Hannah Arendt

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Hannah Arendt
Hannah Arendt.jpg
Hannah Arendt from a 1988 German stamp
among the Women in German history series
Born(1906-10-14)14 October 1906
Linden, German Empire (present-day Hanover, Germany)
Died4 December 1975(1975-12-04) (aged 69)
New York City
Era20th-century philosophy
RegionWestern philosophy
SchoolContinental Philosophy
Main interestsPolitical theory, modernity, philosophy of history
Notable ideasHomo faber, animal laborans, the labor–work distinction, banality of evil, vita activa and vita contemplativa, auctoritas, natality[1]
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For the film, see Hannah Arendt
Hannah Arendt
Hannah Arendt.jpg
Hannah Arendt from a 1988 German stamp
among the Women in German history series
Born(1906-10-14)14 October 1906
Linden, German Empire (present-day Hanover, Germany)
Died4 December 1975(1975-12-04) (aged 69)
New York City
Era20th-century philosophy
RegionWestern philosophy
SchoolContinental Philosophy
Main interestsPolitical theory, modernity, philosophy of history
Notable ideasHomo faber, animal laborans, the labor–work distinction, banality of evil, vita activa and vita contemplativa, auctoritas, natality[1]

Johanna[2] "Hannah" Arendt (/ˈɛərənt/ or /ˈɑrənt/; German: [ˈaːʀənt]; 14 October 1906 – 4 December 1975) was a German-American political theorist. Though often described as a philosopher, she rejected that label on the grounds that philosophy is concerned with "man in the singular" and instead described herself as a political theorist because her work centers on the fact that "men, not Man, live on the earth and inhabit the world."[3] Her works deal with the nature of power, and the subjects of politics, direct democracy, authority, and totalitarianism. The Hannah Arendt Prize is named in her honour.

Life and career[edit]

Arendt was born into a secular family of German Jews in Linden (present-day Hanover), the daughter of Martha (née Cohn) and Paul Arendt.[4] She grew up in Königsberg (renamed Kaliningrad and annexed to the Soviet Union in 1946) and Berlin. At the University of Marburg, she studied philosophy with Martin Heidegger.

According to Hans Jonas, her only German-Jewish classmate, Arendt embarked on a long and stormy romantic relationship with Heidegger, for which she later was criticized due to Heidegger's support for the Nazi Party when he was rector at the University of Freiburg.

In the wake of one of their breakups, Arendt moved to Heidelberg, where she wrote her dissertation under the existentialist philosopher-psychologist Karl Jaspers on the concept of love in the thought of Saint Augustine. In 1929, in Berlin, she married Günther Stern, later known as Günther Anders; they divorced in 1937. The dissertation was published in 1929. Although an agnostic,[5] Arendt was prevented from "habilitating" – a prerequisite for teaching in German universities–because she was Jewish. She researched anti-Semitism for some time before being interrogated[when?] by the Gestapo.

In 1933, Arendt fled Germany for Paris, where she befriended the Marxist literary critic and philosopher, Walter Benjamin, her first husband's cousin. While in France, she worked to support and aid Jewish refugees. In 1937, she was stripped of her German citizenship. In 1940, she married the German poet and Marxist philosopher Heinrich Blücher, a former member of the Communist Party. Later that year, after the German military occupation of northern France, the Vichy regime began deportation of Jews to Nazi concentration camps in the unoccupied south of France, and she was interned in Camp Gurs as an "enemy alien". Arendt was able to escape after a few weeks and left France in 1941 with her husband and her mother to the United States. They relied on visas illegally issued by the American diplomat Hiram Bingham, who aided roughly 2,500 Jewish refugees in this way. Varian Fry, another American humanitarian, paid for their travel and helped obtain the visas. Upon arriving in New York, Arendt became active in the German-Jewish community. From 1941–45, she wrote a column for the German-language Jewish newspaper, Aufbau. From 1944, she directed research for the Commission of European Jewish Cultural Reconstruction and traveled frequently to Germany in this capacity.[6]

After World War II, she returned to Germany and worked for Youth Aliyah, a Zionist organization, which saved thousands of children from the Holocaust and settled them in the British Mandate of Palestine.[7] She became a close friend of Karl Jaspers and his wife, developing a deep intellectual friendship with him.[8] She began corresponding with American author Mary McCarthy around this time.[9]

In 1950, Arendt became a naturalized citizen of the United States.[10] She served as a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley, Princeton University, and Northwestern University. In 1959, she was named the first female lecturer at Princeton. She also taught at the University of Chicago from 1963 to 1967, where she was a member of the Committee on Social Thought; The New School in Manhattan; Yale University, where she was a fellow; and, the Center for Advanced Studies at Wesleyan University (1961–62, 1962–63).[11]

She was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1962 and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1964.[12][13]

Arendt was instrumental in the creation in 1974 of Structured Liberal Education (SLE) at Stanford University. She wrote a letter to the then president of Stanford University to convince the university to enact Mark Mancall's vision of a residentially-based humanities program.[14]


Arendt died in New York City on 4 December 1975, at age 69, of a heart attack. She was buried at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York.

