Watch Hannah Arendt’s Final Interview (1973)

Even before the elec­tion of Don­ald Trump, as some crit­ics began to see the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a win, talk turned to his­tor­i­cal names of anti-fas­cism: George Orwell, Sin­clair Lewis, and, espe­cial­ly, Han­nah Arendt, author of The Ori­gins of Total­i­tar­i­an­ism, On Rev­o­lu­tion, and Eich­mann in Jerusalem, her series of arti­cles for The New York­er about the tri­al of the Naz­i’s chief bureau­crat. Arendt close­ly observed author­i­tar­i­an regimes and their after­math, detail­ing the way ide­ol­o­gy seeps in through banal polit­i­cal careerism.

Since 2016, her warn­ings have seemed all-too-pre­scient, espe­cial­ly after a coup attempt last Jan­u­ary that has been all-but hand-waved out of polit­i­cal mem­o­ry by the GOP and its media appa­ra­tus, while can­di­dates who deny the legit­i­ma­cy of elec­tion out­comes they don’t like increas­ing­ly get their names on bal­lots. The degree to which Arendt saw the polit­i­cal con­di­tions of her time, and maybe ours, with clar­i­ty has less to do with fore­knowl­edge and more with a deep knowl­edge of the past. Cor­rup­tion, tyran­ny, deceit, in all their many forms, have not changed much in their essen­tial char­ac­ter since the records of antiq­ui­ty were set down.

“Dark times,” she wrote in the 1968 pref­ace to her col­lec­tion of essays Men in Dark Times, “are not only not new, they are no rar­i­ty in his­to­ry, although,” she adds, “they were per­haps unknown in Amer­i­can his­to­ry, which oth­er­wise has its fair share, past and present, of crime and dis­as­ter.” Had her assess­ment changed a few years lat­er, in what would be her final inter­view, above, in 1973 (aired on French TV in 1974)? Had dark times come for the U.S.? The Yom Kip­pur War had just begun, the seem­ing­ly-end­less Viet­nam War dragged on, and the Water­gate scan­dal had hit its crescen­do.

Still, Arendt con­tin­ued to feel a cer­tain guard­ed opti­mism about her adopt­ed coun­try, which, she says, is “not a nation-state” like Ger­many or France:

This coun­try is unit­ed nei­ther by her­itage, nor by mem­o­ry, nor by soil, nor by lan­guage, nor by ori­gin from the same. There are no natives here. The natives were the Indi­ans. Every­one else are cit­i­zens. And these cit­i­zens are unit­ed only by one thing and this is true: That is, you become a cit­i­zen in the Unit­ed States by a sim­ple con­sent to the Con­sti­tu­tion. The con­sti­tu­tion – that is a scrap of paper accord­ing to the French as well as the Ger­man com­mon opin­ion, & you can change it. No, here it is a sacred doc­u­ment. It is the con­stant remem­brance of one sacred act. And that is the act of foun­da­tion. And the foun­da­tion is to make a union out of whol­ly dis­parate eth­nic minori­ties and reli­gions, and (a) still have a union, and (b) do not assim­i­late or lev­el down these dif­fer­ences. And all of this is very dif­fi­cult to under­stand for a for­eign­er. It’s what a for­eign­er nev­er under­stands.

Whether or not Amer­i­cans under­stood them­selves that way in 1973, or under­stand our­selves this way today, Arendt points to an ide­al that makes the demo­c­ra­t­ic process in the U.S. unique; when, that is, it is allowed to func­tion as osten­si­bly designed, by the con­sent of the gov­erned rather than the tyran­ny of an oli­garchy. Arendt died two years lat­er, as the war in Viet­nam final­ly came to an inglo­ri­ous end. You can watched her full tele­vised inter­view — with Eng­lish trans­la­tions by the uploader, Phi­los­o­phy Over­dose — above, or find it pub­lished in the book, Han­nah Arendt: The Last Inter­view and Oth­er Con­ver­sa­tions.

What would Arendt have had to say to our time of MAGA, COVID-19 and elec­tion denial­ism, mass polit­i­cal racism, misog­y­ny, homo­pho­bia, and xeno­pho­bia? Per­haps her most suc­cinct state­ment on how to rec­og­nize the dark times comes from that same 1968 pref­ace:

I bor­row the term from Brecht’s famous poem ‘To Pos­ter­i­ty,’ which men­tions the dis­or­der and the hunger, the mas­sacres and the slaugh­ter­ers, the out­rage over injus­tice and the despair ‘when there was only wrong and no out­rage,’ the legit­i­mate hatred that makes you ugly nev­er­the­less, the well-found­ed wrath that makes the voice grow hoarse. All this was real enough as it took place in pub­lic; there was noth­ing secret or mys­te­ri­ous about it. And still, it was by no means vis­i­ble to all, nor was it at all easy to per­ceive it; for, until the very moment when cat­a­stro­phe over­took every­thing and every­body, it was cov­ered up not by real­i­ties but by the high­ly effi­cient talk and dou­ble-talk of near­ly all offi­cial rep­re­sen­ta­tives who, with­out inter­rup­tion and in many inge­nious vari­a­tions, explained away unpleas­ant facts and jus­ti­fied con­cerns. When we think of dark times and of peo­ple liv­ing and mov­ing in them, we have to take this cam­ou­flage, ema­nat­ing from and spread by ‘the estab­lish­ment’ – or ‘the sys­tem,’ as it was then called – also into account. If it is the func­tion of the pub­lic realm to throw light on the affairs of men by pro­vid­ing a space of appear­ances in which they can show in deed and word, for bet­ter or worse, who they are and what they can do, then dark­ness has come when this light is extin­guished by ‘cred­i­bil­i­ty gaps’ and ‘invis­i­ble gov­ern­ment,’ by speech that does not dis­close what is but sweeps it under the car­pet, by exhor­ta­tions, moral and oth­er­wise, that, under the pre­text of uphold­ing old truths, degrade all truth to mean­ing­less triv­i­al­i­ty.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

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

Han­nah Arendt Explains Why Democ­ra­cies Need to Safe­guard the Free Press & Truth … to Defend Them­selves Against Dic­ta­tors and Their Lies

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

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