Summer 2010

Meeting of the Minds

– Michelle Sieff

The long quest to make sense of the intimacy between Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger.

Since 1982, when Elizabeth Young-Bruehl published Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World, it has been widely known that Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger had an affair. He was Germany’s leading philosopher of existentialism; she was a German Jew and one of his most promising students at the University of Marburg during the 1920s. But the winds of history blew their lives in different directions. When Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933, Arendt fled to France, then the United States. Heidegger joined the Nazi Party and became the rector of Freiburg University, where he dismissed Jewish faculty. Though he resigned after one year, he remained a member of the Nazi Party and supporter of National Socialism.

In 1951, Arendt published The Origins of Totalitarianism, and quickly came to be viewed as one of the most brilliant political philosophers of her era. A year earlier, during her first trip to Germany since she had fled, Heidegger had visited her hotel. Afterward, she wrote, in her characteristically visionary style, that it was “the confirmation of an entire life.” Whether they resumed their sexual relationship remains unclear, but until her death in 1975, they corresponded and sometimes saw each other when she was in Germany. She assiduously helped translate and promote his work in the United States.

Scholars have struggled to make sense of the intimacy between these two titans of 20th-century thought. In Hannah Arendt/Martin Heidegger (1995), Elzbietta Ettinger took a critical view and accused Arendt of whitewashing Heidegger’s Nazi past. Now, in Stranger From Abroad, Daniel Maier-Katkin, a professor of criminology at Florida State University with a particular interest in crimes against humanity, presents a more sympathetic interpretation of the relationship, and explores its influence on Arendt’s philosophy.

How could Arendt have resumed her friendship with Heidegger? Maier-Katkin proposes an interesting answer, suggested by a radio address she wrote for Heidegger’s 80th birthday in 1971: Arendt believed that Heidegger had taught her how to think. She contended that he instructed students in a style of “passionate thinking,” in which thought is pursued for its own sake, and not to achieve some result. In the address, she excused Heidegger’s Nazism as the momentary error of an intellectual who later recognized his mistake and broke with the regime.

But a wing of Heidegger scholars in France and Germany have long contended that Heidegger’s Nazism was not fleeting but rather essential to his philosophical endeavor. As French scholar Emmanuel Faye argues in Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism Into Philosophy, published in English last year, “Heidegger devoted himself to putting philosophy at the service of legitimizing and diffusing the very bases of Nazism and Hitlerism.” How is it that Arendt, who trenchantly analyzed racist thought in her own work, failed to take seriously the racist categories in Heidegger’s philosophy, and even promoted his work?

An important point of Maier-Katkin’s book is that Arendt’s reconciliation with her mentor shaped her ideas on political evil. As he notes, Arendt’s political consciousness was transformed in 1943, when she learned of Hitler’s gas chambers. For the rest of her life, she struggled to understand the meaning and causes of Nazi evil. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, she argued that the perpetrators of Nazi genocide were in the grip of a mad theory of history that required the elimination of the Jews from the earth. But in Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963) she held that many perpetrators, including the Nazi bureaucrat Adolf Eichmann, had more banal motives, such as keeping their jobs. Katkin suggests that her reconciliation with Heidegger led Arendt to develop the notion of the “banality of evil,” a concept that downplayed the anti-Semitic motives of Nazi perpetrators.

This explanation is based on a misapprehension of Arendt’s “banality of evil” concept, which she first introduced in an often-overlooked 1945 essay, “Organized Guilt and Universal Responsibility,” years before her reconciliation with Heidegger. She used the idea to explain the actions of thoughtless functionaries of the Nazi regime. It was not intended to explain Heidegger, who was a thinker, a philosopher, and ultimately a fanatical supporter of Nazi doctrines.

Maier-Katkin’s effort to link Arendt’s erotic attachments to her work is provocative, but it ultimately leads him to flawed interpretations of her political philosophy. This is a shame. With the emergence of radical Islamist movements, which in many ways resemble the totalitarian movements Arendt analyzed, her ideas are as relevant and necessary today as they were half a century ago.

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Michelle Sieff is a research fellow at the Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Anti-Semitism. She is writing a book on the ideology of the modern human rights movement.

Reviewed: Stranger from Abroad: Hannah Arendt, Martin Heidegger, Friendship and Forgiveness by Daniel Maier-Katkin, W.W. Norton, 384 pp, 2010.

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Federico Novaro