I met Hannah Arendt in 1946, at a dinner party given for Rabbi Leo Baeck by Elliot Cohen, the editor of Commentary. It was that long ago. She was a handsome, vivacious forty-year-old woman who was to charm me and others, by no means unerotically, because her interest in her new country, and for literature in English, became as much a part of her as her accent and her passion for discussing Plato, Kant, Nietzsche, Kafka, even Duns Scotus, as if they all lived with her and her strenuous husband Heinrich Bluecher in the shabby rooming house on West 95th Street.

No less than the Bluechers, I felt that Hitler’s war had not ended. The “Holocaust” (no one yet called it that) as the ultimate horror of the Nazi regime’s twelve years so dominated every conversation with them that I was not surprised to learn that Hannah was writing a book on totalitarianism. In the first edition of The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) the book’s thesis was credited entirely to the unpublished philosophy of Bluecher.

Bluecher, an extraordinarily mental creature, an insatiable orator in his living room on the great thinkers even when he transferred his vehement verbal powers to the New School and Bard College, was incapable of writing for publication, whether in German or English. He made up for this by shouting philosophy at you in the sweetest kind of way. He was given to fantasy and exaggeration, noble lies about his military knowledge (he had been a teenage recruit in the Kaiser’s army) and his relationship to the family of Marshal Bluecher.

As a Protestant and independent German radical married to a Jew, he impressed me most by his concern and even identification with Jews. Nothing had so unhinged me from my old “progressive” beliefs as the destruction of the Jews. Hannah and Heinrich were not only close but enclosed, it sometimes seemed to me, by what Churchill had called “the worst episode in human history.” The reverberations of the Nazi experience would never cease. And in the immediate postwar years Hannah impressed me every time I saw her by her stalwart Jewishness, her independent commitment to a Jewish homeland, her directorship of an organization devoted to restoring to devastated Jewish communities the religious and cultural treasures stolen by the Nazis. As a refugee in Paris after 1933 she had worked for the Youth Aliyah trying to get children into Palestine.

Intellectually, like many another Jewish thinker, she was indifferent to Judaism; she had been much more influenced by Christian thought and by what she canonized all her life—philosophy as a daily activity. She had written a famous doctoral dissertation under Karl Jaspers at Heidelberg on St. Augustine’s concept of love, and never tired of quoting her favorite maxim from Augustine, “Love means: I want you to be.” Her conversation, unlike Bluecher’s, was so much from what she had written or was planning to write that reading her again for this piece I distinctly heard her gruff but pliant voice repeating her favorite themes and quotations.

In those early years after the war, before she became the first woman professor at Princeton, a powerful presence at Chicago, Berkeley, etc., her astonishing expressiveness as an expounder was already inseparable from her charm as a woman. This expressiveness, physical and tangible, was for me her greatest attribute. She was too reverential about the great thinkers to claim “originality” in philosophy itself; her distinctive procedure, which she must have learned in German seminars, was to circle round and round the great names, performing a “critique” in their name when she disowned a traditional position. Even in the kitchen she sailed into the airiest flights of German speculation. In the early days this took the form, ironically, of abjuring what Santayana had called “egotism” in German philosophy in favor of politics, the public realm, the Greek tradition of the polis.

This was ironic because though she had shifted from the supposed unworldliness of German philosophy (Heidegger the sometime Nazi was the most telling current example) to political thought, and during the Origins of Totalitarianism period constantly cited Montesquieu and Tocqueville, her interest (as Sheldon Wolin has pointed out)1 turned but to be more in Nietzschean prejudices about the “elite” and the “mob” than in the kind of empirical observations with which Tocqueville had filled his great book on the revolutionary spectacle of “democracy in America.”

The Origins, for me still the book of hers most concentrated on its subject and relatively undistracted by the spectacular theorizing of Heidegger, Husserl, Jaspers, Bultmann that never ceased to haunt her, was still more about “origins” than about German and Russian society. Even the harshly brilliant structure she built up in her last chapters on the parallels between the Hitler-Stalin bureaucracies, their arbitrary use of exclusion and terror, the central importance of the police, seems to me now, rereading the book, a stupendous literary idea, like the structure of Dante’s Hell. There is not a reference to the actualities of czarist society.


