Hannah Arendt arrived in New York as a refugee from Europe in 1941. She was, there, at the centre of a world that included a great deal of ‘Vienna 1900’ and ‘Berlin 1930’. Her friends, whom she referred to as ‘the tribe’ – ‘the clan’ would have been a better translation – included Alma Mahler, the novelist Hermann Broch, whose essay, Hofmannsthal und seine Zeit, is the best short evocation of Fin-de-Siècle Vienna there is, and his mistress, the wife of the art-historian Meier-Graefe. There was a host of minor literary and artistic figures of the Weimar era. The Frankfurt School, in exile, established itself at West 117th Street, and it was there, on her arrival, that Hannah Arendt deposited the surviving manuscripts of Walter Benjamin. Characteristically, and perhaps accurately, she thought that the Frankfurt people handled them dishonestly. New York in the Fifties was Weimar in partibus.
There are emigrations and emigrations. Chateaubriand elegantly described the French emigration of the 1790s, at Coblenz, where it reproduced all of the fantasies and the incompetence, in heightened degree, of the Ancien Régime, before petering out, in the next two decades, into a set of dancing-masters, hairdressers, mercenaries, literary poseurs and embittered snobbish old roués. The Russian emigration of the 1920s still awaits its historian. The Weimar emigration is a different matter. It hit any country that it affected with the force of a powerful missile.
Hannah Arendt made a great name for herself in the Fifties and is still, apparently, regarded as a classic in America and Germany. She arrived in America from fallen France where, for the previous few years, she had worked for Zionist causes. She continued to work for these in New York, but soon became an editor at Schocken Books (an enterprise which, like Pantheon Books, had been started by Weimar émigrés). But she also worked hard on books of political philosophy, and her Origins of Totalitarianism, published in 1951, made her name. It was followed by other ambitious works, also celebrated: On Revolution and, more grandly, The Human Condition. The paperback reprints of these works arrive with a drum-roll of critical enthusiasm – admittedly, for the greater part delivered by personal friends such as W.H. Auden, who proposed marriage to Hannah Arendt shortly before his death.
In the Sixties, Hannah Arendt was very Sixties. Her friends in America were of the Left – Philip Rahv, Mary McCarthy (her generous literary executor) and Dwight MacDonald – and she supported, usually with some individual overtone, the advanced causes of the era, from Castro to Vietnam. In the early Sixties she achieved a succès de scandale with her articles (for the New Yorker) on the Eichmann Trial in Jerusalem. There, she more or less wrote off the whole affair as a show trial, which would have been better performed by an international court. More pertinently, she accused the leaders of European Jewry, in the Judenräte or Jewish Councils, of having performed a fatal role in collaboration with the Nazi exterminator. The controversy which she fomented has continued to this day, to the point where, in German, Kontroverse means only one thing. She became a famous woman, was awarded honorary degrees and continually invited to lecture here, there and everywhere. She suffered a heart attack in 1974 while delivering the Gifford Lectures at Aberdeen (she had to send out a research student to find out what her invitation referred to, and accepted it only when she learned that William James had been there before her, with his Varieties of Religious Experience). The lectures were subsequently put together, after her death in 1975, by Mary McCarthy, as The Life of the Mind. The question that crops up, unstated, throughout Elizabeth Young – Bruehl’s lengthy and thorough biography, and in Bhikhu Parekh’s Hannah Arendt Made Simple, is this: how much of the Sixties survives to the Eighties?
She comes across, certainly, as a good egg. She looks out of the back cover of Dr Parekh’s book with a face that has been through the mill. She was born in 1906, in comfortable middle-class circumstances in North Germany, and was raised in Königsberg, the Prussian Edinburgh (or perhaps, more accurately, Aberdeen). Her father, an engineer, died, after a painful and lengthy illness, when she was a little girl. Inflation, after the First World War, hit her family badly. Still, she was able to attend famous universities and to sit at the feet – in Heidegger’s case, more than feet – of famous philosophers. She shone. By 1929, she was living a characteristic Weimar intellectual life. She had a small scholarship, was preparing a complicated doctorate, and lived, with a man she subsequently married, in a studio in Berlin which had to be vacated during the daytime for the purposes of a school of dancing. Both dancers and couple had to negotiate the Bauhaus-style sculptures of the landlady’s son, which were left in the studio. They kept the rent down – not a usual result of Bauhaus doings.
