From Our Archive | Hannah Arendt: Human, Citizen, Jew

On the anniversary of her 108th birthday: Once considered old-fashioned, Hannah Arendt is now being hailed as a profound and original thinker who devoted her life to the pursuit of a new political philosophy.

Natan Sznaider
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Google doodle of Hannah Arendt, in honor of her 108th birthday. October 14, 2013
Google doodle of Hannah Arendt, in honor of her 108th birthday. October 14, 2013
Natan Sznaider

This article was originally published on October 20, 2006

The 100th birthday of Hannah Arendt, one of the most controversial political thinkers of the 20th century, is being celebrated this year at the height of a surprising and lively debate over her work. Arendt's thought, which caused an uproar in her day, is now enjoying a revival more than three decades after her death. Unpublished articles are being brought out; her old books are being republished, and the academic production line is hard at work, churning out new commentaries.

It is easy to forget that just a few years ago, Arendt was considered an old-fashioned metaphysicist mired in her own obscure and idealistic world. After her life was scrutinized under the microscope of a voyeuristic culture that wrote off her political views as evidence of a personal complex, she was shunned and ostracized. Her brief fling with her teacher, the philosopher Martin Heidegger, was portrayed as the turning point in her life and the reason for her hostility toward Zionism and the Jewish people as a whole. That she fled to the United States during World War II only contributed to the dismissal of her work as having no real worth.

Hannah Arendt: Influential in discrediting testimony of Holocaust survivors.

This approach has become a thing of the past. Now scholars are saying Arendt was ahead of her time. She is hailed as a profound and original thinker who devoted her life to the pursuit of a new political philosophy in the twilight years of Marxism. The centennial celebrations are thus an excellent opportunity to reevaluate her public image and body of writing. During her lifetime, Arendt was known mainly for her scathing criticism of communism and fascism - the two most influential ideologies of the 20th century. Like other Western philosophers active during the Cold War, she saw these two ideologies as different expressions of the same political form - totalitarianism, with its threat to human freedom.

Arendt's opposition to totalitarianism was expressed in indifference toward the "social agenda." She saw the eagerness of the left to pity the "poor masses" as the root of the problem. Her political ideology never fit in with banal distinctions between left and right. For Arendt, politics was a separate entity - one which took precedence over social and economic life. In her book "The Human Condition," she writes that a "private" person in classical Greece was a "deprived" person - someone who was denied access to the public realm. In Athenian democracy, "private life" was the life to which women and slaves were relegated. Public life was only for citizens. In Arendt's view, participation in modern economy - free or centralized - was just as restrictive as running a household in ancient Greece. Hence the freedom to own, or to be free of want, took a back seat to political activity.

Because Arendt rejected the conventional views of her time, she lacked the safety net of mainstream thought to fall back on. Her attempt to develop a new political approach took her on a vast intellectual journey that traversed broad swathes of human political history and exposed her to ideas, experiences and social constructs that helped her create a language of her own. Among them were the doctrines that gave rise to the great revolutions of the modern era, the political models of ancient Athens and Rome, and phenomena such as colonialism, racism, death camps and the Gulag.

Multidisciplinary thinking

Considering the scope of Arendt's interests and the comprehensiveness of her thinking, it is not surprising that her books cross disciplinary lines: In her doctorate, she offered an existentialist interpretation of St. Augustine's concept of love. Next, she wrote a biography of Rahel Varnhagen, a German Jewish woman who lived in Berlin in the early 19th century and hosted a famous literary salon. Critical of modern politics and mass society, she called for the return of the Greek polis.

For that reason, she also supported the American political model, in which patriotism was based on accepting the constitutional principles of freedom and liberty rather than shared ethnicity, language, history or tradition. Taking her cue from her studies of religion, Arendt used the concept of evil to analyze totalitarianism, although it was a concept that was regarded as hopelessly pass? at the time. Between her various pursuits, she published articles in the newspaper and tried her hand at philosophical journalism.

There was no political debate in the United States that Arendt did not take part in, from the 1940s until her death in 1975. In the process, she managed to distance both friends and foes. On the other hand, she took pains to preserve her Jewish identity. After fleeing from Nazi Germany to Paris, she worked for Youth Aliyah. When the war broke out, she was arrested and sent to a detention camp, but succeeded in escaping to America in 1941. From 1941-45, she wrote a column for the German-language Jewish newspaper, Der Aufbau, headquartered in New York, addressing the burning issues of the day in the Jewish community. From 1944, she directed research for the Commission of European Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, whose task was to track down the spiritual treasures (i.e., books) left behind by European Jewry and find new homes for them. Arendt traveled frequently to Germany in this capacity.

Arendt's Jewishness also played a pivotal role in her writing. Her most important book of political theory explored the horrors of totalitarianism through the prism of the Holocaust. Beyond that, Arendt took an interest in the affairs of the State of Israel. She declared that the fate of Israel personally affected her more than that of any other country in the world. Her commitment to the Jewish people began to be questioned, however, in the wake of her report on the Eichmann Trial. This report, first published in 1963, as a series of articles in The New Yorker, and later as a book, cast a shadow over all the rest of her writings, and was predominant in shaping her public image.

