KEYWORDS: Political philosophy, philosophy, Vita Activa, Totalitarianism, Vita Activa, Eichmann in Jerusalem
SHE THOUGHT IT
Hannah Arendt was a German-born political philosopher. She migrated to America in 1941 to escape the oppression of the Jews in Nazi Germany. Her ideas concentrate on the political activity of individuals in society. She advocated the right for people to take action to maintain their freedom and to become a part of the society through the use of political speech. She is best known for her report on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi officer captured many years after the war. The series of articles she wrote on the case instigated a roaring debate in the intellectual circles of New York.
Arendt was concerned with the mixing of private and public life. The distinction she makes between the two is at the basis of her thinking. She draws from the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle that the basic human conditions dealing with the needs of the body, such as nutrition and reproduction, are dealt in the private realm of human life, at home (oikos). Thus, the public life lived in the city (polis) should remain as the place of political deliberation that would take place in the form of debates and persuasions1 (p. 25).
Arendt’s claim is that people can achieve freedom when they participate to discussions regarding the community. These take place in the public sphere. According to Arendt the private sphere on the other and is controlled with violence. With the use of (political) speech, humans are given the chance to solve their problems without resorting to violence. In modern society, where the two realms are mixed, we have lost the freedom to express one’s own opinion because society tries to assemble all its members behind one opinion or interest.1 (p. 26-28)
These are ideas which Arendt expressed in the book The Human Condition (1958). In it, she also makes notes on how action in modern society is deprived of meaning. The paradox of the modern world is that we value action over thought, yet we are unsure what the meaning of our actions is1 (p. 20). We are thus left with the feeling which Arendt calls world or earth alienation.
Arendt divides Vita Activa into three categories: Labour, which includes the necessities for the continuity of life that take place in the public sphere; Work, which includes practises that have longer lasting effects on the world and which must take place in the public sphere; and Action, which she equates with freedom3. Action to Arendt is the most highly valued of these three aspects of living since in it we are able to grasp freedom experienced in the community. Only by coming together can individuals truly be able to gain meaning to their political lives3. By attending to politics, we are able as well to bring back meaning for life itself, which it is deprived of in modern society. In other words, people will return from their state of world alienation.
In Arendt’s second major work, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) she describes the reasons for the rise of totalitarian powers in Europe, mainly Nazism in Germany and Communism of the Stalin era in the Soviet Union. The book is divided into three volumes: Anti-Semitism, Imperialism and Totalitarianism. The first section tells Arendt´s view of the rise of a newly formed anti-Semitism that begun after the failure of the emancipation of Jews in the nineteenth-century1 (p. 76). In Imperialism, she goes on to provide her depiction of a legitimised racial ideology in nation states, which had gained its proponents during the era of Imperialism via the colonisation and oppression of indigenous peoples. Alongside this ideology, the European system of nation-states was set to collapse. World War I had, similarly as in Imperialistic Africa, created new states, in which minorities were left without the protection of the state. Thus, they were left vulnerable for totalitarian oppression1 (p. 66-86).
In the last chapter, Totalitarianism, she describes how the system of total domination was able to crush the individual and exclude him from the ability to have opinions or make judgements. The totalitarian rule left its subordinates with the feeling of total isolation and at the same time forced them to be the supervisors of their own oppression. The way Hitler was able to rise to power is also given a view. It is one of Arendt’s claims, that it was not what Hitler was saying that gave him the favour of the people. In fact, the whole totalitarian ideology is filled with contradictions according to Arendt. More than the content of the Nazi ideology, people were keener on to the way Hitler stuck to his absurd and horrifying opinions and proclamations neglecting the many times he was proven wrong. Hitler offered an escape from the rationales of society to which people had lost all faith1 (p. 87-98).
Hannah Arendt´s most contradictory work, and the one that earned the most attention, is a book called “Eichmann in Jerusalem – A Study on The Banality of Evil” (1963). It was put together from the articles she wrote for the New Yorker, reporting from Jerusalem where she was witnessing the trial of the captured high-ranking Nazi officer, Adolf Eichmann. The most common reading of the work emphasises the way Arendt describes the war criminal as a mere bureaucrat, blindly following orders that led to the death of thousands of innocent people during the Holocaust. Arendt sees Eichmann as a victim of the totalitarian rule in the sense that he had, due to the crushing of his own identity when surrendering to fully serve an ideology, with both his body and soul, lost the ability to use his imagination to engage in the act of empathy4. Eichmann’s mistake was his inability to think by himself, he was “thoughtless”. Yet, she never saw Eichmann as innocent, blindly led by others to commit his crimes, or undeserving of the judgement he was eventually sentenced to – death by hanging.
