“The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt: A Tyranny of Terror” by Ken Krimstein— A Graphic Look at Hannah Arendt

Krimstein, Ken. “The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt: A Tyranny of Truth”, Bloomsbury, 2018.

A Graphic Look at Hannah Arendt

Amos Lassen

Hannah Arendt was one of the greatest philosophers of the twentieth century and a hero of political thought who was largely unsung and often misunderstood. She is best known for her landmark 1951 book on openness in political life, “The Origins of Totalitarianism” with its powerful and timely lessons that make it very relevant today.

Arendt led an extraordinary life. She endured Nazi persecution firsthand and survived harrowing “escapes” from country to country in Europe. She was a friend of such luminaries as Walter Benjamin and Mary McCarthy, Marc Chagall, Marlene Dietrich, Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud. She was a woman who finally had to give up her unique genius for philosophy, and her love of a very compromised man (the philosopher and Nazi-sympathizer Martin Heidegger) for what she referred to as “love of the world.”

New Yorker cartoonist Ken Krimstein’s brings us a strikingly illustrated portrait of a complex, controversial and courageous woman whose intelligence led her to brilliant insights into the human condition.

I am a huge fan of Arendt and was so when it was not the best time to be one. To be in the same room with Arendt was to be in a room with greatness and the few times that I was able to do so gave my life a whole new meaning. Ken Krimstein brings us a deeply moving graphic memoir about the life and thoughts of Arendt. We see clearly hear that through her words, Arendt taught us about how to live in the world, the meaning of freedom, the perils of totalitarianism, and our power as human beings to think about things and not just act blindly. There is a lot to know about Arendt and Krimstein explains her ideas clearly and with humor and in doing so we see why they still resonate.

She was an émigré intellectual who lived through dark times, leading a life of the mind. Krimstein turns a wartime adventure tale into a coming-of-age story, a graphic novel of ideas, a political biography, and a meditation on the importance of truth.

To some it might seem counterintuitive that Hannah Arendt who was known for her fiercely independent and pioneering philosophical writings, should be the subject of a cartoon biography, but Ken Krimstein shows that it could be respectfully done. He sends “a fundamental, crucial message regarding Arendt’s thinking about the world and the possibility of a recurrence of the thoughtless, meaningless evil of destruction that appeared in 20th century totalitarian regimes”.

Basically, this is a biographical work that stresses Arendt’s lifelong search for a way to understand the world around her. We look at Arendt through three escapes. Before he does this, he looks at the social trials of Arendt’s childhood and youth, the beginning of her need and desire to understand, and her infamous relationship with her professor/philosopher Martin Heidegger. Arendt’s three escapes include one from Berlin in 1933 after being arrested for doing research for a Zionist organization. Her second escape was from France in 1941 after she was able to get away from an internment camp during Germany’s invasion. Her third escape came while Arendt lived and worked in New York.

It is clear that Krimstein admires Arendt very much and takes a particular line in presenting her life and character. Heidegger seems to occupy Arendt’s thoughts too much and too long after they lost contact. Krimstein uses Heidegger to illustrate arguments that Arendt has with herself in later years. She gave us the phrase “the banality of evil,” and this is a very true way to look at human drive.

Krimstein is faithful to the known facts of Arendt’s life and certainly gives her a long overdue placement in the world of 20th century philosophers. “If she had done nothing else but contribute the concept of “the banality of evil” to our discourse, Arendt would have earned her place in our thinking processes… and, yes, as the book makes clear, she did much more.” Arendt was a complicated person and a complicated Jew in life and thought. Told from the perspective of Arendt herself, the book is a probing look at the many dimensions of fidelity to truth that she sought to uncover in humanity. We gain insight into the Arendtian perspective as well as a sense of its relevance to today. We must be “cognizant to not let demagogues and opportunists co-opt the democratic values that are essential to maintaining civil liberties.”

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