Hannah Arendt

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(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: One of the most challenging political philosophers of the twentieth century, Arendt adopted an Aristotelian approach to explore the origins of totalitarianism, the structure of human consciousness, and the nature of violence and evil.

Early Life

Hannah Arendt was the only child of Paul and Martha (Cohn) Arendt, a German-Jewish couple who lived in Hanover. Arendt’s father was an engineer and the family moved to the town of Königsberg, the former capital of East Prussia, where the young Hannah grew up. She attended the University of Königsberg shortly after World War I, receiving a bachelor’s degree from that institution in 1924. Later that same year, she began postgraduate study with the existentialist philosopher Martin Heidegger at the University of Marburg. Arendt met Hans Jonas (her future colleague at the New School for Social Research) when she and Jonas were the only two Jewish students to enroll in a New Testament seminar offered at Marburg by the biblical scholar Rudolf Bultmann.

Arendt’s education continued at the University of Heidelberg where she studied philosophy under Karl Jaspers. During her years at Heidelberg, Arendt began to be influenced by Jasper’s Christian existential philosophy and his view that each individual is ultimately responsible for his or her own actions. In 1928, when Arendt was only twenty-two years old, the University of Heidelberg granted Arendt a doctorate. In the following year, her dissertation was published as Der Liebesbegriff bei Augustin (1929; The Idea of Love in St. Augustine). In September of 1929, Arendt married the young Jewish philosopher Günther Stern, whom she had met in 1925 during her postgraduate training in Marburg.

As the National Socialist movement (the Nazis) began to gain power in Germany, Arendt felt that her Jewish heritage was placing her in increasing danger. She fled to Paris in 1933, and began to work for Youth Aliyah, a relief organization that attempted to find homes in Palestine for Jewish orphans. Her relationship with Stern began to deteriorate during the 1930’s, and the couple obtained a divorce in France in 1937. Arendt’s activity in relief work continued, however, until 1940, when she married Heinrich Blücher, a professor of philosophy. Blücher was to remain one of Arendt’s most important mentors during the course of their thirty-year marriage.

In 1941, France was invaded by the Nazis, forcing Arendt and Blücher to move to the United States. From 1944 until 1946, Arendt performed humanitarian work for the Conference on Jewish Relations in New York City. At the same time, she worked to preserve the writings of several Jewish authors, many of whose works had been suppressed by the Nazis during World War II. In 1946, Arendt assumed the position of chief editor for Schocken Books, remaining at that post until 1948. She applied for American citizenship in 1950, and was granted full citizenship during the following year.

Life’s Work

Hannah Arendt began to draw the attention of international scholars in 1951 with the publication of her first major book, The Origins of Totalitarianism. In this work, Arendt suggested that the roots of both communism and National Socialism could be traced not only to the imperialism of the nineteenth century but also to the anti- Semitism rampant throughout Europe at that time. Arendt’s thesis initially met with mixed reviews. Many scholars praised the extensive research that was reflected in The Origins of Totalitarianism and concurred with its view that the rise of modern dictatorships resulted from the collapse of the nation-state. Nevertheless, many critics also rejected Arendt’s view that anti-Semitism had been a decisive factor in shaping all forms of totalitarianism in the twentieth century. Arendt was criticized for taking too personal a view of modern history and for failing to be objective in her interpretation of events. Since the original publication of The Origins of Totalitarianism ,...

(The entire section is 2,023 words.)