Life and work as a unified entity

6 Dec 2023

LMU philosopher Thomas Meyer has penned a new biography of Hannah Arendt. In an interview, he explains the appeal of her thinking to this day. From the research magazine EINSICHTEN

EINSICHTEN: “Thinker of our time” is a label that has stuck to Hannah Arendt. What is it that makes the major works she wrote in the 1950s and 1960s so topical in the eyes of so many?

Meyer: Yes, she died nearly 50 years ago, in 1975, so she was born into a completely different world. She was shaped by the experiencing of emigrating, by the Cold War. To start with, the most obvious point: First and foremost, it is the direct tone she adopts. Her works exhibit no scientific detachment between her readers and her prose. She is directly accessible. She has a very clear style that is often described as easy-going or essayistic. She almost begs to be contradicted. A lot of people would rather have that than have someone preach at them – a criticism frequently leveled at academic writings. In 1951, she became the first – in her book The Origins of Totalitarianism – to attempt not only to explain National Socialism, but also to incorporate the very topical issue of Communism/Bolshevism in her musings. She also shed light on the backstories behind both movements, the history of violence under colonialism through to modern-day antisemitism.

"My subject today, I’m afraid, is almost embarrassingly topical", Hannah Arendt started one of her lectures. "Unlike many other thinkers", biographer Thomas Meyer says, "she thus took the risk of writing almost to the very day." In 2020 the Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin, devoted an exhibition to the life and work of Hannah Arendt: "Hannah Arendt and the Twentieth Century".

© Jens Kalaene/picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbbild

So, she was the first to provide a big-picture panorama.

Meyer: Yes, she was. And in the German version, which came out four years later under the title Elemente und Ursprünge totaler Herrschaft (literally: Elements and Origins of Total Domination), she brought this topical reference into even sharper relief by updating it to include the removal of Stalin. Similarly, her lecture The Freedom to be Free begins with the words: ‘My subject today, I’m afraid, is almost embarrassingly topical.’ Unlike many other thinkers, she thus took the risk of writing almost to the very day. Yet at the same time, she describes general structures that appear to find discernible echoes in the here and now: the crisis of democracy, the rise of authoritarian, totalitarian systems, restricted freedoms, the refugee issue. We find all of this with Hannah Arendt.

Topical enough to solve a problem? I very much doubt that.

And there really is a connection to the modern day? Is it really so topical?

Meyer: I would be very careful there. I try to understand how people thought and acted in her day. Transferring ideas from the past to our present day might help us find our bearings. But are they topical enough to solve a problem? I very much doubt that.

Einsichten-Cover: Echt Jetzt - Künstlich, Natürlich: Die Grenzen verschwimmen


Read more about the boundary between the natural and the artificial in the current issue of our research magazine EINSICHTEN at | © LMU

Hannah Arendt’s biography brings together important strands of the intellectual history of the 20th century – and that on top of a life story fashioned and molded to a large extent by the historic ruptures of her day. Is the Arendt boom partly due to the fact that many of her works are seemingly authenticated by her own biography, her own twists of fate?

Meyer: Exactly. That is precisely the point to which everything feeds in from every side, every angle. Here, there is no discrepancy of the kind we see with so many others who have done everything to hide their biography behind their work, or who we today read primarily from a biographical perspective, such that their work almost disappears into the background. As in the case of Martin Heidegger, for instance. His efforts on behalf of National Socialism, as they are often termed, are a prominent force. And his work – more than 60 years of writings, no less – is then effectively arranged around this one circumstance. In the case of Arendt, we find exactly the opposite: There appears to be a direct correspondence between her life and her work, with the result that this ‘and’ virtually disappears as the two merge to become one – with all the mistakes she made, as we see today, with all the risks she took. We could say that Hannah Arendt is the embodiment of her own work.

What stages of life fed her experience and nourished her active commitments?

