In his new graphic biography, The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt: A Tyranny of Truth, Ken Krimstein imagines Hannah Arendt’s life, from her birth in Germany in 1912 to her death in the United States in 1975, spanning major world events in 20th-century Europe and America. In drawings and word bubbles, Krimstein makes it work on many levels, beginning with his decision to tell this complicated story in three parts, with escape becoming a mode of transition.
Her first escape was from the Gestapo: after her arrest in 1933 for researching antisemitism, she and her mother fled Berlin over the mountains at night into Czechoslovakia and on to Paris. Her second escape was from the Gurs concentration camp in southwest France, where she was interned in 1940 as an “enemy alien”, just before the German invasion of France. Arendt simply walked out of the camp, making her way to Lisbon and eventually to the USA. Her third escape was from her former teacher, the philosopher Martin Heidegger, famously a Nazi sympathizer, with whom she had been in love, and whom she could not give up. Meeting Heidegger’s wife in one hilarious section, a thought bubble floats over Elfride’s head: “Jew Cow”, matched by one hanging over Hannah’s: “Nazi Bitch”. As in Art Spiegelman’s Maus – surely the template for all graphic novel histories – even fraught situations have their moments of levity.
How about this exchange, typical of the verbal and visual shenanigans cartoons can allow: just before a demonstration, a toxic stew of “technology, thuggery, and Teutonic myth” and an announcement that the Reichstag is on fire, Hannah sees Albert Einstein, who says,
“I have a question for you, Hannah. What is the meaning of life?”
She: “Romaniches strudel.”
He: “Seriously, bitte.”
She: “Thrownness, Albert.”
He: “In plain German, please.”
She: “We are thrown into this world. We have no choice in it… Everything that’s thrown at us equals its meaning.”
He: “My dear Hannah, I’m reputed to be quite good at maths, but I’m afraid that equation is out of my league. Bon chance.”
We see Hannah at the center of four panels, smoking, and wearing green. (Green is the only colour in the book, because Arendt favoured it.) The panels follow the movement of her thought, from, “There is a truth” to “There is one key to the world” to “One universal answer to understanding” to “There must be”.
Ideas progress rapidly, aided by footnotes introducing the reader to W. H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood, Niels Bohr, Artur Schnabel, Rudolf Breitscheid. There is no lack of intellectual rigour. The text speeds through key episodes: her professorship at Princeton, her friendship with Mary McCarthy and her covering of the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem for The New Yorker. The signature and controversial phrase, “the banality of evil” is given no particular weight, just the acknowledgement that, “the shit hits the fan. I quickly realize I’ve perpetrated one of the greatest examples of ‘too soon’ in human history.”
As a whole, the book may be enjoyed as a tasty smorgasbord of bites for further exploration offered in the footnotes and well documented “suggested reading”, or as a true-life cautionary tale highlighting the dangers of poo-pooing those of our leaders who refuse to tell the truth. Hannah Arendt was a “virulent truth-teller”, and here she provides wisdom from beyond the grave: “If we want to avoid Auschwitz or the Gulag or Stonewall or Pol Pot or Attica or Isis, we as a species have no choice but to embrace it and endure it” – “it” being “the never ending mess of true human freedom”.