Daniel Maier-Katkin, Stranger from Abroad,
Hannah Arendt, Martin Heidegger: Friendship and Forgiveness
Daniel Maier-Katkin’s “Stranger from Abroad: Hannah Arendt, Martin Heidegger, Friendship and Forgiveness” explores the life-time relationship between Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger. When Arendt was a precocious 18 year old, in her first year at Marburg University in 1924 Weimar Germany, philosopher Martin Heidegger was one of her teachers. Married with a son and twice Arendt’s age at 36, Professor Heidegger took a shine to the young student and – violà — a campus romance ensued. Although few self respecting parents would be comfortable with their daughter in such a relationship, campus liaisons between starry eyed undergraduates and older teachers are probably more commonplace than parents of college-aged daughters would care to admit — I’m willing to bet that there might even be a present-day example at one of our institutions of higher learning here in the United States. But the Heidegger-Arendt relationship has historical interest for two reasons: both Heidegger and Arendt would go on to become formidable 20th century intellectuals — Heidegger was already a rising star in 1924 in the world of academic philosophy; and Heidegger would enthusiastically embrace the Nazi party when it came to power in 1933, while the Jewish Arendt was forced to flee the Nazis and Germany later that year, and would never again live in the country of her birth.
Arendt’s flight took her first to France, then to New York in 1941, where her professional career flourished. Her first major work was “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” published in 1951, an analysis of Communism and Nazism that found parallels in the way the two systems exerted control over their populations. But Arendt is probably best known for her writings on the 1961 trial of Adolph Eichmann for the New Yorker magazine, a series of articles that evolved into Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Arendt found the mass killer Eichmann to be distinguished only by his ordinariness and stunning mediocrity, far more a proficient bureaucrat than a cold-blooded killer. Arendt’s phrase “banality of evil” has itself become commonplace in our language. Maier-Katkin suggests that Arendt’s conclusions about the ordinariness of Eichmann may have been consistent with inchoate views she had already formed of Heidegger, and help explain a subsequent reconciliation with her former teacher, notwithstanding his embrace of Nazism.
Arendt’s university affair with Heidegegger began shortly after her arrival at Marburg University. For Arendt, the air around her brilliant professor “seemed to crackle with ideas and questions” (p.29). Arendt “seems to have loved him from the very first day, and he seems to have been drawn to her immediately” (p.29). Although Heidegger made clear at the outset of their affair that he would never leave his wife, his family, or the respectability of his university position, Arendt was “confident that the love between them deserved to be preserved and nurtured independently of any social convention or competing obligation” (p.36). Heidegger’s personal life was already awash in prevarication and deceit, but these characteristics did little to lessen Arendt’s admiration and love for the man. “Even after Hannah began to understand that he [Heidegger] was a liar who said whatever was necessary to manage a moment, she always believed that Martin loved her more than he loved anyone else” (p.44-45).
Through Heidegger, Arendt “began a lifetime of thinking, including a persistent line of thought about thinking, about what we are doing when we are thinking” (p.28). For Heidegger “meditative thinking,” the term he used to describe thinking about thinking, had the “potential to lead us toward an understanding of the significance or meaning of existence” and “nothing was more powerful than questions about the meaning of existence . . . why should anything exists, why should there not be just nothing” (p.29). Meditative thinking is surely a fine exercise for philosophers seeking to understand the meaning of existence. But if one were to judge by Heidegger, such thinking does not necessarily lead to sound political choices.
Although Heidegger’s political views prior to the Nazi era are difficult to pin down, he was “no democrat,” plainly anti-Communist, and was drawn to German “’ways of being,’ often thought to contain a degree of authoritarianism” (p.76). When the Nazis came to power, Heidegger collaborated with party officials in order to be named Rector at Freiberg University, where the incumbent refused to fire Jewish faculty members. Once Heidegger obtained the post at Freiburg, he signed off on the dismissal of all Jewish faculty members, including his former mentor and world famous philosophy professor Edmund Husserl. If not an anti-Semite,” Maier-Katkin contends, Heidegger was “certainly an opportunist” (p.94). “Grandiosity, arrogance, pride, provincialism, and ambition” all contributed to Heidegger’s readiness to embrace the Nazi cause (p.80). But Heidegger’s embrace went beyond “foolish grandiosity.” His intellectual stature “helped to legitimize the Nazi seizure of power at a time when 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” (p.100).
