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
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
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.