“We are so accustomed to the old opposition of reason and and passion, of mind and life, that the idea of passionate thinking, in which passionate thinking and being alive become one, can be a bit startling. (Hannah Arendt: “Martin Heidegger is Eighty Years Old”, 1969)
“He who thinks great thoughts often makes great errors”. ( Martin Heidegger)
“Love has reasons which reason cannot understand”. (Blaise Pascal,Philosopher, 1623-1662)
Relatively recent revelations concerning a passionate and clandestine love affair between two of the most prominent intellectual giants of the 20th century, political theorist Hannah Arendt and German philosopher Martin Heidegger; is likely to challenge an image of Heidegger as an austere and abstract thinker and of Arendt as a consummately independent, self-assured personality. Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) was a seminal thinker within the fields of existential phenomenology and philosophical hermeneutics, best known for his ground breaking, Being in Time (1927). This masterwork,deeply rooted in both Eastern mysticism and German Romantic tradition, is widely considered to be one of the most influential philosophical works of the 20th century. (Elzbieta Ettinger Hannah Arendt. Martin Heidegger, 1995).
Johanna “Hannah” Arendt (1906-1975), a secular Jew born in East Prussia, into an economically comfortable and thoroughly assimilated leftist family, was one the 20th century’s greatest and most original political theorists. While she has been also characterized as a philosopher, she made clear her distrust of the pure thinking of philosophy as being isolated from moral and political judgment. Among her many writings was her first major work, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) followed by, The Human Condition: Men in Dark Times, and the highly contentious, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963), recently featured in the German film, Hannah Arendt (2012), directed by Margarethe von Trotta.
Both Heidegger and Arendt were highly controversial figures in relation to their personal and professional lives, as well as their vastly different responses to events during and after the multiple horrors of the Third Reich. Heidegger was an avid,unrepentant Nazi and Arendt an anti-fascist refugee and life-long supporter of Jewish causes; and still they maintained an unlikely bond which lasted for more than 40 years, during some of the darkest moments of 20th century history. Hostile critics of both scholars have sought to dismiss, trivialize, condemn,and even presumeto diagnose their relationship as a result of childhood trauma, psycho-pathology, (victim/perpetrator bond); a study in denial, morally reprehensible, adulterous, perverse (sado-masochistic Jewish submission to manipulative Aryan master) and all in all, a sad, sordid affair. (Judith Shulevitz, NY Times, January 10,1995). Many of these dubious judgments have since been held out as evidence that none of their intellectual achievements are worthy of further study.
This is not so surprising given our human proclivity to attempt to exclude, pathologize, and even persecute, all that does not fit comfortably within our often narrowly-defined, politically generated, consensus reality. In contrast, I would offer a possibility that even the word “relationship” might prove inadequate to describe the depth of this admittedly, mysterious bond, which is in itself worthy of study for those of us interested in social trauma, relatedness and our all too Human Condition.
We begin in 1924, when at the age of 18, Hannah Arendt, a strikingly beautiful German of Jewish origin, appeared as a devoted student in the intensely charismatic Professor Martin Heidegger’s philosophy class at Marburg University; at a time when he was a rising superstar in prestigious academic circles. Heidegger initiated their affair and they quickly became lovers. Secrecy was imperative, given that Heidegger was the married father of two sons. His wife Elfride, a zealous Nazi and outspoken anti-Semite, had recently had an affair of her own; resulting in the birth of a second son Hermann, which Heidegger, to his credit, took as his own. This passionate liaison between teacher and student continued for four years, during which Hannah made herself available to him anytime and anywhere that he so designated. (Daniel Maier-Katkin, Stranger From Abroad, 2010).
Those with a modern day feminist perspective have been highly critical of Arendt’s “slavish” devotion to her mentor. Yet, her apparent obedience and passivity cannot be judged by modern day standards and was quite consistent within the norms of behavior for students at German universities who related to their professors as masters. The professor literally stood upon a pedestal, classroom atmospheres were solemn, etiquette obligatory; and rules for conduct, dress, manners and appearances strictly observed. Small wonder that Arendt experienced a degree of culture shock 30 years later, when she arrived as a visiting professor at the U.C. Berkeley campus.Being among the unkempt and easy going students,with their give and take of classroom discussions, felt completely alien to her. (Ettinger, 1995).
Heidegger’s affair with Hannah was a serious risk to his professional reputation and image of respectability; and in time, with the fear of discovery and public scandal, he began to distance himself. A distraught Arendt left Marburg for Heidelberg in order to complete her dissertation, later published as Augustine and Love, with Karl Jaspers. While Hannah had left Marburg, she did not leave Heidegger; and contact and letters continued.He wrote to her in 1933sarcastically denying her suspicions and widespread rumors of his anti-Semitism.
