Much has been discussed about Hannah Arendt’s political theories. Her views on political affairs, however, are relatively more obscure and usually buried within her correspondences with friends and family or in her writings prior to her acclaimed Origins of Totalitarianism. I propose to briefly look into this literature and assess Hannah Arendt’s knowledge of postwar German politics. As a German-Jewish exile from Nazi Germany and a naturalized American by 1951, how has her knowledge of her homeland been produced by her forced transatlantic viewpoint? Was she able to predict Germany’s political future?
What is fascinating about Hannah Arendt’s views is how thin the line is between success and failure, prophecy and naivety, sensible opinions and missed guesses. As far as her poor predictions are concerned, Hannah Arendt’s correspondences in the wake of World War II reveal an obliviousness toward the economic miracle that laid ahead and show how she underestimated the easiness with which a morally-damaged German society could, and eventually would, reconstruct without first addressing the horrors of the war.
A vivid example of her disconnect with the mood of her homeland unfolds during her visit to Germany in 1952. In a letter dated on May 26 following ongoing regional plans for a European Defense Community, she writes somewhat confidently that “everybody here is against the accords.” Her biographer, Elizabeth Young-Bruehl, further notes that the Jewish thinker had been persuaded that the Germans would refuse to raise an army, not before, in Arendt’s words, “absolute sovereignty: the people are completely nationalistic.” The fact that Adenauer’s government received “grudging support of the defense community,” which came to “Arendt’s surprise,” according to Young-Bruehl, brings us to wonder how come such a perceptive thinker as Hannah Arendt could not sense the flexible disposition of the German people in 1952 and the fact that they would readily forego their sense of nationalism and requests for absolute sovereignty without much agency.
Was it the fact that she had been living in America at the time and become detached from the lengths with which Germans would from then on go to re-integrate Europe and ally with the US? Even more perplexing is how sure she had been in 1950 that in West Germany, “fear of Russian aggression does not necessarily result in an equivocal pro-American attitude, but rather leads to a determined neutrality, as though it were absurd to take sides in the conflict as it would be to take sides in an earthquake.” This comment may explain her increasing distrust toward then-Chancellor Konrad Adenaur’s pro-West policies throughout the 1950s; a willing and calculated schism with the East that Hannah Arendt had not assumed to be a path worth, or sane, choosing.
What I believe best explains Hannah Arendt’s confused knowledge of the fate of German politics is, as a paradox, her prophetic vision. One prediction that did indeed hold against the winds of the time, and which Arendt has not been properly credited with, is her view on the student generation of the reconstruction period. When she first visited Germany in 1949, Hannah Arendt could not help but notice the difficult realities of the German youth. Reporting on their predicament to an American journal the following year, Hannah Arendt notes how most of the students she has encountered suffered from “chronic undernourishment and complete abstention from even the most modest pleasures, such as a glass of wine or an evening at the movies.”
Then, in the same report, she makes a very interesting, and foreshadowing, remark: “What course political development will take in Germany when a whole class of frustrated and starving intellectuals is let loose on an indifferent and sullen population is anybody’s guess.” Is Hannah Arendt here, unwittingly, leaving a hint upon the incoming 68' student generation that would soon, as she says, have enough?
What if Hannah Arendt’s pessimism of developing German politics was not short-sighted, but short-term? What if we understand her knowledge of German society as too radical for the time in which she cast her verdicts; a madman’s hysterical premonitions that could only be re-heard in the future?
Though Hannah Arendt could not predict the economic boom that lay ahead for West Germany, her summary of her first trip there in 1949 reveal a lucid understanding of the looming economic mentality that would spearhead the increase in production. In Organized Guilt, one of the few remarkable works before Origins of Totalitarianism, she observes that in West Germany “people prefer going to work on Saturdays and even Sundays to staying at home in overcrowded apartments.” This keen observation is coupled with her harsh complaints in some of her letters to her husband about the Germans, who, she confesses, “are working themselves dumb and stupid.” The same political theorist who, in 1963, will regard evil as a mere inability to think, is here, in 1949, intently reproaching her compatriots for their lacks in this mental activity. This inability, in one of Arendt’s more prophetic statements, is “symptom of a deep-rooted, stubborn, and at times vicious refusal to face and come to terms with what really happened.”
It is this refusal to accept responsibility for the events of the war that would so begrudge Germany’s postwar student generation, whose eventual bewilderment and anger Hannah Arendt seems to have equally shared. The philosopher right away saw the potential of the German youth. In a 1952 letter to her husband, she deems a 17-year old she has connected with during her trip in Germany as “the first German who, face to face, justified to [her] Adenauer’s politics.” She further confesses: “It looks like the younger generation, those of about 20 years, may be all right.” This hope in the new generation, be noted, has been coupled with Hannah Arendt’s extreme disillusionment of the older generation. In her 1949 trip, she describes at length her encounters with this generation. A pertinent passage reads as follows:
“[T]he other fellow has noticed from the beginning of the conversation, namely, that you are a Jew. This is usually followed by a little embarrassed pause; and then comes not a personal question, such as ‘Where did you go after you left Germany,’ […] but a deluge of stories about how Germans have suffered (true enough, of course, but beside the point) […] Similarly, evasive is the standard reaction to the ruins. When there is any overt reaction at all, it consists of a sigh followed by the half-rhetorical, half wistful question, “Why must mankind always wage wars?” The average German looks for the causes of the last war not in the acts of the Nazi regime, but in the events that led to the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise.”
This piece of oral history is extremely important because it explains why Hannah Arendt embraced and prophesied upon the new generation, one of whom at nineteen, as she reports to her husband, “asked [her] questions with such precision that [she] was astounded by him.” What Hannah Arendt suggests in her informal letters and casual observations of postwar German society is that the young generation would indeed one day ask questions with such precision and would, unlike those disillusioned Germans she has encountered, properly look and demand for the causes of the last war and severely reprimand the buried complacency of their lip-sealed parents.
One can only wonder whether Hannah Arendt might have been increasingly accurate in her views of German politics, to the point of an expert, had she returned to live there once the war was over. The iron curtain for her might as well have been the Atlantic Ocean itself… simultaneously, with its ascending and descending waves, preventing her and allowing her to see her homeland in a new light.