Hannah Arendt, friendship in the face of totalitarianism

The German thinker went into exile in the United States after the Nazis took power. She went from theorizing about the absolute evil of dictatorships to reflecting on the banality of those who worked for them. Today, she could have written about the limitless power of technology

Hannah Arendt
The philosopher Hannah Arendt (1906 -1975), pictured in 1949.Fred Stein Archive / GETTY IMAGES

Arendt is an exceptionally liberating figure in 20th-century intellectual history. A disciple and lover of Heidegger, she studied phenomenology with Edmund Husserl in Freiburg and – under the direction of Karl Jaspers in Heidelberg – wrote a thesis on the idea of love in the writings of Saint Augustine. Over the course of her life, she mapped the ills of the 20th century. With the rise of Nazism, she went to work for German Zionist organizations, before fleeing to France. After countless hardships, she emigrated to the United States, where she taught at the New School for Social Research in New York City and lectured at the most prestigious universities in the country. Discredited in Germany, she remains a fundamental reference for moral and political philosophy. Her thinking retains a disconcerting relevance in light of the new totalitarianisms that appear in the age of technological dependence. Although her analysis of the sources of totalitarianism focuses on communism and Nazism, her interpretation is easily adapted to the current context of a society dominated by technology.

Arendt had a firm idea of freedom as a living political reality, exercised by the individual. Freedom is not something that can be given: freedom must be taken. It’s something that she practiced in her own life on numerous occasions. Freedom, she thought, was like breathing room: it requires “space” between people. Totalitarianism is the attempt – by the state or any other power – to compress that space. Total terror destroys the space between people and doesn’t let them breathe, functioning as a compression of the mental space via the standardization of thought. The singular individual becomes a uniform mass. “Totalitarianisms do not manage to tear the love of freedom from the hearts,” she wrote, “but they destroy the only essential prerequisite of all freedoms, which is the ability to move, which cannot exist without that mental space.”

The forces of nature and history are accelerated by totalitarianism and can only be stopped through the exercise of freedom. Freedom isn’t a right granted by another – freedom is something that everyone exercises, as it’s at the root of the human condition. And alienating the human condition is the goal of totalitarian terror.

A fundamental notion of Arendt’s is that each new beginning is an obstacle in a totalitarian regime’s process of indoctrination. “Terror executes the death sentences that nature is supposed to have pronounced on races or individuals who are not ‘fit for life.’ [These regimes impose a notion] about the ‘dying classes,’ without waiting for the slower and less efficient process of nature or history. Totalitarianisms… are similar to laboratories. They create the conditions of pressure and temperature that make the acceleration of natural processes possible. [They blind themselves] to the fact that this scientific work – when it innovates – is gestated thanks to a ‘new beginning.’”

According to Arendt, when science claims to have a monopoly over the “real,” it’s engaging in propaganda and going astray. Any “theory of everything” is a form of totalitarianism. It’s part of a scientific rhetoric – the result of the imperialism of a particular science. Physics, for instance, tried to extend its domains over chemistry, biology, or psychology. As if a single science – a single perspective – could account for all of what is real. In her writings, Arendt notes the obsession with science that has characterized the modern world since the 17th century. She quotes Eric Voegelin: “Totalitarianism seems to be the last phase of a process during which science has become an idol that will magically cure all the ills of existence and that will transform the nature of man.”

“Scientism” – like totalitarian propaganda – tries to eliminate the impossibility of predicting individual behavior, by offering certainties to the masses. It assumes that human nature is always the same: that history is the story of changing objective circumstances. The human being only has to suffer, or fit into the immutable laws of the historical or natural process. But facts depend on the power that can manufacture them. A world under totalitarian control can make its lies come true, it can make all of its prophecies come true.

Arendt never explicitly discussed the history of science, but her vision of totalitarianism fits into it: “In a perfect totalitarian government, all men have become One Man.” Every particular science requires a certain standardization of thought. Physicists all think in a similar way, as do psychologists or biologists. But it’s an abuse when a particular model is considered to be the only valid one. Hence the purpose of totalitarian propaganda, which isn’t so much meant to instill convictions, but rather aims to destroy the formation of any new ones.