Meyer: From 1924 onward, she studied in Marburg under Martin Heidegger, with whom she also had a brief romantic relationship. He was regarded as the man of the moment in German philosophy, everyone wanted to see him. They didn’t understand him, but he was said to be fascinating. Arendt left him and in 1927/28 went to Heidelberg, to Karl Jaspers, whose self-perception – and the perception of those who read him today – was in effect the antithesis of Heidegger. Both men wrestled with what would later be called existential philosophy. In the 1920s, both attempted to redefine philosophy, adopting radical existential approaches in order to do so.

That, too, was merely a stage in her life.

Meyer: True. What followed was politicization. Having earned her doctorate, Hannah Arendt went to Frankfurt, where, in the orbit around sociologist Karl Mannheim, she came to know a completely different way of working. The Weimar Republic came to an end around 1930. There was inflation, unemployment, the crisis of parliamentarianism, the rise of the National Socialists. Hannah Arendt set out her stall here as a publicist, but also as an activist. And she did so on the only side left to her, since her Germanness was no longer accepted: her Jewish side. She emigrated in 1933 via Prague to Geneva, and from there to Paris, where her first husband Günther Stern, today known as Günther Anders, was already waiting for her. And then she threw herself into what she called ‘social work’: the aliyah, the transport of children and youngsters to Palestine to rescue them. She did this until the end of September 1939. Then came her flight from two internment camps and her emigration, with her second husband Heinrich Blücher, via Lisbon to New York in 1941.

"For a long time, Hannah Arendt was indeed practically the only canonized female intellectual, philosopher and political theorist. She has the aura of almost always having been the first", says Thomas Meyer.

© picture-alliance / dpa

Arendt was a university lecturer, an author and journalist, a speaker in post-war America. Later, she was also much sought after as a stand-out intellectual in Germany. Does that formula still work today because of our longing for public intellectuals?

Meyer: For a long time, Hannah Arendt was indeed practically the only canonized female intellectual, philosopher and political theorist. She has the aura of almost always having been the first. Moreover, for the longest time she was a ‘free-floating social intellectual’. A professorship was offered to her relatively quickly in the USA, but she said no. She still had so much to accomplish that could only be said and done outside of a university setting, she argued. For a long time, she was therefore a role model. Even while she was still alive, she was often stylized as something exceptional by her pupils, as well as by her friends. That said, writer and essayist Susan Sontag was among the first to fiercely criticize Arendt for never promoting the cause of women. She was at best ambivalent. So, yes and no.

A kind of counter-narrative to the success story of Jewish emancipation

In the preface, you write that you ‘decided’ – these are your words – ‘to take a step back and present Hannah Arendt’s life and work almost entirely in her time’. Why?

Meyer: It can do no harm to talk about Hannah Arendt in a fact-based manner. By which I mean very simple things, like: What family did she come from? What was her background? How were her schooldays? Were there really only Martin Heidegger and the theologian Rudolf Bultmann in Marburg? What did she actually do in Paris, if she spent so many years there? Let me give you a simple example that I found astonishing. We were always told that Hannah Arendt got to know Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Albert Camus in Paris. Of course she did, because they sat around in cafés all day and all night. Yet if you so much as dip your finger into the archives, you find that none of that is true. All these claims are nice little fictions. Hannah Arendt didn’t get to know Camus until she was in America. And after that, she only met him again once, briefly, in Paris, after 1950. This biography assembles a great deal of material for future interpretations, if you will. So, by what route did Hannah Arendt flee? Going via Prague to Geneva is not a normal route. Who helped her? What was life in Paris like to begin with? Was she immediately granted the status of a refugee? How did she find her feet in this life in exile? How did she get involved with the Jewish organizations? What did she do there? These are not things that are of secondary importance: They should really be fundamental to every biography.

You fill her years in Paris and then in the USA with life and new facts. You are absolutely meticulous in the way you describe the bubbles, as one would probably say today, within which Hannah Arendt moved.

