Hannah Arendt at 100

In the Forward, a look at Hannah Arendt, who would’ve been 100 this year:

Arendt, who was born in Hannover, Germany, in 1906 and died in New York in 1975, seldom shied away from engaging — or igniting — political controversy. One example is her views on Zionism. She had worked for a Youth Aliyah group and had delivered a critique of assimilation in her book on a 19th-century German Jew named Rahel Varnhagen. But Arendt called Zionism an “obsolete” form of nationalism which endeavored “to compromise with the most evil forces of our time by taking advantage of imperialist interests.”

Even more controversial was “Eichmann in Jerusalem” (1963), her report on the Israeli trial of the former high-level Nazi whom she portrayed as a banal, thoughtless bureaucrat. She claimed there that “toa truly extraordinary degree,” the Nazis had received Jewish cooperation in carrying out their genocidal plans, and that without this cooperation the number of Jewish victims hardly would have been as high as it was. Typical of the reaction was that of Philip Rahv, founding co-editor of Partisan Review: “I think the goyim will be delighted to discover that the millions of Jews the Nazis murdered are at least partly responsible for their own deaths.”

Yet, Arendt’s most enduring legacy — and the one most relevant to today’s debates — is her 1951 book “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” where her genius in conceptualizing the unfamiliar burns brightest. Wrestling with the most destructive forces of the 20th century, she concludes that despite their outward differences, Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union were in profound ways inwardly similar. They belonged to an utterly new, totalitarian type of regime that could not be explained by any of Montesquieu’s 200-year-old categories — republic, monarchy, despotism. As a refugee from Nazi terror who fled to America (by way of Paris and the Gurs internment camp) in 1941, she knew whereof she spoke.