Hannah Arendt – more fully known as Johanna Cohn Arendt – was a famous German-born American political theorist (Arendt is regarded by many as one of the greatest philosophers of the twentieth century but Arendt herself rejected the title). Depending on your age (and, of course, if you know her at all), it’s likely you know her for one of two things: either she is the author of The Origins of Totalitarianism, published in 1951 and enjoying a resurgence of popular interest thanks to a certain someone in the White House, or she is the woman who attempted to say complicated things about the nature of evil at the trial of Adolf Eichmann and found herself mired in controversy. Ken Krimstein’s interesting graphic biography attempts to tell the story of her life based around the idea of “three escapes”, one from Germany, one from Paris and one more theoretical escape from the shadow cast by her former lover, Martin Heidegger.
Told in a sketchy graphic style that recalls the work of Anne Simon (whose cartoons adorn biographies of the likes of Marx and Freud) and even Willie Rushton (the sketchiness of proceedings telling you, if you don’t already know, that here is a book that was produced quickly, arguably because there is a need for it, driven possibly in part by the fact that copies of The Origins of Totalitarianism have been flying off the shelves almost as quickly as copies of 1984), we first meet Hannah as a young girl dealing with anti-Semitic abuse on the streets of Konigsberg. It is here where she and the reader learn an important lesson: “If one is attacked as a Jew, one must defend oneself as a Jew.” Before we get to her first escape, she has grown up, spent time at the University of Marburg alongside some of the great thinkers of the age, engaged in an affair with Martin Heidegger, a radical philosopher who went on to become something of an apologist for the Nazis, and marries the son of a prominent Berlin family, Gunther Stern.
In the midst of a crowd of icons (Billy Wilder, Marlene Dietrich, Peter Lorre, Mia May, Sigmund Freud, Hannah Hoch, Albert Einstein, Bertolt Brecht, countless others), Arendt is asked to help with pulling together a complete dossier of all anti-Jewish articles and propaganda in the German press, which leads to her arrest and interrogation at the hands of the Gestapo. She wangles her escape and flees Germany with her mother. “I am no longer innocent,” she tells us. Settling in Paris, she divides her time (“living three lives at the same time”), helping young Jews flee Germany (remaining haunted by those she failed to help for the rest of her life), pursuing her “quest for ultimate understanding” and taking up with Heinrich Blucher, a “sometime sex club bouncer, freelance intellectual pipe-aficionado’ and friend of Walter Benjamin (who Arendt idolises). As Germany begins its inexorable annexations, the French act: “All resident alien Germans between the ages of 16-55 must, under the most severe penalty, report immediately to…” Once again, Arendt is rounded up with her fellow aliens. The Vel D’Hiv, a “triumph of French technology” becomes “a hothouse prison for German women”. These women are then taken by train to a camp “smack dab in the fetid asshole of France.” And nothing, Hannah tells us,
“not the cruelty of the guards, not the imbecility of the warden, not the blisters on my feet, nothing incenses me more than the false, chipper, misguided, Pollyanna, illusory optimism of my fellows. They lose their pride, but they maintain their illusions.”
Eventually she simply walks out of camp while 6,800 women remain behind, soon to be joined by another 6,800 women, transported there by Adolf Eichmann, as “new, strong, Krupp steel German fences arise” around them. Arendt and Blucher then begin the circuitous journey to leave Europe for the US. It is the portion of her life in the US that cements her reputation, during which time she writes the majority of the work that she is today remembered for. Krimstein outlines her thinking (‘Arendtianism’) in a couple of pages, and gives us a somewhat muted take on the reaction to her piece on Eichmann, a piece Arendt came to regret in some ways. But it is the way she lays the ghost of Heidegger to rest that constitutes her third escape – and for this reader, having fled the Nazis, and escaped the treacherous bureaucracy of the French, the third escape feels somewhat lesser – even if it may well have been pivotal for Arendt herself.
What you can’t escape, though, is the power of Arendt’s own writing. “There are no dangerous thoughts; thinking itself is dangerous.” “To be alive and to think are the same thing.” You read this and you feel her presence like an electric tingle – and you want to read her books yourself. There is no loftier aim for a book like this: to turn new readers on to Arendt’s books. If it does that, it has done the job.
Any Cop?: You could describe The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt as scrappy but necessary. Krimstein’s artistic style may not be to everybody’s tastes but the story he tells, of a woman who fought for the importance of thought itself, is one that needs telling and retelling.