Why Does Germany Love Hannah Arendt?

Of all the intellectuals expelled from Germany during the war, Hannah Arendt is the one with iconic status there. An exhibition devoted to her grapples with her unchallenged position in the pantheon

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Hannah Arendt, 1944. A female intellectual in an almost totally male world. v
Hannah Arendt, 1944. A female intellectual in an almost totally male world. Credit: Fred Stein Archive, Stanfordville, New York
Itamar Ben-Ami
Itamar Ben-Ami

BERLIN – It’s said that the best way to make a subversive book disappear is to render it canonical. That, in large measure, has been the fate of Hannah Arendt. In recent years, the Jewish philosopher who fled Nazi Germany and settled in the United States has become a culture heroine in her homeland and elsewhere. In addition to the scholarly literature about her that continues to pile up at a confusing pace, she has been the subject of several films, and a play has been written about her romantic relationship with the philosopher Martin Heidegger. This preoccupation with Arendt, who died in 1975 at age 69, gives rise to the suspicion that the more famous she becomes, the less she is read.

The Berlin-based Deutsches Historisches Museum (German Historical Museum) has decided to join the trend with a huge exhibition, “Hannah Arendt and the 20th Century.” Following a delay of some weeks due to the coronavirus crisis, the exhibition opened in May. Some of it can be viewed online, for the benefit of those unable to join the masked visitors in person. This is a very impressive exhibition, fast-paced and laden with content, and it will captivate even people who are not philosophically inclined.

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The Historical Museum is a major national cultural institution, whose role is to present the official narrative of contemporary Germany. The museum’s decision to present Arendt as a German heroine constitutes a new stage in her metamorphosis into a canonical figure. Henceforth, not only dissident lovers of learnedness will be able to take pride in her name; so will the German establishment itself.

The exhibition traces Arendt’s life chronologically: her education in the radical milieu of the Weimar Republic in the 1920s, her flight to France in the 1930s and immigration to America in the 1940s, her emergence as an influential political philosopher in the 1950s, the scandal of the Eichmann controversy in the 1960s, and her last years.

People who are fond of Arendt will be delighted to discover a host of documents that shed light on controversies in which she was involved, as well as a fine selection of her personal belongings. I wouldn’t object to trying on that elegant fur coat of hers, for example. On the other hand, the question here concerns what process Arendt had to go through in order to become a national heroine. Why does Germany love Hannah Arendt?

Inclination to provocation

The most striking thing about the show is the absence of philosophical content. Scattered on the walls are a few quotations from Arendt’s books, which could be poised to formulate inspirational social media statuses for a variety of contradictory political purposes. Her intellectual contribution is presented here largely through the prism of the many debates she was involved in, in Israel, Germany and the United States. Arendt’s inclination to provocation – which she herself denied possessing – is given thorough consideration. The question is whether, besides the scandals, popular culture has also derived a few ideas from Arendt. The exhibition, in any case, deals with Arendt’s thought in a separate academic book, published in conjunction with it.

Visitors who are not knowledgeable about Arendt’s writings will form the impression that she did indeed hold definite opinions about many of the last century’s events, but they will have a hard time deciding what the essence of those views was. What they will be able to say unhesitatingly is that many of Arendt’s friends were famous philosophers. The friendships Arendt struck up with the leading intellectuals of the 20th century, such as Heidegger and Karl Jaspers, are given a prominent place in the exhibition. The official reason for their presentation is the immense value that Arendt placed on friendship. Friendship, in her view, is the point of encounter at which an individual escapes her solitariness and discovers her power to act jointly with the Other.

The exhibition deals in an admiring fashion with the intellectual celebrities of the Weimar Republic and with Arendt’s relations with them. But that high society does not seem to invite the individual to “live among one’s equal peers” – as Arendt imagined in her book, “The Human Condition” – which accords the individual the possibility of changing the reality of his life. With the exception of Arendt’s relationships with several women – which demonstrate a sensitive side that is absent from her tough public image – it’s likely that her famous friends will strike fear into the hearts of the visitors.

Perhaps that is what exemplifies Arendt’s general standing in today’s culture. She has become an iconic pop figure, a celebrity of philosophy. We all admire Hannah. But why?

