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 effect on American politics of a disastrous war in Southeast Asia and the normalization of lying and the wishful thinking that was necessary to sustain it. She commented with bitter irony on the new world that was coming into existence in the 1950s and 1960s—its “horrid shallowness,” a pervasive thoughtlessness and a panic-stricken drift from one vision to another not unlike the fear and restlessness that prepared Europeans for fascism in the 1920s and was making Americans ready for God knows what horrors in the future.


She died in 1975. In the outpouring of conferences and volumes in 2006 celebrating the hundredth anniversary of her birth, Arendt scholars have reminded us that we too live in dark times, and a theme of many of the lectures that have been given, the symposiums that have been put together, and the new introductions that have been stapled onto old works to celebrate her birthday has been to ask what Arendt would do and what Arendt would think and say about the dark times we live in at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

Like her, we are confronted with criminality in government and lying by state officials as a matter of principle. Like her, we have seen the subversion of the Constitution, abuse of the rule of law, and a disastrous war in which, facing “outright, humiliating defeat,” the only imperative is to find modes of withdrawal that will somehow not count as “losing”—as though, as she said during the Vietnam War, “‘the greatest power on earth’ lacked the inner strength to live with defeat.”1 True, we have our own nightmares to add: stolen elections, contempt for international institutions, liberal Islamophobia, the use and defense of torture, and the concentration of prisoners regarded as threats to America in camps where they languish indefinitely beyond the reach of the law.


It’s our own mess, but it’s a propitious time to celebrate Hannah Arendt’s birthday. For perhaps her life and her writings have lessons for us. Maybe Arendt can be enlisted posthumously as an ally, so that (changing a few names) we can make her denunciations our denunciations, her despair a motif for our own lamentations, her insights a lantern in our darkness.

Certainly a lot of what she wrote is pertinent to the horrors of our time. She wrote about terror: The Origins of Totalitarianism contains a remarkable phenomenological account of the “bestial desperate terror” that characterized life in the camps and paralyzed thought in a totalitarian society. She also wrote about terrorism and she was uncompromising in her attacks on Jewish terrorism in Palestine in the 1940s: “They think it is all right to murder anyone who can be murdered—an innocent English Tommy or a harmless Arab in the market of Haifa.”

Although she died well before the phrase “war on terror” was conceived, there is much to learn from some of the things she says about the abuses of state power in this regard. For example, she was peremptory in her condemnation of Israeli raids on Arab settlements in the 1950s: “The shortest statement to be made would be: Thou shalt not kill, not even Arab women and children.”2 Elisabeth Young-Bruehl thinks Arendt would have condemned Bush’s modern war on terror as inherently unlimited and she would have worried about the possibility of a duplicate government emerging under the auspices of the homeland security state, shadowing the constitutional government but secret and free of legal constraint. Arendt was alarmed at the prospect that the worldwide network of states might leave certain persons—stateless and homeless—beyond the reach of any law. She knew about internment camps. She would have been appalled by the “legal black hole” at Guantánamo Bay. She wrote bitterly about places where “the inmates, even if they happen to keep alive, are more effectively cut off from the world of the living than if they had died.”

Most important, Arendt understood the insidious and nonspectacular aspects of political and moral deterioration. It is here, if at all, that her concept of “the banality of evil” comes into its own. Long before the final descent into terror and murder, the Nazis engaged in low-level intimidation to compel “coordination” with their regime on the part of various sectors of society—university academics being one. Such coordination did not necessarily mean that Germans had to embrace Nazism, as Arendt’s mentor Martin Heidegger did when he became rector at Freiburg University. Scholars and public figures would convince one another that the “realities” had changed and that anyone who did not wish to be regarded as naive should begin rearranging their ideas. This we have seen recently in America, as intellectuals, journalists, and public figures scramble to condemn one another for lacking a sense of “realism” appropriate for a post–September 11 world.

So there is plenty of room for parallels between Arendt’s times and our times, between her public comments and laments and the things that we might say now or ought to say. The assistance that Arendt might be able to offer us for 2007 is the theme of a new book—Why Arendt Matters—by her former student and biographer Elisabeth Young-Bruehl. Brief and lucidly written, it is a good account of some of the more difficult aspects of her work. But as the title suggests it is organized around the immediate need for illumination:

Recently, as our world has grown darker, as America—the nation Arendt admired before all others, her home after twelve years of being a stateless refugee—has grown further and further removed from its founding principles, which all concerned respect for the public realm, I have frequently found myself wondering: What would Arendt have said? What would she think of this world we live in, three decades after her death?

