Arendt, Hannah

Philosopher Hannah Arendt, the author of “The Origins of Totalitarianism” and “The Banality of Evil”, was forced to flee Nazi Germany before World War II.

Profession: Political Theorist, Philosopher
Country of Origin: Germany
Country of Asylum: Switzerland
Country of Transit: France; United States
Date of birth: 14 October 1906
Died: 4 December 1975

During the Weimar Republic, she was a student of philosophers Martin Heidegger and Karl Jaspers. In 1929, she completed her doctorate on the idea of love in the writings of St. Augustine.

In 1933, she began working for the German Zionist Organization to publicise the plight of the victims of Nazism, and carried out research on anti-Semitic propaganda. For this, she was arrested by the Gestapo. After winning the sympathy of a Berlin jailer, she escaped first to Geneva and then to Paris, where she remained for the rest of the decade. Working for Youth Aliyah, a refugee organisation, she helped rescue Jewish children from the Third Reich and bring them to Palestine.

When the German army invaded France in 1940, Arendt was separated from her husband and interned in Gurs camp in the Pyrenees, together with 6,000 other stateless Germans. She managed to escape and in May 1941 reached the United States, where she was later granted US citizenship.

Despite the difficulty of not knowing English, Arendt began writing reviews and articles. She nonetheless continued to write in German. When asked by a journalist why she remained faithful to the German language despite the rise of Nazism, she answered: “Well, it’s certainly not the German language that went crazy.” She was an important cross-cultural reference point for the New York intelligentsia. Serving as an editor for a German Jewish publishing house, she was the first to bring existentialism and the writings of Franz Kafka to the US.

In 1951, she published “The Origins of Totalitarianism”, revealing her flair for grand historical generalisations as she traced the steps towards the distinctive 20th-century tyrannies of Hitler and Stalin.

“The Banality of Evil” led Jewish community leader Gershom Scholem to accuse her of having betrayed her love for the Jewish people by her writing. Arendt answered by denying that she harboured any special love for the Jewish people: ” You are perfectly right, I am not animated by any sort of love, in my life I have never loved a population or a collectivity – not the Germans, nor the French, nor the Americans, nor the working class, nothing of the sort. I only love my friends, the only form of love I know is the love for individuals.”

Hannah Arendt, stamp, Germany 2006. Wikipedia


Yet she dedicated much of her time and writings to Jewish culture. She supported the Judah Magnes foundation that called for an Arab-Jewish confederation for the Palestinian question. From 1944-46, she directed the Jewish Cultural Reconstruction Commission, drawing up an inventory of Jewish books and artefacts plundered by the Nazis, which she subsequently helped recover in Europe.

Arendt taught political theory in Princeton, Berkeley, the University of Chicago, Columbia, Northwestern and Cornell universities and the New School for Social Research. She died in New York on December 4,1975.