I still think that her thesis was right and that “total domination” (a clearer term than “totalitarianism”) is exactly what Stalinism and Hitlerism had in common. But Lenin, the real author of the one-party state, does not figure in her book because the Russia that formed Lenin does not figure there. The fascination of the Origins is in Arendt’s unremarked gift of concentrated literary force—the last chapters are overwhelming, apocalyptic. But she attained this force through her severe logic. The book hammers out the exclusive theory of totalitarianism with which she started and to which her selected phenomena had to fit. So no other book on the subject had such an impact. With her you knew where you were. Totalitarianism was the “burden of our time.”

Hannah Arendt was indeed (on one side of her) a grand and incessant theorist. She was also a complex temperament who in her best East Prussian severity, with other people’s weaknesses and disagreements, always had sharp put-downs for theories and persons she disliked. Her theorizing and her “imperiousness,” as Elisabeth Young-Bruehl puts it in her admiring, extraordinarily full, on the whole dependable biography, did not prevent her from being a femme fatale, though she would have been puzzled by the compliment. The trouble she had with the wives of some American admirers she never ascribed to anything but their lack of parity with their more congenial husbands. Despite her scorn for such feminist tracts as Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, I doubt that she had any more interest in feminism, pro or contra, than Immanuel Kant. Her “heroes” certainly included women of her own moral stamp, like Rosa Luxemburg. Many women, responding to her own gift for friendship, became positive addicts of Arendt.

As a student she had, as Young-Bruehl reveals, an affair with Heidegger, and never got over it. She was proposed to by such eminences as Leo Strauss, W.H. Auden, Hans Morgenthau, and was vainly propositioned by the Austrian novelist Hermann Broch. “Let me be the exception, Hermann.” At her funeral her hard-boiled publisher William Jovanovich startled everyone by breaking down for a second and crying, “I loved her fiercely!” Her first husband, Günther Stern (later Anders), once heard me talking at a party about Hannah, and interrupted to say, “I wish to thank you for speaking so well of my ex-wife Hannah Arendt.” When I reported this to Hannah, she took it as a matter of course and came out with a tribute to their spiritual education in Weimar days—their training in Erkenntnis as mutual recognition. She and Bluecher were positively intoxicated with each other. She identified him so much with herself that she had him buried from a Jewish funeral chapel.

“You must think what you are doing”—a refrain in her conversation and her books until it became her reason for dismissing Eichmann as just an unthinking nonentity—she owed to her philosophic training and especially to Heidegger, whose belief in “thinking” as an autonomous activity influenced her far more than did her father-figure Jaspers, whose style she privately thought prolix.

Emerson (his admirer Nietzsche laughed that he had been too much influenced by German philosophy) was smugly sure that “so long as a man thinks, he is free.” Heidegger believed that “thinking” (apparently only philosophers and poets have ever done it) seeks meaning, not knowledge. To find meaning, one must take up a stance toward the universe, whereas knowledge seeks to possess some portion of it. Knowledge, as in science, is too limited. As “truth,” a special prejudice of our science-dominated minds, it is too easily confirmable and therefore transient in interest. Heidegger as philosopher drew heavily on the pre-Socratics and on a poet like Hölderlin for his image of true philosophizing. He was consciously “archaic”; Arendt’s final excuse for his Nazifying was that he was “primeval.” Both would have agreed with that most Germanic saying of Rilke’s, “Poetry is the past that breaks out in our hearts.”

Poetry as a spell from the past was part of Heidegger’s appeal for Arendt, who wrote a plaintive, stricken kind of lyric verse and who naturally saw poetry as central to her philosopher’s ability to wonder at the phenomenal world. What Heidegger emphasized as Denken was really revelation—perfectly poised attentiveness to what is “concealed.” This encouraged and intensified in Arendt the connection between thinking as dialogue with oneself and her natural sense of solitude. She had grown up fatherless; even before she became a refugee and “homelessness” played a dominating role in her sense of herself as exceptional and a “pariah,” she adhered to a German tradition of exalted solitude that her many fierce interchanges in America never diminished.


