The Human Factor - Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt in 1969, (AP photo).

Hannah Arendt in 1969, (AP photo).


Was Adolph Eichmann not ultimately responsible for the destruction of six million Jews? Or were Jews themselves partially to blame for their own fate? Fifty years ago, the political philosopher Hannah Arendt published a famous book that seemed to imply these things, and created an instant uproar that has never ended. Roger Berkowitz, Adam Gopnik, Rivka Galchen and Adam Kirsch debate the reality behind Hannah Arendt and her ideas.

"There are no dangerous thoughts; thinking itself is dangerous."

Hannah Arendt's best-known work, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil was based on her reporting for The New Yorker magazine about the trial of Adolph Eichmann.  The book made her both famous and infamous. Eichmann had been one of the principal architects of the Nazi holocaust against the Jews, in which six million died. Captured in Argentina after the war and brought to Israel, the spectacle of Eichmann on trial riveted the world.

"The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil."

Arendt set herself the task of trying to understand what it was that Eichmann had done, to place the ghastly events of the Holocaust, the man himself, and what he had to say, in some kind of comprehensible moral framework. As a philosopher, she wanted to know how we might come to understand the inexplicable. The book is now fifty years old, and the questions, the answers, and the furor that Arendt engendered seem as fresh as ever.

"The aim of totalitarian education has never been to instill convictions but to destroy the capacity to form any."

Hannah Arendt was born in 1906 into a family of German Jews. She studied philosophy at Marburg University with Martin Heidegger, who was also her lover, and then later she studied with Karl Jaspers in Heidelberg. In 1933 she fled Germany and went to Paris. In 1941 she moved to the United States and took up a series of teaching positions at various universities.

 "Storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it."

Her philosophical background was perhaps too theoretical for her tastes; Arendt wanted something different, something more descriptive of the 20th century world. Her own writings span a wide range of subjects: totalitarianism, the nature of political action, what it means to think, the importance of stories, what, in short, is meant by being human. The 20th century was a disaster, in her opinion. What was needed was a complete rethink of the meaning and role of philosophy, a complete rethink of the idea and responsibility of being human.

Participants in the program:

Roger Berkowitz is a professor at Bard College and Director of the Hannah Arendt Centre for Politics and the Humanities.

Rivka Galchen is a novelist and essayist whose book Atmospheric Disturbances, was nominated for the Governor-Generals Award. She writes for The New Yorker, Harpers Magazine and The New York Times.

Adam Kirsch is a poet, senior editor at The New Republic and a columnist for Tablet Magazine.

Adam Gopnik, longtime staff writer at The New Yorker and a former Massey Lecturer.


Books by Hannah Arendt

The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951). Revised ed.; New York: Schocken, 2004.

The Human Condition
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958).

On Revolution (New York: Viking, 1963).

Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963). (Rev. ed. New York: Viking, 1968.)

On Violence. Harvest Books (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1970)


Hannah Arendt, directed by Margarethe von Trotta, 2012.

Online Reading

Dragon-Slayers by Corey Robin, London Review of Books, January 2007.

Arendt and Eichmann: The New Truth by Mark Lilla, The New York Review of Books, November 21, 2013.

Fifty Years Later, Why Does 'Eichmann in Jerusalem' Remain Contentious? by Adam Kirsch and Rivka Galchen, The New York Times, Sunday Book Review, November 26, 2013.

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