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Dangerous Liaison

Hannah Arendt/Martin Heidegger

by Elzbieta Ettinger
Yale University Press, 139 pp., $16.00


Since Elisabeth Young-Bruehl first revealed it, admirers of Hannah Arendt have been troubled by the fact that she was for four years—from 1924 to 1928—the mistress of Martin Heidegger.1 She was a Jew who fled Germany in August 1933, a few months after Hitler’s assumption of power. He was elected Rector of the University of Freiburg in the spring of 1933, and in a notorious inaugural address hailed the presence of the brown-shirted storm-troopers in his audience, claimed that Hitler would restore the German people to spiritual health, and ended by giving the familiar stiff-armed Nazi salute to cries of “Sieg Heil.” The thought that these two were ever soulmates is hard to swallow.

Not only that. After the war, Arendt made her reputation with the publication of The Origins of Totalitarianism in 1951; Heidegger steadfastly refused to discuss the Nazi regime or his attitude toward it. He remained silent about the extermination of the Jews, about the terrorism of Hitler’s regime, and about his own equivocal behavior. Only in September 1966 did Heidegger talk to reporters from Der Spiegel about his career in the 1930s. Even then, he insisted that the interview be published only after his death, and it duly stayed in the magazine’s safe until May 31, 1976. Arendt died a few months before him, so there was no question of her responding to the interview; still, she remained quiet, if not silent, about Heidegger’s Nazi leanings, relegating them to footnotes and asides in the essays that referred to her teacher and lover.

Twenty years after Heidegger’s death, the Spiegel interview makes very peculiar reading. It is no death-bed repentance; it breathes Heidegger’s absolute determination to protect himself and his image of himself to the last. Heidegger insisted that he used his position as Rector to defend the university against the Nazis, that he protected Jewish members of the faculty, that he resigned after one year—in April 1934—in protest against the interference of the Nazi minister of education, and that what he thereafter taught and wrote was sufficiently critical of the regime to mean that he was permanently under surveillance. His interviewers gratefully swallowed the story, asking no nasty questions about exactly when he left the Nazi party (May 1945), whether he did not have ambitions to provide National Socialism with a more intellectually respectable philosophical basis than Mein Kampf (he clearly did), and why he was unable to say (even posthumously) that he had made a fool of himself. It is true, as Hans Sluga says in his Heidegger’s Crisis, that his interviewers pressed him doctrinally on the question of the connection between philosophy and politics. What he was allowed to escape too easily was his own moral failings.2 Many other pro-Nazi academics—even the notorious timeserver Alfred Baümler—managed with better or worse grace to apologize, if only in private; from pride or from a curious incomprehension of what was at stake, Heidegger could not.

Arendt did not pass over Heidegger’s follies—if that is what they were—in complete silence. In a Commentary essay of 1946, she acknowledged that

some outstanding scholars went out of their way and did more to aid the Nazis than the majority of German professors, who fell into line simply for the sake of their jobs. And quite a few of those outstanding scholars did their utmost to supply the Nazis with ideas and techniques: prominent among them were the jurist Carl Schmitt, the theologian Gerhard Kittel, the sociologist Hans Freyer, the historian Walter Frank…and the existentialist philosopher Martin Heidegger.3

But, first and last, she believed that Heidegger had been anything but a natural Nazi. In her view, the plebeian, anti-intellectual Nazis understood Heidegger’s philosophy of Being as poorly as he understood their politics: “The scholars first put to one side by the Nazis as of relatively little use to them were old-fashioned nationalists like Heidegger, whose enthusiasm for the Third Reich was matched only by his glaring ignorance of what he was talking about.”4

Her valedictory essay, “Heidegger at Eighty,” published in these pages, mocks his political ineptitude in the same way.5 Who but Heidegger could have thought that the “inner truth” of National Socialism consisted in “the encounter between global technology and modern man,” and what ought one to say about a thinker who escaped “from the reality of the Gestapo cellars and the torture-hells of the early concentration camps into ostensibly more significant regions”? Still, a good many critics have thought this let Heidegger off much too lightly; ought she not to have denounced his wickedness rather than mocked his foolishness? Ought she not to have remained unreconciled with him after the war, and done her best to see that he was frozen out of the scholarly community?


It is against that background that Elzbieta Ettinger has written her brief, breathless, and soap-operatic account of Arendt’s relationship with Heidegger. Hannah Arendt/Martin Heidegger induces mixed emotions. As a work of scholarship, it is a disgrace; but in what it reveals about its main characters, it is fascinating. It raises dozens of questions that Professor Ettinger has either never asked or does not know how to frame; but it may provoke somebody to answer them more intelligently. It is a politically poisonous little book, and has already started another round of the old controversy provoked by Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem; still one can hope that this time around the controversialists will refrain from arguing about what defines a good Jew and attend to what Arendt was trying to say. In short, this is a thoroughly silly book; but it is hard to regret its existence.

Its scholarly wickedness is straightforward enough, though Professor Ettinger’s publishers must bear some of the blame. Professor Ettinger is the first person who has been able to read the correspondence between Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger. She says she could “peruse” Heidegger’s letters to Arendt: his executors have long done their best to restrict access to them, and they still refuse to allow them to be quoted. It is a violation of the most minimal scholarly decencies not to say more—indeed, to say something rather than nothing—about what she perused and on what terms. When Ettinger assures us that “the letters Heidegger wrote Arendt in 1950 reflect his short-lived desire to retrieve the glory of love and power,” we have to take her interpretation on trust. But her constant misreading of the letters between Arendt and Jaspers that readers can look at for themselves suggests that we would be unwise to do so.6 She quotes freely from Arendt’s letters to Heidegger. Here, too, Ettinger was the first person to have access to letters that innumerable scholars would have been keen to see. Instead of giving her readers a proper account of whether what she has used is representative of the whole, she provides snippets extracted from this and that letter, stitched together with a moralizing and intrusive commentary.