In the early Thirties, Hannah Arendt became conscious of her Jewishness much more than before. Hitler’s advent found her writing a biography of Rahel Varnhagen, a well-known Jewish figure of the Enlightenment, which she took an unconscionable time in finishing. It is a straightforward piece of transferred autobiography, in the manner of Deutscher’s Trotsky, though less inaccurate. It is also an extremely difficult read. It was felicitously summed up in an English newspaper by Sybille Bedford as ‘relentlessly abstract, slow, cluttered, static, curiously oppressive; reading it feels like sitting in a hot-house without a watch.’ Marriage to Günther Stern, with whom she had lived, did not work out at all well. He was a promising philosopher and a commendable performer on the violin. He aimed to combine the two, and worked on the philosophy of music. Theodor Adorno, to whom the result was submitted, was jealously down-putting. Stern relapsed into sub-polymathic journalism, writing now on mystery novels, now on the latest conference on Hegel. Marriage to Hannah Arendt went off the tracks, and she remarried a more suitable figure in the later Thirties. In 1933, when Hitler came to power, she worked for Zionism, was briefly imprisoned, and emigrated, first to Czechoslovakia and then to Paris, which she again escaped from, in the nick of time, in 1940.
This degree of experience and sophistication could hardly fail to do her proud in a United States that was still naively Gladstonian. She hit New York like a bomb, and within a few years her vigour and range gave her polymathic authority. She did so well out of journalism, book-publishing and her Origins of Totalitarianism that she acquired a completely independent position. She must have been a very powerful, very Mitteleuropa presence. The Eichmann case showed her great gifts as a polemicist. She was often invited to take up university appointments, but, although she made money out of lecturing, she disliked American academic life, especially in California.
She was deeply uncomfortable in Berkeley: she describes the Hoover Institution at Stanford, which contains an extremely rich collection of historical sources, as ‘one of those modern hells with all the comforts’. She preferred to live independently in her flat in New York, which was arranged to suit her – ashtrays overflowing and ranks of German and Greek classics staring down from every available wall. It was all very Weimar, very hot-house, very cerebral. But she also did a great deal of good by stealth. She made over some of her royalties to tuition funds for the payment of university fees for people she wanted to support. Her record in the Sixties, though consistently ‘progressive’ as such things were then understood, was always individual enough. For instance, she had strong reservations about the use of children for propaganda purposes in the Little Rock case, and she was wholly opposed to the weakening of educational standards for any cause, whether Black or Feminist.
It is with considerable regret that I have to confess that I do not read her books with much profit. As Bhikhu Parekh explains – and he does so at much greater length than Miss Young-Bruehl, whose primary concern is the life rather than the work – Hannah Arendt approached 20th-century problems with a mixture of history, philosophy and social psychology. She had learned that method in Germany, in the Twenties. Husserl, Weber, Heidegger and, latterly, Karl Jaspers were her inspiration. The universities of South-Wes-tern Germany, which had had such an extraordinarily fertile period in the 1890s, formed the mind of Hannah Arendt. She worked, curiously enough, on theology. Her dissertation concerned the concept of Love in St Augustine, and it is perhaps not too much to claim that she was, during the Twenties, not too far from conversion to the austere Protestantism of which Königsberg has been a citadel. The middle ground of philosophy, theology and history, on which both Max Weber and Ernst Troeltsch stood, has proved to be fertile enough in Reformation studies ever since. In the 1890s and 1900s, Hannah Arendt might have proceeded along the quite well-worn path of ignoring her own Jewishness. In that era, before the First World War, a large number of Jewish intellectuals did just that; many famous ones become converts (they included Husserl). By the later 1920s, however, that path was closed, and Zionism became yet another of Hannah Arendt’s concerns.
At the origin of Hannah Arendt’s works stands the figure of Max Weber, transmitted to her through Karl Jaspers, his student. The Weber of the early part of this century could be electrifyingly good; he combined penetration and diligence; and although his main achievements – his remarks on the links between Protestantism and capitalism – may be wrong-headed, they have been a great stimulating force. But there were weaknesses in the later Weber: above all, a willingness to spill out words, knowing, German-fashion, that they would be received as messages from on high. It was also a weakness of Hannah Arendt’s that she neglected elementary lessons of book-writing. She would avoid conclusions, would knit her chapters together badly, and would not revise her manuscripts properly. She also allowed words to spill out, in the manner of a cliché-producing word-processor gone out of control. In her Human Condition, she tried to arrive at a challenge to the Labour Theory of Value. But where Marx had supported his remarks with endless statistics, Hannah Arendt can offer only words: ‘Labour assures not only individual survival, but the life of the species. Work and its product, the human artefact, bestow a measure of permanence and durability upon the futility of mortal life and the fleeting character of our time. Action, insofar as it engages in founding and preserving political bodies, creates the conditions for remembrance, that is, for history.’
