In the introduction to his edition of the letters of Walter Benjamin, Theodor W. Adorno wrote that

in the age of the disintegration of experience human beings are no longer subjectively disposed to letter writing. For the present it looks as though technology is eliminating the preconditions for the letter. Because letters are no longer necessary, given the speedier possibilities of communication and the shrinking of spatiotemporal distances, their inherent substance is disintegrating as well.1

The correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Karl Jaspers stands as a notable contradiction to that confident generalization, which would probably have amused and pleased the two correspondents, who disliked Adorno because of what they believed were his attempts to ingratiate himself with the Nazis. His “hodgepodges of anything and everything that comes to mind are intolerable,” Jaspers wrote Hannah Arendt.

Their letters to each other were the product of the dissolution of their normal world, and their substance was enriched, rather than impoverished, by that experience. When the correspondence became regular and frequent in 1945 (there are only thirty letters out of the 433 printed here from the years before then), Hannah Arendt was in New York leading what she called the “infinitely complex red-tape existence of stateless persons,” while Jaspers was in Heidelberg, isolated in a society of “hostile faces” and “sullen losers” who slandered him behind his back. They were like survivors of the Flood, Noahs, as Arendt said in a figure of speech which delighted Jaspers and which he often used, “floating about on the seas of the world,” who could only find hope and solidarity by “trying to steer their arks as close to one another as they can.”

Their letters, at first a means of renewing their common scholarly interests, rapidly developed into a forum for discussion of fundamental issues in their lives and writing—what it meant, for example, to be a German or a Jew after Auschwitz—and of the moral and political climate of the three countries that meant most to them, West Germany, Israel, and the United States. The two correspondents debated all of the major issues of the first phase of the cold war, Arendt always the more passionate partner and the more pessimistic, Jaspers less prone to catastrophic views and more hopeful of mankind’s potential for good. Over the years, the teacher-student relationship of the first years became an exchange between equals who respected each other’s views and were bound by an ever deepening friendship. Because neither of them believed that the letters would ever be published and because they trusted each other, there was no trace of self-censorship in what they wrote. As Lotte Kohler and Hans Saner point out in their elegant and informative introduction to this volume, Arendt and Jaspers

reveal themselves in a more personal, spontaneous, warmer, and, at the same time, more ruthless way than they do in their works. For Arendt, this correspondence is the first published document from her private life. For Jaspers, it is certainly an unusual one: he “North German block of ice,” as he once called himself, displays tones of irony, tenderness, and human warmth, which some readers find lacking in his autobiographical writings.


Hannah Arendt met Karl Jaspers for the first time in 1926, when she came to Heidelberg as a student. She had already spent a year at the University of Marburg, where she had attended the lectures and seminars of the handsome, exciting, thirty-five-year-old philosopher Martin Heidegger, who was putting the final touches to his masterwork Being and Time, and where she had also had a passionate love affair with him. Deciding that it would be unwise to attempt to write her doctoral dissertation under his supervision, she had moved to Freiburg for a semester with Heidegger’s teacher Edmund Husserl, who had then recommended that she go to Jaspers in Heidelberg. It proved to be good advice. From the beginning she and Jaspers got on well together; she told him later that he was “quite simply the greatest educator of all time”; and for the rest of her life she remembered his study as “the bright place,” where they had worked together.

At the time of her arrival, Jaspers was beginning to draw together the notes and lectures for the draft of his three-volume Philosophy, which appeared in 1931 and made his reputation. Arendt’s biographer has written,

The goddess she often invoked, Fortune, was twice kind to her: she not only studied with the two greatest German philosophers of the generation which reached philosophical maturity between the two world wars; she was able to participate with both in the classes and discussions that shaped their finest works.2

Jaspers, moreover, probably strengthened her political sense, for, to a degree that was never true of Heidegger, he was profoundly interested in politics. He once wrote that philosophy has to be “concrete and practical, without forgetting its origins for a minute,” and it was in this spirit that in 1930 he wrote The Intellectual Situation of the Age, a wide-ranging philosophical analysis of society in the last years of the Weimar republic, when “there [was] a widespread perception that everything [was] breaking down and there [was] nothing that [was] not questionable.”3


