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 …

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