A film still of survivors leaving Auschwitz after liberation. The film was taken by the Soviet army and according to the USHMM consists of both staged and unrehearsed footage taken in the first hours and days of the survivors liberation in January 1945, as well as scenes of their evacuation, which took place weeks or months later. Photo by AKG London


When hope is a hindrance

For Hannah Arendt, hope is a dangerous barrier to courageous action. In dark times, the miracle that saves the world is to act

by Samantha Rose Hill + BIO

A film still of survivors leaving Auschwitz after liberation. The film was taken by the Soviet army and according to the USHMM consists of both staged and unrehearsed footage taken in the first hours and days of the survivors liberation in January 1945, as well as scenes of their evacuation, which took place weeks or months later. Photo by AKG London

As Hannah Arendt and her husband Heinrich Blücher waited in Montauban, France in the summer of 1940 to receive emergency exit papers they did not give into anxiety or despair. They found bicycles and explored the beautiful French countryside during the day and delighted in the detective novels of Georges Simenon at night. In the words of Helen Wolff: ‘Hannah, in her high-spirited way, made of this anguishing experience a kind of gift of time.’ It was ‘a hiatus within a life of work and duties’.

Which is not how one might be inclined to act when their life is in peril. What enabled Arendt to make a gift of time during such an anguishing experience?

It wasn’t hope.

Arendt was never given to hopeful thinking. As early as 1929, she saw what was happening in Germany, and lost friendships because of it. She despised what she called ‘opportunistic politics’, which ‘leaves behind it a chaos of contradictory interests and apparently hopeless conflicts’. And she turned away from any notion of messianism that might offer redemption in the future. After the war, in a letter to the American philosopher Glenn Gray, she wrote that the only book she recommends to all her students is Hope Against Hope by Nadezhda Mandelstam. Written by the wife of the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, the devastating memoir details life under Stalin’s regime and the struggle to stay alive. (In Russian, nadezhda means hope.) Arendt called it ‘one of the real documents’ of the 20th century.

Many discussions of hope veer toward the saccharine, and speak to a desire for catharsis. Even the most jaded observers of world affairs can find it difficult not to catch their breath at the moment of suspense, hoping for good to triumph over evil and deliver a happy ending. For some, discussions of hope are attached to notions of a radical political vision for the future, while for others hope is a political slogan used to motivate the masses. Some people uphold hope as a form of liberal faith in progress, while for others still hope expresses faith in God and life after death.

Arendt breaks with these narratives. Throughout much of her work, she argues that hope is a dangerous barrier to acting courageously in dark times. She rejects notions of progress, she is despairing of representative democracy, and she is not confident that freedom can be saved in the modern world. She does not even believe in the soul, as she writes in one love letter to her husband. The political theorist George Kateb once remarked that her work is ‘offensive to a democratic soul’. When she was awarded an honorary degree at Smith College in Massachusetts in 1966, the president said: ‘Your writings challenge the mind, disturb the conscience, and depress the spirit of your readers; yet out of your wisdom and firm belief in mankind’s inner strength comes a sure hope.’

I imagine Arendt might have responded: ‘“Sure hope” for what exactly?’

Arendt never offers a systematic account of hope, but she returns to hope throughout her work. She begins her essay ‘What Is Freedom?’ by declaring: ‘To raise the question, what is freedom? seems to be a hopeless enterprise.’ In her essay ‘On Humanity in Dark Times’, she writes: ‘In hope, the soul overleaps reality, as in fear it shrinks back from it.’ And her book The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) begins with a discussion of hope: ‘Desperate hope and desperate fear often seem closer to the centre of such events than balanced judgment and measured insight.’

Arendt’s most devastating account of hope appears in her essay ‘The Destruction of Six Million’ (1964) published by Jewish World. Arendt was asked to answer two questions. The first was why the world remained silent as Hitler slaughtered the Jewish people, and whether or not Nazism had its roots in European humanism. The second was about the sources of helplessness among the Jewish people.

To the first question, Arendt responded that ‘the world did not keep silent; but apart from not keeping silent, the world did nothing.’ People had the audacity to express feelings of horror, shock and indignation, while doing nothing. This was not a failure of European humanism, she argued, which was unprepared for the emergence of totalitarianism, but of European liberalism, socialism not excluded. Listening to Beethoven and translating German into classical Greek was not what caused the intelligentsia to go along with the Nazification of social, cultural, academic and political institutions. It was an ‘unwillingness to face realities’ and it was a desire ‘to escape into some fool’s paradise of firmly held ideological convictions when confronted with facts’.

The Nazis had used hope to implicate concentration-camp inmates by making them behave like murderers

To the second question, Arendt wrote that: ‘The Jewish masses inside Nazi-occupied Europe were objectively helpless.’ She turns to the Polish poet Tadeusz Borowski’s This Way for the Gas Ladies and Gentlemen (1946) to discuss the ways in which hope had been used to destroy the very humanity of people. Borowski was only a teenager when Hitler invaded Poland and he was later captured by the Nazis and then sent to Auschwitz and Dachau. Reflecting back on his imprisonment in Auschwitz, he wrote:

Never before in the history of mankind has hope been stronger than man, but never also has it done so much harm as it has in this war, in this concentration camp. We were never taught how to give up hope, and this is why today we perish in gas chambers.

