Forgiving Hannah Arendt

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March 25, 2010

In 1933, with a great deal of public fanfare, the German philosopher Martin Heidegger joined the Nazi party. He had been elected Rektor of Freiburg University less than a month earlier, and the position allowed him to exercise his new ideology. He personally dismissed the University’s Jewish faculty—including his friend and mentor Edmund Husserl, to whom he had dedicated Being and Time. In speeches Heidegger celebrated Adolf Hitler as a “man of unprecedented will” who alone “is the present and future German reality and its law.”

Hearing this from one of the twentieth century’s most prominent philosophers remains deeply troubling even now, when Heidegger—without apology for his Nazi dalliance—has regained his place among the stars of Western philosophy. But awareness of Heidegger’s faults fails to preempt our reverence for his work. Like Ezra Pound, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, and even Michael Jackson, Heidegger raises the old question of whether or not the work can or ought to be judged separately from its producer—the question of whether we can forgive Heidegger’s enthusiasm for the Third Reich out of regard for his genius. For Hannah Arendt, at least, the answer was yes.

Arendt’s “yes” is the subject of a new book by Daniel Maier-Katkin, who sets out to examine Heidegger and Arendt ‘s life-long friendship. Titled Stranger from Abroad: Hannah Arendt, Martin Heidegger, Friendship and Forgiveness, Maier-Katkin’s book attempts to make Arendt’s forgiveness consistent with her intellectual work, laying heavy emphasis on the places where it is implicitly or explicitly informed by her thinking. Maier-Katkin is not the first to look at the relationship of these two minds, and relies heavily on the work of others who have done so. But he has certainly done his reading. The book is filled with neat little philosophical summaries: Heidegger’s notoriously unreadable Being and Time is summed up in a single paragraph; the entire history of metaphysics occupies three pages. For those unfamiliar with the life and work of Arendt and Heidegger, Stranger From Abroad, which is quite accessible, will serve as a helpful, if uncritical, introduction.

Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger met and fell in love in 1924, when Arendt was an eighteen-year-old student at the University of Marburg. What is know about their love affair comes to us mainly from the letters Heidegger sent her—for whatever reason he did not keep hers. The letters are full of standard lovers’ fare: “sunshine,” he wrote his liebe Hannah, “is the foundation of your soul, before which I am helpless—made helpless by your elementary joy.” Heidegger, thirty-five, married, and a father of two, was then a rising star in the philosophy department, someone from whom it was rumored “one could learn to think.” Arendt attended Heidegger’s lectures on Plato’s Sophist, in which he taught that what mattered was not the substance of Plato’s thought, but the fact of his thinking. This emphasis on thinking as a good in itself would remain paramount in Arendt’s work.

The two began to meet clandestinely in Heidegger’s office and about campus. They spoke for hours at a time. According to Maier-Katkin, Arendt “loved the way Martin talked…perfect German, the language of Goethe and the voice of Bildung und Geist.” The strength of Heidegger’s thinking, and his deep roots in the German intellectual tradition, held a vast appeal for Arendt. She began, with what Heidegger called “shy, resolute persistence” to fortify the courage of her own thought.

By 1926, however, Arendt had decided, with Heidegger’s encouragement, not to return to Marburg. Instead, she went first to Freiburg to study under Husserl, who held the chair that Heidegger himself would later occupy, and later to Heidelberg, where she worked with Karl Jaspers. She and Heidegger continued to see one another frequently, however, until 1928 when Heidegger, having just published Being and Time, broke with Arendt, fearing his new fame brought increased risk of the affair’s discovery. Arendt, broken-hearted, wrote to assure him of her continuing love: “I would lose my right to live if I lost my love for you, but I would lose this love and its reality if I shirked the responsibility it forces on me.” Arendt was to prove herself true to that promise, showing that she took seriously the responsibilities laid on her by love.

