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The Perils of Friendship

Briefe 1925 bis 1975 und andere Zeugnisse

by Hannah Arendt, by Martin Heidegger, edited by Ursula Ludz
Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann, 435 pp., DM88 (paper)

The recently published correspondence between Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger clears up many misunderstandings about their relationship as thinkers and as human beings, especially when it is read along with the letters each sent to their mutual friend Karl Jaspers. What brought these three together initially was a shared passion for philosophy, a passion that eventually spilled over into their personal lives and political commitments. But as the “low, dishonest decade” of the Thirties wore on, the bonds of friendship and affection were strained to the breaking point, especially after Heidegger made his decision to support the Nazis and become rector of Freiburg University in 1933. By then Hannah Arendt had already fled to Paris and would presently make her way to the United States; Karl Jaspers was still permitted to teach but soon lost his post and was forced to remain in Germany with his Jewish wife. The friends had no contact with one another until after the war.


Heidegger’s service as Freiburg’s rector lasted barely a year. But his fateful decision in favor of Nazism posed profound problems that would absorb Jaspers and Arendt for the rest of their lives. Jaspers was a friend, Arendt had been a lover, and both admired Heidegger as the thinker who had, so they believed, single-handedly revived genuine philosophizing. Now they had to ask themselves whether his political decision reflected only a weakness of character, or whether it had been prepared for by what Arendt would later call his “passionate thinking.” If the latter, did that mean that their own intellectual/erotic attachment to him as a thinker was tainted? Had they been mistaken only about Heidegger or also about philosophy itself and its relation to political reality?

Whether Heidegger posed these sorts of questions to himself is difficult to know. Apart from his experience as rector, he was not in the habit of taking public positions, and his published writings, including his 1927 masterwork Being and Time, were not transparently political. However, after the war, many of his readers—among them Jaspers and Arendt—began to see that Heidegger’s treatment of fundamental existential themes in Being and Time did point to a way of understanding political matters and even acting upon them, from a new, suprapolitical perspective. And it was from this perspective that Heidegger had seen in Nazism the birth of a new, and better, world.

The term “world” is a central one in the philosophical vocabulary Heidegger began developing in Being and Time. There he portrayed human beings as thrown by historical destiny into a coherent realm of activity, language, and thought he called a “world.” This world is the product of fate, not of nature; it arises out of what Heidegger would later call a mysterious “event” in which Being (Sein) finds a place (a “there,” da) in which to unveil itself, a place inhabited by human beings (Dasein). Being is not a transcendent realm that can be reached only (if at all) by rising above human experience; for Heidegger, whatever Being is, it only comes to light in relation to human “worlds.” Each civilization or culture is a “world” for Heidegger. Thus there is the Western “world,” but also the “world” of the carpenter, or the peasant.

Human beings, however, inhabit their worlds within the horizon of time: they inherit traditions from the past, project themselves into the future, and die. Heidegger’s reasoning is that, if Being only reveals itself in human worlds, and those are shaped by temporality, then Being must be dependent on time, too. And that would mean that Being has no other meaning than temporality—the unfolding of things in time.

Heidegger arrives at this conclusion in Being and Time by means of a subtle and quite powerful analysis of the temporal human condition and how man tries to flee it. In Heidegger’s view, man has a tendency to lose himself in his world and “forget” his mortality, and by extension that of his world. He falls in with the crowd (the “they”), engages in idle chatter, lets himself be absorbed by average everydayness—all in order to avoid the fundamental question of his existence and its responsibility. We are inauthentic creatures: “Everyone is other, and no one is himself.” Authenticity is not easy to recover, however. It requires a new “orientation,” Heidegger claims, a confrontation with our finitude, an “authentic being-toward-death.” It would mean heeding the call of conscience, to exhibit “care” toward the manifestation of Being. And, above all, it would demand a new “resoluteness,” which signifies “letting oneself be summoned out of one’s lostness in the ‘they.”’

Heidegger’s rhetoric of authenticity and resoluteness has been interpreted in various ways. The canonical interpretation has it that Being and Time is primarily a work of ontology, an inquiry into the nature of existence, and beyond that just a summons to become what we are: to assume without self-deceit the full responsibility of being finite human creatures. Others have seen in this work a profound hostility to the modern world and a yearning for a new historical epoch to be brought about through human resolve, the creation of a more authentic “world” attentive to the call of Being. And if, as Heidegger sometimes implies, “worlds” are cultural or even national wholes, that would make Being and Time a program for national regeneration—which is precisely what Heidegger would see in National Socialism a few years after this work was published.1

There are notorious problems with both these interpretations, and they are compounded by a shift in Heidegger’s thinking and rhetoric that began in the Thirties and continued in his postwar writings. Beginning in this period Heidegger moved from a phenomenological analysis of the link between Sein and Dasein, undertaken from the standpoint of human existence, to a new analysis of it that he claimed took the standpoint of Being itself—whatever that meant. He also began writing, in a self-fashioned mythopoetic language inspired by Hölderlin, about Being as a divinity revealing itself to man. Whether this shift represented a change of Heidegger’s mind or simply a second, complementary part of a lifelong task (as he insisted) is a serious question. And it obscures further what, if any, political teaching Heidegger was trying to deliver through his philosophy, and how he eventually came to view his own resolute leap into contemporary history.