Borowski killed himself shortly after writing these lines.

It was holding on to hope, Arendt argued, that rendered so many helpless. It was hope that destroyed humanity by turning people away from the world in front of them. It was hope that prevented people from acting courageously in dark times.

In many of her early essays from the 1930s and ’40s, Arendt takes aim at the ethical implications of what can happen when one cleaves to hope during moments of crisis. She was especially critical of how the Nazis had used hope to implicate concentration-camp inmates in their crimes by making them behave like murderers towards one another. In her biweekly column ‘This Means You!’ written for Aufbau, a weekly newspaper for German Jewish immigrants founded in New York in 1934, Arendt argues that fear and hope are ‘the two archenemies of Jewish politics’. In an editorial titled ‘Days of Change’, she gives an account of the battle for the Warsaw ghetto, discussing how hope had been used against the Jewish people:

It began on July 22, 1942. It was on that day that the chairman of the ‘Jewish Council’, the engineer [Adam] Czerniaków, committed suicide because the Gestapo had demanded that he supply six to ten thousand people a day for deportation. There were a half million Jews in the ghetto, and the Gestapo was afraid of armed or passive resistance. Nothing of the sort happened. Twenty to forty thousand Jews volunteered for deportation, ignoring flyers distributed by the Polish underground movement warning against it. The population was ‘caught between fear and feverish hope’. Some hoped that ‘evacuation’ meant only resettlement, others that such measures would not affect them. Some feared that resistance would mean certain death; others feared that resistance would be followed by a mass execution of the ghetto; and since Jewish opinion in general was against resistance and preferred illusions, the few who wanted to fight shied away from assuming that responsibility. The Germans made meticulous use of both hope and fear.

Caught between fear and ‘feverish hope’, the inmates in the ghetto were paralysed. The truth of ‘resettlement’ and the world’s silence led to a kind of fatalism. Only when they gave up hope and let go of fear, Arendt argues, did they realise that ‘armed resistance was the only moral and political way out’.

For Arendt, the emergence of totalitarianism in the middle of the 20th century meant that one could no longer count on common sense or human decency, moral norms or ethical imperatives. The law mandated mass murder and could not be looked to for guidance on how to act. The tradition of Western political thought broke, and Plato’s axiom – that it is better to suffer harm than to do harm – was reversed. The most basic human experiences, such as love, loss, desire, fear, hope and loneliness, were instrumentalised by fascist propaganda to sway the masses. But Arendt could not be swayed. And in the darkest hour of her life, as she contemplated suicide in an internment camp, she decided she loved life too much to give it up. She did not hope for rescue or redemption. She understood herself to be caught in between the ‘no-longer’ and the ‘not-yet’, in between past and future.

Before Arendt was forced to abandon her academic career and flee Nazi Germany in 1933, she published her dissertation on Love and Saint Augustine. Written before the war at the University of Heidelberg under the direction of the existential philosopher and psychologist Karl Jaspers, Arendt offers a secular reading of Augustine’s conceptions of love. In Augustine’s concept of caritas, or neighbourly love, Arendt found a way of being toward the world and the root of political action and human freedom where love of the world has the power to create new beginnings. Arendt’s secular reading of Augustine reconciles his understanding of a Christian hope for life after death with her own understanding of worldliness. Whereas Augustine sought immortality in the afterlife, Arendt argues that there is only immortality in a person’s political actions on this earth. All that remains after we die are the stories others will tell about what we have done

In the mid-1950s and early ’60s in New York, as Arendt was preparing that manuscript for English publication, she edited the text and inserted the language of natality, in conversation with the idea of new beginnings. Coining natality as a concept, Arendt found the principle of new beginnings, the root of political action, and the possibility of freedom.

An uncommon word, and certainly more feminine and clunkier-sounding than hope, natality possesses the ability to save humanity. Whereas hope is a passive desire for some future outcome, the faculty of action is ontologically rooted in the fact of natality. Breaking with the tradition of Western political thought, which centred death and mortality from Plato’s Republic through to Heidegger’s Being and Time (1927), Arendt turns towards new beginnings, not to make any metaphysical argument about the nature of being, but in order to save the principle of humanity itself. Natality is the condition for continued human existence, it is the miracle of birth, it is the new beginning inherent in each birth that makes action possible, it is spontaneous and it is unpredictable. Natality means we always have the ability to break with the current situation and begin something new. But what that is cannot be said.