The strongest influence on Hannah Arendt was clearly Martin Heidegger. It cannot have been accidental that she fell heavily in love with him in her late teens: she the brilliant Jewish girl, he the brilliant professor in his late youth, austerely handsome, clearly engaged in developing a New Philosophy, after whose lectures his admiring class would gather, informally, to find out what they had been about. The affair – and from internal evidence it cannot have amounted to much – ended badly, and Hannah Arendt transferred to Heidelberg. Heidegger had two children, and a wife, Elfriede, who was the worst kind of German academic prig. He was also a tremendous moral coward, as his behaviour both in the Nazi era and in the subsequent occupation showed. But it is difficult not to regard Hannah Arendt’s subsequent work as one long showing-off to Heidegger. Even in the Sixties, when she ran into a graphologist in New York, she whipped out a sample of his handwriting and asked: ‘Is he homosexual?’ (She was told that he wasn’t, but that his male friends mattered more than anything else.)
Discontent with the formalism of the neo-Kantians, on the one side, and, on the other, dissatisfaction with the apparent inconsequentiality of those thousands of historical monographs which were the great achievement of the positivists in Germany had produced a climate of revolt in the early 1900s. Weber’s work had amounted to a restoration of the value of ideas. His successors became concerned more with the language in which ideas were expressed: the interplay of concept, language, historical change. Heidegger’s philosophical investigations discussed this in theoretical terms. He claimed to have abandoned ‘the arrogance of the Absolute’ (‘die Anmassung alles Unbedingten’). As Bhikhu Parekh’s book shows, Hannah Arendt set herself to apply this to 20th-century themes – totalitarianism, revolution etc. She set herself, he says, to demonstrating the weakness of ‘traditional political philosophy’: the assumption that there was a ‘hierarchic ontological dualism’ in which observable phenomena were simply reflections of a higher Being. She was applying Heidegger’s Phenomenology to historical circumstances, in order to produce a new political science.
It may well be that there is something here that I cannot see. There is an obvious sense in which the changing meaning of concepts is a matter of historical importance: the history of ‘Liberty’, for instance, makes more sense nowadays than the history of Liberty. It is probably also not too much to claim that concepts, and the language of their expression, shape human responses. The trouble is that, on the ground, which is where I feel able to test it, Hannah Arendt’s work does not amount to very much. I doubt if any historian, wrestling with the immense complexities of this century’s history, has anything to learn from her. Her approach turns out to be yet another of these 20th-century ologies which contains an undeniable germ of sense but which rapidly becomes exhausted after being frogmarched across pages and pages of turgid platitude.
In her Totalitarianism, she had three main points. She showed, first, that there had been social disintegration, and secondly, that an atmosphere of evil was generated which could affect morally neutral and banal figures (such as she made Eichmann out to be), making the concentration-camps possible. Finally, she claimed that it was in the nature of totalitarian systems to become more evil as time went by. For obvious reasons, she knew Germany best, but she also applied her views to Soviet Russia, and virtually equated Stalin and Hitler – an opinion that could earn her many friends, some of them embarrassing. It should be said at the outset that she did not know Russia at all well; perhaps she preserved that very East Prussian contempt for Russia with which she grew up and which extended to the Jews from Russia who lived, huddled together, south of the River Pregel in Königsberg: there is more than a suspicion that she regarded Zionism as perfectly acceptable so long as German Jews, Jaeckes, were in charge of it. She treated totalitarianism under the headings of imperialism, racism and anti-semitism. In the Russian case, she would talk, quite undifferentiatedly, of ‘the masses’ who would succumb to ‘ideologies without utilitarian content’. She has nothing of much significance to say about Stalin, and in any case Soviet totalitarianism does not fit very easily into her remarks.