The sense of freedom central to her political theory depended on a person’s ability to think for thinking’s sake. “Thinking” as a positive ideal, as a way of closing in on any subject without surrendering to its worldly repute, became her way of independence as well as a constant goad to her untiring intelligence. Her intellectual self-confidence went hand in hand with a candid “loneliness in this world” to which she always managed to give a philosophical and even theological aura. This was the foundation of her free religious concern rather than belief. No one was ever more contemptuous of “psychology”; she never mentioned Freud’s name without a laugh. In her own occasional moments of emotional distress, she could be not just appealing but Antigone-like in her struggle with herself. She was lofty about other people’s conflicts and involvements—especially when these became so hopelessly personal that they could not “think” as a way of solving themselves.

All this gave Arendt an unceasing seriousness of tone and inflexibility of judgment fundamental to the tragic vision of our age behind everything she wrote. The resentment Eichmann in Jerusalem raised among some intellectuals just brought out the feelings many of them had stifled when they read The Origins of Totalitarianism. Before there was “the banality of evil” there was “radical evil.”

It is the appearance of some radical evil, previously unknown to us, that puts an end to the notion of developments and transformations of qualities. Here, there are neither political nor historical nor simply moral standards but, at the most, the realization that something seems to be involved in modern politics that actually should never be involved in politics as we used to understand it, namely all or nothing….

The fear of “parting” that was so fundamental to her emotional temperament became the “break with tradition” in philosophy and politics. “Loneliness” (carefully discriminated from the necessary solitude of “thinking”) she ascribed to the atomized and estranged masses whose helpless anger gave opportunity to the enslaving Nazis. Her overpowering sense of loss, the strain of remembering golden Weimar days on the cluttered, steamy Upper West Side (from the windows of her new apartment on Morningside Drive she could see a park it was suicide to enter) made for more than the usual refugee fret; she had to come to terms with Adenauer as well as Hitler, Nixon as well as the John Adams whom she venerated, rather too didactically for American ears, as a maker of America’s “glorious beginnings.” As a convert to political theory from German idealism, she had to confront and explain so many phenomena that she emerged as an authority in the country that as a good European (like Freud) she once despised but had come to love—for the tradition of political freedom in the oldest written constitution in the Western world.

Ambivalence stayed a central fact of her existence and her teaching. On the one hand, as she defiantly told a German audience when she became a great favorite and prize winner over there, “I am a German Jewess thrown out by Hitler.” On the other hand, it was up to her and what she (like Heidegger) unattractively called her “peer group” to put the tradition together again.

This conflict between the Jew and the German was exactly in line with the amazing creativity of Jews in the German language, from Moses Mendelssohn to Heine, Marx, Freud, Kafka up to her friends Walter Benjamin and Hermann Broch. The locus classicus is Arendt’s almost tormentedly autobiographical biography Rahel Varnhagen: The Life of a Jewess. Varnhagen (1771-1833), married to a German nobleman, was born Rahel Levin, the daughter of a Jewish dealer in gold. She kept a famous salon, and figured as a reigning symbol of “universalism” while the Enlightenment in Germany still permitted such an easy exchange between a “Jewess” and Goethe, Schleiermacher, Fichte, Chamisso, Brentano, Wilhelm and Alexander von Humboldt. The tension that pervades Rahel Varnhagen often sounds desperate. Rahel, an extraordinarily attractive personality who sometimes felt she had sold out and admitted at the end of her life that she was finally glad she had been born Jewish, was nevertheless—like her troubled biographer Hannah Arendt—interested in everything concerning Jewish “identity” and status, but not the old religion.

