Arendt and Heidegger: Reviewing the friendship

Stranger from Abroad

Review Maier-Katkin, D.  Strangers from Abroad – Hannah Arendt, Martin Heidegger: Friendship and Forgiveness publ. WW Norton, NY & London 2010.

The love affair between Hannah Arendt, a Jewish political theorist, and Martin Heidegger, now recognised as one of the most important philosophers of the twentieth century, was first revealed in 1984. The affair started in 1924 when Arendt was just 18 and Heidegger, her University teacher, was a married man of 35, with two young boys. It lasted as active and intimate passion for less than a year, though with the occasional night together in a hotel. At this point, Arendt decided to study instead with Karl Jaspers, philosopher, psychologist and friend of Heidegger’s, in Heidelberg.

Why should we be interested? Hannah Arendt is a largely forgotten figure in the Jewish world – not, perhaps, as much forgotten as obliterated, excoriated, dismissed: a self-serving, self-hating Jew, a Jewish antisemite. This cloud of loathing first threatened to break when she sided with Judah Magnus and Martin Buber, rather than Jabotinsky and the ‘revisionists’, in campaigning for a Jewish homeland in Palestine rather than a State. The cloud darkened when she signed a letter to the New York Times in 1948 together with Albert Einstein, amongst many others, opposing the visit to the States of the terrorist Irgun leader, Menachem Begin.

But her real ‘crime’ was the report she submitted to the New Yorker magazine, subsequently published as Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil in 1963. Nothing made her more famous; nothing damaged her more.   Some thought she was dismissing the holocaust as banal. Others in the Jewish world were quite unable to believe that Eichmann was not a monster, yet Arendt wrote that he was quite normal, not stupid and did not even hate Jews. Psychiatric reports confirmed that he was not perverted, sadistic or obsessed with insane urges to kill. Arendt noted that he spoke in clichés and appeared totally unable or unwilling to think about what he was doing. This was anathema to the Jewish world; it made no sense and appeared to excuse Eichmann. Of course, the problem was the sense it did make: ordinary people are capable of carrying out evil acts.

There was one further charge against Arendt. She criticised the failings of the Jewish leadership in sometimes co-operating with the Nazis in the choice of victims. She even condemned Leo Baeck for making the decision to keep to himself the knowledge he had of the fate that awaited the Jews in the Camps. Although this was not an entirely new topic, the juxtaposition of a critique of Jews with what was read as an exoneration of Eichmann was too much for the Jewish world, which exploded, the Anti-Defamation League publishing a widely circulated pamphlet entitled Arendt Nonsense. She was denounced and vilified virtually everywhere though we can be proud that Rabbi Albert Friedlander was one of the few Jewish figures to give her a platform.  When, as Jewish Chaplain, he invited her to Columbia University the hall was swamped by more than 400 enthusiastic students.

What about Martin Heidegger? When Arendt, as a precocious young student first met him, his reputation was already widely established though it was two years before the publication of his major work, Being and Time. He was celebrated by students as bringing fresh air to the stale halls of academia. He had a revolutionary approach to teaching Greek philosophy, being concerned to cleanse philosophy of what he saw as its false, post-Socratic concerns and return it to its true fundamental search for the meaning of Being. Given that Judaism is founded on God who is I AM THAT I AM, there is a clear overlap here. He was resolute in not wanting to teach about philosophers and thinkers but determined that his students should think for themselves.

The emphasis on ‘thinking’ is, of course, a link between Arendt and Heidegger. But here lies the central question. If thinking is so important, how could it be at the time of Germany’s descent into barbarism, that Heidegger was no different from so many others? In 1933 at Hitler’s accession to power he was prepared, even eager, to be appointed as Rector of Freiburg and instigated the ‘cleansing’ of the University by dismissing the Jewish faculty, including his own teacher, Husserl. Not only this: he even hoped (totally unrealistically) to become the philosopher of the Nazi Party. Though he resigned within the year, the damage, and not only to his reputation, was irreparable. He remained a member of the Party till the end of the war.

Daniel Maier-Katkin’s new book, Stranger from Abroad, is a first-rate contribution to unravelling these complex knots. Although not written for the scholar, it is scholarly and though far from being yet another of the repetitive series of sensationalist and second rate works on the love affair between the Nazi and the Jew, it uses the inevitable fascination of the topic to illuminate the more important surrounding issues of the collapse of Germany. It provides a close and honest scrutiny of the relationship and also a sound if brief analysis of key texts and the intellectual tradition in which both Heidegger and Arendt found themselves.

