Within Four Walls: The Correspondence between Hannah Arendt and Heinrich Blücher, 1936–1968
edited and with an introduction by Lotte Kohler, translated from the German by Peter Constantine
Harcourt, 459 pp., $35.00
Hannah Arendt and Heinrich Blücher first met in Paris in 1936. At the time, Paris was the capital of German literature. Bertolt Brecht, Heinrich Mann, Lion Feuchtwanger, Joseph Roth, Manès Sperber, Alfred Döblin, and other celebrities of the Weimar period stayed there in cheap hotels, “like kings who had lost their throne.” They lived in a kind of ghetto, according to Arthur Koestler, who claimed that neither he nor any of his fellow exiles were ever invited to a French house.
Arendt and Blücher met in a café in the rue Soufflot frequented by their friend Walter Benjamin and other German émigrés. Arendt was twenty-nine, Blücher thirty-seven. Both were fugitives from the Nazis. Arendt had escaped without papers across the Czech border, following a short stay in a Gestapo prison for engaging in allegedly subversive research in a Berlin public library. Blücher, a former Communist militant, got out by the same route. Unlike Arendt, who had a steady job at a Jewish welfare organization, he lacked the requisite permis de séjour and had to move frequently from hotel to hotel.
They fell in love almost at first sight. Both were still formally married but separated from their spouses. By background and education they could not have been more different. Arendt was the sheltered only daughter in a conservative, upper-middle-class Jewish-Prussian family (her grandfather had been president of the Königsberg city parliament). She was a former student of Martin Heidegger and Karl Jaspers, Germany’s leading philosophers, who had directed her doctoral dissertation, Augustine’s Idea of Love, which was published in Berlin in 1929. Blücher came from a poor, non-Jewish Berlin working-class background. He was an autodidact who had gone to night school but never graduated, a bohe-mian who until 1933 had worked in German cabarets.
“Everything,” Arendt conceded, spoke against a possible liaison. But what was this “everything,” she asked rhetorically, “apart from prejudices and difficulties and petty fears?” Almost immediately after they met, Blücher knew, as he put it, that they belonged together. Arendt was at first hesitant. His insistent wooing broke down her reserve. Blücher was a dissident Marxist. Dwight Macdonald later said that he was a “true, hopeless anarchist.” Blücher was sharply critical of the Stalinists among the German intellectual exiles and foresaw the German–Soviet pact of 1939. He criticized Brecht’s Lesebuch für Städtebewohner for combining the worst elements of Communist and Nazi propaganda. Arendt, the future author of The Origins of Totalitarianism, who until this point had been interested in politics only marginally, later told Karl Jaspers that Blücher had taught her “to think politically and see historically.”
Their attraction was at once intellectual and erotic. Blücher was an autodidact but a highly learned one. As his students at the New School and at Bard College later found, he was not a writer but a master of the spoken word and a serious and original thinker. Arendt was fascinated by his intellect. Their relationship now ripened in an atmosphere of intense eroticism. They …