On The Centenary of Hannah Arendt's Birth
A Denkraum (Thinking Space) Is Born

By Sebastian Hefti and Wolfgang Heuer

(Translated from the German by Kathrin Nussbaumer)

"Every human being, on account of being born, is an "initium", a new beginning and a new arrival in the world; therefore, human beings are able to take initiative, become beginners, and set new things into motion." [1]

We are grateful and pleased that on October 14 2006, on the occasion of Hannah Arendt's one hundredth birthday, her Denkraum (Thinking Space) was opened. And above all, that it was both opened and located in the city of Berlin, the very place from which, as a German Jew, she had to flee in 1933.

"I immediately knew: Jews could not remain. However, I did not leave peacefully. And I have to say, 'I felt a certain satisfaction over it.' I was arrested and had to leave the country, illegally. [Nevertheless], I thought 'at least I did something! At least I am not innocent'!" [2]

A Hannah Arendt Denkraum in Berlin? What is that supposed to be? What made us initiate this art exhibition? The proximity of Arendt's work to art was already obvious in her lifetime. Today she has to be rediscovered anew but from multiple perspectives. It is Hannah Arendt's art that has enabled us to take the risk of a Denkraum in the city of Berlin. To this very day, Arendt's texts spark occasional and sometimes heated debate. They are the object of academic controversy, primarily because she addresses her audience from a writer's perspective. Being more than philosophical, political , or historical theory, her texts are also literary creations. They will remain written works of art long after having become historical objects and once the air of contemporary controversy surrounding them has faded. Today, that literary and artistic monument is shared by both German and American literature and represents our common world heritage. This "north Atlantic alliance", in its critical explosiveness, confronts the Western military pact of violence, however unlike it, that alliance is a global pact of mutual understanding and communication.

"Even if that understanding presents no obvious, inspiring, or helpful results, it goes hand in hand with the battle against totalitarianism, if that battle is to be more than a mere fight for survival."[3]

Through her great care in the use of language [and all the foreign languages and expressions she mastered], Hannah Arendt firmly established herself in the art of writing. Therefore, it is natural that the reading room (Leseraum) is the center piece of our Denkraum. It is where the author's excellent books, her polished lectures, and the outstanding and skilled artistic portraits of her are housed. These art works, however, that populate the Leseraum are in no way iconizations, mummifications, or mere symbolism. Rather, they express the artists' own encounter with the underlying works themselves and they move and evolve as the works move and evolve, much in the way Hannah Arendt created them and which exists to this very day.

"Me, try to influence? No, I want to understand. And when others understand-in the same way I have understood-then I feel gratification, like a sense of home." [4]

Brecht and Kafka were of great importance to Arendt. But her correspondence with contemporaries, like the artists Al Copley and Carl Heidenreich, or the writers Uwe Johnson, Wysten Auden and Ingeborg Bachmann also became part of her life and work. She considered them to be the equals of the great philosophers and with regards to the "matters of humanity", she believed the artistic sense to be higher than the philosophical sense.

"Works of art receive permanence through their origin-perhaps because they are born on the non-timely path of thinking." [5]

One significant element of Hannah Arendt's literary art can be found in the abundance of metaphors that populate her forms of expression. That is why the space that artists create in response to their encounter with Arendt's "metaphorical language" paradoxically opens access to the literary works themselves. In that sense, the atmosphere Hannah Arendt creates through her metaphors is "like that elated feeling by which one is overcome when one walks through an arch into open space." (Mary McCarthy) [6] Those who come to value the metaphors they encounter in Arendt's writing workshop will find themselves both sensitive [and immune to] the metaphors used by contemporary politics and in particular, the deceptive language that is the fatal contribution of that politics.

"Image-making as world politics-not world conquest, but victory in the battle for people's minds-is indeed new in the truly not so small arsenal of human folly that History gives us." [7]

The artistic exhibits shown in the former Jewish girls' school are examples of what can happen in Hannah Arendt's Denkraum. The exhibition does not claim to fill the space in its entirety, nor to present it as a complete form. Rather, as a fragment that is part of a larger whole, we hope our Berlin Initiative will encourage visitors to use the Denkraum as a workshop to continue their independent and individual encounter with its subject.


