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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Hannah Arendt, undated. Courtesy of the Hannah Arendt Trust.
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"The Impact of Marx" The Hannah Arendt Papers (The Library of Congress Manuscript Division).

The intellectually and spiritually rarefied world of Hannah Arendt's youth was to be shattered by the rise of Nazism in Germany. It is not possible to grasp Arendt's meaning when she writes of the newness of totalitarianism without realizing that not only her own world but the greater German world of which hers was a part--the world of inherited religious beliefs and moral and legal standards thought to be eternal--would be swept away. It must have been as difficult for her as it is for us to comprehend totalitarianism as neither necessary nor entirely accidental, as something brought forth by human beings of her own country and her own generation right in the heart of European civilization and not as some monstrous thing that attacked it from the outside. It must have been difficult for her to write about what she wanted to destroy rather than preserve. And it must have been difficult for her to think about the evil of totalitarianism since, as she eventually came to see, that evil defies thought.

But Arendt did think, write, and try to understand what for her was the real turning point of the twentieth century. As she put it in the preface to the first edition of The Origins of Totalitarianism: "The subterranean stream of Western history has finally come to the surface and usurped the dignity of our tradition. This is the reality in which we live." As her thought expanded beyond the framework of that work her concern with the entire range of phenomena she associated with totalitarianism grew broader and deeper. Among the most valuable and interesting features of the Arendt Papers at the Library of Congress is the presentation of her lecture notes and manuscripts, including those ostensibly dealing with Karl Marx but which in fact reach back to the beginnings of political philosophy. These documents furnish indisputable evidence that Arendt's effort to understand totalitarianism continued in the early 1950s (see "The Great Tradition and the Nature of Totalitarianism;" "The Impact of Marx;" "The Spiritual Quest of Modern Man;" "Totalitarianism"). Other documents make clear that her search for understanding continued beyond that period and underlies much of what she wrote in The Human Condition and On Revolution--which when read apart from the archival material in her papers have frequently been seen as distinct from that search (see "Freiheit und Politik;" "Action and the 'Pursuit of Happiness';" "Revolution and Freedom;" "Labor, Work, Action"). Indeed, it can now be said that Arendt's effort to understand totalitarianism continued to the end of her life. Her work on the faculty of judgment, just begun at the time of her sudden death, was to have dealt with the way individuals bereft of moral rules and legal strictures can recognize evil and stand up and say "No" to it.


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