Unlike many other well-known twentieth-century intellectuals, much of Hannah Arendt’ writing is accessible to the general reader. But since she focused on a wide range of issues—totalitarianism, constitutionalism, political philosophy, and civic politics—it is difficult to tie her thought together. Broadly, her work focuses on the development of modern philosophy and modern politics, the “general meaninglessness” of the modern age with its debilitating, doubting subjectivity, and the ways in which seemingly inexorable historical and economic processes lead to feelings of individual powerlessness. It is this crisis that has spawned totalitarianism, the most destructive problem of her time. As a way out of the underlying spiritual crises, Arendt exhorts the West toward classical, pre-Socratic civic politics. But Arendt was not a conservative revolutionary who sought to turn back the clock. Her often-classical language serves an undeniably modern, individualistic, and egalitarian understanding.

Totalitarianism: A Novel Form of Tyranny

In her first major work, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), Arendt describes the historical prefiguration of Nazi and Stalinist totalitarianism. For Arendt, totalitarianism is radically unlike previous tyrannies. These used terror to maintain and enlarge political power by frightening political opponents. The new form of terror, however, belongs to a wholly “novel form of government,” and embraces terror “as an instrument to rule masses of people who are perfectly obedient.”

Terror, however, cannot explain how totalitarianism emerged. For Arendt, the turn to totalitarianism by the European masses arose from the “isolation of atomized individuals” looking for spiritual and political salvation. The attraction of totalitarian ideology, whether based on race as with the Nazis or class as with the Communists, resides in its promise to unravel the mysteries of history. In purging unfit races and classes, the totalitarian believes he is transcending human conventions and acting in concert with history’s trajectory.

For Arendt, the novelty of totalitarianism was prefigured by several developments in European history. First, nineteenth-century imperialism, with its pursuit of power and profit, transformed European politics and contributed to the disintegration of the sovereign nation-state.

Increased European encounters with foreigners contributed to the second important development, racism, an old concept, but one that for the first time became a “principle of the body politic.” Modern racism emerged as an attempt to deal with non-Western cultures, and it ultimately became a ground for mass exterminations.

Third, the Western elite discovered bureaucracy, an “organization of the great game of expansion in which every area was considered a stepping-stone to further involvements and every people an instrument for further conquest.” Bureaucracy instilled a distrust of political institutions, which degraded the ideas of citizenship and civic responsibility. Ultimately, both the mob and the elite, as well as the Left and the Right, sought to overcome democratic politics and to delegate still more power to government administrators.

These historical developments—the development of imperialism and decay of the nation-state, the politicization of race, and the discovery of bureaucratic politics—are, for Arendt, the main ingredients of twentieth-century extremism. They helped create societies in which individuals were disconnected from their fellows, and lacked shared purpose and political responsibility. Totalitarian ideologies, in their promise of a new world with a new man, seemed to provide a comforting and invigorating answer to this crisis.

Since Arendt’s publication of Origins, some critics (such as Walter Laqueur) have criticized the book for equating fascism with communism. And, despite her thesis that communism and fascism share common roots, Arendt says little about Soviet power or Marxism-Leninism. Other friendly critics (such as Daniel Bell and Raymond Aron) argue that Arendt exaggerates the atomization of society under totalitarian rule. Still others judge that Arendt downplays the still-fundamental importance of the classical understanding of tyranny for understanding modern totalitarianism. Nevertheless, Origins has been consequential in shaping how many people have come to understand totalitarianism.

Read More: Totalitarianism, Fascism, Communism, StalinismTerror

Civilization in Decay

For Arendt, totalitarianism is only an outsized result of deeply rooted cultural currents that threaten civilization. In her most comprehensive book, The Human Condition (1958), she argues that the demotion of genuine political participation and the elevation of economic pursuits imperil modern institutions and laws.

Arendt builds her thesis around a trilogy of “labor,” “work,” and “action.” Labor is the life of self-preservation that precedes civilization. Work is the process by which man creates stable artifacts (such as tools and shelters) to protect him from the brutality of nature. At the next stage, the life of action emerges as the interaction with other men for political ends, the activity by which man finally separates himself from nature and becomes fully himself—free, contemplative, and capable of impacting history. The public-spirited civic life of ancient Greece exemplifies the life of action.

As soon as human activity and freedom reached their peak in ancient Greece, a decay set in that has ultimately left the entire Western tradition in “a field of ruins.” Arendt argues that the thought of Plato and Aristotle began a long trend toward political passivity and delusions of human progress. These problems were exacerbated by the advent of modern science and its promise to increase human mastery. Science and technology have become processes devoid of common sense, with no meaning apart from satisfying the lowest needs of mankind.

The base ends of labor have thus escaped the household and private life, and become the locus of politics. As economics becomes increasingly significant, aimless careerism and consumption increasingly define civilized existence. Political participation, even human agency itself, is viewed as a burdensome chore that must be relegated to the control of experts and officials. To Arendt, a vapid bourgeois culture has led us away from “old absolutes” and the “crumbling edifice of religion, authority, and tradition.” The result is a general nihilism that has left human beings with no purpose and a lack of attachment to political structures.

