Weaving Our Strands: Hannah Arendt, History, and Our Times

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“The historical sciences in the universities are the guardians of truths of fact,” according to Hannah Arendt. Although Arendt considered herself a political theorist and not a historian, she recognized the essential role historians play for keeping truths sacrosanct. This is an essential task.

A Jew who left Germany for France in 1933 and France for the United States in 1940, Arendt recognized that at particular historical moments indifference had to yield to action, that being a bystander carried no moral weight.

In a conversation with Günter Gaus in 1964, contained in her Essays in Understanding (as well as The Portable Hannah Arendt), Arendt described what happened as Nazis rose to power. Gleichschaltung, a process of forced coordination, or what we might think of as co-optation,  occurred as Germans “got in line,” and friends and colleagues–intellectuals–joined up and turned their backs, albeit temporarily, on the fate of Jews like Arendt. This made the political personal.

The atrocities of Auschwitz and other concentration camps became clear to the world, crossing some moral, historical, and political threshold. “[W]e had the idea that amends could somehow be made for everything else, as amends can be made for just about everything at some point in politics,” Arendt said. “But not for this. This ought not to have happened.” The steps leading toward this point of no return were not marked with searchlights pointing toward Historical Judgment, but many took small steps or remained indifferent. Then, they arrived and found no amends could be made.

Arendt believed in action. Political action in public space was among her leading themes, explored most fully in The Human Condition, first published in 1958. She worried that consumption threatened to take “the place of all the truly relating activities,” anticipating early on the stultifying and meaningless distractions modern consumerism thrusts on us and isolates us from an engaged public life.

In the end, to avoid such banality, Arendt recommended venturing into the public realm. “Wherever men come together, in whatever numbers,” she maintained, “public interests come into play.” Venturing into the public realm took multiple forms. Speaking was one, Arendt said: “The other is: we start something. We weave our strand into a network of relations. What comes of it we never know.”

This is just it, isn’t it? Today is a time for action, an end to indifference, for no longer being a bystander.

At one point in her conversation with Gaus, Arendt observed, “If one is attacked as a Jew, one must defend oneself as a Jew. Not as a German, not as a world-citizen, not as an upholder of the Rights of Man, or whatever. But: What can I specifically do as a Jew?”

Many feel overwhelmed by what feels like a total assault on our values. Addressing every outrage, every violation of political norms, is exhausting. But, following Arendt, I think we are called to respond where we are with who we are as individuals. As a historian, when lies are told, I get to be a truth-teller, a guardian of the “truths of fact.” And we must all avoid Gleichschaltung as we weave our own action into “a network of relations.”

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