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Letters On Dark Times

Hannah Arendt Karl Jaspers: Correspondence, 1926–1969

edited by Lotte Kohler, by Hans Saner, translated by Robert Kimber, by Rita Kimber
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 821 pp., $49.95

In the introduction to his edition of the letters of Walter Benjamin, Theodor W. Adorno wrote that

in the age of the disintegration of experience human beings are no longer subjectively disposed to letter writing. For the present it looks as though technology is eliminating the preconditions for the letter. Because letters are no longer necessary, given the speedier possibilities of communication and the shrinking of spatiotemporal distances, their inherent substance is disintegrating as well.1

The correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Karl Jaspers stands as a notable contradiction to that confident generalization, which would probably have amused and pleased the two correspondents, who disliked Adorno because of what they believed were his attempts to ingratiate himself with the Nazis. His “hodgepodges of anything and everything that comes to mind are intolerable,” Jaspers wrote Hannah Arendt.

Their letters to each other were the product of the dissolution of their normal world, and their substance was enriched, rather than impoverished, by that experience. When the correspondence became regular and frequent in 1945 (there are only thirty letters out of the 433 printed here from the years before then), Hannah Arendt was in New York leading what she called the “infinitely complex red-tape existence of stateless persons,” while Jaspers was in Heidelberg, isolated in a society of “hostile faces” and “sullen losers” who slandered him behind his back. They were like survivors of the Flood, Noahs, as Arendt said in a figure of speech which delighted Jaspers and which he often used, “floating about on the seas of the world,” who could only find hope and solidarity by “trying to steer their arks as close to one another as they can.”

Their letters, at first a means of renewing their common scholarly interests, rapidly developed into a forum for discussion of fundamental issues in their lives and writing—what it meant, for example, to be a German or a Jew after Auschwitz—and of the moral and political climate of the three countries that meant most to them, West Germany, Israel, and the United States. The two correspondents debated all of the major issues of the first phase of the cold war, Arendt always the more passionate partner and the more pessimistic, Jaspers less prone to catastrophic views and more hopeful of mankind’s potential for good. Over the years, the teacher-student relationship of the first years became an exchange between equals who respected each other’s views and were bound by an ever deepening friendship. Because neither of them believed that the letters would ever be published and because they trusted each other, there was no trace of self-censorship in what they wrote. As Lotte Kohler and Hans Saner point out in their elegant and informative introduction to this volume, Arendt and Jaspers

reveal themselves in a more personal, spontaneous, warmer, and, at the same time, more ruthless way than they do in their works. For Arendt, this correspondence is the first published document from her private life. For Jaspers, it is certainly an unusual one: he “North German block of ice,” as he once called himself, displays tones of irony, tenderness, and human warmth, which some readers find lacking in his autobiographical writings.


Hannah Arendt met Karl Jaspers for the first time in 1926, when she came to Heidelberg as a student. She had already spent a year at the University of Marburg, where she had attended the lectures and seminars of the handsome, exciting, thirty-five-year-old philosopher Martin Heidegger, who was putting the final touches to his masterwork Being and Time, and where she had also had a passionate love affair with him. Deciding that it would be unwise to attempt to write her doctoral dissertation under his supervision, she had moved to Freiburg for a semester with Heidegger’s teacher Edmund Husserl, who had then recommended that she go to Jaspers in Heidelberg. It proved to be good advice. From the beginning she and Jaspers got on well together; she told him later that he was “quite simply the greatest educator of all time”; and for the rest of her life she remembered his study as “the bright place,” where they had worked together.

