of minority resident aliens increased along with the number of stateless persons whom no state was willing to recognize legally.[35] The two potential solutions to the refugee problem, repatriation and naturalization, both proved incapable of solving the crisis. Arendt argued that repatriation failed to solve the refugee crisis because no government was willing to take them in and claim them as their own. When refugees were forcibly deported to neighboring countries, such immigration was deemed illegal by the receiving country, and so failed to change the fundamental status of the migrants as stateless.[36] Attempts at naturalizing and assimilating refugees also had little success.[36] This failure was primarily the result of resistance from both state governments and the majority of citizens, since both tended to see the refugees as undesirables who threatened their national identity. Resistance to naturalization also came from the refugees themselves who resisted assimilation and attempted to maintain their own ethnic and national identities.[37] Arendt contends that neither naturalization nor the tradition of asylum was capable of handling the sheer number of refugees. Instead of accepting some refugees with legal status, the state often responded by denaturalizing minorities who shared national or ethnic ties with stateless refugees.

Arendt argues that the consistent mistreatment of refugees, most of whom were placed in internment camps, is evidence against the existence of human rights. If the notion of human rights as universal and inalienable, is to be taken seriously, they must be realizable given the features of the modern liberal state.[38] Arendt contends that they are not realizable because they are in tension with at least one feature of the liberal state—national sovereignty. One of the primary ways in which a nation exercises sovereignty is through control over national borders. State governments consistently grant their citizens free movement to traverse national borders. In contrast, the movement of refugees is often restricted in the name of national interests.[39] This restriction presents a dilemma for liberalism because liberal theorists typically are committed to both human rights and the existence of sovereign nations.


In the intended third volume of The Life of Mind, Arendt was planning to engage the faculty of judgment, but she did not live to write it. Nevertheless, although her notion of judging remains unknown, Arendt did leave manuscripts (such as Thinking and Moral Considerations and Some Questions on Moral Philosophy) and lectures (Lectures on Kant's Political Philosophy) concerning her thoughts on this mental faculty. The first two articles were edited and published by Jerome Kohn, one of Arendt's assistants and a director of the Hannah Arendt Center at The New School in New York, and the last was edited and published by Ronald Beiner, professor of political science at the University of Toronto. Her personal library was deposited at Bard College at the Stevenson Library in 1976, and includes approximately 4,000 books, ephemera, and pamphlets from Arendt's last apartment. The college has begun archiving some of the collection digitally, which is available at The Hannah Arendt Collection.[40]

Arendt's life and work are still part of current culture and thought. In 2012 the film, Hannah Arendt, was produced and distributed depicting the controversy over Arendt's coverage of the Eichmann trial.[41] In 2016, the filmmaker Ada Ushpiz produced a documentary on Hannah Arendt, Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt.[42] The New York Times designated it a NYT's critics pick.[10] Since the election of Donald Trump to the U.S. Presidency, some journals are resurrecting her ideas to help make sense of the current situation. [43][44]



  • The asteroid100027 Hannaharendt is named in her honor.
  • The German railway authority operates a Hannah Arendt Express between Karlsruhe and Hanover.[45]
  • The Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College is named in her honor.
  • The Hannah Arendt Center at The New School is named in her honor.
  • The Hannah Arendt Institute for the Research on Totalitarianism is named in her honor.
  • The Hannah Arendt Prize is named in her honor.
  • Several streets are named after Arendt, including Hannah-Arendt Straße in Berlin.[46]
  • Various gymnasiums (German high schools) have been dedicated to Arendt.[47][48][49][50]
  • The portrait of Hannah Arendt by the photographer Fred Stein has become famous.[51]
  • In 2012, a German film entitled Hannah Arendt was released, directed by Margarethe von Trotta and with Barbara Sukowa in the role of Arendt; the film concentrates on the Eichmann trial, and the controversy caused by Arendt's book, which at the time was widely misunderstood as defending Eichmann and blaming Jewish leaders for the Holocaust
  • In 2014, Google Doodle celebrated the 108th anniversary of her birth.[52]
  • In 2014, the French philosopher Michel Onfray devoted a series of lectures, broadcast on the national French radio station France Culture, to an analysis of the work of Arendt.[53]

Selected works[edit]