Having made this shift, the later Heidegger speaks less about resoluteness and authenticity, more about learning to “let Being be” and adopting an attitude of Gelassenheit, Meister Eckhart’s term for serene renunciation. As time went on he presented himself not as a proponent of existential decision and self-assertion, but on the contrary as the most profound critic of the Western “nihilism” that had come to sanction such willfulness and had produced fascism, communism, modern democracy, and technology, all of which Heidegger considered nihilistic.

Still, even his Gelassenheit had a passionate, urgent quality to it. Heidegger never ceased to describe modern man as living on a precipice, poised to fall either into complete oblivion of Being or a new “world” where the meaning of Being would again be uncovered; he must move or he will be moved by a historical force stronger than himself. In his manuscripts of the Thirties, which are slowly appearing in his collected works in German, there is much made of “the preparation of the appearance of the last god.” In some of them we do indeed find contemptuous remarks about the Nazis’ blind self-assertion and their feeble attempts to construct a “folk philosophy”—though Heidegger seems intent on going the Nazis one better. It is not just any people that founds a philosophy, he writes at one point, but rather “the philosophy of a people is one that makes the people into a people of a philosophy.” Was his own philosophy aimed at doing just that?

In reading the later Heidegger one cannot escape the impression that, despite his experience, he was never able to confront the issue of philosophy’s relation to politics, of philosophical passion to political passion. For him, this was not the issue; he simply had been fooled into thinking that the Nazis’ resolve to found a new nation was compatible with his private and loftier resolution to refound the en-tire tradition of Western thought, and thereby Western existence. Heidegger considered himself a victim of Nazism—hence his astonishing remark to Ernst Jünger that he would only apologize for his Nazi past if Hitler could be brought back to apologize to him.

Heidegger finally decided that the Nazis themselves had destroyed the “inner truth and greatness” of National Socialism, and that by not following Heidegger’s path they had kept the Germans from their rendezvous with destiny. Now all was lost; Being had withdrawn and was nowhere to be found. All that remained was the spreading spiritual desert of modern technology and modern politics. In such circumstances the genuine thinker could only flee to his study, get his thinking straight, and wait in serene expectation for a new, messianic epoch of Being. In the famous phrase he uttered during his interview with Der Spiegel in the Sixties, “Only a god can save us now.”


Heidegger emerged from the war a broken man and even spent time in a sanatorium to recover his forces. When the French occupied Freiburg in 1945 they threatened to take his library and called him before a denazification commission, which eventually decided to ban him from teaching and even, temporarily, withdrew his pension. In a vain effort to save himself Heidegger proposed that the commission seek a deposition from his friend Karl Jaspers, who he hoped would still vouch for him.

Jaspers, it turned out, had spent much of the war brooding about the Heidegger case and was now prepared to offer a sober and morally astute judgment on it. In his friend’s defense he claimed that, as far as he knew, Heidegger was never an anti-Semite in the Twenties, and that his behavior thereafter was inconsistent in this respect. (We now know this to be incorrect.2 ) Jaspers also tried to explain that Heidegger’s intellectualized Nazism had little to do with the real thing; he was an unpolitical man, Jaspers wrote, more like a child who got his finger stuck in the wheel of history. Yet although Heidegger was “perhaps unique among contemporary German philosophers” in his seriousness, and therefore should be allowed to write and publish, teaching was another matter. “Heidegger’s manner of thinking,” Jaspers concluded, “which to me seems in its essence unfree, dictatorial, and incapable of communication, would today be in its pedagogical effects disastrous,” especially since “his manner of speaking and his actions have a certain affinity with National Socialist characteristics.” The commission followed Jaspers’s advice and imposed a teaching ban that lasted until 1950.

This did not mean that Jaspers was prepared to wash his hands of his friend. On the contrary, he also expressed to the commission his hope that Heidegger would experience an “authentic rebirth” in the future. At the time Jaspers was convinced that Heidegger’s failings were essentially those of a weak Luftmensch, not of his philosophy, and that if he could be made to understand his responsibilities, Heidegger the philosopher might be saved. This Christian redemption motif also appears in Jaspers’s letters to Arendt, in which he muses on the fact that Heidegger “has knowledge of something that hardly anyone notices these days,” yet his “impure soul” needed to undergo a complete revolution. Arendt was more than a little skeptical about conversion myths but did agree that Heidegger “lives in depths and with a passionateness one does not easily forget.”

  1. 1

    The most recent in this line of interpretation is Johannes Fritsche’s Historical Destiny and National Socialism in Heidegger’s Being and Time (University of California Press, 1999).

  2. 2

    Ten years ago a recommendation letter from 1929 surfaced, in which Heidegger stated that Germany needed more scholars rooted in its “soil” and complained of the “Judaization” of intellectual life. This letter was in support of the unfortunate Eduard Baumgarten, whom Heidegger would later turn against. See Ulrich Sieg, “Die Verjudung des deutschen Geistes,” Die Zeit, December 22, 1989, p. 50.

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