Few if any political thinkers of the twentieth century have attracted public attention and scholarly discussion as wide-ranging as has Hannah Arendt. Her theoretical reflections on the human condition have attained classic status in political philosophy, while her writings on the political crises of her time are a continuing source of intellectual inspiration and provocation.
A former student of Martin Heidegger and Karl Jaspers and a comrade in exile from Nazi Germany with Walter Benjamin, Arendt first came to public prominence ten years after her emigration to the United States, with the publication of The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951). That celebrated work's highly original analyses of antisemitism, imperialism, and totalitarianism immediately established her as a leading commentator on the political upheavals and catastrophes of the era. With that book, she not only offered a uniquely clear-sighted, broad account of twentieth-century totalitarian politics and their antecedents; she also provided an exceptionally subtle and penetrating analysis of the modern mentalities that gave succor to those politics. Within those same pages, she also made a landmark contribution to the discourse of international human rights, with a strong critique of the misuse of the institution of citizenship in the modern nation-state. She followed that achievement with even more far-reaching analyses of the exhausted traditions and neglected resources of Western political thought, culminating in her books The Human Condition (1958) and On Revolution (1963). Her fearlessness in exploring the nature of political evil and personal responsibility found further expression in Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963), the source of her famous, much-misunderstood phrase, “the banality of evil.” All of these books – along with the numerous other volumes, essays, and lectures that constitute the corpus of Arendt's work – were the focus of extensive critical notice and often controversy in her lifetime, and in more recent years they have gained an ever-widening circle of attentive readers, both within and outside the academy. With the passage of time, her stature as a major thinker of the twentieth century has received ample confirmation.