Hannah Arendt dated her awakening to February 27, 1933, the day the Reichstag burned down. From the moment Adolf Hitler began using the fire as a pretext to suspend civil liberties and crush dissent, Arendt said, “I felt responsible.” She took responsibility for observing the inhuman uses of power and for summoning her generation to judgment and action.
Born in 1906, Arendt grew up in Königsberg (then part of Germany) and attended the University of Marburg, where she studied theology, ancient Greek literature, and, under Martin Heidegger, philosophy. She wrote her Ph.D. dissertation on Saint Augustine’s concept of love, working at the University of Heidelberg with the philosopher Karl Jaspers, who became her mentor. With the Nazi crackdown in 1933, Arendt, who was Jewish, went into political opposition, and began to collect evidence of the persecution of German Jews. She was arrested by the Gestapo, and upon her release, she fled to Paris, becoming a stateless person, which she remained for eighteen years.
In France she worked for a Zionist organization, Youth Aliyah, helping to secure the transport of Jewish children to Palestine. In 1940 she was detained and sent to an internment camp in Gurs, from which she escaped. Together with her husband, Heinrich Blücher, she managed to evade the Nazis and crossed the Spanish border. The pair then made their way, via Lisbon, to New York, where they arrived, speaking little English, in May 1941. The Origins of Totalitarianism, which she dedicated to Blücher, was published exactly a decade later, in 1951, the same year that she became an American citizen. In a generally favorable review in The New York Times, E.H. Carr described the book as “the work of one who has thought as well as suffered.”
If the Reichstag fire galvanized Arendt, it was knowledge of Hitler’s death camps that changed her. She first got wind of the “fabrication of corpses” in early 1943, but for six months neither she nor her husband was able to accept the reports of extermination. Reason got the better of them. “At first we didn’t believe it,” she said later, “because militarily it was unnecessary and uncalled for.” But once the gruesome had become real, she said, it was “as if an abyss had opened.”
After her initial incomprehension, Arendt was so moved by the horrors of the concentration camps that she undertook a study of monumental scope. In late 1944 she began submitting outlines to Houghton Mifflin for a proposed volume, The Elements of Shame: Anti-Semitism—Imperialism—Racism, which she also referred to as The Three Pillars of Hell. At a time when most scholars, and even a great many Jews, were turning away from the unbearable details of the Final Solution, Arendt was determined to uncover the essence of the system that produced it. But even as she studied Hitler’s atrocities and ideology of elimination, she took note of the ghastly developments in the Soviet Union. At the …