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Hannah Arendt – Lessons for today

 Sunday, 4th March, 2018

Words by Nicolai Schuemann

“The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil“.

Hannah Arendt was a German born Jewish American philosopher and political theorist. Born and raised in Königsberg and Berlin she studied philosophy with Martin Heidegger.

After she had been briefly imprisoned by the Gestapo in 1933, Hannah fled to France where she worked to support and aid Jewish refugees throughout the 1930s. Being stripped of her German citizenship in 1937 she sought refuge in New York in 1941. Hannah was stateless for 13 years, as she only became a naturalized citizen of the United States in 1950.

Under the impression of the Holocaust, Hannah wrote a seminal theory of totalitarianism (‘The Origins of Totalitarianism’), which is still being studied today. Since the rise of Donald Trump and Brexit it has been often referenced and it had to be restocked by many booksellers despite it being long, complex and demanding. 

In her book, “The origins of totalitarianism” Hannah writes that during the economic depression and in times of imperialism, “antisemitism became the catalytic agent first for the rise of the Nazi movement … then for a world war of unparalleled ferocity and, finally, for the emergence of the unprecedented crime of genocide”. 

If Hannah would be still alive today, she would probably say that Trump´s anti-muslim orders need to be nipped in the bud.

Hannah was very clear and vocal about the sheer evil enormousness of the Holocaust. In a 1960s TV interview she said: “The decisive day was when we heard about Auschwitz. Before that, we said: ‘Well, one has enemies. That is natural. Why shouldn’t people have enemies?’ But this was different. It was as if an abyss had opened. Amends can be made for almost anything, at some point in politics, but not for this.”

After she became a US citizen she still criticised social injustices in her new home country. She saw in the American way of life ‘a basic contradiction of political freedom and societal slavery’. She never held back criticising her new fellow countrymen the same way she criticised Germans and Jews before; and her opinion never fit into any political direction.

Hannah came to New York as a penniless refugee and died there as one of the most respected intellectuals. She gained respect and fame through the power of thought and the eloquence of her speech.

She was also a brilliant storyteller and once said that poetry comes closest to our thinking process. Knowing about the enormous power of stories and propaganda there is another memorable quote from her: “Storytelling reveals meaning without the error of defining it.” Too true. 

Hannah Arendt died in New York City in 1975. The philosopher Hans Jonas said in his funeral speech: "The world became colder without your warmth, Hannah."

Oh, and the asteroid “100027 Hannaharendt” was named in her honour. 

May you stay strong, Hannah, on whatever orbit you might be.