“Woman, Jew, Intellectual:” How the Nazi State Saw Hannah Arendt
Wolfram Eilenberger on the Social Construction of the Self Under Totalitarianism
“Normally when I have someone in front of me, I just have to look up the case in our records and I know what to do. But what am I supposed to do with you?” Plainly her name hadn’t yet been recorded in any Gestapo dossier. And even if she had wanted to give the young Gestapo official a helping hand, Hannah Arendt wouldn’t have been able to explain fully why, that May morning, while having breakfast in a café near Alexanderplatz, she and her mother had been thrown into a car and taken for interrogation.
There would have been reasons enough. Her apartment on Opitzstrasse had been used as a hiding place for people subject to political persecution. And then there was the request from her Zionist friend Kurt Blumenfeld, who was a generation older, to assemble “a collection of all the everyday anti-Semitic expressions,” which brought her to the newspaper archive of the Prussian State Library every day. Even collecting such material was illegal by now.
Possibly, however, they were just putting together lists of names—and lists based on such lists—for the purposes of intimidation. Like Bertolt Brecht’s address book, for example. Only a few days after Hitler’s accession to power, the Gestapo seized it from his apartment: a Who’s Who of the communist-inclined intelligentsia of Berlin, which included Arendt’s husband, Günther Stern.
Out of fear of falling into the newly founded Prussian auxiliary police, he fled from Berlin to Paris around the time of the Reichstag fire. For, as if the conflagration on the night of February 27, 1933, had given the long-agreed starting signal, the waves had begun: random arrests, deportations to provisional concentration camps in the surrounding countryside, even urban gymnasiums converted into torture chambers. In Berlin alone there were more than two hundred such places by the summer of that year. Nazi terror had reached everyday life. The number of victims was already in the thousands.
It was more than likely that a Gestapo unit was going through her apartment right at that moment. But what would they find—apart from dozens of notebooks with transcribed quotations in ancient Greek, the poems of Heine and Hölderlin, and countless works about intellectual life in Berlin in the early nineteenth century?
As far as the public records were concerned, she was an impeccable doctor of philosophy with a grant from the Emergency Association of German Science. The classic Berlin existence: academic without an income, journalist without an outlet. Of course, she spent every day in the library. Where else? After all, research never sleeps.
As it turned out, they couldn’t even get anything useful out of Arendt’s mother. Questioned about her daughter’s activities, Martha Beerwald (as she was now) put some words of fine parental solidarity on the record: “No, I don’t know what she was doing, but whatever she was doing she was right to be doing it and I would have done the same.”
They were both released on the day of the arrest. They didn’t even have to call a lawyer. So, lucky for now. But Arendt had made her decision. There was no future in this country. At least not for people like her.
In that first summer, after Hitler’s accession to power, there can have been few clearer illustrations than the example of Hannah Arendt that it wasn’t up to individuals to decide who and what they were. Using the example of the Berliner Rahel Varnhagen, she had been researching the complex dynamics involved in the identity of a German Jew and intellectual at the turn of the eighteenth to the nineteenth century. This yielded the psychological portrait of a woman in whose life the fraught history of educated German Jewry was concentrated in exemplary form—and all in relation to the question of assimilation. In a book assembled in large part as a collage of quotations, Arendt draws the consciousness of a woman whose active denial of her Jewish origins for a long time made it impossible for her to construct a stable relationship with herself and the world. As a person of her time, like Arendt herself, marginalized three times over—woman, Jew, intellectual—Rahel refused to acknowledge herself socially as what she inevitably was and had to remain in the eyes of others; this led to a situation of painfully experienced selflessness. “Rahel’s struggle with the facts, above all the fact of having been born a Jew, very rapidly became a struggle against herself. She herself refused to consent to herself; she, born to so many disadvantages, had to deny, change, reshape by lies this self of hers. Since she could not very well deny her existence out of hand….Once one has negated oneself, however, there are no longer any particular choices. There is only one aim: always, and at any given moment, to be different from what one is.”
For Arendt, the case of Rahel is also exemplary of an entire age in that two forms of necessary courage collide in her situation. On the one hand there is the progressive courage to use one’s own intelligence, and so to define oneself as a creature of reason. But there is also the courage required to acknowledge that this attempt at self-creation is always contingent on historical and cultural conditions, from which no individual can fully escape. In Rahel’s own time, this is expressed in the tension between progressive and romantic ideals of becoming oneself; between reason and history, pride and prejudice, thought and obedience; between the dream of the complete self-determination of the self and one’s ultimately inescapable definition by others.
According to Arendt, progressive reason can “liberate from the prejudices of the past, and it can guide the future. Unfortunately, however, it appears that it can free isolated individuals only, can direct the future only of Crusoes. The individual who has been liberated by reason is always running head-on into a world, a society, whose past in the shape of ‘prejudices’ has a great deal of power; he is forced to learn that past reality is also a reality. Although being born a Jewess might seem to Rahel a mere reference to something out of the remote past, and although she may have entirely eradicated the fact from her thinking, it remained a nasty present reality as a prejudice in the minds of others.”
No human being can escape being subjected to the tension between these forces—and no one should reasonably wish to be able to. And if it were possible, it would mean the loss of everything that deserves to be called world and reality.
The risk of losing the world in the name of a seemingly rational determination—with this reproach directed at Rahel, Arendt was quite deliberately following in the philosophical footsteps of the two academic teachers who had shaped her the most: Martin Heidegger and Karl Jaspers. Even as a student in Marburg, Arendt had been sensitized by Heidegger, with whom she was engaged for several years since 1925 in a relationship, to the blind spots in the modern image of the world and humanity. Human beings, as described by Heidegger in his seminal work Being and Time, were by no means primarily a “subject” gifted with reason, but rather a “Dasein,” a “Being-There,” thrown into the world for no reason. The human being lived as a thinking and above all as an acting being, not in a mute “reality” that they had to supply with meaningful content, but in an “environment” that had always been meaningful to him. For Heidegger, true human autonomy had barely anything to do with purely rational decisions, calculations, or even prescriptive rules, but was rather about the courage required to take hold of one’s own existence at exceptional moments of existential crisis.
In the 1920s, all of these ideas were also floating around the mind of Heidegger’s closest philosophical companion at the time, Karl Jaspers, to whom Arendt presented herself as a doctoral candidate in Heidelberg in 1926. Unlike Heidegger’s, however, Jaspers’s “philosophy of existence” stressed less the power of dark and powerfully isolating states such as fear or the proximity of death, and more the way to a brighter, freer life through communication with and attention to others. This attention was always ideally to be thought of as dialogical, and thus stressed the necessity of an actual interlocutor, which meant that it excluded the faceless “man” (“one”), “the public,” or even “humanity.”
Having fully absorbed these impulses, from the late 1920s Arendt developed her own interpretation of the human situation, which granted her an extremely independent approach toward the case of Rahel Varnhagen. Could Rahel’s situation not have been tailor-made to reveal the pressures that in fact condition every modern existence?
Excerpted from The Visionaries: Arendt, Beauvoir, Rand, Weil, and the Power of Philosophy in Dark Times by Wolfram Eilenberger, translated by Shaun Whiteside. Copyright © 2023. Available from Penguin Press, an imprint of the Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.