Literature of the Holocaust
maintained by Al Filreis

New York Times
SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 5, 1995. pg. 26.

"Book on Philosopher's Life Stirs Scholarly Debate Over Her Legacy"

More on Arendt's relationship with Heidegger


One of the gossipy curiosities of 20th-century philosophy is that Hannah Arendt, the German-born Jewish philosopher remembered for her fierce and unforgiving attacks on totalitarianism, had a youthful fling in the 1920s with Martin Heidegger.

Heidegger, the influential philosopher, later became a prominent Nazi and at one time aspired to be Hitler s chief ideologue.

Most scholars believed that by the 1930s Arendt and Heidegger had gone their separate ways and their early liaison could be dismissed as a short- lived dalliance.

But now a book based on their newly unsealed correspondence, "Hannah Arendt/Martin Heidegger" (Yale University Press) by Elzbieta Ettinger, has revealed that their affair was not evanescent but burned with white hot intensity for four years. Most disturbing to some scholars after the war, Arendt and Heidegger resumed their friendship.

And Arendt, whose fiery reproach had extended to European Jews whom she said had "collaborated" with the Nazis in their own destruction, did almost everything she could to whitewash the unrepentant Heidegger, who had succeeded in banning Jewish professors from the University of Freiburg, which he led from 1933 to 1934.

"She devoted herself to popularizing his philosophy in the United States and to vindicating his name in the eyes of his critics," wrote Professor Ettinger.

The revelations have stirred one of the most heated scholarly debates in recent memory, taking hold in publications and planned seminars that raise such issues as the extent to which influential thinkers should be judged by their private acts.

"The book shows that Arendt was so arrogant that she thought she alone could decide who should be forgiven and who should not," said Elie Wiesel, the Nobel laureate who has written of his experiences in the Auschwitz death camp. "I'm not so sure her moral stature will remain intact."

Ismar Schorsh, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, reacted strongly. "Arendt's reputation will not recover," he said. "Her defense of Heidegger, when she knew better, is hard to forgive."

Defensive of the reputations of both Arendt and Heidegger is Sandra Hinchman, a professor of political science at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y., who has edited with her husband, Lewis Hinchman, an anthology of Arendt's articles.

"Some of the greatest philosophers were despicable people," she said. "Rousseau abandoned his five children to a Catholic orphanage before writing 'Emile' his treatise on education. My fear is that if we concentrate on the lives of some philosophers we may become prejudiced against their work."

At the center of the storm is Elzbieta Ellinger, an M.I.T. professor who is a survivor of the Warsaw ghetto and author of many books including a biography of the socialist leader Rosa Luxemburg. Professor Ettinger said she first learned of the existence of the long-sealed Arendt-Heidegger correspondence in 1988 from Arendt's friend Mary McCarthy. Ms. McCarthy, Professor Ettinger said, encouraged her to write a biography of Arendt.

With Ms. McCarthy's support, Professor Ettinger obtained access to the correspondence in the Hannah Arendt Literary Trust in New York. Heidegger's correspondence with Arendt at the Deutsches Nationalarchiv in Marbach am Neckar. Germany, remains closed but Professor Ettinger was able to obtain copies of his letters and to paraphrase them without violating copyright law.

"The letters reveal that Arendt and Heidegger were emotionally dependent on each other for most of their lives," Professor Ettinger said. "She could have destroyed these letters but preserved them because she did not wish to be the invisible woman in Heidegger's life as Ellen Ternan was in Dickens's life. She was proud that the most important philosopher of the century had chosen her."

Arendt and Heidegger began their affair in 1924 when she, then 18, enrolled in his course in philosophy at the University of Marburg. He was then 35, married, the father of two sons and was completing his masterwork "Being and Time", which would soon launch him into the top rank of modern philosophers.

Putting both his marriage and career at risk, Heidegger invited her to his office one evening and initiated the affair. Subsequently, they pursued this relationship with clandestine signals such as, "If you see a light in my office at exactly 9 P.M., you can come."

