Hannah Arendt: Contribution as American Historian

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      Hannah Arendt 1906-1975 German born American Jewish historian philosopher and political scientist. Arendt went to Marburg to study philosophy and at the age of 18 became the lover of her teacher, Martin Heidegger (then 35, already married and writing his master work, Being and Time), whom she was later to refer to as 'the secret king of (modern) thought'. Later she left for Heidelberg to study with Karl Jaspers, under whose supervision she wrote her doctoral dissertation on Saint Augustine's concept of love. It reveals her other great influence: Rahel Varnhagen, a German-Jewish bluestocking who maintained a celebrated salon in Berlin at a time (1790 — 1806) when intellectual Jews mixed with non-jewish writers and intellectuals. Arendt, like Varnhagen, was obsessed with modern Jews' 'worldlessness' due to their self-exile from the gilded ghetto of the Jewish middle class and the uncertainty of their place in Gentile society. With Hitler's rise to power, Arendt emigrated to Paris, in 1933, and was immersed in Jewish relief activities until 1941, when she fled to America, where she lived (in New York) for the rest of her life.

      The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) made her famous, and controversial, because she argued that Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany were functionally the same. She was resented by the left for the ease with which her arguments were co-opted to bolster the Western position in the Cold War. In her most important completed theoretical work, The Human Condition (1958), she adapted some of Heidegger's key ideas. She sought consistently to dignify the idea of political life as against the contempt for the worldly world of most philosophers, Heidegger included. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963) is her best-known book. It began as a series of New Yorker articles on the trial of Adolph Eichmann, the Nazi bureaucrat in charge of the deportation of Jews to the concentration camps. She brought down on herself the rage of old friends and of the organized Jewish community in America. She argued that, far from being monstrous according to our conventional romantic and religious ideas of evil, Eichmann represented a new kind of monstrosity: normal, ordinary, at worst ludicrous and incapable of thought. She said that many fewer Jews would have gone to their deaths had the Jewish community's leaders not provided the enemy with so much information and aid. During her last decade, she surprised those who had thought of her as basically conservative by her sympathetic essays on the student movement against the war in Vietnam. She wrote at length about the crisis of authority, in this respect as in others deeply influencing the leftwing German social philosopher Jurgen Habermas. Although she came late to the English language, she proved to be a gifted writer in the tradition of Jewish ironists like Heinrich Heine. She had many literary friends, including Mary McCarthy; W. H. Auden, and Robert Lowell.

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