  • Der Liebesbegriff bei Augustin. Versuch einer philosophischen Interpretation (1929).
  • The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951). Revised ed.; New York: Schocken, 2004. (Includes all the prefaces and additions from the 1958, 1968, and 1972 editions.)
  • The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958).
  • Rahel Varnhagen: The Life of a Jewess. (German: Rahel Varnhagen: Lebensgeschichte einer deutschen Jüdin aus der Romantik; originally conceived as a habilitation thesis.) Translated by Richard and Clara Winston (1958). Complete ed.; Ed. Liliane Weissberg (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), also in March 2000. 400 pages. ISBN 978-0-8018-6335-6.
  • Die ungarische Revolution und der totalitäre Imperialismus (1958).
  • Reflections on Little Rock (1959).
  • Between Past and Future: Six exercises in political thought (New York: Viking, 1961). (Two more essays were added in 1968.)
  • On Revolution (New York: Viking, 1963).
  • Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963). (Rev. ed. New York: Viking, 1968.)
  • Men in Dark Times (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1968).
  • On Violence. Harvest Books (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1970). (Also included in Crises of the Republic.)
  • Crises of the Republic: Lying in Politics; Civil Disobedience; On Violence; Thoughts on Politics and Revolution (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1972). "Civil Disobedience" originally appeared, in somewhat different form, in The New Yorker. Versions of the other essays originally appeared in The New York Review of Books.
  • The Jew as Pariah: Jewish Identity and Politics in the Modern Age, edited with an introduction by Ron H. Feldman (1978).
  • Life of the Mind, unfinished at her death, Ed. Mary McCarthy, two vols. (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978). ISBN 0-15-107887-4.
  • Hannah Arendt / Karl Jaspers Correspondence, 1926–1969. Edited by Lotte Kohler and Hans Saner, translated by Robert Kimber and Rita Kimber (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992).
  • Essays in Understanding, 1930–1954: Formation, Exile, and Totalitarianism, Ed. Jerome Kohn (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1994). Paperback reprint edition, September 10, 1983, ISBN 0-300-03099-1. Paperback ed. (New York: Schocken, 2005).
  • Love and Saint Augustine. Edited with an Interpretive Essay by Joanna Vecchiarelli Scott and Judith Chelius Scott (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1996/1998).
  • Lectures on Kant's Political Philosophy. Edited and with an Interpretive Essay by Ronald Beiner (The University of Chicago Press, 1992).
  • Within Four Walls: The Correspondence between Hannah Arendt and Heinrich Blücher, 1936–1968. Edited by Lotte Kohler, translated by Peter Constantine (New York: Harcourt, 1996).
  • Responsibility and Judgment. Edited with an introduction by Jerome Kohn (New York: Schocken, 2003).
  • Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger. Letters, 1925–1975, Ed. Ursula Ludz, translated Andrew Shields (New York: Harcourt, 2004).
  • The Promise of Politics. Edited with an Introduction by Jerome Kohn (New York: Schocken, 2005).
  • Arendt und Benjamin: Texte, Briefe, Dokumente. Edited by Detlev Schöttker and Erdmut Wizisla (2006).
  • The Jewish Writings. Edited by Jerome Kohn and Ron H. Feldman. Schocken Books (2007).

See also[edit]



