Hannah Arendt, an Enigma

Hannah Arendt is one of the major intellectual figures of the 20th century. A volume of the prestigious ‘Cahiers de l’Herne’ devoted to Arendt has just been published in French. The volume introduces the French public to writings that had not been published in their language and invites all of us to discover new facets of Hannah Arendt, political theorist, committed thinker of her time, and Jewish intellectual. Avishag Zafrani, for K and Akadem, spoke with the philosophers Martine Leibovici and Aurore Mréjen who edited this publication. They discuss Arendt’s links with Heidegger, her reflections on political anti-Semitism, her relationship to Zionism…


Hannah Arendt. Crédits : Courtesy of the Hannah Arendt Bluecher Literary Trust

“Hannah was a conscious Jew, but ignorant of Judaism, what we call an am-ha-arez. But she was also a Trotzjüdin, a fighting Jew”[1].

Born in 1906 in Hanover into a Jewish family, Hannah Arendt is one of the most famous intellectual figures of the 20th century. And to a certain extent, the importance of her public voice contrasts with the retreat into solitude that is characteristic of the philosophical contemplative life, as she herself defined it. Arendt’s figure thus oscillates between the public and the private, between political commitment through speech that is part of a common narrative and the suspension of collective life, which is necessary to devote oneself to introspection and to find isolated and often “powerless” certainties. In Arendt’s terms: pure (philosophical) truth and politics are mutually exclusive. So that she said of herself that she was not a philosopher but a theorist of power.

Arendt’s entry into politics is the result of a specific constraint, which turned her from a citizen into a potential “objective enemy.” It is one of the specificities of totalitarianism to define objective enemies, whose very existence is incompatible with the regime. Her friend Hans Jonas writes that “she was led – also by the influence of her husband Gunther Stern – to rediscover politics under the pressure of the Hitler phenomenon. It was only when reality suddenly burst into this existence, situated in the midst of its own philosophical atmosphere, that the political sphere opened up to her.[2]” But it should also be noted that her awareness of the ambient anti-Semitism in the Germany of her youth and her questioning of the process of Jewish emancipation since the Enlightenment led her to question the process of assimilation before seeking the reasons for the impotence of the Jews in the face of the impending disaster. Thus, at first, she participated in the youth aliyah movement which was concerned with saving Jewish children and adolescents by transferring them to Palestine. A few years later, however, she formulated a radical critique of Zionism, for which she had initially been enthusiastic.

She was certainly a “conscious” Jew, to use Jonas’s formulation, but she also had an acute sense of the need to suspend this state of affairs in order to achieve impartiality, as if the Jewish part of her life were to prevent an objective consideration of power relations and interests. It is about Kafka that Arendt formulates the position she wishes to take herself: “he would have found the place in time which is sufficiently removed from past and future to offer “the umpire” a position from which to judge the forces fighting with each other with an impartial eye”[3]Thus, Arendt’s trajectory was also that of a solitary Jew who wanted to think about the situation of the Jews with distance, impartiality, sometimes with a coldness that bordered on a detachment that many Jewish voices, including among her friends, saw in a negative light, but which she considered the price to pay for reaching a lucid judgment. However, the freedom thus acquired and the “de-individualized”[4] public speech that proceeds from it are not without risk. The right word uttered at the right moment is action, says Arendt in a famous formulation with an Aristotelian tone. On the subject of the Eichmann trial, of the responsibility of the Jewish councils, on the subject of the young Jewish state as well, it is not certain that Arendt struck the right tone. In a letter to Arthur Hertzberg, she finally admitted, with regard to the Judenräte, that she lacked material, that the questions remained open. Likewise, her break with Zionism expressed in her 1944 article “Zionism Reconsidered” seems to be repeatedly softened afterwards as we read in her correspondence with Yehuda Magnes. Through Arendt’s unpublished correspondence, we read about a personal life, dialogical exchanges, which partly answer our questions, completing a private and intimate dimension that sheds new light on the public word.

Did Arendt, a “combative Jew,” think of her Jewishness as her singularity, outside of a collective belonging? If this were the case, we would have to admit with Scholem a lack of love for the people (ahavat Israel). However, in an exchange with Hans Jonas, worried about the survival of the State of Israel, she affirms that despite the worst things that could happen to this young State, even its annihilation, the Jewish people will not disappear, because “all the same, a people with such a memory”. The political, combative dimension with which Arendt colored the Jewish condition may have covered the intimate part of her kinship or community ties that she seemed to feel and rarely confessed. But is not this the nature of the modern Jewish condition?

Avishag Zafrani

Below is the interview – in French, with English subtitles – with the philosophers Martine Leibovici and Aurore Mrejen by Avishag Zafrani with the philosophers Martine Leibovici and Aurore Mrejen by Avishag Zafrani :

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1 Hans Jonas, Erinnerungen, Insel Verlag, Frankfurt-am-Main, 2003
2 Ibid
3 In Between Past and Future, The Viking Press, New York, 1961, p.21
4 In Human Condition, The University of Chicago Press, 1958, p.66

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