Freedom of Movement

by Hermann Pfütze

(Translated from the German by Kathrin Nussbaumer)

Hannah Arendt said in her address "Von der Menschlichkeit in finsteren Zeiten - On Humanity in Dark Times" upon receiving the Lessing Prize in 1959:

"Of all the specific liberties which may come into our minds when we hear the word 'freedom', freedom of movement is historically the oldest and also the most elementary. Being able to depart for where we will is the prototypal gesture of being free, as limitation of freedom of movement has from time immemorial been the precondition for enslavement." 1)

All other forms of freedom; of action, of speech and of thinking, do not precede freedom of movement and are not independent of it, but are its discoveries. Therefore, freedom of thinking under unfree conditions seems to allow the possibility of "moving freely in the world", at least in one's own mind, in spite of travel bans and restricted residency permits. The retreat into, for example, the so-called inner emigration, happens because of the awareness of not being free, and the price that one pays is the loss of reality. 2)

"Flight from the world in dark times of impotence can always be justified as long as reality is not ignored, but is constantly acknowledged as the thing that must be escaped."3) The reality of retreat "inheres in the world from which (one) has escaped." 4) All refugees know that, and it is the experience of the lonely. It is essential, Hannah Arendt writes in her Denktagebuch in August 1952, "to keep always in mind that freedom can only be real in plurality, in the space that exists between people, granted they live and act as a community." 5) However, "each retreat from the world results in an almost demonstrable world loss; what is lost is the specific, and in most cases irreplaceable, interspace that would have evolved between exactly the retreated and those around him or her." 6) A great thought: retreat, not as making room for others, but as destruction of the shared room for action; retreat reduces the freedom of movement for everyone because its own restrictions also affect everybody else's freedom. A society's spaciousness is not dependent on the density of its population, but on the freedom of movement of its individual members, even in the biggest tumult. That is the specific image Hannah Arendt has in mind concerning the creeping loss of reality that comes with "escape from the world into one's own self, of which we hope that it can exist in sovereign independence of the outside world."7)

Parastou Forouhar's topic for her contribution to the Hannah Arendt Denkraum is the experience of restricted freedom in the "grid of totalitarian and ornamental order" under the theocratic dictatorship in Iran. 8) Those who retreat give up all kinds of freedom. Now one could say that in an overcrowded world filled with violence, retreat makes sense in order to allow everyone to find a safe place and to keep people from crowding in on each other. Each and every person has a fixed place-that may be the result of a State Security apparatus' wish for order, but it is the biggest possible contradiction to Hannah Arendt's concept of freedom. Her outright physical notion of freedom, that is in no way restricted to thinking, becomes especially powerful in dangerous times. It seems invigorating and optimistic.

Freedom is never absolute, but always oriented towards goals and wishes. It is filled with other people and circumstances. It is occupied with the things and facts that concern it. Despite all notions of freedom, we cannot refrain from making note that the location of Hannah Arendt's Denkraum is heavily occupied by its history. Failure to understand this would restrict the exhibition to the contained artifacts themselves. Like at all Jewish institutions in Germany, visitors have to go through a security check at the entrance. This also shows how connected 'freedom of action, speech and thinking' are to the most basic notion of 'freedom of movement'. We become aware of that connection because the Hannah Arendt Denkraum does not provide a safe space within the real world; rather, its reality is the real world.

The temporary transformation of this space into the Hannah Arendt Denkraum can neither make the National Socialist, nor East German history of the physical building disappear. The building remains the former Jewish girls' school. From 1939 the Nazis used it together with the building next to it, the former Jewish orphanage, to imprison Jews from central Berlin (Berlin-Mitte). Then they deported them to the Jewish ghettoes and starting in 1941, to concentration camps. Like all other Jewish schools, the Nazis closed the girls' school on 30 July 1942 and forced students and teachers into exile. Today the building shows the traces of its decay, dating from the fall of the East German Communist Government. It could be said that this modern, motion friendly Bauhaus-style building is the attractive miscast of our project, waiting for a renovation.

The Hannah Arendt Denkraum is an attempt to open up interspaces of freedom; an attempt to give back the identity to this space that had been erased by the dual totalitarian suppression of National Socialist and then Communist Socialist occupation. Despite all of the differences between National and Communist Socialism, their regimes shared the contempt for plurality, which Hannah Arendt identifies as the centerpiece of totalitarianism. In a place where the freedom to travel was declared a crime, called "flight of the republic", that might have been sanctioned with death, other, smaller freedoms most certainly were in danger and possibly even crippled. Those injuries were neither to be cured with the illusion of a happy home life through socialist daily routines, or with anti-fascist pathos. Totalitarian systems and closed-minded world views cannot be true or right, for the simple reason that, according to a centerpiece of Hannah Arendt's Heidegger criticism, the individual freedom that lets us decide always keeps the possibility of mistakes in mind whenever we make judgments about what is right or wrong, truth or lie, dream or illusion. It is not the truth that makes us free, but, on the contrary, freedom is the inalienable prerequisite for the establishment of truth. Personal freedom, on paper as well as in practice, strongly influences the shape and content of thinking. It is so to say a variable constant and a permanent companion of judgment.
In a TV-talk with Roger Errera, Hannah Arendt said:
"The only thing that can really help us, I believe, is 'réfléchir', reflection. Thinking means to think critically all the time. And thinking critically means to be against something all the time. All thinking indeed undermines existing, rigid rules, general assumptions, etc. Whatever happens in thinking, it is, I believe, subject to critical inspection of what is. That means, there are no dangerous thoughts for the simple fact that all thinking in itself is highly dangerous. However I believe that not to think at all is even more dangerous."

To this day, Hannah Arendt's analysis and criticism are not the least outdated, neither by contemporary politics nor by our current standards of judgment. Her style is unerring and her point of view passionately rational. Both would seem to me to be in high demand when viewed within the context of our present time of aesthetic arbitrariness and intellectual underselling.


1) Men in Dark Times,
Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968, pg 9.

2) ibid, pg 9. ("For Lessing, thought does not arise out of the individual and is not the manifestation of a self. Rather, the individual - whom Lessing would say was created for action, not ratiocination - elects such thought because he discovers another mode of moving in the world in freedom.")

3) Men in Dark Times,
Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968, pg 22.

4) Men in Dark Times,
Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968, pg 22.

5)Hannah Arendt, Denktagebuch, 1950-1973, Erster Band, hg. von Ursula Ludz und Ingeborg Nordmann,
S. 223, München 2003.

6) ibid. See also "At the same time we cannot fail to see the limited political relevance of such an existence, even if it is sustained in purity. Its limits are inherent in the fact that strength and power are not the same; that power arises only when people act together, but not where people grow stronger as individuals." Men in Dark Times, Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968 , pg 23.

7) "But to be precise, Stoicism represents not so much a retreat from action to thinking as an escape from the world into the self which, it is hoped, will be able to sustain itself in sovereign independence of the outside world." Men in Dark Times, Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968, pg 9. 8)

Parastou Forouhar, Unsere Freiheit hinter Gittern, F.A.Z. (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung) 8 April 2006, p. 42. 9)

The New York Review of Books 25, 2/10/1978, No. 16, p. 18. See also "Hannah Arendt, Ich will verstehen. ed. by Ursula Ludz, Munich 1996, p. 123" for the German reference.