Dangerous Liaison

Hannah Arendt/Martin Heidegger

by Elzbieta Ettinger
Yale University Press, 139 pp., $16.00


Since Elisabeth Young-Bruehl first revealed it, admirers of Hannah Arendt have been troubled by the fact that she was for four years—from 1924 to 1928—the mistress of Martin Heidegger.1 She was a Jew who fled Germany in August 1933, a few months after Hitler’s assumption of power. He was elected Rector of the University of Freiburg in the spring of 1933, and in a notorious inaugural address hailed the presence of the brown-shirted storm-troopers in his audience, claimed that Hitler would restore the German people to spiritual health, and ended by giving the familiar stiff-armed Nazi salute to cries of “Sieg Heil.” The thought that these two were ever soulmates is hard to swallow.

Not only that. After the war, Arendt made her reputation with the publication of The Origins of Totalitarianism in 1951; Heidegger steadfastly refused to discuss the Nazi regime or his attitude toward it. He remained silent about the extermination of the Jews, about the terrorism of Hitler’s regime, and about his own equivocal behavior. Only in September 1966 did Heidegger talk to reporters from Der Spiegel about his career in the 1930s. Even then, he insisted that the interview be published only after his death, and it duly stayed in the magazine’s safe until May 31, 1976. Arendt died a few months before him, so there was no question of her responding to the interview; still, she remained quiet, if not silent, about Heidegger’s Nazi leanings, relegating them to footnotes and asides in the essays that referred to her teacher and lover.

Twenty years after Heidegger’s death, the Spiegel interview makes very peculiar reading. It is no death-bed repentance; it breathes Heidegger’s absolute determination to protect himself and his image of himself to the last. Heidegger insisted that he used his position as Rector to defend the university against the Nazis, that he protected Jewish members of the faculty, that he resigned after one year—in April 1934—in protest against the interference of the Nazi minister of education, and that what he thereafter taught and wrote was sufficiently critical of the regime to mean that he was permanently under surveillance. His interviewers gratefully swallowed the story, asking no nasty questions about exactly when he left the Nazi party (May 1945), whether he did not have ambitions to provide National Socialism with a more intellectually respectable philosophical basis than Mein Kampf (he clearly did), and why he was unable to say (even posthumously) that he had made a fool of himself. It is true, as Hans Sluga says in his Heidegger’s Crisis, that his interviewers pressed him doctrinally on the question of the connection between philosophy and politics. What he was allowed to escape too easily was his own moral failings.2 Many other pro-Nazi academics—even the notorious timeserver Alfred Baümler—managed with better or worse grace to apologize, if only in private; from pride or from a curious incomprehension of what was at stake, Heidegger could not.

Arendt did not pass over Heidegger’s follies—if that…

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