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Hannah Arendt - Biography


Hannah Arendt (1906 – 1975)

Hannah Arendt was born on October 14, 1906, in Hanover, Wilhelmine, Germany. Raised in Konigsberg, she was the only child of Paul and Martha (Cohn) Arendt, both prodigy of entrepreneurs from Russian-Jewish families. When she was seven, her father died of paresis (syphilitic insanity). Her mother married Martin Beerwald in 1920, bringing two older stepsisters, Eva and Clara Beerwald, into Hannah Arendt's home.

Arendt was an avid reader from a young age, and by her sixteenth year her literary interests included Kant, and Goethe. In 1924 she graduated from high school in Koenigsberg. Perhaps inspired by the theology and romantic thought of Kierkegaard's poetry that was also in her library, she decided to study theology at the University of Marburg with Rudolf Bultmann. Martin Heidegger was lecturing at Marburg on Existenzphilosophie, and writing what would eventually become Sein und Zeit [Being and time] in 1927. It was during her time at Marburg that Arendt began her long relationship with Heidegger, sparked by a brief and passionate affair. The affair ended when Arendt learned of Heidegger's involvement in the National Socialist party, but the friendship, however strained, would continue for years to come, and Heidegger's phenomenological method had a notable influence on Arendt's work.

Arendt went on to study the phenomenological method with Husserl, then became a student at the University of Heidelberg, studying with the existentialist Karl Jaspers. It is under Jaspers that she wrote her dissertation on St. Augustine's concept of Love (Der Liebesbegriff bei Augustin). Jaspers and Arendt maintained a close relationship throughout their lives.

Arendt's unique approach to political thought is derived from her education in and fidelity to the phenomenological method. Unlike typical political writing or philosophy which might begin with an analysis of general political concepts or empirical data associated with political science and impose conceptual structures on experience after the fact, she begins by prioritizing human life in its 'factical' and experiential character. By using the phenomenological method, returning to 'the things themselves', she attempts to reveal the fundamental structures of political experience, or political being-in-the-world, in its distinct existence apart from other ways of being.

In September 1929 Arendt earned her doctorate, and married Günther Stern (whose nom-de-plume was Günter Anders). Anti-Semitism was on the rise in Germany, and Arendt undertook a project that would help her understand the conflict between German Nationalism and minority status. The book Rahel Varnhagen: The Life of a Jewish Woman was a biography of a Jewish salon hostess in Berlin in the early 1800s who converted to Christianity. It remained unpublished until 1958.

In 1933, with National Socialism on the rise, Arendt increased her political activity. In association with the German Zionist Organization lead by Kurt Blimenfeld, she assisted the publication of information regarding victims of Nazism. She was arrested by the Gestapo for conducting research on anti-Semitic propaganda, but managed to escape her prison sentence and fled to Paris. In Paris she gained the friendship of Walter Benjamin and Raymond Aron, and continued her political activism through work with Youth Aliyah moving Jewish children from Germany to Palestine.

In 1939 Arendt divorced her first husband and remarried the following year to Heinrich Blücher who she had met in 1936. Blücher, a political refugee from Germany, was a communist, and had been a member of the Spartacus League run by Rosa Luxemburg. Only six months into their marriage in 1940 the couple was separately interned in Southern France, the fate of many other stateless Germans when the Wehrmacht invaded. Arendt managed to escape from Gurs where she was interned, she reunited with Blücher, and in May 1941 found safe passage to neutral America. During the rest of World War II, Arendt lived in New York, and worked on what would eventually be published as The Origins of Totalitarianism. This text was finally published in 1951, the same year she became a citizen of the United States. The Origins of Totalitarianism was received enthusiastically, and made Arendt an intellectual celebrity. It was reprinted as an expanded edition in 1958, having taken into account the Hungarian Revolution of 1956.

In New York Arendt worked in two main intellectual circles. Her writing appeared early on in the journal Jewish Social Studies, and she became friends with the editor and his wife, Salo and Jeannette Baron. She wrote arguments for a Jewish army in other magazines like Jewish Frontier and Aufbau [Reconstruction]. She worked as an editor at Schocken Books, a German Jewish publishing firm that had been reestablished in New York and Palestine. Baron charged Arendt with the task of redistributing Judaic artifacts and salvaged treasures for the Jewish Cultural Reconstruction. Her other intellectual circle of activity included Dwight Macdonald and Mary McCarthy, and was associated with the Partisan Review. In this circle she met the critic Alfred Kazin who aided her with her writing of The Origins of Totalitarianism.

In 1952 Arendt received a Guggenheim Foundation Grant for the study of Marxism and totalitarianism. Her next three books came from this work: The Human Condition (1958); Between Past and Future (1961); and On Revolution (1968). In these texts we can read her desire to reconstruct political philosophy in phenomenological terms. The controversial text Reflections on Little Rock (1959) studied the emerging Black civil rights movement. She wrote articles for the New York Review of Books in the 1960s and early 1970s criticizing the abuse of executive power and what she calls the "imperial presidency" associated with military intervention in Vietnam. She became the first woman to hold a full professorship at Princeton University and she went on the teach at the University of Chicago, Wesleyan University, and the New School for Social Research in New York.

Arendt published the most controversial work of her career in 1963 with Eichmann in Jerusalem. Arendt covered Eichmann's trial in Isreal as a correspondent for The New Yorker in 1960, when Isreali security forces had captured the S.S. lieutenant colonel responsible for the transportation of Jews to death camps. Eichmann in Jerusalem is the collection of revised articles from her coverage of the trial. According to her text, Eichmann had not had a sadistic will to do evil, but had been thoughtless; he had failed to think about what he was doing. Her concept of the banality of evil caused considerable friction between herself and the organized Jewish community, as her book was read by some as an elevation of Eichmann's character and a questioning of Jewish innocence. Arendt was concerned that the ability to act according to conscience and rational thought was becoming obscured by partisanship and nationalism, combined with modernization. Most of her writing studies the sense of a shared world and the possibilities of freedom grounded therein.

Arendt's writing on the Eichmann trials lead to a series of lectures on judgement, the neo-Kantian meditation which were part of the work for The Life of the Mind (1978). While in Aberdeen, Scotland, delivering these Gifford Lectures, she survived a heart attack. The second and fatal attack occurred while entertaining the Barons in her New York apartment on December 4, 1975. The first two volumes of The Life of the Mind were published posthumously, Volume 1 Thinking and Volume 2 Willing, as her death cut short her work on the third volume, Judging.

Arendt's life became the inspiration for the novel An Admirable Woman (1983) by Arthur A. Cohen, possibly because her personal struggles and romantic life were so intriguing. Her romantic interests included Leo Strauss, Hans J. Morgenthau, and W.H. Auden. During her life she fiercely guarded her privacy, tending to resist doing interviews or appearing on television. Although she was one of the United States' most prominent intellectuals, she refused the Anglo-American philosophical tendencies of pragmatism, empiricism, and liberalism. Her texts have had an enormous impact on political theory, and many conferences, books and anthologies continue to celebrate her work. In 1975 Hannah Arendt was awarded the Sonning Prize by the Danish government for Contributions to European Civilization, an award that has never before been received by an American or a woman.