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Why Hannah Arendt remains inspiring today

Silke Bartlick db
May 11, 2020

The German-American philosopher was one of the great political thinkers of the 20th century. Berlin's German Historical Museum has dedicated an exhibition to Hannah Arendt, who remains more relevant than ever.

Hannah Arendt
Image: Leo Baeck Institute

The poster for the exhibition "Hannah Arendt and the 20th Century" — delayed due to the coronavirus shutdowns but now opening on May 11 — is a black-and-white close-up of the German philosopher, chin in hand, face tilted slightly upward, a thoughtful look on her face and a lit cigarette in her hand. Its thought-provoking caption reads: "No one has the right to obey."

The exhibition examines in 16 chapters the thinker's subjective perspective on historical events — with photos, sound and film documents, objects from Arendt's private estate and international loans. The aim is to present key events in 20th century history in a new way.

Hannah Arendt's work is indeed ideally suited for this purpose. The philosopher published works on anti-Semitism, colonialism and racism, the Nazis and Stalinism in her straightforward style — demonstrating that critical thinking could be both daring and entertaining.

The list of controversies the intellectual philosopher triggered is long, and her 1963 book Eichmann in Jerusalem — a major focus in the exhibition — certainly tops that list.

In 1961, Hannah Arendt witnessed the trial of former SS-Obersturmbannführer Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem as a reporter. Eichmann was responsible for the deportations of millions of Jews to concentration and extermination camps.

Arendt's article on the trial appeared in 1963 in The New Yorker and then as a book with the subtitle, "A Report on the Banality of Evil." She describes Adolf Eichmann as a technocrat without convictions who stylized himself as a mere tool of his superiors. 

Model of crematorium II in Auschwitz-Birkenau, by Polish artist Mieczyslaw Stobierski and a photo of Hannah Arendt
Model of crematorium II in Auschwitz-Birkenau, by Polish artist Mieczyslaw StobierskiImage: DW/S. Bartlick

The banality of evil

The banality of evil, the famous phrase coined by Arendt, is characterized by organized thoughtlessness and irresponsibility, she wrote. The "unconditional" obedience that Eichmann repeatedly referred to was an expression of this thoughtlessness and irresponsibility.

The controversy surrounding Arendt's report was sparked not only by the title and the question of "banality," but also by the fact that she questioned the reaction of the "Judenräte" (Jewish Councils) to developments in Germany at the time. Were the members of these institutions guilty of collaboration?

Read more: The ratlines: What did the Vatican know about Nazi escape routes?

Photo of Eichmann trial records
Interrogation records from the Eichmann trial Image: DW/S. Bartlick

"We are putting Hannah Arendt's analysis of 20th-century issues up for discussion," says exhibition curator Monika Boll. "Not because we believe that Hannah Arendt is always right, but by transmitting her enthusiasm for analytical thinking to the visitors, we want them to form their own opinions."

Hannah Arendt, who viewed critical thought as an eminently political activity, would most certainly have agreed with that approach. After all, the philosopher felt that National Socialism spelled not only a collapse of all moral values, but also the breakdown of the ability to show judgment, points out Boll. Opinions were synchronized; people learned to talk as "we" and not "I" — and the question of personal responsibility was thus shifted to impersonal authorities, says Boll.

A 20th-century thinker

Born in 1906 as the daughter of secular Jewish parents near Hannover, Hannah Arendt grew up in the educated circles of Königsberg. In 1924, she began to study philosophy and theology, first in Marburg, later in Freiburg and Heidelberg. She received her doctorate in philosophy in 1928 with Karl Jaspers.

She wrote for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper and looked into the writings of Rahel Varnhagen von Ense, an intellectual Jewish woman of the Romantic period whose life was regarded as an example of successful assimilation — unlike Arendt, who was skeptical about the idea of assimilation in the name of the equality of all people. She considered it politically naive, a stance that often offended people.

Two women stand in a room, both wearing face masks
Visitors need to wear face masks in the exhibition hallsImage: DW/S. Bartlick

Hannah Arendt anticipated as early as 1931 that the Nazis would come to power. Two years later, and unlike most people living in Germany at the time, it was clear to her that Germans needed to actively fight against the regime.

That same year, the young woman emigrated to France, where she worked for Zionist organizations in Paris alongside her academic work. In 1941, she fled with her husband and her mother to New York via Lisbon. Hannah Arendt was naturalized as a US citizen in 1951.

'Thinking without a banister'

She stayed true to herself throughout her life, never following any particular school, tradition or ideology. Her thinking, says Monika Boll, is difficult to classify and that is why it is so interesting. "You can always find liberal as well as conservative and left-wing elements in her thinking, which makes it very difficult to pinpoint her in any political camp." Hannah Arendt herself called it "thinking without a banister." She was also an excellent writer. All that contributes to her appeal, says Boll: "That's why people like to look into her life and works."

Indeed, Arendt's reports from post-war Germany, her remarks on the refugee question, racism in America or the international student movement always manage to surprise people. Her views encourage visitors to the Berlin exhibition to rethink their own opinions.

Boll also hopes that the exhibition will inspire visitors to realize that it is important to form well-founded opinions of their own. In times of fake news and mass hysteria generated by social media, Hannah Arendt is a wonderful antidote.

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