From Boomers to Millennials: A Modern US History Podcast

Episode 18A - Hannah Arendt: 10-Minute Profile

March 02, 2023 Logan Rogers Season 3
From Boomers to Millennials: A Modern US History Podcast
Episode 18A - Hannah Arendt: 10-Minute Profile
Show Notes Transcript

This episode examines the first 10-minute profile subject who was born outside of the United States. Hannah Arendt was born to a secular Jewish middle-class family in Germany, and as a young woman she was an academic prodigy. She entered university to study philosophy, and engaged in an affair with a famous professor, Martin Heidegger. By the late 20s, Arendt broke up with Heidegger and completed her academic studies. During the early 30s, the Nazis came to power in Germany, and Prof. Heidegger joined the party. Arendt wrote critical articles about the Nazi regime and was jailed for a brief time by the new government that did not tolerate free speech. Arendt was stripped of her German citizenship & fled to Paris, where she met a fellow exile who became her husband. However, when the Nazis invaded France, Arendt moved to the USA, which became her permanent home. As an adopted American, she published 2 classic works of political philosophy: "The Origins of Totalitarianism" (1951), which examined how fascist & communist regimes came to power, and "Eichmann in Jerusalem" (1963), which considered Nazi officials' unquestioning loyalty to their government to embody the modern "banality of evil." Arendt generated controversy with remarks defending her former mentor & lover Heidegger over his decision to join the Nazi Party, but she nevertheless remains an influential thinker whose writings about the dangers of authoritarianism remain relevant to this day.

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“From Boomers to Millennials” is a modern US history podcast, providing a fresh look at the second half of the 20th Century. Welcome to Episode 18A, also known as “Hannah Arendt: 10 Minute Profile.” 


In this episode we will examine the life of the influential political philosopher Hannah Arendt. Each of our 10-minute profiles start out with the question, what makes this person interesting & significant? In the case of Arendt, she experienced the political brutalities of the 20th Century, and then subjected them to critical examination, formulating influential concepts such as the “banality of evil.” Although Arendt is often thought of as a figure from European history, she spent her most productive working years in her adopted country of the United States. Plus, her ideas were influential all around the English-speaking world & beyond.


Hannah Arendt was born in 1906 in Northern Germany near the city of Hanover. When she was 3 years old, her family moved to Konigsberg on the Eastern frontier of what was then a massive German Empire. Young Hannah was primarily raised by her mother, who was a musician, because her father, who worked as an engineer, died when she was just 7 years old. Her parents were ethnically Jewish, but her family was secular and politically left-of-center. The family’s ancestors came to Germany from Russia during the mid-19th Century, fleeing the government oppression and anti-Semitism that Jews faced under the rule of the Russian tsars. This fact became tragically ironic, because 20th Century Germany would soon become the worst place in the world to be Jewish.


Hannah’s mother Martha was a major supporter of the Social Democrats, which at the time was Germany’s large socialist party that considered itself the representative of working-class interests. The Social Democrats also appealed to some middle-class professionals, which was the milieu that Hannah Arendt grew up within. Despite her parents’ lack of religious observance, Hannah learned about Judaism from her grandfather, who would sometimes take her to services at a Reform Jewish synagogue. Nevertheless, Arendt grew up studying the great German philosophers. She later reflected that families like her own, middle-class Jewish intellectuals, tried very hard to assimilate into German culture, but nevertheless, they often faced prejudice.


In 1924, Hannah Arendt, who had shown prodigious gift for learning ancient languages as a young woman, enrolled in college at the University of Marburg in Western Germany. There, she studied philosophy and ended up having a romantic affair with a prominent professor, Martin Heidegger, which continued into the late 1920s. Arendt later left Marburg to finish her graduate studies at the University of Heidelberg, studying with the existentialist philosopher Karl Jaspers. During 1929, Arendt, who had recently ended her relationship with Heidegger, got married to a writer named Gunther Stern, who was also an ethnically Jewish philosopher, and intellectual.


