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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,129

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This is the grave of Hannah Arendt.

Born in 1906 in Linden, Germany, Arendt grew up in a prominent Jewish family in Konigsberg. The family were anti-Zionist and largely secular leftist Jews. Her father died fairly young but her mother was a big supporter of Rosa Luxembourg’s revolutionary movement after World War I. The family determined to educate their children and exposed them to the many intellectual currents of the day. She went to Heidelberg University and studied philosophy under the guidance of Karl Jaspers and received a PhD in the subject in 1928.

As soon as Hitler took power in Germany in 1933, Arendt got out, moving to Paris. She did a bunch of things to make ends meet in these years. She taught some, wrote a bunch, and also did a lot of work to get orphaned Jewish children out of Germany and sent them to Palestine. Arendt was no committed Zionist. In fact, the issue of where Jews existed in the modern world was a difficult one for her, more so in that she was so resolutely secular. She’s often been cited as an anti-Zionist Jewish intellectual, but it’s really more complicated than that, as this relatively recent essay explores in depth. In short, she was more open to the idea of Zionism than how it existed in Israel, a state that she found increasingly reprehensible in its actions toward the Palestinians. She flat out opposed the creation of Israel when it happened after World War II and she also opposed the creation of two states. She believed in a multi-ethnic state that would incorporate the variety of people living in Palestine and only accepted the idea of Israel when there was no other realistic option over what was going to happen. However, when under attack in the 1967 and 1973 wars that came later in her life, she definitely supported Israel. She also married a man named Heinrich Blucher, who was an art historian, during these years.

When the Nazis invaded France in 1940, Arendt fled again, this time to the United States. This was pretty touch and go, she and her husband were both sent to separate concentration camps and they both managed to get out during the chaos immediately after the conquest. She, her husband, and her mother got out in January 1941 into Spain, shortly before the border closed for refugees. She would remain in the U.S. for the rest of her life. Her husband, got a job at Bard and upstate New York became her home base. But she was not really an academic. She became research director for the Conference on Jewish Relations. She then was the editor of Schocker Books, where she was a major literary figure. One of her projects while there was publishing Kafka’s diaries. After the war, she became executive secretary of Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, which was the attempt to find Jewish-owned cultural works stolen by the Nazis and return them to either their proper owners if they still lived or put them in museums. Through all of this, she hoped to get an academic position, but that didn’t materialize. That finally changed when she won a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1952. After that, she was invited to give some prestigious lectures at Princeton, which was followed by well-compensated teaching positions at Northwestern, Berkeley, Chicago, and other schools, before finally ending up at The New School for the last several years of her life.

Arendt came to the forefront of the intellectual world with The Origins of Totalitarianism in 1951, which also explains why she became an academic superstar after so long. This is such an important book. Can we just say that the human history of the last 250 years has been an unmitigated disaster? Minus technological changes that keep people alive (surely not to be dismissed) it’s hard to argue against the point. Mass killings, war, fascism, Stalinism, Maoism, offshoots of all of these, environmental destruction, scientific racism, colonialism and neocolonialism, like it all is horrible. Many scholars by how have noted how little difference there really is between capitalist, fascist, and communist regimes (see James Scott’s Seeing Like a State for a relatively recent example of this). This was key to Arendt’s contribution to human society. As she astutely noted, both communism and fascism were rooted out of the same mostly terrible intellectual fervor of the nineteenth century. I think she overplays the anti-Semitism of communism in connecting it to fascism, but it’s highly excusable as the late-Stalin USSR was most certainly an anti-Semitic state. But of course many Jewish people were leading communists and so it’s a bit problematic to draw these connections too closely. However, the connections she made of both ideologies to imperialism absolutely holds up today. If there is a weakness to the book, it’s that capitalism is no better on most of these issues.

The second book we really remember Arendt for today is her 1963 book Eichmann in Jerusalem, a Report on the Banality of Evil. This is one of the most important books of the twentieth century because of its coined phrase “the banality of evil.” It was so easy to point at a few people when discussing Nazism or any of the other murderous radical governments of the twentieth century. But Arendt had been thinking about these issues for years. Having observed Eichmann’s trial and execution, she came to realize that there was nothing special about this bureaucrat. Many people would have done the same thing in his place. I find this incredibly important because of the way we still think of the Nazis as uniquely evil. In fact, college students in the U.S. today will flock to Holocaust courses, because THOSE PEOPLE WERE EVIL and avoid like the plague courses on slavery or Native American history that force them to confront their own legacy of white supremacy. We want to see others as especially evil rather than realize that the Nazis were culmination of two centuries of racist thought that included figures eminently respectable today, including in the U.S. context, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Theodore Roosevelt, among many many others. As Arendt said, lots of people were responsible for the Holocaust, including governments such as the United States who did nothing to stop it in the years leading up to 1939, such as not letting Jewish refugees into the nation. I can’t say enough about how critical Arendt’s analysis of Eichmann, the Nazi state, and the complicity of everyday people remains, especially with ascendant fascism in the United States.

There were other works as well. In 1958, she published The Human Condition, which explores how what she called “the active life” changed throughout western history and has been dismissed by too many philosophers in favor of fairly pointless contemplation. I haven’t read this but the description of it seems pretty accurate to me. On Revolution, also published in 1963, compared the American and French Revolutions, in which she made the case that these revolutions are remembered all wrong. The French Revolution began the Age of Revolution in the public memory and inspired many revolutionary movements through the 20th century. But Arendt argues that it was a complete failure. Meanwhile, the American Revolution, not really that well remembered in terms of political details outside the U.S., was a success and is more how one should think about revolution. I’m not really sure about the latter but in terms of how we remember the French Revolution, I generally agree.

Interestingly, Arendt was known for her enjoyment of teaching and working closely with students, not exactly common in the intellectual elite.

In 1975, Arendt was having friends over for a little party when she suffered a massive heart attack and died. She was 69 years old. She had been suffering from heart problems for a year or so before this and had a heart attack in 1974 while giving a lecture at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, but she wouldn’t stop smoking and there you go.

Hannah Arendt is buried in Bard College Cemetery, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York.

If you would like this series to visit other American political thinkers, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Judith Shklar is in Cambridge, Massachusetts and Melvin Rader is in Walla Walla, Washington. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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