In his description of the affair Maier-Katkin paints Heidegger as a “weak character” and notorious liar, whose very involvement with Arendt demonstrated an unreliable nature, hinting perhaps at his susceptibility to the Third Reich’s propaganda machine. Arendt knew of Heidegger’s political leanings. Hearing rumors of his anti-Semitic hiring practices, she wrote him an angry letter. Heidegger denied her charges, citing his relationships with Jewish students—Arendt above all—as evidence of his open mind. It would be the first of many times that Heidegger used Arendt as a way to save face.

Arendt left Germany in 1933, and she and Heidegger broke off communication for 27 years. Aware that he had embraced National Socialism, Arendt was furious, opposing the publication of his books in the United States, where she had emigrated with her husband Heinrich Blücher. But in 1950, Arendt was in Germany on behalf of the Commission on European Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, and she sent Heidegger a note. They met at the restaurant in her hotel. Arendt believed Heidegger when he claimed to have been an innocent victim of Nazism, and the two were reconciled. Arendt visited Heidegger frequently for the remainder of her life, and they exchanged letters and poems in quantity. Reversing her earlier position, Arendt worked tirelessly to oversee the translation and publication of Heidegger’s work in English, contributing to the repair of his reputation in Germany and abroad.

The phrase Maier-Katkin uses—with astonishing frequency—to describe Arendt’s relationship with Heidegger is “thinking with and against,” which he sees her doing in much of her work. The phrase casts the relationship in the mold of the “two-in-one” duality of a mind engaged in philosophical thought: one voice reacting to what the other proposes in response, revision, rejection, or what Karl Jaspers called the “loving struggle of the mind.” Certainly, Arendt’s work owes a debt to Heidegger’s thought and way of thinking, but the same may not be said for him. “I have been virtually lying to him about myself,” Arendt wrote, “pretending the books, the name, did not exist, and I couldn’t, so to speak, count to three, unless it concerned the interpretations of his works.” Their relationship remained as it was in the beginning—that of a professor and a schoolgirl. Maier-Katkin passes over this inequality, but the fact that Heidegger essentially maintained a position of authority over Arendt surely changes the way we must understand their friendship.

Shortly after their reunion in 1950, Arendt and Heidegger discussed the question of forgiveness. At the time, Arendt felt that forgiveness caused imbalance in a relationship, the one who is forgiven being set apart from the one who forgives. She believed something “like an averted glance, a silent passing over of injustice, an acceptance of suffering as destiny that does not require self-reflection about one’s own potential to be among the guilty” to be the more equitable way. This sounds quite un-Arendtian in its willingness to pass over the potential culpability of the “victim,” something Arendt refused to do in The Origins of Totalitarianism, let alone in Eichmann in Jerusalem. The willingness to pass over injustice rather than confront it strikes one as the sort of intentional blindness that occurs when emotions are strong enough to overwhelm the intellect. It is clear, though Maier-Katkin does not acknowledge it, that Arendt wanted to forgive, whether or not there was a intellectual reason for doing so.

At the time of Arendt’s reunion with Heidegger, Blücher remained in New York and was not responding, for whatever reason, to Arendt’s letters from Germany. These letters, which Maier-Katkin cites as expressing Arendt’s “concern,” are in fact full of naked expressions of jealousy and bitterness: Blücher had had an affair with a young woman eighteen months earlier, and in his silence Arendt saw evidence of renewed infidelity. It is perhaps no surprise that in this context she was eager to reconcile with the great love of her youth. Her willingness to avert her eyes from Heidegger’s wrong-doing was perhaps partially due to the fear of losing Blücher, and the need for love and support that resulted from it. But Maier-Katkin, in awe of Arendt’s thinking, does not see what amounts to her fallibility as an individual, cloaking reconciliation instead in the philosophical justifications Arendt herself produced on its behalf. In a book that addresses Heidegger’s fallibility, the refusal to see the human weakness of another makes the argument appear lopsided and lax.

