An exhibition at the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin explores Hannah Arendt’s transnational career, her thoughts on topics such as feminism and colonialism, and her many close friendships.
Review by Jonathon Catlin
In a tribute to her mentor Karl Jaspers, Hannah Arendt once said: “Humanity is never acquired in solitude, and never by giving one’s work to the public. It can be achieved only by one who has thrown his life and his person into the ‘venture into the public realm.’” As stay-at-home orders related to the coronavirus pandemic are beginning to ease around the world, leaders, institutions, and individuals are faced with difficult decisions about whether and how to undertake such ventures into public life.
On May 11, Berlin’s Deutsches Historisches Museum (DHM) opened the exhibition Hannah Arendt and the Twentieth Century to in-person visitors, six weeks after the scheduled opening was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. In the meantime, the DHM made the exhibition partially accessible online through a virtual preview. The irony was not lost on me that opening the exhibition in the midst of a pandemic entailed something of an Arendtian social experiment. After all, maintaining public life in times of crisis and fear was a challenge Arendt’s work addressed at length. Several precautions have been put in place: visitors must wear mouth and nose coverings, maintain a certain distance from others, and book time-stamped tickets online in advance to limit the number of guests to an approved level. Strange times, then, to promote the exhibition with the Arendtian slogan, “No one has the right to obey” (1964).
Curated by philosopher Dr. Monika Boll, the exhibition leads visitors through sixteen chapters in the life of the German-Jewish thinker Hannah Arendt (1906–1975), centered on flashpoints in her transnational career and her many close friendships. The exhibition is vast, occupying two floors of the DHM’s I. M. Pei-designed glass and steel modern wing. It wagers that the life of a single intellectual—however iconic—can engage the general public at the same time as it deepens the understanding of specialists. The resulting compromise provides treatment of Arendt’s philosophical work sometimes as superficial as that of Margarethe von Trotta’s 2012 Arendt biopic. In both cases, the genre imperative of not overwhelming the viewer wins out, and nuanced philosophical discussions—the very stuff of judgment that ads for the exhibition tout—are often reduced to sparse, if pithy, quotations. Nevertheless, all visitors can enjoy following Arendt’s remarkable biography through a variety of media, from writings and videos of Arendt projected on the walls to insightful audio introductions for individual listening in cozy nooks.
The exhibition presents Arendt as a public intellectual who often intervened in pressing debates about the explosive historical events of her lifetime. The Arendt depicted is not the meditative, rigorous philosopher of major works including The Human Condition (which hardly makes an appearance) but the intellectuelle engagée who often found herself at the center of political events and controversies including dramatic escapes from Germany and then France in the 1930s, political work for and eventual criticisms of the Zionist movement, her notorious report on the trial in Israel of the Holocaust perpetrator Adolf Eichmann, and her similarly divisive essay on the American civil rights movement in Little Rock.
These public engagements culminate in Arendt’s praise for the political and cultural renewals of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and the 1968 student movements, which is captured in new interviews the DHM conducted with key participants in these events who knew Arendt personally: the late Ágnes Heller, who held the Hannah Arendt chair at the New School and has spoken widely on Arendt’s work, and Daniel Cohn-Bendit of 1968 fame (his parents were friends of Arendt), whose interview the DHM made available online. In a 1958 essay, Arendt called the Hungarian Revolution the closest thing she knew to Rosa Luxemburg’s “spontaneous revolution.” About 1968 she had a more differentiated view, praising the moral motives of American student demonstrators against the Vietnam War but criticizing the German student movement for its violent tactics and rigid revolutionary theory. Arendt saw in these popular uprisings what Sheldon Wolin later called “fugitive democracy,” fleeting yet symbolic renewals of politics in the wake of totalitarianism. As she wrote to Karl Jaspers in 1968, “It seems to me that the children of the next century will once learn about 1968 the way we learned about 1848.”
