Twenty years after her death, and nearly half a century after The Origins of Totalitarianism established her international reputation, Hannah Arendt looms larger than ever – as a philosopher, as a political theorist, as an exemplary analyst of history. Jürgen Habermas has expressed admiration for her, as have avowed Post-Modernists, who share her declared freedom from metaphysical and moral presuppositions. Democratic intellectuals in Eastern Europe – Vaclav Havel, for one – have endorsed a distinction first stressed by Arendt, between the authoritarianism of old-fashioned dictatorships and what she described as the ‘total domination’ practised by modern-day totalitarian regimes. In addition, the anti-Communist uprisings of 1989 seemed to bear out her thesis that revolution in its essence is not social (as Marx thought) but political, and that true political power flows only from below, from a people spontaneously acting in concert.
Apart from her study of totalitarianism, Arendt’s fame rests on three books. In The Human Condition (1958), an account of the differences between instrumental labour, creative work and free action, she lamented our modern inability to emulate the heroics of the classical Greek man of action, a ‘doer of great deeds and speaker of great words’. In On Revolution (1963), she revived the 18th-century dream of creating a new political order, defending the American Revolution against its Marxist detractors, yet also criticising the Founders for needlessly limiting the institutional spaces where citizens could actively participate in politics, and so experience the happiness of a shared freedom. Most notorious of all was Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963). In this account of his trial, she portrayed Eichmann as a dutiful bureaucrat – and the Jews as implicated in their own annihilation, thanks to the help that some Jewish leaders gave to the Germans in rounding up victims.
Arendt’s life straddled two continents, bringing into contact two quite different intellectual cultures (and producing endless opportunities for misunderstanding). Reared on the existentialism of Karl Jaspers and her other philosophical mentor, Martin Heidegger, she first won renown in the literary salons of Manhattan, where she awed the Partisan Review crowd, became friends with New York intellectuals like Dwight Macdonald, and charmed countless literary lights as the perfect ‘Good European’ (though Delmore Schwartz once dismissed her as ‘that Weimar Republic flapper’). In the last decade of her life, her commentaries on contemporary political issues, uncommonly learned by American standards, appeared in the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books. She established friendships with Mary McCarthy, Robert Lowell, Randall Jarrell and W.H. Auden, who went so far as to propose marriage (she declined).
Arendt has never inspired universal admiration, however. ‘She seems to me to be inaccurate in argument and to make a parade of learned allusion without any detailed inquiry into texts,’ Stuart Hampshire declared shortly after her death, expressing sentiments widely shared by analytic philosophers and classicists exasperated by her imperious disregard of conventional scholarship. Trying to explain the outrage felt by many Jewish readers of Eichmann in Jerusalem, Walter Laqueur suggested that it was not so much what she had said, but how she had said it: ‘The Holocaust is a subject that has to be confronted in a spirit of humility; whatever Mrs Arendt’s many virtues, humility was not one of them.’
Born in Königsberg in 1906, she came of age as a member of that city’s assimilated Jewish élite. As she recalled in a 1964 interview reprinted in Essays in Understanding, ‘I did not know from my family that I was Jewish.’ When she became interested in religion as a student, she was drawn not to Judaism but to Pauline Christianity, coming to share Heidegger’s interest in Augustine, Kierkegaard and (in her words) ‘the salvation of the individual’s subjectivity’. From the German idealists as well as Heidegger she inherited the conviction that the central (and redeeming) feature of the human condition was freedom, the enigmatic power of the human being to begin anew, and so (in Kant’s words) ‘to pass beyond any and every specified limit’.
Arendt’s relation to Heidegger marked her for life. Like Heidegger, she treated philosophy as a mode of existential inquiry, to be conducted without presuppositions or fixed goals. Despite her interest in topics traditionally treated by theologians, she, like Heidegger, was committed to methodological atheism, setting aside the question of God’s existence. A life of philosophical conviction would have to be lived, and illuminated, without recourse to any principle of sufficient reason, since (as Heidegger once put it) ‘freedom’ – and not a changeless Godhead – ‘is the reason for reasons.’
