German-born Hannah Arendt was a political theorist and philosopher who climbed out of the ivory tower to take direct action against the spread of Fascism. A student
of theology and Greek and the protege/lover of German existentialist philosopher Karl Heidegger, the brilliant student was granted a Ph.D. from the University of Heidelberg at the ripe old age of twenty-two. After a brief arrest by the Gestapo (she was Jewish), she fled to Paris where she worked for a Zionist resistance organization that sent Jewish orphans to Palestine in the hopes of creating a new united Arab-Jewish nation.
By 1940, she had fled to New York where she lived among other immigrants and worked for the Council on Jewish Relations, as an editor for Shocken Books, and served at the head of the Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, which, post-war, collected Jewish writings that had been dispersed by the Nazis. With her first book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, she pointed out the common elements in Nazi and Stalinist philosophies as well as discussing the roots of anti-Semitism and racism through all of Europe. Her subsequent books include On Revolution, The Human Condition, and Thinking and Writing, as well as discussion of the trial of a Nazi war criminal, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, and countless articles and commentaries on such far-reaching subjects as Watergate, Vietnam, and her famous attack on Bertolt Brecht for his “Hymn to Stalin.” The first woman to become a full professor at Princeton, she also taught at various other institutions and translated and edited the works of Franz Kafka.
A serious thinker, she became a very public and controversial figure with her beliefs that revolution and war were the central forces of the twentieth century; that there was little organized resistance on the part of the Jews in Europe; and that the Nazis were not monsters but pragmatic rational people accepting evil commands in a banal manner.
Arendt’s contributions to the intellectual community are beyond calculating. She made an insular forties America and post-war world look deeply at all the possible causes of the Holocaust. According to his article in Makers of Nineteenth Century Culture, Bernard Crick credits Hannah Arendt with “rescue(ing) American intellectuals from an excessive parochiality.”