The Three Escapes of Hanna Arendt: A Tyranny of Truth, by Ken Krimstein (Bloomsbury), £14.99/$28
Cartoonist Ken Krimstein has written a delightfully informative graphic novel with his recent The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt: A Tyranny of Truth. The complexity of who Hannah Arendt was (a Jewish woman, criticised by both fellow Jews and fellow women) presents an opportunity to explore how a philosopher matured in her thinking. Krimstein weaves Arendt’s dramatic biography and her ideas together in this charming, often funny, book. Illustrated in muted greys, Krimstein uses a splash of green to highlight the figure of Arendt in each drawing, picturing her with a serious countenance, a mass of curls, and a cigarette perpetually dangling from her fingers.
Arendt was raised in Kant’s beloved Königsberg, and Krimstein playfully draws little (Jo)hanna skipping through the streets, while also troubled by the increasing anti-Semitism of her classmates and the death of her father when she was seven. Krimstein captures two noteworthy events in Arendt’s childhood. First, Arendt read all of Kant’s works by fourteen — Krimstein whimsically draws her perched on a teetering stack of books. Second, he depicts Arendt’s mother advising her (as the real-life Arendt later explained in an interview) to stand up for herself in the face of Anti-Semitism: “If one is attacked as a Jew, one must defend oneself as a Jew.”
One of the most complicated aspects of Arendt’s life was her romantic relationship with Martin Heidegger, which began when she was his student at the University of Marburg. A contentious topic in itself, Krimstein avoids portraying their relationship in ways that diminish Arendt or venerate Heidegger. Krimstein introduces fellow German intellectuals Leo Strauss, Herbert Marcuse, Emmanuel Levinas, and Walter Benjamin. Arendt ‘s friendships represent a who’s who of the mid-twentieth century intellectual and artistic world, all brought to life with Krimstein’s pen and a brief biographical footnote on each figure. (Unfortunately, Krimstein only briefly mentions Karl Jaspers, Arendt’s lifelong mentor, friend, and moral compass).
The “three escapes” of the title refer to three pivotal moments in Arendt’s life. The first came after the burning of the Reichstag in 1933, which the Nazis used as justification for expanding their power. Krimstein draws Arendt with a plume of cigarette smoke as she weighs Kurt Blumenfeld’s request that she amass German anti-Jewish propaganda to share with the outside world. Arendt agreed, and was arrested when someone notified officials. It was due to Arendt’s sheer cleverness that she was eventually released. Arendt and her mother escaped Germany and found their way to Paris. Here, Arendt became close with Benjamin and met her second husband and lifelong confidant Heinrich Blucher.
Arendt’s second escape came in the spring of 1940 when Germans of a certain age in Paris were gathered, then sent to Gurs internment camp. On this page, Krimstein presents nine panels, each with the sombre portrait of a German woman, with the green-clad Arendt in the centre. Amid confusion at Gurs, Arendt seized an opportunity to escape while the women who stayed were transported to concentration camps by Adolf Eichmann. Now, to get out of Europe. Krimstein depicts Arendt and Benjamin’s agonising yet bittersweet conversations about which option would likely be the most successful way out. A lonely, bespectacled Benjamin is shown wandering off, suitcases in hand, while Arendt secures visas. Krimstein draws Arendt as she learns of Benjamin’s suicide on the Spanish border, clutching his manuscript and sobbing.
By 1943, news of the death camps reached the American press; Krimstein recreates the moment of reckoning for Arendt (now in New York) in a one page panel with her staring off, smoking, the word, “Why,” written in large letters behind her. On a darkened page, Krimstein’s Arendt grapples with the war’s end by asking endless questions, only sure that “old answers are mute.” A subdued Arendt gathers her thoughts about this period, naming the phenomenon “totalitarianism.”
Krimstein envisions Arendt’s third “escape,” not as a physical departure, but as an intellectual and emotional break with Heidegger. Arendt is no longer the humble student but now a respected scholar on her own; Krimstein portrays Arendt and Heidegger in a heated conversation in which she criticises both his philosophy and behaviour. A stern-looking Heidegger responds with displeasure and disbelief. Instead of Heidegger’s focus on “death,” Arendt offers “natality.” In place of Heidegger’s “Man,” Arendt offers “men in their plurality.” Arendt is now “free.”
Krimstein reserves the last pages of Three Escapes for the event that made Hannah Arendt a familiar name to the American public – writing about Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem – an opportunity she saw as performing “journalism as philosophy.” Given her awareness that she escaped death at Eichmann’s command, Arendt describes remaining detached during his trial by resorting to sarcasm, understatement, and parody. Krimstein’s Arendt argues it would be a disservice to describe Eichmann’s crimes as extra-ordinary because that would fail to hold accountable the bureaucratic structures that foster “Eichmanns.” Arendt is depicted as saddened but steadfast as she realises her analysis hurt and angered fellow Jews. Drawn in the last panel as standing atop the world with stars swirling about her, Krimstein’s drawings breathe life into Hannah Arendt and her “inner dialogue” of thinking in this wonderful book.