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“All for the sake of Freedom”: Hannah Arendt’s Democratic Dissent, Trauma, and American Citizenship


As an intellectual Jewish immigrant, Hannah Arendt’s work is informed by two key factors: the failures of German intellectuals regarding the rise of fascism and the promise of American democracy. Arendt was haunted by the past and the memories of how the democratic structures of the Weimar Republic had been undermined, manipulated, and finally transformed into a totalitarian terror regime. The issues of freedom, equality, and the shortcomings of democratic societies form a transcultural nexus in her oeuvre. This reading of Arendt will reveal how her efforts to deal with a transatlantic traumatic past shaped the felt need to voice democratic dissent in the United States. While much has been said about her theoretical groundwork on the mechanisms of totalitarian systems, Arendt’s living conditions as a naturalized foreigner, her enthusiasm for American democracy, and her refusal to return to Germany have been largely neglected. Arendt is usually rooted firmly in a European philosophical context. She has been canonized as one of the foremost philosophical thinkers from Germany on the emergence of totalitarian systems and the Holocaust. This transatlantic force field looms large over the second half of the twentieth century in the realm of culture and politics. Among her fellow intellectual émigrés and exiles such as Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse, or Fraenkel, Arendt stands out. She decided not to return to the new democratic Germany with its Grundgesetz fashioned along the lines of the American Constitution. Instead, she insisted on becoming naturalized and used her transnational background as a basis to address democratic gaps from the vantage point of an American citizen. First, Mehring shows in which ways Arendt identified herself as an American and wished to become recognized as an American citizen. Second, he reconnects Arendt’s democratic dissent with her efforts to become recognized as an American citizen.

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