At the time of her arrival, Jaspers was beginning to draw together the notes and lectures for the draft of his three-volume Philosophy, which appeared in 1931 and made his reputation. Arendt’s biographer has written,

The goddess she often invoked, Fortune, was twice kind to her: she not only studied with the two greatest German philosophers of the generation which reached philosophical maturity between the two world wars; she was able to participate with both in the classes and discussions that shaped their finest works.2

Jaspers, moreover, probably strengthened her political sense, for, to a degree that was never true of Heidegger, he was profoundly interested in politics. He once wrote that philosophy has to be “concrete and practical, without forgetting its origins for a minute,” and it was in this spirit that in 1930 he wrote The Intellectual Situation of the Age, a wide-ranging philosophical analysis of society in the last years of the Weimar republic, when “there [was] a widespread perception that everything [was] breaking down and there [was] nothing that [was] not questionable.”3

Their discussions were, to be sure, far from political at the beginning, for Arendt had chosen to write her dissertation on “The Conception of Love in Saint Augustine: An Attempt at a Philosophical Interpretation.” After she had left Heidelberg, however, and begun work on her biography of Rahel Varnhagen, which was to be her Habilitationsschrift,4 they were soon engaged in lively political dialogue, Jaspers, unhappy about Arendt’s emphasis upon the Jewish problem in Rahel’s life and feeling that her philosophical argument was at times “thetic and dogmatic, or so it seems to me,” and Arendt, in turn, expressing dissatisfaction that, in a new book on Max Weber,5 Jaspers seemed to identify “the German essence” with a figure so closely identified with the search for German world power. Speaking as a Jew, she added, she could not comment on Weber’s “imposing patriotism…. For me, Germany means my mother tongue, philosophy, and literature.” Jaspers, whose wife was Jewish, answered,

I find it odd that you as a Jew want to set yourself apart from what is German…. When you speak of mother tongue, philosophy, and literature, all you need add is historical-political destiny, and there is no difference left at all.

He then added what was an astonishingly prophetic comment, considering that it was made in the month that Hitler came to power:

This destiny today is that Germany can exist only in a unified Europe, that her revival in her old glory can come about only through the unification of Europe, that the devil with whom we will inevitably have to make our pact is the egoistic, bourgeois anxiety of the French.

This brief exchange from the early 1930s has all the contentious vigor and reflective depth of the later correspondence. But twelve long years separated them. After the Nazis came to power, Arendt went to Paris, where she worked for organizations that helped Jewish refugees emigrate to Palestine and supplied legal aid to antifascists, and she remained in France until 1940, when she and her second husband, Heinrich Blücher, secured American emergency visas and emigrated to the United States. Here she worked for Jewish Cultural Reconstruction Inc. and wrote articles for the German-language magazine Aufbau, and, at the end of the war, when she became an editor at Schocken Books, began her best-known work, The Origins of Totalitarianism.

During the same years, Jaspers was having increasing difficulties with the Nazi regime. At a time when university professors, led by Martin Heidegger, were rallying to the Nazi cause, he went into what was later called “the inner emigration.” Knowledge of his attitude meant that both teaching and publishing became difficult; in 1936 his book on Nietzsche6 was ignored by the newspaper press, and in 1943 he was forbidden to publish altogether. He and his wife lived out the war in loneliness and, because Gertrud Jaspers was Jewish, in apprehension. The condition had been relieved, but not entirely overcome, when, in December 1945, he received a letter and several CARE packages from his former student, and their correspondence resumed.

It did so, on Arendt’s part, with a lively description of her adopted country—in which “there really is such a thing as freedom” and “people here feel themselves responsible for public life to an extent that I have never seen in any European country” but where there was a “fundamental anti-intellectualism, which, for certain special reasons, is at its worst in the universities,” where “the fundamental contradiction…is the coexistence of political freedom and social oppression,” and where “antipathy toward Jews is, so to speak, a consensus omnium.” She added a declaration:

First, thanks to my husband, I have learned to think politically and see historically;7 and, second, I have refused to abandon the Jewish question as the focal point of my historical and political thinking.

All of this fell upon eager ears in Heibelberg, where Jaspers was starved for intellectual discourse.

