On top, the judges, the best of German Jewry. Below them, the prosecuting attorneys, Galicians, but still Europeans. Everything is organized by a police force that gives me the creeps, speaks only Hebrew, and looks Arabic. Some downright brutal types among them. They would obey any order. And outside the doors, the oriental mob, as if one were in Istanbul or some other half-Asiatic country.
After completing her high school studies in 1924, she enrolled at the University of Marburg, where she spent a year studying philosophy with Martin Heidegger. According to Hans Jonas, her only German-Jewish classmate, in her year at the university, Arendt began a long and problematic romantic relationship with Heidegger, for which she was later criticized because of his support for the Nazi Party while he was rector at the University of Freiburg. After a year at Marburg, Arendt spent a semester at Freiburg University, attending the lectures of Edmund Husserl. In 1926 she moved to the University of Heidelberg, where in 1929, she completed her dissertation under the existentialist philosopher-psychologist Karl Jaspers. Her thesis was Der Liebesbegriff bei Augustin: Versuch einer philosophischen Interpretation("On the concept of love in the thought of Saint Augustine: Attempt at a philosophical interpretation").
In 1929, in Berlin, the year her dissertation was published, she married Günther Stern, later known as Günther Anders. They divorced in 1937. In 1932, Arendt was deeply troubled by reports that Heidegger was speaking at National Socialist meetings. She wrote, asking him to deny that he was attracted to National Socialism. Heidegger replied that he did not seek to deny the rumors (which were true), and merely assured her that his feelings for her were unchanged. As a Jew in Nazi Germany, Arendt was prevented from making a living and discriminated against. She researched antisemitism for some time before being arrested and briefly imprisoned by the Gestapo in 1933.
In 1933, Arendt left Germany for Czechoslovakia and then Geneva, where she worked for some time at the League of Nations. Then, in Paris, she befriended her first husband's cousin, the Marxist literary critic and Philosopher, Walter Benjamin. While in France, she worked to help Jewish refugees. In 1937, she was stripped of her German citizenship. In 1940, she married the German poet and Marxist Philosopher, Heinrich Blücher, a founding member of the KPD who had been expelled due to his work in the Conciliator faction. In May 1940, after the German Invasion of France, Arendt was interned as an "enemy alien" in Camp Gurs, but she managed to escape before the Germans reached the area.
Arendt left France in 1941 with her husband and her mother, traveling via Portugal to the United States. They relied on visas illegally issued by the American diplomat Hiram Bingham, who aided roughly 2,500 Jewish refugees in this way. Varian Fry, another American humanitarian, paid for their travel and helped obtain the visas. Upon arriving in New York, Arendt became active in the German-Jewish community. From 1941 to 1945, she wrote a column for the German-language Jewish newspaper Aufbau. Beginning in 1944, she was the Director of research for the Commission of European Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, and in that capacity traveled to Europe after the war.
Arendt was born into a secular family of German Jews in Linden (now a part of Hanover), the daughter of Martha (born Cohn) and Paul Arendt. She grew up in Königsberg (renamed Kaliningrad when it was annexed to the Soviet Union in 1946) and Berlin. Arendt's family was thoroughly assimilated and she later remembered: "With us from Germany, the word 'assimilation' received a 'deep' philosophical meaning. You can hardly realize how serious we were about it."
In 1950, Arendt became a naturalized citizen of the United States. The same year, she started seeing Martin Heidegger again, and had what the American Writer Adam Kirsch called a "quasi-romance," that lasted for two years, with the man who had previously been her mentor, Teacher, and lover. During this time, Arendt defended him against critics who noted his enthusiastic membership in the Nazi party. She portrayed Heidegger as a naïve man swept up by forces beyond his control, and pointed out that Heidegger's philosophy had nothing to do with National Socialism. She served as a visiting scholar at the University of Notre Dame, University of California, Berkeley, Princeton University, and Northwestern University. In 1959, she was named the first female lecturer at Princeton. She also taught at the University of Chicago from 1963 to 1967, where she was a member of the Committee on Social Thought; The New School in Manhattan where she taught as a university professor from 1967 until her death in 1975; Yale University, where she was a fellow, as well as the Center for Advanced Studies at Wesleyan University (1961–62, 1962–63).
Arendt's first major book, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), examined the roots of Communism and Nazism. In it, Arendt argues that totalitarianism was a "novel form of government," different from other forms of tyranny in that it applied terror to subjugate mass populations rather than just political adversaries. The book was opposed by some on the left on the grounds that it presented the two movements as equally tyrannical. She further contends that Jewry was not the operative factor in the Holocaust, but merely a convenient proxy. Totalitarianism in Germany was, in the end, about terror and consistency, not eradicating Jews only.