Arendt didn’t speak about the “theory of everything.” Instead, she discussed ideologies and isms that attempt to explain everything. For free and creative thought, an ideology is an impermissible simplification. It can function at the most elementary and tender levels of thought, constituting a single horizon… but it’s immediately apparent that it’s a prison for thought. Reducing everything to a single premise has catastrophic political consequences, but is very useful for totalitarian domination. Despite lacking scientific training, Arendt’s instinct warned of the danger in this. “Ideologies are known for their scientific character: they combine the scientific approach with results of philosophical relevance and claim to be scientific philosophy. The word ‘ideology’ seems to imply that an idea can become the object of a [branch of] science, in the same way that animals are the object of zoology.”

Hannah Arendt, while giving a class at the New School in New York, in 1969.
Hannah Arendt, while giving a class at the New School in New York, in 1969. Neal Boenzi (New York Times Co. / Getty Images)

The writer and thinker personally suffered the results of this fetishization of ideology. “Ideology treats the course of events as following the same law as the logical exposition of its idea.” Ideologies claim to know the mysteries of the entire historical process – the secrets of the past, the complexities of the present, the uncertainties of the future – thanks to the inherent logic of their ideas. Whoever is governed by ideology claims to be the smartest… and ends up being the most naive. Ideology also masks reality: everything is too clear, there’s no interest in the mystery of things. This matches the totalitarian vocation. “[Ideology] is the purely negative coercion of logic – that is, the prohibition of contradictions.” It cannot be interrupted or upset by a new idea or a new experience. “[Restricting] the inherent ability to think with the straitjacket of logic… is as violent as if we were forced [to stop thinking] by an external power.”

The main totalitarian ideologies of the 20th century were Nazism and Stalinism. In the 21st century, they have changed their masks. They are now biotechnology – the idea that the human being is just a biological algorithm – and technolatry, or digitization of the world – the idea that what is real is, basically, information.

Totalitarianism is consolidated when the most elemental form of human creativity is destroyed. This creativity always arises at the origin, in the “new beginning,” where the creative person continually returns. As long as there are creative people – who add something of their own to the common world – the totalitarian threat and its systematic preparation of perpetrators and victims can be avoided. The creative person – as Marcus Aurelius said – is “neither master nor slave.” Or, in this context, neither executor nor victim.

In her writings, Arendt made sure to distinguish loneliness from solitude. “What makes loneliness so unbearable is the loss of self, which can be realized in solitary life. When you lose confidence in yourself as a partner in thought and confidence in the world necessary to have experiences…. the capacity for thought and experience are also lost.” She seems to have had a similar line of thought as the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, when she stated that, if the mind doesn’t feel like it requires itself, the world, thought, or experience, it is only left with logic. But the truth of logic is an empty truth, which reveals nothing. “Defining consciousness as truth – as some modern logicians do – means denying the existence of truth,” she wrote. The denial of contradictions is the ultimate constraint: it rejects the essence of what it means to be alive.

While totalitarianism intends to convert the citizen into an automaton, in our present moment, it intends to convert the citizen into a biological algorithm: programmable, hackable, expendable. “Totalitarian domination carries the seeds of its own destruction,” Arendt noted. Fear and powerlessness are anti-political principles that “throw people into a situation contrary to political action.” Still, she was careful to shed any trace of fatalism. Each ending in history heralds a new beginning – and that beginning is identified with human freedom.

A 20th century life

Hannah Arendt denied being a philosopher. And it’s true: she wrote numerous essays that cannot be categorized as being entirely philosophical, historical or journalistic. Rather, they navigate freely between genres. Although she contributed to left-wing American magazines and journals, it’s difficult to say if she was conservative or progressive.

She was born Hanover, Germany, in 1906, to a prosperous, educated and liberal Jewish family. She barely knew her father, who died of syphilis when she was just a child. She grew up in Königsberg – the home of Kant, whose philosophy would become a constant reference in her life. Philosophically, Arendt was schooled by Martin Heidegger.