The denigration of Arendt reminds us of what happens today when a Jew in the diaspora publically criticises Israel and is immediately castigated as self-hating. In fact, Arendt was at all times a proud and outspoken Jew, who courageously worked for the Zionists, secretly researching in the Prussian State Library the extent of German anti-Semitism until she was arrested, interrogated by the Gestapo and fled to France in the autumn of 1933, where she started working for Youth Aliyah. In 1940 she eventually managed to escape to the States. There, with her new, lifelong and beloved partner, she continued her work with Youth Aliyah, as well as writing and editing essays almost entirely on Jewish issues, constantly deepening her understanding of what had happened, leading to the publication of The Origins of Totalitarianism (1950). She first returned to Germany in December 1949, as Director of Jewish Cultural Reconstruction Inc., to survey the remains of Jewish life and begin the task of collecting Jewish books, Torah scrolls and artefacts – none of this the work of a self-hating Jew.

Recently, the importance of Arendt’s own work, particularly The Human Condition (1958) and The Life of the Mind (1977) is being recognised and most intriguing is the extent to which she positions herself over and against Heidegger, both as a woman and Jew. Her writing emerges out of passionate commitment and she too challenges all the traditional philosophical categories. Though she was explicitly not a ‘feminist’, the startling freshness of her emphasis on ‘natality’ – that each new birth, regeneration, action is a new beginning – is a wonderful ‘woman’s’ contribution and directly opposes the almost morbid preoccupation with death and mortality which so influenced the contemplative, solitary, western Christian tradition.  This teaching, which she derived, astonishingly, from St Augustine, the subject of her dissertation, turns the tradition of Western and Heideggerian philosophy on its head.

Arendt combined this insight with another which is essentially ‘Jewish’, even though she did not recognise its origins, in her teaching that the world is (note the gender!) made for men and not for man. In other words, her concerns were with how people live together, which she saw as an entirely neglected area in western philosophy.

Arendt’s life search was to understand the inter-connections between thought, judgment, will and action. How does what we think, and believe, link with what we say and do? What place is played by emotion? Her work was never purely theoretical. She had watched, lived through, and been deeply shaken by the collapse of Germany and German civilization. What had happened and how?  What were the lessons? The single, solitary thinker trying alone to understand was never her ideal and she was deeply critical of the western tradition of ivory-tower philosophy which she saw as dominated by the ancient dichotomy, lauding the vita contemplativa (the contemplative life) above the vita activa (the active life) to such an extent that concern with politics was regarded as less valuable and without true meaning and purpose. Such a lack of involvement and understanding she saw as factors leading to Heidegger’s critical mistake. Her own life included active political engagement and analysis. She was often prophetic, in the sense of seeing the ethical issues in the present situation. Her essays are deeply rewarding as we, too, strive to make sense of our place as Jews in the world.

She was an extraordinary, truthful, obstinate, sometimes naive and outspoken person and her apparent arrogance covered deep sensitivities. Most of all she valued friendship and she could be friends even with those who were long dead.  She saw friendship as the foundation of humanity. But she also recognised its limitations – she never got over the shock that some whom she counted as friends could not be relied upon as Germany turned Nazi. Later, too, she was deeply hurt, following the Eichmann controversy, that people like Gershom Scholem, the scholar who first awoke academic interest in Jewish mysticism and the kabbalah, whom she had known for so many years, could fundamentally misunderstand what she was saying and condemn her so scathingly.

Arendt remained a loyal friend to Heidegger, even though she knew he was a flawed, vain, self-indulgent liar. In February 1951, after discussing it both with her husband and with Jaspers (who had refused to grant Heidegger denazification so that he could teach), Arendt went to meet him, first alone, the next day also with his wife. After their initial meetings and a voluminous correspondence (much of it poems and love letters), Arendt took on the task of supervising the translation of Being and Time, and its publication in the States, just as she had done with Walter Benjamin’s papers, which she rescued as she fled from France.

Heidegger never spoke publically about the Nazis, the camps or his own responsibilities: Meier-Katkin points out that his open allegiance to the Party undoubtedly contributed to its developing respectability. There is one notorious short reference that Heidegger made in a 1949 lecture on the dangers of mechanization – what we would now call ‘factory farming’ – which he says has transformed agriculture into:

a motorized food industry, in essence the same as the manufacture of corpses in gas chambers and extermination    camps, the same as the blockade and starvation of countries, the same as the manufacture of atomic bombs. 

Meier-Katkin is justifiably equivocal here but suggests, amongst more critical comments, that Heidegger’s ‘turn away from man’s will to dominate the world through science resonates as an early recognition of the increasingly apparent dangers of technology in an epoch of environmental degradation’. The book is thought-provoking, full of wisdom, insight and tenderness. Do read it.


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