Their discussions were, to be sure, far from political at the beginning, for Arendt had chosen to write her dissertation on “The Conception of Love in Saint Augustine: An Attempt at a Philosophical Interpretation.” After she had left Heidelberg, however, and begun work on her biography of Rahel Varnhagen, which was to be her Habilitationsschrift,4 they were soon engaged in lively political dialogue, Jaspers, unhappy about Arendt’s emphasis upon the Jewish problem in Rahel’s life and feeling that her philosophical argument was at times “thetic and dogmatic, or so it seems to me,” and Arendt, in turn, expressing dissatisfaction that, in a new book on Max Weber,5 Jaspers seemed to identify “the German essence” with a figure so closely identified with the search for German world power. Speaking as a Jew, she added, she could not comment on Weber’s “imposing patriotism…. For me, Germany means my mother tongue, philosophy, and literature.” Jaspers, whose wife was Jewish, answered,

I find it odd that you as a Jew want to set yourself apart from what is German…. When you speak of mother tongue, philosophy, and literature, all you need add is historical-political destiny, and there is no difference left at all.

He then added what was an astonishingly prophetic comment, considering that it was made in the month that Hitler came to power:

This destiny today is that Germany can exist only in a unified Europe, that her revival in her old glory can come about only through the unification of Europe, that the devil with whom we will inevitably have to make our pact is the egoistic, bourgeois anxiety of the French.

This brief exchange from the early 1930s has all the contentious vigor and reflective depth of the later correspondence. But twelve long years separated them. After the Nazis came to power, Arendt went to Paris, where she worked for organizations that helped Jewish refugees emigrate to Palestine and supplied legal aid to antifascists, and she remained in France until 1940, when she and her second husband, Heinrich Blücher, secured American emergency visas and emigrated to the United States. Here she worked for Jewish Cultural Reconstruction Inc. and wrote articles for the German-language magazine Aufbau, and, at the end of the war, when she became an editor at Schocken Books, began her best-known work, The Origins of Totalitarianism.

During the same years, Jaspers was having increasing difficulties with the Nazi regime. At a time when university professors, led by Martin Heidegger, were rallying to the Nazi cause, he went into what was later called “the inner emigration.” Knowledge of his attitude meant that both teaching and publishing became difficult; in 1936 his book on Nietzsche6 was ignored by the newspaper press, and in 1943 he was forbidden to publish altogether. He and his wife lived out the war in loneliness and, because Gertrud Jaspers was Jewish, in apprehension. The condition had been relieved, but not entirely overcome, when, in December 1945, he received a letter and several CARE packages from his former student, and their correspondence resumed.

It did so, on Arendt’s part, with a lively description of her adopted country—in which “there really is such a thing as freedom” and “people here feel themselves responsible for public life to an extent that I have never seen in any European country” but where there was a “fundamental anti-intellectualism, which, for certain special reasons, is at its worst in the universities,” where “the fundamental contradiction…is the coexistence of political freedom and social oppression,” and where “antipathy toward Jews is, so to speak, a consensus omnium.” She added a declaration:

First, thanks to my husband, I have learned to think politically and see historically;7 and, second, I have refused to abandon the Jewish question as the focal point of my historical and political thinking.

All of this fell upon eager ears in Heibelberg, where Jaspers was starved for intellectual discourse.

It was only natural, given the state of the world—these were the years when the British efforts to deal with the future of Palestine failed and the United States recognized the independence of the state of Israel, and when the international military tribune at Nuremberg addressed itself to the crimes of the Nazi leadership—that their letters had much to say about the Jewish question and the problem of German guilt. Neither of them was enthusiastic about the creation of a new Jewish state. During the war, Arendt had championed the raising of a Jewish army to fight on the side of the Allies, and in the Middle East she favored a federal solution that would make possible a reconciliation between the Arabs and the Jewish settlers. Jaspers’s opposition was more fundamental. In a letter of July 1947, he wrote:


We ought at least to find the star that leads us on: something like an idea for a world order, but one that remains influenced by transcendence and does not lead to the flatness of an organization, a rational law for each and every case, to the a-historicity of a presumed paradise. Without the Jews I cannot imagine traveling this path, which is a historical one and therefore one bound to history. Hence my worry that the Jewish people could lose their soul in Palestine. Perhaps the solution is to desire Palestine but not go there, because the task is to live among all the peoples of the world, with them and against them as long as they are content to remain peoples and nothing more.

Once she had become a celebrated figure, Arendt’s coolness toward the national solution made some people regard her as an enemy of Israel, and this partly accounts for the vehemence of the campaign against her after the publication of her book Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1963, in which she made much of the cooperation of the Jewish Councils in facilitating the Final Solution.8 Arendt had thought the trial of Eichmann by Israel a bad idea, because she felt, as she wrote to Jaspers, that the Nazi bureaucrat would be able to demonstrate “to what a huge degree the Jews helped organize their own destruction,” but she was surprised by the volume of abuse her published report of the trial brought downupon her head and was inclined to attribute it to “a smear campaign…conducted on the lowest level” with the aim to destroy her reputation.