Then there is Arendt’s favorite revolution of all: the American. In her somewhat romanticized view, she once claimed that “America is not a nation-state,” but a constitutional republic composed largely of immigrants and refugees like herself. Her naturalization certificate from 1951 is captioned by a line she wrote to Jaspers on the occasion: “I am constantly grateful to have ended up here.” Next to it one finds her On Revolution (1963), which has been called “a love letter to her adopted country, where, in her view, the vitality and diversity of the ancient Greek polis was reborn and reclaimed in the modern age.” At the same time, Cohn-Bendit once said she saw America as “politically democratic and socially totalitarian.”
In conjunction with the exhibition, the DHM and Piper Verlag have published a volume by the same name that includes photographs of some of Arendt’s personal items presented alongside new essays by many notable Arendt scholars, including Liliane Weissberg on Arendt’s attachment to Rahel Varnhagen, Micha Brumlik on Arendt’s ambivalence toward Zionism, Anna Pollmann on Arendt’s tumultuous relationship with her ex-husband Günther Anders, Norbert Frei on Arendt and 1968, Susan Neiman on Arendt’s concept of judgment, and many others. Suffice it to say that “the twentieth century could not be understood without Hannah Arendt”—the quotation, attributed to the Israeli author Amos Elon, that opens the editor’s introduction. Without the space to explore all these topics, the present review highlights several of the most striking interpretive moves made by the curators of the exhibition.
Arendt’s non-feminist feminism
The exhibition provocatively situates Arendt amidst the feminist movement even though she explicitly rejected this label. On the same wall in the large final room, one reads that Arendt broke the glass ceiling by becoming the first female full (visiting) professor at Princeton and took up the role of a public intellectual with rare confidence for women of her era, and that she explicitly resisted identification with second-wave feminism, remarking in 1972, “I have to admit that I have never been very interested in the women’s issue.” The curators rightly imply that Arendt was perhaps mistaken to view women’s issues as “private” rather than “public”—according to the contestable distinction she set up in The Human Condition. By the end of her lifetime, they had been thrust into the public sphere, as expressed in the iconic feminist slogan, “the personal is political.” Reflecting on this uneasy relationship, one recalls the opening lines of Arendt’s 1964 German television interview with Günter Gaus in which she rebuffs his calling her a woman philosopher; she instead identifies herself as a “political theorist”, but reassures her interviewer, “It is entirely possible that a woman will one day be a philosopher.”
This final room exemplifies the ambivalent result of the exhibition being housed in the Deutsches Historisches Museum: At several points in the exhibition, contextual materials from the museum’s collections are presented as a kind of historical furniture that have no direct connection to Arendt but seem intended to create a historical mood. Examples of such props include a replica of a Jewish salon around the discussion of her book on Rahel Varnhagen, and ornate Judaica around the point in her biography that she returned to Europe after the war to collect Jewish books and cultural artifacts.
The center of the large final room is filled with objects that go beyond distraction and actually seem misplaced: cases presenting feminist magazines and posters alongside objects like a birth control dispenser. Given the distance Arendt put between herself and such movements, these objects hardly advance our understanding of her. Arendt’s iconoclastic thought, alas, resists appropriation by any politics of identity. The visitor is left with an impression of Arendt the person, not Arendt the woman.
Restoring the place of colonialism and imperialism
The most notable curatorial choice is the extensive textual commentary dedicated to the key place of European colonialism and imperialism in Arendt’s analysis of the twentieth century, based on the second part of The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), which identifies the roots of Europe’s twentieth-century catastrophes in these earlier histories. A Nazi propaganda poster depicting Germany’s former African colonies from 1938 faces a discussion of Arendt’s theory of the “boomerang effect,” whereby dehumanization begun in Europe’s colonial projects became a historical gateway for the Nazi racial empire to subjugate Jews and Eastern Europeans it deemed racially inferior. One learns here of Arendt’s close reading of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899), which she praised for illuminating the “experience” of colonialism; in Origins she twice quotes his phrase “dance of death and trade” to describe early colonialist expropriation. A review in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung dismisses this section as a crude “postcolonial appropriation,” but in fact this often-neglected aspect of Arendt’s work gave rise to some of her most important insights: It is in the final pages of the “Imperialism” section of Origins that Arendt described the enduring problem of statelessness, “the newest mass phenomenon in contemporary history” and criticized the uncertain power of “human rights” to guarantee “the right to have rights.”