Embracing this philosophy, she also fell in love with the philosopher – an affair crudely described in Elzbieta Ettinger’s Hannah Arendt/Martin Heidegger. Superficial and sometimes hateful in its unrelenting hostility to Arendt and her ambivalent relationships to both Judaism and Heidegger, the book is nevertheless revealing, because it is based on exclusive access to the still unpublished Arendt-Heidegger correspondence. Their romantic liaison began in Marburg in 1925, at Heidegger’s initiative. He was 35, married, the father of two children (though not yet the author of Being and Time, which was published in 1927). Arendt was 18. As their love affair deepened, Heidegger arranged for Arendt to move a discreet distance away, to Heidelberg (where she studied with Jaspers). When Heidegger finally broke off the affair in 1928, Arendt, in one of the letters that Ettinger quotes, professed her undying loyalty (in words borrowed from Elizabeth Barrett Browning): ‘If God choose, I shall but love thee better after death.’
In 1929, Jaspers helped Arendt publish her first book (and dissertation), The Concept of Love in Augustine. For the next few years, she lived in Frankfurt and Berlin, where she began to make a name for herself as an intellectual journalist. Her new vocation put her in touch with the kind of cosmopolitan society that she analysed in her early essays on Rahel Varnhagen, an urbane and assimilated German Jew like her, who had presided in the 1790s over a Berlin salon which, for Arendt, exemplified the possibility of imbuing enlightened society with the distinctive virtues of the cultivated outsider: ‘humanity, kindness, freedom from prejudice, sensitivity to injustice’.
The earliest pieces in Essays in Understanding poignantly illustrate Arendt’s youthful interest in the ‘ecstatic dimension’ of life – those moments of clear vision and irrevocable commitment that can divide a ‘life into two separate parts’. Sharply distinguishing such moments from the everyday passage of time, Heidegger had spoken in Being and Time of the Augenblick, literally, the ‘blink of an eye’ – that instant of conversion and spiritual rebirth when (as St Paul had promised) ‘we shall all be changed.’
But then, in 1933, Heidegger, along with a majority of Arendt’s compatriots, was transfixed by an Augenblick of diabolical consequence. Hitler’s rise to power convinced Heidegger that a rare opportunity was at hand to reverse the Decline of the West; resolutely seizing the moment, Arendt’s hero transformed himself from a solitary thinker into a public figure, becoming the Nazis’ chosen rector of Freiburg University.
The actions of Hitler and Heidegger together changed Arendt’s life for ever. They cast a pall over a great deal of what she had previously held dear: philosophy, German culture, the wisdom of leading the life of the mind. As she recalled in her 1964 interview, the burning of the Reichstag in February 1933 was her Augenblick: ‘This was an immediate shock for me, and from that moment on I felt responsible. That is, I was no longer of the opinion that one can simply be a bystander.’
In later years she expressed admiration for the motto Clemenceau coined during the Dreyfus Affair: ‘L’Affaire d’un seul est l’affaire de tous.’ She decided to act on her own understanding of this principle, explaining that ‘if one is attacked as a Jew, one must defend oneself as a Jew. Not as a German, not as a world-citizen, not as an upholder of the Rights of Man.’ Arendt now worked with a variety of Jewish and Zionist organisations, first in Germany, then in France as a refugee, and finally, after 1941, in the United States. Sustained by a stipend from the Zionist Organisation of America, she threw herself into political activism, writing a regular column for New York’s German-language newspaper Aufbau, and briefly joining the Committee for a Jewish Army (apparently unaware that it was allied with Jabotinsky and other apostles of revolutionary violence within the Zionist movement).
In her writings from this period, Arendt struggled to find a formula for securing peaceful co-operation in Palestine between Arab and Jew. She opposed demands for the creation of an explicitly Jewish state, arguing that a body politic defined by ethnic nationalism would inevitably lead to constant conflict with the Arabs. In search of a new type of institutional framework, she pinned her hopes on the kibbutz movement, which she believed had created ‘a new type of Jew, even a new type of aristocracy with their newly established values: their genuine contempt for material wealth, exploitation and bourgeois life; their unique combination of culture and labour; the rigorous realisation of social justice within their own circle’.
