Lessons from life

How the facts of Hannah Arendt’s life read like fiction


This article is taken from the October 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Aristotle was born, worked, and died,” Martin Heidegger famously told a hall full of undergraduates. “Now let us turn to his ideas.” Try the same tack with Hannah Arendt. It’s not just that Arendt’s work grew out of the facts of her life. It’s that the facts of her life read like fiction.

On Love and Tyranny: The Life and Politics of Hannah Arendt by Ann Heberlein (Pushkin, £19)

As her friend Mary McCarthy once said, Arendt was “a magnificent stage diva”. Focusing on only one episode in Arendt’s eventful existence, Margarethe von Trotta’s dull 2012 biopic Hannah Arendt didn’t show the half of it. Time, surely, for the 12-part HBO drama series. Having read Ann Heberlein’s lyrical yet lucid On Love and Tyranny, I suggest Episode One end with the young Arendt declaring, “I can either study philosophy or I can drown myself”.

Hannah Arendt by Samantha Rose Hill (Reaktion, £11.99)

Born in Prussia in 1906 to a family sufficiently well set up to never think of itself as Jewish, Arendt lost her father to syphilis when she was just seven. Having aced her way through school, she made for Marburg, there to, ahem, “study under Martin Heidegger” as Samantha Rose Hill all too aptly puts it in the diligent but plodding Hannah Arendt. After helping communists escape the Nazis, Arendt was arrested by the Gestapo and had to flee Germany herself.

She fetched up in Paris, where she set about helping young Jews emigrate to Palestine. Then France fell, and along with 5,000 or so other women, Arendt was interned at Gurs. She escaped, making first for Lourdes, then for Montauban — where, by some miracle, she bumped into the husband she had dreaded was lost forever. A year later they made it to the USA. Arendt worked as a housekeeper, taught herself English and embarked on a career as an academic and writer that would make her world famous. Thus endeth Episode Four or Five …

Indeed, so action-packed was Arendt’s life that Hill and Heberlein are to be congratulated for only occasionally lapsing into melodramatic compression. “A year after her father’s death,” one learns from Hill, “Hannah’s life was disrupted again when the First World War began.” “The same year Hannah presented her thesis,” Heberlein tells us, “the stock market crashed in New York.”

Easy enough in both cases to read through the pathetic fallacy. Harder to forget that Arendt herself was always properly dismissive of anyone who thought to aggrandise private problems by paralleling them with the travails of history.

Then again, there can be no gainsaying the notion that the wisdom Arendt brought to bear upon the world grew out of the way the world bore in on her. Certainly, Heberlein is convincing when she argues that being banged up in Gurs helped focus Arendt’s thoughts on power and violence. And who could doubt that her political ideas were “shaped during her [18] stateless years, when she existed without the rights that citizenship provides an individual”?

It’s this emphasis on the concrete and the empirical that explains Arendt’s insistence that she was not a philosopher, but a political theorist. After her first degree, Arendt moved to Heidelberg where she was taught by Karl Jaspers. But though there is an existentialist cast to all her work, and though her more theoretical prose can be as turbid as anything in Being and Time, she never went in for the wilful obscurantism of the big-shot continental philosophers.

There is a strong case for saying that Arendt wrote best as a journalist. The essays in her collection Men in Dark Times should be first port of call for anyone wanting to know more about, say, Rosa Luxemburg or Walter Benjamin or Bertolt Brecht (the book’s introduction, which essentially foretells our world of post-truth politics, might be the most necessary thing she ever wrote). In fact, it’s highly unlikely we would still be talking about Arendt had she not flown to Jerusalem to report on the trial of Adolf Eichmann for the New Yorker.

There is a strong case for saying that Arendt wrote best as a journalist

Arendt had every reason to loathe Eichmann. Had she not made her escape from Gurs, he would likely have despatched her, along with tens of thousands of others, to the gas chamber. Notoriously, though, Arendt didn’t see the devil in Eichmann. What she saw was a pinched bureaucrat out of a Kafka nightmare. Eichmann was, she said, a man without a moral imagination — a man who, as Hill puts it, cannot see “the world from the perspective of another”.

Nor, Arendt argued, should Eichmann (who had been spirited away from his Argentinian hidey-hole by Mossad agents) even have been arraigned. The trial, she said, was a pig circus of “cheap theatrics”. Judgment had been arrived at long before Eichmann’s case was heard. And anyway, what was he on trial for?

He’d not broken any laws — he’d actually been following the law when he despatched Jews to the death camps. To be sure, the “I was only obeying orders” defence can’t but sound weaselly. But you have to be mighty certain that you yourself would have been willing to disobey orders before you condemn the cowardly.

Arendt’s line about “the banality of evil” is what made her New Yorker pieces (subsequently turned into the book Eichmann in Jerusalem) famous. What made it infamous were her almost throwaway remarks about what she believed was the Jews’ complicity in the Holocaust. The Judenräte, she said, really were made up of rats. Instead of fighting back, they cooperated with the Nazis from the get-go. Not only did they help Hitler’s thugs select their victims; they actually herded them into the death camps.

“If,” Arendt wrote, “the Jewish people had really been unorganised and leaderless, there would have been chaos and plenty of misery, but the total number of victims would hardly have been between four and half and six million people.”

Sixty years on, this polemical posturing sounds as silly as ever — especially to anyone who’s read Arendt’s earlier book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, in which she rightly argues that a reign of terror like that of the Nazis renders “decisions of conscience absolutely questionable and equivocal”.

Heberlein and Hill both spring to Arendt’s defence, but neither is very convincing. By the time Heberlein starts talking about how “it was the indifference of the masses and their failure to take responsibility that made the Holocaust possible” the argument is over. For there are no masses, indifferent or otherwise. There are only people, and at any one time vanishingly few of them will be heroes. It is a measure of Arendt’s own stunted moral imagination that she never grasped this point.

“Pain,” Arendt once counselled the recently divorced Mary McCarthy, “is only another way of being alive.” So, I fear, is fear — and it behoves anyone who admires Arendt for her courage to acknowledge the fact. And to acknowledge, too, that the way Hannah Arendt lived her life will always be more instructive than the ideas she deduced from it.

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