Marx’s father had him baptized; Heine converted in order to enter society; Freud, much as he depended on Jewish society in Vienna when the respectable world abhorred him, conveniently dismissed all religion as “illusion.” Kafka, who like his fervent admirer Hannah Arendt was studiously respectful of Jewish cultural tradition and even of Yiddish, was no more a religious Jew than she was. He told his Gentile admirer Gustav Janouch, “He who has faith cannot talk about it; he who has no faith should not talk about it.”

Those born to Jewish Orthodoxy usually leave it behind in order to become independently creative. The achievement of the most famous modern Jews is so clearly in violation of the Law that the emergence on the world scene of individual Ostjuden (the last to break away) came very late. The Israeli scholar Jacob Talmon used to say that this was the tragedy of Zionism: it came so late. German Jews were “liberated” from religion earlier than other Jews, partly as a reaction to the enthusiasm for free inquiry in German philosophy and literature. Even “the greatest Jewish scholar of our time,” Gershom Scholem, the principal authority on Jewish mysticism, was not a practicing Jew. The ultra-Orthodox, I am informed, tend to shy away from discussion of the Holocaust. As my student David Zuger said, “It’s too recent.”

The young Karl Marx asserted that the proletariat was to carry out the mission of German philosophy. Hannah Arendt, a traditionalist who found no tradition for her Judaism, was much influenced by the spirit of the Gospels, not by Christian belief. The first edition of The Origins of Totalitarianism ended with resounding consolation from St. Paul in the prison at Acre—“Therefore do yourselves no harm; for we are all here.”

I was not surprised, when Eichmann in Jerusalem appeared, to see her scorn for the Israeli prosecutor Hausner as a “Galician Jew,” a “ghetto type.” I had often enough heard her on “little Jews,” and though she once confessed to a German friend in my hearing, with a great air of disclosure, that she had one Russian grandfather, I never knew until I read this excellently informative biography that her mother’s family were in fact Russian Jews and that the Jews of Königsberg (now Kaliningrad) were predominantly Russian.

If Hitler had not brought both German and Russian Jews to the same pit, German-Jewish fear and resentment of their Eastern brethren might have remained the same fear of Jewish Orthodoxy (equivalent to inferior social status). Chaim Weizmann (himself no believer) was stupefied by the complacency with which some parvenus identified themselves as “Germans of the Mosaic persuasion.” Rabbi Leo Baeck, so firm in his Jewish belief that he called Zionism “a crutch I don’t need,” was, long before the Eichmann book in which she called him “the Jewish Führer,” not someone she admired.

Arendt’s respect for herself as a Jew involved not the slightest respect for the synagogue. And since the synagogue as the foundation of Jewish community life necessitated “leadership,” her charge in the Eichmann book that many in the Judenräte had collaborated with the Nazis really had its foundation not in her better understanding that the condemned Jews were politically helpless but in her scorn for Jewish “leaders.” (One of the many disgusting attacks against Jacobo Timerman by the new Jewish right is that he flouted “Jewish leadership.”) Arendt herself, following the French critic of the Jewish establishment Bernard Lazare, believed in being a “pariah” rather than a “parvenu.” Of course she found it easier to think of herself as a “pariah” (totally independent) when intellectual America resounded with her name than she would have to find herself a “pariah” in Treblinka.

Her scorn for Jewish religious practice led her to ignore features of Jewish passivity that would have explained the Jewish political weakness she lamented at the opening of the Origins. The Jehovah’s Witnesses who were so impervious to Nazi assaults in the camps were not so different from the many Jewish Orthodox who believed that they were dying for Kiddush Ha-Shem, the sanctification of the Name. In the “God-intoxicated” depths of traditional Judaism, in the religious separateness that was thrown back on the Jews and was by no means unwanted, lay much of what Arendt excoriated as opportunism. The Jews being assembled for death by the Nazis were God’s “pariahs”—made so by their uncertain relation to an all-sovereign God who was their only raison d’être.

