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A woman in dark times


Remembering Hannah Arendt in her birth centenary year

Brilliant thinker: Hannah Arendt defied classification.

WHEN Germany showcased its achievements as "Germany: Land of ideas" for the recently concluded FIFA World Cup, one image that stood out was of a photograph of a striking sculpture in Berlin's Bebelplatz Square: a stack of giant books in concrete with the authors' name etched on the spine. In that amazing roll call of fame — Goethe, Brecht, Mann, Fontane, Hesse, Lessing, Schiller, Boll, Hegel, Marx, Grimm, Seghers, Kant, Luther, Heine, Arendt and Grass — there is only one woman: Hannah Arendt.

Widely recognised as a brilliant and controversial political thinker of the 20th century, she does not belong to any established school of political thought. All her life she attempted to retain a fiercely independent mind and her work defies classification. At a time when most of her peers defined themselves, either negatively or positively in terms of the prevailing ideologies, she had the rare courage and instinct to steer clear of such a trajectory.

Position of `other'

Arendt's experience as a Jew in the first half of 20th century Europe — which saw a hysterical escalation of anti-Semitism and the growth of Nazism and totalitarianism — resulted in a lifelong preoccupation with the nature of ideologies and a search for possible social, political and humanistic alternatives. The position of the `other,' forcibly thrust on her by virtue of being a Jew, left her in a unique position to comprehend the societal mechanism that created social and political outcasts.

Hannah Arendt was born on October 14, 1906. The Arendts lived in Konigsberg, East Prussia. At 18, Arendt went to Marburg as a student of theology where she was inevitably drawn to the young brilliant Martin Heidegger, who was then intensely involved in his Being and Time. Later she would move to Heidelberg to study under another illustrious teacher-philosopher Karl Jaspers with whom she maintained a lifelong warm and easy relationship.

Her Jewish identity was one that Arendt held problematically. While still a student her sympathies tended to lean towards the left. However, despite her admiration for Rosa Luxemberg, she was never actively involved in leftist movements. When the Nazi threat became imminent she moved away from socialist ideas and got involved in the Zionist movement. As a young Jew working for a Zionist organisation she was arrested, but managed to escape from Germany in 1933. She made her way to Paris through Prague and Geneva. For the next 18 years, Arendt was forced to remain an exile without a country.

While living as an exile in Paris in 1936, Arendt met Heinrich Blucher. Blucher was not a Jew. He was a Communist who had to flee Germany for political reasons. They married in 1940. Unlike Arendt, Blucher had a long history of political activism. Blucher became Arendt's most important discussion partner. In fact, Wolfgang Heuer, writing about Blucher, calls him Arendt's Socrates. Towards the end of their life, Arendt wrote to a friend, "It is so rare for people to be able to give each other mutual assistance but it really seems to me in our case, each of us would have found it hard to make it through without the other".

Arendt and Blucher left for the U.S. in 1941. It was not an easy transition for both. In the U.S., Arendt started working on the outline of a new book — eventually published as The Origins of Totalitarianism.

In this seminal work Arendt attempts a historical analysis of three destructive movements that informed 20th century — anti-Semitism, imperialism, and totalitarianism — and dwells on ways to comprehend and resist them. According to Arendt, some of the catalytic factors that lead to totalitarian regimes could be located in the social and economic structures underlying modern societies.

What is immensely significant about her analysis of totalitarianism for us today is that she identifies the isolated, atomised modern man as an important agent that abets the rise of such systems: individuals with no roots or identity, who are pliant material in the hands of ruthless leaders and regimes. Her analysis of the factors and conditions that militate totalitarian tendencies throw a lot of light on today's fundamentalism and terrorism.

Acid test

Arendt rarely flinched from examining and discarding ideas — even those she held close to her heart. The acid test came in the form of Eichmann's trial. She was commissioned by the New Yorker in 1961 to cover the high-profile trial of Adolf Eichmann.

Arendt's account of the trial appeared in five articles in the New Yorker. She expected to encounter an inhuman monster who organised the transportation of Jews to concentration camps. What she saw was a pathetic, "unthinking" man, inexorably tied to clichés and officialese.

Arendt's telling phrase the "banality of evil" to describe the phenomenon that Eichmann represented would haunt a whole generation of political thinkers. Eichmann's repeated avowal that he was only doing his duty underscored for Arendt the apathetic, thoughtless indifference engendered by totalitarian systems that render human beings superfluous and dispensable.

Arendt's analysis demythifies the exaggerated role usually accorded to indoctrination in totalitarian regimes. She holds that the intention of such regimes is to make its `machinery' act without thinking.

In The Human Condition, considered to be one of Arendt's most important philosophical works, she explores the possibility of a healthy polity that would prevent such catastrophes as Auschwitz and the Russian gulags. Here she explains the intricate, integral links between solidarity, storytelling, and historical consciousness and its relationship to action.

Her belief that narratives had greater regenerative power than theories finds fuller expression in her collection of biographical sketches Men in Dark Times. Through these pen portraits of Lessing, Jaspers, Broch, Walter Benjamin, Luxemburg, etc., she attempts to convey the importance of individual human life for making possible what is most human in life; how each life is capable of presenting to the world with the possibility of a new beginning and the rekindling of hope.

Hannah Arendt was no feminist. She never emphasised her identity as a woman. What engaged her was the understanding of the human condition — both its shared and specific aspects.

In her last, unfinished work, The Life of the Mind, she turns to what is otherwise implicit in her earlier works: amor mundi or love of the world. Arendt had come to recognise love as the unifying factor that allows the self in man to remain with itself and binds it to others.

That she seems to have had intuited this even before she encountered the darkness of her times and the redemptive light of explorative thinking is evidenced in the lines she wrote when she was barely 18 in a poem "Farewell":

"... let me, floating days, give you my hand./You will not lose me. As a sign I leave behind/For you, this page and the flame."

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