Hannah Arendt, stamp, Germany 2006
  1. ^Allen, Wayne F. (1 July 1982). "Hannah Arendt: existential phenomenology and political freedom". Philosophy & Social Criticism. 9 (2): 170–190. doi:10.1177/019145378200900203. 
  2. ^Bowen-Moore, Patricia (1989). Hannah Arendt's Philosophy of Natality. Springer. p. 119. 
  3. ^Kristeva, Julia (2001). Hannah Arendt: Life is a Narrative. University of Toronto Press. p. 48. 
  4. ^Republicanism (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
  5. ^Arendt, Hannah – Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  6. ^Fry, Karin. "Arendt, Hannah". Women-philosophers.com. Archived from the original on 2013-02-09. 
  7. ^ abcded'Entreves, Maurizio Passerin (Winter 2016). "Hannah Arendt". In Zalta, Edward N. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved 15 April 2017. 
  8. ^Wood, Kelsey Wood. "Hannah Arendt". Literary Encyclopedia. Retrieved 24 September 2012. 
  9. ^"Arendt". Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary.
  10. ^ abScott, A. O. (5 April 2016). "Review: In 'Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt,' a Thinker More Relevant Than Ever". The New York Times. 
  11. ^John McGowan (15 December 1997). Hannah Arendt: An Introduction. University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 9781452903385. 
  12. ^ abcdefghKirsch, Adam (12 January 2009). "Beware of Pity: Hannah Arendt and the power of the impersonal". The New Yorker. Retrieved 2015-09-09. 
  13. ^"Hannah Arendt Facts". Retrieved 15 April 2017. 
  14. ^Annette Vowinckel: "Hannah Arendt: zwischen deutscher Philosophie und jüdischer Politik" p. 38
  15. ^Young-Bruehl, Elisabeth (1982), Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World, Yale University Press; ISBN 0-300-02660-9. (Paperback reprint edition, 10 September 1983; ISBN 0-300-03099-1; Second edition 11 October 2004; ISBN 0-300-10588-6.) p. 188
  16. ^Sznaider, Natan (20 October 2006). "Human, citizen, Jew". Haaretz. Retrieved 28 August 2012. 
  17. ^Cullen-DuPont, Kathryn (1 August 2000). Encyclopedia of women's history in America. Infobase Publishing. pp. 16–17. ISBN 978-0-8160-4100-8. Retrieved 28 November 2011. 
  18. ^"Hannah Arendt". Jewish Virtual Library. Retrieved 16 January 2016. 
  19. ^Arendt, Hannah; Jaspers, Karl (1992). Correspondence 1926-1969. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. ISBN 0-15-107887-4. 
  20. ^Arendt, Hannah; McCarthy, Mary (1995). Between Friends: The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy 1949-1975. Secker & Warburg. ISBN 0-436-20251-4. 
  21. ^Pfeffer, Anshel (9 May 2008). "Dear Hannah". Haaretz. Retrieved 28 August 2012. 
  22. ^"DACS". Archived from the original on 14 March 2017. Retrieved 15 April 2017. 
  23. ^"Hannah Arendt: From Iconoclast to Icon". Tikkun. Retrieved 16 January 2016. 
  24. ^"Judith Butler reviews The Jewish Writings by Hannah Arendt, edited by Jerome Kohn and Ron Feldman". London Review of Books. 10 May 2007. Retrieved 16 January 2016. 
  25. ^"Book of Members, 1780-2010: Chapter A"(PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 22 April 2011. 
  26. ^"Deceased Members". American Academy of Arts and Letters. Archived from the original on 26 July 2011. Retrieved 22 April 2011. 
  27. ^Bird, David (6 December 1975). "Hannah Arendt, Political Scientist, Dead". The New York Times. Retrieved 19 November 2008. 
  28. ^"New York Times".

Book Essay - Summer 2013

Hannah Arendt on Trial


The 1963 publication of her “Eichmann in Jerusalem” sparked a debate that still rages over its author’s motivations

By Daniel Maier-Katkin and Nathan Stoltzfus

June 10, 2013



Fifty years ago, The New Yorker published a series of articles that became one of the most controversial books of the 20th century: Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. The articles dealt with the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi SS officer who coordinated the logistics of transporting millions of European Jews to their death during World War II. Arendt portrayed Eichmann and other Nazi criminals not as hate-filled, anti-Semitic monsters but as petty bureaucrats and spoke openly about the role played by Jewish councils in the deportation and destruction of their own people. Arendt’s central insight into what she called “the banality of evil”—that great crimes can arise from mindless conformity and thoughtlessness about the humanity of others—came paired with sharp criticism of Israeli insensitivity to legitimate Palestinian claims and disregard for the rights of minorities and neighbors.

Arendt suffered ferocious personal attacks that continue today, 37 years after her death. Criticism of her Eichmann book inevitably incorporates some variant of the assertion that she felt herself to be more German than Jewish and was a self-hating, anti-Semitic Jew—a strange charge against a woman who worked on behalf of Jewish organizations most of her life. The 50-year battle over Arendt’s reputation has pitted her defenders against those who would deflect her criticism of Israel as anti-Jewish, thus turning people away from her ideas about democratic pluralism and regional cooperation without having to discuss them.

