Encyclopedia Womannica

Beautiful Minds: Hannah Arendt

Episode Summary

Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) was a German-Jewish philosopher and political theorist known for her extensive writing on totalitarianism.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, and Grace Lynch. Special thanks to Shira Atkins and Edie Allard. Theme music by Andi Kristins.

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica.

This month we’re talking about beautiful minds -- intellectual giants whose work had an extraordinary impact. Today’s Beautiful Mind is arguably the most influential political and moral philosopher of the 20th century, as well as one of the most controversial. Let’s talk about Hannah Arendt.

Hannah was born in 1906 in Hanover, Germany, to Paul and Martha Arendt, an upwardly mobile, politically progressive Jewish couple. 

Throughout her childhood and adolescence, Hannah was recognized for her precocity and brilliance. She was a voracious reader and easily picked up other languages. Hannah was also fiercely independent and was expelled from High School at the age of fifteen for leading a boycott against one of her teachers.

In 1924, Hannah started at the University of Marburg where she studied Classical Languages, German literature, Protestant theology, and Philosophy. Her philosophy advisor was the famous Martin Heidegger, with whom the young Hannah had a tumultuous affair. Heidegger would have profound influence on her philosophical work.

Two years later, Hannah transferred to the University of Heidelberg where she studied under the famous philosopher Karl Jaspers.  

Because Hannah was Jewish, it was nearly impossible for her to get an academic appointment in 1930s Germany. She eventually moved to Berlin and began working for various Jewish organizations that were fighting against the deteriorating political situation.

In 1933, while researching anti-semitism in the German state archives, Hannah and her mother were arrested by the Gestapo. After just over a week in prison, the two escaped thanks to the assistance of a sympathetic jailor. They immediately fled to Paris.

In Paris, Hannah worked for an organization that helped other Jewish refugees flee Europe ahead of the rising Nazi tide. She also met and married German-Jewish poet and Marxist philosopher Heinrich Blucher.

In 1940, Hannah and Heinrich were sent to separate internment camps set up by the French government in anticipation of an impending German invasion. All “enemy aliens” who had recently come to France from Germany were ordered to report for internment. The vast majority of these people were Jews fleeing Nazi persecution.

A couple of months later, during the chaos that followed the German invasion, Hannah was able to escape the camp along with about 200 other women and walked north to the city of Montaubon. There she met up with her mother and husband, who had escaped from the men’s camp. American journalist Varian Fry helped them secure the necessary funds and papers to flee to the U.S. by way of Portugal, and on May 22, 1941, the three arrived in New York City.

Throughout the 1940s, Hannah wrote for a variety of Jewish and German publications in New York, predominantly on topics related to anti-semitism and refugees.

During the 1950s, Hannah wrote three of her major works of political philosophy. In 1951, she published The Origins of Totalitarianism, a comparative study of the intellectual and historical foundations of Nazism and Stalinism. It was the first major consideration of a modern predisposition toward authoritarianism.

This was followed in 1958 by The Human Condition, perhaps Hannah’s most influential work, which differentiated between important political and social concepts related to human action and looked at what Hannah considered the retreat of public life in modern society and corresponding threats to human freedom.

In 1963, Hannah published her third major book, entitled On Revolution. It was a comparison of the French and American revolutions in which Hannah argues for the success of the American revolution over the French.

Starting in 1951, Hannah began teaching at various universities. She refused to ever take a tenure-track job to maintain her independence. Still, she was the first woman to be named a full professor at Princeton, and also spent time as a visiting scholar at Berkeley, Notre Dame, Northwestern, University of Chicago, The New School, Yale, and Wesleyan. 

As a well-known public intellectual, Hannah was also a contributor to a variety of magazines and journals including the New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, and Dissent. 

In 1961, Hannah jumped at an opportunity to cover the Adolf Eichmann trial in Jerusalem for the New Yorker magazine. Eichmann was accused of being the primary Nazi official responsible for detaining and transporting Jews to the concentration camps during the Holocaust. He had spent over a decade hiding in Argentina before being captured by Israeli agents.

Hannah’s essays on the trial, which would eventually be compiled into a book entitled Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, caused an incredible amount of controversy when they were originally published.

Hannah argued that rather than being a monster or some kind of anomaly, Eichmann was actually an utterly ordinary man. She wrote that he didn’t transport millions of Jews to their deaths out of malice, but rather out of his sense of extreme duty to the cause. She posited that Eichmann wasn’t a thinker, he was a follower wholly disinterested in leading a “leaderless and difficult individual life,” as Eichmann said himself at trial. That interpretation is seen as a terrifying commentary on modern society.

While many people disagreed, often in rather extreme ways, with Hannah’s take on the Eichmann trial, at least some of this was due to misreadings of her work as an exoneration of Eichmann. Hannah did no such thing. She agreed that he was an anti-Semite who should be hanged for his crimes. While many still believe that Hannah may have been specifically wrong about the banality of Eichmann himself, the consensus today seems to be that she was generally correct in her arguments on the nature of evil.

With the rise of nationalist movements around the world in recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in Hannah’s work, particularly in her argument that totalitarianism is rooted in the violation of truth. 

Hannah died on December 4, 1975 after suffering a heart attack.

Tune in tomorrow for the story of another Beautiful Mind

Special thanks to my favorite sister and co-creator, Liz Kaplan.

Talk to you tomorrow!