The year 1933 brought major changes to Hannah Arendt’s life. That was the year that Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party took control of Germany. During that year, Ardent published writings examining the history of Anti-Semitism in Germany. This work drew the ire of a new government, which did not approve of this line of inquiry. Arendt was arrested for her writings and briefly imprisoned by the Gestapo, the new regime’s secret police. Once she got out of prison, she and her husband realized they would need to leave Germany, at least for the duration of the Nazi regime. They moved to Czechoslovakia and then to Switzerland, before finally settling in France. Also in 1933, Hannah’s former lover and mentor, Professor Martin Heidegger joined the Nazi Party.


During their years living in Paris, Hannah Arendt and Gunther Stern grew apart, and they had an amicable divorce. Her next husband would be a German Gentile, perhaps surprising given how her last relationship with someone of that background ended with Heidegger choosing loyalty to the Nazi German state over cosmopolitan & democratic values. But Heinrich Blucher, who married Arendt in 1940, was cut from a different political cloth than Heidegger. Blucher grew up in a poor working-class neighborhood in Berlin, and he was even further to the Left politically than Arendt. He had been an active Communist before drifting away from the party in the late 1920s due to its increasingly Stalinist direction. Like Arendt, Blucher fled Germany in order to avoid political persecution by the Nazis. He and Arendt met and fell in love in the cafes catering to German-speaking exiles in Paris.


Hannah’s life would be turned upside down again once the Nazis invaded France in Spring 1940. Fortunately, with the help of an America journalist, Arendt and Blucher secured visas to the United States, and they arrived in New York during May 1941. They struggled to learn English, and Arendt certainly had some mixed feelings about American culture, but she relished the political freedom & security she enjoyed in the States. Over the course of the 1940s, she found her foothold. In 1944, she became the director of an organization called the Commission on European Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, which tried to preserve Jewish books, artwork, and artifacts that sadly no longer had owners after entire families had been wiped out in the Holocaust. Her husband Blucher found work teaching at Bard College in the Hudson River Valley north of New York City. Arendt, who had been stripped of her citizenship by the Nazis and had been technically stateless for years, obtained the benefits of US citizenship in 1950.


As a US citizen, Arendt would enter the most fruitful period of her intellectual career and would make her name as a political philosopher. In 1951, she published “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” a book that examined how mid-century dictatorships, such as those of Hitler and Stalin, came to power. Despite the fact her husband was basically a Marxist, Arendt was concerned about authoritarian Communism that seemed to be gaining ground around the world by the early 1950s. Historian James T. Patterson notes that Arendt’s book was part of the same intellectual trend of concern about authoritarian governments that had also been expressed in George Orwell’s novel “1984,” published just 2 years earlier (see Episode 3). Patterson recalls that Arendt was (quote) “a highly regarded political thinker & philosopher known for her hostility to fascism” & The Origins of Totalitarianism tended (quote) “to equate Communism & fascism by showing how both systems relied on terror & unlimited political power” (close quote). Arendt’s work on totalitarianism also emphasized how these modern systems differed from other historical tyrannies in the extent to which they exposed their entire populations to propaganda & surveillance. Given the decline of democracy around the world here in the 21st Century, unfortunately this particular book by Arendt remains relevant today.


Arendt went on to teach at the University of Chicago during the Sixties. In 1963, she published what would arguably become her most famous & most controversial work following Israel’s capture of the infamous Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann from his hideout in Argentina (see Episode 1A). In 1961, the Israelis brought Eichmann to Jerusalem to stand trial for his complicity in the Holocaust and other war crimes. Arendt observed this historic trial and wrote a book called “Eichmann in Jerusalem” containing her observations of the proceedings. She noticed that Eichmann seemed less like a sinister mastermind and more like a dull bureaucrat, which led her to coin the phrase “the banality of evil,” to capture how everyday people unquestioningly going about their jobs could carry out evil acts. The website for Bard College’s Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities describes here “banality of evil” concept in as follows: (quote) “Eichmann participated in the greatest act of evil in world history because of his inability to think critically about his fidelity to a Nazi ideology that he clung to as a source of significance in a lonely and alienating world. Such thoughtless ideological zealotry is, Arendt concludes, the face of evil in the modern world” (close quote).


