Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World
I met Hannah Arendt in 1946, at a dinner party given for Rabbi Leo Baeck by Elliot Cohen, the editor of Commentary. It was that long ago. She was a handsome, vivacious forty-year-old woman who was to charm me and others, by no means unerotically, because her interest in her new country, and for literature in English, became as much a part of her as her accent and her passion for discussing Plato, Kant, Nietzsche, Kafka, even Duns Scotus, as if they all lived with her and her strenuous husband Heinrich Bluecher in the shabby rooming house on West 95th Street.
No less than the Bluechers, I felt that Hitler’s war had not ended. The “Holocaust” (no one yet called it that) as the ultimate horror of the Nazi regime’s twelve years so dominated every conversation with them that I was not surprised to learn that Hannah was writing a book on totalitarianism. In the first edition of The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) the book’s thesis was credited entirely to the unpublished philosophy of Bluecher.
Bluecher, an extraordinarily mental creature, an insatiable orator in his living room on the great thinkers even when he transferred his vehement verbal powers to the New School and Bard College, was incapable of writing for publication, whether in German or English. He made up for this by shouting philosophy at you in the sweetest kind of way. He was given to fantasy and exaggeration, noble lies about his military knowledge (he had been a teenage recruit in the Kaiser’s army) and his relationship to the family of Marshal Bluecher.
As a Protestant and independent German radical married to a Jew, he impressed me most by his concern and even identification with Jews. Nothing had so unhinged me from my old “progressive” beliefs as the destruction of the Jews. Hannah and Heinrich were not only close but enclosed, it sometimes seemed to me, by what Churchill had called “the worst episode in human history.” The reverberations of the Nazi experience would never cease. And in the immediate postwar years Hannah impressed me every time I saw her by her stalwart Jewishness, her independent commitment to a Jewish homeland, her directorship of an organization devoted to restoring to devastated Jewish communities the religious and cultural treasures stolen by the Nazis. As a refugee in Paris after 1933 she had worked for the Youth Aliyah trying to get children into Palestine.
Intellectually, like many another Jewish thinker, she was indifferent to Judaism; she had been much more influenced by Christian thought and by what she canonized all her life—philosophy as a daily activity. She had written a famous doctoral dissertation under Karl Jaspers at Heidelberg on St. Augustine’s concept of love, and never tired of quoting her favorite maxim from Augustine, “Love means: I want you to be.” Her conversation, unlike Bluecher’s, was so much from what she had written or was planning to write that reading her again for this piece I distinctly heard her…
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