Jaspers, who by this time was aware of Arendt’s weaknesses, which included an unconditionality in argument that was rarely lightened by tact, wrote her that her book was “marvelous in its subject matter,” bearing witness to her “uncompromising desire for truth,” and “a further demonstration of [her] literary powers.” But it made him reflect, he added, “how infinitely naïve not to notice that the act of putting a book like this into the world is an act of aggression against ‘life-sustaining lies.”‘

German guilt was another subject that they discussed over the years. In 1946 Jaspers addressed this in a book that argued that all Germans were burdened with some degree of guilt, either criminal (for acts capable of objective proof and violating unequivocal laws), political (for acts committed by the state for which they had in the last analysis to accept responsibility), moral (for wrongs done under political or military orders), or metaphysical (since there is “a solidarity among men as human beings that makes each co-responsible for every wrong and every injustice in the world.”9 He called upon Germans to acknowledge that they bore the greatest responsibility for the events of the years from 1933 to 1945 and to seek purification by atonement. Arendt and Blücher had long discussions of the issues raised and were troubled above all by Jasper’s definition of Nazi policy as a political crime. Arendt wrote:

The Nazi crimes, it seems to me, explode the limits of the law, and that is precisely what constitutes their monstrousness. For these crimes, no punishment is severe enough. It may be essential to hang Göring, but it is totally inadequate. That is, this guilt, in contrast to all criminal guilt, oversteps and shatters any and all legal systems. That is the reason why the Nazis in Nuremberg are so smug.

Jaspers answered that he was not comfortable with this view, because

a guilt that goes beyond all criminal guilt inevitably takes on a streak of “greatness”—of satanic greatness—which is, for me, as inappropriate for the Nazis as all the talk about the “demonic” element in Hitler and so forth.

(Although Jaspers could not have known it, this view was to be exemplified in Thomas Mann’s powerful novel Dr. Faustus.)10

It seems to me that we have to see these things in their total banality, in their prosaic triviality, because that’s what truly characterizes them. Bacteria can cause epidemics that wipe out nations, but they remain merely bacteria. I regard any hint of myth and legend with horror, and everything unspecific is just such a hint.

The force of this retort must have been persuasive, for it was the idea of the banality of evil that characterized Arendt’s view of the crimes of Adolf Eichmann,11 as it did Günter Grass’s 1962 novel, The Tin Drum, a kind of answer to Thomas Mann.

Questions of German guilt and responsibility continued to figure in the correspondence. As the literature on the resistance to Hitler began to grow, Arendt was highly skeptical; in Eichmann in Jerusalem she wrote of the political bankruptcy of the Resistance movement,12 and in a letter to Jaspers she insisted that the conspirators against Hitler were concerned only with crimes against Germans and were oblivious to what they knew about the Final Solution. “Everyone who had a political role—even if he was against the regime and even if he was secretly preparing an assassination attempt on Hitler—was infected by the plague in both word and deed.” Jaspers, who had known several of the leading conspirators and might, if it had not been for his chronic ill health, have joined them, had a more favorable view of their motives, although he admitted that “the Jews were of primary interest to almost no one.” He was as opposed as Arendt was to the tendency to mythologize the resistance and agreed with her that the word was used very loosely. But even if the term “resistance fighter” was confined, as Arendt wished, to those “who worked actively to bring down the Hitler regime,”13 he insisted that

a hundred percent negation of the regime and daily suffering under it was not uncommon. A wild guess: perhaps 100,000 people in Germany. Relatively, very few; absolutely, a very large number.


Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism appeared in its original form in 1950 and was immediately recognized as an important book. It nevertheless confused many readers because of its clumsy organization and the absence of a clear connection between its three parts, which dealt successively with anti-Semitism, nineteenth-century imperialism, and the structure of totalitarian states. In fact, the book was less and more than its title suggested: it was not a history of the rise of totalitarian states but rather a profound analysis of the essential elements and nature of totalitarianism itself and its continuing threat to freedom in the modern world.

