Frontpage Symposium examines Hannah Arendt with Bernard Wasserstein and David Satter
[Jamie Glazov is Frontpage Magazine's editor. He holds a Ph.D. in History with a specialty in Russian, U.S. and Canadian foreign policy. He is the author of Canadian Policy Toward Khrushchev’s Soviet Union and is the co-editor (with David Horowitz) of The Hate America Left. He edited and wrote the introduction to David Horowitz’s Left Illusions. His new book is United in Hate: The Left's Romance with Tyranny and Terror. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.]
In this special edition of Frontpage Symposium, we have invited two distinguished guests to discuss the question: Is Hannah Arendt still relevant?We ask this in the context of whether Arendt’s definition of totalitarianism is still relevant and whether it can shed light on the conflict the West now faces.
Our guests today are:
Bernard Wasserstein, a professor of history whose are area of interest is Jewish history. He is currently teaching at the University of Chicago. In early 2009, he wrote a long and critical essay on Hannah Arendt that called her methods and arguments into question. He argued, among other things, that totalitarianism is not a useful analytical category, that Arendt relied in her writing on pro-Nazi sources and that she showed barely concealed hostility toward the Jewish people. His essay has evoked a big response both in Britain and the U.S.
David Satter, a senior fellow of the Hudson Institute and a visiting scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). He was Moscow correspondent of the Financial Times of London from 1976 to 1982, during the height of the Soviet totalitarian period and he is the author of Age of Delirium: the Decline and Fall of the Soviet Union, which is being made into a documentary film. His most recent work is Darkness at Dawn: The Rise of the Russian Criminal State.
FP: David Satter and Bernard Wasserstein, welcome to Frontpage Symposium.
Prof. Wasserstein, let me begin with you.
I think the best way to start would be for you to briefly lay out your position on Arendt and her relevance. Kindly also touch on your take on Arendt’s relationship with the Jewish people and, in turn, with her own Jewishness.
Wasserstein: Hannah Arendt is one of those twentieth-century figures, like Edward Said or Michel Foucault, who have acquired absurdly inflated reputations on the basis of work in which lack of intellectual rigor is concealed behind barrage-balloons of overblown rhetoric.
My essay, published in the Times Literary Supplement in October 2009, was concerned specifically with puncturing Arendt’s claim to be taken seriously as a historian. I pointed out that the concept of totalitarianism, basic to the interpretation of Nazism and Communism that she presented in her book The Origins of Totalitarianism, is now treated with reserve by most professional historians.
I discussed her treatment of imperialism, especially British imperialism, and her absurd attempt to equate that with totalitarianism. And I focused on her analysis of modern Jewish history, showing that this was heavily derived from Nazi historians. From these and from the German academic environment in which her outlook was formed Arendt drew her contemptuous attitude towards Jews, an attitude that was basic to her interpretation of modern history and that infected her relationship to everything Jewish, including Zionism and Israel.
FP: David Satter?
Satter: I agree with Bernard that Arendt was no historian. The one thing that she does not explain about totalitarianism in “The Origins of Totalitarianism” are its origins. Her description of the roots of Nazism is used mechanically and completely unconvincingly to describe the rise of Stalinism. And her explanation of the rise of Nazism neglects the role of the Western spiritual crisis in making possible the rise of both communist and Nazi ideology. In fact, it was the victory of communism – in which for the first time the moral edifice of 2500 years of Western civilization was totally rejected – that contributed to the victory of Nazism rather than the other way around. This is a reality that Arendt muddles completely....
comments powered by Disqus
Robert Patteson Kelso Sr. - 2/27/2010
To the editor:
Bernard Wasserstein: … [Arendt] showed barely concealed hostility toward the Jewish people [like Wasserstein’s hostility toward Arendt?] … acquired absurdly inflated reputations on the basis of work in which lack of intellectual rigor is concealed behind barrage-balloons of overblown rhetoric [‘overblown’ -- perhaps like the above?] … puncturing Arendt’s claim to be taken seriously as a historian [rather like Wasserstein’s own claim here?] … her absurd attempt to equate that … showing that this was heavily derived from Nazi historians [which, prima facie, is biased -- rather like the article here?] … infected her relationship to everything Jewish, including Zionism and Israel.
David Satter: [Arendt’s] explanation neglects the role of the Western of the rise of Nazism neglects the role of the Western spiritual crisis in making possible the rise of both communist and Nazi ideology [‘spiritual crisis’, yet -- wow!] … In fact, it was the victory of communism – in which for the first time the moral edifice of 2500 years of Western civilization was totally rejected [‘totally rejected’, yet -- double wow] – that contributed to the victory of Nazism rather than the other way around. This is a reality that Arendt muddles completely... This is a reality that Arendt muddles completely....
Might one (with W.S.) ask, Doth Wasserstein and Satter protest too much?
Robert Kelso Sr