Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Philosophers - Arendt, Hannah (1906–75)
The Dictionary of Modern American Philosophers


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Arendt, Hannah (1906–75)

Arendt, Hannah (1906–75)
DOI: 10.5040/9781350052444-0034

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Hannah Arendt was born on 14 October 1906 in Hanover, Germany. She grew up in Königsberg in East Prussia but her father died in 1913 and the years of World War I were difficult ones for her and her mother, as they lived near the Eastern Front on the German/Russian border. Through her mother, a German Social Democrat, Arendt was first introduced to the writings of Rosa Luxemburg. She graduated from high school in 1924 and that fall began to study theology with Rudolf Bultmann at the University of Marburg. Also on the faculty was the young philosopher Martin Heidegger, whose lectures, which would form the basis of his 1927 book Sein und Zeit (Being and Time), were already stirring interest in Existenzphilosophie. Arendt had a brief but passionate affair with Heidegger, a married man with children, which ended when she went on to study at the University of Heidelberg with the philosopher Karl Jaspers. Jaspers, initially a psychiatrist, became her mentor. Arendt wrote her dissertation under Jaspers on the concept of love in St. Augustine’s thought (“Der Liebesbegriff bei Augustin”). She earned her PhD from Heidelberg in 1929, and her dissertation was published that same year.

As the Nazi party rose to power, Arendt became increasingly involved in Jewish and Zionist politics. In 1930 she married Gunther Stern (who wrote under the pen name of Gunther Anders). From 1933 she worked with the German Zionist Organization and its leader, Kurt Blumenfeld, to publicize the growing Nazi atrocities. She was eventually arrested by the Gestapo but escaped to Paris. From 1935 to 1939 she worked as Secretary General of Youth Aliyah, a Jewish agency for Palestine in Paris, and from 1938 to 1939 she was a special agent for the rescue of Jewish children from Austria and Czechoslovakia.

In 1936 she met Heinrich Blücher, a German political refugee, whom she married on 16 January 1940, having divorced Stern in 1939. When Germany invaded France, Arendt was separated from her husband and sent to an internment camp in Gurs in southern France. She again escaped and was able to emigrate with her husband and mother to the United States in 1941. Settling in New York City, she worked as a journalist from 1941 to 1945, writing for Jewish Social Studies, Jewish Frontier, and Aufbau, a German-language newspaper. She directed research for the Commission on European Jewish Cultural Reconstruction from 1944 to 1946, attempting to locate and redistribute the remains of Judaic artifacts and other treasures that had miraculously been salvaged from the ruins of the Third Reich.

In 1944, Arendt began work on what would become her first major political book, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951). She published “What Is Existenz Philosophy?” in 1946. From 1946 to 1948 she was chief editor of Schocken Books in New York. From 1949 to 1952 she was the Executive Director for Jewish Cultural Reconstruction.

In 1951, Arendt began the first in a sequence of visiting fellowships and professorial positions at American universities. She became an American citizen and was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1952. In 1953 she delivered the Christian Gauss Lectures at Princeton University, and in 1954 she received a grant from the National Institute of Arts and Letters. She was a visiting professor at several universities: University of California at Berkeley in 1955; Princeton University in 1959 (the first woman to become a full professor at that university); Columbia University in 1960; and Northwestern University in 1961. In 1961–2 she was a fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. From 1963 to 1967 she was a professor on the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, and from 1967 to 1975 University Professor of Philosophy at the New School for Social Research. From 1969 to 1975 she was also an associate fellow of Calhoun College of Yale University. In 1967, she received the Sigmund Freud Prize of the German Akademie für Sprache und Dichtung. She was awarded the Emerson-Thoreau Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1969. In 1973–4 she delivered the Gifford Lectures at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. She was awarded the 1975 Sonning Prize by the Danish government for Contributions to European Civilization, which no American and no woman before her had received. Arendt died on 4 December 1975 in New York City.

Arendt was one of America’s most prominent intellectuals. She is best known for The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), published at the beginning of the Cold War. Examining the idiosyncratic twentieth-century tyrannies of Hitler and Stalin, she argued that their origins lay in imperialism’s racist ideologies, which were already flourishing in Central and Western Europe by the end of the nineteenth century. The final section of her book detailed the workings of “radical evil,” arguing that the huge number of prisoners in the death camps marked “a horrifying discontinuity in European history itself.”

In 1958 she published The Human Condition and in 1959 “Reflections on Little Rock,” a controversial consideration of the emergent black civil rights movement. Between Past and Future was published in 1961 and in that same year Arendt traveled to Jerusalem to cover the trial of Nazi Adolf Eichmann for the New Yorker. She later published her reflections on the Eichmann trial in 1963, first in the New Yorker, and then as a book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Eichmann, an S.S. lieutenant colonel who had been responsible for orchestrating the transportation of millions of Jews to death camps, was captured by Israeli forces in 1960. Rather than painting a conventional portrait of Eichmann as the embodiment of “radical evil,” Arendt saw him as a “typical” bureaucrat who had dutifully followed orders and was the embodiment of “the banality of evil.” Arendt’s broader point was that this type of evil was not necessarily confined to the particularities of the Third Reich, but could be found in many societies.

