Q&A: Author Samantha Rose Hill on Hannah Arendt
The famed political theorist escaped the Nazis, yet was "canceled" for her writing on Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann. Since 2016, many have turned to her to explain Trump and illiberalism.
Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) was one of the most celebrated political theorists of the twentieth century, and has enjoyed a renaissance in the twenty-first. In the aftermath of the election of Donald Trump, her book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, saw a sharp rise in sales, and even Amazon briefly ran out of stock. Born to a secular Jewish family in Germany in 1906, in 1933, she fled Nazi Germany for France, and then fled France as it was capitulating to the Nazis in 1940. She lived in the United States from 1941 until the end of her life in 1975.
Samantha Rose Hill is the author of a new biography, Hannah Arendt (Reaktion, 2021), as well as Hannah Arendt’s Poems (forthcoming from Liveright). She is a senior fellow at the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities and associate faculty at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Aeon, LitHub, OpenDemocracy, Public Seminar, Contemporary Political Theory, and Theory and Event. She is the author of the Substack newsletter, Illuminations by Samantha Rose Hill.
I spoke with Hill Friday over Zoom. Our conversation follows, edited for length and clarity.
Luke Johnson: You write, "In recent years, many have turned to the work of Hannah Arendt to try to understand the political crises faced today - the decline of liberal democracy, the spread of fake news, the rise of the social sphere, the triumph of technology, the loss of the private realm and the experience of mass loneliness, to name a few." What is your answer to why Hannah Arendt resonates with so many today?
Samantha Rose Hill: When Arendt died in 1975, she was mostly known for her reportage on the trial of Adolf Eichmann and her concept of the banality of evil. In 1982, the first biography of Arendt was published by Elizabeth Young-Brehl, For Love of the World. Arendt's relationship with Martin Heidegger became public knowledge for the first time, which dominated conversations and writing.
In 2016, The Origins of Totalitarianism became a best-selling book, and her work started reaching new audiences trying to understand the election of Donald Trump in the United States and the rise of illiberalism worldwide. Toward the end of her life, she said that to look towards the past to find any analogy for the present is a mythological error. I think that Arendt would be wary of being read next to the newspaper. But there are a number of elements of her work that deeply resonate with contemporary readers and give them something to hold on to in their thinking. She talks about the privatization of public institutions, the specter of technological imperialism, the loss of privacy in the modern world, and how that correlates to a loss of freedom. She gives readers a rich vocabulary for talking about a number of the political crises that we're trying to understand right now, which have been radically shaped by the conditions of our century.
LJ: She was born in 1906, in Germany, and she's from a secular Jewish background. Her parents never talked about being Jewish, but she was aware of her Jewish identity from a very young age. Can you explain that?
SRH: She says in her 1964 interview with Gunter Grass that the word Jew was never spoken at home. When she was seven or eight years old, schoolchildren were harassing her for killing Jesus Christ. She didn't understand, so she told her mother. Her mother says something to her which remains with her throughout her life: when you are attacked as a Jew, you defend yourself as a Jew.
Around the same time, she starts going to synagogue with her grandfather Max on the weekends, and the same year her father dies, she starts attending private classes with the rabbi. Middle-class German schoolchildren were required to go to Sunday school, and her mother wanted her to also have a Jewish education. Arendt was never a very religious person; she was very secular. But her Jewish identity was very important to her and her life's work.
LJ: She arrived at the University of Marburg in 1923 to study with the philosopher Martin Heidegger, and they have this infamous affair and he later joins the Nazi Party and their relationship is untenable. She never publicly addresses this. What did you glean from this relationship and what impact did he have on her?
SRH: A lot of ink has been spilled on the Heidegger question. Students were coming from all over the country to hear him lecture because he made Plato and Aristotle come to life. Arendt's schoolmate from Koenigsberg had already gone to study with him. He was teaching thinking, and he was known as the magician from Messkirch [his birthplace]. In her article, Heidegger at Eighty, she describes the spirit in the air at the time. A number of major 20th-century intellectuals were studying with Heidegger. Arendt was very lucky to study with the two fathers of German existentialism, Martin Heidegger and her Doktorvater (dissertation adviser), Karl Jaspers, at the University of Heidelberg.
We see Heidegger's influence on Arendt's work in The Human Condition and On Thinking; Arendt also influenced his work, Being and Time. The way it manifests in her writing philosophically is as a kind of phenomenology. Arendt talks about appearance and disappearance in the world, but she is at the same time very much materialist.
For Heidegger, thinking is a lonely activity; it's something you have to isolate yourself to do, preferably in the forest somewhere. She turns away from that when she goes to study with Karl Jaspers. For Jaspers, thinking is a worldly activity. It is grounded in conversation and dialogue. It is conditioned by the plurality of human existence. She turns away from Heidegger's concept of thinking to give us this concept of building the world in common, of always thinking with others, even when we're alone.
“I always think of Arendt as planting her feet on the ground, and turning her head to look straight forward to see what's in front of us.”