Soon after the Eichmann pieces began to appear, civil rights activist Henry Schwarzschild warned Arendt that Jewish organizations in New York were furiously planning a campaign against her and that she should expect to be the object of great debate and animosity.

Siegfried Moses, a friend from Arendt’s youth who had immigrated to Israel and risen to the position of state comptroller, sent a note to Arendt on behalf of the Council of Jews from Germany, declaring war on her and her Eichmann book. Moses then flew to Switzerland to meet with Arendt and demanded that she stop the book’s publication. She refused, warning him that the intensity of criticism was “going to make the book into a cause célèbre and thus embarrass the Jewish community far beyond anything that she had said or could possibly do.” Indeed, literary critic Irving Howe would describe the vitriolic public dispute that ensued as “violent,” while novelist Mary McCarthy would liken it to a pogrom.

It began on March 11 with a memorandum distributed by the Anti-Defamation League alerting its members to “Arendt’s defamatory conception of Jewish participation in the Nazi Holocaust,” by which they meant her reporting that evidence at the trial showed that leaders of Jewish communities across Europe had negotiated the orderly demise of their communities with Eichmann. The ADL followed up with a pamphlet, “Arendt Nonsense,” which called the Eichmann articles evil, glib, and trite.

On May 19, 1963, The New York Times published a highly critical review of Eichmann in Jerusalem by Michael A. Musmanno, a retired Navy rear admiral who had served as a judge at the U.S. Nuremberg Military Tribunals and was then a sitting justice on Pennsylvania’s supreme court. Musmanno had also appeared as a witness for the prosecution at the Eichmann trial. In her book Arendt had disparaged Musmanno’s testimony that Nazi foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop told him at Nuremberg that Hitler’s madness had come about because he had fallen under Eichmann’s influence. Even the prosecution knew this was a fabrication. Musmanno wrote in the Times that Arendt was motivated by “purely private prejudice. She attacks the State of Israel, its laws and institutions, wholly unrelated to the Eichmann case.”

That summer New York intellectuals weighed in. A review by playwright and critic Lionel Abel in Partisan Review accused Arendt of having portrayed the Nazis as more aesthetically appealing than their victims. Journalist Norman Podhoretz’s review in Commentary concluded that Arendt had exemplified “intellectual perversity [resulting] from the pursuit of brilliance by a mind infatuated with its own agility and bent on generating dazzle.” Zionist activist Marie Syrkin wrote in Dissent that Eichmann was the only character who came out better in the book than he went in and accused Arendt of manipulating the facts with “high-handed assurance.” Arendt had published often in all three journals.

In July, when she came home from Europe, where she had been traveling since the articles appeared, Arendt wrote to a friend, the German philosopher Karl Jaspers, that her “apartment was literally filled with unopened mail … about the Eichmann business.” Much of it bordered on hate mail, like the letter from a woman in New Jersey who began with a declaration that she had never read the Eichmann book and “would never read such trash” and concluded with the hope that “the ghosts of our six million martyrs haunt your bed at night.”

More measured criticism came in a letter from Gershom Scholem, a friend from Arendt’s youth and then a professor of Jewish mysticism at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He affirmed his “deep respect” for Arendt but characterized the tone of her book as “heartless,” “flippant,” “sneering and malicious,” replacing balanced judgment with a “demagogic will-to-overstatement.” He could never think of her, he wrote, as anything other than “a daughter of our people” but admonished her for insufficient Ahabath Israel, love of the Jewish people: “In you, dear Hannah, as in so many intellectuals who come from the German Left, I find little trace of this.”

Arendt replied that she came not from the German Left but from the tradition of German philosophy and that of course she was a daughter of the Jewish people and had never claimed to be anything else: “I have always regarded my Jewishness as one of the indisputable actual data of my life, and I have never had the wish to change or disclaim facts of this kind. There is such a thing as basic gratitude for everything that is as it is.” But you are quite right, she told him, in what you say about Ahabath Israel. “I have never in my life ‘loved’ any people or collective—neither the German people, nor the French, nor the American, nor the working class or anything of that sort. I indeed love ‘only’ my friends and the only kind of love I know of and believe in is the love of persons.”

