Terra Incognita: Confronting Hannah Arendt

If the German-born theorist was a racist, collaborator with a leading Nazi intellectual and probably an anti-Semite, why were her work and ideas ever respected?

eichmann trial_311 (photo credit: Reuters)
eichmann trial_311
(photo credit: Reuters)
Hannah Arendt, the German-born Jewish political theorist, is still widely admired in the West and in Israel. Her 1963 book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A report on the Banality of Evil has recently been translated into Hebrew.
In universities, those who are exposed to Arendt’s theories are told, time and again, that they are exploring something new, something that is supposedly challenging the old and stale ideas with brilliant theories of human evil and totalitarianism. In general, those who have questioned Arendt’s findings have tried to challenge them intellectually, but it is worthwhile to go beyond that and ask why her work and ideas were ever respected in the first place, especially in light of the fact that she was a raving racist, collaborator with a leading Nazi intellectual, and probable anti-Semite.
To get an idea of the vast exposure and influence of Arendt one must only read her admirer’s comments. Cynthia Haven at Stanford University writes: “The 20th-century world of philosophy did not, as a rule, create superstars. Hannah Arendt was an exception...
thirty-five years after her death, the German-Jewish political theorist... is an international industry.”
There is a Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College, where much of her personal library is located, and now a Hannah Arendt movie is being filmed.
Reviewing a recent book by Deborah Lipstadt in which the author criticized Arendt, the Center’s blog noted: “Thanks to Hannah Arendt, most people have come to understand [Adolph] Eichmann as a herald for the terrifying possibility of ordinary people displaying and promoting true evil. In other words, the popular belief is that this particular Nazi was just a normal person driven by his desire to succeed, rather than any true hatred or criminal intent, to facilitate the murder of millions.”
ARENDT WAS born in 1906 in Germany but spent her young life in the East Prussian city of Konigsberg (now the Russian military district of Kaliningrad). She studied at the University of Marburg where she met Martin Heidegger, a German philosopher who became her lover and a leading Nazi intellectual.
Because of the rise of Nazism, she fled Germany and lived in France until the German occupation forced her to flee again, this time to the United States. She was employed by the Joint Distribution Committee, a Jewish NGO, as part of a project called “Jewish Cultural Reconstruction” after the war, before becoming a roving academic and intellectual, securing posts at many of America’s most prestigious universities.
She is famous for her works The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) and Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963). In her two books her main contribution has been to show that Nazism was not unique; in its totalitarian aspects it was like the Soviet Union and its individuals were primarily “clowns” (the word used to describe Eichmann) or mere bureaucrats. She absolved the Germans of any special guilt regarding the Holocaust and support for Nazism by arguing that all people were capable of producing such evil.
WHAT HAS often been missed is that Arendt was a German nationalist and a raving anti- Semite who only escaped being called such by being Jewish.
In Origins she blamed wealthy Jews for the rise of nationalism because of their support for the monarchy. “The Jews had been purveyors in wars and the servants of kings,” she wrote. In Eichmann she argued that had it not been for the Jews who worked with the Nazi administration, in the ghettos and camps, the death toll in the Holocaust would have been lower. This anti-Semetic tripe and Holocaust marginalization has passed for pseudo-intellectualism at the finest universities.
Arendt also hated Israel and Zionism. In 1948 she wrote that Menachem Begin’s Herut Party was one of the “most disturbing political phenomena of our times is the emergence in the newly created state of Israel of a political party closely akin in its organization, methods, political philosophy and social appeal to the Nazi and Fascist parties.” She also compared the Eichmann trial was a show trial.
BUT IT is her racism for which she must be finally taken to account. Those who love Arendt often ignore this fact or bury it in a footnote, as Steven Aschheim did in his book, Arendt in Jerusalem.
When she was in Jerusalem, she wrote to her German philosopher friend Karl Jaspers: “On top, the judges, the best of German Jewry. Below them, the prosecuting attorneys, Galicians, but still Europeans. Everything is organized by a police force that gives me the creeps, speaks only Hebrew, and looks Arabic...
they would obey any order. And outside the doors, the oriental mob, as if one were in Istanbul or some other half-Asiatic country.
In addition, and very visible in Jerusalem, the peies and caftan Jews, who make life impossible for all the reasonable people here.”
In her judgment that the Germans, “the best,” are properly placed on top we find an Aryan supremacy that would not have been un-welcomed in Himmler’s ministries. In her view that the police would “obey any order” we find a comparison of Jews to Nazis. In her comments about the “Oriental mob” and the creepy feeling of seeing people that “look Arabic” we find the racism, the hatred of Arabs and the hatred of Jews from Middle Eastern countries. In her contempt for the religious Jews we find the typical hatred that German Jews had for the ostjuden, their supposed brethren from the east.
Hannah Arendt’s letter should be required reading in any university course that mentions her name. Her racism against Arabs and her Eurocentric views all should be made known before anyone opens her books. Just as Henry Ford’s racism has harmed his long-term reputation and the fascism of Ezra Pound destroyed respect for him, it is time to overcome Hannah Arnedt, and to leave her in the dustbin of history where she belongs.
The writer received his PhD from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and is a fellow at the Jerusalem Institute of Market Studies.