The Hannah Arendt Papers Three Essays: The Role of Experience in Hannah Arendt's Political Thought

The World of Hannah Arendt
by Jerome Kohn, Director, Hannah Arendt Center, New School University


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Königsberg, East Prussia, ca. 1900. Courtesy of the Hannah Arendt Trust.
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Königsberg, now "Kaliningrad." Adapted from The World Factbook 2000, U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.
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Portion of "Affadavit of identity in lieu of passport" in which is written, "I wish to use this document in lieu of a passport which I, a stateless person, cannot obtain at present." Complete digital image available onsite. The Hannah Arendt Papers (Library of Congress, Manuscript Division).

Born in 1906 into a well-established, nonreligious German Jewish family, Hannah Arendt was raised in Königsberg, the ancient capital of East Prussia. At the end of World War II that strategic port on the Baltic Sea was ceded to the Soviet Union, its name changed to Kaliningrad after the Russian revolutionary M. I. Kalinin, and its German population dispersed. The fate of Königsberg, today an all but unrecognizable ruin, was sealed when it fell under the sway of not one but two totalitarian regimes, first Hitler's and then Stalin's. Unlike the city of Königsberg, however, Arendt could and did move. As a young Jew working for a Zionist organization she was arrested, escaped, and fled her homeland in 1933. By way of Prague and Geneva she made her way to Paris and from that moment on was in effect stateless, a woman without a country, and was to remain so for eighteen years. She knew from her own experience how "the infinitely complex red-tape existence of stateless persons," as she wrote to Karl Jaspers in 1946, fetters free movement, and from that experience came her insight that the denial of the right to citizenship, prior to any specific rights of citizenship, is integral to the rise of totalitarianism.

Arendt believed that the right to citizenship, the right of a plurality of people "to act together concerning things that are of equal concern to each," is not only denied by totalitarianism, as it is by every despotism, but stands opposed to the principle that guides the acts of destruction that characterize totalitarian systems (see "On the Nature of Totalitarianism") That principle is an ideology explaining the entire course of human affairs by determining every historical event and all past, present, and future deeds as functions of a universal process. Looking deeper into the phenomenon of totalitarianism Arendt saw that the "idea," the content, of the ideology matters less than its "inherent logicality," which was discovered separately and prized by both Hitler and Stalin. In broad outline ideological logicality operates like a practical syllogism: from the premise of a supposed law of nature that certain races are unfit to live it follows that those races must be eliminated, and from the premise of a supposed law of history that certain classes are on their way to extinction it follows that those classes must be liquidated. Arendt's point is that the untruth of the ideological premises is without consequence: the premises will become self-evidently true in the factitious world created by the murderous acts that flow from them in logical consistency.

In their adherence to the logicality of two utterly distinct ideologies, one that originated on the far right and the other on the far left, Arendt found Nazism and Stalinism to be more or less equivalent totalitarian systems. If the ruined city of Königsberg could speak after having witnessed the terror, the killings by torture and starvation under the regimes of both Hitler and Stalin, it is doubtful that it would point out significant differences between those regimes. To focus on the different content of racist and communist ideologies only blurs what Arendt at first thought of as the "absolute" and "radical" evil they both brought into the world. Her emphasis on the logical deduction of acts from ideological premises, moreover, is linked to her later understanding of evil, stemming from the trial of Adolf Eichmann, as "banal," "rootless," and "thought-defying." The logicality of totalitarian movements accounts for their appeal to the atomized and depoliticized masses of mankind without whose support those movements could not have generated their immense power. Thus Hitler's "ice-cold reasoning" and Stalin's "merciless dialectics" contribute to Arendt's uncertainty as to whether any other totalitarian regimes have existed--perhaps in Mao's China, but not in the despotisms of single party or military dictatorships (see The Origins of Totalitarianism, "Introduction," third edition, 1966).

In 1941, after France fell to the Nazis, Arendt escaped from an internment camp in unoccupied Vichy first to Spain, then to Lisbon, and finally to New York with little money and practically no English, once again a refugee from totalitarian persecution. But in America she found more than refuge: within a year and consistently thereafter she published articles of a political nature, in a new and at first only half-mastered language, unlike anything she had written before leaving Germany (see "From the Dreyfus Affair to France Today,"). Only ten years later, after assiduous work, she published The Origins of Totalitarianism, her first major book and a tremendously complicated one. That it was first conceived as a study of imperialism suggests that when she started it Arendt saw Nazism and Bolshevism as a radical development of the nineteenth-century European phenomenon of colonization and as what she then called "full-fledged imperialism." The book, however, grew and shifted ground as it was written, and in its final form totalitarianism appeared as an entirely new form of government, one that had no historical precedent, not even in the harshest of despotisms. The book also underwent major revisions in subsequent editions. Its original conclusion was replaced by an essay written in 1953, "Ideology and Terror: A Novel Form of Government;" an epilogue on the Hungarian Revolution was added in 1958 and later deleted; and substantial new prefaces were written in 1966 and 1967.


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The Hannah Arendt Papers Three Essays: The Role of Experience in Hannah Arendt's Political Thought