Hannah Arendt

Making sense of evil

Forced to flee her native Germany, Hannah Arendt is finally celebrated there in a major exhibition


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What would Hannah Arendt have thought of the idea that she, more than any of her contemporaries, was the supreme intellectual representative of the mid-twentieth century? The question is unanswerable — she died in 1975, aged just 69 — but I am pretty sure she would have been verblüfft (flabbergasted). She had no false modesty and a proper sense of her own contribution to political philosophy, but it would have astounded her that she — rather than, say, the master existentialists Martin Heidegger and Karl Jaspers who loomed so large in her life, or her closest literary friends such as W.H. Auden, Hermann Broch and Mary McCarthy — should be singled out for such approbation.

In a 1957 letter to her old comrade Kurt Blumenfeld, she distinguished between the “real geniuses” and the “highly cultivated”, who should beware of “overreaching” themselves. Hannah Arendt never considered herself a genius — and she found the pomposity of her sometime lover Heidegger, who really was one, “simply insufferable”.

Artists need to have their work concretely displayed, but thinkers have little to show for themselves except abstract thoughts. The notion of hundreds of thousands of people queuing to gawp at this dead white female’s briefcase, jewellery and her old fur coat would have brought a wry grin to their owner’s face. The Men in Dark Times to whom she devoted a celebrated volume of essays were not, she insisted, “representatives of an era” or “mouthpieces of the Zeitgeist”. No more was she. Neither Arendt’s life nor her work were really representative of anything except herself.

Belated tribute: The Berlin exhibition

Yet this is the idea behind “Hannah Arendt and the 20th Century”, a major exhibition about her that opened in Berlin this summer at the German Historical Museum (until 18 October). The show is accompanied by an illustrated book of the same title, serving both as catalogue and homage, with 19 essays by Arendt scholars, writers and other worthies. Unable to visit the exhibition myself, due to the present exigencies of travel, I nonetheless highly recommend a visit to anyone finding themselves in Berlin — if only for the marvellously evocative black and white photographs, some by her fellow émigré Fred Stein, others by Arendt herself. You can almost taste the cocktails and smell the cigarettes. In keeping with its subject’s writings, the show is bilingual.

Inevitably, it is the life rather than the work that emerges most strongly. Though Arendt was more fortunate than most European Jews of her time, her story was not without its uncanny episodes. This exhibition, over the top as it is, is a belated tribute by the German state to a woman who was lucky to get out of its capital alive. What happened in February 1933 resembles an episode in the TV detective series Babylon Berlin. Just days after Hitler came to power, the 26-year-old Arendt was interrogated for more than a week at the Polizeipraesidium in Alexanderplatz (Berlin’s equivalent of Scotland Yard).

With the usual German thoroughness, her widowed mother Martha was taken into custody too. Her daughter had indeed been committing a crime: secretly collecting material on antisemitism for an underground Zionist organisation led by her lifelong friend Kurt Blumenfeld. He was desperate to show the world that, in their malice towards the Jews, the Nazis were not joking — and he needed chapter and verse. Hannah was lucky in her captor: a rare police officer in those early days of Nazi Germany who had nothing against Jews. She told her inquisitor “a lot of lies” about her activities. Whether he believed her or not, he let mother and daughter go. On her release, Arendt took the next train to Prague. From there she moved to Paris and made a new life there among the émigrés, who included her second husband, Heinrich Blücher. In 1940 Hitler’s armies caught up with her and she found herself an “enemy alien” in Gurs, a Vichy internment camp. There she considered but rejected suicide: her “courage of life” was too strong. With Blücher, she bribed or bluffed her way out of the camp, then lay low in Montauban with the Cohn-Bendit family, parents of the future student leader and MEP. After further vicissitudes, the couple found their way to Lisbon, entrepôt for the transatlantic voyage, and arrived in New York in May 1941, just before a still isolationist US closed the door to European refugees.

Hannah Arendt with her husband Heinrich Blücher

The rest of her life was spent in the United States. She embraced America as her new homeland and quickly mastered English, even if she never lost her Teutonic accent. The Blüchers’ Upper West Side apartment was as open-ended as their lives: library, sitting and dining room merged into one, with books, conversation and meals consumed together in a perpetual love-feast of mind and body.

The positions of New York intellectuals were fought over with all the fury and ferocity the émigrés among them had left behind. The difference between battles in the New World and the Old was that, while both left plenty of bad blood, in America none was actually shed. For Arendt, there could be no question of the conformism that today drives so many debates on identity, gender and race.

She thought as long as discrimination was not imposed by the law, people should be permitted to follow their prejudices

None of the controversies in which she became embroiled illustrates this better than her “Reflections on Little Rock”, her first public foray into American politics — specifically the incendiary issue of racial integration versus segregation. Incensed by two pictures that appeared in the New York Times of black children being followed to school by jeering white mobs, Arendt waded in with a critique, not of the Southern segregationists, but of their opponents. She came to this perverse conclusion via her sharp distinction between the realms of politics, where the state could legitimately overrule the individual, and society, where it could not. Nor could humane ends justify inhumane means. For her, it was simply wrong for black parents to thrust their children into the front line, just as it was wrong for reformers to impose their liberal views in the private sphere of education. As long as racial discrimination was not imposed by the law, people should be permitted to follow their prejudices; schooling was an area where the federal government should respect states’ rights.

