Large Archive of Hannah Arendt’s Papers Digitized by the Library of Congress: Read Her Lectures, Drafts of Articles, Notes & Correspondence

Many peo­ple read the Ger­man-Jew­ish polit­i­cal philoso­pher and jour­nal­ist Han­nah Arendt as some­thing of an ora­cle, a sec­u­lar prophet whose most famous works—her essay on the tri­al of Adolf Eich­mann and her 1951 Ori­gins of Total­i­tar­i­an­ism—con­tain secrets about our own times of high nation­al­ist fer­vor. And indeed they may, but we should also keep in mind that Arendt’s insights into the hor­rors of Nazism did not emerge until after the war.

Arendt did not iden­ti­fy as Jew­ish dur­ing the Naz­i’s rise to pow­er, but as a ful­ly assim­i­lat­ed Ger­man; she had a roman­tic rela­tion­ship with her pro­fes­sor Mar­tin Hei­deg­ger, who became a doc­tri­naire Nazi, and she seemed to have lit­tle under­stand­ing of Ger­man anti­semitism dur­ing the thir­ties and for­ties. Arendt, many have alleged, some­times seemed too close to her sub­ject.

In such times as hers, to use the words of Wal­lace Stevens—a writer with his own com­pli­cat­ed rela­tion­ship to fas­cism—the “dif­fi­cult rig­or” of observ­ing the moment means that “we rea­son of these things with lat­er rea­son.” Arendt’s obser­va­tions of Europe in the 1950s were reck­on­ings with the recent past—she drew togeth­er strains of expe­ri­ence that could not always be con­nect­ed dur­ing what Stevens calls the “irra­tional moment.” So too, intel­lec­tu­al observers of our own “irra­tional moment” may only tru­ly under­stand it “with lat­er rea­son.”

But if Amer­i­cans wish to learn about their country’s long­stand­ing polit­i­cal ten­den­cies from Arendt’s work, it is per­haps not to her writ­ing on Ger­many or the U.S.S.R. that we should turn, but to her work on the U.S., much of which is reflect­ed in typed drafts of essays and lec­tures, cor­re­spon­dence, and notes con­tained at the Library of Congress’s Han­nah Arendt Papers col­lec­tion. All of the col­lec­tion has been dig­i­tized, and some of those scans are online. Find­ing out which doc­u­ments have been uploaded and which only remain view­able onsite takes a lit­tle dig­ging around in the cat­a­log, but it is work that pays off for those with a gen­uine inter­est in the fas­ci­nat­ing turns of Arendt’s thought.

We may turn to essays such as 1971’s “Lying in Pol­i­tics,” writ­ten after the release of the Pen­ta­gon Papers, notes Brain Pick­ings, and “includ­ed in Crises of the Repub­lic—a col­lec­tion of Arendt’s time­less­ly insight­ful and increas­ing­ly time­ly essays on pol­i­tics [and] civ­il dis­obe­di­ence.” As Arendt writes in an ear­li­er lec­ture that pre­ced­ed “Lying in Politics”—with the ear­li­er title “The Role of the Lie in Pol­i­tics” (top)—“Truthfulness has nev­er been count­ed as among the polit­i­cal virtues.” You can view and down­load high-qual­i­ty images of that typed lec­ture here, and see her revise her ideas in cor­rec­tions and mar­gin­al notes.

The polit­i­cal lie, she writes weari­ly, “has exist­ed since the begin­ning of record­ed his­to­ry.” And yet, there is some­thing unique about its use in U.S. pol­i­tics, in which “the only per­son like­ly to be an ide­al vic­tim of com­plete manip­u­la­tion is the Pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States.” Despite her dis­pas­sion­ate philo­soph­i­cal view, Arendt found the lies of the Viet­nam War-era par­tic­u­lar­ly dis­turb­ing. In the type­script page at the top, you can see a pro­posed sub­ti­tle pen­ciled in at the top left cor­ner: “How Could They? What Went Wrong in Amer­i­ca.”

