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The genius of Hannah Arendt

INTERVIEW A new exhibition at Deutsches Historisches Museum examines the work of one of the 20th century’s greatest thinkers. We speak to curator Dr. Monika Boll about Arendt’s lasting influence.

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Hannah Arendt was one of the 20th century’s most influential thinkers. (Photo courtesy of Middletown, Conneticut, Wesleyan University Library, Special Collections & Archives.)

The exhibition Hannah Arendt and the Twentieth Century traces the philosopher’s observations on contemporary history, introduces the public to a life and body of work that mirrors the history of the 20th century: totalitarianism, antisemitism, the situation of refugees, the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem, the political system and the racial segregation in the U. S., the student movement and feminism. Arendt frequently expressed her views on current events as a public intellectual, often sparking fierce controversy.

Nadja Vancauwenberghe caught up with curator Dr. Monika Boll to learn more about Arendt’s unique genius.

When did you first encounter Hannah Arendt and what do you remember about your first impression? 

That was in philosophy class. Political theory was part of the study, so Arendt was read as a political philosopher, even though she never considered herself a philosopher. She’d been rediscovered in Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall and was read a lot. I read her book “About the Revolution” and at first found it difficult to understand. Her thinking did not follow any school of thought, because it is unpredictable. It was different from the Frankfurt School – Adorno, for example. Once you’ve learned the vocabulary, you realize that when Adorno writes about Hegel, Adorno always comes through. That’s different with Arendt. She did not refer to any philosophical school, no tradition. That makes it difficult and at the same time interesting to classify her thinking, even today.

How would you classify her?

She has a little bit of everything. She’s a thinker who welcomes revolution as political action. She follows a leftist tradition. On the other hand, she’s an advocate of stable political institutions. In this, she’s conservative. 

What was the main challenge with curating an exhibition spanning spans 40 years of German, European and US political history?

Exactly this political history has interested us. We did not want to make a biographical exhibition about Arendt. It is about the political intellectual. Arendt spoke about totalitarianism, antisemitism, the situation of refugees, the Eichmann trial, Zionism, the politics of racial segregation in the USA, the student movement and feminism. None of this is finished today. This is how the idea of placing Hannah Arendt at the centre of an exhibition about the 20th century came about. 

Arendt never shied away from expressing original, sometimes provocative opinions that went against the grain, against expectations of her contemporaries and even against her friends. Looking back, do you think she was right?   

I’m sure she wasn’t always right. That’s why her judgments are still a challenge today. The debate about Little Rock, which was about lifting the segregation policy in public schools in the USA, is a good example. Arendt fell into the trap of her own theory, the strict separation of politics and society/private. This led to sometimes ludicrous consequences in her argumentation. Her delight in provocation can be seen in the way she speaks with relish of the right to discrimination. She could have chosen a different term. The article caused her a lot of trouble, but in the end she won an award for critical thinking. For that, she loved the USA.

Her 1963 reports on the trial of Adolf Eichmann for The New Yorker are the most famous example of how she could spark planetary controversies. She portrayed a major Nazi criminal as “terrifyingly normal” and provoked a major backlash from the Jewish community that continues today. Do you think she was as misunderstood as she always claimed she was?

Most people took her words as an attempt to disculpate Eichmann, a top SS officer who took part in the Final Solution and was found guilty in Jerusalem and hanged. Obviously, he was no harmless bureaucrat. However, Arendt’s take on the “banality of evil” was not meant in this sense. You need to consider the context of the post-war period. The consensus was that National Socialism was something demonic, a pact with the devil, so to speak. Her concept of banality turned away from this. For her, evil is not radical, but banal. That didn’t make it any less horrible for her.

Hannah Arendt und das 20. Jahrhundert Ausstellungsdokumentation Deutsches Historisches Museum Berlin

The exhibition “Hannah Arendt and the Twentieth Century” includes personal items from Arendt. (Photo from DHM / Thomas Bruns.)

She also doesn’t fit into a category regarding feminism. On one hand, as an influential thinker, she can be seen as a role model. She might also be the only hugely influential woman thinker who wasn’t connected to gender, yet she never gave much consideration to gender or women’s rights issues. Can you tell us more about this? 

Yes, it’s strange. She refused to take up the ball on the gender issue, which was passed to her more often than not. One of the exhibition’s audio exhibits is about an invitation from two feminist historians in the early 1970s. They wanted her to give a lecture on the subject of women at universities, but she declined, saying that she had never really researched the subject, and so on. I’m convinced she could have told them a lot about this. In an interview with Günter Gaus, she said: I simply did what I wanted. 

In the Gaus interview she also said funny things about women’s role in society, how women shouldn’t be giving orders.

In that famous interview with Günter Gaus, there are passages that don’t exactly match the idea of a modern role model for women. For example, she says: “I always thought there are certain jobs that are not suitable for women, that don’t suit them, if I may say so. It does not look good when a woman gives orders. She should try not to get into those positions if she wants to keep feminine qualities.”

