Translated by Alice Menzies
Review by Karen Langley
The concept of “the banality of evil”, coined by philosopher Hannah Arendt, has become famous (some might say notorious) since she developed the phrase after watching the 1961 trial of the Nazi Adolf Eichmann. Broadly speaking, she rejected the idea that the WW2 atrocities had been carried out by evil beings; instead, she believed that these were ordinary functionaries, simply carrying out their orders, and this has influenced modern thinking on radicalisation and brainwashing. It was, and still is, a controversial concept. However, Arendt was an intriguing thinker who spent much of her life trying to understand some of the biggest issues humanity faced; and her life itself was extremely eventful. A newly-translated biography of Arendt takes a look at how her life and work intersected, and it makes fascinating reading.
Hannah Arendt was born to a German Jewish family in 1906, growing up in Linden, then Königsberg. Her father died when she was seven, from syphilis contracted in his youth, and Hannah was raised by a mother who was a strong supporter of the Social Democrats. A pivotal point in her life was when she studied at the University of Marburg; here she met the philosopher Martin Heidegger, who as well as being her tutor was also for a while her lover. That affair, and the connection with Heidegger, remained a touchstone throughout her life.
Arendt fled Germany, settling eventually in Paris for a while. She again had to flee in 1941, with her second husband Heinrich Blücher, and they found their way to the United States where Arendt made her home in New York for most of the rest of her life. Here she wrote the books which made her name, becoming something of a public intellectual, as well as teaching at a number of universities. She died in 1975.
Ann Heberlein is a Swedish academic and author who’s written widely on theology and ethics, and her approach to Arendt is an interesting one. While relating the experiences of Arendt’s life, Heberlein explores the development of her beliefs and philosophy, showing how the two were often intertwined.
Heberlein also explores many of Arendt’s friendships in detail; notably, of course, Heidegger, but also Karl Jaspers, Mary McCarthy and, most touchingly, Walter Benjamin. The parts of the book covering her friendship with the latter are moving, and the tragedy of his loss is striking. The despair which engulfed him at the loss of his library is one which will be recognised by all bibliophiles; as Heberlein comments:
A collection of books is far more than physical objects: it represents an entire world. The books we read, with exclamation points scrawled in margins, underlined words and folded corners, form an intellectual universe that takes years, possibly even an entire lifetime, to amass. How was Walter expected to start a new library from scratch?
The philosophical digressions perhaps take priority on occasions, and there were times when I felt the book’s touch on Arendt’s life was too light; for example, we never really learned much about how she actually became such a noted intellectual in the USA, or detail about her life there – it was merely mentioned in passing at a later date. Instead of providing a more detailed biography, Heberlein has chosen to consider Arendt in the main in relation to her philosophy and her relationship with Heidegger, which is an interesting take on her subject.
It has to be said that this is a very personal book; Heberlein refers to her subject as ‘Hannah’ all the way through (also using first names for most of the other participants in her story) and it’s clear she feels a strong connection and wish to understand. The author identifies the most important elements in Arendt’s life as being love and evil, and certainly both feature strongly in this book. Arendt’s actions are not always consistent or logical or morally excusable; her love for Heidegger continued throughout her life even after he displayed anti-Semitic views, and was proven to have been a member of the Nazi party. Heberlein does, it has to be said, slightly gloss over this, opining that “he sympathized with Nazi ideology, but he had no blood on his hands.” But human beings are not consistent and are subject to emotions – Hannah Arendt was no different from others in this, and moral absolutes are often hard to apply. She also expressed views which have been problematic over the years and I would have liked to see Heberlein discuss this aspect.
Nevertheless, On Love and Tyranny is an accessible introduction to Arendt’s life and thought; the tone is breezy, readable, even gossipy in places, and the exploration of the philosophies clear (though the book would have benefited, I feel, from some illustrations). Whether or not you accept her definition of the “banality of evil”, Arendt lived and survived through turbulent times, witnessing one of the worst periods of 20th century history and bringing her intellect to bear in trying to understand it; and Heberlein’s book would be a good place to start if you want to explore the life and thoughts of this intriguing philosopher.
Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and thinks that evil may be banal, but there’s too much of it about right now…
Ann Heberlein, Dancing On Love and Tyranny: The Life and Politics of Hannah Arendt (Pushkin Press, 2021). 978-1782276098, 300pp., hardback.
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