Arendt’s grandfather – Jacob Cohn – was a Lithuanian who had made his fortune by importing Russian tea. Hannah inherited her mother’s character: brave, independent and proud. Not knowing how to lie, she seemed not to fear anything or anyone. Martha – her mother – would record the evolution of her daughter in a diary. At the age of three, the family moved to Königsberg, so that Hannah’s father could be treated for his illness. Martha and her husband were educated and committed to socialism (illegal in Germany during that period). In the family library, there were Greek and Latin classics, which Hannah read at an early age.

She would pray for her father and forbid her mother from speaking harshly to him. While her parents didn’t practice Judaism, they allowed Hannah’s grandparents to take her to the synagogue. Her paternal grandfather, Max, had worked to integrate Jews into the German state, never having given in to either Zionism or full assimilation. Judaism – more than a faith – evoked a kind of history and culture for Hannah, who couldn’t remember her readings from the Talmud, but enjoyed Sabbath sweets, fish dumplings and singing in the synagogue.

The death of her father strengthened the bond between mother and daughter. She would always seek refuge in Martha – some friends recalled that, even after turning 40, Hannah would snuggle up next to her mother, curled up in a ball, to spend entire evenings with her.

In Königsberg, Martha attended clandestine meetings of German socialists with her daughter in tow. In 1918, the German Communist Party would be born. World War I had ruined Germany… but all was not lost. From the trenches, German philosopher Franz Rozenzweig had written The Star of Redemption – a tract on the relationship between God, humanity and the world – which left a mark on Hannah. The rigor of logic was drowned in its virtue.

Given her upbringing, Arendt would always be skeptical about the possibility of societies undergoing change. Rosa Luxemburg – a German revolutionary socialist and a friend of her mother’s – was murdered in 1919, her body thrown into a canal in Berlin. In Königsberg, Martha took her daughter to a silent rally in memory of the victims of the January Uprising, which saw rioting communists crushed by the government. Hannah was only 13. By 14, she had already read Kant – by 17, she had written her first poems. As an exceptionally talented young woman, she approached philosophy.

World War II had matured the thinkers she was discovering, such as Walter Benjamin, Hans Jonas and Gershom Scholem – they were seeking to understand the torments that plagued their lives and times, analyzing the failure of revolutions, the horror of war, as well as the thin line that separates good from evil. In Berlin, Kierkegaard distanced him from Hegel – he thought that reducing philosophy to a purely conceptual science was a mistake. It meant denying the value of the individual in favor of abstract wholes, such as the people or the state.

Hannah went to study under Martin Heidegger – a German philosopher who would go on to support the Nazi Party. He quickly recognized his student’s intellectual strength. One night, in his office, as she stood up to say goodbye, something unusual occurred. “Suddenly, he knelt down in front of me. I leaned over and he, from his position, raised his arms up towards me and I took his head in my hands: he kissed me and I returned it.” The professor was 35; she was 19. The meetings would continue between the two until shortly before Hannah’s death. She would be a privileged interlocutor as he wrote Being and Time, his magnum opus. Heidegger admired her free and persistent nature, as well as her ability to comfortably sit in silence with him. Their meetings were secret: she accommodated herself to the professor’s busy schedule. Poems were exchanged.

Hans Jonas – a fellow student – also fell in love with Hannah. She rejected him, but they became close friends and confidants. Both shared a taste for theology. Jonas described her as shy and reserved, with striking beauty and lonely eyes. He admired her intellectual poise, her independence and her great vulnerability. Hannah also met the psychiatrist Karl Jaspers around this same period, in 1926. He was drawn to her deep goodness and moral steadfastness. They forged a lifelong friendship. He would supervise her thesis on the concept of love in the writings of Saint Augustine.

At university, Hannah would meet Günther Stern – her first husband – who would bring order to her tormented student life. While they would continue to write to each other for the rest of their lives, she never publicly acknowledged the work they did together. Both Arendt and Stern were unassimilated Jews. They shared the same love for philosophy, the same origins, the same friends and an apartment in Berlin (which they could only occupy at night). During the day, it was rented to a dance school. They were married in a simple ceremony in 1929.