It is a remarkable choice to start the narrative here, rather than with the more conventional course running through part one of Origins, on European Jewish ghetto and court experiences, as one is used to finding in Germany, for example in the old permanent exhibition of Berlin’s Jewish Museum. The colonial framing shifts the narrative away from what Arendt pejoratively called “eternal antisemitism” and thought had little explanatory power regarding the novelty of Nazi genocide, and turns toward the contingent historical levers she saw as decisive in producing the unprecedented mass violence of the twentieth century. This constitutes recognition not only of postcolonial scholarship and the reckoning of European museums with their colonial legacies, but also of important scholarship in recent years by Dirk Moses and many others on some phases and aspects of the Holocaust as a frontier or colonial genocide patterned on the subjugation and extermination of indigenous peoples in the American West and elsewhere.
The context of European colonialism thus serves as the literal antechamber to Arendt’s probing meditations on the Holocaust in the next room. Above a large model of the Auschwitz-Birkenau crematoria by the Polish sculptor Mieczysław Stobierski, one watches the most sobering part of Arendt’s Gaus interview, in which she describes the moment she grasped the reality of the Holocaust:
“What was decisive was not the year 1933, at least not for me. What was decisive was the day we learned about Auschwitz…That was in 1943. And at first we didn’t believe it….And then a half year later we believed it after all, because we had the proof. That was the real shock….It was really as if an abyss had opened….This should not have happened….Something happened there to which we all can no longer reconcile ourselves.”
In Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963), Arendt called confronting the Holocaust “the challenge of the unprecedented.” Yet her analysis presented the Holocaust as a contingent historical emergence that had to be seen in light of the lifting of restraints on violence in Europe’s colonial misadventures and older scientific racism that had divided humanity into “master” and “inferior” races. Arendt’s nuanced ability to assert, in the same book, the unparalleled character of the Holocaust and its close links with other histories and patterns of oppression serves as a model for navigating a present debate roiling German memory politics: the disinvitation of Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe from giving the opening address of the Ruhrtriennale literature festival in Bochum. Mbembe is said to have expressed support for BDS and passages from his work have been read (wrongly in my view) as “relativizing the Holocaust” and thus as antisemitic. In the more expansive spirit of Arendt, Michael Rothberg advised in a recent response that “the theory of multidirectional memory suggests, above all, that the fear of comparison that currently reigns in Germany could itself be productively rethought. Instead of seeing every juxtaposition of the Holocaust with colonialism or apartheid as a threat to Germans’ responsibility-based identity, Germans might instead reflect on the broader histories and responsibilities that come into view when we pause to take multidirectional comparisons seriously.” As Mbembe refuted the charges in his own words, “Why is this offensive taking as its prime targets the minority voices in Europe and voices of the formerly colonised worlds? Who gains the most if indeed these voices are reduced to silence?” The Auschwitz survivor Jean Améry, Rothberg notes, argued that the proper attitude of post-Holocaust Germans was that of “self-mistrust” [Selbstmisstrauen]. Arendt might have said the same.
Arendt and postwar Germany
The exhibition traces Arendt’s continued engagement with West German society even after she decided to remain in the United States. Asked in the Gaus interview what was left of Europe in her new life, Arendt answered that she had no nostalgia for pre-Hitler Europe, but one thing remained with her: “The German language is the essential thing that has remained and that I have always consciously preserved.” But something else remained, too; through her German friends, mentors, and professional commitments, she remained connected to and invested in the recovery and moral fate of her native country.