The editors of Commentary, the Jewish magazine that had commissioned her essay, found her defence of the Deep South unconscionable, and dithered over publication. Frustrated, she turned to Commentary’s rival Dissent, which ran her piece. Having invited obloquy, she got it in spades. Her ignorance of the Deep South, which led to various inaccuracies, was exposed, as was her failure to grasp the fact that the black teenagers and their parents had freely chosen their acts of defiance.

When challenged, she conceded the point — but it did not occur to her to draw concrete parallels with her own predicament in Weimar Germany. It did not help that Arendt sought to justify herself by insisting that “as a Jew I take my sympathy for the cause of the Negroes as for all oppressed and underprivileged peoples for granted and should appreciate it if the reader did likewise”.

Today, siding with Southern racists against civil rights protestors would have ended her career. In the 1950s, her rise continued regardless of controversy. Chicago, then the most exciting place for political thought in America, invited her to lecture and later to teach classes, as a member of its Committee on Social Thought; Princeton made her its first female professor; she taught at many other universities, too, but always refused a permanent, “tenure-track” position, preferring freedom to security.

She chose to be buried, not at these famous universities, but at Bard College in upstate New York with her husband Heinrich, who taught there. In the 1950s it was possible for a man with no degree to be hired by a liberal arts college to teach undergraduates about Western civilisation. Heinrich’s course was aptly entitled “The Common Cause”: it was this grand tradition that Arendt learned from him to uphold.

To do so, however, she had to return to its fons et origo in Europe — and that meant Germany. She returned to Berlin in 1949. Her mission, on behalf of American organisation Jewish Cultural Reconstruction (JCR), was to ferret out collections of books and art that the Nazis had “arianised”. She overcame the chicanery of librarians, curators and bureaucratic bullies to send quantities of surviving Jewish artefacts to Israel or the US, including the unique library of the philosopher Hermann Cohen, which is preserved at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Today, if the affair had become known, Heidegger would certainly have been dismissed

One of Cohen’s volumes surfaces in the exhibition, with Arendt’s JCR label opposite the swastika stamp of Himmler’s minions on the flyleaf. For a woman who was later accused of lacking ahavath Israel, “love for the Jewish people”, Arendt took great pains to preserve her people’s heritage.

Many other obscure but revealing aspects of Arendt’s career emerge from the Berlin exhibition. Who knew of the Sisyphean task she undertook to force the German authorities to acknowledge that she had been deprived by exile of the opportunity to teach at a university in the land of her birth? It took three decades of litigation, but she won substantial compensation. A Lex Arendt enshrines the principle at stake in German law.

I had not been aware of her role in the rediscovery of Kafka, editing and translating the Diaries, or of her less successful attempt to do the same for Walter Benjamin. There is ample material in the exhibition, too, on her engagement with student protests in America and Europe, on her attitudes to Zionism, Marxism and feminism, and on her friendships — above all the relationship with Heidegger.

In his essay on the latter for the Berlin book, Wolfram Eilenberger, the bestselling author of Time of the Magicians, contents himself with a respectful commentary on this romantic meeting of great minds, “a philosophical event of the twentieth century”. Is this not, however, the perspective of a male academic — one who, perhaps, has never been on the receiving end of the abuse of power? Today, if the affair had become known, Heidegger would certainly have been dismissed from his chair at Marburg. Rightly, we have zero tolerance for sexual misconduct by a professor of 35 with a student of barely 18. The imbalance of power is too great.

Martin Heidegger: Secret affair, coercive control

Heidegger’s first letter to Hannah in February 1925 shows that he, a married man old enough to be her father, was well aware of the boundaries he was crossing — and the danger of scandal. Writing to “Fräulein Arendt” and using the formal “Sie”, he plays down the impropriety: “That I became your teacher and you my pupil was only the occasion for what happened to us.” From the first, he exercised what would now be called coercive control. Their assignations were meticulously planned by him to ensure her complicity — and the affair was concealed until both parties were dead. The person who broke the silence, her biographer Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, was struck by its profound and traumatic impact on her subject. At the time, Hannah wrote a third-person account of it for Heidegger, significantly titled “Die Schatten” (“The Shadows”). It was clear to her in retrospect that “the spell” which this “magician” cast on her had “frightened” her, robbing her of freedom and innocence, inducing depressive, even suicidal thoughts. The poems she wrote at the time are dark. It is significant that she ended the affair, leaving abruptly without a word, so that he could not talk her out of it.