Arendt addressed the question of reconciliation in The Human Condition), a book in which Maier-Katkin sees her “thinking with and against” Heidegger. Here Arendt revised what she originally suggested in conversation—the idea of reconciliation as an averted glance—and reconsidered the concept of forgiveness. She has, as Maier-Katkin points out, an almost Christian understanding of forgiveness: those who trespass must be forgiven for “they know not what they do.” Because trespass arises out of this state of thoughtlessness, Arendt writes, forgiveness “is always an eminently personal affair in which what was done is forgiven for the sake of who did it.” Again, Arendt’s thought has points of contact with Christianity: forgiveness is initiated out of love for the person and for the humanity shared between the one who forgives and the one forgiven. But, as Maier-Katkin writes, friendship, “unlike friendliness and good manners, cannot be universal; friendship requires us to make distinctions among individuals.” Maier-Katkin does not question this, but it smacks of moral relativism: forgiving a friend who is guilty and not an unknown other who commits the same crime looks like an act of selective blindness, or worse, a justification after the fact. Arendt found that unknown other in the person of Adolf Eichmann, a man in whom, while his crimes were a good deal more severe than Heidegger’s, Arendt recognized the same thoughtlessness that made the evil of both banal.

How could Arendt have supported Eichmann’s execution and yet welcomed Heidegger back into her life? Maier-Katkin’s claim, that Eichmann’s crimes were so severe as to require “retributive judgment,” whereas Arendt was able to reconcile with Heidegger because “she believed in the power of new beginnings, and of the necessity…to pick up the pieces and build a better world,” is too easy. It appears more likely that Arendt, like anyone who feels personally close to the perpetrator of a crime, looked more humanely at Heidegger than she did at Eichmann, a stranger. Maier-Katkin suggests that Arendt saw redemptive virtues in Heidegger that Eichmann did not possess. But would Arendt, had she known and loved an Eichmann, have forgiven even him? The point at which humane insight crosses over into blindness here becomes quite blurred, and into the moral quagmire Maier-Katkin barely dips a toe. What he cannot quite bring himself to say is that Arendt forgave Heidegger because she needed to for herself: because he was a rare thread of continuity with her past—her beloved German Kultur, which no longer existed—as well as because she loved him, and love, for her, outweighed political considerations.

Eichmann in Jerusalem famously incited a storm of indignation among Jewish critics. One of the more interesting criticisms came from Gershom Scholem, who wrote to Arendt of “Ahbath Israel: Love of the Jewish people,” claiming that “in you, dear Hannah, as in so many intellectuals who come from the German Left, I find little trace of this.” Arendt wrote back that although she came from the German philosophical tradition and not the German Left, Scholem was right about Ahbath Israel: “I have never in my life ‘loved’ any people or collective—neither the German people, nor the French, nor the American, nor the working class or anything of that sort. I love ‘only’ my friends and the only kind of love I know of and believe in is the love of persons.” In fact, Arendt may be thought of as a citizen first and foremost of the love of persons. As she wrote Mary McCarthy) after Blücher’s death, “Between two people, sometimes, how rarely, a world grows. It is then one’s homeland; in any case, it was the only homeland we were willing to recognize.”

There is some justice to the claim that Arendt was a Jew who did not love the Jewish people. She loved Jews, certainly, but as individuals, not as a group. Love for her, like justice, was individualized. Likewise, Maier-Katkin writes, Arendt believed “that mercy is applicable to the person rather than the deed. Mercy does not forgive murder or betrayal, but pardons murderer or traitor insofar as he, a person, may be more than anything he ever did.”

The culpability of victims was one of the questions with which Arendt struggled throughout her life. But Maier-Katkin lets Arendt, a victim of Heidegger’s duplicity, enact the contradictions such a victimhood forced on her without holding her to account. Arendt’s forgiveness of Heidegger is couched in a sort of doublethink—the desire to keep him in her life at odds her own principles. Heidegger must have been a source of comfort for a woman who, at 45, still called herself a “girl from afar.” He was a connection to her estranged past. Maier-Katkin takes issue with those who see Arendt as a self-hating Jew wanting to preserve her German identity. But it seems obvious that Arendt, though not a self-hating Jew, would want to preserve her German-ness. Her need to keep close a dear friend of her youth, a man she had loved, is unsurprising. It does not release her from criticism, but there is no reason to stand aghast at Arendt’s desire to forgive a friend, whether or not he merited forgiveness. Arendt, towering figure though she may be, was not just German and Jewish, but also only human.

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