The largest room in the exhibition centers on Arendt’s powerful 1950 essay “The Aftermath of Nazi Rule: Report from Germany,” published in Commentary, in which she criticizes German society and Allied denazification efforts for failing to reckon with the Nazi past and seeking to quickly rebuild as a distraction from immense moral failure. “Amid the ruins,” she wrote, “Germans mail each other picture postcards still showing the cathedrals and market places, the public buildings and bridges that no longer exist.” “A lack of response is evident everywhere,” she observed, “and it is difficult to say whether this signifies a half-conscious refusal to yield to grief or a genuine inability to feel.” She saw this intense apathy, indifference, heartlessness as “only the most conspicuous outward symptom of a deep-rooted, stubborn, and at times vicious refusal to face and come to terms with what really happened.” She grimly concluded that “Such an escape from reality is also, of course, an escape from responsibility.” In a letter to the editor, Thomas Mann affirmed Arendt’s portrait of Germany and praised her essay as a work of literature. Yet again, political posters and detritus from the aftermath of the war in Germany create a vague historical mood but are mere noise compared to the moral force of Arendt’s cutting words.
Arendt continued to engage with postwar German society in her remaining years. She received important German prizes like the city of Hamburg’s Lessing Prize in 1959, which occasioned her moving essay on Lessing published in Men in Dark Times. The translations of her works into German, like Eichmann in Jerusalem debuting at the 1964 Frankfurt Book Fair, became intellectual events.
Of course, there were difficulties. In a letter displayed in the exhibition, Arendt objects to her German publisher Piper Verlag—when it finally published Rahel Varnhagen in German in 1959—for shortening the subtitle on the book’s cover from “The Life History of a German Jewess From the Romantic Period” to “A Life History,” with the effect of minimizing Varnhagen’s Jewishness. What Arendt did not know is that the chief editor of the publishing house, Hans Rößner, had been a member of the Nazi SS. This book also played an important role in Arendt’s restitution claims for professional damages (1959—successful) and property loss (1959—unsuccessful) she suffered at the hands of the Nazi regime. The final case, initiated in 1966 before the German Constitutional Court, resulted in Rahel Varnhagen being counted as her Habilitation, allowing her to hold a professorship in Germany and establishing a legal precedent.
Revisiting the Eichmann affair
No exhibition on Arendt would be complete without treatment of the notorious Eichmann affair, the controversy that ensued after the publication of her coverage of the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann published in five parts in The New Yorker. Copies of the February–March 1963 issues are displayed. Irving Howe called the Eichmann affair “a civil war that broke out among New York intellectuals”—between Arendt’s defenders, including Mary McCarthy, and her detractors, such as Norman Podhoeretz, who said she exemplified “the perversity of brilliance” and saw her thesis of the “banality of evil” as excusing and defending Eichmann. Reflecting back on his article about the fallout, “Eichmann in New York” (2004), Anson Rabinbach recently said, “That controversy….will go on forever. Every generation has to have its own Eichmann debate.” Indeed, a recent book on the trial bears the title The Trial That Never Ends (Toronto, 2018). Walter Laqueur wrote early in the controversy that Arendt “was mainly attacked not for what she said but for how she said it.” He later elaborated: for “the undue generalizations, the exaggerations, the violence and aggression in her attacks, the one-sidedness of her judgment.” Rabinbach’s article elaborated that it was also where she said it, New York, thrusting what was then in America largely a matter of private Jewish memory into the public domain.
The latest iteration of the debate was set off by the combination of Margarethe von Trotta’s 2012 biopic Hannah Arendt, which follows Arendt during the writing and aftermath of her New Yorker articles, and the publication of the philosopher Bettina Stangneth’s 2011 book Eichmann Before Jerusalem: The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer (translated into English in 2014). Stangneth argued that Arendt “fell into [Eichmann’s] trap” because the man she saw in Jerusalem “was little more than a mask”; Arendt simply saw her own expectations confirmed. Stangneth draws heavily upon the so-called Sassen papers, prepared by Willem Sassen, a Dutch-German Nazi war criminal who interviewed Eichmann over several months in 1957 in Argentina. Embellished excerpts were published in Der Stern and Life in 1960, shortly after Eichmann was brought to Israel for trial, and some are featured in the present exhibition. In these interviews, Eichmann boasts about and attempts to justify his role in the Holocaust and says he regrets only that the regime did not succeed in murdering even more Jews. Arendt refers to the published excerpts in Eichmann, but she did not have access to the full and unembellished papers, which have led critics like Stangneth to argue that Eichmann was a far more zealous and ideological antisemite than Arendt recognized.
