Hannah Arendt
Hannah Arendt; drawing by David Levine


Hannah Arendt died twenty years ago, leaving a curious and divided legacy. To some she represented the worst of “Continental” philosophizing: metaphysical musings upon modernity and its ills unconstrained by any institutional or intellectual discipline and often cavalierly unconcerned with empirical confirmation. They note her weakness for a phrase or an aperçu, often at the expense of accuracy. For such critics her insights into the woes of the century are at best derivative, at worst plain wrong. Others, including the many young American scholars who continue to study and discuss her work, find her a stimulating intellectual presence; her refusal to acknowledge academic norms and conventional categories of explanation, which so frustrates and irritates her critics, is precisely what most appeals to her admirers. Twenty years after her death they see her desire for a “new politics” of collective public action vindicated by the revolutions of 1989, and her account of modern society in general and totalitarianism in particular confirmed by the course of contemporary history. Both sides have a point, though it is sometimes difficult to remember that they are talking about the same person.

In fact, and despite the broad range of topics covered in her writings, Hannah Arendt was throughout her adult life concerned above all with two closely related issues: the problem of political evil in the twentieth century and the dilemma of the Jew in the contemporary world. If we add to this the special difficulty she experienced in acknowledging the distinctive place of Germany in the story she tried to tell—a difficulty of which she was not, it seems to me, always fully aware—we have grasped the central threads of all her writings, even those that seem at first reading most abstracted from such concerns. It does not follow from this that Arendt’s various works can be reread in this light as a single, continuous, coherent theoretical undertaking—she is every bit as diffuse and muddled as her critics claim; but if we understand her main historical concerns against the background of her own obsessions, it becomes a little easier to see just what holds together the various parts of her oeuvre and why they provoke such diverse and powerful responses.

The central place in all of Arendt’s thinking of the problem of totalitarianism seems obvious.1 In a 1954 piece, “Understanding and Politics,” reprinted in Jerome Kohn’s useful and very well-edited collection of her early essays, she stakes out her territory without ambiguity: “If we want to be at home on this earth, even at the price of being at home in this century, we must try to take part in the interminable dialogue with the essence of totalitarianism.” As she would later express it in her “Thoughts about Lessing,” the “pillars of the best-known truths” lie shattered today, and the first task of the survivors is to ask how this happened and what can be done.2 That her own attempt to make sense of the age would not endear her to everyone was something she anticipated as early as 1946, well before the appearance of The Origins of Totalitarianism: “Those few students,” she wrote in “The Nation,” “…who have left the field of surface descriptions behind them, who are no longer interested in any particular aspect nor in any particular new discovery because they know that the whole is at stake, are forced into the adventure of structural analyses and can hardly be expected to come forward with perfect books.”

Origins is, indeed, not a perfect book. Nor is it particularly original. The sections on imperialism lean heavily on the classic work Imperialism, by J.L. Hobson, published in 1905, and on Rosa Luxemburg’s Marxist account in The Accumulation of Capital (1913). Luxemburg’s version was particularly appealing to Arendt because of its emphasis on the self-perpetuating (and self-defeating) nature of capitalist expansion, a characteristic which Arendt then transposed onto totalitarianism; but she also found the general Marxist approach congenial, less for its broader historical claims, which she dismissed and indeed associated with the totalitarian phenomenon itself, than for Marxism’s attack on bourgeois philistinism and its adulation of the proletariat. She felt some affinity with both of these prejudices. She borrowed widely, and with rather less acknowledgement, from the works of Franz Neumann and Franz Borkenau, exiles like herself who had in large measure anticipated her account of the Nazi and Soviet states. Her debt to Boris Souvarine, a disillusioned French Trotskyist who published in 1935 a brilliant and prescient study of Stalin, is, however, openly and generously recognized, though her enduring nostalgia for a certain lost innocence of the left prevented her from endorsing Souvarine’s root-and-branch inclusion of Lenin in his condemnation of the Soviet enterprise.3

The enduring importance of Arendt’s major work thus rests not upon the originality of its contribution but on the quality of its central intuition. What Arendt understood best, and what binds together her account of Nazism and her otherwise unconnected and underdeveloped discussion of the Soviet experience, was the psychological and moral features of what she called totalitarianism.