But, despite her distance to feminism, she has become a feminist. I think it’s mainly because of her aplomb as a woman. She had such a challenging, quasi post-feminist appearance. I think it has to do with her confident demeanour as a woman.

Meanwhile she was a pretty feminine woman, as shown through jewellery and clothing on show in the exhibition. That’s something you wouldn’t necessarily expect from her writing. We were interested in reflecting on the social convention, the social dress code, so to speak, for female intellectuals and how Arendt dealt with this. The exhibition includes an interview with the fashion theorist Barbara Vinken, who says: “I think Hannah Arendt succeeded in doing this in an incredibly elegant way, because she neither hid her femininity nor flaunt it. She took it for granted and was completely at peace with herself as a woman intellectual.”

Another controversial aspect of Arendt is the way she refused to align with collectives and in many ways would repudiate the identity politics of today. It’s very apparent in her famous letter to Scholem, who had accused her of having no love for the Jewish people, two which she answered: “How right you are that I have no such love… I have never in my life ‘loved’ some nation or collective. […] The fact is that I love only my friends and am quite incapable of any other sort of love.” Do you think that makes her obsolete, or less relevant, in a world more concerned with ethnic and gender-based politics?

This is another interesting case. I would like to add another quote to the one you mentioned: “If you are attacked as a Jew, you must defend yourself as a Jew, not as a German or a citizen of the world or human rights.” Now, one could say that’s contradictory and put it aside. But one could also use the tension arising from these two quotations to strike sparks for the current debates on identity politics. Arendt believed that there is not just one single identity to which one belongs. Everyone is part of multiple identities. Depending on whether one is addressed as a Jew or an American citizen, or as a friend or lover. 

You put the spotlight on Arendt’s notion of “individual judgement,” or the ability to make one’s own opinion through one’s own thinking process. Where did this shine best in her work?

For Arendt, judgement is synonymous with political action. In contrast to thinking, which she described as dialogue with oneself, judgment requires an exchange with others. This is why plurality is so important for her concept of politics. Judging is the art of listening to the points of view of many. I think that appears everywhere in her own judgements. No matter how harsh or rigid they may be, Arendt never presents them as the one possible truth. On the contrary, she is happy to hear objections.  

Another central quality you highlight in the exhibition was what someone called her “genius for friendship,” which again was exemplified in her ability to seperate private and political sphere, opinions and people, hence to disagree strongly and still love the friends she fiercely disagreed with. What kind of lasting friendships did she have?

Friendships were more than the pleasure of conviviality. With her many friendships, Arendt spanned a net over the abysses of flight and expulsion. Her “genius for friendship”, as Hans Jonas called it, also included disputes. A fine example of this is a dispute with Scholem about Zionism. After she called him a nationalist and he declared her arguments to be cynical, she wrote to him that she did not resent his letter. She said that people were more important to her than their opinions, and then she invited him to visit her.

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Photo courtesy of Washington D.C., The Library of Congress, The Hannah Arendt Papers.

Why did the affidavit from 1949, which features in the exhibition, resonate with you so strongly? 

This affidavit is a replacement document for an identity card that the State of New York issued to Hannah Arendt in 1949 when she traveled to Germany for the first time after the war for the Jewish Cultural Reconstruction. The document records her place of birth, address and marital status. It gives information about the various stages of exile, about Arendt’s statelessness and that she applied for American citizenship. In other words, a whole life condensed into a single document, without which she couldn’t have moved freely

What personal exhibits moved you the most?

There are many: her small silver minox camera, with which she photographed friends and relatives; the beach photos from Manomet with Rose Feitelson, Alfred Kazin and her husband Heinrich Blücher; her American citizenship certificate of which she was so proud; Kant’s “Critique of Judgment” from her student days with marginal notes from her and her first husband Günther Anders; the brooch, a cyclamen made of mother-of-pearl with small precious stones, which she said she wore in the interview with Günter Gaus. 

What lesson could we learn form her in these very particular (Corona) times?

Perhaps very relevant right now is that Arendt thought power and plurality together. Power is distributed among many people and institutions. Violence arises where power no longer functions. Therefore, especially in times of crisis, it is important that democratic institutions continue to exist as such and are not replaced by authoritarian politics.

What’s your favourite quote from Arendt?

It always changes. At the moment, I favour one from her report on her first trip to Germany after the war. It currently fits in with the memory of 75 years of the end of the war and is a wonderful proof of how early Arendt analyzed the displacement of the Germans: “If you watch the Germans stumble busily through the ruins of their thousand-year-old history, you will understand that busyness has become their main weapon in defending themselves against reality.”

How would you define her, or write her eulogy, in one line?

Genius rhetorician in writing and speaking.