Hannah Arendt


Political thinker in the postwar Atlantic World

The political theorist Hannah Arendt was a transmigrant in the most paradigmatic sense: she was at home in several places, took part and created transatlantic networks, and referred to multiple cultural, political, and social fields of belonging. In her novel “Das zweite Paradies” (1968), the German-Jewish author Hilde Domin, who herself spent 22 years in exile, described Arendt’s home as situated “on the Atlantic”—in between America and Europe—because belonging completely to both continents at the same time was impossible. Long after Arendt’s 1941 flight to the United States, a country which she soon appreciated as her new and permanent home, she maintained close ties to Germany both professionally and privately. Particularly in the early postwar period, she was strongly committed to the development of transatlantic political and intellectual relations. On the one hand, she played an important role in the work of an international Jewish agency situated in New York called Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, Inc. (JCR), negotiating with German officials about matters of cultural restitution. On the other hand, through regular publications in German journals, she attempted to integrate a migrant Jewish—or sometimes simply an American—perspective into Germany’s public debate about progress towards a democratic future in the postwar years.

A Transatlantic Biography

Hannah Arendt, born in 1906 close to Hannover in Germany, was raised by a secular, bourgeois German-Jewish family. After studying philosophy, theology, and philology in Marburg, Freiburg, and Heidelberg with such eminent professors as Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, and Karl Jaspers, she started a promising academic career and received her doctorate in 1928. But her professional path was harshly interrupted by the takeover of the Nazi regime in 1933. She felt an urge to engage politically, and together with the German Jewish Zionist Kurt Blumfeld, started to collect materials on Nazi measures against the Jews. Her opposition quickly forced her into exile. After being briefly captured by the Gestapo, Arendt managed to flee via Prague and Geneva to Paris, where she committed herself to several Jewish political projects related to rescuing and settling young Jews in Palestine. She was involved in the German émigré circles of Paris and met her second husband Heinrich Blücher, whom she married in 1940, there. Having lost her German citizenship in 1937, Arendt was interned in 1940 as an enemy alien in the French internment camp of Gurs, but was able to escape after a few weeks. She was reunited with her husband in the south of France and together they fled through Spain and Portugal and, with the aid of the Emergency Rescue Committee, on to the United States.

Arendt and Blücher arrived in New York in 1941 and began a new life. Arendt embarked on a well-documented academic career and became one of the most famous female intellectuals of the twentieth century. Less well known is her dedication during the war years and the early postwar period to several international Jewish organizations. Salo Wittmayer Baron—who held the first American chair for Jewish history, literature, and institutions at Columbia University—had offered to help her publish her first English language article, and in the early 1940s hired her as a research coordinator for his newly established Commission on European Jewish Cultural Reconstruction (‘Commission’). For some ten years, Arendt engaged with this international Jewish organization—a transatlantic network of very specific character.

Only in the 1950s did she take up her academic career again. In the years that followed, she held professorships at several American universities including Princeton, Chicago, and the New York New School for Social Research. Her attendance at the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem 1961 and her report recounting the proceedings sparked a public debate that made her a controversial figure to many. Subsequently, she slowly withdrew from the political sphere and, until the end of her life in 1975, devoted herself to teaching and writing.

Reconstructing Jewish Culture: Postwar Political Commitment in New York

From 1941 onwards, Arendt followed the heated political discussions among Jewish organizations in the United States over the possibilities and constraints of retributive justice, which to them and the American Government counted as one of the most important aspects of postwar reconciliation in Germany. In the summer of 1944 she joined Baron’s Commission—a circle of Jewish academics from New York who aimed to set up an international Jewish trustee corporation to take care of the millions of cultural objects looted by the Nazis that American and British soldiers had found on their way into the German Reich. This group, mainly consisting of refugees from Europe, initiated an unprecedented operation of salvage for what was left of European Jewish cultural heritage. Here, Hannah Arendt found her very first appointment in the United States and quickly developed into one of the organization’s most active leaders. She prepared for the restitution procedures by heading a research team in its painstaking efforts to gather all available information about the prewar holdings of Jewish museum, library, and synagogue collections and their fate during the German occupation. She also took part in establishing the resulting corporation, the Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, Inc. (JCR), that consisted of the most important Jewish political, social, and welfare organizations in Europe, America, and Israel of the time. In February 1949, JCR was officially authorized by the American government to work as a trustee for heirless Jewish cultural property found on German territory. Representing JCR, Arendt traveled to Germany twice in 1949 and 1952 to negotiate with German officials.

Her work for JCR in Germany put her in the role of a mediator. Arendt’s personal networks profoundly contributed to her work with JCR, proving crucial for gathering information on restitution issues. Arendt’s old friend from Königsberg, the Jewish classicist Ernst Grumach, had been forced to work as a librarian in the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (Reich Security Head Office) and after the war knew the whereabouts of some stolen library and archival collections. She was also acquainted with Franz Böhm who later led the German delegation at the negotiations with Israel and the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany in the Netherlands that concerned indemnification and restitution matters and led to the Luxemburg Treaties in 1952. Because of these contacts and her German language skills, Arendt was chosen to take part in discussions with German museum and library directors, archivists, art-historians, local politicians, and members of German ministries about the looted Jewish cultural objects in the possession of German institutions. During her two trips to Germany, she tried to influence German restitution legislation by attempting to convince political representatives of its importance in coming to terms with the past. Arendt wanted to raise awareness of the systematic looting that had taken place as part of the extermination process and tried to promote laws which would force German cultural institutions to restore all seized object of Jewish provenance to Jewish owners or to the trustee corporation.