By breaking up and taking over all of society, including the whole governing apparatus itself, totalitarian regimes dominate and terrorize individuals from within. The arbitrary and apparently irrational, anti-utilitarian nature of life under such regimes destroys the texture of shared experience, of reality, upon which normal life depends and disarms all attempts by reasonable men to understand and explain the course of events. Hence the tragic failure of outsiders to perceive the danger posed by totalitarian movements, and the lasting inability of commentators to grasp the enormity of the events they were witnessing. Instead of admitting what Arendt called the “utter lunacy” of Stalinism or Nazism, scholarly and other analysts looked for some firm ground of “interest” or “rationality” from which to reinsert these developments into the familiar political and moral landscape.4

In the case of Nazism they thus missed the central place of genocide. Far from being just another exercise in mass violence, the plot to eliminate whole peoples and categories of people represented the ultimate in the control and dismantling of the human person and was thus not extraneous to the meaning of the regime but the very basis of it. Similarly, the Stalinist era was not a perversion of the logic of Historical Progress but its very acme—evidence of the infinite malleability of all experience and reality at the service of an idea.

It is not necessary to endorse this account in all its detail to understand that Arendt had it essentially right. At the time and for many years afterward she was assailed by historians, political scientists, and others for the excessively moral, even metaphysical quality of her approach, for her conflation of very different social experiences into a single story, and for her neglect of a variety of factors and (in the Soviet case) “achievements” that might moderate her interpretation. As Eric Hobsbawm remarked in a review of On Revolution, historians and others would be “irritated, as the author plainly is not, by a certain lack of interest in mere fact, a preference for metaphysical construct or poetic feeling…over reality.”5

Most of all, of course, many of her readers could not understand, much less endorse, the merging of German and Russian regimes into a single type. They quite correctly noted her annoying habit of attributing to totalitarian regimes, even to Hitler and Stalin themselves, a sort of ideological self-awareness, as though they themselves knew that they were engaged in making their own ideological predictions (about the Jewish “problem” or the inevitability of class conflict) come true; Arendt admitted as much many years later in a September 1963 letter to Mary McCarthy, where she concedes that “the impact of ideology upon the individual may have been overrated by me [in the Origins].” 6

Since then, however, historians, essayists, and dissidents have done much to illustrate and confirm her account.7 Her emphasis upon the centrality of terror, which seemed disproportionate when she first proposed it, now sounds almost commonplace. As Arendt expressed it, terror executes on the spot the death sentence supposedly pronounced by Nature upon races and persons, or else by History upon classes, thus speeding-up “natural” or “historical” processes.8 Her criticism of the Jacobins, in On Revolution, for aiming at a Republic of Virtue and installing instead a reign of terror, offended many at the time for its cavalier unconcern with the classic accounts and interpretations of the French Revolution, Marxist and liberal alike. It now sounds like a benign anticipation of the historical consensus espoused by François Furet and other scholars, notably in their appreciation of terror not as an extraneous political device but as the primary motor and logic of modern tyranny.

If Hannah Arendt understood something that so many others missed (and continue to miss, to judge from certain strains in modern German social historiography), it was because she was more concerned with the moral problem of “evil” than with the structures of any given political system; as she put it in “Nightmare and Flight,” first published in 1945 and reprinted in the Essays, “The problem of evil will be the fundamental question of postwar intellectual life in Europe—as death became the fundamental question after the last war.”

It is telling to discover from Kohn’s collection that she was an avid and careful reader of some of the great antimodern Catholic writers—in a 1945 essay on “Christianity and Revolution” she discusses not only Charles Péguy and Georges Bernanos but also and less predictably G.K. Chesterton. In our post-Christian world, discussion of Evil has a curious, anachronistic feel, rather like invoking the Devil; even when modern students of murderous regimes acknowledge the value of describing them as evil they have been reluctant to invoke the term in any explanatory capacity. But Arendt suffered no such inhibitions, which is why, long before her controversial essay on Eichmann, she engaged the matter of evil head-on. It was not sufficient, she wrote in a 1953 response to Eric Voegelin’s criticism of Origins, to treat the totalitarian criminals as “murderers” and punish them accordingly. In a world where murder had been accorded the status of a civic duty, the usual moral (and legal) categories will not suffice.9 The following year she developed the point further in “Understanding and Politics”: “The trouble with the wisdom of the past is that it dies, so to speak, in our hands as soon as we try to apply it honestly to the central political experiences of our time. Everything we know of totalitarianism demonstrates a horrible originality which no farfetched historical parallels can alleviate.”