Meyer: I wanted to also bring people into the picture whom we either do not know or whom we only associate tangentially with Hannah Arendt, but who were nevertheless central to her activities and impact for many years. Political scientist and publicist Waldemar Gurian, about whom precisely two books have been written to the present day, is one example. Without engaging in dialogue with him, however, Arendt’s monumental work on The Origins of Totalitarianism would not be in our hands today. Essentially, what I wanted to do was to shine a slightly different light on the scene. And when you do that, you don’t just have Heinrich Blücher, close friend and writer Mary McCarthy and the constant happy few standing around Hannah Arendt and sipping martinis like in the film by Margarete von Trotta.

You speak of a monumental work, and I am sure you don’t just mean because it is a weighty tome of a good thousand pages. In what way was Hannah Arendt ahead of her time in this book?

Meyer: As I said earlier, it was her early attempt to see the big picture – and it was the crossover between disciplines. On the one hand, she approaches the topic as a historian, seeking to relate a kind of counter-narrative to the success story of Jewish emancipation by tracing the history of modern antisemitism in the 18th century. From a sociological perspective, she examines what classes of people come together in this context. According to Arendt, the Jewish community was divided early on into those who can participate, because they assume some kinds of function in civil society, and all the rest.

The beginnings of marginalization...

Meyer: Yes. Thus began the pluralization of Jewries, not only on religious grounds, but as income brackets and lifestyle groups. And this also allowed non-Jewish civic society to declare certain groups to be their friends and others to be their enemies. This was radicalized. And then you have the political theorist, who is needed by the historian and the sociologist to understand how the capitalist world imploded at this moment in time. For Hannah Arendt, capital flows are always streams of violence as well. Capital flows need more and more room. They need expansion, they need to constantly discover new resources. Colonialism emerges, and with it a history of violence that takes on a life of its own – and that increases continually to the point of the National Socialists’ concentration camps and extermination camps.

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One common criticism is that conflating Stalinism and National Socialism in this way ignores the singular nature of the Holocaust.

Meyer: That is a framing that was mainly mobilized later, during what was known as the Eichmann controversy. I never cease to be surprised. From what I have read, I can only conclude that she – together with a few others such as historians Léon Poliakov and Raul Hilberg – was the one who introduced this singularity hypothesis in the first place. In her famous television interview with Günter Gaus in 1964, she expressed it in the most concise terms possible. She said that an abyss had opened up with which none of us would ever be able to reconcile ourselves from now on. Something had happened, as she put it. And the worrying thing for her was that people were able to do a thing with which none of us would ever be able to reconcile ourselves. Evil, she said, shows itself in its radical emptiness, in the pure will to destruction. In 1961, Hannah Arendt followed the trial of Nazi armchair criminal Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem. In newspaper reports and in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem, she told of how he had to testify to his deeds. The way he spoke of this abyss can only be described with the infamous notion of pure mindlessness.

The ‘banality of evil’.

Meyer: Precisely. I think that Arendt’s role in writing about Eichmann can perhaps best be described with the difficult term taboo-breaker. She made something public, and she did so in a decidedly hurtful way. I would not even dream of wanting to brush aside any contemporary criticism of this from the Jewish side. It must have been a shock for survivors of the camps and the relatives of those who were murdered there to read these columns in the New Yorker, squeezed in between adverts for lemonade and lingerie. Today, we are more distanced from the events, which is an advantage. We can see that Hannah Arendt wanted to be as unembellished and as hard to herself and the others who had survived this mass murder as she believed she could be based on her knowledge of the historical context.

Interview: Martin Thurau

© Frank Rumpenhorst/picture alliance/dpa

"Essentially, what I wanted to do was to shine a slightly different light on the scene", says biographer Professor Thomas Meyer about his new work on Hannah Arendt. Meyer lectures on the history of ideas and the philosophy of the 19th and 20th centuries at LMU. He has edited several of Hannah Arendt’s writings. His book Hannah Arendt. Die Biografie (Hannah Arendt. The Biography) was published at the end of September by Piper-Verlag, Munich.

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