[1] "Weil jeder Mensch auf Grund des Geborenseins ein ‚initium', ein Anfang und Neuankömmling in der Welt ist, können Menschen Initiative ergreifen, Anfänger werden und Neues in Bewegung setzen."
Vita Activa, München 1981, S. 166. (The Human Condition, § 24)

[2] "Ich war sofort der Meinung: Juden können nicht bleiben. Trotzdem bin ich schließlich nicht auf so eine friedliche Weise abgezogen. Und ich muss sagen, ich verspürte darüber eine gewisse Befriedigung. Ich wurde verhaftet, musste illegal das Land verlassen. Ich dachte, wenigstens habe ich etwas gemacht! Wenigstens bin ich nicht unschuldig!"
Interview with Günter Gaus

[3] "Auch wenn es keine sonderlich hilfreichen oder inspirierenden Ergebnisse zeitigen kann, muss Verstehen den Kampf gegen den Totalitarismus, so er mehr sein soll als ein reiner Überlebenskampf, begleiten."
Understanding and Politics

[4] "Ich selber wirken? Nein, ich will verstehen. Und wenn andere Menschen verstehen-im selben Sinne, wie ich verstanden habe-dann gibt mir das eine Befriedigung wie ein Heimatgefühl."
Interview with Günter Gaus

[5] "Was den Kunstwerken ihre Dauer verleiht, ist vielleicht ihr Ursprung: sie wurden auf dem nicht-zeitlichen Pfad des Denkens geboren."
(English entry by Arendt in Denktagebuch, January 1970: What gives artworks their permanence is perhaps their origin-they were born on the non-time track of thinking.)

[6] "Dieser Raum, den Hannah Arendt in ihrem Werk schafft und in den man sich hineinbegeben kann-mit dem erhebenden Gefühl, das man hat, wenn man durch einen Bogen in ein befreites Gebiet geht!"
Mary McCarthy at the Toronto Conference, see: Hannah Arendt, On Hannah Arendt, in: Melvyn A. Hill (ed.)

[7] "Image-Making als Weltpolitik-nicht Welteroberung, sondern Sieg in der Schlacht um die Köpfe der Leute-ist allerdings etwas Neues in dem wahrlich nicht kleinen Arsenal menschlicher Torheiten, von denen die Geschichte berichtet."

Lying in Politics


Hannah Arendt speaks

Audio installation in the exhibition Put together by Reinhard Kohl in collaboration with the feature department, Kulturradio RBB

… about turning points in her biography

1 "… either I can study Philosophy or I'll drown myself."

2 "… among intellectuals, Gleichschaltung was the rule, so to speak."

3 "The day we learned about Auschwitz was decisive."

… about the motor of her thinking

4 "When others understand, in the same way I have understood, then I feel gratification, like a sense of home."

5 "When many act together, they have power. As long as we are alone, we are always powerless."

6 "… one doesn't say we, but rather one says I, then one judges for him- or herself."

7 "It is through style that our personality is expressed, that which we are not aware of ourselves."

… about the miracle of beginnings

8 "Each new beginning becomes a miracle, provided it is seen and experienced from within a viewpoint of processes which it necessarily interrupts."

9 "… the historical process is created through human initiative."

10 "There is nothing superstitious about counting on the unpredictable in politics."

… about Eichmann, the Nazis and Evil

11 "He is by no means the only one who names order, oath, God and the obligation to obey as his defense."

12 "This strange sense of duty in Germany, this inability, as Kant says, to put oneself in someone else's place, that is German."

13 "I have read this police report, 3600 pages, very carefully and I can't tell how many times I laughed-burst out laughing."

… about upbringing

14 "… adults refuse to take responsibility for the world into which they have brought children."

15 "It is as if the adults are telling their children every day: you cannot count on us being at home in this world either."

16 "… we spoil everything if we try to get our hands on everything new in such a way that we, the old ones, determine what it will look like."

17 "… to shelter and protect-the child against the world, the world against the child, the new against the old and the old against the new."