Hannah Arendt was born in Lower Saxony on October 14, 1906. She grew up in Königsberg and studied philosophy with Martin Heidegger and Karl Jaspers. In the early 1930s, she lived in Berlin and worked for a German Zionist organization, collecting evidence for publication abroad about anti-Semitism in German society. She also helped run a sort of “underground railroad,” getting political enemies of the new Hitler regime (mostly Communists) out of the country. In 1933, after having been arrested in Berlin and held briefly for a few days by the police, she fled without papers but with her widowed mother to Prague, then Geneva, and then Paris.
In Paris, she worked for an organization helping young Jews who wanted to settle in Palestine. (Arendt herself visited Jerusalem in 1935.) In 1940, like most German refugees, she was interned in a camp, from which she escaped in the chaos following the fall of France. Before the Vichy government began handing over Jews for deportation to Germany, Arendt secured a visa to enter the United States, and traveled by train to Lisbon and thence to New York.
In New York, she wrote for the German-language newspaper Aufbau on issues related to the fate of the Jews in Europe. Many of her columns are reproduced in a remarkable collection, The Jewish Writings, just published. Arendt was one of a small group of refugees agitating for the establishment of a specifically Jewish army “to join the battle against Hitler as Jews, in Jewish battle formations under a Jewish flag.” And she was involved from an early stage in various controversies surrounding the question of Palestine, arguing for arrangements that would take full account of the need for Arab-Jewish cooperation. After seventeen years of statelessness, she was naturalized as an American citizen in 1950.
Arendt lived through very dark times, some of the darkest ever seen in Europe, and in the period from the mid-1940s to the mid-1960s, she immersed herself in an attempt to understand the murderous horror that had revealed itself. The Origins of Totalitarianism and Eichmann in Jerusalem were the great and controversial products of that attempt at understanding. For her, the years of total war and the murder of millions of Jews told us not just what Nazis were capable of but what human beings were capable of. It was not enough, she wrote, to say “God be thanked, I am not like that” in the face of what we had learned of the potentialities in the German national character. “Rather, in fear and trembling,” she said, “have [we] finally realized of what man is capable.”
Arendt lived through difficult times in the United States too. She taught at Berkeley, at the New School, and at the University of Chicago during periods of serious campus unrest and racial disturbance. The essays she wrote in the 1960s (many of them in The New York Review), which she published in a book called Crises of the Republic, bore witness to the catastrophic…
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