Hannah Arendt: The German Years
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Hannah Arendt: The German Years: The German Years. (2018). The Political Science Reviewer, 42(1), 89-118. https://politicalsciencereviewer.wisc.edu/index.php/psr/article/view/539


Hannah Arendt is one of the great thinkers of the twentieth century. Her influence in the field of political thought is enormous and shows no sign of waning. Probably best known for her groundbreaking book The Origins of Totalitarianism and her reportage on the trial of Adolph Eichmann, the Nazi war criminal, she also wrote enduring works of philosophical importance, including The Human Condition and the posthumously published The Life of the Mind. Other works consider thoughts on revolution, violence, technology, race relations in the United States, education, and more. She was a prolific writer, and she had an explosive public profile. Her student, Elizabeth Young-Bruehl, wrote a comprehensive biography of her life and work. Arendt was a refugee from Germany in that country’s darkest time. By the time she arrived in the United States in 1941, she already had a doctorate under the tutelage of Karl Jaspers, and she had been a student of Martin Heidegger at Marburg University. Not only was she Heidegger’s student, she was his young lover. And she was Jewish. The intersection of these biographical details—Arendt’s Jewishness, her luminous intelligence, her relationship with Heidegger and her refugee status—are inseparable elements of her story. Arendt’s “German years” yielded two major works that we can see reverberate throughout her successive and much more mature works produced in the United States, and these two works—her doctoral thesis on Augustine’s understanding of love, and her portrait of Rahel Varnhagen, an eighteenth-century Jewish salon mistress—reveal to us two distinct but related sides of their author. The first section of this article considers several important biographical details about Arendt in the German years. The second and third sections look specifically at Arendt’s writing during the German years. The fourth section examines the controversy over Arendt’s reportage on the trial of the Nazi war criminal Adolph Eichmann. The series of articles that Arendt wrote for The New Yorker, later put together with a postscript and epilogue in a book titled Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, was written long after Arendt’s German years, when she was already an established voice in the United States, but the controversy is crucial to Arendt’s story, both personal and philosophical. The Eichmann book severed some of her most important friendships from her early life, and it encapsulates what may be Arendt’s most important contribution to political theory in her formulation of the “banality of evil.” In the conclusion, I hope to make clear the connections between Arendt’s early biography and her early writing, and the impact of both on the rest of Arendt’s life and work.

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