In 1951, when Arendt burst onto the American literary scene, almost none of these facts about her intellectual Odyssey was familiar. But her readers instantly felt the personal passions animating her study of The Origins of Totalitarianism. Widely hailed as original and profound, this sprawling book – as Margaret Canovan argues persuasively in Hannah Arendt: A Reinterpretation of Her Political Thought, the best brief survey of her work to date – expressed almost all of the ‘thought trains’ that Arendt would subsequently pursue.
Despite the glowing reviews, The Origins of Totalitarianism has long vexed a great many scholars, particularly historians. An unusual combination of analysis, meditation and storytelling, it is, as Seyla Benhabib has remarked ‘too systematically ambitious and over-interpreted to be strictly a historical account; it is too anecdotal, narrative and ideographic to be considered social science; and although it has the vivacity and the stylistic flair of a work of political journalism, it is too philosophical to be accessible to a broad public’.
Some of the most interesting of the Essays in Understanding shed new light on Arendt’s larger philosophical concerns. Among other things, they show that she took quite seriously her own claim (often dismissed as hyperbole) that the forms of domination perfected by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union marked the final breakdown of the traditional authority of religion, natural law and human conscience. In her view, this was what made totalitarianism fundamentally different from mere tyranny. (It also explained why some Jews were able to co-operate with the Nazis.)
The key, for Arendt, lay in the fact that both Hitler and Stalin had convinced their peoples ‘to renounce their freedom and their right of action’, under the pretext that they were riding the wave of the future. Rather than trying to harness the power of the free will through laws, both had used terror to ‘“stabilise” men, to make them static, in order to prevent any unforeseen, free or spontaneous acts’ that might betray the putatively higher laws of Nature and History. ‘Practically speaking, this means that terror in all cases executes on the spot the death sentences which Nature has already pronounced on unfit races and individuals or which History has declared for dying classes.’ In this context of murderous mobilisation, old-fashioned notions of decency and goodness were turned upside down: ‘Lying for the sake of necessity appears as something sublime; and a man who does not submit to the machinery, though submission may mean his death, is regarded as a sinner against some kind of divine order.’
Arendt’s sombre vision struck a nerve. In a memoir of New York intellectual life, Midge Decter has recalled the debates that raged in the early Fifties over Arendt’s work, framed around thrillingly abstract and unanswerable questions; for example: ‘Are we in an unprecedented situation, or is this like medieval times?’ Never mind that this question hinges on an arbitrary (and exaggerated) antithesis; its melodramatic absurdity is tacit tribute to the persuasive power of Arendt’s historical vision. Like Kafka, whose work she played a major role in having translated into English, she used matter-of-fact prose to dramatise a ‘nightmare world’ in which arbitrary decrees are palmed off as sacred laws.
For better or worse, Arendt’s vision long ago lost its shocking novelty. Thanks to the memoirs of survivors like Jean Améry, Primo Levi and Nadezdha Mandelstam, we know much more now than we did in 1951 about the inner experience of totalitarian regimes, and the manifold ways in which moral confidence can be shaken and trust undermined by a system of mutual surveillance, forced labour camps and the ubiquitous threat of torture. Clearly the techniques of coercion available to Hitler and Stalin exceeded the tools of domination available to pre-modern tyrants. But some of Arendt’s most startling claims seem, today, to be highly questionable, if not just plain wrong.
It seems mistaken to suppose, for example, that totalitarian regimes ‘have exploded our categories of political thought and our standards of moral judgment’, leaving us without ‘our traditional tools of understanding’. Though one may dispute the wisdom of the Nuremberg Trials, the prosecutors did not shrink from applying traditional tools of ‘moral judgment’; and democratic reformers around the world today evince an equally robust regard for old-fashioned liberal notions of justice and right. It may be that the prevailing categories of political thought and moral judgment cannot withstand serious philosophical scrutiny; but that is a different matter.