Faith and hope are not articles of belief for Arendt, but action

Hope might not be able to save us when the chips are down, but natality can. And in this way, Arendt did not give up faith in the world of human affairs, she tried to find a concept in modernity that could sustain it. In The Human Condition (1958), she writes:

The miracle that saves the world, the realm of human affairs, from its normal, ‘natural’ ruin is ultimately the fact of natality, in which the faculty of action is ontologically rooted. It is, in other words, the birth of new men and the new beginning, the action they are capable of by virtue of being born. Only the full experience of this capacity can bestow upon human affairs faith and hope, those two essential characteristics of human existence which Greek antiquity ignored altogether, discounting the keeping of faith as a very uncommon and not too important virtue and counting hope among the evils of illusion in Pandora’s box.

Faith and hope in human affairs can come only from the fact that each new person born into the world has the ability to create something new, to act, and so to set in motion a chain of events, the outcome of which cannot be predicted. In this way, faith and hope are not articles of belief for Arendt, but action. Action is ‘the one miracle-working faculty of man’. Here it is tempting to take natality, one of Arendt’s most discussed concepts, and slide into the language of hope, but one would be better equipped using ‘to begin’ as a synonym.

Arendt’s refusal of hope is informed by her study of early Greek political thought, which reckoned hope alongside fear and evil. In the ‘Melian Dialogue’ (431 BCE), Thucydides writes:

Hope, danger’s comforter, may be indulged in by those who have abundant resources, if not without loss at all events without ruin; but its nature is to be extravagant, and those who go so far as to put their all upon the venture see it in its true colours only when they are ruined.

For Thucydides, hope is a salve, an indulgence, a danger, and a cause of loss. In Hesiod’s Works and Days (700 BCE), which is central to Arendt’s discussion of hope in The Human Condition, he argues that it is only hope that was left in Pandora’s box after all the other evils escaped: ‘Only Hope remained there in an unbreakable home within under the rim of the great jar, and did not fly out at the door.’ Which is to say, one can glimpse hope only once evil has escaped into the world. (A more generous reading might be, we can hope to have hope, but only because we are surrounded by evil.)

Whereas hope is something we have, natality is something we do

Hope augments our vision, turning us away from the world before us, but natality is a political disposition and it is the possibility of political action. Arendt argued that hope overcame man, because it turned people away from what was unfolding right in front of them. Whereas natality forces one to be present in the moment. Conceptually, natality can be understood as the flipside of hope:

  • Hope is dehumanising because it turns people away from this world.
  • Hope is a desire for some predetermined future outcome.
  • Hope takes us out of the present moment.
  • Hope is passive.
  • Hope exists alongside evil.
  • Natality is the principle of humanity.
  • Natality is the promise of new beginnings.
  • Natality is present in the Now.
  • Natality is the root of action.
  • Natality is the miracle of birth.

Arendt’s refusal of hope does not leave one in despair. It’s difficult to imagine a more uplifting concept than natality. But whereas hope is something we have, natality is something we do. As a secular article of faith, natality places the responsibility for action firmly in our hands, it is the possibility each of us contains, inherent in our birth. Perhaps the best example of this is found in The Origins of Totalitarianism, which begins by condemning hope and fear and ends with this passage from Augustine, which inspired Arendt’s concept of natality:

Beginning, before it becomes a historical event, is the supreme capacity of man; politically, it is identical with man’s freedom. Initium ut esset homo creatus est – ‘that a beginning be made man was created’ said Augustine. This beginning is guaranteed by each new birth; it is indeed every man.

Arendt is not hopeful that the elements of totalitarianism will fade from our world. She warns that totalitarian solutions will exist whenever it seems impossible to alleviate social, political and economic misery. But it is natality that she leaves us with, it is the possibility of action in hopeless situations. It is what allowed her to make a gift of time during such an anguishing experience. From gaining the sympathies of a Gestapo guard through her gift for storytelling, to having the courage to walk out of an internment camp with forged papers, to journeying across France alone on foot in search of her husband, Arendt acted courageously time and again when she was faced with the opportunity to turn toward reckless hope or despair.

Eventually, with the help of Varian Fry, Arendt and Blücher were able to secure exit papers. They rode their bicycles from Montauban to Marseille, and rented a hotel room to wait for word to come from the US consulate. Then, one morning, a message was sent up to their room requesting that Blücher report to the front desk. But Arendt knew the call was a trick, and that the police were not too far behind. Playing innocent, Blücher went downstairs to the lobby, left his key, and walked out of the front door before anyone could stop him. When the hotel clerk came over to Arendt asking where her husband was, she staged a loud scene, shouting that he was already at the prefecture’s office. She told the clerk that he was responsible for whatever happened to her husband. She waited for some time to pass then went to meet Blücher at a café where he was safely hiding. Together they immediately left Marseille. Between June and December 1941, the US Department of State tightened its entry policy. And of the 1,137 names submitted, only 238 people received emergency exit visas. Arendt and Blücher were fortunate enough to be among them.

Arendt was 34 years old when she arrived at Ellis Island on the SS Guiné on 22 May 1941. She had $25 in her pocket and didn’t speak English. She had fled two world wars, been arrested by the Gestapo, and escaped an internment camp. Her life was just beginning.