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Philosopher's Influence Still Felt in All Corners of the World

October 26, 2006 By:
Rachel Silverman, JE Staff
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Elisabeth Young-Bruehl

If Hannah Arendt -- the great German-born political philosopher -- were alive today, she would be disappointed in U.S. policies and feel alienated from American culture, stated her biographer, friend and former student Elisabeth Young-Bruehl.

Speaking at the University of Pennsylvania, Young-Bruehl likened the United States to the totalitarian regimes that Arendt spent so much time describing.

In what is perhaps Arendt's most enduring work, The Origins of Totalitarianism, she argued that Nazi Germany and Stalin's Soviet Union grew out of an imperialist dogma:

According to Arendt, the "mentality of imperialists" fostered "a breakdown in political consciousness and moral consciousness," said Young-Bruehl.

And this void laid the groundwork for a government not only bent on pursuing terror outwardly, but also one that would "end up destroying the internal life" of a nation, continued Young-Bruehl, paraphrasing her mentor's words.

Young-Bruehl said that the United States, which "has unabashedly embraced imperialism," is headed down that very same path.

"That's exactly, I think, what we see happening in our very own country now, in the last five years," she said. "I'm sure that if Hannah Arendt were alive today, she would see it that way."

'Many Good Fights'

While such hypotheticals are difficult to prove, they are significant in that they come from this longtime friend of the German philosopher.

The two met back in the '70s, when Arendt, a professor at the New School for Social Research in New York City, agreed to accept Young-Bruehl as a graduate student. And as the student remembers it, Arendt was at first an intimidating figure.

" 'Good, I'm so glad you're coming. We're going to have many good fights,' " said Young-Bruehl, impersonating her mentor's thick German accent.

Today, this woman -- aside from being Arendt's biographer -- is a scholar in her own right. She holds a post at the Columbia Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research, and is a practicing psychoanalyst in Manhattan. Her most recent work, Why Arendt Matters, is timed to coincide with the centennial of Arendt's birth.

Young-Bruehl described the philosopher as someone repelled by surface-level analysis. She valued individualism, rancorous debate and carefully calculated arguments, according to her biographer.

"She felt that if you weren't a pariah, you didn't really know how to think."

Arendt's nonconformity often won her notoriety.

In 1963, she covered the Adolf Eichmann trial in Israel for The New Yorker, and later turned the articles into the bookEichmann in Jerusalem. There, she coined the phrase "the banality of evil" in regard to the straightforward and bureaucratic nature of this official's relation to the duty of mass murder, explained Young-Bruehl.

Such depictions elicited many icy reactions.

"It only seemed tolerable ... that this was the work of demons," said Young-Bruehl.

Arendt's judgment also came under fire when it was discovered that she had an ongoing correspondence with Martin Heidegger, a German philosopher who had allied himself with Nazi ideology. Arendt had had an affair with Heidegger as a young student in Germany and, though they found themselves on opposite ends of the political spectrum with the rise of Nazism, she continued to write to him after World War II.

Young-Bruehl characterized theirs as a "rocky relationship," in which Arendt heralded Heidegger (a "magnificent philosopher") while also believing him to be a "mendacious, childish man."

"There's always this rumor," began Young-Bruehl, "that Hannah Arendt whitewashed Martin Heidegger's Nazi past. That's completely false."

In fact, the speaker described Arendt as someone "very secure" in her Jewish identity.

Arendt aided Jewish refugees in France before the war and, after fleeing to the United States, she helped return looted Jewish cultural treasures to their rightful owners.

A prominent member of American intellectual circles, Arendt wrote for the the German language weekly Aufbau, and helped to make The New York Review of Books "the organ of political concern," explained Young-Bruehl.

Arendt also spoke out against what she saw as elements of totalitarianism in the free world -- McCarthyism, the Vietnam war, lying in the Pentagon Papers.

Moreover, her writing continues to cause a stir, having played a heavy role in the "velvet revolutions" throughout Eastern Europe and the anti-war movement of the 1970s.

Her work has even found an audience among Chinese political dissidents today: A publisher in the Asian nation told Young-Bruehl that her Arendt biography has recently been flying off the shelves.

"She is very important to political activists of all sorts. It's not just academics, but activists who are indebted to her."

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