Arendt, Hannah
(1906–1975)
   Hannah Arendt was born on 14 October 1906, in Hanover, in Wilhelmine, Germany. After graduating from high school in Koenigsberg in 1924, Arendt began to study theology at the University of Marburg, where she became a student of the young philosopher Martin Heidegger, whose lectures would form the basis of Being and Time (1927), a classic work of 20th-century philosophy. Her brief but passionate affair with Heidegger, a married man and a father, began in 1925 but ended when she went on to study at the University of Heidelberg with Karl Jaspers. A psychiatrist who had converted to philosophy, Jaspers became her mentor. However, the rising anti-Semitism afflicting the German polity distracted her from metaphysics and compelled her to face the historical dilemma of German Jews.
   As the National Socialists grasped power, Arendt became a political activist and, beginning in 1933, helped the German Zionist Organization to publicize the plight of the victims of Nazism. She also did research on anti-Semitic propaganda, for which she was arrested by the Gestapo. But when she won the sympathy of a Berlin jailer, she was released and escaped to Paris, where she remained for the rest of the decade. Working especially with Youth Aliyah, Arendt helped rescue Jewish children from the Third Reich and bring them to Palestine.
   When the Wehrmacht (German army) invaded France less than half a year later, she was separated and interned in southern France along with other stateless Germans. Arendt was sent to Gurs, from which she escaped. She soon managed to reach neutral America, where her mother was able to reunite with her. While living in New York during the rest of World War II, Arendt envisioned the book that became The Origins of Totalitarianism. It was published in 1951, exactly a decade after she arrived in the United States and the same year she secured her citizenship. The Origins of Totalitarianism described the steps toward the distinctive 20th-century tyrannies of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin, and demonstrated how embedded racism was in Central and Western European societies by the end of the 19th century. The book detailed how imperialism experimented with the possibilities of unspeakable cruelty and mass murder, and she proceeded to expose the operations of “radical evil,” arguing that the huge number of prisoners in the death camps marked a horrifying discontinuity in European history itself. In 1963, Arendt published what proved to be the most controversial work of her career, Eichmann in Jerusalem. In 1960, Israeli security forces had captured Schutzstaffel (SS) Lieutenant-Colonel Adolf Eichmann, who had been responsible for deporting Jews to the death camps. The following year, he was tried in Israel, where Arendt covered the trial as a correspondent for the New Yorker. Her articles were then revised and expanded for Eichmann in Jerusalem. Her portrayal of a bureaucrat who did his duty, a “desk murderer” who followed orders, rather than a fanatical ideologue animated by demonic anti-Semitism, was strikingly original. Far from embodying “radical evil,” Eichmann exemplified the “the banality of evil,” and, Arendt argued, his crimes could not be confined to the political peculiarities of the Third Reich.
   Arendt also argued that fewer than six million Jews would have died if the Jewish Councils (Judenrate) had not collaborated to various degrees with Nazis like Eichmann. Even anarchy and noncooperation would have been better, she stated, than the effort to act as though the occupiers were traditional anti-Semites who might somehow be bribed or appeased. Her attribution of some responsibility for the catastrophe to the councils not only met sharp criticism but also provoked a considerable historical literature that investigated the behavior of Jewish communities under Nazi occupation. She drew criticism because she held the victims of the Final Solution accountable for inadequate and ill-conceived political action, and offered the perpetrators a measure of empathy in an effort to understand the “why” of the crimes they perpetrated, lest the horrors be repeated under different historical conditions. According to Arendt, then, Eichmann did not commit crimes because of a sadistic will to do so, nor because he had been deeply infected by the bacillus of anti-Semitism, but because he failed to think through what he was doing (his thoughtlessness).
   See also Milgram, Stanley.

Historical dictionary of the Holocaust. . 2014.

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