From Rilke to Eichmann
Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World.
by Elisabeth Young-Bruehl.
Yale University Press. 563 pp. $25.00.
This book is a labor of love. It is also an interesting and valuable study, essential to an understanding of a formidable and complex intellect. The author, a former doctoral student of the late Hannah Arendt, had access to her correspondence and also interviewed her surviving relatives and friends. The book contains much that is new and important—about Miss Arendt’s childhood and adolescence, her two marriages, her friendship with Karl Jaspers, and her love affair with Martin Heidegger. It is not easy to reconstruct and to understand worlds which no longer exist and which one has not known—pre-World War I Koenigsberg, the universities of Weimar Germany, the Paris and New York of the European émigrés—but in this respect the book could hardly be bettered.
Hannah Arendt emerges from this biography an attractive figure. Even some of her personal lapses, some of the strangeness in her behavior, are now more readily intelligible. I for one had always been unable to understand her excessive admiration for Karl Jaspers—a substantial philosopher and psychiatrist, but hardly the greatest mind of his age, hardly the only “good German” or an obvious candidate for the Nobel peace prize, as Hannah Arendt believed. This biography clarifies the depth of her emotional attachment to the man who became her second father. (Paul Arendt was institutionalized when Hannah was a young child, and died a few years later.) In the circumstances, her cult of Jaspers was only natural; the tie was of the heart.
Indeed, what Jaspers was to Hannah Arendt, Miss Arendt seems to have been to Dr. Young-Bruehl. Perhaps the tie is not of the same intensity, but the inner kinship, the link which transcends intellect, is unmistakable all the same. The impression created is that Hannah Arendt, although mortal and therefore theoretically fallible, essentially could do no wrong, and those who criticize her are either vicious or envious, intellectual inferiors who simply cannot follow her daring mental exploits.
This quality of identification, which accounts for the empathy and the loving care of the book, also makes for lack of balance and objectivity. In the case of Hannah Arendt, such lack of objectivity reinforces one of the outstanding traits of her character and intellect. She was fiercely loyal to those whom she took to her heart, and by whom she was admired and loved in return. She had a genius for making friends, and she certainly made them in the right places. But there was another side to this: the tendency toward exaggeration spilled over into her judgment of people and of things and her diagnosis of political events and processes, especially her judgment first of the menace of totalitarianism and later of the extent to which totalitarianism had disappeared.
What underlay this tendency toward exaggeration? Was it the shock of Nazism, which would make it, to a certain extent, the problem not of an individual but of a whole generation? (Hannah Arendt was not the only German-Jewish immigrant who thought it likely that Senator Joseph McCarthy would become President of the United States in 1956.) It is a difficult question and there is no answer in this biography. Hannah Arendt was in some respects a woman of artistic sensibility, and exaggeration was the other side of this particular coin. Certainly this trait of hers made her more widely known; she was unpredictable and hence more interesting, she inspired passionate responses in others. Her intensely subjective approach was not a handicap in the occasional writing of poetry: there are some fine examples of her verse published for the first time in this book. But it was not, I believe, a good thing in her chosen field, which was politics in the widest sense.
According to the publisher’s blurb, Miss Arendt was one of the foremost political philosophers of our era. Such intellectual sales talk is perhaps not meant to be taken too seriously, but it is indeed difficult to think of many others whose work continues to attract so much interest. She has been the subject of articles, books, radio programs, conferences, and now a biography. There has been no similar interest in recent years in Herbert Marcuse, the members of the Frankfurt School, George Lichtheim, or others who were her intellectual equals. Of her contemporaries, two can be said to have established schools—Raymond Aron and Leo Strauss. These were more committed thinkers, and incidentally cordially disliked by Hannah Arendt. As a political philosopher and commentator, Miss Arendt was most impressive in her obiter dicta on a great number of subjects. There is thus no Arendtian school.
This is not to disparage her work, for some of her books are undoubtedly of more enduring value than whole libraries of behaviorist writings. Nor is it to say that a political thinker must necessarily be a builder of systems. But a minimum of consistency is required, and this is often absent in Hannah Arendt. She admired Rosa Luxemburg—even though she knew full well the consequences of revolutions such as Rosa Luxemburg dreamed of. She was enormously excited when in 1968 students at Columbia and Chicago seized some university buildings, and she went to visit them—but she disapproved of most of their aims and maintained that the universities must “remain outside the power struggle.”
Montaigne once noted that the virtue needed for the affairs of the world is a virtue with many bends and angles so as to adapt to human weakness, and that he who walks in the crowd must step aside, keep his elbows in, even leave the straight way. Hannah Arendt loved mankind but had an almost pathological aversion to crowds and mass meetings. When Hans Morgenthau asked her whether she was a conservative or a liberal she replied that she really did not know “and I suppose I never had any such position. You know the Left thinks I am conservative, and the conservatives think I am Left or a maverick or God knows what. And I must say I couldn’t care less.”
A disarming answer, and no doubt partly a correct one, for the labels frequently did not fit her, as they no longer fit many others. But the answer is not quite satisfactory. Hannah Arendt believed that in politics one can pick and choose the issues on which to take a stand, leaving the rest to other people or perhaps to posterity. Such a division of labor may have much to commend it in other fields of human endeavor, but in politics it is not acceptable.
She possessed to a rare degree some of the qualities necessary for writing about politics and history—erudition, imagination, passion, intellectual curiosity, an original frame of mind. She very much lacked others—common sense, practical wisdom, balanced judgment, respect for facts. Her temper was not that of a historian or a student of politics. In commenting on politics she was as capable of insight as of irrelevancy and when challenged she would defend either with equal fervor.