This observation isn’t very helpful for lawyers (Arendt was trying to account for what she saw as the failure of the Nuremberg Trials), but it does account for her resort to the notion of “banality” when she came to address the problem of Eichmann. Her earlier inclination had been to describe the evil quality of totalitarianism as something utterly “radical”; but Karl Jaspers and others had noted the risk entailed here of making Nazism in particular seem somehow unique and thus, in an awful way, “great.” As she thought about the matter more, she developed a rather different line of reasoning: in various essays and later in The Human Condition and The Life of the Mind she argues that evil comes from a simple failure to think.

If this implies that evil is a function of stupidity, then Arendt is merely indulging a tautology of her own making. Moreover, since she nowhere suggests that goodness is a product (or description) of intelligence, she probably did not mean to be taken too seriously. After all, as Mary McCarthy pointed out in a letter of June 1971, if, e.g., Eichmann truly “cannot think” then he is just a monster. But if he has a “wicked heart” then he is exercising some freedom of choice and is thus open to moral condemnation in the usual way. Here, as elsewhere, we do well not to make of Arendt too consistent a thinker.

However, as an account of a certain sort of evil person Arendt’s idea was suggestive. In a 1945 essay, “Organized Guilt and Universal Responsibility,” she quotes an interview with a camp official at Majdanek. The man admits to having gassed and buried people alive. Then: Q. “Do you know the Russians will hang you?” A. “(Bursting into tears) Why should they? What have I done?”10 As she commented, such people were just ordinary job-holders and good family men. Their deeds may be monstrous, evidence in Arendt’s words of “the bankruptcy of common sense,” but the officials themselves are quite simply stupid, ordinary, everyday persons—in short, banal. There is something frustratingly, terrifyingly plausible about this observation.11 It rings true not just for Eichmann, but for other more recently prominent characters as well—Klaus Barbie or Paul Touvier—and thus suggests something important about the totalitarian state and its servants.

When Arendt came under attack for proposing this characterization it was in part because she did so too soon, as it were, but also because she attached it to a series of provocative and controversial remarks on the other subject that obsessed her, Jews.


In order to understand the complexities of Arendt’s relationship to her own, and other people’s, Jewishness, it is crucial to remember that she was, after all, a German Jew. Like the German-speaking Jews of Prague, Vienna, and other cities of the old Empire, the Jews of Germany were different from the Jews of the East, and they knew it and felt it. They were educated and cultivated in German, steeped in German Bildung, and quite lacked the difficult and frequently distant relationship to the dominant language and culture that shaped Jewish experience in Russia, Poland, and elsewhere in East-Central Europe. They certainly knew that they were Jews and that their non-Jewish German neighbors and fellow citizens knew they were Jewish; but this did not diminish their identification with the idea of German-ness. In the words of Moritz Goldstein, writing in 1912 and quoted with approval by Arendt in her essay on Walter Benjamin, “our relationship to Germany is one of unrequited love.”12 As she wrote of Rahel Varnhagen, the subject of one of her first books, “Abroad, her place of origin was called Berlin; in Berlin it was called Judengasse.”13

This deep sense of her own German-ness is invoked by Margaret Canovan, among others, to account for the care Arendt took in her study of totalitarianism to divert attention away from the distinctively German sources of Nazism and make of it a general “Western” or “modern” deviation. This seems likely; Arendt never really confronted the fact that the worst persecutions, of Jews in particular, in the modern era took place in Germany. As late as 1964, while enjoying herself with some German interviewers, she admitted to Mary McCarthy that “in my youth, I used to be rather lucky with German goiim (never, incidentally, with German Jews) and I was amused to see that some of my luck still holds.”

