Biography of Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt was born on October 14th, 1906 in Hanover, Germany. Though Arendt was Jewish, her family was secular and quite invested in assimilation to German society, so this identity did not become important to her until the rise of antisemitism and the Third Reich in her young adult years. After finishing school, Arendt went to the University of Marburg where she studied philosophy under Martin Heidegger. She had a very close romantic relationship with Heidegger, who would eventually come to support the Nazi Party.

Arendt later moved to Berlin, but was barred from continuing her research within the academy due to her Jewish heritage. She continued to research antisemitism while in Berlin regardless until she was briefly arrested by the Gestapo in 1933, after which she moved around Europe before settling in Paris. In Paris she met Walter Benjamin, a Marxist intellectual about whom she would later write a biography, and her second husband. In 1940, the Vichy government of unoccupied France signed an armistice with Germany and began sending Jews to internment camps in south France. Arendt was briefly sent to an internment camp called Camp Gurs until she was able to leave for the United States after a few weeks of internment.

She arrived in New York in 1941 and wrote a column for Aufbau, a Jewish paper written in the German language, until the end of the war. She began working for a Zionist organization to help Jewish refugees and became a US citizen in 1950. She reconnected with Martin Heidegger during this time as she was writing The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), forming another romantic relationship with him that this time lasted about two years, during which she defended his actions during the Nazi regime as well as his theoretical works.

In 1958, Arendt published The Human Condition, in which she investigates the different conditions of man through work, labor and political action.

In 1962, Arendt requested to be sent to the Eichmann Trial in Israel as a reporter for the New Yorker. The report, originally published in 1963, “Eichmann in Jerusalem” was later published as a book and given the subtitle “A Report on the Banality of Evil.” This subtitle highlights what Arendt found so peculiar about Eichmann: he was an overwhelmingly average person with now strong feelings about the atrocities he committed or the people against which they were aimed, rather he conceived of himself as a cog in the machine, merely doing his job. Hitler was, for him, the ultimate moral legislator and thus he thought his own actions were not autonomous. In 1963, Arendt published On Revolution, a comparative analysis of the American and French revolutions which argues that the French revolution gave up the goal of freedom resulting in it becoming a catastrophe when compared to the American revolution. She argues that the French rejected freedom while the American founding fathers upheld it.

Arendt taught at the University of Chicago and The New School in Manhattan and served as a visiting professor at many other universities. She died of a heart attack on December 4th, 1975 and was buried next to her husband. Her last book, The Life of the Mind, was published posthumously after her death. Her other significant works include an essay entitled On Violence and a collection of biographical essays called Men in Dark Times.

Study Guides on Works by Hannah Arendt