LJ: In 1933, the Reichstag burned and the Nazis used it as an excuse to suspend civil liberties and cement their power. You quote Arendt as saying, "From that moment on, I felt responsible. That is, I am no longer of the opinion that one can simply be a bystander." She seems to grasp the dangers of the Nazis very quickly. How did that shift her thinking?
SRH: It was the moment we could say Arendt became politicized. She couldn't be a bystander, and abandoned her very promising career in German academia as a philosopher. She said, I want nothing more to do with this intellectual milieu. She saw the ways in which the German intelligentsia -- her colleagues, friends, teachers, including Heidegger -- were going along with the Nazification of social, cultural and political institutions. She refused. She said that she would only do Jewish work, and when you are attacked as a Jew, you defend yourself as a Jew. She spent the next nine years doing political work for a number of Jewish organizations in Paris, helping Jewish youth prepare to emigrate to Palestine. She turned away from the work of academic philosophy to the work of writing for a public audience of trying to understand the most pressing political questions of the day: the rise of fascism, the rise of totalitarianism, transformations in anti-Semitism, and the loss of freedom. I always think of Arendt as planting her feet on the ground, and turning her head to look straight forward to see what's in front of us.
LJ: As you mentioned, she flees to France. In 1940, the Nazis invade. She's placed in an internment camp [by the French government]. Once again, she seems to grasp that she has this narrow window to escape. Can you explain that moment?
SRH: This is one of the chapters that was important to me to include in the book, which was not included in any previous biographies of Arendt, in part because the material in the archives wasn't available. I wanted to reconstruct a timeline for readers of what Arendt went through, first with her arrest in Berlin in 1933 by the Gestapo, her internment in Gurs in the south of France, where she was held for five-and-a-half weeks, and where she was part of a mass escape with 62 other women.
As the German front approached, the order of the camp started to fall apart. The women seize the opportunity to forge fake exit papers to walk out the front gate. Arendt walked out alone with these papers, and she walked across France on foot to find Walter Benjamin, and then to go looking for her husband, having no idea where he was. This was the darkest period of her life. There are only three instances where she talks about this moment. In her essay, We Refugees, she talks about contemplating suicide, and having no sense of the future. She decides against it. She decides that she loves life too much to give it up. She loves the world. She wants to fight. She finds a great sense of self-sovereignty and laughter. She was incredibly courageous and resilient. We see that time and time again in her biography, where she was able to be present in the moment, to walk across France to help her husband escape in Marseilles.
LJ: She came to the United States in 1941 with no money and very little English. She became a housekeeper in Winchester, Mass. for two months to help her learn English. What are her first impressions of the United States?
SRH: Arendt was impressed by the political engagement of the family that she was living with outside of Boston. In a letter to her husband, Heinrich Blucher, she talks about watching the wife write letters to her congressman protesting the unjust internment of Japanese citizens, and sitting around the dinner table for hours talking about politics. There's a beautiful letter that she writes to Karl Jaspers, where she says that in no European country has this level of citizen engagement with politics, and there's a unique sense of freedom because what unites all Americans is not any kind of ethnonationalism, but the fact that we all submit to the principles of the Constitution. She also rejected the myth of the American melting pot. She loved that the immigrant communities in the United States insisted on keeping their culture. She personally refused to lose her accent. She found what she called the freedom to be free, because of the political organization of America. She praised the separation of powers.
By the end of her life in the 1970s, she was not as hopeful. She thought that the Vietnam War, Nixon, Watergate, and lying in politics had torn at the fabric of our common political life. She was worried that tyranny might emerge in America, and that if it did, it would come from the executive branch, which was consolidating power and eating away at the separation of powers, which she thought was fundamental to democratic society.
LJ: She started writing the Origins of Totalitarianism in 1943-44, when she only learned English a few years before. She was not a U.S. citizen until 1951. What was she seeking to do in that work?
SRH: The Origins of Totalitarianism was the first major study of what had happened in Europe and Stalin's Russia. She wanted to understand the phenomenal appearance of totalitarianism, not to offer history of it, but to write in a way that destroyed the very concept itself. Arendt offers an account of the various elements of totalitarianism that had forged together in the appearance of Hitlerism and Stalinism, which she considered to be a more advanced form of totalitarianism.
The book is really three books in one: anti-Semitism, imperialism and totalitarianism. Arendt talks about the ways in which anti-Semitism changed in the 19th century into a different kind of racialized conception of the Jew, the ways in which colonization relies upon the ideological use of racism to go into Africa and India, the privatization of public institutions, and how businessmen left the private realm of the home and entered into politics because they needed new markets in order to continue expanding. The principle of expansion for expansion's sake, she argued, was fundamentally at odds with the need for stable political institutions, which guarantee citizen rights and freedom. This was counterintuitive at the time. The common narrative was that totalitarianism was the apex of the nation-state. Arendt was arguing that totalitarianism is the decline of the nation-state as a political body.