She also had some of the characteristic German prejudices of her youth, notably with respect to the less fortunate peoples to the south and east; in a piece dating from 1944 she scornfully dismissed the European émigré press in the US, “worrying their heads off over the pettiest boundary disputes in a Europe thousands and thousands of miles away—such as whether Teschen belongs to Poland or Czechoslovakia, or Vilna to Lithuania instead of to Poland!” No “Ost-Jud” would have missed the significance of these disputes. Of the Ost-Juden themselves, Arendt wrote dismissively in The Origins of Totalitarianism:

These East European conditions, however, although they constituted the essence of the Jewish mass question, are of little importance in our context. Their political significance was limited to backward countries where the ubiquitous hatred of Jews made it almost useless as a weapon for specific purposes.

This almost snobbish, High German quality also contributed to her troubled relations with American Jewry; as William Barrett put it, “one part of her never quite assimilated to America.” With her classical education and memories of youth in Königsberg and student days in Marburg and Heidelberg, she probably found many of the America Jews she met, intellectuals included, rather philistine if not positively autodidacts.14 They in turn could not grasp how one might be so assertively and proudly Jewish and yet (and above all) German at the same time. For she most certainly was Jewish. The titles of the closing chapters of Rahel Varnhagen give the clue: “Between Pariah and Parvenu” and “One Does Not Escape Jewishness.”

This unambiguous identity did not of course preclude a certain distance from Jewishness—far from it; Arendt was always most critical of her own world and its tragic political myopia. In Rahel Varnhagen she notes that “the Berlin Jews considered themselves exceptions. And just as every anti-Semite knew his personal exceptional Jews in Berlin, so every Berlin Jew knew at least two eastern Jews in comparison with whom he felt himself to be an exception.”15 In her essay on Rosa Luxemburg, another exceptional Jewish woman with whom she felt a close affinity, she makes the same point in a different key: “While the self-deception of assimilated Jews consisted in the mistaken belief that they were just as German as the Germans, just as French as the French, the self-deception of the intellectual Jews consisted in thinking that they had no ‘fatherland,’ for their fatherland actually was Europe.”16

Her critical distance from official Zionism was consistent with such attitudes. Hannah Arendt had become Zionist in Germany, had passed through a neo-Zionist phase in which she was drawn to bi-nationalism in Palestine, and was never anti-Israel; as she wrote to Mary McCarthy in December 1968, “Any real catastrophe in Israel would affect me more deeply than almost anything else.” But she was quite firmly anti-nationalist, Jewish or any other kind; hence the impossibility of her position for many American Jews, who could not readily imagine a strong secular Jewish consciousness divorced from any sympathy for the “national solution.” Moreover her deeply held belief, as much aesthetic as political, in the need to separate the private from the public meant that she found something distasteful (and perhaps a little “oriental”?) in the confident political style and self-promotion of many of the leading figures in North American Jewry, including certain intellectuals of her own acquaintance.

It was this cultural abyss, as much as the substance of the work, that explains the otherwise absurd furor over Eichmann in Jerusalem. At thirty years’ distance the book seems much less controversial. Copious research on the Judenräte, the Jewish Councils of Nazidominated Europe, suggests what should have been obvious at the time: Arendt knew little about the subject, and some of her remarks about Jewish “responsibility” were insensitive and excessive,17 but there is a troubling moral question mark hanging over the prominent Jews who took on the task of administering the ghettos. She was not wrong to raise the matter, nor was she mistaken in some of her judgments; but she was indifferent, perhaps callously so, to the dilemmas Jews faced at the time, and was characteristically provocative, even “perverse” (as the historian Henry Feingold put it) in insisting on the powers of the Jewish leaders and neglecting to call due attention to their utter helplessness and, in many cases, their real ignorance of the fate that awaited the Jews.

If the Councils were in one sense the heirs to older self-governing bodies of existing Jewish communities and thus responsible for eliding the distinction between running Jewish life and administering Jewish death, they were also the chosen device of the Nazis for pursuing their own policies.18 Here as elsewhere it was Nazi policy to make others do their work for them, and while it is almost certainly the case that utter noncooperation would have made things infinitely harder for the Germans, the same observation applies all the more forcibly to the relative compliance of locally appointed non-Jewish authorities in occupied France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and elsewhere.

