A Life in Dark Times Book Summary

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Hannah Arendt: A Life in Dark Times by Anne C. Heller (Paperback, 144 pg)

Brief Overview

The trial of Adolf Eichmann, a leading organizer of the Holocaust, is a seminal moment in the history of human rights.  Eichmann had escaped from custody shortly after WWII and was recaptured (some said kidnapped) by Israeli forces over fifteen years later.  He was later executed for his crimes. The trial was a worldwide event, the testimony of survivors particularly having long-lasting significance.   

As noted in a review of The Eichmann Trial by Deborah E. Lipstadt, a 2011 history of the events, what many often remember is not the trial itself.  It is a book by Hannah Arendt, a German Jewish refugee, who became a celebrated scholar and writer on such topics as totalitarianism.  Her famous reference to the “banality of evil” is from the subtitle of the book.  

Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) is one of the great thinkers of the 20th Century.  She was a student of Martin Heidegger, the German philosopher, and Nazi sympathizer. Years after their death,  it was learned that they were also lovers.  This just added to the controversy. 

Arendt’s scholarship and her personal appeal were already clear in her college years.  She escaped Nazi Germany and later Nazi-controlled France, settling in the United States in the 1940s.  Her reputation was firmly established with her book The Origins of Totalitarianism.  

Arendt’s strong character and scholarship also had their critics.  She opposed the creation of Israel as a purely Jewish state and many thought her analysis of the Eichmann Trial unfairly criticized Israeli leadership and the Jews themselves.  Arendt’s opposition to desegregation efforts in the United States is another (lesser known) controversial opinion.  

Anne C. Heller’s biography provides a crisp short introduction to Hannah Arendt’s life.  

Favorite Quote

If thoughtful men and women mourned the loss of Hannah Arendt, it was at least in part because in her great books — The Origins of Totalitarianism, The Human Condition, and Eichmann in Jerusalem — as in almost all her works, she remained something of a stranger, willing to examine the world from the point of view of an outsider, even in dark and dangerous times.  

Anne Heller

Hannah Arendt is remembered for her contemplation of dark forces such as antisemitism and totalitarianism which she also experienced.  She considered herself a “conscious pariah,” which she felt was an essential part of her integrity.  This book helps us understand her life.  

Should I Read It?

This book was originally written as part of an “icons” series of very short introductions to various historical figures.  The author might have just been tired after writing a biography of Ayn Rand (read by a minor character in Dirty Dancing!) around six hundred pages long.  

Whatever the reason, this is a good introduction for people interested in learning about Hannah Arendt.  A book this size is obviously not a comprehensive account of her life and works.  Nonetheless, it is a fine summary of the basics, including providing a flavor of her philosophy.

It is appropriate for a layperson or for college students reading up on history and cultural thinkers.  The book provides a calm, balanced account at times critical of its subject.  

The book does not have an index or any photographs.

Those who enjoy this book might also like these reviewed on this website:

The Eichmann Trial by Deborah E. Lipstadt is also recommended.  The book is primarily about his capture and trial.  Afterward, Lipstadt provides a mixed judgment of Arendt’s coverage as well as some final conclusions.  I think the first part of the book was the best part.  

Comprehensive Summary

Eichmann in Jerusalem: 1961-1963

Hannah Arendt is infamous for her account of the trial of Adolf Eichmann, brought to justice by the young nation of Israel for his part in carrying out the Holocaust.  The trial was “the international equivalent of the O.J. trial in its day.”  And, this included the controversy involved.

Arendt argued that Eichmann was not some great monster. His evil was in fact quite “banal,” which on some level made it so much scarier.  Her account did appear to some to strip Eichmann of some of his guilt.  Also, she was quite critical of the prosecutor and leadership of Israel, who she thought was using the trial unjustly for propaganda purposes.  

Arendt’s analysis is subject to some dispute, including if she spent enough time observing it to get a full sense of things.  But, what truly upset (and still upsets) people, especially since she herself was a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, was her suggestion that Jews actually assisted Eichmann by blindly following the rules.  

Was Arendt blaming the victims?  This surely crossed the line for many of her former friends.  

Death of the Father: Königsberg, 1906-1922

Hannah Arendt was born to privilege, educated Jews in pre-World War I Germany.  

Arendt was an only child, the start of a solitary view of her place in the world that in some fashion lasted her entire life.  Her father died when she was young of syphilis, adding a sense of loss and shame.  Childhood illness and financial struggles during WWI followed.

