The Urgent Relevance of Hannah Arendt

Richard J. Bernstein argues that she is worth reading, and rereading, in these dark times

When Hannah Arendt died in December 1975, she was known primarily because of the controversy about her report of the trial of Adolf Eichmann and the phrase “the banality of evil”. A small circle of admirers and critics in the United States and Germany were knowledgeable about her other works, but she was scarcely considered to be a major political thinker. In the years since her death the scene has radically changed. Her books have been translated into dozens of languages. All over the world, people are passionately interested in her work. There seems to be no end of books, conferences and articles focusing on Arendt and her ideas. Recently, discussions and references to Arendt have exploded in the social media. Why this growing interest – and why the recent spike of interest in her work? Arendt was remarkably perceptive about some of the deepest problems, perplexities and dangerous tendencies in modern political life. Many of these have not disappeared; they have become more intense and more dangerous. When Arendt speaks of “dark times” she is not exclusively referring to the horrors of twentieth-century totalitarianism. She says: “If it is the function of the public realm to throw light on the affairs of men by providing a space of appearances in which they can show in deed and word, for better or worse, who they are and what they can do, then darkness has come when this light is extinguished by ‘credibility gaps’ and ‘invisible government,’ by speech that does not disclose what is, but sweeps it under the carpet, by exhortations, moral and otherwise, that under the pretext of upholding old truths, degrade all truth in meaningless triviality.”

It is hard to resist the conclusion that we are now living in dark times that are engulfing the entire world. Arendt claims that even in the darkest of times we can hope to find some illumination – illumination that comes not so much from theories and concepts but from the lives and works of individuals. I want to show that Arendt provides such illumination, that she helps to gain critical perspective on our current political and social problems and perplexities. She is an astute critic of the dangerous tendencies in contemporary life and she illuminates the potentialities for restoring the dignity of politics. This is why she is worth reading and rereading today.

But who was Hannah Arendt? Arendt believed that all thinking should be grounded in and rooted in one’s experience. She was deeply suspicious of theorising and speculation that lose contact with real experience. What then were her formative experiences? Arendt was drawn to Machiavelli’s appeal to the goddess Fortuna (roughly translated as “luck”, “chance”, “contingency”). Luck, as we know, can be good or bad. Unlike her close friend, Walter Benjamin, who always seemed to experience bad luck and finally committed suicide, Arendt’s Fortuna was favourable at crucial moments in her life. Born in 1906 in a German-Jewish secular family, she became an outstanding member of the gifted generation of German-Jewish intellectuals. In the early 1920s she studied with Germany’s most important philosophers and theologians, including Husserl, Heidegger, Jaspers and Bultmann. With the ominous growth of the Nazis and their rabid antisemitism, Arendt agreed to help her Zionist friends by doing research at the Berlin state library on Nazi antisemitic propaganda. In 1933 she was apprehended and interrogated for eight days. She never revealed what she was doing, but she was finally released. This was an extraordinary piece of good luck because we know that many others in similar circumstances were murdered in the cellars of the Gestapo.

Soon after her interrogation, Arendt decided to flee from Germany illegally. Eventually she made her way to Paris. Arendt was officially stateless for eighteen years. This is a primary reason for her sensitivity to the plight of the stateless and the troubled status of refugees. Illegal German exiles in Paris faced the problem of not having official papers permitting them to work and many lead extremely precarious lives. But Arendt had the good fortune to secure employment with several Jewish and Zionist organisations – including Youth Aliyah – the organisation that sent endangered European Jewish youths to Palestine. Arendt’s living experience as a stateless refugee shaped her earliest thinking. She tells us that that as a child, she was barely aware of her Jewishness, but during the 1920s she became aware of the viciousness of Nazi antisemitism. In an interview reflecting on this time of her life she declares: “I realized what I then expressed time and time again in the sentence: If one is attacked as a Jew, one must defend oneself as a Jew. Not as a German, not as a world citizen, not as an upholder of the Rights of Man, or whatever.” In May 1940, shortly before the Nazis invaded France, French authorities ordered that all “enemy aliens” between the ages of 17 and 55 were to be sent to internment camps. Arendt was sent to Gurs – a camp in southern France near the Spanish border.

In an article written shortly after Arendt arrived in New York, she ironically refers to a new kind of human being created by contemporary history – “the kind that are put into concentration camps by their foes and internment camps by their friends”. Arendt managed to escape from Gurs when the Nazis invaded France. Many of the women who did not escape from Gurs were eventually sent to Auschwitz by the orders of Adolf Eichmann. When she was interned Arendt had been separated from her husband, Heinrich Blücher and her mother. She was lucky again because she managed to be reunited with them – once again by a series of fortunate contingencies.

Now the challenge became how to escape from Europe as a stateless illegal German-Jewish refugee. The problem was twofold: how to get a visa to the United States, and how to get out of France, cross Spain and travel to Lisbon to take a boat to America. There are disturbing parallels between the Kafkaesque difficulties that European Jews experienced and the horrendous obstacles that Syrian refugees now confront in seeking legal entry into the United States. Fortuna (almost as if Arendt were protected by the goddess) intervened again. Hannah and Heinrich managed to secure visas through the intervention of Varian Fry, who headed the Emergency Rescue Committee in Marseille. They narrowly avoided the French police who were searching for them, and succeeded in escaping from France and traveling to Portugal where they waited three months to board a ship to the United States. In May, 1941, Arendt and her husband arrived in New York.

