with Philip K. Jason
Anne C. Heller's skillfully pithy biography of Hannah Arendt sparked new questions about one of the most famous and controversial philosophers of the twentieth century at the Jewish Book Council.
Anne C. Heller: I’ve been fascinated by the work and character of Hannah Arendt since reading her magnum opus, The Origins of Totalitarianism, in college. For those who haven’t read the book, it is a history of anti-Semitism, imperialism, and finally totalitarianism in post-Enlightenment Europe, with the aim of proposing a new understanding of German and Eastern European persecution of the Jews, the rise of Hitler (and also Stalin), and the creation of the Nazi death camps: specifically, Arendt believed that the expansion of a kind of tribal nationalism in Europe, which rejected those peoples who didn’t speak a native European language, and the ascent of a frightened and rootless mass man who was ripe for plucking by mass fascist movements were to blame. She herself grew up as an affluent, assimilated Jew in Germany, was educated by that nation's most distinguished thinkers in the 1920s, and fled Hitler and the Nazis in the summer of 1933. Her thinking has great relevance for our times, and she is also a complex and intriguing personality: beautiful and apolitical when young, brave beyond description, always willing to think against the grain and on her own two feet. When my editor, James Atlas, asked me to write a brief life of Hannah Arendt as part of a series of short biographies he was editing, called Icons—which also includes Julian Bell on Van Gogh, Karen Armstrong on St. Paul, and Paul Johnson on Stalin—I was thrilled and also daunted. It took me two years to read everything she had written, conduct research about her life, and write the book.
PKJ: What were the most surprising things you discovered about her?
ACH: I began the book in medias res, with Arendt's coverage of the trial of Adolf Eichmann for crimes against the Jewish people, which took place in Israel in 1961. She attended the trial on an assignment for The New Yorker. she told a friend that, because she had left Germany before the Nazi regime committed its most monstrous crimes, she would not be able to forgive herself if she didn’t go and “look at this walking disaster [Eichmann] face to face.” The result was Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. In it, she portrayed Eichmann as something of a halfwit and a “clown,” a mass man driven by petty-bourgeois (“banal”) ambitions, rather than as a monster, and she also wrote bitterly of the central European Jewish councils that she claimed cooperated with Eichmann and his minions to send hundreds of thousands of unknowing Jews to their deaths. The reaction to the book by her former friends and colleagues was instantaneous and fiercely vitriolic; even today, her reputation has not entirely recovered from the wound the book inflicted. What surprised me first and most was how thoroughly shocked and profoundly shaken she was by the almost universal opprobrium, given what she had written. The campaign against her was so strong that, at times, she feared she might be deprived of her livelihood or even deported. Why had she had not seen it coming? I wanted to know. I was also surprised by how indifferent to politics and world affairs she was in her youth, when she studied Greek, Latin, German philosophy, and—like her mentor, Martin Heidegger—Christian theology. She wrote her Ph.D. dissertation on kinds of love in St. Augustine. I was continually surprised by the beauty of her much of her writing—which can also be dense—and by her courage.
PKJ: If she is, how is Arendt — though iconoclastic — representative of her Jewish European generation?
ACH: She and her generation of German Jews could, and often did, think of themselves as Europeans rather than as Jews. She was brought up in Königsberg, Prussia. Her parents were well-educated, an engineer and a Paris-trained musician. She was raised to be thoroughly assimilated into German culture—as was her friend Kurt Blumenfeld, the director of the Zionist Federation of Germany in the 1920s, her classmate and first husband Günther Stern, and many other members of her age group throughout Germany. “The word Jew never came up when I was a small child,” she told an interviewer in 1964, and even late in life she could say (somewhat disingenuously), “I have always regarded my Jewishness as [simply] one of the indisputable factual data of my life.” She and her peers—including Hans Jonas, Leo Strauss, Walter Benjamin, Herbert Marcuse, Leo Löwenthal—were among the most finely educated and most cultured people the Western world has yet known. Without an exception that I know of, they were stunned and bewildered when the Nazi Party took power and many Europeans, seemingly suddenly, turned against outsiders, particularly Jews. More than a few, including Hannah Arendt, devoted the rest of their lives trying to understand what had happened. As a result, thanks to Arendt and her generation, we have received some of the greatest political, sociological, literary, and historical work of the twentieth century.
PKJ: Can you pin down her distinction (or cultural contribution) in a sentence or two?
ACH: She looked for what was unprecedented in human history, and all her work is a search for the elusive turning points in particular historical moments that have given us the moral world we now inhabit. Her political and moral insights and the political optimism she expressed at the end of her life are iconic and stunning. I’ll simply quote her. About refugees: “Apparently nobody wants to know that contemporary history has created a new kind of human beings–the kind that are put in concentration camps by their foes and in internment camps by their friends.” About totalitarianism: “Totalitarian movements are mass organizations of atomized, isolated individuals.” About the death camps: "Everything was possible and nothing was true.” About thinking, with an acknowledgment to Socrates: “Since I am one, it is better for me to disagree with the whole world than to be in disagreement with myself.” And about new beginnings: "The miracle that saves the world, the realm of human affairs, from its normal, ‘natural’ ruin is ultimately the fact of natality,” or the birth of new human beings whose actions are free, limitless, and unpredictable.
PKJ: What do you most admire about her?
ACH: Her capacity for forgiveness, the clarity of her thought, and the beauty of her writing.
Philip K. Jason is professor emeritus of English from the United States Naval Academy. A former editor of Poet Lore magazine, he is the author or editor of twenty books, including Acts and Shadows: The Vietnam War in American Literary Culture and Don’t Wave Goodbye: The Children’s Flight from Nazi Persecution to American Freedom.
- Hannah Arendt Reading List
- J. D. Salinger: The Escape Artist by Thomas Beller
- Yale University Press's Jewish Lives Series