This is deplorable, but not because it reduces the book to an exercise in character assassination. I am sure that Heidegger was a man of extremely bad character—though Arendt, famously, thought otherwise: she held that he had no character at all, writing to Jaspers in 1949 that “what you call impurity I would call lack of character—but in the sense that he literally has none and certainly not a particularly bad one.”7 I am equally sure that Arendt let Heidegger off the hook too easily and for dubious reasons, including a kind of snobbishness about who was entitled to criticize great philosophers. But it just won’t do to reduce Hannah Arendt’s failure to judge Heidegger as harshly as he deserved to an inability to get over a girlish crush. At least we need to ask whether Heidegger was uniquely wicked among German thinkers—Ettinger herself provides quite enough evidence that he was not—and whether Arendt’s belief that Heidegger was a great philosopher but a political simpleton has something to be said for it.

Professor Ettinger reduces everything to a matter of Arendt’s psychological insecurities. When she quotes Arendt writing to Heidegger to tell him that she was working on The Human Condition, “which I could not [do]…had I not learned from you in my youth,” Ettinger takes this as a simple attempt to ingratiate herself with Heidegger; anyone who has ever opened The Human Condition knows that it is perfectly true. The same is even more importantly true of The Origins of Totalitarianism, which provides an account of what one might call the “metaphysics” of totalitarianism that would have been quite impossible without Heidegger.8 Much of the intellectual interest of both books lies precisely in the fact that they employ Heidegger’s ideas for very un-Heideggerian purposes.

Arendt’s devotion to Heidegger needs a more intelligent treatment than it gets here. A reader who knew only what German intellectual history they find here would think that Heidegger’s success in attracting disciples was all a matter of stage management and seduction. But this is silly, even if Elfride Heidegger was prone to think that he had affairs with all his women students. As the impact of Heidegger’s work on Sartre suggests, you did not have to be German, a nationalist, a conservative, or an impressionable young woman to believe that Being and Time upended all previous philosophy. Again, George Steiner regards Heidegger as the outstanding philosopher of the twentieth century, and Steiner has spent the past forty years wrestling with the Holocaust in anything but a spirit of denial. One may think that Steiner overestimates Heidegger’s importance, and that he is too easily seduced by a sort of fake seriousness in Heidegger’s work, but it would be absurd to explain Steiner’s admiration for Heidegger as a case of Jewish insecurity.

Ettinger knows that a great many Germans immediately after the First World War longed for an authentically German philosophy, felt despair at supposed cultural decay, and found something of the same inspiration in classical and pre-Socratic philosophy as Heidegger did. She dismisses all this as “romanticism,” and I have some sympathy with her irritation at what was too often a revolt against the modern world in all its aspects. Still, the mere numbers cast doubt on the idea that Arendt’s enthusiasm for Heidegger was the expression of an adolescent insecurity that she somehow never grew out of. The post-1945 impact of Heidegger’s ideas on theologians throughout Europe and North America suggests how persuasive his ideas continued to be to people who were aware of his dubious political history. It is light-minded to sweep all this aside.


As soap opera, the story is simple and familiar. A duplicitous professor falls for an exotic student and uses his position to seduce her; the naive student is bamboozled and falls deeply in love. The professor’s suspicious wife and the force of circumstance put an end to the affair, but the naive student remains seduced, even after two marriages and long separation. Twenty years later, the duplicitous professor needs the help of his seduced student to restore his public reputation and his finances; egged on by his resentful wife, he looks to the seduced student for help. The seduced student lacks the good sense and self-respect to tell him to get lost, and devotes herself to managing the restoration of his finances and reputation until both die some twenty-five years afterward.

  1. 1

    Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, For Love of the World (Yale University Press, 1984).

  2. 2

    Hans Sluga, Heidegger’s Crisis: Philosophy and Politics in Nazi Germany (Harvard University Press, 1993), pp. 234-235.

  3. 3

    Hannah Arendt, Essays in Understanding, 1930-1954 (Harcourt Brace, 1994), p. 201.

  4. 4

    Hannah Arendt, Essays in Understanding, p. 202.

  5. 5

    The New York Review, October 21, 1971, pp. 50-54.

  6. 6

    One instance: When Arendt was contemptuous of attacks on Heidegger that she blamed on Adorno and Horkheimer, Jaspers pointed out that Heidegger had behaved badly toward Jaspers himself and his Jewish wife. Arendt’s reply that “no one has the slightest idea about the things you have said” is taken by Ettinger to mean that if only Jaspers kept quiet about these events Heidegger’s reputation would be damaged no further. But its obvious meaning is that since Adorno did not know of them, they don’t excuse him. Ettinger, pp. 119-120.

  7. 7

    Hannah Arendt-Karl Jaspers: Correspondence, 1926-1969 edited by Lotte Kohler and Hans Saner, translated by Robert and Rita Kimber (Harcourt Brace, 1992), p. 142.

  8. 8

    This is nicely set out in Dana Villa’s book Arendt and Heidegger: The Fate of the Political (Princeton University Press, 1995) and is spelled out even more clearly and persuasively in Seyla Benhabib’s forthcoming treatment of Arendt’s politics, The Reluctant Modernism of Hannah Arendt, to be published by Sage Publications in 1996. I am grateful for the chance to read Professor Benhabib’s typescript while writing this review.

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