Hannah Arendt's gravestone at the Bard College cemetery, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York


The Origins of Totalitarianism[edit]

Arendt's first major book was titled The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), which traced the roots of Stalinist Communism and Nazism in both anti-Semitism and imperialism. The book was opposed by the Left on the grounds that it presented the two movements as equally tyrannical. She further contends that Jewry was not the operative factor in the Holocaust, but merely a convenient proxy. Totalitarianism in Germany was, in the end, about megalomania and consistency, not eradicating Jews.

The Human Condition[edit]

Arguably her most influential work, The Human Condition (1958) distinguishes between the concepts of political and social, labor and work, various forms of action, and explores implications of those distinctions. Her theory of political action, corresponding to the existence of a public realm, is extensively developed in this work. Arendt argues that, while human life always evolves within societies, the social-being part of human nature, political life, was intentionally constructed by only a few of these societies as a space for individuals to achieve freedom through the construction of a common world. These categories, which attempt to bridge the gap between ontological and sociological structures, are sharply delineated. While Arendt relegates labor and work to the realm of the "social", she favors the human condition of action as the "political" that is both existential and aesthetic.[15]

Men in Dark Times[edit]

Her collection of essays, Men in Dark Times, presents intellectual biographies of some creative and moral figures of the twentieth century, such as Walter Benjamin, Karl Jaspers, Rosa Luxemburg, Hermann Broch, Pope John XXIII, and Isak Dinesen.

Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil[edit]

In her reporting of the 1961 Adolf Eichmann trial for The New Yorker, which evolved into Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963), she coined the phrase "the banality of evil" to describe Eichmann. She raised the question of whether evil is radical or simply a function of thoughtlessness, a tendency of ordinary people to obey orders and conform to mass opinion without a critical evaluation of the consequences of their actions and inaction. She was sharply critical of the way the trial was conducted in Israel. She also was critical of the way that some Jewish leaders, notably M. C. Rumkowski, acted during the Holocaust. This caused a considerable controversy and even animosity toward Arendt in the Jewish community. Her friend Gershom Scholem, a major scholar of Jewish mysticism, broke off relations with her. Arendt was criticized by many Jewish public figures, who charged her with coldness and lack of sympathy for the victims of the Holocaust.

Due to this lingering criticism, her book has only recently been translated into Hebrew. Arendt ended the book by writing:

Just as you [Eichmann] supported and carried out a policy of not wanting to share the earth with the Jewish people and the people of a number of other nations—as though you and your superiors had any right to determine who should and who should not inhabit the world—we find that no one, that is, no member of the human race, can be expected to want to share the earth with you. This is the reason, and the only reason, you must hang.[citation needed]

On Revolution[edit]

Arendt presents a comparison of the two main revolutions of the eighteenth century, the American and French Revolutions. She goes against a common view of both Marxist and leftist views when she argues that France, while well studied and often emulated, was a disaster and that the largely ignored American Revolution was a success. The turning point in the French Revolution occurred when the leaders rejected their goals of freedom in order to focus on compassion for the masses. In America, the Founding Fathers never betray the goal of Constitutio Libertatis. However, Arendt believes the revolutionary spirit of those men has been lost, and advocates a “council system” as an appropriate institution to regain that spirit.

On Violence[edit]

Arendt's essay, "On Violence", distinguishes between violence and power. She maintains that, although theorists of both the Left and Right regard violence as an extreme manifestation of power, the two concepts are, in fact, antithetical. Power comes from the collective will and does not need violence to achieve any of its goals, since voluntary compliance takes its place. As governments start losing their legitimacy, violence becomes an artificial means toward the same end and is therefore, found only in the absence of power. Bureaucracies then become the ideal birthplaces of violence since they are defined as the "rule by no one" against whom to argue and therefore, recreate the missing links with the people they rule over.

The Life of the Mind[edit]

Her posthumous book, The Life of the Mind (1978, edited by Mary McCarthy), remained incomplete. Stemming from her Gifford Lectures at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, it focuses on the mental faculties of thinking and willing, in a sense moving beyond her previous work concerning the vita activa. In her discussion of thinking, she focuses mainly on Socrates and his notion of thinking as a solitary dialogue between Me and Myself. This appropriation of Socrates leads her to introduce novel concepts of conscience (which gives no positive prescriptions, but instead, tells me what I cannot do if I would remain friends with myself when I re-enter the two-in-one of thought where I must render an account of my actions to myself) and morality (an entirely negative enterprise concerned with non-participation in certain actions for the sake of remaining friends with one's self).