In a new preface to her biography of Arendt, Young-Bruehl reminds us that Arendt published a book of essays in 1968 called Men in Dark Times—essays about people like Walter Benjamin, Karl Jaspers, and Pope John XXIII. Arendt wrote there that

we have a right to expect some illumination…from the uncertain, flickering, and often weak light that some men and women, in their lives and works, will kindle under almost all circumstances and shed over the time span that was given them on earth.3

Should we not look for this light in Arendt’s life and work, as she looked for light in her own dark times to the life and work of others?


I should say right away that I am very skeptical about this expectation, and for many reasons—some of them specific to Arendt, some of them more general about any such question: “What would the Framers do?” “What would Leo Strauss do?” “What would Jesus do?” I think that if we understand why such questions are inappropriate, we will have a better grasp of the significance and the limitations of Arendt’s writings than if we treat them as a source of sibyllic inspiration.


To begin, there are plenty of people who will recoil from the search for illumination because they don’t trust Arendt’s writings and never did. The controversy over Eichmann in Jerusalem still festers and there are those who regard the missteps of that book as typical of a more pervasive lack of political judgment on Arendt’s part. Some of this criticism is silly and malicious and hasn’t been challenged as strongly as it should be. Walter Laqueur attributed Arendt’s alleged misjudgments about Israel and things Jewish to the fact that “she had read too much anti-Semitic literature for her own good” and her misjudgments about the United States to the fact that like most of her fellow émigrés, she never learned to drive a car.4

Among Anglo-American analytic philosophers, Arendt’s work is neither widely read nor respected. (Arendt returned the compliment. Though she had been trained in philosophy, she insisted she was a political theorist, not a political philosopher. Citing the ancient prejudice of philosophy against politics, she told an interviewer in 1964, “I have said good-bye to philosophy once and for all.”5 ) Political theorists, for their part, are hardly unanimous in their enthusiasm for her work. Isaiah Berlin disliked her. He spoke of “the egregious Hannah Arendt” and, though neither the most rigorous nor the most consecutive thinker himself, he made a pronouncement to the effect that

she produces no arguments, no evidence of serious philosophical or historical thought. It is all a stream of metaphysical free association. She moves from one sentence to another, without logical connection, without either rational or imaginative links between them.6

This is also very silly. It is true that Arendt’s writings exhibit neither the desiccated algebra of logical analysis nor the chipper moral commentary of the journal Philosophy and Public Affairs. Much of her writing is impressionistic and combines theory with history. (In fact, it’s not much different from Berlin’s.) Her style recalls Tocqueville more than it does John Rawls, and it is none the worse for that. It is true that her prose can have a portentous and stricken tone. That is partly the result of the subjects she is addressing. But it has to be said: the style associated with Arendt can be irritating, if not in her writings then in those of her followers, who find it hard to resist the temptation to echo her bitterness as they lay out the ironies of her thought. It is very wearying. Solemnity for the subject matter becomes a sort of reverence that speakers self-consciously summon up at hushed conferences devoted to her memory. No one makes light of Hannah Arendt.


“What would Hannah do?” An oracular interpretation can cheapen her work and distract us from its importance. Samantha Power—author of “A Problem from Hell” (2002), a remarkable study of modern genocide—has written the introduction for a new edition of The Origins of Totalitarianism. In it she writes that Arendt’s masterwork is important not just for historical understanding but as “wisdom for today’s dark times—wisdom that we ignore at our peril.” The lessons apparently consist in such statements as these:

Origins shows that Arendt would not be satisfied with a policy that aimed to violently quash today’s threat without seeking to understand it.

Now, actually this is the opposite of what Arendt said. She said that

we cannot delay our fight against totalitarianism until we have “understood” it, because we do not, and cannot expect to understand it definitively as long as it has not definitively been defeated.

Maybe things are different in the war on terror, but, if so, it is not Arendt from whom we have learned that they are different.

I suspect that anyone who has studied The Origins of Totalitarianism, anyone who is familiar with its dense learning, the scale of its analysis, its huge speculative leaps, its risks and dangers, will have a sense that something is wrong with this sort of extrapolation. Power’s introduction and Young-Bruehl’s treatment of the book as a “field manual” for our times have the effect of making it into an icon, rather than a work of historical analysis—history close-up, as Hans Morgenthau observed—worth grappling with and criticizing on its own ground. Here’s a very minor instance of what I mean. The first edition of Origins had a plain green and brown dust jacket, with the title and the author’s name. Subsequent editions have had a slightly more complicated pattern, and one recent edition presents a cover panel filled with an array of young Nazis giving the Hitler salute. That makes sense. The jacket of the latest edition, however, the 2004 edition with Samantha Power’s introduction, is just a photograph of Arendt, as though the book were about her, not about the origins of the horror that Europe witnessed in midcentury. Almost all the new editions and the new books by or about her have her photograph on the front of the dust jacket. This was never true of her books when she was alive, and it seems inappropriate for someone who spoke emphatically of her unwillingness to appear for public celebration.7


“What would Arendt think?” A third reason for suspecting the question arises from the fact that her writing was full of hard sayings—willful, cranky, provocative. The slightest acquaintance with Arendt’s work indicates that if she were among us we should expect to hear much that is disconcerting, certainly more searching and controversial than the liberal dinner party consensus that we are comfortable with.