Her argument was that twentieth-century totalitarianism had been made possible by nineteenth-century imperialism, whose philosophy of “expansion for expansion’s sake,” whose reliance upon racist and biological justifications, and whose ability to facilitate alliances between capital and the mob weakened the institutional structures that protected constitutional freedoms and opened the way to ruthless people who sought power for its own sake and believed, and seduced the masses into believing, that anything was possible.14

Implicit in this argument, and elaborated in her later works, was the suggestion that totalitarianism had not disappeared in 1945 but was inherent in modern mass society in which the intrinsic distinctiveness of particular human beings and their capacity for citizenship and independent political action were constantly threatened by artificially stimulated needs—for entertainment and other distractions—and by absorption in consumption.15

Jaspers was delighted with The Origins of Totalitarianism, which he regarded as “a major breakthrough for our political world.” It was, he wrote,

like the diagnosis and symptomatology of a fungal disease that spreads and eats up everything in its path. The carriers of the disease are intelligent the way fungi are because they do instinctively what is required of them…. They therefore have the talent of being able to obey the law of this disease without comprehending it as a whole. The result is the self-destruction of man and of these fungi themselves, which die when the body they have taken possession of dies.

Long preoccupation with totalitarianism affected Arendt, and to a lesser extent Jaspers, with a profound pessimism with respect to the politics and institutions of their own time. “Change and decay in all around I see” might have served as the motto for many of their exchanges, in which, indeed, the eventide was always falling fast. At the height of McCarthyism, she wrote Jaspers that the federal government was powerless and, in any case, interested only in “making big business bigger,” that between them trusts and unions were eroding the position of “the small independent man…as a political factor” and that “good old American know-nothingness” combined with “the ideology of Americanism that is just beginning to emerge now” was promoting a process of disintegration. The balance of powers had broken down and increasingly everything was determined by public opinion, theoretically represented in Congress. In short, the society was overwhelming the republic.

The confusion over these matters among intellectuals is immense. The blame lies with the sociologists and psychologists in whose conceptual swamps everything founders and sinks. They, too, of course, are only a symptom of the mass society…

From these gloomy reflections she was lifted momentarily by the news of the Hungarian revolt of 1956, a clear victory for freedom, in her opinion, “and, as in all the spontaneous revolutions of the last hundred years, the spontaneous appearance of a new government form in nuce.” But the example of Hungary did nothing to inspire change in America, and pretty soon, after an immersion in the lives and writings of the Founding Fathers in preparation for her book On Revolution, she was writing, “How this country has gone to the dogs if you measure it by nothing but its own standards.” Despite all these dire proclamations, however, Arendt never surrendered her faith in the American genius for freedom, and in the darkest days, as the Vietnam agony began, she found “solace [in] the very strong opposition here to this insane Vietnam policy.”

She was less charitable toward the German Federal Republic, finding nothing to praise in its leaders, its parties, or the capacity of the Basic Law to protect civil rights. The Wirtschaftswunder did not impress her, and she wrote Jaspers in 1962, “This so-called republic is really like the last one. And in the long run, economic growth will not help it.” Three years later, during the post-Adenauer malaise in Bonn, she wrote, in the doom-laden tone that often marked her letters to her former teacher,

As far as the Federal Republic is concerned, we don’t need to waste any more breath on it. Its decline is written all over its face…. Everybody is just waiting for a strong man to come along.

Jaspers was no less gloomy about the German future. He had originally regarded Konrad Adenauer with favor, particularly because of his pro-Western foreign policy, but he became disenchanted in 1962 when Der Alte began his flirtation with Charles de Gaulle, and he was outraged by the so-called Treaty of Friendship of January 1963, which he regarded as a setback for his dream of real European unification. Inspired by the Bundestag debate of March 1965 on a statute of limitations for crimes committed under National Socialism and by discussion of the need of emergency legislation to check subversion, Jaspers decided to write a book in which, as he explained to Arendt, he warned of the dangers of a swift descent

from parliamentary state to party oligarchy, from party oligarchy to dictatorship, the “legal” route by way of the planned emergency laws and of the “inner emergency” to the further enlargement of the army and the coming together of all those tendencies, which, without the majority planning it that way, will ultimately lead to war with the East.

Arendt greatly admired the book when it was written,16 which she compared with Jaspers’s The Intellectual Situation of the Age of 1931. But Jaspers’s analysis suffered from his belief that Bonn was Weimar. He had not properly evaluated the significance of the so-called Spiegel Affair of October 1962, which had shown a new spirit of grass-roots democracy in West Germany,17 nor did he know that the first steps to a new Ostpolitik had already been taken. Before long Willy Brandt was in power, and things looked different. But by then Jaspers was dead.