Right to left and back

The dominant image that remains of Arendt is probably from her famous interview on German television in 1964. In that interview, given in conjunction with the publication of the German translation of her 1963 book on Eichmann, Arendt offered something of a defense against the accusations that she had diminished the Nazis’ crimes. In our time the interview, parts of which are included in the Berlin show, have become a YouTube hit.

Perhaps that is what exemplifies Arendt’s general standing in today’s culture. She has become an iconic pop figure, a celebrity of philosophy. We all admire Hannah. But why?

It’s hard to remember similarly iconic interviews of other philosophers, and it’s also hard to imagine that their impact would equal that of the tense but smiling figure of Arendt, who chain-smokes as she cleverly defends her views. One sentence is particularly memorable: At the beginning she insists that she is not a philosopher – her field is political theory.

That’s an exaggeration, of course: “The Human Condition” contains important philosophical conclusions. Actually, Arendt’s political thinking is somewhat esoteric. It focuses on the form politics should take and not on the formulation of the specific goals it should achieve. Politics, in her view, constitutes a sphere of freedom that stands contrary to society and the realm of the individual – spheres in which constraints reign. However, Arendt does not explain how that freedom manifests. Some recent progressive political struggles, over climate change or the refugee crisis, for example, have drawn on Arendt’s theories – but then so has the extreme right-wing German party AfD.

It’s hard to deny the reactionary dimension of Arendt’s thought. She was reserved about the feminist struggle and made remarks that would be considered far from politically correct about the Blacks in the United States and the Mizrahim in Israel. She harbored negative views about the world of tradition, her human ideal was clearly Western in nature, and she believed in excellence and virtue.

On the other hand, Arendt’s thought also lends itself to opponents of capitalism and globalism, to criticism of the poor functioning of global institutions, and to condemnation of the conformism of liberal democracy. Her position between right and left recalls Martin Heidegger more than it does Judith Butler – but Heidegger, who became entangled with Nazism, is unlikely to be the subject of an exhibition here anytime soon.

Hannah Arendt.
Hannah Arendt. Credit: © Middletown, Conneticut, Wesle

Conservative feminist

Arendt, it is almost strange to say, was a woman, and her iconic status stems in large measure from the fact that she was a female intellectual in an almost totally male world. The feminine element is stressed in the exhibition through a series of photographs taken over the years by her friend-in-exile Fred Stein, who is responsible for some of her most iconic visual images. They reveal a soft side: Arendt contemplative, smoking, posing for the camera, smiling embarrassedly, revealing her legs, resting on a sofa.

The gossip about her affairs is also connected to her femininity; it’s hard to think of other love affairs of a male philosopher, to which was attributed an influence similar to the one Heidegger supposedly had on Arendt.

She was not an outstanding feminist. In the 1964 interview she said that some professions simply “are improper” for women, and declared proudly that she is old-fashioned. Yet, even if attempts to cast her as a feminist are exaggerated, Arendt’s contribution to that cause cannot be denied. It cannot be forgotten, for example, that in her famous letter of response to the scholar of Jewish thought Gershom Scholem – who in the wake of her reporting on the Eichmann trial, took her to task for lacking “love of Israel” – Arendt wrote that what actually bothered Scholem was that she had dared to take an independent position. Somewhat like Golda Meir, whom Arendt met in Jerusalem, the sheer presence of a women in such settings was revolutionary.

It’s possible that Arendt’s views on Judaism make her convenient for Germany’s purposes, as they represent the most liberal element in her thought.

Or perhaps her conservative brand of feminism is also related to Arendt’s assertion in the same interview that she is not a philosopher. It should not be forgotten that her declaration was made in response to the remark by the interviewer, Günter Gaus, that she had a “very masculine occupation” – namely, that of philosopher.

With the acerbity of a Jewish klafte, Arendt scolded Gaus for asking questions that tried to assess her “influence,” and defended her autonomy vis-a-vis the discipline of philosophy, which in her view negates the world. Political theory, which she counterpoised to philosophy, focuses on natality, creativity and the possibility of a life that is not restricted to necessity and competition but also contains friendship and even love. “I want to see politics with eyes which, so to speak, are unclouded by philosophy,” she declared in the interview.