In the typed lec­ture above, “Action and the Pur­suit of Hap­pi­ness,” from 1960, Arendt remarks on the “amaz­ing dis­cov­ery” by the country’s nat­u­ral­ized “new cit­i­zens” that the “pur­suit of hap­pi­ness” remains a “more than mean­ing­less phrase and an emp­ty word in the pub­lic and pri­vate life of the Amer­i­can Repub­lic.” This “most elu­sive of all human rights,” she con­tin­ues, “appar­ent­ly enti­tles men, in the words of Howard Mum­ford Jones, to ‘the ghast­ly priv­i­lege of pur­su­ing a phan­tom and embrac­ing a delu­sion.’”

Arendt’s 1968 New York Times edi­to­r­i­al “Is Amer­i­ca By Nature a Vio­lent Soci­ety,” whose type­script you can see in part above, opens with a num­ber of assump­tions about the country’s “nation­al char­ac­ter,” begin­ning with the com­ment that the country’s “mul­ti­tude of eth­nic groups… for bet­ter or worse have nev­er melt­ed togeth­er into a nation.” Per­haps this is too broad a char­ac­ter­i­za­tion. Or per­haps the U.S. as a nation is no more “arti­fi­cial ‘by nature,’” in its com­po­si­tion than many oth­er, much old­er, nations.

Arendt’s obser­va­tions on her adopt­ed land weren’t always so astute, but she did have enough crit­i­cal dis­tance from the coun­try to close­ly observe it dur­ing times of cri­sis and see clear­ly what oth­ers could or would not. You’ll find many more of Arendt’s keen observations—typed in drafts and notes, scrib­bled in mar­gins, and writ­ten in letters—at the Library of Con­gress’ Han­nah Arendt Papers col­lec­tion, (part­ly) online.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Enter the Han­nah Arendt Archives & Dis­cov­er Rare Audio Lec­tures, Man­u­scripts, Mar­gin­a­lia, Let­ters, Post­cards & More

A Look Inside Han­nah Arendt’s Per­son­al Library: Down­load Mar­gin­a­lia from 90 Books (Hei­deg­ger, Kant, Marx & More)

Han­nah Arendt Explains How Pro­pa­gan­da Uses Lies to Erode All Truth & Moral­i­ty: Insights from The Ori­gins of Total­i­tar­i­an­ism

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Robert says:

    I think it’s quite incor­rect to say that Arendt did not iden­ti­fy as Jew­ish dur­ing the Nazis’ rise to pow­er. Her sec­ond dis­ser­ta­tion was on the Ger­man-Jew­ish writer Rahel Varn­hagen, and was most­ly writ­ten in the late 1930s. In her cor­re­spon­dence with her men­tor Karl Jaspers from before World War II, she insists that she nev­er felt her­self to be a Ger­man. The stan­dard biog­ra­phy of Arendt by Eliz­a­beth Young-Bruehl recounts in detail how deeply Arendt felt her Jew­ish­ness. She had to flee Ger­many in 1933 because she had been arrest­ed by the Gestapo while sur­rep­ti­tious­ly doc­u­ment­ing Nazi anti-Semi­tism at the request of the Ger­man Zion­ist orga­ni­za­tion.

    Mr. Jones writes that many “allege” that Arendt was some­how close to Nazism or fas­cism, and it is true that those claims exist. But they were born in the polemics of the con­tro­ver­sy over Eich­mann in Jerusalem and they are nev­er ground­ed in a respon­si­ble read­ing of Arendt’s works. A good dis­cus­sion of the dis­tort­ed read­ings of Arendt that emerged from the con­tro­ver­sy over the Eich­mann book may be found here:

  • Fernando says:

    Is God.

  • JULIA PASCAL says:

    It actu­al­ly says

    ‘Arendt did not iden­ti­fy as Jew­ish dur­ing the Naz­i’s rise to pow­er…’

    Was this ever proofed?

    Julia Pas­cal PhD

  • Parish says:

    Exact­ly. Thank you.

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