By then, Heidegger had got everything he wanted from the liaison. He had written his first and most important book, Being and Time, during the years when he was sleeping with Hannah. She, by contrast, was only able to write her doctoral dissertation “On the Concept of Love in Augustine” when she escaped to the safe haven of Heidelberg, seeking guidance from Heidegger’s rival Karl Jaspers. Though she rekindled the friendship with Heidegger after the war, it was very much on her terms, with the power relationship reversed. The “Führer of the German university” was only rehabilitated thanks to her help. That she was able to forgive him for the sake of his work speaks well for her, but we see such abusive relationships differently today and are more aware of the lasting damage they can do. Arendt’s self-respect demanded that she did not see herself as a victim, but that does not mean she wasn’t one.

A suggestive way to see Arendt’s work is as one long meditation on the problem of evil

Her seducer’s hold over her persisted even after she had built a career in America. She knew how her critics might have reacted had her affair with Heidegger become public knowledge during her lifetime. After the war he played down but never repudiated his antisemitism. She wasn’t fooled and, as we have seen, she found his habit of commenting on his own work like a biblical text “insufferable”. Yet still she defended the reputation of a man whose ideas were seen by most people in her milieu as Nazism on stilts. Her last letters to him remained reverential: “You read like no one else and no one before you either.” At some level, the sorcerer never relinquished his power over his apprentice.

Arendt’s life continues to fascinate. What about the works? The Berliners aren’t entirely wrong to focus on two of her books that have overshadowed the other eight: The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) and Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963). Both, though, are read today more as documents of their times than for their own sake. Totalitarianism is still part of our vocabulary, though we owe the key distinction between totalitarian and authoritarian regimes not to Arendt but to Jeane Kirkpatrick. But the concept is usually deployed as a tool of propaganda rather than analysis, while the elision of distinctions between Nazism and communism has been exploited to relativise the Holocaust. As for Eichmann in Jerusalem, it is remembered for one phrase, “the banality of evil”, and for Arendt’s denunciation of the Judenräte, the Jewish councils who obeyed German orders. This legacy, too, has merely served to muddy further what are already the murkiest of waters. Indeed, the harsh judgment at the time of Norman Podhoretz, in a review for Commentary entitled “The Perversity of Brilliance”, still hardly seems unfair: “In the place of the monstrous Nazi, she gives us the ‘banal’ Nazi; in the place of the Jew as virtuous martyr, she gives us the Jew as accomplice in evil; and in the place of the confrontation of guilt and innocence, she gives us the ‘collaboration’ of criminal and victim.”

A suggestive way to see Arendt’s work is as one long meditation on the problem of evil. Without totalitarianism, she wrote in 1950, “we might never have known the truly radical nature of Evil”. A dozen years later, having gone to Jerusalem to report for the New Yorker on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, Arendt decided that the man in the dock personified, not “the radical nature of Evil”, but its banality. “When I speak of the banality of evil,” she explained in a postscript, “I do so only on the strictly factual level, pointing to a phenomenon that stared one in the face at the trial.” By this she meant that there was no “diabolical or demonic profundity” about Eichmann; he “had no motives at all”, but simply “never realised what he was doing”. She was almost certainly mistaken about Eichmann, who seems to have had clear ideological motives for carrying out the “Final Solution” and knew precisely what he was doing. Arendt, though, was disillusioned: she had come to Israel to confront evil in person, but found only a very ordinary murderer.

Her true literary metier was not the grand narrative or the systematic treatise, but the conversational essay

Arendt’s disillusionment is illuminated by her own experience. Having lost her father (to syphilis) as a child, she sought a substitute in her teacher, a man she should have been able to trust. But he made her his mistress, exploited her and then later turned on the Jews, her people. Having lost her German fatherland as a secular Jewish woman, she sought a new homeland in America, but found a society that was very far from perfect and did not always reciprocate her love. And so she fell back on her own resources. Traumatised early in life by an abuser who was also her mentor, she struggled to make sense of evil.

She was caught between the unprecedented enormity of the Holocaust and the pettiness of its perpetrators. Renouncing children, she gave birth to one book after another, dedicated to the cause of resistance to each new manifestation of evil. Towards the end of her life, for example, she fired off the slim but extraordinarily erudite volume On Violence, a polemic against the “glorification of violence” by white students and black protesters. “The practice of violence, like all action, changes the world,” she wrote, “but the most probable change is to a more violent world.”

This is the Arendt who deserves to be rediscovered today. Her true literary metier was not the grand narrative or the systematic treatise, but the conversational essay; her best books are not monoliths but mosaics. Her favourite among her literary offspring was actually Between Past and Future, which concludes with her definition of a cultivated person: “one who knows how to choose his company among men, among things, among thoughts, in the present as well as the past.”

Her only full-length biographical portrait was of Rahel Varnhagen, the most cultivated woman in Berlin, who presided over a salon for Romantic poets and intellectuals. The Life of a Jewess, she called the book, which she wrote in the aftermath of the affair with Heidegger — who had not acknowledged his lover’s Jewish identity. In a correspondence stretching over half a century, he never did. The ambiguity of evil was a burden long after she had abandoned Heidegger, but it did not crush her. She knew how to choose her company among men, and she chose Heinrich Blücher.

Not to worship genius, with its propensity to go to extremes, but to enjoy, expound and defend the legacy of Western civilisation: for this Hannah Arendt bravely, if not always reliably, stood. It is still our common cause.

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