She wrote on Germany with all of that metropolitan intellectual contempt for the ‘philistine’, the Spiessbürger, who voted Hitler into power. She talked of ‘alienation’ as a factor in this: ‘the philistine is the bourgeois isolated from his own class, the atomised individual who is produced by the breakdown of the bourgeois class itself.’ This is a rather typical Hannah Arendt line: sounding quite good, but meaning very little. If we analyse the votes obtained by Nazism, it is quite clear that the bulk came from small-town and rural Protestant North Germany. The bigger the city the smaller the Nazi proportion of the vote. Then again, although in the early days of Nazism many of the leaders were obvious déclassés, indeed bohemian riff-raff, this does not count for the later period. The SS, for instance, was regarded as highly respectable and even aristocratic – the élite force. It is certainly true that Hitler gained his ‘Main Street’ vote from a combination of factors, in which the irresponsibility of the trade unions played its part – and we still need an adequate account of the Slump in Germany to explain this. I am not at all sure, for my part, that Hannah Arendt’s discussion adds anything of significance.
To suggest, as Hannah Arendt did, that totalitarianism inevitably becomes worse is also far-fetched. True, this did apply to Mussolini and to Hitler. Did it really apply elsewhere? Even then, to account for the worsening of Nazism is not altogether easy, once you leave the biographical level. The regime was successful enough in economic matters and in foreign affairs. This did not make it easier to deal with: on the contrary, the anti-semitism grew worse, and the regime in general more tyrannical, as the Thirties went on. Its foreign policy, after 1936, became much more aggressive: in the early years of the war, Hitler was dreaming of world domination. You can account for this simply and plausibly enough in terms of Hitler himself. By 1936, he was seen as a miracle man. He had the measure of his opponents. He was determined to achieve ‘the triumph of the Will’ that had eluded his nationalist predecessors. His popularity inside Germany, and his awareness that, like Napoleon, he needed constant successes for legitimacy, gave him the necessary dynamism. It mattered very greatly – and here Hannah Arendt had something to say – that he quite often ran into very soft opposition.
It can, on the other hand, be argued that the very structure of the Nazi state – all those competing ministries and plenipotentiaries – itself made for ever greater radicalism in matters of policy. For instance, the fact that Goebbels, in the autumn of 1938, was an ‘out’ meant that he encouraged the pogrom of the Jews in November of that year so as to get back some of the influence he had lost to Himmler and others. It could perhaps be argued that the position of the SS inside Germany had to be buttressed by the development of a huge slave-labour empire outside Germany – Speer’s point in his latest book – which involved the conscription, and, in most cases, the killing, of Europe’s Jews. The suggestion has been made that, in matters of foreign policy, Hitler was driven on by considerations of a similar order. In that respect, I much prefer Taylor’s argument that Hitler was a gambler – constantly on the make, looking for an opening, and thinking, erroneously, that he had found one in September 1939. Hannah Arendt knew her Germans, and she had read, with profit, the (very impressive) contemporary works of Theodor Geiger, on the social analysis of support for the Nazis, and Franz Neumann, whose Behemoth amply described the chaos within the Nazis’ allegedly totalitarian system. But from her remarks, I learn much less than I do from, say, Barrington Moore’s observations on dictatorship and democracy, let alone from Schumpeter or Orwell.
She did, however, have a strong sense of the sheer vastness of the Nazi phenomenon, affecting even its victims and people who were ostensibly quite neutral. It is in fact easy enough (though inadequate) to account for Hitler in terms of his enemies’ weakness and corruption: the international economy in a mess, the international system a combination of fraud and debility, the Third Republic (and the Maginot Line) a paper tiger, the ‘Versailles states’ hopelessly weak and corrupt, the Soviet Union a long display of tyranny, inefficiency and starvation. Hannah Arendt’s most famous piece, her observations on the Eichmann Trial in 1961, was an application of this line to European Jewry. It made her many enemies.
It became standard in the Sixties to assume that Hannah Arendt was attacking the Israeli state for mounting a show trial, that she tried to exculpate Eichmann for his organising of ‘the Final Solution’, and that she accused the Jews of collaborating in their own extermination. All of this was unfair, though often said: we can sympathise with Hannah Arendt in feeling – as Miss Young-Bruehl puts it – that the ‘controversy’ was distinguished by ‘a low level ... and the near absence of any intellectual substance’. She did, in fact, argue something rather different. She thought – not indefensibly – that an international court should have dealt with Eichmann. She was quite struck by his apparent normality, and the apparent normality of some other concentration-camp chiefs: he looked and behaved like a dreary little man, not a psychopath. This was a serious enough problem, though she made too much of it. Finally, she did not argue that the Jews were responsible for their own extermination, in that they did not ‘resist’. What she did do was to question the role of the Jews’ leaders in the Judenrate. Even here, she only stated what many other people before her had said, especially the historian, Raul Hilberg.
