Authors: Hannah Arendt

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

German American political theorist

October 14, 1906

Linden (now part of Hanover), Prussia, German Empire

December 4, 1975

New York, New York

Identity: Jewish

Biography

After Hannah Arendt (uh-REHNT) became a refugee from Adolf Hitler and Nazism, she devoted her scholarly efforts to the philosophical analysis of the events and conditions that had led to the rise of totalitarianism and to the pervasive sense of personal, social, and political alienation in the second half of the twentieth century. She was the only child of Paul Arendt, an engineer, and Martha Cohn Arendt. The family moved to Königsberg when she was young, and she subsequently studied at the local university and at the University of Heidelberg, where in 1928 she received a doctorate for her dissertation on the concept of love in Saint Augustine’s writing. The three scholars who most strongly influenced her were Edmund Husserl, Karl Jaspers, and Martin Heidegger.

As a result of the official anti-Semitism of the Nazi regime, Arendt was forced to emigrate to Paris in 1933. There she studied, wrote, and worked with the Youth Aliyah, a relief organization that found homes in Palestine for Jewish orphans. The National Socialist threat to France prompted Arendt’s emigration in 1940 to the United States, where she lived until her death, becoming a naturalized citizen in 1950. From 1944 to 1946 Arendt was research director for the Conference of Jewish Relations. She served as chief editor of Schocken Books from 1946 to 1948, and in 1952 she received a Guggenheim Fellowship and began to devote more time to research and writing. Despite her excellent training and credentials, she was unable to secure permanent academic appointments until 1963, when she was appointed to the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. In 1967 she joined the graduate faculty of the New School for Social Research.

Hannah Arendt

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(Library of Congress)

Arendt’s writings are devoted to the philosophical analysis of the origins and consequences of the major political catastrophes in the twentieth century: totalitarianism, revolution, and war. Her studies carried her beyond the usual boundaries of political science into a philosophical and historical analysis of the destruction of classical political theory, secularization of the Judeo-Christian views of human nature and society, and the rise of political ideology and the distorted understanding of the human condition that characterizes mass culture. In her first major publication, The Origins of Totalitarianism, she argues that totalitarianism has its origins in anti-Semitism and in nineteenth century imperialism; totalitarian leaders control all aspects of public and private life; defend ideologies based on class struggle or racial purity; reduce questions of political order and disorder to pragmatic, utilitarian, and economic considerations; and subordinate individuals and civil rights to the interests of the state. In 1958 she published The Human Condition, which attempts to shed light on the contemporary state of personal and social alienation by interpreting it through philosophical categories, for example, the public and private realms, the vita activa, and the meaning of labor.

Arendt’s best-known and most controversial work is probably Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, which appeared first as a series of articles for The New Yorker and as a book in 1963. Arendt claimed that too much attention to Nazi officer Karl Adolf Eichmann obscured the broader intellectual and cultural disorders that had allowed the rise of Nazism. For Arendt, the Germans who “followed orders” or failed to resist Hitler, the other European governments and peoples, and even the Jews themselves who passively allowed the spread of the Nazi horror share blame for the Holocaust. The controversy surrounding the book centered on Arendt’s comments about the Jews, which many believed showed too little sympathy or understanding.

Her other books were far less controversial. In 1963 she published On Revolution, which offers a comparative analysis of the American and French revolutions and criticizes the French intellectual and political leaders for allowing the quest for democratic freedom to degenerate into an anarchic destruction of political order. Her 1968 Men in Dark Times again created controversy because of an essay on Bertolt Brecht that argued that Brecht had admired Joseph Stalin. At her death she was working on a three-volume work, The Life of the Mind, of which she had completed the first volume, Willing; she was working on the third draft of the second volume and had completed a first draft of the third, which was to be titled Judging.

Author Works Nonfiction: Der Liebesbegriff bei Augustin, 1929 (Love and Saint Augustine, 1996) Sechs Essays, 1943 The Origins of Totalitarianism, 1951 The Human Condition, 1958 Rahel Varnhagen: The Life of a Jewess, 1958 Between Past and Future: Six Exercises in Political Thought, 1961 Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, 1963, revised 1964 On Revolution, 1963 Men in Dark Times, 1968 On Violence, 1970 Crises of the Republic, 1972 The Jew as Pariah: Jewish Identity and Politics in the Modern Age, 1978 The Life of the Mind, 1978 Essays in Understanding, 1930–1954, 1994 Between Friends: The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy, 1995 Within Four Walls: The Correspondence Between Hannah Arendt and Heinrich Blücher, 1936–1968, 2000 Bibliography Arendt, Hannah and Mary McCarthy. Between Friends: The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy, 1949-1975. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1995. Twenty-five years of letters on politics and literature between American writer Mary McCarthy and German immigrant Arendt. Benhabib, Seyla. The Reluctant Modernism of Hannah Arendt. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications, 1996. Drawing on Arendt’s cultural background, life experiences, and philosophical influences, Benhabib has provided a critical account of Arendt’s thought. Bernstein, Richard J. Hannah Arendt and the Jewish Question. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1996. Bernstein argues how certain events in Arendt’s life and how she responded to these events directed her thinking and greatly influenced her body of work. Bradshaw, Leah. Acting and Thinking: The Political Thought of Hannah Arendt. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1989. Deals with the problem of evil and Hannah Arendt’s major texts on totalitarianism, revolution, democracy, the life of the mind, and political responsibility. Contains notes, bibliography, and index. Carnovan, Margaret. Hannah Arendt: A Reinterpretation of Her Political Thought. London: Cambridge University Press, 1992. Contains chapters on The Origins of Totalitarianism, on The Human Condition, and on Arendt’s view of morality and politics, philosophy and politics, and republicanism. Carnovan believes that Arendt is “widely misunderstood” because her views are original and disturbingly unorthodox. Courtine-Denamy, Sylvie. Three Women in Dark Times: Edith Stein, Hannah Arendt, Simone Weil, Or “Amor Fati, Amor Mundi.” Translated by G. M. Goshgarian. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2000. A study of these three Jewish women philosophers against the background of wartime Europe. Figal, Günter. For a Philosophy of Freedom and Strife: Politics, Aesthetics, Metaphysics. Translated by Wayne Klein. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998. This book consists of essays ranging in subject matter from aesthetics to political philosophy. Contains studies on Hannah Arendt and others. Isaac, Jeffrey C. Arendt, Camus, and Modern Rebellion. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992. Covers totalitarianism, power, humanism, rebellion, and democratic politics. Isaac argues that Albert Camus and Arendt were distinctive in arguing for a common human condition that makes a politics of human rights imperative. Kristeva, Julia. Hannah Arendt: Life Is a Narrative. Translated by Frank Collins. Toronto: Toronto University Press, 2001. The published lectures of one German woman philosopher on another. Pierpont, Claudia Roth. Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting the World. New York: Knopf, 2000. Includes a chapter on the friendship between Arendt and American writer Mary McCarthy. Young-Bruehl, Elisabeth. Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982. A philosophical biography by an American psychotherapist.

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