It was only natural, given the state of the world—these were the years when the British efforts to deal with the future of Palestine failed and the United States recognized the independence of the state of Israel, and when the international military tribune at Nuremberg addressed itself to the crimes of the Nazi leadership—that their letters had much to say about the Jewish question and the problem of German guilt. Neither of them was enthusiastic about the creation of a new Jewish state. During the war, Arendt had championed the raising of a Jewish army to fight on the side of the Allies, and in the Middle East she favored a federal solution that would make possible a reconciliation between the Arabs and the Jewish settlers. Jaspers’s opposition was more fundamental. In a letter of July 1947, he wrote:

We ought at least to find the star that leads us on: something like an idea for a world order, but one that remains influenced by transcendence and does not lead to the flatness of an organization, a rational law for each and every case, to the a-historicity of a presumed paradise. Without the Jews I cannot imagine traveling this path, which is a historical one and therefore one bound to history. Hence my worry that the Jewish people could lose their soul in Palestine. Perhaps the solution is to desire Palestine but not go there, because the task is to live among all the peoples of the world, with them and against them as long as they are content to remain peoples and nothing more.

Once she had become a celebrated figure, Arendt’s coolness toward the national solution made some people regard her as an enemy of Israel, and this partly accounts for the vehemence of the campaign against her after the publication of her book Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1963, in which she made much of the cooperation of the Jewish Councils in facilitating the Final Solution.8 Arendt had thought the trial of Eichmann by Israel a bad idea, because she felt, as she wrote to Jaspers, that the Nazi bureaucrat would be able to demonstrate “to what a huge degree the Jews helped organize their own destruction,” but she was surprised by the volume of abuse her published report of the trial brought downupon her head and was inclined to attribute it to “a smear campaign…conducted on the lowest level” with the aim to destroy her reputation.

  1. 1

    Reprinted in Theodor W. Adorno, Notes to Literature, Volume Two, edited by Rolf Tiedemann, translated by Shierry Weber Nicholsen (Columbia University Press, 1992), p. 235.

  2. 2

    Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World (Yale University Press, 1982), p. 62.

  3. 3

    Karl Jaspers, Die geistige Situation der Zeit (5th edition, Berlin: De Gruyter, 1933), p. 14. This appeared as Volume 1000 in the well-known Sammlung Göschen in 1931. Fifty years later, it inspired Jürgen Habermas to edit, as Volume 1000 of Edition Suhrkamp, a two-volume collection of essays by various hands called Stichworte zurGeistigen Situation der Zeit” (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1980).

  4. 4

    This would have given her the right to teach at a German university. The coming of the Nazis prevented this. The book was published in English translation in 1958 and in Germany a year later. In 1966, Arendt’s lawyer suggested that she appeal to the German federal court for restitution, and in July 1966 Jaspers wrote an affidavit which stated that the basic requirements for being habilitated had been met in her case. The appeal was at first turned down but was resubmitted. Restitution followed after Jaspers’s death.

  5. 5

    Karl Jaspers, Max Weber: Deutsches Wesen im politischen Denken, im Forschen und Philosophieren (Oldenburg in Oldenburg, 1932).

  6. 6

    Karl Jaspers, Nietzsche: Einführung in das Verständnis seines Philosophierens (Berlin and Leipzig: W. de Gruyter, 1936).

  7. 7

    Heinrich Blücher, a former Communist, was largely self-educated, but was a tremendous reader, rigorous and systematic, who became a popular and respected professor at Bard College.

  8. 8

    Her views on Israel were not the ones often ascribed to her by both critics and would-be supporters, as she made clear in a letter of 1963 to the anti-Zionist American Council for Judaism, quoted by Elisabeth Young-Bruehl in Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World, p. 361. “You know that I was a Zionist and that my reason for breaking with the Zionist organization was very different from the anti-Zionist stand of the Council: I am not against Israel on principle, I am against certain important Israeli policies. I know, or believe I know, that should catastrophe overtake this Jewish state, for whatever reasons (even reasons of their own foolishness) this would be the perhaps final catastrophe for the whole Jewish people, no matter what opinions every one of us might hold at the moment.”

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