Her reflections on the Eichmann trial are the most notorious example of this—particularly her comments on the docile cooperation of some Jewish authorities in the Holocaust. The new volume of Jewish Writings shows that some of what she said in 1963 was consonant with more affirmative themes in her columns during World War II. I have already mentioned her call for a Jewish army. In one piece written in August 1944, she refers to an AP report of young Jewish girls, submachine guns over their shoulders, marching proudly through the streets of Vilna after its liberation. One of them, a seventeen-year-old named Betty, said she had killed six Germans:

“A German came and took my family to the ghetto. That’s how defenseless and docile we were in 1941.”…She is ashamed even to think of how one single German could with impunity lead sixty Jews into slavery and presumably death. With six shots she expunged the shame of those victims…. I am greatly afraid [said Arendt] that peace will teach Betty a second cruel lesson…. She does not yet know that we actually glory only in being victims, innocent victims, and that we celebrate her and those like her not as heroes but as martyrs.

Arendt wrote then as she wrote throughout her life in a way that was uncontaminated by any fear of offending or by any sense that “this might not be the time” to say what she wanted to say.

Another case in point is her essay on the desegregation of schools in the American South—“Reflections on Little Rock,” published in Dissent in 1959.8 The discomfort here is that her observations did not unambiguously take the side of the desegregation movement. Ever a federalist, she spoke ingenuously in favor of states’ rights, though she must also have known such talk was code for segregation. She said that forcing parents to send their children to integrated schools, where they risked violence and rejection, meant depriving parents of the right to control their children and the right to free association. The education and upbringing of children, she said, were private matters, not public.

This was a view one could understand better if one had read her meditation on the phenomenology of the public and private, published a year earlier in The Human Condition. Otherwise it would have struck some of her readers in Dissent as preposterous. She attacked the idealists who said that the color of one’s skin should be simply ignored in public and social life: “To argue that they are merely exterior appearances is to beg the question. For it is precisely appearances that ‘appear’ in public”—as opposed to “inner qualities, gifts of heart or mind.”

I don’t cite these passages in order to join those who have denounced the essay. It is in fact an insightful as well as a provocative statement. The point is that it is utterly unpredictable. And I suspect it was written from the depths of Arendt’s own convictions and experience. When she wrote that “the very attempt to start desegregation in education and in schools had…unfairly shifted the burden of responsibility from the shoulders of adults to those of children,” we could recall what she said about her own school days in Königsberg:

When my teachers made anti-Semitic remarks—mostly not about me, but about other Jewish girls, eastern Jewish students in particular—I was told to get up immediately, leave the classroom, come home, and report everything exactly. Then my mother wrote one of her many registered letters; and for me the matter was completely settled. I had a day off from school, and that was marvelous! But when it came from children, I was not permitted to tell about it at home. That didn’t count. You defended yourself against what came from children.

There are other views of hers that might sit uncomfortably with the sentiments we should expect to find support for, when we ask what Hannah would say. One of our concerns has been the Bush administration’s contempt for international law and international institutions. We worry—as an aspect of our dark times—that the US has become unilateralist, that it has turned its back on global cooperation. Should we expect the ghost of Arendt to endorse our outrage at this? I don’t know. Samantha Power writes in her introduction to The Origins of Totalitarianism of the “false promise of liberal internationalism.” Arendt was suspicious of international institutions. I think she might have had grave doubts about the workings of the United Nations during the months before the American invasion of Iraq. She might have been wrong about that. But why does it matter? Why not form our own judgment on the issue even if it can’t be projected onto her?

