Within months of Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, a political investigator with the Berlin police detained twenty-six-year-old scholar Hannah Arendt and politely interrogated her for more than a week. Upon her release, she devised a plan to leave Germany and headed east with her mother. Taking refuge in the Erzgebirge Mountains, the two women approached the Czech border without travel papers.
Arendt had already helped other Jews escape the country, sheltering some in her own apartment, and was familiar with escape networks. In broad daylight, mother and daughter entered a house that straddled the border, waiting until nighttime to walk out the back door on their way to Prague.
She soon left for France, where she lived and worked through the end of the decade before winding up in detention again in the spring of 1940, interned this time by French authorities as an enemy alien after the German invasion. Managing to flee her detention camp after Paris fell that summer, she arrived the following year in America, which became her home.
Arendt’s mind had developed in the hothouse realm of philosophy, but under the weight of circumstance, she reoriented herself toward political considerations. She understood concretely the crossing of borders, the rapid shift from freedom to tyranny, and the myriad ways liberties could be preserved or vanish. An orphan of disintegrating societies, Arendt developed the refugee’s eye for existential threats. After the end of the war, she began work on The Origins of Totalitarianism, conducting an autopsy on the unraveling of political freedoms.
As the U.S. presidential campaign staggered into bedlam in 2016, and history’s dark echoes became a drumbeat, no surge in Google searches before the election suggested voters were seeking the wisdom of Arendt. Nobody launched a Hannah Arendt bot on Twitter to sound the alarm. (A bot does exist in Japanese, but has been around for several years.)
But when primary results seeped into public consciousness, and election day crawled nearer, journalists who sensed the seams of democracy might be giving way turned to Arendt to frame Trump’s rise. A new documentary released last spring proved timely. In October, Fusion explained “How a dead WWII-era philosopher understands Donald Trump better than anyone on CNN,” pointing to the resurgence of escapist voters, political propaganda, and scapegoat refugees.
Others quoted Arendt as they used her ideas or rhetoric to criticize “The Banality of Donald Trump” or to consider the fascist within each one of us, or to announce that no, Trump was not a fascist, or to say that perhaps America had not yet succumbed to fascism, but it might, or to show that maybe fascism was on the rise, but not quite the way you thought.
After the election, so many more pieces framing her ideas on totalitarianism appeared that one could be forgiven for feeling a little Arendt fatigue. In December, one commenter complained that though she had in reality been an unorthodox thinker, Arendt’s words had been used to “confirm every bit of conventional wisdom.”
The twenty-first century return to relevance marked a shift for Arendt. Contemplating civic virtue, political engagement, and especially threats to freedom, she had by the end of her century come to seem almost quaint. In the wake of 9/11, however, Arendt’s thoughts on violence and government power found renewed appreciation. And with this year’s election of a demagogue in the most powerful nation on earth, she has become a vital voice in teasing out meaning from recent events. But the lessons we are drawing from her work may not be the one we most need to learn.
Arendt gained widespread recognition for revealing the common tactics of repressive governments of varying ideologies, as well as the fertile soil in which they grow. “You can fight over many things with her,” political theorist Hans Morgenthau said, “but she was the first to understand fascism.” Covering the trial of Adolf Eichmann from Jerusalem in 1961, she also recognized that evil did not require committed ideologues to further its agenda—a well-oiled bureaucracy of ambitious functionaries would suffice to perpetrate genocide.
Yet Arendt sometimes disappointed. Articulate about the dynamics of large and powerful nations, her arguments did not always hold elsewhere. She could coin pungent phrases, noting that “the most radical revolutionary will become a conservative on the day after the revolution”—but she also sometimes lapsed into dense arguments that chased their own tails in a dim room behind a credenza.
She saw the legacy of slavery in America as so profound and in need of constitutional remedy that she advocated caution in the U.S. Supreme Court’s imposition of desegregation, lest the courts fracture a republic that she thought ought to offer even more fundamental redress on race. After the war she reconnected with her early teacher and lover, philosopher Martin Heidegger, despite what she described as his “brief past in the Nazi movement.” Most problematic was her writing on the role of Jewish councils imposed by Nazi occupation forces on ghettos during the Holocaust. Arendt went far beyond noting instances of collaboration or the cost to Jews unable to escape. Referring to the councils first in correspondence and then in an article on the Eichmann trial, she called their actions in the Holocaust “the darkest chapter in the whole dark story.”
Making the most radical reply, the French newspaper Nouvel Observateur published a batch of responses in 1966 under the headline “Hannah Arendt: Is She a Nazi?” Despite mitigating statements in other essays at other times, many readers never forgave her for condemning Jews forced into unimaginable circumstances in stronger terms than she did their executioners. More than one person has since pointed out (as Masha Gessen recently noted in The New York Review of Books) that Arendt’s belief in widespread collaboration accelerating or amplifying the death toll of the Holocaust is likely incorrect.
Despite her complexities, many of Arendt’s ideas remain prescient. She wrote in the 1940s about the history and legacy of chattel slavery that she saw as permanently keeping black citizens outside America’s social contract. She recommended a constitutional amendment to prevent the government from ever revoking citizenship—an issue which reared its head before and after the election when Trump pondered invalidating citizenship for flag burners and those born in America to noncitizen parents. During her adult life, she held forth on almost every topic of political relevance, and nearly all the questions that occupied her half a century ago continue to confront us today.
Arendt witnessed the collapse of a culture she loved and the loss of her native land, writing in the shadow of having escaped the crueler fate of peers like Walter Benjamin, who committed suicide ahead of the Nazi advance. She embraced America, but its contradictions and her dislocations kept her in a kind of permanent exile that she used to her advantage. She had the gift of seeing everything with fresh eyes.
“The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist,” Arendt wrote in The Origins of Totalitarianism, “but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exists.” A decade into the Cold War, she predicted that totalitarianism would not rise again in its previous forms, but that totalitarian elements would persist in new political constructs.
She herself began searching for the shifts in vocabulary that would reveal new structures and ideas. How we use words about these concepts was key to Arendt, because as her biographer Elisabeth Young-Bruehl wrote, “it is the poets or poetic thinkers who live by an expectation that language will deliver us from the temptation not to think.”
Even if a reader arrives intent on disagreeing with Arendt, to do so demands full attention and thought. And thought is what she most hoped to provoke, denouncing “complacent repetition of ‘truths’ which have become trivial or empty.” In our new century of propaganda, half-truths, and untruths, Arendt’s greatest lesson is not to fall to cynicism but to refuse received wisdom and learn to think for ourselves. Keeping the best of her legacy means examining what fits into known history and then attending to what is different as it unfolds around us.
Are we on the road to fascism? The way we wrestle with the question is as important as any answer. Who knows how much will be lost if instead of finding new language to understand where we are now, we wait for the present to perfectly mirror the past.
Andrea Pitzer is currently writing One Long Night, a global history of concentration camps.
Fact-checker: Matthew Giles