Read More: Civic Politics

Modern Solutions in Ancient Packaging

Arendt understands the peak human activity to be political deliberation among equals. She argues that to step away from the void of today’s “mass society” one must reinvigorate a life of “action” that is free of philosophical abstractions and return to the civic politics that exhorts citizens to public greatness. In the Greek city, the clearest example of vibrant political life, there was an explicit separation between the natural, private realm of human needs and the man-made, public realm of political deliberation about the common good.

Nonetheless, Arendt does not embrace the Greek emphasis on virtue or the Greek conception of freedom as virtuous self-command. Instead, she extols the life of “action” because it celebrates “uniqueness” and individual identity. Freedom, for Arendt, is an open-ended, spontaneous human expression that manipulates the world in creative and unpredictable ways. In contrast to the classical conception of excellence, Arendt holds that no superior qualities of character or special access to divinity is necessary; everyone is capable of “miracles” of “self-disclosure.” What is most important about civic participation is that it is an expression of human freedom among diverse, yet politically equal, individuals. When it is most fulfilling, political participation is simply the most profound way to assert one’s unique identity. Thus, despite Arendt’s nod to classical political philosophy, her solution is decidedly modern in its individualism, egalitarianism, and explicit relativism about moral virtue and political excellence.

Revolution as Self-Expression

Several of Arendt’s studies of concepts such as freedom were published in 1961, in her collection Between Past and Future. Her next monograph is her discussion of political beginnings, On Revolution (1963). Arendt distinguishes between successful and perverted revolutions and recognizes the importance of statesmen whose sustained deliberation and spirit of compromise make a republican constitution possible. The key to the American Revolution, for Arendt, is that the American Founders succeeded in instituting civic equality. Meanwhile, the French and Russian Revolutions failed because, in their passionate absolutism, they exploited class resentment and factionalism at the expense of civic equality. Republicanism does not maintain itself automatically, for without civic virtue and a constant reminder of public-spirited responsibilities, constitutional forms dampen the political vigor found in more intimate political settings, and, especially, in revolutionary moments.

And yet, for Arendt, it is not the wisdom or the prudence of a founder that is most important. Rather, it is the very act of creation—the expression of a consenting, collective citizenry—that determines the success of the revolution. In this understanding, the American Founders were ultimately mere symbols of the collective, and not extraordinary individuals distinguished by their virtue and wisdom. Arendt’s qualified praise for classical republicanism is again placed within her dominant context of modern individualism and egalitarianism—one that subordinates virtue to self-expression.

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The Eichmann Controversy

Before Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963) became a book, it appeared as a series in The New Yorker under the series “A Reporter at Large.” Arendt’s dispatches, however, which were composed largely from secondary sources because she observed only selected portions of the trial, had little detached “reportorial” observation: Arendt believed that the trial should not have been held in Israel and thought the Israeli government was cynically using it as a way to justify Zionism.

One of the book’s most provocative claims was that “a truly extraordinary degree” of Jewish cooperation was responsible for the genocide in Europe. Arendt pointed out that leaders of the Judenrat (the Jewish councils in Nazi-occupied Europe) helped the Nazis with multiple administrative tasks. Without their support, she argued, the infliction of misery by the Nazis would not have risen to such bloody levels.

Critics quickly made evident Arendt’s striking overstatements about Jewish involvement in the Holocaust. They noted that her claims were unsubstantiated and contradict existing records. They also contradict existing scholarship, including her own. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt claimed that Nazism was dedicated to the unbridled pursuit of Jewish extermination: given this, the Nazis would hardly have been dependent on the administrative aid of some Jewish leaders, many of whom were themselves murdered.

A second contentious claim, no less vexing, involves Arendt’s famous portrait of Eichmann, and Nazism more generally. Arendt does not deny Eichmann’s role in overseeing the transports that delivered Jews to concentration camps and then to their death. Yet she accepts much of Eichmann’s portrait of himself as a dutiful party member. She rejects the argument, made explicitly by Eichmann’s prosecutors, that Eichmann’s zealous extermination of Jews had much to do with his Nazi beliefs and hatred of Jews. She also tries to argue that the extermination of Jews occurred in the context of the Nazi view that they were acting in accordance with obedience to the law. In general, she portrays Eichmann’s evil as banal, and pictures him as a cog in a bureaucratic machine.

Critics note that here too Arendt’s argument is fundamentally incorrect: she plays down or ignores Eichmann’s efforts and doggedness in rising among the Nazis, the degree of perverse pride he had in his reprehensible actions, and the level of his ideological understanding. Later studies of Eichmann have made these points clear. But the evidence was also visible when she wrote. Arendt’s belief that nationalism is outmoded leads her to question the development of Zionism and Jewish political sovereignty. However much she professed admiration for the fate of Jews and Judaism, she conveys a consistent animus toward Israel, and she tends to underscore Arab demands while calling on Jews to circumscribe their own demands. The German-born scholar of Judaism Gershom Scholem accused Arendt of having no “love of the Jewish people”—to which Arendt agreed, affirming instead a love of friends. “I merely belong to [Jews] as a matter of course,” she replied. Her friend and teacher Karl Jaspers criticized Arendt’s writing for elevating anti-Semitic thinkers in order to find Jewish faults.

Arendt’s final major work is The Life of the Mind, a general discussion of philosophers and philosophical issues of which only the first two volumes were completed, and published after her death.

Read More: Anti-Semitism, World War II, Zionism

–Essays by Hillel Ofek