Arendt made things worse for herself by inserting her controversial but brief comments on this subject into a text that not only introduced the notion of “banality”—such that Jews seemed to become “responsible,” Germans merely “banal”—but also criticized Israel for having staged a “show trial” and chosen to emphasize “crimes against the Jewish people” instead of “crimes against humanity.” The irony is that the Eichmann Trial was a show trial—much as the more recent Barbie and Touvier trials in France were show trials, not in the sense of being rigged but in their primarily pedagogical function. The guilt of the accused in all these cases was never in question. Ben-Gurion was less interested in establishing Eichmann’s responsibility, or even in extracting revenge, than in educating a new generation about the past sufferings of the Jews, and thereby further strengthening the foundations of the still fragile Jewish state.

Arendt was thus raising fundamental questions about memory, myth; and justice in the postwar world. Her critics, like Lionel Abel and Norman Podhoretz, could score “debater’s points” as Mary McCarthy scornfully put it in a sympathetic letter, but they had not a clue about what she was trying to accomplish, and probably still don’t. Like so many others in the initial postwar decades they were dependent on what Karl Jaspers called “life-sustaining lies,” though he too could not help chiding his former student for her nativeté in failing to notice “that the act of putting a book like this into the world is an act of aggression” against just such lies.19 Today, with much of Europe taken up with issues of guilt, memory, past responsibility, “gray zones” of compliance and collaboration, and the problem of individual and collective retribution, Arendt’s concerns are once again central.

Compared with these matters, Arendt’s properly philosophical and theoretical legacy is light indeed. This might have come as no surprise to her—in a conversation with Günter Gaus, reprinted in the Essays, she renounced any claim to being a “philosopher.” Her critics would agree; Stuart Hampshire once wrote, “She seems to me to be inaccurate in argument and to make a parade of learned allusion without any detailed inquiry into texts.”20 One senses a constant tension between a residual duty on Arendt’s part to undertake philosophy and a natural preference (and gift) for political and moral commentary and what she called intellectual action. It is tempting to see this as a tension between Heidegger and Jaspers, the dominant intellectual influences upon her. At her worst she could lapse considerably toward Heidegger; in Judith Shklar’s words, “Philosophy was for both of them an act of dramatizing through word play, textual associations, bits of poetry, and other phrases from their direct experiences.” It was “passionate thinking.”21 She would slip into phrases like “world alienation,” and even in a letter to McCarthy from February 1968, could write like this: “I have a feeling of futility in everything I do. Compared to what is at stake everything looks frivolous. I know this feeling disappears once I let myself fall into that gap between past and future which is the proper temporal locus of thought….”22

In many of Arendt’s ventures into theory, the dominant impression is one of confusion. Categories tumble over one another, their meaning unclear and variable. “She rambles on in the style of an essayist who freely associates one remembered quotation, or fragment of an idea with another until it becomes time to stop” (Hampshire again). Her habit of tracing concepts genetically, which in the case of political ideas takes her back to Plato, is particularly unhelpful when applied to abstractions and mental categories like “thinking” and “willing.” One is not surprised to learn, in a 1954 letter to Mary McCarthy, that she finds Hume “not so interesting.” McCarthy herself, an affectionate and admiring friend and reader, chided Arendt over the rather misty quality of the argument in her essay on Lessing:

There are wonderful thoughts in the Lessing speech but sometimes they have to be sensed, rather than clearly perceived, through a fog of approximative translation, e.g., “humanity,” “humaneness,” “humanitarianism,” which are occasionally treated as synonymous and occasionally not.

It was not the translator’s fault. Arendt may or may not have been confused, but she is certainly confusing and it does her little service to pretend otherwise. At times she seems to be evincing an innocent nostalgia for the lost world of the ancient polis, at others she is displaying sympathy for a sort of syndicalist collectivism (while finding its nearest contemporary incarnation, the Israeli kibbutz, “rule by your neighbors” and not very appealing). She invokes the distinction between ancient (participatory) liberty and the modern (private) kind with an apparent preference for the former; yet she was unshakably against conflating the private and the public and thought that modern American “social” legislation—for example desegregation of schools—could be dangerous just because it sought to blur the distinction.