Arendt used Eichmann’s trial to point out that the Jews themselves were also responsible for their systematic murder by being lulled into complacency by the “banality of evil.” Many Jews mistook the Nazis for just another wave of anti-Semitism that could be somehow bribed or appeased. Arendt’s view, which placed at least some responsibility for the Final Solution on the actions of the Jews themselves, especially the delusion, fear, and selfishness exhibited by many of the Jewish councils (Judenräte), was met with harsh criticism; it also prompted investigations and closer scrutiny of the behavior of Jewish communities under Nazi occupation. The resultant scholarship has often reinforced her unpopular view. By pointing out that the victims of the Final Solution were accountable for their own inadequate and ill-conceived political action, Arendt also hoped that other people would realize that these horrors could be repeated under different historical conditions. She thought that modernity and the associated rise of mass society made it difficult for people to listen to their consciences and think clearly through the consequences of their actions. In particular, nationalism was an impediment to reclaiming the possibilities of freedom grounded in the sense of a shared world. According to Arendt, then, Eichmann had done evil not because he was sadistically anti-Semitic, but because he had failed to think through what he was doing (his thoughtlessness).

Her articles in the New York Review of Books in the 1960s and early 1970s continued to express her reservations about the new world order by criticizing growing American military intervention in Vietnam. In particular, she singled out the increasing abuses of executive power as further indication of the dangerous imperialism of the presidency.

In 1970 Arendt gave her seminar on Kant’s philosophy of judgment at the New School for Social Research, published posthumously as Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy (1982). In her final years, she worked on a projected three-volume work, The Life of the Mind. The first two volumes, on “Thinking” and “Willing,” were published posthumously, while the third volume on “Judging” remained uncompleted at her death .


The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York, 1951).

The Human Condition (Chicago, 1958).

Between Past and Future (London, 1961).

On Revolution (New York, 1962).

Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (London, 1963).

Men in Dark Times (New York, 1968).

On Violence (New York, 1970).

Crisis of the Republic (New York, 1972).

Other Relevant Works

Arendt’s papers are in the Library of Congress and the German Literary Archive in Marbach, Germany .

“What Is Existenz Philosophy?” Partisan Review 8 (Winter 1946): 34–56.

Rahel Varnhagen: The Life of a Jewess , trans. Richard Winston and Clara Winston (London, 1957).

The Jew as Pariah (New York, 1978).

The Life of the Mind , 2 vols (London, 1978).

Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy (Brighton, UK, 1982).

Hannah Arendt/Karl Jaspers Correspondence, 1926–1969 , ed. Lotte Kohler and Hans Saner (New York, 1992).

Essays in Understanding, 1930–1954 , ed. Jerome Kohn (New York, 1994).

Love and Saint Augustine (Chicago, 1996).

The Portable Hannah Arendt , ed. Peter Baehr (New York, 2000).

Within Four Walls: The Correspondence Between Hannah Arendt and Heinrich Blücher, 1936–1968 , trans. Peter Constantine (New York, 2000).

Letters, 1925–1975, Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger , trans. Andrew Shields (Orlando, Fla., 2003).

Further Reading

Amer Nat Bio, Bio 20thC Phils, Blackwell Comp Phils, Cambridge Dict Amer Bio, Comp Amer Thought, Dict Amer Bio, Encyc Ethics, Encyc Social Behav Sci, Oxford Comp Phil, Routledge Encycl Phil, Who Was Who in Amer v6, Women Phils

Benhabib, Seyla. The Reluctant Modernism of Hannah Arendt (London, 1996).

Bernstein, J. Philosophical Profiles: Essays in a Pragmatic Mode (Cambridge, UK, 1986).

Canovan, Margaret. Hannah Arendt: A Reinterpretation of Her Political Thought (New York, 1992).

d'Entrèves, Passerin. The Political Philosophy of Hannah Arendt (London, 1994).

Flynn, Bernard. Political Philosophy at the Closure of Metaphysics (London, 1992).

Habermas, Jürgen. “Hannah Arendt: On the Concept of Power,” in Philosophical-Political Profiles (London, 1983), pp. 171–87.

Hill, A., ed. Hannah Arendt: The Recovery of the Public World (New York, 1979). Contains a bibliography of Arendt’s writings.

Hinchman, P., and Sandra K. Hinchman. “In Heidegger’s Shadow: Hannah Arendt’s Phenomenological Humanism,” Review of Politics 46 (1984): 183–211.

Honig, Bonnie, ed. Feminist Interpretations of Hannah Arendt (University Park, Penn., 1995).

Kielmansegg, G., Horst Mewes, and Elisabeth Glaser-Schmidt, eds. Hannah Arendt and Leo Strauss: German Emigrés and American Political Thought after World War II (Cambridge, UK, 1995).

Lacoue-Labarthe, Philippe, and Jean-Luc Nancy. Retreating the Political (London, 1997).

Parekh, Bhikhu. Hannah Arendt and the Search for a New Political Philosophy (London, 1981).

Villa, Dana. Arendt and Heidegger: The Fate of the Political (Princeton, N.J., 1996).

Villa, Dana, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Arendt (Cambridge, UK, 2000).

Wolin, Richard. Heidegger’s Children: Hannah Arendt, Karl Löwith, Hans Jonas, and Herbert Marcuse (Princeton, N.J., 2001).

Young-Bruehl, Elisabeth. Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World (New Haven, 1982).