Many of Arendt’s ideas have been contested, and, especially the facts recovered from Eichmann’s past have revealed details that give a more clinical view of his crimes and motives5. Also, the strict divide between the private and the public that she sees almost as imperative has received hard criticism from feminist scholars. As Swift points out1 (p.102), the argument of second wave feminists – “The personal is political” – makes a rather heavy collision with the divide called for by Arendt. Yet as feminist theory has developed and new interpretations on Arendt’s work have arisen, the contradiction between the two are not seen as conflicting as before8 (see Honig et al. 1995).
Hannah Arendt is still credited as one of the most powerful political philosophers of the 20th century. Her ideas are as current now as they were when they were written, since, in this day and age, we look at the new rise of populist movements that flirt openly with totalitarian ideologies. The criticism and advice of Arendt towards the supporters of such groups should hopefully regain its value.
Hannah Arendt was born in Germany in 1906 and raised in the shadow of the first World War. Her parents were of middle class origins and strong supporters of social democracy. Arendt first lived in Hannover, but she and her family moved later to Konigsberg. There, her father died when Hannah was only seven years old. When the War begun the Arendts moved to Berlin to avoid the battles taking place close to the German eastern front2. This was the first time Arendt was faced with the need to flee from threatening violence.
Hannah thrived in her studies at the girl’s school that she was attending. She had learnt to read at a very young age, already before she went to pre-school6. During her school years, she also got acquainted with anti-Semitism for the first time on behalf of her fellow students and teachers7 (p.10-12) As she grew older, she soon attained an interest in reading philosophy. She finished her high school studies in 1924 and went on to attend Marburg University in 19242.
During her years of studying, two scholars became most influential for her future. The first was Martin Heidegger, who was a philosopher that had gained vast popularity among students and fellow scholars. He was an inspiration to Arendt and the two became lovers even though Heidegger was married with kids6. The affair lasted for a year, after which Arendt left Marburg. Heidegger later turned to favour the Nazi party and Arendt broke off from Heidegger for decades. The second influence came from Karl Jaspers, who she met after moving to study in Heidelberg. He supervised her PhD work, published in 19293. The same year she married a man, Gunther Stern.
In 1933, Hannah Arendt became an immigrant. She fled Germany in 1933 after Hitler had risen to power. She had also been arrested by the Gestapo after she took part in a Zionist mission which aimed at exposing anti-Semitism taking place in German society7 (p.105-106). She was quickly released, and she managed to flee to Paris. There she stayed for six years and met her second husband, Heinrich Blucher. At the beginning of the Second World War, France had ordered strict policies to deal with “enemy aliens” and Arendt and her husband were sent to internment camps in 19407(p.152-153). After a few weeks spent in captivity, Arendt got hold of liberation papers during the chaos caused by the French army’s defeat7 (p.155). Soon they travelled to Lisbon, from where they boarded a ship to New York.
In New York, Arendt wrote and worked for Jewish organizations and later taught in several universities such as The University of Notre Dame, University of California, Berkeley, Princeton University, The New School in Manhattan, and Yale. She gained friends in other Jewish emigrants and native scholars. Her career and writings gained more attention after her controversial series of articles on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, which were edited as a book, were published in 1963. The debate that took place is stated as a “civil war” among New York intellectuals4.
Arendt spent her last years working. She kept writing her manuscript that was to be her last work, titled The Life of The Mind (posthumously published in 1978). In 1974 she was hit with a heart attack when she was in the middle of giving a lecture at the University of Aberdeen6. After recovering, she took some time off, yet, her condition remained unsteady and she died of another heart attack in 1975.
SCIENTIFIC COLLABORATION AND RECOGNITION
During her years writing, Arendt constantly took part in the discussion relating to Jewish matters. In her youth, she participated in a Zionist operation7 (p.105-106) and had friends who worked for the cause. Later, after fleeing to the United States, she kept writing on Jewish issues. The debate about the forming of a Jewish nation was to her an important one. Arendt supported the idea of a binational state that would ensure rights for the original Arab population that had been living in Palestine, to where the new state was to be established. This suggestion was supported by Judah Magnes, but highly objected amongst the Zionists. She eventually became cut off from the Zionists 7(p. 181-184).