Retrospectively, we can see how lucky Arendt was; how chance events meant the difference between life and death. She might have been murdered in Berlin when she was interrogated. She might have failed to escape from Gurs and eventually be sent to Auschwitz. She might have failed to secure a visa and, like so many Jews stranded in France, sent to a German concentration camp. Arendt arrived in New York at the age of 35, barely knowing any English. Her mother tongue was German and she always loved the German language, especially German poetry. Before 1941 she had never been in an English-speaking country. Nevertheless, Arendt set out to master English. Assisted by friends who helped to “English” her writings, she started publishing articles in local Jewish periodicals.

One of Arendt’s earliest articles, “We Refugees”, was published in an obscure Jewish periodical in 1943. She discussed the plight of refugees with insight, wit, irony, and a deep sense of melancholy. Many refugees professed to be optimistic about assimilating to a new nation, but Arendt claimed that this optimism frequently disguised a speechless pessimism. She graphically described what it means to lose one’s home, one’s language, and one’s occupation. She concludes “We Refugees” with a more general claim about the political consequences of the new mass phenomenon – the “creation” of masses of people forced to leave their homes and their country. “Refugees driven from country to county represent the new vanguard of their peoples – if they keep their identity. . . . The comity of European peoples went to pieces when, and because, it allowed its weakest member to be excluded and persecuted.”

“We refugees” based on Arendt’s personal experiences with her fellow refugees raises fundamental questions about statelessness and refugees. She developed these more forthrightly in The Origins of Totalitarianism. There she tells us that statelessness is “the newest mass phenomenon in contemporary history, and the existence of an ever growing new people comprised of stateless persons [is] the most symptomatic group in contemporary politics.” This phenomenon of mass statelessness “can hardly be blamed on one factor alone, but if we consider the different groups among the stateless it appears that every major political event since the end of the first World War inevitably added a new category of those who lived outside the pale of law, while none of the categories, no matter how the original constellation changed could ever be renormalized.”

When Arendt wrote this in the late 1940s, she could scarcely have realised how relevant her observations would be in the second decade of the twenty-first century. Almost every significant political event during the past hundred years has resulted in the multiplication of new categories of refugees. There appears to be no end in sight to the increase in the numbers and categories of refugees. The most recent example is the desperate plight of the Rohingya people. There are now millions of people in refugee camps with little hope that they will be able to return to their homes or ever find a new home. Arendt was one of the first major political thinkers to warn that the ever-increasing numbers of stateless persons and refugees would be the “most symptomatic” group of contemporary politics. Arendt probes even deeper by exploring the plight of the stateless who are forced to leave to their countries and cannot find another home: “The calamity of the rightless is not that they are deprived of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, or of equality before the law and freedom of opinion – formulas which were designed to solve problems within given communities – but that they no longer belong to any community whatever …. Only in the last stage of a rather lengthy process is their right to live threatened; only if they remain ‘superfluous,’ if nobody can be found to ‘claim’ them, may their lives be in danger.”

Arendt was skeptical about appeals of abstract human or inalienable rights. These turn out to be meaningless if there are no effective institutions to guarantee and protect these rights. The most fundamental right is the “right to have rights” – the right to belong to a community where people can act and expresses opinions and where there is some guarantee of legal protection. She also claims that the loss of such a community has the consequence of expelling a people from humanity itself. We can see the frightening consequences of systematically depriving people the “right to have rights” in totalitarianism.

In one of the most chilling chapters of The Origins of Totalitarianism she explains the “logic” of totalitarian domination. The first stage is to kill the juridical person. This happens when people are stripped of their legal rights. This is what happened to Jews in Germany long before the final solution. The second stage is the murder of the moral person. This occurs when even martyrdom becomes impossible. Totalitarian terror achieved its most terrible triumph when decisions of conscience became impossible. “When a man is faced with the alternative of betraying and thus murdering his friends or sending his wife and children, for whom he is in every sense responsible, to their death: when even suicide would mean the immediate murder of his own family – how is he to decide? The alternative is no longer between good and evil, but between murder and murder. Who could solve the moral dilemma of the Greek mother who was allowed by the Nazis to choose which of her three children should be killed?” But this is not yet the worst. There is a third stage of this “logic” of total domination. After the killing of the juridical person and the murder of the moral person, the one thing that prevents human beings from becoming living corpses is their spontaneity and individual differentiation. “After the murder of the moral person and the annihilation of the juridical person, the destruction of individuality is almost always successful. . . .For to destroy individuality is to destroy spontaneity, man’s power to begin something new out of his own resources, something that cannot be explained on the basis of reactions to environment and events” The ultimate aim of totalitarianism is to make human beings as human beings superfluous. “What totalitarian ideologies aim at is not the transformation of the outside world or the revolutionising transmutation of society, but the transformation of human nature itself.” The systematic attempt to eliminate any vestige of human spontaneity and individuality – to make human beings as human beings superfluous is what she called absolute or radical evil. The most disturbing sentence in The Origins of Totalitarianism is her warning: “Totalitarian solutions may well survive the fall of totalitarian regimes in the form of strong temptations which will come up whenever it seems impossible to alleviate political, social and economic misery in a manner worthy of man.” These “strong temptations” have not been resisted in the massacres, genocides, rapes, tortures, and systematic lying by governments during the past seventy-five years.

