Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger by D. Maier-Katkin

In November 1924, her first semester at Marburg University, Hanna Arendt attended a series of lectures by Dr. Martin Heidegger on the subject of Plato's Sophist. Heidegger's purpose was to demonstrate to his students that it was not Plato's thought that was decisive, but their own thinking arising from direct personal confrontation with the matters about which Plato thought. In fact, he taught that philosophy or "the intellectual tradition of the West" had gotten onto the wrong path with Plato, who had turned away from the awe-filled contemplation of the actual existence of things towards an abstract metaphysics of ideas and ideal types, which were at best indirect, derivative, and secondary manifestations of Being. Heidegger thought that human experience and understanding both lie closer to the realm of feeling and mood that inheres in poetry, and preferred the fragmented suggestions of the pre-Socratic Greek philosophers.

Twenty-five years later Heidegger wrote a poem that recalled the excitement and dissipation of listlessness he experienced at the moment when he first saw Hannah in the seminar on Plato's Sophist: "If only she, from withdrawn grace, would fall towards me..." At the end of class one day at the beginning of February 1925, Heidegger approached the stylish young girl with stunning eyes who sat in the seminar room taking careful, thorough notes and asked her to come to see him in his office. The days are gray, wet and cold in Marburg at that time of year, and the old buildings were chilly and damp. When she came to his office, Hannah was wearing a coat, buttoned to the collar and a hat with a large brim against the rain and cold. He asked about the lectures and the philosophers she had been reading; she answered briefly in a soft voice, sometimes in Greek and Latin. She looked away demurely, but he took her in his eyes and years later admitted to Hannah that he had retained the image of a shy girl quietly answering his questions all the rest of his life.

A few days later Hannah received a note from him that began "Dear Miss Arendt, I must come to see you this evening and speak to you heart...." This is how their love began, she a 17 year old student, he a married man with children. Hannah was captivated by the intensity of Heidegger's affection, dazzled by his erudition and by the physicality of their relationship, its aura of sexual excitement. These moments with Heidegger- on campus benches, long walks, in Hannah's attic room or Martin's darkened office- never ceased to be the personification of passion in Hannah's memory and understanding of the world. To the end of her life he would hold the place of " the king of thinking".


Martin Heidegger, hoping perhaps to have the last word on his own past, granted an interview to the editors of Der Spiegal on September 26, 1966, on the condition that they not publish it during his lifetime. He died on May 26, 1976, and the interview appeared five days later under the title "Only God Can Save Us". In it Heidegger reiterated the same revisionist lies and half-truths that he had told without success to the de-nazification commission thirty years earlier: he was apolitical, was never an enthusiastic Nazi, took up the rectorship only to protect the university, resisted the firing of Jewish professors, did not break wih Husserl and Jaspers, and did not wish to align the university with National Socialism.

Although undermined in some ways by extravagant claims of anti-Semitism and a great deal of abstract argument about the relationship between Heidegger's thought and Nazi ideology*, several books recent books have gone a long way to set the record of Heidegger's embrace of the Nazi Revolution, his misdeeds and postwar dissembling. As a consequence, more details are available to us about Heidegger's politics and character than were ever available to Hannah Arendt. Would it have made a difference if she had known all that we know now?

Presumably her detractors think not. In their view Arendt was a self-hating, German-loving, anti-Semitic Jew, and this alone explains her criticism of Jewish leadership for its role in the Holocaust, her disapproval of Israel's exclusionary and militaristic identity, and her characterization of Nazi evil as banal. Only a Jew who did not love Jews, it is still said in some quarters, could think such things; such a Jew would have to forgive Heidegger and go on loving him in order to preserve and protect her own identity as a German.

It is true that Arendt was a product of German culture and tradition. Even her claim that she was a Madchen aus der Fremde was a reference to Schiller, and what could be more German? But why is there anything wrong or pathological about this? German culture produced not only Heidegger, but also Blucher and Jaspers, Kant, Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, Lessing, Goethe, Hesse, Mann and Planck, not to mention such German Jews as Heine, Einstein, Freud, and Arendt's greatly admired friend, the Zionist leader Kurt Blumenfeld. It is far from clear that the Nazis represented a logical extension of the German tradition rather than its radical perversion.

This hostile ( dare we say sexist) view of Arendt does not today dominate the discourse about her work ( the major ones being The Origins of Totalitarianism, Eichmann in Jerusalem, The Life of the Mind ). Nevertheless, it is obstinately present at least as innuendo, seeking to blunt her human rights criticisms of Israel and trivialize her advocacy of reconciliation between Germans and Jews, and between Jews and Arabs, by characterizing her ideas as the distorted conclusions of one whose judgment and self-image were so impaired that she could not see through her deceitful Nazi lover.

However, even if we reject politically inspired, ad hominem attacks on Arendt's psyche and recognize the importance of her contribution to the literature on totalitarianism and on crimes against humanity ( albeit largely derived from the meticulous research of Raul Hilberg), that does not mean that we have to accept Arendt's conclusions about Heidegger. Since we too participate in the life of the mind- thinking and judging for ourselves- it is necessary to consider whether she may have fundamentally misjudged him. It is this question- whether Heidegger was so deeply associated with the Nazis as to be among the Germans with whom reconciliation was inappropriate, or whether Arendt was correct to judge him as a flawed human being with redeeming virtues- more than any other that has made it necessary to disturb the peace of long-dead lovers.