The latest debate in America came to a head in a series of heated exchanges in 2014 between Richard Wolin, who represents a faction that has long been critical of Arendt for her downplaying of the specificity of antisemitism and her proximity to Heidegger, and Seyla Benhabib, whose response, “Who’s on Trial, Eichmann or Arendt?” defended Arendt’s thesis on Eichmann as a Kantian, not Heideggerian, insight: “He was banal precisely because he was a fanatical anti-Semite, not despite it.” In my view, David Owen summed up the debate best with his claim, “while Arendt’s thesis concerning the banality of evil is a fundamental insight for moral philosophy, she is almost certainly wrong about Eichmann.”
The DHM exhibition presents a full range of responses to Arendt’s work on Eichmann, in light of these recent debates. The most important thing it adds concerns one of the most controversial lines in her New Yorker articles, in which she referred to Leo Baeck, a revered rabbi and the last leader of the Jewish Community in Germany under the Nazis, as the “Jewish Führer.” In his introduction to Eichmann, Amos Elon calls this remark “inexcusably flippant.” The Arendt in von Trotta’s film is defiant in the face of such criticism; she publicly refuses to back down in response to what she saw as vicious, ad hominem attacks against her fearless truth-telling. Yet a telling detail displayed in the exhibition reveals that Arendt was not entirely recalcitrant: In her bound proof copy of the text of her New Yorker articles in the process of being transformed into a book, Arendt omitted this offending phrase, crossing it out with her pencil.
This small alteration is a quiet admission that words matter. As Elon reports in “The Excommunication of Hannah Arendt,” Arendt’s critics toured the U.S. decrying her as a “self-hating Jew” and the “Rosa Luxemburg of Nothingness.” Many also seized upon her allegedly cold or heartless tone—a charge with sexist undertones that Deborah Nelson explores in her 2017 book Tough Enough as it was leveled against Arendt but also many other mid-century women intellectuals including Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, Joan Didion, and Simone Weil. Without reading too much into Arendt’s decision to delete the phrase, the least we can say is that she heard her critics. In her Gaus interview, occasioned by the publication of the German translation of Eichmann, Arendt says, “That the tone of voice is predominantly ironic is completely true.” She confesses to having laughed out loud countless times as she read the transcript of Eichmann’s testimony. “People took this reaction in a bad way. I cannot do anything about that. But I know one thing: three minutes before certain death, I probably still would laugh.”
The politics of friendship
The second floor is dotted by around twenty translucent banners with biographies of Arendt’s closest friends. In response to the Eichmann affair, one of the closest, Gershom Scholem, responded to Arendt in an exchange of letters published in 1963, writing that Arendt lacked “ahavath Israel, or love for the Jewish people.” Arendt famously responded, “How right you are that I have no such love, and for two reasons: first, I have never in my life ‘loved’ some nation or collective…The fact is that I love only my friends and am quite incapable of any other sort of love.” As Arendt reflects in a quotation on the banner for her husband Heinrich Blücher, her relationships were her true Heimat. When Blücher died in 1970 in New York, Arendt wrote to Heidegger, “Between two people, sometimes, how rarely, a world grows. It is then one’s homeland; in any case, it was the only homeland that we were willing to recognize.”
More important than places or possessions in the life of this one-time refugee were her lifelong friendships, which are thematized in Jon Nixon’s Hannah Arendt and the Politics of Friendship (2015). Much attention has been paid to Arendt’s relationships with her intellectual mentors Heidegger and Jaspers; her colleagues Scholem, Walter Benjamin, Kurt Blumenfeld, and Hans Jonas; her two husbands, Anders (formerly Stern, a last name she briefly adopted) and Blücher; and her praise for authors like Hermann Broch and W. H. Auden (whose poetry she cites in her famous New Yorker profile on Bertolt Brecht, and who, one learns, even proposed to Arendt after the death of Blücher—she declined).