Her mother remarried a working class Jewish widower, furthering Hannah’s sense of displacement.  From a young age, she took refuge in education, including translating Greek.  Hannah’s mother was her protector, including when she dealt with anti-Semitism in school.  

First Love: Heidegger in Marburg, 1924-1932

Hannah was able to go away to obtain an education with the help of an uncle who still had some money.  She eventually studied with the famed thirty-something philosopher, Martin Heidegger.  It later was discovered that the married Heidegger and his student had a years-long affair.  

Heidegger, more so than Hannah knew (or at least at times wished to admit), had Nazi leanings and anti-semitic beliefs.  When Hannah gave him a self-portrait (“The Shadows”) of herself, Heidegger appears to have sent her the message that she should not be “too Jewish.”  

Heidegger was a major influence on Hannah, including her love of philosophy, poetry, and writing. Heidegger ended the affair. Hannah married one of his students.  It would be a short-lived marriage, ending with both her and her husband as refugees.

We Refugees: Berlin and Paris in the 1930s

Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany in 1933.  Hannah, now in her twenties, assisted the Jewish resistance effort.  After being arrested, Hannah knew it was no longer safe to stay in Germany.  She moved to Paris and worked in various jobs helping Jews and Jewish refugees.  

While still married to her first husband, Hannah met and fell in love with Heinrich Blücher, a non-Jew from a working-class background who played a role in communist politics.  He would be the love of her life, marrying him in the late 1930s and staying with him for over thirty years.  

Both were detained after the start of World World II but were able to escape to the United States.  Hannah’s mother went with them while her stepfather stayed behind.  He died of natural causes shortly before the Jews in his area were taken to concentration camps.  

Security and Fame: The Origins of Totalitarianism

Hannah arrived in New York City in May  1941.  Arendt financially struggled the next few years but found the city a welcoming place, including intellectually.  

She learned English and each her of many books would be written in that language.  She also in these years learned about the Holocaust.  Hannah’s reputation as a writer grew, especially once she published her most famous book on totalitarianism.  

Her husband became a beloved professor at Bard College (New York).  Her mother died in her seventies in 1948.  Hannah continued to write, edit, teach, and travel to Europe for her work.  

After the war, Hannah also met up again with Heidegger, forgiving him.  Hannah believed that without forgiveness, a person would be stuck in the past.  Many felt Hannah was too sympathetic and supportive of Heidegger, but she did not whitewash his record.  

After Eichmann: New York, 1963-1975

Hannah still had a lot of support even with the opposition to her book on the Eichmann trial. 

Arendt’s “heart, humor, intelligence, and stamina” continued.  She continued to contemplate “human dignity, rebellion, unconventionality, and freedom.”  The book discusses some of her philosophical writings and motivations.  I will not try to summarize all of this in a few words.  

She had various teaching jobs including stints in Chicago and New York.  By this time, her financial situation became more comfortable, and she and her husband were able to travel.  He died in 1970.  She herself, still working and contemplating, died five years later.  

Points to Ponder

This book is a “very short introduction” type volume and has been praised for summarizing such a prolific, long-living figure so well.  As someone who has tried to summarize material that people have written books about, this talent has my personal respect.  

Also, it helps a person understand a lot more things if they need not read long books to get the core of the subject matter.  A well-rounded person should be knowledgeable about many topics.  They need not read a long biography, such as Heller’s book on Ayn Rand, to do this.  

The trick here is how to do it.  A basic thing to remember is that choices have to be made.  The author was asked about writing a short account in the Q&A portion of a presentation on Arendt.  Heller openly said that choices have to be made.  Things are left out.  

I think she did an overall good job.  What would be a useful approach to take here? Did she make any mistakes?  For instance, Arendt’s life involved a range of important and influential people.  I think a “list of characters,” which I have seen in some history books, would have been useful to keep track.  Also, even a small book is helped by an index.  This does not have one.  


Anne C. Heller was a magazine editor and journalist and also the author of Ayn Rand and the World She Made.  Her Ayn Rand biography is a much larger work.  

She was a magazine editor, journalist, and literature professor.  She was also a member of the Board of Directors of the New York University Biographers Seminar and of the Biographers International Organization.   Anne C. Heller died in October 2022.

Is Hannah Arendt a Reliable Source?

Anne C. Heller is the author of a well-received biography of Ayn Rand, another leading female European refugee and cultural theorist of the 20th Century.  

She was also a beloved member of the Biographers International Organization as seen in a memorial after her recent death.  Her reliability is shown in this well-researched biography with careful endnotes.  This is also seen in the positive critical reviews.

I would say this is a reliable source.