Always in the background of this remarkable correspondence was Martin Heidegger, often the subject of intense and sometimes awkward discussion. Although they had once been friends, Jaspers had broken off relations with the sage of Messkirch partly because of his ignoble treatment of Edmund Husserl and because Heidegger had once slighted his wife, but most of all for the notorious Rektoratrede in Freiburg in which he hailed Adolf Hitler as a leader called by destiny and sanctioned by all the primal forces of the German soul that made the Leader and the led one flesh “guided by the inexorability of that spiritual mission that the destiny of the German people forcibly impresses upon its history.”18 Arendt respected Jaspers’s views, but was more forgiving of Heidegger’s behavior, and indeed found excuses for it. In 1949, Jaspers wrote of Heidegger that he “impresses people with his inklings,” but that he wondered whether

someone with an impure soul—that is, a soul that is unaware of its own impurity and isn’t constantly trying to expel it but continues to live thoughtlessly in filth—can someone living in that kind of dishonesty perceive what is purest?

Arendt answered, “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.” When she went to Europe in 1949 for the first time since the end of the war, she visited Jaspers in Basel, where he had moved from Heidelberg in the previous year. She told him of her earlier relationship with Heidegger and was impressed and touched by the calmness of his reaction. She then went on to Freiburg and had two emotional meetings with Heidegger, during the second of which he apparently declared, in the presence of his wife, that Arendt had been “the passion of his life” and the inspiration of his work. 19

Arendt’s biographer has written that this confirmation of their friendship convinced her that she had been right to be loyal to the private Heidegger as opposed to the public one.20 But the public Heidegger continued to worry her. In 1961 she was invited to Freiburg to give a lecture and informed Heidegger that she was coming. He didn’t call or come to the meeting, and he apparently discouraged a younger colleague who had been invited from attending. Arendt was forced to the conclusion that, whatever their personal relationship had become, Heidegger found it “intolerable that my name appears in public, that I write books, etc.” She added curiously, “I was very angry for a moment, but I’m not any longer. I feel instead that I somehow deserved what I got.”

Jaspers understood her attempt to keep the two Heideggers apart. He had his own moments of sympathy with the Freiburg philosopher. In June 1966, he wrote Arendt,

It seems to me that there is something appealing about Heidegger at the moment. I’ve experienced this and think back on it with nostalgia and horror. There is something in him, and something substantial, but you can’t rely on anything with him. And awful things happen.

To separate the private from the public Heidegger, the philosopher from the political figure, was, he reminded her, probably a forlorn and even dangerous endeavor.

I don’t think it desirable to “leave Heidegger in peace.” He is a presence, and one that everyone who wants an excuse for his own Nazi past likes to fall back on. The significance of his behavior seems to me of no small consequence for current politics in the Federal Republic.

If this was an appeal to Arendt’s political sense, it did not persuade her to sever her ties to Heidegger. As the years passed, indeed, his political actions seemed to become increasingly forgivable in her eyes. Plato too, she pointed out, had a softness for dictators, and this failing should perhaps be imputed less to character “than to what the French call a déformation professionelle.” And then, with a sentimental suspension of judgment that was remarkable for so skeptical and conscientious a critic of the politics of her time, she added, “For the wind that blows through Heidegger’s thinking—like that which still sweeps toward us after thousands of years from the work of Plato—does not spring from the century he happens to live in. It comes from the primeval, and what it leaves behind is something perfect, something which, like everything perfect (in Rilke’s words), falls back to where it came from.”21

Twenty-four years have passed since the end of this marvelous correspondence. In that time there is no doubt that Jaspers’s reputation has somewhat diminished in comparison with that of Heidegger. Nothing awakens curiosity better than controversy, and the battles between the deconstructionists and their opponents, as well as the continuing debate over Heidegger’s Nazi past,22 have certainly attracted new readers to his writings in numbers unmatched by those who have turned to Jaspers’s Philosophy, however unjust that may seem.

As for Hannah Arendt, she has gone from strength to strength. Recently a traveler boarding a train from Frankfurt to Hamburg was greeted by the announcement, “I welcome you on board the InterCity Express Hannah Arendt—whoever that was—and wish you a pleasant journey.” Somewhat later, as they were well under way, the conductor announced over the public address system, “Hannah Arendt was a Dichterin [poet or author].” Finally, shortly before Kassel, came a new announcement, “Incidentally, I have meanwhile learned—Hannah Arendt was a Philosophin.”23

Hannah Arendt is admittedly difficult to categorize, but there is no doubt that her contributions to political thought, always provocative and controversial, are again arousing interest and have taken on a new relevance. This is true, not least of all, because of the unremitting stubbornness of her search for truth and the love of freedom that breathes in every line she wrote. But it is also, as Margaret Canovan has pointed out, because the East European revolutions have given some support to her claim that power is less a matter of weapons and resources than of people acting in concert.24

This Issue

May 13, 1993