Han­nah Arendt: A Life in Dark Times

Anne C. Heller

  • Review
By – November 24, 2015

At once con­cise and thor­ough, Anne C. Heller’s achieve­ment in this care­ful­ly focused biog­ra­phy and appraisal makes the case for the good short book. The skill­ful com­pres­sion of facts, con­texts, and impact allows for a great feel­ing of kinet­ic ener­gy. It is a book that, like its sub­ject, feels ready to explode.

Heller’s point of attack is the pub­li­ca­tion and imme­di­ate after­math of Arendt’s most noto­ri­ous book, Eich­mann in Jerusalem—a wise and dra­mat­i­cal­ly effec­tive choice. Demys­ti­fy­ing the arch-vil­lain into an unimag­i­na­tive func­tionary, Arendt for­mu­lat­ed the term the banal­i­ty of evil” to sug­gest that the mon­ster with­in peo­ple like Eich­mann is marked by an astound­ing ordi­nar­i­ness. The pub­li­ca­tion out­raged Arendt’s admir­ers, includ­ing a large swath of the intel­lec­tu­al Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty, and sent this major woman thinker — who always felt her­self an out­cast — into a degree of social and occu­pa­tion­al exile that was painful and perplexing.

This out­sider per­spec­tive was in part the prod­uct of Arendt’s Jew­ish iden­ti­ty, a facet of her being that under­went sev­er­al trans­for­ma­tions, each treat­ed by Heller with good sense and sensitivity.

The fol­low­ing chap­ters go back to Arendt’s begin­nings: fam­i­ly his­to­ry, the effect of her father’s ear­ly death, edu­ca­tion, aspi­ra­tions, and the place Arendt built in the unsta­ble Euro­pean intel­lec­tu­al com­mu­ni­ty before escap­ing Hitler’s net for the Unit­ed States in 1941. Then we encounter the twen­ty-year New York Cir­cle” peri­od lead­ing up to the tri­al and the Eich­mann essays. Final­ly, Heller sur­veys Arendt’s life and career fol­low­ing this episode. Her inti­mate rela­tion­ships, which held both pri­vate and pub­lic dimen­sions, receive effec­tive scruti­ny (espe­cial­ly her affair with Mar­tin Hei­deg­ger), as do the means by which Arendt built and rebuilt her promi­nence in the world of ideas, along the way mas­ter­ing a flex­i­ble form of aca­d­e­m­ic Eng­lish and a rec­og­niz­able lit­er­ary voice.

Amer­i­ca in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s offered this bril­liant, icon­o­clas­tic woman tremen­dous oppor­tu­ni­ty. It was an age in which a sur­pris­ing­ly large num­ber of peo­ple sup­port­ed a wide range of intel­lec­tu­al peri­od­i­cals designed for the exchange and test­ing of ideas in phi­los­o­phy, eco­nom­ics, polit­i­cal sci­ence, and cul­tur­al stud­ies. Arendt was a play­er in such jour­nals, and a busy lec­tur­er in major uni­ver­si­ty pro­grams. In her many arti­cles and books, she held her own among the great minds of her day — and best­ed most of them.

Prob­ing the sig­nif­i­cance and orig­i­nal­i­ty of Arendt’s ear­ly and lat­er works, Heller extracts the recur­rent themes and prais­es the inspired fresh­ness of her subject’s end­less­ly curi­ous mind.

Inter­view with Anne C. Heller

by 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.

Philip K. Jason: How did you come to focus on Han­nah Arendt?

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 at the Unit­ed States Naval Acad­e­my. A for­mer edi­tor of Poet Lore, 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.

Discussion Questions