In what is arguably her most influential work, The Human Condition (1958), Arendt differentiates political and social concepts, labor and work, and various forms of actions; she then explores the implications of those distinctions. Her theory of political action, corresponding to the existence of a public realm, is extensively developed in this work. Arendt argues that, while human life always evolves within societies, the social part of human nature, political life, has been intentionally realized in only a few societies as a space for individuals to achieve freedom. Conceptual categories, which attempt to bridge the gap between ontological and sociological structures, are sharply delineated. While Arendt relegates labor and work to the realm of the social, she favors the human condition of action as that which is both existential and aesthetic.
In her reporting of the 1961 Adolf Eichmann trial for The New Yorker, which evolved into Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963), she coined the phrase "the banality of evil" to describe the phenomenon of Eichmann. She examined the question of whether evil is radical or simply a function of thoughtlessness, a tendency of ordinary people to obey orders and conform to mass opinion without a critical evaluation of the consequences of their actions. She was sharply critical of the way the trial was conducted in Israel. She also was critical of the way that some Jewish Leaders, notably M. C. Rumkowski, acted during the Holocaust. This caused a considerable controversy and even animosity toward Arendt in the Jewish community. Her friend Gershom Scholem, a major scholar of Jewish mysticism, broke off relations with her. Arendt was criticized by many Jewish public figures, who charged her with coldness and lack of sympathy for the victims of the Holocaust. Because of this lingering criticism neither this book nor any of her other works were translated into Hebrew, until 1999. This controversy was answered by Hannah Arendt in the book's Postscript.
In 1974, Arendt was instrumental in the creation of Structured Liberal Education (SLE) at Stanford University. She wrote a letter to the President of Stanford to persuade the university to enact Mark Mancall's vision of a residentially-based humanities program.
Arendt died in New York City on 4 December 1975, at the age of 69, of a heart attack. She was buried alongside her husband, Heinrich Blücher, at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York.
In the intended third volume of The Life of Mind, Arendt was planning to engage the faculty of judgment, but she did not live to write it. Nevertheless, although her notion of judging remains unknown, Arendt did leave manuscripts (such as Thinking and Moral Considerations and Some Questions on Moral Philosophy) and lectures (Lectures on Kant's Political Philosophy) concerning her thoughts on this mental faculty. The first two articles were edited and published by Jerome Kohn, one of Arendt's assistants and a Director of the Hannah Arendt Center at The New School in New York, and the last was edited and published by Ronald Beiner, professor of political science at the University of Toronto. Her personal library was deposited at Bard College at the Stevenson Library in 1976, and includes approximately 4,000 books, ephemera, and pamphlets from Arendt's last apartment. The college has begun archiving some of the collection digitally, which is available at The Hannah Arendt Collection.
Her posthumous book, The Life of the Mind (1978, edited by Mary McCarthy), remained incomplete. During Arendt's tenure at the New School, in 1974, she presented a graduate level political philosophy class entitled, "Philosophy of the Mind". It was during these class lectures that Arendt crystallized her concepts. The class was based on her working draft of Philosophy of the Mind, which was later edited to Life of the Mind. Arendt's working draft of Philosophy of the Mind was distributed to graduate students at the New School during her visiting professorship in 1974. Also, stemming from her Gifford Lectures at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, her last writing focused on the mental faculties of thinking and willing. In a sense, Life of the Mind went beyond her previous work concerning the vita activa. In her discussion of thinking, she focuses mainly on Socrates and his notion of thinking as a solitary dialogue between oneself. This appropriation of Socrates leads her to introduce novel concepts of conscience—an enterprise that gives no positive prescriptions, but instead, tells one what I cannot do if I would remain friends with myself when I re-enter the two-in-one of thought where I must render an account of my actions to myself—and morality—an entirely negative enterprise concerned with forbidding participation in certain actions for the sake of remaining friends with oneself.
Arendt's life and work are still part of current culture and thought. In 2012 the film, Hannah Arendt, was produced and distributed depicting the controversy over Arendt's coverage of the Eichmann trial. In 2016, the filmmaker Ada Ushpiz produced a documentary on Hannah Arendt, Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt. The New York Times designated it a NYT's critics pick. Since the election of Donald Trump to the U.S. Presidency, some journals are resurrecting her ideas to help make sense of the current situation.
Arendt argues that the consistent mistreatment of refugees, most of whom were placed in internment camps, is evidence against the existence of human rights. If the notion of human rights as universal and inalienable, is to be taken seriously, they must be realizable given the features of the modern liberal state. Arendt contends that they are not realizable because they are in tension with at least one feature of the liberal state—national sovereignty. One of the primary ways in which a nation exercises sovereignty is through control over national borders. State governments consistently grant their citizens free movement to traverse national borders. In contrast, the movement of refugees is often restricted in the name of national interests. This restriction presents a dilemma for liberalism because liberal theorists typically are committed to both human rights and the existence of sovereign nations.