In the full flush of the attack, Mary McCarthy stepped forward as Arendt’s champion. Writing in the Winter 1964 issue of Partisan Review, she observed that the hostile reviews and personal attacks on Arendt were written almost entirely by Jews.  She dismissed Lionel Abel’s assertion that Arendt made Eichmann aesthetically palatable: “Reading her book, he liked Eichmann better than the Jews who died in the crematoriums. Each to his own taste. It was not my impression.”

Fevered discourse continued to rage across the pages of Partisan Review’s next issue. Marie Syrkin accused McCarthy of intellectual irresponsibility and ignorance, and writer and historian Harold Weisberg characterized her defense of Arendt as wholly lacking in charity and logic. Poet Robert Lowell countered that Arendt’s only motive was a “heroic desire for truth.” Journalist and critic Dwight Macdonald called Eichmann in Jerusalem a masterpiece of historical journalism and defended McCarthy’s “brilliant” observation that the split over the book was between Christians and Jews, especially “organization-minded Jews.”

In 1965, Jacob Robinson, an adviser to the prosecution in the Eichmann trial, published a 400-page denunciation of Arendt’s scholarship, And the Crooked Shall Be Made Straight: The Eichmann Trial, The Jewish Catastrophe and Hannah Arendt’s Narrative. With the assistance of teams of researchers in New York, London, Paris, and Jerusalem, Robinson scoured Arendt’s book and found 400 “factual errors,” including such minutiae as the misspelling of a first name. Some of the things he listed, it turned out, were not errors at all. Nevertheless, an essay by historian Walter Laqueur in The New York Review of Books asserted that Arendt lacked the factual knowledge needed to make a scholarly contribution. Laqueur characterized Robinson as “formidable,” an eminent authority on international law, an erudite polymath with knowledge of many languages and unrivalled mastery of sources. Robinson’s motivation for undertaking a full-scale refutation of “Miss Arendt’s” flippant display of cleverness, Laqueur wrote, was the natural “resentment felt by the professional against the amateur.”

Arendt had been reluctant to react publicly to the controversy, preferring to let her work speak for itself. In January 1966, however, she responded, in The New York Review of Books, to Laqueur’s essay. Laqueur, she wrote, was so overwhelmed by Robinson’s “eminent authority” that he had failed to acquaint himself with the facts. For a start, she had not written a narrative about the Jewish catastrophe, but only a report about a trial. She criticized the prosecution for repeatedly raising questions about why there had not been more Jewish resistance during the Holocaust—a line of questioning she dismissed as Israeli militarist propaganda. She also pointed out that Robinson was not a historian but a lawyer who had published practically nothing prior to his book. The honorific of “eminent authority” had been attached to him only after he joined the chorus of critics attacking her. What is formidable about Robinson, Arendt concluded, is that his words were amplified by the Israeli government with its consulates, embassies, and missions throughout the world, along with the American and World Jewish Congress, B’nai B’rith, and the ADL, in a coordinated effort to characterize her book as a posthumous defense of Eichmann and her as the evil person who wrote it.

Arendt worried that the backlash against the Eichmann book had blown the controversy out of proportion and that partially informed people would believe “all the nonsense” critics were spouting. At the height of the scandal, however, Jaspers assured her that she would emerge with her reputation intact: any fair-minded person who read the Eichmann book would see her seriousness of purpose, honesty, fundamental goodness, and passion for justice. “A time will come that you will not live to see, when Jews will erect a monument to you in Israel, as they are doing now for Spinoza,” he wrote. “They will proudly claim you as their own.” Now, as the debate began to subside, Jaspers wrote that though she had suffered greatly, the critical uproar was adding to her prestige.

Arendt wrote back that she had been warmly received by the mostly Jewish students who had turned out in substantial numbers for her lectures on politics at Yale, Columbia, Chicago, and other universities. “The funny thing,” she told Jaspers, was that after speaking her mind openly about “the formidable Mr. Robinson,” she was once again “flooded with invitations from all the Jewish organizations to speak, to appear at congresses, etc. And some of these invitations are coming from organizations that I singled out to attack and named by name.”

In the next few years she would collect a dozen honorary degrees from American universities and be inducted into both the National Institute of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, which awarded her its Emerson-Thoreau Medal for distinguished achievement in literature. In Denmark, where Jews had been heroically protected during the Nazi occupation, Arendt in 1975 received the Sonning Prize (worth the equivalent of roughly $200,000 today) for “commendable work that benefits European culture.”

