The dazzling writer and thinker Hannah Arendt, now best remembered for the storm of controversy that arose after publication of her 1963 New Yorker series on the trial of Adolph Eichmann, was brilliant, beautiful when young, and irresistible to gifted men, even in her chain-smoking, highly confrontational middle age. Born in Prussia to assimilated Jewish parents, she escaped from Hitler’s Germany in 1933. She learned to write in English at age 36, and yet her first book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, single-handedly altered the way generations of Americans and Europeans understand the meaning of fascism and the attempted destruction of the Jewish people. She was extolled by her peers as a visionary and criticized, even denounced, as a poseur, especially following the publication of the book version of Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, in which she depicted the Nazi transportation master Adolf Eichmann not as a monster but as a self-seeking bureaucrat incapable of moral thought. After the revelation in the 1990s that she had been the lover of the great Romantic philosopher and Nazi sympathizer Martin Heidegger in the 1920s, she and her work have been more fiercely debated than ever before. Margarethe von Trotta’s prize-winning 2013 film reimagining Arendt’s attendance at the Eichmann trial has added fuel to the fire, as has the recent publication of anti-Semitic passages from Heidegger’s “Black Notebooks.”
Heller’s fast-paced biography, which draws upon exhaustive archival research as well as interviews with Arendt’s surviving students, friends and relatives, tracks the source of her apparent contradictions and her greatest achievements to her proud if hidden sense, beginning in a tumultuous childhood, of being what she called a “conscious pariah”—one of those few people in every time and place who don’t “lose confidence in ourselves if society does not approve us” and will not “pay any price” to win acceptance. Arendt possessed what Eichmann, Heidegger, and her late-life acolytes and adversaries never had: the readiness to be an intrepid outsider whenever necessary but never to be a victim of others’ expectations or definitions.