The Human Condition, her most finished piece of theoretical writing, boils down to a single, albeit powerful, idea: that we have lost the sense of public space, of acting in concert, and have instead become slaves to a vision of human life that consists of a curious combination of “making”—the error of placing homo faber at the center of political theory—and “History,” the dangerous belief in fate and determined outcomes to which she attributed so many of the woes of our age. These are worthy insights, albeit a touch unreflectively communitarian, and it isn’t difficult to see why each new generation of students thinks it has found in Hannah Arendt a trenchant critic of its times. But taken together they are in some conflict, and in any case offer neither a conceptually all-embracing nor a historically rich account of how we got where we are. They also propose no practically applicable solution to any particular political or social problem.

That is because Arendt herself was not setting out to construct any such all-embracing accounts or solutions. Most of her writings were initially conceived as separate lectures, essays, or articles, the forms at which she excelled. They are nearly all, in the proper sense of the word, occasional pieces, designed to respond to a particular event or to address a crisis or problem. And since most of the events in Arendt’s world, and all of the crises and problems, returned in due course to the issue of totalitarianism, its causes and consequences, her contributions to modern thought have to be understood as variations on a single theme: we live in the midst of a political crisis whose extent we have yet fully to grasp, and we must act (by thought and by deed) so as to minimize the risk of repeating the experiences of our century. The first need is to recapture—or at least see the virtue of trying to recapture—the old republican qualities of civility, moderation, public discourse, and the like. This isn’t a bad starting point for modern political theory—and once again Arendt came early to a position since adopted by many others. But it is, after all, only a starting point.


I have suggested that Hannah Arendt was at her best in short bursts, when she was commenting, appraising, criticizing, or merely thinking aloud on some issue of contemporary significance. Indeed some of the essays in the Kohn collection, notably an unpublished paper from 1950 or 1951 called “The Eggs Speak Up,” seem to me among the best pieces she ever wrote and should put an end to a certain image of Arendt as a “theorist” of the cold war, or even an intellectual precursor of “neo-conservatism.”23 It thus comes as no surprise that her long correspondence with Mary McCarthy, published for the first time in its entirety, should be such a pleasure.24 The letters are not particularly intimate or self-revelatory on Arendt’s part, but they do show a relaxed and warm side of her; she seemed to feel that McCarthy was one of the few people who saw what she was about (of Eichmann in Jerusalem she tells McCarthy that “you were the only reader to understand what otherwise I have never admitted—namely that I wrote this book in a curious state of euphoria”).

She also demonstrates rather more human feeling than her correspondent could sometimes muster; following a series of highly emotional letters from Mary McCarthy in 1960 about the new love in her life (her future husband, James West) and the irritating difficulties posed by various ex-spouses and children from past marriages, it is left to Arendt to bring her friend down to earth with a gentle bump:

Please don’t fool yourself: nobody ever was cured of anything, trait or habit, by a mere woman, though this is precisely what all girls think they can do. Either you are willing to take him “as is” or you better leave well enough alone. What is going to happen to these poor children? To add to the shock of parental separation the shock of separating them from each other seems a bit unwise. But how can one judge without knowing anything[?].

When Mary McCarthy seemed vexed that Hannah Arendt continued to maintain friendly relations with Bowden Broadwater, the husband whom McCarthy was abandoning, Arendt chided her:

The fact is that you brought him into my life, that without you he never would have become—not a personal friend which, of course, he is not—but a friend of the house, so to speak. But once you placed him there you cannot simply take him away from where he is now. As long as he does not do something really outrageous which he has not done so far and really turns against you which he has not done either, I am not going to sit in judgment…. You say you cannot trust him. Perhaps you are right, perhaps you are wrong, I have no idea. But it strikes me that you can forget so easily that you trusted him enough to be married to him for fifteen years.

The age difference between them was not great (Arendt was born in 1906, McCarthy in 1912), but one is never in any doubt who was the mature woman, who the precocious girl.