While she gazed at him adoringly, he expounded on ancient and modern philosophy, literature, poetry, Bach, Beethoven, Rilke and Thomas Mann. In 1929, she told him that "our love became the blessing of our life."

In 1933 in her last letter to Heidegger until after the war, Arendt complained of having heard that he was barring Jews from his seminars, refusing to speak to Jewish colleagues and rejecting Jewish doctoral students.

Heidegger, then the newly appointed rector of Albert-Ludwigs-University in Freiburg, had just joined the Nazi party and had delivered the infamous rector's address in which he declared his allegiance to Hitler. With heavy sarcasm, he denied Arendt's accusations.

The truth is, as Professor Ettinger points out, his anti-Semitism had been well established four years previously when he wrote to warn a high official in the Ministry of Education against the "growing Judiaization" of Germany's "spiritual life."

Among his more abominable acts while rector in Freiburg, Heidegger banned from the campus all Jewish professors including his mentor, the aging Edmund Husserl -- an act that is believed to have contributed to Husserl's death.

After the war, a de-Nazification tribunal informed of Heidegger's Nazi ardor and vicious anti-Semitism, brushed aside the fact that his intellectual work laid the foundation for much post-modern thought and banned him from university life.

Arendt was well aware of these proceedings. Referring to the death of Husserl in a letter in 1946 to the philosopher Karl Jaspers, Arendt called Heidegger "a potential murderer." But almost from the moment she was reunited with Heidegger in 1950, Professor Ettinger said, Arendt forgave him everything.

Writing a tribute to Heidegger in The New York Review of Books in 1971 on the occasion of Heidegger's 80th birthday, Arendt dismissed his Nazi past humorously by likening him to Thales, the Greek philosopher who while gazing at the stars stumbled into a well. Arendt died in 1975, a year before the death of Heidegger.

Since the Ettinger book was published, the academic community has him as a giant in the history of been commenting in journals. In a particularly scathing attack on Ardent, Richard Wolin, a Rice University historian and the author of "The Politics of Being: The Political Thought of Martin Heidegger" (Columbia University Press), declared in a long essay in The New Republic last month that the newly discovered correspondence casts the most controversial passages in Arendt's writing in an "even uglier" light than before.

Could it be, Professor Wolin asked, that Arendt's inflammatory charge in her report on the trial of Adolph Eichmann in Jerusalem that the Jews of Europe were partly responsible for their own slaughter was "meant somehow to absolve the magician of Messkirch [Heidegger] of his own crimes by showing that his victims were also guilty?" Clearly, Professor Wolin believes the answer is yes.

On the other side of the debate, Lisa Disch, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Minnesota and the author of "Hannah Arendt and the Limits of Philosophy" (Cornell University Press), scorned Professor Ettinger's book as "tabloid scholarship," adding, "It's a shame it's getting so much attention."

Dana Villa, a professor of political theory at Amherst College whose book "Arendt and Heidegger: the Fate of the Political" has just been published by Princeton University Press, said: "I think Ettinger gets it wrong in portraying Arendt as a dupe of Heidegger. She respected him as a giant in the history of Western thought, and she was influenced by him, but she wasn't uncritical. In her last book, she expressed her distrust of philosophy as pure thinking divorced from moral and political judgment."

Professor Villa also said that Professor Ettinger has exaggerated Heidegger's villainy. "He was an ordinary German," he said. "He believed the Nazi line and he was perhaps self-deluded, but he was not part of the apparatus of killing. He hurt some Jews but he also helped some. He was not unique."

Professor Ettinger said that in the final analysis the Arendt-Deidegger relationship was the stuff of poetic tragedy.

"No person who knows about love and passion will consider Arendt's forgiveness of Heidegger unusual," she said. "Americans have great difficulty understanding passion. When I discuss 'Anna Karenina' with my students, they can't understand why Anna gives up a loving husband, a beautiful home and a wonderful child for this jerk of an officer. I tell them to read 'Manon Lescaut' or D.H. Lawrence's 'Women in Love.' Then they understand. Love is irrational. There is nothing we can do about it."

Student paper on Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem

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