At the very end of the book, she talks about loneliness as the underlying condition of all totalitarian regimes. She talks about the existential conditions of totalitarianism -- homelessness, rootlessness, and loneliness; the creation of superfluous masses; the alliance between the mob and the elite; the creation of meaninglessness in people's lives through the loss of social order and political power.
LJ: In 1960, she asked New Yorker editor William Shawn to send her to Jerusalem to cover the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann. He agrees. She covers the trial in 1961, and he is hanged in 1962. In February-March of 1963, The New Yorker published her account of the trial. What was she trying to do there? Like Origins, it seems like a work that's difficult to put in one box.
SRH: She wanted to cover the trial because she said she wanted to see evil-doing the flesh. She cleared her teaching schedule and flew to Jerusalem. She wanted to report the facts. This is very much a work of journalism. We can think of it as a kind of classical work of political theory, a theory from theoria, which means to go wandering to a foreign place and then report back, in the way that Tocqueville had done in Democracy in America.
She writes about not only Adolf Eichmann, but the process of the trial itself. She is very upset that the trial is being carried out as a show trial. She expected to see Eichmann tried for his individual crimes and for evidence to be brought against him, making a case to show what he had done. That's not what she was met with. To her husband, she describes Eichmann as a clown in a glass booth and says the whole damn thing is banal -- that was her first impression of the trial and it stuck. She wanted to report the truth of what she had experienced. She coins the banality of evil in order to argue that evil is not done by monsters and is not the appearance of hell on earth. It is not radical evil, as she had thought of when she was writing Origins, but evil is done by people, and people are responsible for their actions.
“When Eichmann in Jerusalem was published in the summer of 1963, all of New York literary society was summoned to the Hotel Diplomat in downtown Manhattan to effectively cancel Hannah Arendt.”
LJ: The book Eichmann in Jerusalem [published from her articles] gets a firestorm of controversy. To this day, it's still controversial. Can you explain why?
SRH: There are three reasons why it was controversial and remains controversial. The first is that people argued that Arendt had claimed that Eichmann was a buffoon and not anti-Semitic, which she doesn't do. She says, yes, of course, he's an anti-Semite, but there are other parts of his personality at play here, too. The second is she talks about the Jewish cooperation inside the camps, and how the Nazi Party manipulated the Jewish people to make them complicit in murder. A number of her friends and public intellectuals criticized her for discussing this at all. The third and main [charge] is she is incredibly ironic. She uses irony rhetorically to create distance. She agrees with Bertolt Brecht that tragedy takes these kinds of crimes much less seriously than laughter. Her friend Gershom Scholem wrote to her and said, how dare you write about the Holocaust in that tone. For Arendt, it was a way of keeping her dignity.
LJ: It seems like some of her critics are not really trying to understand her, but trying to score points. It seems awfully like on the Internet, people are trying to score points but not actually engaging. Do you think there's anything current in that controversy?
SRH: Absolutely. It's a good comparison to our contemporary political moment. When Eichmann in Jerusalem was published in the summer of 1963, all of New York literary society was summoned to the Hotel Diplomat in downtown Manhattan to effectively cancel Hannah Arendt. Person after person got up on stage and derided the book and her and criticized what she purportedly had written, trying her in absentia. She had one defender, Mary McCarthy, who described it as a pogrom.
Arendt wrote her essay, Truth and Politics, as a response to the response she received writing Eichmann in Jerusalem. She understood herself to be a truth-teller. She went to the trial, she observed, and she reported what she had seen. But the response she received said, no, that's not what you saw. She wanted to understand what happens when facts and truth are challenged in public discourse, and what that does to public debate.
LJ: She is somebody who is difficult to pin down with a political label. What labels have people tried to fix to her, and have any really stuck?
SRH: In 1972, in a panel on the work of Hannah Arendt, Hans Morgenthau asks her, "What are you? Are you a conservative or a liberal?" She says, "I don't know. And I've never known" and [adds] that she doesn't think that kind of question is going to help us solve the political problems that we're facing today. She says the only thing she ever was was a Zionist, and that was for political reasons, from 1933 to the mid-1940s. She then broke with Zionism. Arendt is profoundly anti-ideological. She doesn't fit neatly anywhere. She maintains self-sovereignty in her political thinking, away from any kind of fixed ideological framework that implies a set of moral principles or ethical imperatives.
LJ: If someone were to start reading Arendt, where would you suggest they start?
SRH: There's a wonderful collected volume called Thinking without a Banister. It's a nice mix of interviews, essays, op-eds, and book reviews that will give you a sense of her writing, but also contains bits from all four major works. The first book I read was The Human Condition. If you want to fall in love with her prose style, I would recommend it.
LJ: How can we apply Arendt's thinking today? As you said, her analysis of Stalinism and Nazism was groundbreaking. But does it really apply to contemporary illiberalism?
SRH: It's not a question of application. The great thing about Arendt's work is that it's not about what to think, but about how to think. We have to be constantly rethinking the world anew from our most recent experiences, fears, and political crises. Arendt turns us away from fixed frameworks for understanding and historical analogy, and places us in the present moment between past and future so that we can see what is unfolding right in front of us, and then we have to act.