Arendt was perceived, after the publication of this report, as a proponent of the "functionalist" approach that tried to find a modernist explanation for the Holocaust while ignoring the identity of the perpetrators and the victims. In practice, Arendt never accepted this approach. She insisted that the Holocaust was unique, and unlike any other crime of the modern era. In her correspondence with German intellectuals, she refused to compare Auschwitz to any other mass killing linked to war, such as Dresden or Hiroshima. In her eyes, Auschwitz was not war-related because the Jewish people, whom the Germans sought to wipe out, were not a party to the war. Hence the actions of the Germans were not "war crimes," which could be justified, at least in theory, as an attempt to defend their country in a time of emergency.

A new kind of evil

It is hard to come up with a utilitarian explanation for the Nazi plan to exterminate the Jews. It was an unprecedented phenomenon that violated the basic laws of the social order, which is founded on utility and the desire to live. A new kind of evil was thereby created, what Arendt called "crimes against humanity." This evil constituted an attack on human variety, emptying the words "humanity" or "human race" of all meaning. But the outcry aroused by her book was set off not so much by her philosophy as by her attitude. Her criticism of the way Israel's leaders ran the trial, her hasty judgment of the actions of the Judenrat, and her non-empathetic tone, hurt the feelings of many Jews, especially in view of the fact that it was barely 20 years since the war. Her remarks about the passivity of the Jews and their willingness to cooperate in their own destruction caused even her friends to back off and doubt her loyalty to the Jewish people.

In fact, there was no real basis for this. When a German journalist interviewed her in 1964, Arendt insisted: "If one is attacked as a Jew, one must defend oneself as a Jew. Not as a German, not as an upholder of the Rights of Man, or whatever." Arendt picked up the challenge by forging a new language that would allow for a discussion of Jewish politics after the Holocaust. In the literature, her ideological support of Jewish particularism is hardly mentioned, but many of the letters now being published are about Jewish issues, thereby providing insight into some of her less known sides.

In the biography of Varnhagen, Arendt describes how she tried to escape her Jewish identity, but to no avail. She takes an unambiguous stand, insisting on the importance of acting in accordance with the duties imposed by one's identity, rather than trying to shirk them. In her columns in the American Jewish press, she also tried to establish a political stand that would defuse the conflict between universal humanism and Jewish national autonomy.

When news of the Jewish genocide in Europe began to trickle in, Arendt stood up for Jewish political action and the establishment of a Jewish army on the premise that human beings can live a free and moral life only as part of a political community. The failure to assimilate in Europe, in her opinion, proved that the Jews needed an army that would enable them to create a political community of their own in which they could exercise freedom and moral responsibility. In this, as well as her disapproval of the non-political existence that the Jews lived in the Diaspora, as she put it, Arendt was a Zionist. In a deviation from classic Zionism, however, she wanted to see Jewish rather than Israeli sovereignty, and communal rather than territorial politics.

Arendt's perception of Jewish politics was deeply entwined with her fundamental moral-political view, which accentuated the fructifying tension between universal humanism and collective identity. In her eyes, morality was based on being able to tell ourselves that we had fulfilled our moral obligations, which also included obligations to those linked to us by accident of history or birth - family, community or nation. To ignore these others, to forget who you yourself are, to relieve yourself of responsibility - these are unacceptable moral choices. But fulfilling these obligations is not sufficient, because we also have obligations toward the human race as a whole. Humanity and the political community complement one another and are ultimately inseparable.

When there is no appreciation of human value expressed through universal rights, radical evil emerges as a system in which all human beings become equally superfluous. Although these rights must extend to "all members of the human family," as the UN declaration puts it, their implementation depends on belonging to the political community and assuming responsibility for it. Hence the only way to safeguard human rights is by establishing a solid network of legitimate, democratic countries that promise their citizens rights and protection under the law.

Arendt tried to explain to some of her critics that identity was not everything. To others she tried to explain that neither was it nothing: Your identity and my identity are important, and especially the shared identity that binds us and obligates us. The fact that we are individuals does not remove us from the collective, and the fact that we belong to a collective does not exempt us from fulfilling our moral obligations toward those outside it.

Arendt also applied this principle to the Jewish people. It was absolutely clear to her that the Jews needed a political space where they could shape their lives as they saw fit. Even when she wrote in 1947 and 1948 that the military and violent components of the State of Israel would lead to a permanent state of conflict, she knew that there was no alternative. Her criticism of Israel emanated from her deep commitment and solidarity with the Jewish people. The relentless attempt to come to grips with the tricky question of how to be a human being, a citizen and a Jew all at the same time - that was Hannah Arendt's way of grappling with the problem of Jewish existence in the 20th century.

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