Nevertheless, the facts are such that when Heidegger was appointed as Rector of the University of Freiburg, he joined the Nazi party, and lectured while wearing a brown shirt, thus lending his considerable academic prestige to Hitler’s cause. Soon thereafter, he zealously purged this venerable institution of Jewish faculty and students .Moreover, records reveal that he closely collaborated with Gestapo agents during their investigations of his colleagues suspected of communist sympathies. Many of his former friends and colleagues were rendered almost speechless by this treachery, including his elderly Jewish mentor Edmund Husserl, who had regarded Martin almost as a son. (Elizabeth Young-Bruehl, Hannah Arendt: For Love Of The World,1982).
Hannah Arendt barely escaped the Holocaust.After a brief arrest and imprisonment by the Gestapo, followed by a period of internment in France, she immigrated to America and finally broke off contact with Heidegger. Enraged and confused by his having embraced the Nazi cause, she blamed his ambitious careerism and Elfride’s negative influence. In time she even called Heidegger “a potential murderer” and then decided to take back those words. Now married to Marxist scholar Heinrich Bluecher, a German refugee like herself; both brought their nightmares into exile and these nightmares brought them close.
Bleucher understood love as “a galvanizing physical and spiritual force that also required that partners leave open spaces for each other to develop, act and create”, “and so will I”, he wrote in 1937; and as such agreed to be faithful “in his own fashion”. (Maier-Katkin, 2010).
In spite of her growing success as an international, influential public intellectual, Arendt suffered from her long estrangement from Heidegger and with Bluecher’s encouragement decided to initiate contact. During a post-war visit to Freiburg ,she sent an unsigned note on hotel stationary summoning him and he came immediately for their meeting. In her words, “it was as though we spoke to one another …for the first time in our lives”. Martin was still Martin, his actions were despicable and still she recognized his humanity and admired his genius. Deeply moved by the profound honesty inherent within their reconciliation, upon returning home Heidegger, notorious for lying about just about everything, finally confessed to his wife that Hannah Arendt had been “the passion of his life” and the inspiration for his work. Elfride responded with a jealous rage forbidding further contact….to no avail.
Eventually Frau Heidegger swallowed her pride and allowed the relationship; as she realized that it was essential for her husband’s well-being. Heidegger was suffering from ill health and a nervous breakdown, and something like a depression in 1946, with both of their sons interned in Soviet prisoner of war camps under very harsh conditions. Elfride also hoped that Hannah‘s prestige could deliver him from the disgrace brought about by de-Nazification programs, whereBrown Shirts were now out, and Heidegger was forbidden to teach. (Maier-Katkin, 2010).
At risk and with some damage to her reputation, Hannah did lobby for Heidegger’s academic rehabilitation and was widely questioned and criticized for having “forgiven” Heidegger. In reality this delicate process between them was not one of forgiveness, since Heidegger never apologized for any of his actions nor ever recanted his allegiance to the Nazi party. Moreover, Arendt felt that forgiveness produces an imbalance within a relationship, whereby the forgiver claims the moral high ground and thus a separation remains.
For Heidegger and Arendt, their reconciliation came about through a mutual willingness to understand. While one can never truly know what really transpires within an intimate relationship, it does seem that these two high-powered public intellectuals, who lived out their allegiances and consequences on opposing sides of the political spectrum, still managed to remain connected through an intensely private passion of the heart. For Arendt,love is inherently not only anti-political, but apolitical, and by its very nature unworldly. Empathy, passion and sympathy are not of this world but reside within the realm of the heart. (T.G. Pavel, (1998) “The Heidegger Affair”,MLN 103 (4):887-901). From this perspective, their unlikely bond serves as a clear testimony to the essential nature and power of love.
Together with her defense of Heidegger and her criticisms leveled against Zionism as a dangerous ethnocentric movement, the apparent collaboration of the European Jewish councils (Judenrat) before and during the war, as well as some aspects of Israel’s theatrical conduct of the Eichmann trial, Arendt was again vilified by outspoken members of the international Jewish community as a “self-hating, anti-Semitic Jew. In addition, her relationship with Heidegger was held forth as clear evidence of that “fact”. In short, she was deemed guilty of a serious lack of Ahabath Israel, (love of the Jewish people). Arendt who always self-identified as a member of her tribe, repliedwith another statement about love. “I have never in my life ‘loved’ any people or collective…or anything of that sort. I indeed love only my friends and the only kind of love I know and believe in is the love of persons”. (Daniel Maier-Katkin and Nathan Stolzfus, theamericanscholar .org, June 10, 2103).
As Hannah and Martin continued on with their special relationship, the aging philosopher expressed his wish that since he loved both Hannah and Elfride that his two women should also love each other. This was, of course, not possible, since each of these fierce women was intensely territorial in regards to him and each was determined to prevail as the one and only most important woman in his life. Moreover, the roles of wife and mistress are necessarily quite different. Eventually, these bitter and determined rivals arrived at an uneasy and also necessary truce. Heidegger and Arendt continued to correspond and she visited with the Heideggers during her yearly journeys to Europe. His last letter written to her in July 1975 was warm and caring and expressed his joy in seeing her soon; and she came to see him in mid-August.
Hannah Arendt died of a heart attack in New York in December 1975 and during the following spring Martin Heidegger died of unknown causes.