Hannah Arendt: Jewish Cosmopolitanism and Broken Universalism

European Diary, 14.10.2020: She was one of the most dazzling Jewish thinkers of the 20th century. Today 114 years ago she was born in Hannover: Hannah Arendt.

She did not want to be called a philosopher. She saw herself as a political theorist. And in her unsparing analyses of political systems of rule and ideologies, her contributions to the theory of democracy and plurality, she saw herself as a historian.
Her studies took her through the German intellectual province, to Marburg, Freiburg and Heidelberg, to Heidegger (with whom she had a love affair that was later much discussed), Husserl and Jaspers, with whom she had a moving, friendly and contradictory dispute about the relationship between Germans and Jews before and after National Socialism. “For me, Germany is the mother tongue, philosophy and poetry,” she wrote to Jaspers before 1933, while at the same time emphasizing the need to keep a distance. She did not want to have anything to do with a “German being” that Jaspers liked to talk about.

As universalistically as she thought in terms of political issues, she always understood herself to be a Jew and took an offensive approach to the Jewish role as the pariah of society.

In 1933 she was briefly imprisoned by the Gestapo. And from then on, “If you are attacked as a Jew, you must defend yourself as a Jew,” as she dryly remarked in a legendary television interview by Günter Gaus in 1964. There was hardly anything that burdened her as much as the fact that her own intellectual environment in Germany not only came to terms with National Socialism, but like Heidegger and many others, was even attracted by the new power. She never doubted that such decisions were the responsibility of the subjects. She had nothing but biting derision for the “tragic” self-image of many Germans who, after 1945, had understood themselves in categories of entanglement and doom, as being “guiltless guilty”.
But also for the attempts of Holocaust victims to lend some positive meaning to the mass crimes, as a cathartic event in history, she had no sympathy. “Auschwitz, that must never have happened,” was her bitter résumé, which was also behind her book on the Eichmann Trial, with which she attracted fierce criticism in the Jewish public.

But before that she had experienced flight, internment, and statelessness. In 1933 she fled to France. In Paris, she belonged to the circle of friends around Walter Benjamin and the lawyer Erich Cohn-Bendit (the later father of Dany Cohn-Bendit). In 1940 she was interned in Gurs, now stateless, as an “enemy foreigner” in France, an experience that she dealt with in her essay Wir Flüchtlinge (We Refugees). After a few weeks she managed to escape from the camp, and in 1941 she was able to emigrate to the USA. In her luggage she carries Walter Benjamin’s last manuscript, his theses on the concept of history, his examination of the myth of progress and the growing heap of rubble that the angel of history must look upon, which the storm drives backwards into the future.
She now argues more and more independently as a Jew for Jewish self-defense, and after 1945 she is committed to the rescue of Jewish cultural assets whose real location, the Jewish communities of Europe, have been destroyed – and which must find a new use, especially in the USA and Israel.

She maintained a critical distance from the Zionist project of territorial Jewish sovereignty at the expense of the resident Arab population – and mixed feelings between sympathy, solidarity and political disillusionment. When, under the leadership of Menachem Begin, Jewish militias massacred the Arab population of Deir Yasin in 1948, she issued a fiery call, together with Albert Einstein and others, for a conciliation with the Palestinians. She saw her own place in the USA, a society she believed capable of reconciling universal civil equality and collective rights to belong to particular identities. Later, in private letters, she also expressed her attachment to Israel as a Jewish retreat, at a time when her disappointment about the persistence of anti-Semitic resentment was growing.

In the ever more intense debates about Jewish “identity” and self-confidence, however, she publicly took up a very individual, Jewish-cosmopolitan position, with which she came between all chairs, as Natan Sznaider showed in his book about Memory space Europe. The visions of European cosmopolitanism emphasized. Natan Sznaider will open the European Summer University for Jewish Studies in Hohenems in June 2021 with a lecture on this topic.