Yet arguably more intense, and sometimes even erotically charged, were Arendt’s relationships with women, which have often been overshadowed. These are highlighted in a collection of her letters to female friends published in German in 2017 with a quote from Arendt as its title: I Don’t Like to Imagine How I Will One Day Live Without You. These include the writer Mary McCarthy (whom Arendt named as her literary executor), the philosopher Anne Weil, Rose Feitelson (who edited her English prose), Hilde Fränkel (the mistress of Paul Tillich whom Arendt called “gifted with erotic genius” and with whom she claimed an intimacy “like none she had ever known with a woman”), the socialist journalist Charlotte Beradt, her assistant and translator Lotte Köhler, and her biographer and only Ph.D. candidate Elisabeth Young-Bruehl. Her grandniece Edna Brocke donated a number of Arendt’s possessions to the Deutsches Historisches Museum on the occasion of the exhibition. Arendt, who had no children of her own, endearingly addresses Brocke as “mein liebes Fröschlein,” my little frog; they met often, and Arendt even took Brocke with her to the Eichmann trials. The curator’s interview with Brocke is available online.
The way the exhibition showcases the personal effects of Arendt sometimes verges on hagiography: presenting her briefcase, camera, address book, and monogrammed fur cape (an extravagant gift from Blücher) may serve to humanize Arendt, but they add little to our understanding of the way she lived.
However, a few items like the flower broach she wore in her famous 1964 interview with Günther Gaus, her ever-present silver cigarette case, and contact sheets of photos taken of Arendt between 1941–1966 by Fred Stein accentuate her distinctive style and persona as an iconic public intellectual. Daniel Cohn-Bendit went so far as to claim, “I always say: Hannah Arendt is the philosophical Madonna.”
Another example is the Minox “spy” camera she bought in 1961 and used to take pictures of friends including Heidegger, Jaspers, and McCarthy (see some of the photos here). Yet, in my view, the most illuminating objects in the exhibition are mostly documentary: the Nazi-era newspaper that announced Arendt and Günther Stern being stripped of German citizenship for their Jewish origins, Arendt’s membership card to the Zionist organization in London, and a ticket to the Eichmann trial.
Arendt: A thinker for our time?
Hannah Arendt and the Twentieth Century is a product of Arendt’s resurgent popularity in recent years. In the wake of the 2015 refugee crisis, Reclam Verlag in 2016 issued a German translation and pamphlet edition of Arendt’s 1943 essay “We Refugees” (despite the pronounced differences between those refugee experiences), which was followed in 2018 by a popular new German edition of “The Freedom to be Free” (dtv). In the wake of the 2016 election of Donald Trump, The Origins of Totalitarianism became an overnight bestseller, praised for its relevance for understanding right-wing populism by critics including Roger Berkowitz, Timothy Snyder, and Masha Gessen, and prompting new books such as the collection The Right to Have Rights (2018) and Richard Bernstein’s Why Read Hannah Arendt Now (2018). But this enthusiasm may be running out of steam. A recent essay, “An End to Totalitarianism,” by historian Samuel Clowes Huneke, rightly calls for a more sober assessment of Arendt’s work; after all, her central concept of “totalitarianism” has been dismissed by historians for decades.
At a 2017 conference on “Hannah Arendt and the Judgment of Modernity” I attended at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Vienna, a panel devoted to Arendt’s “Reflections on Little Rock” (1959) stirred up intense debate between presenters drawing out her problematic conclusions on racial politics in the U.S. and those ardent believers that her judgment could never fail. The organizer, Natan Sznaider, intervened, standing up and exclaiming, “Look, Arendt is not Judith Butler!” By this he meant that she was hardly “progressive” by contemporary standards—and that this by no means diminishes the value of her thought. This episode was a stark reminder for me that people will always see in iconic figures like Arendt what they want to. To some on the left, including the students of ’68, Arendt’s notion of “totalitarianism,” which seemed to collapse Stalinism and Nazism, makes her a Cold War liberal. Meanwhile, her division of the public from the private spheres cut against major insights of both Marxist and feminist theory. To some on the right, Arendt was too pluralist and excessively critical of the state of Israel.