When Arendt published the book, she received some pushback from within the Jewish community for making some critical comments about how the Israelis conducted the trial (she agreed with the guilty verdict, of course). Some Jews also felt her approach was insensitive to the victims of the Nazis and was implying that the Holocaust was “banal” or unremarkable instead of being one of the most shocking crimes in modern history. As a result of these criticisms, her works were not translated into Hebrew in Israel until 1999. 


While Arendt could have phrased some of her arguments more carefully, I do not think she meant to downplay the degree of evil committed by Eichmann specifically or the Nazis generally. She had experienced imprisonment, exile, and statelessness at the hands of the Third Reich, and if she had not escaped Europe, she may have ended up in a death camp, so I think Hannah Arendt had a better understanding than most people at the time of the level of brutality of Hitler’s government. Her point seems to be that most Germans who facilitated the mass violence committed by the Third Reich were not sadistic psychopaths, as Nazis are often portrayed in Hollywood movies. Instead, they were people who just failed to question the morality of their government’s actions, and who did not have the courage to protest or disobey orders when they did experience moral reservations. One thing modern readers can learn from Arendt is the importance of avoiding an unquestioning compliance with the directives of the powerful, and of resisting a banal conformity with the crowd.


Throughout the rest of Arendt’s life, she wrote other volumes on the topics of philosophy, morality, and politics, although none reached the fame of “The Origins of Totalitarianism” & “Eichmann in Jerusalem.” Her husband Heinrich Blucher passed away in 1970, and Hannah herself died in 1975, in her adopted hometown of New York City. To fully reflect on her legacy, there is one more topic we must circle back to, which continues to puzzle her admirers. After World War II, she spoke out in favor of the rehabilitation of Martin Heidegger, despite his collaboration with the Nazis. In fact, she had even gone to West Germany and testified in his defense in a “denazification” hearing over whether Heidegger should be allowed to keep his teaching position. Interestingly, her other academic mentor, Karl Jaspers, testified in the other direction, arguing Heidegger should be dismissed from German academia. The revelation of the extent of Arendt’s defenses of Heidegger in the US media greatly disappointed many of her readers. But it is important to bear in mind that even the most intelligent & rational humans are creatures of emotion as well as of reason. Heidegger had been her lover for several years, but perhaps more importantly to explain her attachment to him, he had been her intellectual mentor that launched her life & career in philosophy. Recent historical revelations have shown that she was likely too lenient in her assessment of Heidegger & his level of complicity with Hitler’s fascist regime. 


Although Heidegger claimed he had gone along with Nazism for the sake of preserving his career, previously unpublished writings came to light in 2014 that demonstrated he had more genuine sympathy for Nazi ideology than had previously been revealed. He started, as so many reactionaries do, with a sense of alienation from the modern world, and followed that path to believe that Hitler’s movement was reviving something primitive, vital, & even romantic in the German spirit. His lack of consideration of the victims seems particularly callous, especially given his history of close professional & personal relationships with Jewish people. Although he indicated he did not fully buy into the Nazi belief that Germans were the ‘master race,’ he asserted the superiority of Germanic culture, & Heidegger’s secret notebooks contain nasty & dismissive assessments of Jewish, American, & British people and cultures. 


Despite his infamy, some of Heidegger’s philosophical ideas are still studied in universities around the world, yet his legacy remains deeply stained by his collaboration with a totalitarian regime. Hannah Arendt’s legacy, on the other hand, is that of a survivor who was victimized by Hitler’s government, & then spent much of the rest of her career applying her intellectual gifts to the task of trying to understand how such political atrocities occur, and how they might be avoided in the future. This concludes our latest slightly more than 10-minute-long profile episode. Please let us know what you thought of the show on our social media or at We want to conclude our episode by reminding our listeners not to be evil. That sounds like a joke, and it mostly is, but I think the serious point we can take away from Arendt is to make sure you’re thinking through the moral consequences of your actions. So, go do that, and thank you for listening.