The tone of the correspondence is not always serious. Predictably, there is much gossip, some of it funny. Arendt had no time for most French intellectuals, notably those in fashion. In 1964 she wrote to McCarthy, “I have just finished reading Les Mots—and was so disgusted that I was almost tempted to review this piece of highly complicated lying…I am going to read les confessions of Simone—for their gossip value, but also because this kind of bad faith becomes rather fascinating.” A few months later she provides a follow-up report:

This [De Beauvoir’s Force of Circumstance] is one of the funniest books I read in years. Incredible that no one has taken that apart. Much as I dislike Sartre, it seems he is punished for all his sins by this kind of a cross. Especially since her unwavering true love for him is the only mitigating circumstance in the “case against her,” really quite touching.

McCarthy, of course, was past mistress at this sort of thing; when in 1966 the Parisian Nouvel Observateur ran the headline “Est Elle Nazie?” over its excerpts from Eichmann in Jerusalem, she described it as “a sales promotion stunt, coated over with ‘anti-fascist’ piety,” which is about right. A couple of years later the editor, Jean Daniel, sought unsuccessfully to make amends: “Daniel opposed it, I gather. But then he ought to have resigned. To say that here [Paris] is of course ludicrous. No French intellectual would ever resign on a point of principle unless to associate himself with another clique.”

If the pair were prejudiced against French intellectuals, others come off little better. McCarthy gives a wonderfully acerbic report of a London dinner party in 1970, full of “silly zombies,” from which she reports a remark by Sonia Orwell, as recalled by Stephen Spender, to illustrate the depths of British snobbery: “Auschwitz, oh dear, no! That person was never in Auschwitz. Only in some very minor death camp.” Arendt’s prejudices come into play at a rather more rarefied level. Of Vladimir Nabokov she writes in 1962: “There is something in [him] which I greatly dislike. As though he wanted to show you all the time how intelligent he is. And as though he thinks of himself in terms of ‘more intelligent than.’ There is something vulgar in his refinement.” In the same letter she replies to McCarthy’s request for her views on The Tin Drum: “I know the Grass book but could never finish it. In my opinion, mostly second-hand, derivative, outré but with some very good parts in it.”

The most savage comments are, however, reserved for the New York intellectual scene. Philip Rahv’s “Marxist assurance” is compared by McCarthy to conversation with “some fossilized mammoth”; the “PR [Partisan Review] boys” in general get short shrift, except “Danny Bell,” whom Arendt grudgingly concedes “is the only one who has got a conscience that bothers him once in a while. He is also a bit more intelligent than the others.” Of the editor of The New Yorker, whose office in 1956 had pressed her for more details in a piece she had written, Mary McCarthy comments: “Shawn is really a curious person; he’s a self-educated man and he assumes that everybody, like his own former untaught self, is eager to be crammed with information. A sentence larded with dates and proper names fills him with gluttonous delight—like a boeuf à la mode.”25

McCarthy could be serious; her intermittent comments on Richard Nixon, from the 1959 “kitchen debate” with Khrushchev to a timely reminder from 1974 that the much eulogized late president was also a crook, are well taken, and she was a gifted scene setter, whether traveling in Sicily or describing a European dinner party with the wives of dead writers (“We had a party yesterday…It was full of widows, like Richard III“). But in the later correspondence there enters a morbid, even mildly paranoid tone. She doesn’t understand why her books get such a poor reception and feels abandoned by her friends. After one attack on her in 1974 she wrote to Arendt: “I can’t help feeling, though I shouldn’t, that if one of my friends had been in my place I would [have] raised my voice. This leads to the conclusion that I am peculiar, in some way that I cannot make out; indefensible, at least for my friends” (all emphases in original). Even Arendt comes under suspicion—“Something is happening or has happened to our friendship…The least I can conjecture is that I have got on your nerves.” Whether or not this was the case is unclear—Arendt was much too well bred to say anything in reply. But the somewhat brittle texture of McCarthy’s gifts and her fundamentally narcissistic personality may have begun to grate a little. There is a distinctly cooler tone in Arendt’s last letters, many of which were dictated.