Here, as elsewhere, Arendt’s most apocalyptic generalisations about totalitarianism make sense only if one shares her own prior commitment to ‘thinking without a banister’, a piece of intellectual derring-do she had learnt from Heidegger, above all. It would certainly be more plausible to claim that Heidegger (rather than Hitler or Stalin) had exploded our categories of moral and political judgment – first, by systematically criticising traditional categories of religious, moral and political thought; and, second, by demonstrating such catastrophically poor judgment in supporting Hitler. Arendt never really got over the shock of Heidegger’s political leap of faith. Intellectual loyalty to her former lover goes a long way towards explaining some of the most provocative – and implausibly melodramatic – passages in her political theory.
To her credit, Arendt was not above acknowledging mistakes. The Hungarian revolt of 1956, despite its rapid repression, proved that totalitarianism had failed to stamp out freedom and ‘kill the roots’ (as she had darkly speculated in 1950). As she remarked shortly after Soviet tanks entered Budapest, ‘the twelve days of the revolution contained more history than the twelve years since the Red Army had “liberated” the country from Nazi domination’ – a judgment borne out by the collapse of Communism in 1989. These events would doubtless have heartened her; though one can also picture her disappointment at the rapid turn in Eastern Europe to workaday electioneering and lobbying – forms of political life that scarcely interested her.
Of the recently published volumes of her correspondence, Between Friends is negligible: in her letters, Mary McCarthy retails gossip and offers tips on how Arendt might write more clearly; Arendt for her part retails gossip and offers tips on how McCarthy might think more clearly. The correspondence between Jaspers and Arendt is much weightier. Jaspers, after all, was a formidable figure in his own right, the original architect of German existentialism, among other things, and one of Heidegger’s most important early allies. Indispensable as a scholarly resource, the letters also contain a number of touching passages. After the war, both Jaspers and Arendt were gratified to discover that the other was still alive (Jaspers, whose wife was Jewish, had not been able to go on teaching and publishing in Germany under Hitler). By transforming their earlier teacher-student relationship into a genuine friendship, Jaspers helped to resurrect Arendt’s confidence in philosophy as a worthy way of life. Arendt, returning the gift, restored Jaspers’s faith in what he called, with typical grandiloquence, ‘that community of reason that no one can describe’.
As their companionship grows, Jaspers relaxes, and Arendt slowly sheds her old ‘schoolgirl fear’ of his forbidding intellect. They speak of nationalism and Nazism, the legacy of the Enlightenment (which Jaspers cherishes more fiercely than Arendt), and the philosophical significance of Marxism (a matter that agitates Arendt, but leaves Jaspers cold). They also speak of book contracts, travel plans and the travails of ageing. By the end, their correspondence has come to exemplify the ‘loving strife’ of thoughtful ‘communication’ that Jaspers long celebrated in his philosophy.
Although Arendt’s élan and keen insight is evident in these letters, as in her work more generally, anyone coming to her essays and books in search of clear reasoning or sure results is bound to be disappointed. She was inspired, in part, by the work of Tocqueville and Montesquieu, but she lacked their liking for large-scale, architectonic structures of argument. Jaspers urged her to emulate the scholarly discipline of his old mentor, Max Weber; but as she confessed to him, ‘Weber’s intellectual sobriety is impossible to match, at least for me.’ Despite the categorical and peremptory tone of her prose, and the frequent vividness of her political vision, her work yields no maxims for action, no indisputable categories for judgment, and certainly no recipe for political reform. Unsystematic by temperament, she raised questions without providing answers.
Herein lies her fascination. In her work as in her life, she communicated the irresistible joy of ‘being seized by an idea, an emotion, a presentiment’, as Mary McCarthy recalled at her funeral: ‘And this power of being seized and worked upon, often with a start, widened eyes, “Ach!” (before a picture, a work of architecture, some deed of infamy), set her apart from the rest of us like a high electrical charge.’
It was in this spirit, of incandescent ardour, that Arendt approached the conundrums of philosophy and modern politics. As Richard Bernstein has remarked, she believed that thinking could be taught, if at all, only ‘by infecting others with those perplexities that occasion all authentic thinking’. That is why her work, however frustrating, still merits reading.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.