This biography shows that Hannah Arendt’s real interest (and indeed her real strength) lay in the realm of abstraction on the one hand, and in poetry on the other. She seems to have felt less comfortable among scholars than among writers and literary critics; these saw in her a kindred spirit, and it was they who welcomed The Origins of Totalitarianism and her subsequent books with enthusiasm. Students of history and politics were on the whole less enraptured. It is even possible that in a quieter time she would have shown no more interest in politics than have other philosophers or poets. But then she belonged to a generation which had been politicized by force majeure. Hence the inevitable progress from Rilke to such essays as “Lying in Politics” and “Reflections on Little Rock.”
The controversy over Hannah Arendt’s 1963 book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, made her known to a much wider circle than all her other books taken together. Dr. Young-Bruehl believes that by and large Hannah Arendt was right and her critics wrong: there was something akin to a conspiracy of silence concerning the role of Jewish officialdom in Nazi-occupied Europe, and Miss Arendt, who courageously spoke the truth, was ostracized for breaking the taboo. Dr. Young-Bruehl also complains about the low intellectual level of the controversy which, she thinks, was “largely determined by the editorial policies of the major magazines and journals.”
It is true that not all the attacks on Miss Arendt’s book took place on a high level of knowledge and sophistication—many of them, however, did. In any event, the notion that Gershom Scholem or her old friends from Berlin like Robert Weltsch were influenced by the editorial policies of the major New York magazines is, to put it mildly, far-fetched. Those who replied to Miss Arendt felt very strongly about the subject. Some may have lacked detachment, and some may even have been wrong. But the suggestion that they followed a party line makes one doubt Dr. Young-Bruehl’s competence in dealing with this issue.
Nor is this the only occasion when the biographer’s understandable desire to refight the old battles on Miss Arendt’s side leads her seriously astray. In November 1953 Hannah Arendt wrote to William Zuckerman: “I decided that I do not want to have anything to do with Jewish politics any longer.” Her biographer undertakes to provide the historical background of this pronouncement.
In February 1953, an explosion had injured three people in the courtyard of the Soviet legation in Tel Aviv, the culmination of the ferocious anti-Soviet sentiment, often couched in religious terms, that had grown by leaps and bounds in Israel after the late 1952 anti-Zionist trials in Prague. The Israeli government vociferously denied responsibility for the incident. The Soviets withdrew their legation and severed diplomatic relations. This was one front of tension, another was more dangerous. Throughout 1952 and 1953, hundreds of so-called Arab infiltrees, displaced people trying to return to their homeland, had been either killed or captured by the Israelis. Arab resentment of the Jewish government had escalated with the passing of the nationality law in March 1952 which was only too similar in its principles to the American McCarran Act. . . .
What is one to make of this? In these six sentences almost everything is wrong but the fact that a bomb did indeed explode in Tel Aviv. There were no “anti-Zionist trials” in Prague—unless Dr. Young-Bruehl happens to believe that Slansky and his comrades were Zionists, which even Stalinists nowadays do not maintain. The bomb in Tel Aviv was thrown by an unhinged person; it was no more a “culmination” of “ferocious anti-Soviet sentiment” than John Hinckley’s shots can be regarded as the culmination of anti-Reagan feeling on the American Left. There was fear in Israel that an anti-Semitic campaign was about to engulf the Soviet bloc, and we know that this was justified; if Stalin had not died many more would have perished. But there was nothing “religious” about these fears; the religious groups in Israel were very moderate at the time, and always counseled refraining from any action which might provoke the Russians. As for the “vociferous denials” of the Israeli government, what else should it have done? The bombing was a calamity; if the government had not denied involvement, would Dr. Young-Bruehl have argued that it was tacitly accepting responsibility? Hundreds of refugees did indeed cross the borders, but they did so not with ploughshares but with explosives. In the period which Dr. Young-Bruehl is describing, prior to the Sinai campaign, some 3,000 such attacks took place in which 400 Israelis were killed and 900 injured. Israel was unprepared for this kind of warfare; there was panic, there was the beginning of a mass flight from the border settlements. What should the Israelis have done in defense of their lives?
One may argue that the fact that an Arab refugee problem came into being was a disaster, that relations between Israel and the Arabs were further poisoned by the spiral of raids and counterraids. One may even argue that the Jews should not have come to Palestine in the first place. But to deny the fact that Israeli settlements were subject to widespread attack in 1953 is to invite ridicule.
Thus, however regrettably, one is back in the old controversies. There is reason to doubt whether Hannah Arendt herself would have written about the Prague trials and their impact as her biographer does. In this case one sees how filial piety, a sentiment that does credit to the biographer’s heart, may actually render a certain disservice to the woman she wants to protect. Hannah Arendt was not a saint, and such crossings of the line between biography and hagiography make a fine book less credible.
The story of Miss Arendt’s tortured relation to Israel and the Jewish people does not end here. During the Six-Day war of 1967 (her biographer relates) Miss Arendt was intensely proud of Israeli victories, behaving, as one of her friends remarked, “like a war bride.” In the Yom Kippur war of 1973, she feared that Israel might be destroyed, and wrote to Mary McCarthy that a real catastrophe in Israel would affect her more deeply than almost anything else. How is one to explain these profound emotions concerning the fate of a state which, she had argued in 1947 and subsequently, should not have come into being in the first place? Was it just worry about the welfare of some friends and relatives, or a throwback to some atavistic tribal feeling? Inconsistencies like these make it difficult even now to do justice to Hannah Arendt, the political commentator. Like the period about which she wrote so eloquently, she remains part of the unbewaeltigte Vergangenheit, the past that remains to be mastered.