Hannah Arendt, born in 1906 into a German-Jewish secular family, was arrested and questioned by the Gestapo for eight days in 1933. She left Germany illegally and eventually reached New York where she began to learn English. Within a decade she had written her major work, “The origins of totalitarianism”.
Questions of Zionism and the situation of refugees preoccupied her during the 1930s and ‘40s. With prescience, she saw statelessness as ‘the newest mass phenomenon in contemporary history’ and distinguished between ‘nation’ and ‘state’. She understood ‘nation’ as the culture and language of the dominant group living within a specified territory; ‘state’ as the legal status of persons living in a territory. As the author of “Why read Hannah Arendt now?” observes, the mantra of right-wing nationalist parties is that only those who ‘properly’ belong to a nation’s culture deserve full legal rights.
Arendt was critical of Zionism and its wilful ignorance of the Arabs living in the land proclaimed as Jewish. Strenuously opposing Zionist calls for a Jewish state that would embrace the whole of Palestine, she called for a Jewish homeland in Palestine – not a Jewish nation-state.
She predicted what would happen if the Jews won the 1948 Arab-Israeli war: the ‘winners’ would ‘live surrounded by an entirely hostile Arab population, secluded inside ever-threatened borders, absorbed with physical self-defense’ – a succinct description of the Middle East problem.
Bernstein’s little book (124 pages) book does not sidestep Arendt’s inability to see the relevance of Zionist racism to the experience of Blacks in America. She did not object to social discrimination, seeing it as a personal, apolitical preference.
‘The banality of evil’ has become Arendt’s most famous term, used to describe the major Holocaust-organizer Eichmann when he appeared on trial in Israel in 1961. She observed his ordinariness and saw him as less of a monstrous ideologue than someone who hadn’t the ‘imagination’, as she put it, to realize what he was doing. She was not exonerating him or advancing a thesis about Nazism but trying to understand how some people’s ‘extraordinary shallowness’ facilitated the carrying out of hideous acts.
Arendt underestimated Eichmann’s personal commitment to the Holocaust but Bernstein explains the importance of not simplifying terrible events by recourse to neo-theological terms like evil. Terrible events should not be mythologized and attributed to demonic forces. Bernstein says we should face up to the fact that it’s not just monsters who plan and carry out awful deeds and seeing the banality of horrendous acts is part of the human landscape which we now inhabit.
The practice of sustained lying was not invented by Trump. Arendt writes about the way false news becomes accepted as reality, how politics is a struggle for power and how violence is the ultimate power. Empowerment is not the same as violence and can be organized by groups seeking public good.
“Why read Hannah Arendt now? is a very readable and instructive introduction to the ideas of an important thinker relevant to our times.
“Why read Hannah Arendt now?, by Richard J. Bernstein, is published by Polity