Advocating for restitution was in some ways a frustrating experience for Arendt and, apart from a 1949 formal appeal by the association of German librarians calling for provenance research in the German libraries, she was not very successful. Most of the people she dealt with shied away from a confrontation with the Nazi crimes. Still, JCR came to possess more than half a million Jewish books and documents that were found by American troops and whose former owners could not be identified or were killed. These books, together with several thousand ritual objects, were distributed among Jewish communities and institutions worldwide. In addition, millions of looted cultural items were returned to their owners by the American Military Government in Germany that cooperated with JCR. In broader political terms, JCR’s work was also important because it built the ground for the later, far-reaching negotiations between Jewish representatives and Germany in the Luxemburg Treaties. All in all, the cultural restitution initiative in the early postwar years was the most successful ever. However, as can still be seen today, it only reached a fraction of what was looted, much of which is still located in German and Austrian private collections, museums, and libraries. As can be deduced from Arendt’s reports and letters, her work for JCR gave her a clear view of Germany’s postwar society, its persisting antisemitism, and the overall moral, political, cultural, and physical devastation. Her experiences in Europe built the basis for her famous essay “The Aftermath of Nazi Rule: Report from Germany” which called for a federated Europe that would come to terms with its destructive past, and her trips served as a kind of empirical fieldwork for her writing on totalitarianism. Confronting Europe after 1945 reaffirmed her decision never to remigrate, while simultaneously convincing her to enter the German public life through writing instead.

Intellectual Reeducation in Germany: Writing for Die Wandlung

Arendt’s work as a transatlantic emissary was not limited to the political-juridical level. She also sought to influence German public discussions, particularly those about the Nazi past. For example, in the immediate years after 1945 Arendt contributed nine essays to the newly created journal Die Wandlung which was edited by, among others, Karl Jaspers and Dolf Sternberger, the latter of which was an old classmate of Arendt. With the journal, they aimed to establish a liberal forum of exchange about the German past and to stimulate an open debate on the rebuilding of a democratic political culture in Germany. Arendt seemed like a perfect contributor because both editors were keen on resurrecting an international network that also included émigré intellectuals. She used Die Wandllung as a medium to publicize her thorough analysis of national socialism and its broader implications for the future coexistence of Jews and non-Jews, as well as the future of Europe as a whole. Such a confrontation with the past, Arendt believed, offered the only way to form a new and sustainable democratic political culture in Germany. Her articles always reflected her specific background as German Jewish expellee and often referred to her personal history of flight, exile, and statelessness in the United States.

Yet the resonance of her early writings was limited, because they did not fit into the broader German discourse which was more apologetic and defensive. The dissonance between the critical voices and standpoints offered in Die Wandlung and the general desire of German society to “return to normal” as quickly as possible also caused the journal cease publication in 1949 for lack an audience. But Arendt maintained her presence in Germany through written interventions and publications. Journals such as Der Monat and Merkur provided her with forums for discussion. She inserted a Jewish voice, influenced by her transatlantic experience, into the ongoing German public debates on its past and future. Arendt’s contributions—covering a broad range of topics that included the question of German guilt, the “essence of terror” in the concentration camps, and the relationship between modern mass culture and totalitarian movements—can be considered transatlantic in the sense that her thinking often referred to “American” topics and methods which she fruitfully combined with her European philosophical and political traditions. The growing field of human rights and the republican model of nation-building played an important role in her political theory both as she dealt with socio-scientific methods for the description of political reality since entering the American academic sphere.

Arendt’s magnum opus, the Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), offers a synthesis of her deliberations during the war- and early postwar-years while also shows the growing Cold War tensions that significantly influenced intellectual thinking in the United States at the time. She took part in the growing discussion about totalitarianism—most vividly represented by the 1953 conference on totalitarianism organized by Carl J. Friedrich and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and by the writing of famous émigré scholars including Ernst Fraenkel and Franz L. Neumann—the aim of which was to come to a universal interpretation of Stalinism and National Socialism by comparing the structural and ideological similarities between the two. Arendt, however, took a unique stand here: even though she applied universal categories to the historical events, she did not blur their individual characteristics and instead shed lights on the political and ideological distinctions between the two regimes of “total domination.” Differing from many other studies on totalitarianism, Arendt’s work is based on the collective Jewish experience of destruction; as Steven Aschheim emphasizes, “it is Nazism and Auschwitz—far more than the Soviet experience—that animates the Origins” (1997: 126).

Until her death in 1975, Arendt lived a life between the United States and Europe, taking an active part in their respective intellectual and political cultures, serving as a translator and mediator between the two.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Hannah Arendt
  • Coverage 1906–1975
  • Author
  • Keywords Hannah Arendt, Totalitarianism, Jewish, Reparation, Eichmann Trail, War Crimes, Political Theory, Emergency Rescue Committee, Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, Claims Commission, Die Wandlung, Nazism
  • Website Name Transatlantic Perspectives
  • URL
  • Access Date June 14, 2024
  • Publisher German Historical Institute
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update July 27, 2018