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Who's (Still) Afraid of Hannah Arendt?

This month marks 115 years since the birth of Jewish-German political theorist Hannah Arendt. She was born in Hanover on the 14th of October, 1906 in a family of well-educated, progressive, secular Jews. She was made aware of her Jewish ancestry and her otherness in respect to the ethnic German majority only in later childhood, through antisemitic remarks made towards her by other children.

After high school, Arendt began her formal philosophical education. Between 1924 and 1926, she studied at the University of Marburg under the mentorship of Martin Heidegger, one of the most known philosophers of the century who later infamously briefly supported the National Socialists in Germany. During this period, one of the most intriguing behind-the-scenes stories of twentieth-century philosophy took place - a short love affair between Heidegger and Arendt. At the University of Freiburg, her mentor was Edmund Husserl, and in 1929 she received her doctorate from the University of Heidelberg under the mentorship of famous philosopher Karl Jaspers, whom she kept correspondence with for the rest of her life.

After the Nazis came to power, in 1933 she was forced to flee Germany. She lived in different European cities for several years, the longest in Paris, until she finally arrived in New York in 1941.

It is not easy to write about Hana Arendt's ideas concisely, mostly due to the burden of credibly presenting the complicated, profound concepts she had written about. Arendt wrote extremely sharply, but also relatively complexly. However, the complexity of her thought is not the result of widespread academic pretentiousness which sees value in mere incomprehensibility and which boasts of limiting its own audience. No, the complexity of her writing can be understood by her sincere quest for one goal - true understanding. To truly understand the complexity of the modern world, it may be necessary to know and understand history, but it is certainly not enough. Moreover, too much reliance on tradition and established categories is exactly what Arendt actively avoids, leaving no room for short explanations and simple slogans. For a complete understanding of modern history, one must grasp the nature of man as a thinking and political being and to analyze revolutions, constitutions, political figures, and regimes through this lens. All of these topics were of concern to Arendt, which illustrates the great width of her contribution to political theory.

Arendt is best known to the general public for her writings about the trial of Adolf Eichmann, often referred to as the chief architect of the Holocaust, in Jerusalem in the 1960s. From these texts came one of her more famous concepts - the banality of evil. Although considered a classic today and studied in university courses around the world, at the time of publication, her series of texts on Eichmann in Jerusalem caused great controversy and intellectual turmoil. Arendt's attempt to understand the motivations and rationalizations of a seemingly unassuming party bureaucrat like Eichmann to mastermind the horror that was the Holocaust was not well received. Widely criticized was her attempt to view Eichmann not as a diabolic figure, but rather as an average, perhaps even boring man with mundane emotions and motivations for his actions. Moreover, criticism of the texts ranged from it walking on the edge of good taste, to accusations of justifying the NSDAP regime and downplaying the evil involved in Holocaust planning.

It is almost universally accepted today that these accusations could not be further from the truth. Hannah Arendt's approach to analyzing Eichmann opened the door to discussions on many topics and removed the veil of taboo behind which many dark chapters of the twentieth century had been hidden until then. The articles, later the book, Eichmann in Jerusalem not only did not diminish the horrors of the Holocaust, but on the contrary, by understanding the concept of banality of evil, by understanding the way so-called ordinary people who do not seem to hold any original ideas of their own, who do not possess an almost caricatured halo of evil around their personalities (like the most notorious Nazis like Hitler or Goering) form an indispensable part of criminal endeavors and regimes.

In The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), Arendt speaks of totalitarianism as a completely new modern concept that should not be confused with the concepts of dictatorship or authoritarianism. Totalitarianism, this form of government that first appears in the twentieth century, is not satisfied with control over public life. Totalitarian regimes, using ideology and terror, reject the division into political and private and strive for control of individuals from within, erasing every trace of individuality.

By putting Nazism and various communist regimes (primarily Stalinism) into the same conceptual set of totalitarian ideologies, Hannah Arendt secured another piece of the controversy that accompanied her life and work. For the intellectual elites in the West (not to mention those behind the Iron Curtain), still somewhat sympathetic to the great experiment of the Soviet Union (although with the development of Stalinism this trend declined significantly), this type of categorization was (and for many remained) a tough pill to swallow.

Hannah Arendt died in 1975 in New York as an American citizen. Since her death, her popularity has grown steadily. More is being written about Hannah Arendt today than ever before. Yet she remains, it seems, dramatically underrated in relation to the quality and scope of her work. On the other hand, certain other thinkers of the second half of the twentieth century, such as Michel Foucault, are practically cemented in the pantheon of academic thought. Why?

Hannah Arendt is still a dangerous thinker. Dangerous precisely in the context in which she used that expression, best illustrated by her quote: "There are no dangerous thoughts; thinking itself is dangerous." In her work and private life, she has consistently remained a free thinker who defies both old and new categories. She is not a classical liberal, she is not a Marxist, she is not a conservative. Her thought contains elements closer to the left, such as seeing revolution as a legitimate form of political action, and conservative elements such as a strong belief in the importance of institutions.

By using isolated and extracted quotations from the context, one could attempt to use Hannah Arendt for ideological and propaganda purposes, but any more serious examination of her work leaves no room for orthodoxy. Hannah Arendt is dangerous for those who do not want to risk jeopardizing their own entrenched beliefs. Dealing with her writing almost forces one, as she called it, to think without a banister, without relying on established and untouchable concepts, phrases, and ideas. For a university professor, giving students literature by certain authors does not leave much room for their critical thinking outside the intellectual frameworks in which the professor themselves moves. On the other hand, they are free to assign the work of Hannah Arendt at their own risk only.

by Djordje Mančev, Originally published in Serbian on

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