Young-Bruehl acknowledges that reckoning what Arendt would say is a presumptuous enterprise for it involves trying to guess what her “fiercely observant eyes” would see, what her original and famously contrary mind would want to emphasize. Arendt wanted to understand the unprecedented. She insisted on this at the very beginning of The Origins of Totalitarianism:

Comprehension does not mean …deducing the unprecedented from precedents, or explaining phenomena by such analogies and generalities that the impact of reality and the shock of experience are no longer felt…. Comprehension…means the unpremeditated, attentive facing up to, and resisting of, reality—whatever it may be.9

Young-Bruehl is surely right that Arendt would be appalled by the lazy analogical thinking that equates September 11 with Pearl Harbor, or Bush with Churchill, or every decision to pursue diplomacy with a repetition of Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement. But we can’t just leave it there. If we take her focus on the unprecedented seriously, we must pursue our own pathways of thought and judgment in grappling with our situation. I don’t mean there is nothing to be learned from Arendt’s books; quite the contrary. But there’s probably nothing to be learned by a method that involves asking what her books are saying to us now.


Arendt was asked once what she told her students to do during the events of the 1960s and 1970s. She dismissed the question angrily: “My God! These are adults! We are not in the nursery!”10

The worst thing about the question “What would Hannah do?” is the likelihood that it—or the cult that generates it—becomes a substitute for thinking for ourselves. The nature of thinking is one of the most important concerns of Arendt’s social and political theory. Thinking is the “habit of examining whatever happens to come to pass or to attract attention” in inner dialogue, in a sort of conversation with oneself, where every mental reaction is subject to criticism and in which the inner critic is also held to answer back and forth.

Arendt speculated that, in many circumstances, moral conduct seems to depend on this “intercourse of man with himself.”11 A person contemplates murder, for example, but says to him- or herself: “I can’t do this. If I did, I would have to live with a murderer for the rest of my life.” But thinking is also one of the most fragile features of human consciousness. Part of what Arendt meant by the banality of evil is the possibility of wrongdoing that opens up when this inner dialogue is no longer an important feature of people’s lives, so that the prospect of who I would have to live with in myself is no longer a concern.

Thinking is possible, she says, among people who know how to talk back and forth with one another—that’s how one learns to think. But thinking will atrophy in an environment that lacks the stillness that allows us to concentrate in inner dialogue or, more ominously, in a social environment where distrust among people makes first outer conversation, then inner conversation impossible. We know that in totalitarian societies, distrust is fostered deliberately to this end. It is a question for us whether something less malign but equally consequential may be happening in the noise and superficiality of modern consumer society.

Once again, Arendt reserves special venom for intellectuals who have forgotten how to think:

This new class of intellectuals who, as literati and bureaucrats, as scholars and scientists, no less than as critics and providers of entertainment…have proved more than once in recent times that they are more susceptible to whatever happens to be public opinion and less capable of judging for themselves than almost any other social group.

The paraphernalia of thoughtlessness is legion. Clichés and jargon, stock phrases and analogies, dogmatic adherence to established bodies of theory and ideology, the petrification of ideas—these are all devices designed to relieve the mind of the burden of thought, while maintaining an impression of intellectual cultivation. Could the question “What would Hannah think?” become a device of this sort? I very much fear that it might, and that we have to find ways of engaging with her work that do not contribute to this danger.

I don’t at all mean to deny that Schocken and other publishing houses have done us a favor in putting all this material in front of us. The Arendt books that have been published over the last year or so are valuable models of genuinely original thinking, and her columns and essays contain remarkable insight. Some are literary, not political. Reflections on Literature and Culture contains fascinating essays on Kafka, Proust, and Brecht. There are meditations on the novels of Hermann Broch (The Death of Virgil) and the poetry of Randall Jarrell (“He taught me the specific gravity of English words, whose relative weight, as in all languages, is ultimately determined by poetic usage”). The earliest piece in the collection is a discussion of Rilke’s poetry from 1930, the last a brief tribute to Auden, published in The New Yorker just months before Arendt died.

The pieces in some of the other books—particularly Essays in Understanding—deal more politically with the unfolding of events, but they are so engaged with time and place that we can barely recall the references. Who thinks now that the British Commonwealth could have fostered a Jewish-Arab Palestine after the war? (Arendt did, in 1945.12 ) Who now worries that ex-Communists bring a totalitarian mentality to the denunciation of their own comrades and have nothing affirmative to offer but a fanatical idealization of American foreign policy? (Arendt did, in 1953. She wrote that their activities “almost always result in sowing mistrust among citizens whose ‘friendship,’ philia, according to Aristotle, is the surest foundation of political life.”)

Reading these columns, it is just possible that we will learn something about how to respond to events—step back, look behind the slogans, listen to the other side, be aware on either side that you may be being lied to. But we will certainly not learn what our response should be. The tribute that is owed to the particularity of Arendt’s work is not imitation and it is not the application of some lessons we are supposed to have learned; it is our own resolve to think things through here and now, as she thought about them there and then.

This Issue

March 15, 2007