During that time, Arendt was working for a German magazine Aufbau. After that, she went on with an organisation known by the time as Jewish Cultural Reconstruction organisation. She was the executive director there from 1948 until 1952. Her work was to salvage cultural items, valuable to Jewish communities. She directed the operation after the war and managed to relocate and discover numerous artistic and ceremonial objects and 1.5 million copies of the Jewish holy books7(p. 188).
Hannah Arendt has remained current even after her death in 1975. Her works are constantly debated and commented in the scientific community. Yet she is also known to the wider public through her, often misread, work with the Eichmann trial.4 “The banality of evil” is often read too superficially and many readers often miss the point that Arendt is trying to make. It is perhaps due to the closeness of another study regarding peoples’ ability to perform evil deeds. Stanley Milgram’s famous psychological experiment (see eg. the film The Experimenter) regarding authority and obedience dealt with sort of similar themes as Arendt’s work on Eichmann and the results of the two are easily confused with each other.
The whole of Arendt’s work tries to show, that we humans need each other in order to live a full, satisfying life, free from oppression and violence. We need to come together and engage in conversations that will lead our thinking and guide our actions. For the biggest error of thought to her, it seems, is to not think at all. When we further consider the new, so called “post-truth” political era of alternative facts, Hannah Arendt’s insight that it is a necessity for human beings to think by themselves, is becoming as valuable as ever.
SHE SAID IT
I am not disturbed at all about being a woman professor, because I am quite used to being [sic] a woman.
Hannah Arendt in 1959, cited in Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s, For the Love of The World, 1981, p. 273.
Before mass leaders seize the power to fit reality to their lies, their propaganda is marked by its extreme contempt for facts as such, for in their opinion fact depends entirely on the power of man who can fabricate it.
In the Origins of Totalitarianism, 1951, p. 350.
THEY SAID IT
[T]he combination of tremendous intellectual power with great common sense makes Miss Arendt’s insights into history and politics seem both amazing and obvious.
Martha McCartney, in the obituary for Arendt in The New York Times, 6. Dec.1975
PRIZES, ACHIEVEMENTS, HONOURS
1959: The Lessing Prize, Germany, Hamburg
1962: Elected as fellow of American Academy of Arts and Sciences
1964: Elected as member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters
1975: Sonning Prize, Denmark, Copenhagen
Hannah Arendt, directed by Margarethe Von Trotta, 2012. [film about the time Hannah Arendt spent writing about the Eichmann]
BIBLIOGRAPHY BY HANNAH ARENDT
Der Liebesbegriff bei Augustin. Berlin: Julius Springer Verlag, 1929. Translation as Love and Saint Augustine.
Rahel Varnhagen: The Life of a Jewish Woman. Revised edition translated into English by Richard and Clara Winston. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974.
The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1951.
The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958.
Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. New York: Viking Press, 1963.
Men in Dark Times. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968.
On Violence. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970.
The Life of the Mind. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978.
- Swift, Simon (2009), Hannah Arendt, New York, Routledge Critical Thinkers.
- d’Entreves, Maurizio Passerin (2006), “Hannah Arendt”, in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed Edward N. Zalta <https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/arendt/#BioSke> (last accessed: 17 Jul. 2018).
- Majid, Yar, “Hannah Arendt (1906-1975)”, in Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, <https://www.iep.utm.edu/arendt/#H10> (last accessed 20. Jul. 2018).
- Berkowitz, Roger (7. Jul. 2013), “Misreading ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem’”, in The New York Times, URL: <https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/07/07/misreading-hannah-arendts-eichmann-in-jerusalem/> (last accessed 17. Jul. 2018).
- Streng, Bettina (2014), Eichmann Before Jerusalem – The Unexamined Life of a Mass-Murderer, New York, Alfred A Knopf.
- Young-Bruehl, Elisabeth (2011), “Hannah Arendt (1906-1975), in Who’s Afraid of Social Democracy? <https://web.archive.org/web/20110120102031/http://elisabethyoung-bruehl.com/articles/hannah-arendt-articles/hannah-arendt-1906-1975/> (last accessed 20. Jul. 2018).
- Young-Bruehl, Elisabeth (1982), For the Love of The World, New Haven and London, Yale University Press.
- Dietz, Mary / Fenichel Pitkin, Hanna / et al. (1995), Feminist Interpretations of Hannah Arendt, editor Bonnie Honig, Pennsylvania, The Pennsylvania State University Press.