Nearly 35 years after her death, Hannah Arendt (1906–1975) continues to spark discussion and reflection. For Israeli readers in particular, the recent appearance in Hebrew translation of her magnum opus, The Origins of Totalitarianism, as well as of Elisabeth Young-Bruehl's massive biography (1982, rev. 2004), brings home her continuing ability to frustrate and provoke.
A consummate German-Jewish intellectual, Arendt received a thorough philosophical training, studying (and more than studying) with Martin Heidegger and writing a dissertation on Augustine's theory of love. The rise of Nazism drove her from metaphysics to politics; she became active, first in Germany and later after fleeing to France, in Zionist efforts to publicize Nazi anti-Semitism and to spirit children to Palestine. In 1941 she managed to make her way to New York, where she became a leading figure in the circle of exiled scholars who left an indelible mark on American intellectual life.
In her new life, Arendt wrote for Jewish and general periodicals, worked to recover Jewish cultural treasures scattered over Europe, taught, and in 1951 completed The Origins of Totalitarianism. That work provided, for many, a compelling framework and overarching rationale for the struggle against Soviet Communism, a tyranny of the Left that, she wrote, shared with Nazism, its apparent nemesis on the Right, a diabolical communion of ideological intention and administrative method.
Her fascination with bureaucratic evil was key to her most controversial work, Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963), in which she coined the phrase "the banality of evil" to characterize the Nazi enterprise of mass-produced death. Even more contentious was her merciless criticism of Jewish wartime leaders as mere collaborators with the Nazis. For this she was roundly rebuked not only by Jewish public opinion but also by old friends and colleagues on the Left. Gershom Scholem wrote her that, like so many intellectuals, she was bereft of ahavat yisrael: basic affection for and solidarity with the Jewish people.
At times passionately attached to Jewish life and Zionism, at others deeply hostile to any form of group identity, Arendt seems never to have found a satisfactory way to reconcile a commitment to Jewish survival with the moralism and call to individual conscience that for her made up a Jewish sine qua non. Her strong-mindedness lent drama to her struggles—hence, perhaps, their enduring fascination for subsequent generations still trying to square the same or similar circles, as well as her appeal to those seeking a comfortable exit from Jewish particularity. Her finest writings express an ennobling conception of politics as the collective effort to reflect on, and enact, civic equality and freedom: totalitarianism's opposite.
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