Ménage à Trois

Briefe 1925 bis 1975 und andere Zeugnisse

by Hannah Arendt, by Martin Heidegger, edited by Ursula Ludz
Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann, 435 pp., DM68 (paper)

It is now well known that in their youth Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger were briefly lovers. Their affair was first reported in Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s absorbing biography, Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World (1984), though it received little popular attention at the time, thanks largely to Young-Bruehl’s discretion and sense of proportion. A few years ago, however, the affair became the subject of distasteful polemics following the publication of Elzåábieta Ettinger’s study Hannah Arendt/Martin Heidegger (1995). Professor Ettinger hoped to create a scandal with her little book and she succeeded. While working on a biography of Arendt she acquired permission to read the Arendt-Heidegger correspondence, which, under the terms set by the literary executors, few had seen and no one had been allowed to quote from. Having read the letters, Ettinger then rushed an account of the love affair into print, paraphrasing Heidegger’s letters at length and quoting directly from Arendt’s replies.

Ettinger portrayed the Arendt-Heidegger relationship as a deeply pathological one that stretched from their first encounter in 1924 until Arendt’s sudden death in 1975. In this account Heidegger was cast as the ruthless predator who bedded a naive and vulnerable young student, dropped her when it suited his purposes, ignored her plight when she fled Germany in 1933, and then cynically exploited her fame as a Jewish thinker after the war in order to rehabilitate himself and his thought, which had been deeply compromised by his Nazism. As for Arendt, Ettinger saw her as a victim who collaborated in her own humiliation, suffering slights and rejection from Heidegger the man and slaving away to promote Heidegger the thinker, despite his intellectual support of Hitler. Whether Arendt did this out of a deep psychological need for affection from a father figure, out of Jewish self-hatred, or out of a foolish wish to ingratiate herself with a charlatan she mistook for a genius, Ettinger could not decide. So she advanced all three hypotheses, on the basis of her private reading of an incomplete correspondence. From any standpoint, the book was, as a review in these pages concluded, “a disgrace.”

Still, the scandal was there, and during the months that followed Arendt’s critics seized on it as evidence that she was intellectually untrustworthy. Her defenders, who have made her into an object of passionate hagiography in recent years, were not slow to respond but did little to raise the tone. And, most importantly, few but Professor Ettinger had seen the letters. At this point the executors of the Heidegger and Arendt literary estates stepped in and agreed to publish all the correspondence they possessed in order to put the entire matter before the pub-lic. Since Heidegger destroyed all of Arendt’s early letters, copies of which she rarely made, this meant that the correspondence would be incomplete and that three quarters of it would come from Heidegger’s side. Nonetheless, the decision was made to proceed and we now have the …

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