Arendt came into contact with Zionism through Kurt Blumenfeld, who had been her mentor since she was a child. She went to work for a Zionist organization, collecting anti-semitic texts and sending them abroad, to detail what was occurring in the 1930s. She was arrested by the German authorities with compromising documents. She spent eight days in a cell, undergoing interrogations behind closed doors. Through cunning – and by telling absurd stories to the interrogating officer – she managed to be released from detainment, pending trial.

After a farewell party with friends, she fled Nazi Germany with her mother. In the middle of the night, with the help of a Zionist organization, they crossed the border into Czechoslovakia through the Erzgebirge forest. From Prague, they went to Geneva, before finally ending up in Paris, where Hannah was reunited with her husband. However, they found France to be hostile – with high unemployment rates, locals were displeased with German immigrants. Only a few intellectuals – such as Raymon Aron – helped Hannah and her family, as they couldn’t find work and were living in miserable conditions.

During this French exile, Jewish-French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas published a forceful article against Hitlerism, which discussed the new criminality in Germany that had been installed by legal means. It fascinated Hannah – she would make use of this piece while later writing her best-known work, Eichmann in Jerusalem.

Hannah eventually found a job as a secretary in a Zionist organization. To improve her French, she recited Baudelaire; to overcome her despair, she read Kafka. In the cafes, she met Heinrich Blücher – a self-taught German poet and Marxist, who spent his nights playing chess with Walter Benjamin. However, Heinrich preferred avant-garde cinema to socialist realism. He and Hannah philosophized until dawn. Heinrich – who was married – declared his love for her.

Together, they experienced the rise of Nazim with anguish, feeling guilty about the distance from their comrades back in Germany. In the bedroom, they introduced Marxism and Zionism to each other (love means mutual respect). This would begin a conversation that would last until the end of their lives. Meanwhile, they looked after “Benji” (Walter Benjamin) who, in France, was penniless and living like a homeless man. Intellectually exhausted and plagued by depression, Benjamin worked on his Arcades Project – an enormous collection of writings on the city life of Paris in the 19th century. It would never be completed – he died by suicide in 1940, on the French-Spanish border, while trying to escape the invading Wehrmacht.

In France, Hitler’s enemies of German origin were interned in camps. Heinrich was sent to the Villemard camp, on the sole pretext of his German nationality. On June 23, 1940, Hannah entered the Gurs camp, where she lived in despicable conditions with another 9,300 inmates.

French soldiers guarded the wire fences; showering was only allowed every fortnight. Amid the mud, dirt and hunger, Arendt thought that France had locked them up to die. By September, the census of the Jews in the occupied zone began to be taken. The Vichy regime prohibited foreigners from traveling. Hannah, however, managed to escape on foot from Gurs, taking only a toothbrush with her. She found refuge in the city of Montauban, whose socialist mayor welcomed escapees from the camps. Hannah was on the verge of despair when, suddenly, she met Heinrich on the street.

Hannah Arendt with her second husband, Heinrich Blucher.
Hannah Arendt with her second husband, Heinrich Blucher.Fred Stein Archive / GETTY IMAGES

By this point, Europe had become a huge battlefield, filled with concentration camps. Arendt travelled to Marseilles in search of a visa that would allow her to immigrate to the United States. There, exiles were being arrested every day. She moved cautiously, to avoid being caught up in a raid. She would spend entire days at the American consulate. Benjamin had also entrusted her with his manuscript – he wanted her to take it out of the country for him.

Finally, Hannah and Heinrich managed to catch a train to Lisbon, where boats to America were more numerous and visa procedures less draconian. They managed to board a ship – Heinrich travelled in the engine room, while Hannah bunked with the women. In three weeks, they could see Ellis Island. Upon their arrival in New York, neither of them spoke English. Heinrich – who had by then lost faith in the Soviets – still hadn’t renounced his revolutionary ideals. Hannah, 36, didn’t know what to do with her life.

Following his suicide, Benjamin’s body of work was rescued by his friends: Bertold Brecht, Gershom Scholem and Arendt herself. His writings were translated and published in America. Hannah learned English and got a job taking care of an elderly couple. Eventually, she found work as a professor at a college in Brooklyn. She began to publish articles, in which she scolded the American public for its silence regarding the fate of European Jews. While the ghettos in Europe were burning, she pointed out, a Manhattan synagogue was throwing a party in honor of an actor.