For a long moment, which lasted another quarter-century after her death in 1975, Arendt had beaten back her detractors, with her reputation intact. New Yorker editor William Shawn wrote that Arendt’s death had removed “some counterweight to all the world’s unreason and corruption,” that she had been “a moral and intellectual force that went beyond category,” and that her influence “on intellectuals, artists, and political people around the world was profound.”

More recently, though, the battle over Arendt’s reputation and the value of her work, especially Eichmann in Jerusalem, has been joined again, rekindled by evidence in Arendt’s papers that as a young woman, she had a love affair with the German philosopher Martin Heidegger. It was known that Arendt had been Heidegger’s student, but the posthumous revelation of their romantic relationship by Arendt’s biographer, Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, came as a bombshell.

Arendt and Heidegger were lovers for about six months, beginning in November 1924. She was an 18-year-old philosophy student; he was 35, married with two children, and was in something of a creative frenzy writing Being and Time, the all but inscrutable masterpiece that established his position as an existentialist. Arendt thought she was his muse. The love affair cooled by summer, when Heidegger withdrew into family and professional life, and there was less and less contact. Arendt appears to have suffered the bittersweet longings of unrequited love.

What seemed a final break between them occurred when the Nazis came to power in 1933. Arendt fled Germany, and Heidegger very publicly joined the Nazi Party and was elevated to the position of Rektor at Freiburg University. He resigned after one year, having fired the Jewish faculty, disbanded the university senate in favor of a Führer system of governance, and exhorted students to military service, often ending his speeches, right arm stretched out and up in salute, with “Heil Hitler,” repeated three times. After the war he downplayed the significance of all this and told transparent lies about the past, claiming to have done it all in an effort to protect the university.

Nevertheless, five years after the war, Arendt reconciled with Heidegger. She was in Germany directing a State Department project to preserve and distribute unclaimed Jewish cultural property looted by the Nazis—mostly books and religious artifacts—to synagogues and Jewish museums, libraries, and universities around the world. Passing through Freiberg, she sent a note to Heidegger, who came to see her. A lifelong friendship and affectionate correspondence ensued. After the affair became public, Heidegger’s reputation as a Nazi seeped into the Eichmann controversy, giving new shape to the old calumny that Arendt was a pathologically self-hating Jew, whose opinions about Israel and Jewish politics were not to be taken seriously.

Arendt’s latter-day critics maintain that she was so blinded by schoolgirl love that she either could not see what a bad man Heidegger was or did not care; that she so adored him and the German intellectual tradition he represented that she was driven to forgive him; that her affection for Heidegger and everything German explains how she could distort Eichmann into something banal and display such shocking insensitivity toward Jewish victims.

It is as if Arendt’s detractors conflate Heidegger with Eichmann, a mass murderer whose execution Arendt supported. Whatever his sins, Heidegger was not one of the leaders of the Third Reich, nor was he involved in planning or executing war crimes or crimes against humanity. He was, after 1934, an increasingly irrelevant professor of philosophy. Despite his early enthusiasm for Nazism, there is little evidence suggesting Heidigger was ever an anti-Semite. Granted, he was never forthcoming about his past, not even in a final interview published by prior agreement after his death. Still, he was not Adolf Eichmann.

Arendt understood the distinction, once referring to Heidegger as a man who lied at the drop of a hat in order to manage a situation. Heidegger nurtured fantasies of power as the foremost Nazi intellectual and had grandiose ambitions to restore philosophy to a state of grace not known since the Greeks, but his ignorance of the world, Arendt concluded, prevented him from seeing that the Nazis were interested only in people who thought as they did. In a public address honoring Heidegger on his 80th birthday, Arendt referred to his Nazi time as a mistaken “escapade,” spent primarily in “avoiding” (which implies willfully looking away from) the reality “of the Gestapo’s secret rooms and the torture cells of the concentration camps.”

Her critique was not strong enough for Heidegger’s most severe critics, nor for Arendt’s. Heidegger scholar Emmanuel Faye asserts that Heidegger’s texts reveal an inveterate Nazi not only during the Hitler years but before and after as well. Faye finds that even Being and Time, written 10 years before the Nazis came to power, is so thick with veiled proto-Nazi messages that it should be shelved next to Hitler’s Mein Kampf.