Whereas there is something ultimately rather monotonous in McCarthy’s end of the correspondence, caustic and self-regarding, Arendt’s letters have a more measured and cosmopolitan tone. She never tells McCarthy of her own personal dilemmas, for example her frustrations in continuing her long relationship with Heidegger. But a long description from August 1972 of the ambiance at the Rockefeller Center for writers and artists in Bellagio, Italy, not only captures brilliantly the luxuriant, sybaritic, unworldly mood of the retreat, but also nails down some of its comic contradictions, which appear to have changed not at all:

Now imagine this place filled, but by no means crowded, with a bunch of scholars, or rather professors, from all countries,…almost all of them rather mediocre (and this is putting it charitably) with their wives, some of them are plain nuts, others play the piano or type busily the non-masterworks of their husbands.

She writes perceptive and balanced comments on the student events of 1968 (in France and the US), in contrast to McCarthy who completely misread what was happening and assured Arendt in June of that year that De Gaulle had “made a mistake in his rapid veer to the Right; he will scare the middle voter whom he was hoping to scare with his anti-Communist rhetoric.” (In fact De Gaulle and his party scored a huge electoral victory two weeks later by virtue of that very rhetoric.) On the whole it seems fair to conclude that whereas Mary McCarthy’s letters, however entertaining, are rather ephemeral, the contributions by Arendt have a weightier texture and can still be read with profit as a commentary on her times.

Like the Essays, moreover, they also help us understand Hannah Arendt herself a little better. While she may indeed have been, in McCarthy’s words, “a solitary passenger on her train of thought,” 26 she was not altogether alone on her journey through the twentieth century. Her elective affinity might have been with the great Germans, past and present, but her true community lay elsewhere, as her friendships and acquaintances suggest. She was born in Königsberg, a city on the geographical periphery of the culture of which it was at the same time a center. This gives her more in common than she may have realized with contemporary writers born in other vulnerable cities at once central and peripheral—Vilna, Trieste, Danzig, Alexandria, Algiers, even Dublin—and accounts for her membership in a very special and transient community, that twentieth-century republic of letters formed against their will by the survivors of the great upheavals of the century.

These lost cosmopolitan communities, in which Germans, Jews, Greeks, Italians, Poles, French, and others lived in productive disharmony, were torn from their roots in the First World War and obliterated in the Second and during its aftermath. This shared experience accounts for Arendt’s understanding of Moritz Goldstein’s “unrequited love” (the very phrase also used by Milosz in his account in The Captive Mind of Polish intellectuals’ longing for a disappearing West), and for her instinctive affinity with Albert Camus.27 They were all “chance survivors of a deluge,” as she put it in a 1947 dedication to Jaspers, and wherever they ended up, in New York, Paris, or Rome, they were constrained, like Camus’s Sisyphus, to push the boulder of memory and understanding up the thankless hill of public forgetting for the rest of their lives.

In Arendt’s case the responsibility, as she felt it, was made heavier by a conscientious, and perhaps distinctively Jewish, refusal to condemn modernity completely or to pass a curse upon the Enlightenment and all its works. She certainly understood the temptation, but she also saw the danger. The tendency to treat Western liberal democracy as somehow “shallow,” already present in the appeal of “Eastern” solutions before 1914,28 has revived twice over in our own time. On the first occasion, in the Sixties, Arendt’s response was unambiguous: the struggle against the deceptive charms of what we would now call cultural relativism was for her a matter of moral courage, of exercising what she called judgment. In a letter to Jaspers in December 1963 she reflected that “even good and, at bottom, worthy people have, in our time, the most extraordinary fear about making judgments. This confusion about judgment can go hand in hand with fine and strong intelligence, just as good judgment can be found in those not remarkable for their intelligence.”29 Hannah Arendt was not afraid to judge, and be counted.

For the recent resurfacing of the critical attitude toward the Enlightenment, notably in certain Central European circles seduced by the post-Heideggerian notion that the soulless, technological, “fabricating” society of our century is an outgrowth of the Godless hubris of the French Enlightenment and its successors, Arendt herself bears some indirect responsibility. It is the very woolliness of her thoughts on these matters that has lent them to just such interpretations, and her reluctance to distance herself definitively from her former lover and mentor did not help. But she would never have made the mistake of supposing that the end of communism promised some sort of definitive success for its opponents, or that the responsibilities of various strands in Western thought for the woes of our time thereby disqualified the Western tradition as a whole. She made a good many little errors, for which her many critics will never forgive her. But she got the big things right, and for this she deserves to be remembered.

This Issue

April 6, 1995