Bad Jew

The current show, as noted, is part of a wave of German enthusiasm about Hannah Arendt. A few years ago, for example, the Germans named a high-speed train after her. Their attempt to embrace her is obviously related to the fact that she was a Jew. She was never ashamed of her Jewishness. In fact, she wrote what she considered her best book on that subject (“Rahel Varnhagen: The Life of a Jewess”), though she never bothered to delve deeply into its contents. The embrace of Arendt is linked to the German ambition to renew Jewish life in Germany and to forget that particular crime. That raises the question, naturally, of why, of all the thinkers who were expelled from Nazi Germany, it is she who has been so adopted.

Hannah Arendt's fur coat, on display at the exhibition.
Hannah Arendt's fur coat, on display at the exhibition.Credit: Sebastian Ahlers / © Deutsches

It’s possible that Arendt’s views on Judaism make her convenient for Germany’s purposes, as they represent the most liberal element in her thought. Her view was that Judaism is basically a rebellious psychological stance, not a political or communal identity. She had deep reservations about Zionism, a viewpoint that the exhibition depicts as heroic in the face of Scholem’s “nationalism.” Arendt rejected political collectivism based on nationalism and did not believe that the Germans bore collective guilt for the Holocaust.

Many Jews disliked her for these views. The exhibition presents the enthusiastic decision of the Germans in the “who is a good Jew” controversy that Arendt’s writings aroused, which was also responsible, for example, for the fact that her writings have appeared in Hebrew only in recent years.

But there are several things that the narrative blurs here. Arendt objected to Zionism in the 1940s because she thought the movement was not realistic enough, and out of sincere fear for the collapse of the Yishuv, the pre-1948 Jewish community in Palestine. She accused German nationalism of perverting Jewish nationalism, and her conclusion that Germany was not collectively guilty was qualified by her attribution of “political responsibility” to every individual German citizen who did not resist actively.

Perhaps it’s possible to say that Arendt’s protest against the coerced German embrace has covert representation in the exhibition. As noted, in the iconic television interview with Gaus, Arendt chain-smoked. The only moments in which the famous German Jewish woman stopped blowing smoke skyward in the heart of German prime time was when she spoke directly about the annihilation of the Jews.

Concerned populist

If Arendt’s polemical writing was uncomfortable for some of her readers, the current spate of festivals about her will likely make them even more uncomfortable. The question is whether, besides the array of well-known images, Arendt’s character speaks to our time conceptually as well. One could suggest that the renewed occupation with her represents a tacit liberal desire to respond to the challenges posed by the present populist moment. Arendt’s thought makes it possible, on the one hand, to accept central aspects of the populist critique, but to the same degree to object to its destructive elements. That, in fact, is how her book “The Origins of Totalitarianism” should be read. It is a work that’s horrified by the implications of political authenticity – precisely because it believes that it should in fact be attained.

One of the contemporary attractions of populism is its criticism of liberal democracy for excluding the masses from shaping their own political fate, and for placing decisions in the hands of elites of experts and jurists. From her place in a museum exhibition in the heart of the German liberal establishment, Arendt will be a full partner to the protest against the disappearance of the “political,” and will aspire to renew the revolutionary moment in which a human collective recognizes its power to act and opens new channels to action in the world. But precisely because Arendt recognizes that organized groups possess the power to obtain everything, her thought is studded with attempts to demarcate populist power and to separate it from violence.

The populists in our time are trying to empower themselves to a level where concepts such as objective truth will lose their meaning and be determined by the will of the public. Arendt, in contrast, will continue to remind us that unlimited human power places us in a position of responsibility vis-à-vis the world.

In a talk she gave on German radio after the Eichmann controversy, she recalled that facts must be respected, not because of their objectivity, but precisely because without the human effort to preserve them they will disappear.

Even after being anointed a liberal saint, Arendt will continue to remind visitors to this Berlin museum of their unlimited power. In the same breath, she will urge them to use it wisely.

Itamar Ben-Ami is a doctoral student in political theory at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a scholar of the Posen Society of Fellows.

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