By “dwelling on the horrors” of totalitarianism – by grasping that the aim of total domination is to destroy human spontaneity, individuality and plurality, Arendt spent the rest of life probing what it means fully to live a human life in a political community, what it means to be a human being who can initiate, begin something new – what she called natality. She also sought to probe the threats to the dignity of politics – to the type of politics in which individuals confront each other as political equals, deliberate and act together – a politics in which empowerment can grow and public freedom thrive without violence,

Her essay “Truth and Politics”, published in 1967, might have been written yesterday. Her analysis of systematic lying and the danger it presents to factual truths is urgently relevant. Because factual truths are contingent and consequently might have been otherwise, it is all too easy to destroy factual truth and substitute “alternative facts”. Factual truths that stand in the way of an authoritarian leader’s basic prejudices encounter enormous hostility. “Freedom of opinion is a farce unless factual information is guaranteed and the facts are not in dispute.” Unfortunately one of the most successful techniques for blurring the distinction between factual truth and falsehood is to claim that any so-called factual truth is just another opinion – something we hear almost every day from the Trump administration. What happened so blatantly in totalitarian regimes is being practiced today by leading politicians with great success – employing the techniques of social media to deny factual truth and to spread lies, to create a fictional world of “alternative facts”. Arendt warns about an even greater danger. “The result of a consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth is not that the lies will now be accepted as truth, and the truth defamed as lies, but that the sense by which we take our bearings in the real world – and the category of truth vs. falsehood is among the mental means to this end – is being destroyed.”

Arendt had a deep insight into something that we are living through now. The very categories of truth vs. falsehood and facts vs. lies are in the process of being obliterated. Consequently, the possibilities for lying become boundless and frequently meet with little resistance. Lies are frequently used to deliberately deceive – to present a falsehood as if it were the truth. This still presupposes a distinction between lies and factual truth. But Arendt emphasises that something new occurs when the deceiver comes to believe his own lies. She points out how difficult it is to lie consistently without coming to believe in the “truth” of one’s own lies. Many liberals are perplexed that when there is “fact-checking” – when it is clearly and definitively shown that a lie is a lie – many people seem unconcerned and indifferent. But Arendt understood how propaganda really works. “What convinces masses are not facts, not even invented facts, but only the consistency of the system of which they are presumably a part.” People who feel that they have been neglected and forgotten yearn for a narrative – even an invented fictional story – that will make sense of the anxiety they are experiencing – one that promises some sort of redemption. In such a situation an authoritarian leader has enormous advantages by exploiting anxieties and creating a fiction that people want to believe. Argument and appeal to facts have little effectiveness is the face of such “persuasive” techniques – amplified by social media that penetrate our privacy and are so powerful in shaping opinions and beliefs. A fictional story that promises to solve one’s problems is much more appealing than facts and “reasonable” arguments. Arendt warns us that these dangers helped to smooth the way for the success of totalitarian regimes. These are the dangers that we face today in an alarming fashion.

Arendt was not a doomsayer. Reckless despair and reckless optimism are two sides of the same coin. To counter her warnings about the political dangers of contemporary life, she elaborated a textured thick conception of the dignity of politics. Like the pearl diver in Shakespeare’s Tempest, she sought to retrieve the pearls from the past when the politics of public political freedom were concretely manifested – whether in the Greek polis, the American Revolution, the Paris Commune, or the 1956 Hungarian uprising. Arendt was ruthlessly critical of all appeals to historical necessity. Because of our natality, our capacity to act, we can always begin something new: “Beginning before it becomes a historical event is the supreme capacity of man, politically; it is identical with man’s freedom.” The deepest theme in Arendt is the need to take responsibility for our political lives. She warned against being seduced by nihilism, cynicism or indifference. She resisted false hope and false despair. She was bold in describing the darkness of our times – lying, deception, self-deception, image-making and the attempt to destroy the very distinction between truth and falsehood. Her definition of the dignity of politics is intended to provide a critical standard for judging what is so lacking today – where there is so little opportunity to participate, to act in concert and to engage in genuine debate with our peers. We must resist the temptation to opt out of politics and to assume that nothing can be done in face of all the current ugliness, deception, and corruption. For to do so is to allow ourselves to become complicit with the worst. Arendt’s life-long project was to understand, to comprehend, and to do this in a way that both honestly confront the darkness of our times and the sources of illumination. This is one of the many reasons why Arendt should be read and reread now.

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Richard J. Bernstein is Vera List Professor of Philosophy at the New School for Social Research. His most recent book is Why Read Hannah Arendt Now.

Header photo by Fred Stein/Corbis