Roundup: Talking About History
Hannah Arendt's Enduring Legacy
Dissent Magazine (5-5-10)
[Nick Serpe is an editorial assistant at Dissent.]
In a rather peripheral passage in The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt described how Central and Western European Jews in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries gained access to high society and culture:
To live in the aura of fame was more important than to become famous; thus they became outstanding reviewers, critics, collectors, and organizers of what was famous. The ‘radiant power’ [of fame] was a very real social force by which the socially homeless were able to establish a home.
The powerful glow of celebrity, according to Arendt, provided these intellectuals with an entry point into a social life from which they had been previously excluded, and a means to build bridges of criticism and culture between societies. Before the 1951 publication of Origins, Arendt was a candidate for her own sociological category: a Jewish intellectual inhabiting the margins of another culture’s renown. In the 1920s, she studied under German philosophical giants Martin Heidegger and Karl Jaspers, but was forced to flee for France in 1933 and then for New York in 1941, where she soon fell in with the New York intellectuals gathered around the Menorah Journal and the Partisan Review. After her powerfully written study of the Nazi and Soviet regimes, she began to edge in on fame. But it was her 1961 “reports” on the trial of Nazi Adolf Eichmann for the New Yorker that moved her to the center of American intellectual life....
Arendt’s interpreters may never cease debating the truth of this third and damning critique, but Nathaniel Popper’s recent essay in the Nation, “A Conscious Pariah,” clears away any doubts about the source for Arendt’s claims: Raul Hilberg’s The Destruction of the European Jews, published in 1961. The book is far longer than Arendt’s, and its author “toiled for nearly a decade in the archives of the Nuremberg trials and other collections of recovered German documents” before writing it. Arendt cited the book numerous times in Eichmann, including in those passages on the Judenräte. But to Hilberg, the citations were insufficient. Her work, he believed, bore so many “striking similarities” that “he tallied them on an accounting spreadsheet”—a task that he stopped only after realizing how much Arendt had, in polite terms, “relied” on his own exhaustive research...