In June of 1942, the Wannsee Conference launched the Final Solution. At this point, Hannah began her musings on totalitarianism. She rejected both Hegel and Marx and their ideas about a brighter future. Benjamin inspired her: justice and freedom were a matter of the present, a daily invention, which must constantly be reconquered. She also opposed the concept of Jews being “the chosen people” – she declared herself to be a Zionist, but attacked official Zionism and condemned the behavior of Jewish extremists in Palestine, whom she referred to as fascists. Being a Jew is not a singularity or a burden, she noted, but a moral duty – a commitment to dignity and freedom.

By 1944, Hannah began to more ardently criticize the failed record of Zionism and oppose its policies more strongly. She argued in favor of an agreement with the Arabs and a binational state in the Middle East. She denounced Nazi pacts with the Zionists and blamed them for having done business with Hitler in 1933. The Nazis wanted the Jews out of Germany, while the Zionists wanted them to settle in Palestine. The Haavara Agreement – signed by Nazi Germany and Zionist German Jews – allowed German Jews who emigrated to Palestine to be allowed to take 1,000 pounds with them. This was the sum that the British authorities demanded, in order to settle these emigrants on Palestinian land. Jewish and German insurance companies handled the transfers. The system was operational until the middle of the war – at least 20,000 German Jews took advantage of it.

In 1945, Arendt published Zionism Reconsidered, which angered Zionist circles. In the essay, she expressed her discomfort with the mentality of certain Jews, who had avoided confronting anti-Semitism in Europe. She referenced how many assimilated and comfortable German Jews didn’t come to the defense of the Jews of Eastern Europe during various pogroms throughout history.

Arendt thoroughly researched the responsibility of Jews in the extermination process. Anti-semitism, she argued, wasn’t a race or class issue, but a political issue. For her, Jews were just people like everyone else – the existence of the concentration camps was a warning that this genocidal experiment could be repeated. However, Primo Levi felt that she spoke too lightly about the lack of resistance in the death camps – what right did she have to judge the victims? Despite this, Arendt would never give up her provocative texts, nor lose her ability to put her finger on open wounds. She disapproved of Ben Gurion’s policy in Palestine against the Palestinians, considering him to be a terrorist who expanded the Israeli territories through warfare.

The sources of totalitarianism

In 1951 – barely five years after the end of World War II – Arendt published her seminal work: The Origins of Totalitarianism. A work that, for various reasons, is electrifying today. She analyzed Nazi and Stalinist totalitarianism, but today, her epilogue could be applied to technological totalitarianism. Despite the fact that the philosophical credentials of Nazism and Stalinism aren’t comparable, Arendt established a parallel between the genocide of the Jewish people and the murder of the Russian peasants at the hands of the Bolsheviks, the persecution and systematic destruction of all democratic movements, the internal purges within political parties, the disappearance of intellectuals, artists and dissidents, as well as the suppression of an autonomous civil society

Arendt’s great intuition was that, within totalitarianism, she saw the culmination of the modern idea of the world. This began to take shape as far back as the 17th century, facilitated by the rise of applied science and spurred on by the notion of unlimited economic growth.

These closely-related impulses culminated in the industrial production of death, the obsession with control and the management of fear. Today, unbridled science and technology can lead to the denial of human dignity and freedom.

For Arendt, the main characteristic of modern people is that they don’t necessarily trust the reality of their own experiences. “They don’t trust their eyes or ears, only their imaginations…[which can be configured by the media]. The masses… are predisposed to all ideologies, because they explain facts as mere examples of laws and eliminate coincidences, inventing an all-encompassing omnipotence. Totalitarian propaganda thrives on that flight from reality to fiction, from coincidence to constancy.” Today, there’s a widespread desire to escape from reality.

Arendt went into exile in the United States, but regularly returned to Germany following World War II.
Arendt went into exile in the United States, but regularly returned to Germany following World War II.Fred Stein Archive / GETTY IMAGES

“Total domination aspires to organize the infinite plurality and differentiation of human beings, as if they were a single individual. [This is] something that is only possible if each particular individual is reduced to a never-changing complex of reactions,” Arendt wrote. It’s about eliminating – through scientifically-controlled conditions – spontaneity as an expression of human behavior and transforming people into simple “Pavlovian dogs,” governed by the unique law of conditioned reflex. This is the first step to making all people redundant (i.e., expendable, hackable, programmable).