Yet the marvel of Arendt is that all of these positions can be challenged by her own work: See her remarkable 1951 essay “The Eggs Speak Up,” a witty denunciation of McCarthyism, and her 1953 Gauss lectures at Princeton, “Karl Marx and the Tradition of Western Political Thought,” in which she defends Marx against complicity with Stalinist dictatorship: “I think it can be shown that the line from Aristotle to Marx shows both fewer and far less decisive breaks than the line from Marx to Stalin” (p. 277); this theme is elaborated in her unfinished book on Marx, which was published in 2018—one of the first of the seventeen volumes of the critical edition of Arendt’s work forthcoming from Wallstein Verlag. On the issue of Jewish politics, see early on in the exhibit, her call for a Jewish army in a 1941 essay: “We can do battle against antisemitism only if we battle Hitler with weapons in our hands”; and also recent work by Na’ama Rokem on “Arendt’s Itineraries,” which shows that Arendt wrote enthusiastic letters and journal entries about Israel while on a “victory tour” of its new territories shortly after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
As curator Monika Boll rightly says, “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.” The difficulty of pigeonholing Arendt’s thought is precisely what makes her a perennially interesting figure. Arendt herself called it “Denken ohne Geländer,” thinking without a banister.
In a recent reflection on self-isolation in the pandemic, Masha Gessen calls attention to the final section of Arendt’s Origins, “Ideology and Terror,” where Arendt distinguished between the conditions of isolation, solitude, and loneliness. Isolation, being alone, is “a situation in which I cannot act, because there is nobody who will act with me”; it deprives us of political power. Loneliness, which “shows itself most sharply in company with others,” is “a situation in which I as a person feel myself deserted by all human companionship.” Whereas isolation, Arendt argued, “is required for all so-called productive activities of men” (as work and thinking for her require withdrawal from the realm of politics), in the modern world loneliness is a widespread condition of worldlessness, uprootedness, and superfluousness that constitutes “the common ground for terror, the essence of totalitarian government.” While solitude always risks turning into loneliness, it is also essential: “All thinking, strictly speaking, is done in solitude and is a dialogue between me and myself; but this dialogue of the two-in-one does not lose contact with the world of my fellow-men because they are represented in the self with whom I lead the dialogue of thought.” Unfortunately, the mass isolation felt today is the enemy of this solitude. What makes the resulting loneliness so unbearable, Arendt writes, is that it is “the loss of one’s own self” and with it the loss of “that elementary confidence in the world which is necessary to make experiences at all.”
Visitors seeking the company of Arendt must make their way to through Berlin’s grand boulevard Unter den Linden. Usually bustling with tourists and students, on the exhibition’s rainy opening day it was eerily quiet. Approaching the imposing limestone façade and glass spiral of the DHM’s modern wing, one feels the strangeness of being in the most public of spaces and feeling virtually alone. Amidst the fear and anxiety of being in public these days, Arendt would have marveled at the fact that such effort is being made to maintain safe, distanced sites for collective reflection—solitude, together.
At the end of the Gaus interview, Arendt says a defining feature of every “venture into the public realm” is that we throw ourselves into a network of social relations and can never know for certain what will come of it. Surely Arendt’s life can be seen as a succession of such ventures. But, Arendt elaborates, every such “venture is only possible when there is trust in people. A trust—which is difficult to formulate but fundamental—in what is human in all people. Otherwise such a venture could not be made.” Hannah Arendt and the Twentieth Century succeeds by debunking the myth of the solitary philosophical talking head and setting Arendt back in the world and in conversation. It helps us see that Arendt remains so endlessly relevant—and disputed—not simply because of her brilliance, or the way she resisted orthodoxies and labels, but also because she sometimes had the courage to change her mind.
Jonathon Catlin is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of History and the Interdisciplinary Doctoral Program in the Humanities (IHUM) at Princeton University. His dissertation is a conceptual history of “catastrophe” in modern European thought, focusing on German-Jewish intellectuals including the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory and Hannah Arendt. For the 2019–2020 academic year he is a Fulbright Scholar and visiting fellow at Berlin’s Zentrum für Literatur- und Kulturforschung (ZfL).
Images courtesy of the Deutsches Historisches Museum/Thomas Bruns and the author.