Literary critic Carlin Romano, in a 2009 review of a book Faye wrote about Heidegger, laid the philosopher’s guilt at Arendt’s feet, identifying her among the acolytes who venerated the “pretentious old Black Forest babbler.” Journalist Ron Rosenbaum adds that it will never be possible to think about Arendt or her “intellectually toxic relationship” with Heidegger the same way again because of her “lifelong romantic infatuation with the Nazi-sympathizing professor.” He dismisses the “banality of evil” as the “most overused, misused, abused pseudo-intellectual phrase in our language” and finds Arendt’s use of it “deceitful,” “disingenuous,” and “utterly fraudulent” in relation to Eichmann, concluding that the man responsible for the “logistics of the Final Solution” simply could not be “a banal bureaucrat.”

Deborah Lipstadt’s The Eichmann Trial (2011) concludes that Arendt was just plain wrong about Eichmann. On the basis of “new” evidence that Eichmann was a bully, braggart, and liar, Lipstadt proposes to supplant Arendt’s image of the banal bureaucrat with a hate-filled, mad-dog, anti-Semitic monster.

Arendt was wrong, Lipstadt declares, to think that Eichmann “did not really understand the enterprise in which he was involved.” But this is certainly not what Arendt meant when she concluded that the trial had been a “long course in human wickedness [that] had taught us the lesson of the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil.” Lipstadt’s insight into Arendt’s supposed misjudgment of Eichmann is based on the reporting of a French journalist, Joseph Kessel, who was present at the trial on a day when Arendt was not. When damaging depositions of SS officers were read aloud, Kessel could detect “the passion and rage of the true Eichmann” beneath the “hollow mask” of a bumbler that he held up to the world.

Why does Lipstadt think Arendt was unable to detect Eichmann’s true character? Because, she tells us, Arendt was writing for only one person, the only person whose approval mattered to her: Martin Heidegger. A more plausible understanding of Heidegger’s significance in the history of the Eichmann book is that during her first postwar encounter with her former mentor, in 1950, Arendt intuitively recognized the banality of evil: Martin was still Martin. He had behaved despicably, but she recognized his humanity and admired his genius. The epiphany when she saw Eichmann a decade later was that, even at that level of culpability (so far beyond Heidegger’s), the motives for direct participation in mass murder were still fundamentally banal: not blood lust but ambition to advance one’s career, to enjoy status and opportunity, to fulfill an oath of loyalty, to be regarded as capable, a leader, a good fellow, perhaps to have a place in history.

The more recent battles over Arendt’s reputation and her criticism of Israeli policy and Jewish politics have taken a desperate turn with their focus on her love affair with Heidegger. Everything else about their relationship was known in 1963. The assertion that Arendt was hard-hearted and uncaring is supported by nothing new and is no stronger now than it was 50 years ago.

Arendt’s insight into the banality of evil remains undiminished: human character is malleable, not fixed; in the right circumstances masses of otherwise ordinary, decent, law-abiding people can be transformed into collaborators and perpetrators of reprehensible crimes against humanity.

Likewise, her depiction of the Eichmann trial as political theater is still cogent. Arendt was not alone in her criticism of the prosecution: the Israeli judges also complained that the prosecutor relied on survivors’ inflammatory testimony about the horrors of the Holocaust without showing a connection to the defendant. What Arendt hoped to learn in Jerusalem was how Eichmann had done his work, how the mass murders had been organized and implemented. Who had said and done what with and to whom? But the prosecutor’s ambition was to capture the imagination of Israeli youth and world Jewry with a retelling of the suffering of the Holocaust.

Real justice, in Arendt’s view, requires full disclosure, including self-disclosure, not only retribution for Nazi crimes against humanity but also an effort to understand how political systems can produce the complicity of perpetrators, bystanders, and even victims. If evil is banal, it can turn up anywhere, even among victims, even among Jews, even in Israel.

Daniel Maier-Katkin and Nathan Stoltzfus coauthored this article. Maier-Katkin is the author of Stranger From Abroad: Hannah Arendt, Martin Heidegger, Friendship and Forgiveness. Stoltzfus is the author of Resistance of the Heart: Intermarriage and the Rosenstrasse Protests in Nazi Germany. Both are on the faculty at Florida State University.

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