By 1936, Heidegger had fallen out of favor with the Nazis, in part because he was deemed insufficiently dedicated to the cause. He nonetheless continued to pay party dues for several years thereafter. After the war, Heidegger minimized his involvement with the Nazi regime and academically was entirely rehabilitated, “without apologia or mea culpa” (p.244). In seeking reinstatement at Freiburg University, Heidegger argued that he had joined the Nazi party because it “facilitated his efforts to protect the university” and because he “hoped that the participation of intellectuals would deepen and transform National Socialism” (p.171). He had dismissed Jews from the university “reluctantly and passively only to keep the university from being closed” (p.171). He too had been a victim of Nazism, “spied upon, marginalized in academic and intellectual circles, his work denied the national and international visibility it deserved” (p.172). In 1950, the Freiburg University Senate reinstated Heidegger’s right to teach.
Arendt followed Heidegger’s career while she was forging her own outside Germany, a “stranger from abroad.” After an unsuccessful marriage in 1929, Arendt married Heinrich Blücher in 1940, and the couple remained married until Blücher died in 1970. Arendt and Heidegger corresponded after Arendt fled the Nazis and Germany in late 1933. Maier-Kotkin documents several instances after the war when they met. The first, in 1952, was a “joyous moment of reconciliation, an instant recognition of continuity of interest, affection, and attraction in a shattered world” (p.183). Heidegger and Arendt met on several occasions in the 1960s and, for the last time, in August 1975, a few months prior to Arendt’s death and less than a year before that of Heidegger.
Arendt appears to have forgiven Heidegger’s embrace of Nazism. In a speech she delivered in 1968, in honor of Heidegger’s 80th birthday, Arendt came closely to saying so publicly. Here, she termed Heidegger’s Nazi affiliation an “escapade” which she ascribed to a need to avoid the “reality of the Gestapo’s secret rooms and the torture cells of the concentration camps” (p.304-05). Seeking to understand why Arendt seemed so untroubled by Heidegger’s “escapde” with the Nazis, Maier-Katkin suggests that the views Arendt expressed in her Eichmann writings may afford a clue.
Arendt’s experience with Heidegger may have “prepared her to comprehend, when she saw Adolf Eichmann, that a ‘terribly and terrifyingly normal’ man – or even a man of extraordinary intelligence like Martin Heidegger – might be transformed by the total moral collapse of society into an unthinking cog in the machinery of totalitarianism” (p.286). While the notion of the “banality of evil” seemed to be a shocking epiphany which came to Arendt while covering the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem, Maier-Katkin surmises that Arendt may have developed the notion “intuitively and without clear articulation in [her] relation to Heidegger” – he too was “at the epicenter of evil” but was motivated “less by racial ideology than by careerist opportunities” (p.286). Arendt’s observation that Eichmann was human and not a devil, Maier-Katkin argues, could be seen as a
logical corollary of her earlier understanding of totalitarian systems: that they secure the complicity of whole populations – the Eichmanns and the Heideggers – through the use of terror, propaganda, and largesse to undermine any moral compass and to manipulate culture, language, and all the affiliative herd impulses so that average, normal citizens and even truly exceptional people become confused about right and wrong (p.286-87).
After her husband’s death in 1970 and that of another key mentor, Karl Jaspers, Heidegger became Arendt’s “only remaining link to the world she had known in her youth” (p.314). In her solitude, Arendt became “increasingly absorbed in her effort to comprehend the relationship between thinking and moral judgment; and she was never far from her gratitude to Martin Heidegger, the ‘hidden king of thinking’ with whom she had first been introduced to the life of the mind” (p.314-15).
For Maier-Katkin, the central question in assessing Arendt’s reconciliation with Heidegger ought to be “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” (p.346). Unfortunately, I found this important question for the most part unanswered in this otherwise well-written and easy-to-read work, part of my disappointment that it doesn’t delve deeply enough into Arendt’s psyche to explain adequately her continued affinity for the “hidden king of thinking.”
Maier-Katkin’s supposition that Arendt’s notion of the banality of evil could be applied to Heidegger in the manner she had applied it to Eichmann is intriguing but not demonstrated here, notwithstanding an extensive written record left by a woman who wrote prolifically and candidly. Absent the probing analysis into Arendt’s psyche, I couldn’t put aside the naïve suspicion when I finished the book that her reconciliation with Heidegger might represent the simple but powerful triumph of Eros, the continuation of a school-girl crush that even the horrors of Nazism and the Holocaust were unable to dispel.
Thomas H. Peebles
October 8, 2013