Defending Hannah Arendt

Despite (or because of?) her recent prominence in academia, Hannah Arendt continues to remain a polarizing figure. In the 1960s, her book Eichmann in Jerusalem was met with outrage from many  in the international Jewish community for supposedly shifting part of the blame of the Holocaust from the Nazis onto the victims themselves. Another major work, The Origins of Totalitarianism, has been plagued by historians’ claims of factual inaccuracy, obliqueness, and accusations of being an outdated Cold War relic. More recently, the historian Bernard Wasserstein has come forth with the claim that a number of Arendt’s sources in that book are themselves from anti-Semitic, pro-Nazi authors such as Walter Frank and Ernst Schultze. 

Irving Horowitz recently responded to these criticisms. As he summarizes, the major accusations against her are the following:

• The success of Arendt’s earlier work is owed more to the way it locked on to mid-twentieth-century Western guilt over imperialism and the continued strengthening of the Cold War than to The Origins of Totalitarianism. Arendt’s conception of the dynamics of historical change is little more than a confused mishmash of the structural, the social-psychological, and the conspiratorial.

• Her works display a deep ignorance of political economy, diplomacy, and military strategy. Furthermore, she had little grasp or even interest in the mechanics of the political process in the states about which she wrote.

• Rather than examine hard evidence, she deals in trifles and inflates them into richly colored balloons of generalization. At a time when superior historians were rejecting and becoming disenchanted by the idea of totalitarianism, her work in this area did not explain the generalization.

• Her comparisons of Nazism and communism were sporadic and uneven, and she hardly dealt with Italian fascism as predecessor of these test cases of totalitarianism. The concept was incorporated into the vernacular of the 1960s and 1970s only because it served the useful ideological purposes of the Cold Warriors at the time.

• The burden of her later work is blaming Jewish victims rather than anti-Semitic perpetrators. In her inversion of victims and victimizers, her bile knew no ethnic boundaries or rationalizations.

• There was always a special edge to her criticism of her own Jewish people. She swallowed sometimes in whole cloth the poisonous anti-Semitism hatched in the Weimar period, much of which was shrouded in the Nazi literature of the age.

Horowitz’s response to each of these points is for the most part solid and worth reading on its own. The essay loses its steam in its last third when it switches from a more scholarly analysis of The Origins toward a more biographical and psychological explanation of Arendt’s motives for her characterization of the Jewish response to Nazism. 

As someone initially skeptical of Arendt’s work, particularly on the distinction she drew between the political and the social in her book On Revolution, I have since then developed a deeper level of appreciation for her analysis. Despite the occasional historical inaccuracy found in her work (for example, her claim about the American founders’ wish to do away with the question of sovereignty), it remains an extremely valuable point of entry for an alternate way of thinking about the political. It is precisely this concern with ‘the political’, as a value to be preserved in itself, that I think serves as a key for understanding Arendt’s entire body of work. Taken as a factual narrative, neither The Origins nor On Revolution will ever satisfy the professional historian. But it is her engagement with the creative (poietic) aspects of spontaneous human action, and the shocking manner in which it was suppressed by Nazi Germany and the Stalinist USSR, that reveals the true value of her thought.


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