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Hannah Arendt: The Last Interview: And Other Conversations (The Last Interview Series) Paperback – December 3, 2013
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"We are still living in Hannah Arendt's world... It is hard to name a thinker of the twentieth century more sought after as a guide to the dilemmas of the twenty-first." —Adam Kirsch,The New Yorker
“The combination of tremendous intellectual power with great common sense makes Miss Arendt’s insight into history and politics seem both amazing and obvious.” —Mary McCarthy
“[Arendt] took responsibility for observing the inhuman uses of power and for summoning her generation to judgment and action.” —Samantha Power, The New York Review of Books
About the Author
HANNAH ARENDT (1906-1975) was one of the foremost political philosophers of the twentieth century. She fled Europe for the United States in 1941 and spent her career as a professor at a number of American universities, including the New School for Social Research and University of Chicago. She is best known for her books The Origins of Totalitarianism and Eichmann in Jerusalem.
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Arendt offers some insights into her view of her own work. For example, she didn't consider herself a "philosopher" because that seemed to be too masculine an occupation for her:
//ARENDT: I am afraid I have to protest. I do not belong to the circle of philosophers. My profession, if one can even speak of it at all, is political theory. I neither feel like a philosopher, nor do I believe that I have been accepted in the circle of philosophers, as you so kindly suppose. But to speak of the other question that you raised in your opening remarks: you say that philosophy is generally thought to be a masculine occupation. It does not have to remain a masculine occupation! It is entirely possible that a woman will one day be a philosopher …*//
Arendt, Hannah (2013-12-03). Hannah Arendt: The Last Interview: And Other Conversations (Kindle Locations 52-56). Melville House. Kindle Edition.
To us, in this day and age, this sounds so very "quaint."
Arendt considered herself a "political theorist," albeit I think she was far too modest.
A fascinating feature of these interviews is that they provide an access to Arendt's experience of history, which is so very different from our experience. For example, for anyone living today, the idea that there was a time when we didn't know about Auschwitz is easy to forget, and with it the difference between the shock of 1933 and the shock of 1943:
//ARENDT: Yes, very frequently. I have seen it in people as a result of shock. You know, what was decisive was not the year 1933, at least not for me. What was decisive was the day we learned about Auschwitz.
GAUS: When was that?
ARENDT: That was in 1943. And at first we didn’t believe it— although my husband and I always said that we expected anything from that bunch. But we didn’t believe this because militarily it was unnecessary and uncalled for. My husband is a former military historian, he understands something about these matters. He said don’t be gullible, don’t take these stories at face value. They can’t go that far! And then a half year later we believed it after all, because we had the proof. That was the real shock. Before that we said: Well, one has enemies. That is entirely natural. Why shouldn’t a people have enemies? But this was different. It was really as if an abyss had opened. Because we had the idea that amends could somehow be made for everything else, as amends can be made for just about everything at some point in politics. But not for this. This ought not to have happened. And I don’t mean just the number of victims. I mean the method, the fabrication of corpses and so on— I don’t need to go into that. This should not have happened. Something happened there to which we cannot reconcile ourselves. None of us ever can. About everything else that happened I have to say that it was sometimes rather difficult: we were very poor, we were hunted down, we had to flee, by hook or by crook we somehow had to get through, and whatever. That’s how it was. But we were young. I even had a little fun with it— I can’t deny it. But not this. This was something completely different. Personally I could accept everything else.
Arendt, Hannah (2013-12-03). Hannah Arendt: The Last Interview: And Other Conversations (Kindle Locations 291-305). Melville House. Kindle Edition.
Likewise, consider Arendt's experience of the Nazi's in 1933:
//ARENDT: Yes. I was found out. I was very lucky. I got out after eight days because I made friends with the official who arrested me. He was a charming fellow! He’d been promoted from the criminal police to a political division. He had no idea what to do. What was he supposed to do? He kept saying to me, “Ordinarily I have someone there in front of me, and I just check the file, and I know what’s going on. But what shall I do with you?”
GAUS: That was in Berlin?
ARENDT: That was in Berlin. Unfortunately, I had to lie to him. I couldn’t let the organization be exposed. I told him tall tales, and he kept saying, “I got you in here. I shall get you out again. Don’t get a lawyer! Jews don’t have any money now. Save your money!” Meanwhile the organization had gotten me a lawyer. Through members, of course. And I sent this lawyer away. Because this man who arrested me had such an open, decent face. I relied on him and thought that here was a much better chance than with some lawyer who himself was afraid.
GAUS: And you got out and could leave Germany?
ARENDT: I got out, but had to cross the border illegally … my name had not been cleared.
Arendt, Hannah (2013-12-03). Hannah Arendt: The Last Interview: And Other Conversations (Kindle Locations 135-146). Melville House. Kindle Edition.
What an amazing experience, and how odd to think of a Jew trusting a Nazi because he had an "open, decent face."
The experience of betrayal by the academic community - and, although she doesn't name him, presumably Martin Heidegger - created a pragmatic view about intellectuals:
//GAUS: You mean that the shock in 1933 came from the fact that events went from the generally political to the personal?
ARENDT: Not even that. Or, that too. First of all, the generally political became a personal fate when one emigrated. Second … friends “coordinated” or got in line. The problem, the personal problem, was not what our enemies did but what our friends did. In the wave of Gleichschaltung (coordination),‖ which was relatively voluntary— in any case, not yet under the pressure of terror— it was as if an empty space formed around one. I lived in an intellectual milieu, but I also knew other people. And among intellectuals Gleichschaltung was the rule, so to speak. But not among the others. And I never forgot that. I left Germany dominated by the idea— of course somewhat exaggerated: Never again! I shall never again get involved in any kind of intellectual business. I want nothing to do with that lot. Also I didn’t believe then that Jews and German Jewish intellectuals would have acted any differently had their own circumstances been different. That was not my opinion. I thought that it had to do with this profession, with being an intellectual. I am speaking in the past tense. Today I know more about it …
GAUS: I was just about to ask you if you still believe that.
ARENDT: No longer to the same degree. But I still think that it belongs to the essence of being an intellectual that one fabricates ideas about everything. No one ever blamed someone if he “coordinated” because he had to take care of his wife or child. The worst thing was that some people really believed in Nazism! For a short time, many for a very short time. But that means that they made up ideas about Hitler, in part terrifically interesting things! Completely fantastic and interesting and complicated things! Things far above the ordinary level! I found that grotesque. Today I would say that they were trapped by their own ideas. That is what happened. But then, at that time, I didn’t see it so clearly.
Arendt, Hannah (2013-12-03). Hannah Arendt: The Last Interview: And Other Conversations (Kindle Locations 238-255). Melville House. Kindle Edition.
Arendt offers some keen insights into freedom and totalitarianism which are still pertinent today, although perhaps not as much as they were in the 1960s and 1970s.
This book is an easy read and quite refreshing in terms of its unhurried, deeply reflective, rationality.
She also speaks in these interviews about the political situation in America in the sixties, about the 'banality of evil' and makes to my mind a mistaken defense of the concept trying to claim that one of the great mass- murderers in history was merely a buffoon. At another point she speaks about herself as a political thinker and not a philosopher raising the somewhat 'dated question' of whether a woman can really be a philosopher.
This is not a major work on Arendt or of Arendt but it does add information.