Ideologies set the groundwork for totalitarianism. And they do it thanks to the “force of logic” and the claim of “total validity.” “In logical systems,” Arendt warns, “like paranoid systems, everything follows understandably – and even compulsorily – once the first premise has been accepted. The folly of such systems lies not only in their premise, but in the logic with which they have been built. The curious logical quality of all isms – their simplistic confidence in the saving grace of stubborn devotion, without attention to specific and variable factors – already harbors the first germs of totalitarian contempt for reality and facts.” Such contempt hides a proud ambition to dominate the world. An ambition that requires the creation of a prefabricated individual (an automaton) and a strong devaluation of reality. The only thing that matters is being consistent. Arendt associates this impulse with the aims of the bourgeoisie and the empire. “With these new structures, built on the force of supersense and driven by the engine of logic, we stand at the end of the bourgeois age of incentive and power, as much as at the end of imperialism and expansion.” Imperialism, like logic, is a force of coercion, be it of the people or of nature.

For Arendt the equation is simple: the idea of a logic of history leads to Stalinist totalitarianism, just as the idea of universal natural laws leads to Nazism. “No ideology that claims to explain all historical events of the past or the delimitation of all future events can withstand the unpredictability that comes from the fact that men are creative; that they can produce something that no one has ever foreseen.” A logical system – like an ideological system – cannot be creative. Its nature is tautological. To impose it on the individual is to curtail the most sacred of the human condition: freedom and creativity. And that’s what totalitarian propaganda does, which, today – in the millennium of technological prodigies – takes the form of “dataism,” or the cult of data. What’s at stake is human nature.

Under this new global manipulation, the totalitarian monster claims to obey positive laws, from which it obtains its legitimacy. It makes natural law absolute – it has ceased to be a human construct, instead becoming an irrevocable law. The Nazis spoke of the law of nature, the Bolsheviks of the law of history, while the technocrats speak of the law of information, which the algorithm makes effective after the digitization of reality.


Arendt – who had been a Zionist – was against the Israeli state’s policies that reproduce the perversities of racist logic. In a letter to her friend Scholem – the great scholar of Hebrew mysticism – she wrote the following: “I have always considered my Jewishness as one of the real and indisputable facts of my life and I have never wanted to change or deny it.” She is not ashamed of being Jewish… but not particularly proud, either. And, regarding her lack of love for Israel, she leaves written a sentence that any lover of freedom would subscribe to: “I am not moved by any ‘love’ of this sort, and for two reasons: I have never in my life ‘loved’ any people or collective – neither the German people, nor the French, nor the American, nor the working class or anything of that sort. I indeed love ‘only’ my friends and the only kind of love I know of and believe in is the love of persons.”

When Hannah turned 60, Heidegger sent her a congratulatory poem by Hölderlin (1770-1843). She replied that his letter was the greatest joy imaginable. The philosopher – upon turning 80 – would recover his university honors. She would oversee the translation of his works in the United States.

In 1970, Heinrich died of a heart attack. Heidegger – with whom she maintained a constant correspondence – would give her the drive and energy to continue living. She would also find solace by reading Eckhart and Iris Murdoch. In 1975, she had her last meeting with the author of Being and Time in Freiburg, Germany. He was old, deaf, distant and inaccessible. She however, continued to be a deep, humane, loyal woman, with a sharp sense of humor.

Hannah Arendt mocked those who would dare predict the future – a custom rooted in the prophetic history of Marxists and Jews. She always believed that the logic of history is a superstition. “We are all afraid of freedom, but we don’t say it,” she lamented. Each person, upon arriving in the world, has the possibility of conquering freedom.

Until she died, she continued to smoke two packs of cigarettes a day. After a coughing fit, Arendt collapsed in her chair. She died as she had lived – together with her friends, for whom she had prepared dinner, in her New York apartment, orderly and bright, facing the Hudson River. Each death is a new beginning, an open window to freedom.

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