She wrote, in various places, that ‘in Amsterdam as in Warsaw, in Berlin as in Budapest, Jewish officials could be trusted to compile the lists of persons and of their property, to secure money from the deportees to defray the expenses of their deportation and extermination, to keep track of the vacated apartments, to supply police forces to help seize Jews and get them on the trains.’ ‘To a Jew, this role of the Jewish leaders in the destruction of their own people is undoubtedly the darkest chapter of the whole dark story.’ ‘Wherever Jews lived there were recognised Jewish leaders, and this leadership, almost without exception, co-operated ... with the Nazis ... If the Jewish people had really been unorganised ... there would have been ... plenty of misery but the total number of victims would hardly have been between four and a half and six million.’
Hannah Arendt was rather cavalier with facts: she gave hostages to the kind of reviewer who feels his job is done with a parade of minor (or, in the case of one reviewer, miniature) factual corrections. But she had clearly hit a very sore nerve indeed; and she even suspected that official Israel had taken her on, to the point of censoring letters to her. A highly-placed member of the Eichmann prosecution team, Dr Jacob Robinson, wrote a book to disprove what she had said: it was called The crooked shall be made straight. He it was who made a long list of her factual errors. These corrections included an absurdity or two. She had written, for instance, that in international law the German Government had a right to declare any section of its community a minority. No, said Dr Robinson, there was no ‘right’, merely ‘no prohibition’ of such a declaration.
Robinson called forth a lengthy rejoinder from her in 1966 in the New York Review of Books – a tremendous piece of rhetoric. He had claimed, first, that the Jewish Councils could not be blamed for what they did because they were in the position of shopkeepers held at gun-point – they had to hand over. Arendt said that this amounted to a declaration by the Jewish Councils that they ‘owned’ their community. Then again, Robinson claimed that the Councils acted as they did out of a sense of ‘responsibility’. She answered, aptly enough, that if they were held at gun-point, then it couldn’t be said that they had volunteered out of a sense of responsibility. No rabbi, she pointed out, had volunteered for deportation – a contrast with some (very few) Christian clergymen. She ended with the statement that ‘to anyone willing and able to read, the result of Dr Robinson’s long labours will look like a prime example of a non-book.’ Was she wrong?
Of course, she expressed herself trenchantly, and with an insensitivity to the issue that was tantamount to cruelty. Her old acquaintance Gershom Scholem attacked her for this, and never forgave her; some old friends in New York did much the same, and at the University of Chicago she was virtually ‘cut’ in the Faculty Club. She also failed utterly to take any account of the Jewish Councils’ own motives, which – in most cases – were very far from being morally corrupt: to an Orthodox Jew, the survival of individual Jews at the cost of the community’s dispersal – the survival, for example, of twenty thousand Jewish children as converts in Catholic institutions in Poland – would not have been worth it, although this argument does not appear to have been advanced in public.
It mattered, too, that she stood at some distance from Zionism. True, in 1967 she was ‘like a war-bride’. But she did not much care for modern Israel. In 1961, she protested at the sight of Jewish youth in shorts sitting round camp-fires singing sentimental songs. She regarded the Irgun and Stern Gang as unworthy. She hoped for an accommodation between Jew and Arab in a mixed state, for which ‘mixed Jewish-Arab municipal and rural councils’ would be ‘the only hope’. She disliked the Zionist leadership. At the same time, she was very dismissive of the assimilationists. She wrote a vicious piece on Stefan Zweig, with his aesthete ways and his Visitors’ Book filled with the names of the Great; she also wrote viciously of Eichmann’s prosecutor, as ‘a Galician Jew ... shows off ... ghetto mentality’. Where did she stand?
I sympathise with Bikhu Parekh’s efforts to unravel her political philosophy. Much of it strikes me as rather self-contradictory; and its general purport does not seem to get us very far. She discussed revolution at some length, ignoring classes, economics and even religion. She contemplated writing about Marx, but seems to have shrunk from the creative effort – that she was well-qualified to make – of writing about his Jewish precursors, such as Ludwig Börne. She tried to get away from Marx, and ended, to use George Steiner’s words, with ‘a kind of Burkean Toryism’. I am not sure if Hannah Arendt’s political philosophy does not boil down to two cheers for Colonel Blimp, though maybe she had reservations when he became a five-star general.
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