In the intended third volume of The Life of Mind, Arendt was planning to engage the faculty of judgment by appropriating Kant's Critique of Judgment; however, she did not live to write it. Nevertheless, although her notion of judging remains unknown, Arendt did leave manuscripts ("Thinking and Moral Considerations," "Some Questions on Moral Philosophy,") and lectures (Lectures on Kant's Political Philosophy) concerning her thoughts on this mental faculty. The first two articles were edited and published by Jerome Kohn, an assistant of Arendt and a director of Hannah Arendt Center at The New School, and the last was edited and published by Ronald Beiner, professor of political science at the University of Toronto. Her personal library was deposited at Bard College at the Stevenson Library in 1976, and includes approximately 4,000 books, ephemera, and pamphlets from Arendt's last apartment. The college has begun archiving some of the collection digitally, which is available at The Hannah Arendt Collection.[16]



In 2012 a German film titled Hannah Arendt was released, directed by Margarethe von Trotta, and with Barbara Sukowa in the role of Arendt. The film concentrates on the Eichmann trial, and the controversy caused by Arendt's book, which at the time was widely misunderstood as defending Eichmann and blaming Jewish leaders for the Holocaust.

Selected works[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Arendt" entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Section 4
  2. ^ Kelsey Wood (Pulaski Technical College). "Hannah Arendt bio at Literary Encyclopedia". Litencyc.com. Retrieved 24 September 2012. 
  3. ^ Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1998.
  4. ^ John McGowan (15 December 1997). Hannah Arendt: An Introduction. University of Minnesota Press. 
  5. ^ Peter Baehr (2010). Hannah Arendt, Totalitarianism, and the Social Sciences. Stanford University Press. p. 66. ISBN 9780804756501. "Both Hannah Arendt and Aron were assimilated, agnostic Jews (so were Mannheim and Riesman) who became politically radicalized only with the rise of the Nazi movement;..." 
  6. ^ Sznaider, Natan (20 October 2006). "Human, citizen, Jew". Haaretz. Retrieved 28 August 2012. 
  7. ^ Cullen-DuPont, Kathryn (1 August 2000). Encyclopedia of women's history in America. Infobase Publishing. pp. 16–17. ISBN 978-0-8160-4100-8. Retrieved 28 November 2011. 
  8. ^ Arendt, Hannah; Jaspers, Karl (1992), Correspondence 1926-1969 (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich), ISBN 0-15-107887-4 
  9. ^ Arendt, Hannah; McCarthy, Mary (1995), Between Friends: The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy 1949-1975 (Secker & Warburg), ISBN 0-436-20251-4 
  10. ^ Pfeffer, Anshel (9 May 2008). "Dear Hannah". Haaretz. Retrieved 28 August 2012. 
  11. ^ Guide to the Center for Advanced Studies Records, 1958–1969 at Wesleyan University
  12. ^ "Book of Members, 1780-2010: Chapter A". American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 22 April 2011. 
  13. ^ "Deceased Members". American Academy of Arts and Letters. Retrieved 22 April 2011. 
  14. ^ Bird, David (6 December 1975). "Hannah Arendt, Political Scientist, Dead". New York Times. Retrieved 19 November 2008. 
  15. ^ "Arendt" entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Section 3
  16. ^ "Hannah Arendt Collection at Stevenson Library, Bard College". Bard.edu. Retrieved 24 September 2012. 
  17. ^ Shenhav, Yehouda (3 May 2007). "All aboard the Arendt express". Haaretz. Retrieved 28 August 2012. 
  18. ^ "Hannah Arendt Gymnasium, Haßloch". Hagh.bildung-rp.de. Retrieved 24 September 2012. 
  19. ^ "Hannah Arendt Gymnasium, Barsinghausen" (in German). Han-nah.de. 17 September 2012. Retrieved 24 September 2012. 
  20. ^ "Hannah Arendt Gymnasium, Lengerich" (in German). Hag-lengerich.de. Retrieved 24 September 2012. 
  21. ^ "Hannah Arendt Gymnasium, Berlin" (in German). Hag-berlin.net. Retrieved 24 September 2012. 
  22. ^ Kasper Heinrich: Fotografien von Fred Stein: Der Poet mit der Kleinbildkamera. Der Spiegel 11/19, 2013

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

Works about Arendt