In the end, perhaps Arendt's readiness to forgive Heidegger was an affair of the heart- forgiveness of neither the act nor the idea of betrayal, only this man whom she had loved, whose mind and magnetism she admired more than his character, and with whom there was wordplay and the shared occupation of working with ideas. From our own circumstances and the distance of the current moment, Heidegger may seem undeserving, but for one who knew him, understood his thinking, felt happy in his company, and recognized both the temptations and banality of evil, forgiveness in the name of friendship cannot be dismissed as evidence of self-hatred or personal pathology.

The principle benefit of reconciliation, as Arendt understood, is that it brings peace, understanding, and human warmth into a world too often hostile, confused, and cold. The promise of reconciliation, which is neither forgetfulness nor an averted glance, but a full-bodied recognition of the human condition, is that it preserves the possibility of love- in the case of Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger, an easy commerce between old friends- and friendship, as Hannah understood, is the foundation of all humanity.


*Of all the philosophical stars in the constellation of Nazi ideology, few blazed as intensely during the Third Reich or faded as quickly afterward as Fichte, the late-eighteenth century advocate of belligerent German nationalism whose volumes represent the only serious works of philosophy among Hitler's surviving books. was Fichte who provided the philosophical foundations for the toxic blend of Teutonic singularity and vicious nationalism... It was less a distillation of the philosophies of Schopenhauer or Nietzsche than a dime-store theory cobbled together from cheap, tendentious paperbacks and esoteric hardcovers, which provided the justification for a thin, calculating, bullying mendacity of National Socialism." -Hitler's Private Library: The Books That Shaped His Life by Timothy W. Ryback; Knopf, 2008


  1. "Heidegger's enthusiasm for the Nazis was in any case rooted in abstractions far removed from their real-world impact on his Jewish friends. He interpreted the National Socialist revolution as a collective breakout from Plato's cave, a dramatic moment in the history of "Being". Rudiger Safranski characterizes Heidegger's moves on the political stage as "those of a philosophical dreamer...he constructed an entire imaginary philosophical stage for the historical happening. Philosophy had to be in control of its time...". However, the impact of his actions cannot be underestimated: his intellectual stature helped legitimize the Nazis seizure of power at a time when many ordinary Germans were still wondering whether the Nazis had the sophistication and intelligence to govern Germany. It was no small thing that Martin Heidegger had confidence in them.

    But Heidegger soon developed enemies in the Nazis Party, particularly Ernst Jaensch and Ernst Krieck. They wrote to Reichsleiter Alfred Rosenberg saying that Heidegger's appointment to the prestigious chair in philosophy at the University of Berlin would be "catastrophic" as he was a man who had propped up the old system on all issues of ideology and had been supported by its Jewish cliques with whom he shared a passion for hair-splitting Talmudic distinctions. They called him a "scatterbrain". "eccentric crank" and "quintessential decadent archetypal representative of the age of decay" and declared that "men who are perfectly rational, intelligent and loyal to the new state argue among themselves as to which side of the dividing line between sanity and mental illness he is on." It was puzzling, Jaensch concluded, that Heidegger had joined the movement at all; perhaps the explanation lay in the fact that "Heidegger always wanted to be a revolutionary, always wanted to be the head of things... and was driven by the boundless self-importance of Frau Heidegger." When our revolution is won, Jaensch warned, Heidegger will start working towards the next one.

    In 1934 Heidegger resigned as Rektor of Freiburg University. He later claimed that he stepped down because the minister of education ordered him to replace the deans of law and medical schools with party members whom he considered unqualified, but more likely it was the consequence of his realization that the Nazis viewed him as a polite and deferential tool, not as a national leader to whom they would want to entrust the intellectual mission of the German nation.

  2. Stranger From Abroad; Hannah Arendt, Martin Heidegger, Friendship and Forgiveness by Daniel Maier-Katkin; W.W. Norton 2010

  3. Very beautiful and well-written my friend! I am so tired of the ad hominem attacks and psychological arguments I see in relation to Hannah Arendt. I think, or suspect, that there's much more to the story than the self-hating Jew argument; unfortunately, some of the discussion is dominated by political considerations, not human ones. The human heart is much more difficult to understand than why a person believes this or that. I am very pleased by this entry.

  4. Thanks Roberto, most of the credit goes to Daniel Maier-Katkin whose words I simply edited.

    He is a professor of criminology and criminal justice at Florida State University with a really fine sense of 'misericordia', a latin term for mercy, still used by the French, signifying heartfeltness for actual misery and situation as part of an innate human sympathy for wretchedness where it is found.

    In "The Trial in American Life" Robert A Ferguson calls it "the mystery, and the least understood aspect of judicial performance.", and often neglected in the conducts of our courts ( of which the continued existence of Guantanomo is the most telling evidence.)


    Review of a book sharply critical of the "rehabilitation of Heidegger."