“The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the dedicated communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction, true and false, no longer exists.”
Born in Germany in 1906, Hannah Arendt fled Nazi Europe in 1941 and came to the United States where she spent the next three decades of her life teaching and writing. Publication of The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), her examination of the regimes of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin, and her philosophical masterwork The Human Condition (1958) established her as one of the world’s foremost political theorists. Arendt studied at various German universities. Including the University of Marburg where she worked with Martin Heidegger. She did her doctoral thesis on Saint Augustine at the University of Heidelberg under the direction of Karl Jaspers.
Following the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany, she left Germany in 1933 with her first husband Gunther Stern (a journalist, philosopher, and anti-nuclear activist who, faced with growing anti-Semitism, assumed the non-Jewish name of Anders so he could continue to publish). In Paris, Arendt investigated the French government’s anti-Semitic leanings and worked for Youth Aliyah, an organization that helped rescue Jewish children from Eastern Europe. She and her husband split up and both remarried, Ardent’s second husband, Heinrich Blücher, was also German but from a working-class Protestant family. A highly learned autodidact, he was a communist and an outspoken anti-Stalinist. The couple’s political activities landed them in a French concentration camp, from which they escaped and made their way to New York. Blücher taught at Bard College and the New School for Social Research. Arendt taught at various universities, including Princeton, the University of Chicago, as well as the New School.
In addition to books and countless scholarly articles, Arendt wrote for The New Yorker magazine. In 1961, she was dispatched by the magazine to Israel to cover the trial of the infamous Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann. In a much-maligned and often-misunderstood five-part series (later republished as a book), Arendt argued that the man who oversaw the mass deportation of Jews to ghettos and extermination camps was neither a sociopath nor a fanatic motivated by ideology, as some people believed. He was also not, as he argued in his defense, a pawn following orders over which he had no control. Arendt saw Eichmann as an average, unexceptional person who was motivated by ordinary personal ambition, which was at once “monstrous” and yet “terrifyingly normal.” The “banality of evil” is that acts as horrific as those that took place during the Holocaust can happen because of people’s stupidity, their failure to think.
Arendt’s final major work on the nature of human thought, incomplete at the time of her death in 1975, was published posthumously in 1978 as The Life of the Mind.In 2012, Arendt’s life and controversial writing were the subject of a German film, Hannah Arendt, written and directed by Margarethe von Trotta.