Eichmann in Jerusalem was a journalistic coup, a masterful—but often arrogantly tendentious—assemblage of evidence. Arendt had become an extraordinary literary performer in English. The tone, as Gershom Scholem told her in a famous reproach, was heartless. Since in my experience she could not take criticism, I was not surprised when she began her unsatisfactory reply by addressing Scholem by his old German name, Gerhardt.

The “banality of evil” thesis followed from Arendt’s now favorite idea that mere bureaucrats, dreadfully “normal” functionaries like an Eichmann, did not “think” what they were doing and were to the philosopher’s taste—boring. This was appalling German intellectual swank. It has not become less injurious to “thinking.” Many a journalist and television commentator refers to the “banality of evil” with a confidence that makes one sick.

Arendt herself disproved the “banality” thesis when she opened her book by criticizing the prosecutor’s attempt to make Eichmann’s devilish character the explanation of his deeds. As she said, the defendant in a murder trial especially is to be judged not by his “character” but by his deeds. There is nothing “banal” about the “extermination” (as the world has come to call it) of six million Jews. The Holocaust, “Death as God” Saul Bellow called it in Herzog, should not have aroused so much idle chatter on the part of Jewish intellectuals, whether as useless explanation, bad literature, or phony theology. No doubt the dreadfully irrelevant literature proves nothing more than what Arendt rightfully attacked as political weakness. From which she was certainly not exempt.

I cannot leave it at that. “You must think what you are doing” is a piece of wholly unpolitical Heideggerian elitism that hardly applies to mass politics and condemned people. As Young-Bruehl shows in her excellent biography, Arendt could be inconsistent to an extreme. In conversation during the McCarthy period, her political judgments were catastrophic; her considered retrospect on the astonishing degradation of America in recent years—no one said anything better during the bicentennial about the American situation than her reflections in these pages, “Home to Roost”2—was properly acerb and even tragic in tone. Her political instinct was unerring against those who, like Sidney Hook, still called themselves “socialist” but were always so much more interested in foreign policy against Russia that they overlooked or excused depredations at home. On the influence of those she called ex-communists rather than “former” communists, those who have made a career of having once been communists, she called the turn very early in the Fifties. This was when the former Trotskyist Irying Kristol called for the restriction of civil liberties. His ascent after that did not surprise her in the least.

Never having been a leftist, she ignored the necessity of having a “line.” She believed in “revolutionary councils,” supported enthusiastically Churchill’s denunciation of the “iron curtain,” adored Rosa Luxemburg in lofty unconcern for Rosa’s revolutionary Marxism, paid no attention to her beloved John Adams’s little tyrannies in office. “Freedom and justice” said it all for her—a party of one. It would have amazed her to read the misleading review of this book by Peter Berger in The New York Times Book Review, with its attempt to make her out as an exponent of the German left. She was in fact roundly criticized as a reactionary by the German teachers to whom she lectured. On many current issues her positions were determinedly moral rather than political, quirky rather than “sensible” in the liberal (or rightist) American style: they were not to be anticipated even by her.

But what made her exceptional indeed, especially when seen against the mingled success and fright that marked so many American Jews in the postwar years, intellectuals and “leaders” alike, was what I will always think of as her intellectual love of God, her belief in gratitude for our gift of being. A less fancy way of saying this: many modern Jews are religiously frustrated; she was not willing to be. While she discounted Judaism, and was often impatient with Jews, she did so out of spiritual need. Many who speak in the name of the Jews and even of the Holocaust seemed to her just hungry for importance—and, what is poignant, for identity.

I do not think for a moment that Hannah Arendt knew the solution to Jewish history. Perhaps there is no solution so long as the religious crisis goes unremarked. But what made Hannah Arendt’s name a specter and a bugaboo to many, an everlasting consolation to a few, is that she invested her expressiveness (this was the impact of her experience, her personality, her “love of the world,” all more than “thinking”) in the conviction that there has been a “break” in human history. She lived this. That there has been a “break,” that we live in truly “dark times,” no one confronted by her was allowed to doubt. Arendt’s greatest value, her distinct example, was that she could not accept this break, as most of us do.

This Issue

June 24, 1982