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 would not be formally married until five years later but lived as “husband and wife” from almost the first day in a small hotel room on the rue Servadoni. Six months after she left for Geneva to attend a conference, Blücher wrote:
You—my very own—do you realize that I am the man with the plumb that will sound your depths …the man who has the drill that will make all the vibrant springs of passion flow from you—the man who has the plow that will plow you so thoroughly, that all the nourishing juices within you will awaken?
I kiss you all over…. I want once more to be in the arms, between the legs, on the mouth, on the breasts, in the lap of my wife.
These words came at the end of a long excursion on art, love, and women’s liberation. Blücher had just been to the Louvre and rhapsodized over Rembrandt’s voluptuous nudes. They combined the “freedom of the Christian” with the “sensuality of the pagan.” They evoked in his mind the joys he had experienced in her arms. With every day that passed he longed for her more. Speaking of Rembrandt’s Bathsheba at Her Bath, he observed:
This body is naked, but such a body can be naked (for its public) because it is totally dominated by the face…. This is Rembrandt’s great contribution to the liberation of women; he makes her man’s companion, introduces her into history [as an equal]…. Your husband, having to walk without you through the Louvre today, thought about these things…so that both you and he could feel that you were at least in some way present.
Arendt was more bashful but reveled in her lover’s ardor. She must have recalled Augustine’s wildly passionate affair with a black Venus before he became a saint. She did not lose her cool, however. In her reply to Blücher’s letter about Rembrandt’s nude Bathsheba, she reminds him of the cruel exercise of political power associated with Rembrandt’s seemingly erotic and liberating tableau—“a little Bible lesson for you, darling!” Bathsheba is, after all, being decked out because the king has sent her husband away to the front and commanded her to go to his bedchamber for his pleasure. Her letter concludes as longingly as his:
Dear, dearest Heinrich, my one and only, mine and only mine—I cannot write any further, for all I can do is think of how tomorrow I will have you again with me and in me.
A few months later, in one of the finest modern love letters I know of, she writes:
You see, dearest, I always knew, even as a kid, that I could only exist in love. And that is why I was so frightened that I might simply get lost. And so I made myself independent.
And when I met you, suddenly I was no longer afraid…. It still seems incredible to me that I managed to get both—the “love of my life” and the identity with my own person. And yet I achieved the one only since I also have the other. But finally I also know what happiness is.
The interest in Arendt’s life and work is likely to be further kindled by this collection of letters, written over a period of thirty-two years, between the well-known philosopher and social critic and the man in her life, who was known to only a handful of friends and students at the New School and at Bard.1 Of all of Hannah Arendt’s previously published, voluminous correspondence, this is easily the most personal, intimate, and dramatic.2 It bears witness to her rare capacity for friendship. The recently published, slightly wooden correspondence with Martin Heidegger (with whom, as a teenager, she had the brief and awkward affair that later gave rise to so much crude speculation) was less intimate and revealing, even though it includes the stilted poetry they had written to each other. In previous volumes we meet her as Karl Jaspers’s devoted student, as teacher, friend, famous writer, or engaged citizen; here she is the vulnerable lover and supportive wife. She drops her guard. None of the other collections covers such a wide range of topics and personalities in Europe and America.
The collection is the record of a great love and a lifelong conversation between two people who had their own moving but never sentimental intellectual and emotional partnership. Marriage was their haven in dark times. The first let-ters set the tone which, in one form or another, is sustained throughout. “Stups—for God’s sake, you are my four walls.” (“Stups” was one of Arendt’s nicknames for Blücher. Referring to his snub nose, it is translated here as “Snubby.” Another nickname was “Monsieur”: as an illegal resident in Paris he used to disguise himself as an elegant tourist, wearing a three-piece suit, a top hat, and carrying a rolled umbrella.) Soon after they first met, she lamented: “If only I had met you ten years earlier! In the meantime, unfortunately, I was forced to some extent to stop being a woman. I feel bad about that for your sake.”
Throughout their lives they continued to pine for each other’s company. Blücher: “Hannah, I am bored when you are not with me. I am so used to you, it is as if I am gasping for air.” Arendt: “I worry myself sick. We shouldn’t be apart. It’s insanity!” The reader benefits from Arendt’s not infrequent absences for reasons of work, which caused the letters to be written in the first place. For Arendt and Blücher the separations were painful. Blücher’s first letter to her, on August 5, 1936, begins: “Dearest, I…want to continue our conversation a while with your voice still fresh in my ear. I will send this letter to your train so that it can accompany you to Geneva in my place.”
In December 1939, in the middle of a bad kidney attack at the French concentration camp Villemalard, where he was interned as an “enemy citizen,” he writes:
My reasons for loving you multiply every day. One of the consistent reasons is the fact that not once could I take you for stupid. Another…is that since the first days of knowing you, I could no longer see things without relating them to you…. Our points of view in regard to the big things in life are always the same…. My darling, my sweet love, I am happy when I think you are mine.
In May 1940 Arendt was also put behind barbed wire in the internment camp of Gurs. She wrote about this experience in one of the first articles she published after their arrival in the United States in May 1942. “We were expelled from Germany because we were Jews. But having hardly crossed the French border line, we were changed into ‘boches.’ …After the Germans invaded the country, the French had only to change the name of the firm. Having been jailed because we were Germans we were not freed because we were Jews.” Blücher was discharged from his camp. Arendt escaped from hers. They made their way to Marseille where she was on the State Department’s list of refugees eligible for a visa.
For years Arendt and Blücher felt vaguely insecure and occasionally desperate, even in America. During the McCarthy period and the Vietnam War they feared that they might have to leave again. At the height of the cold war they worried that they might get separated during a nuclear attack and promised each other to try to meet up at Bard College, in Annandale-on-Hudson.
The first seven years in New York, in a rooming house at 370 West 95th Street, were difficult. They shared two furnished rooms with Arendt’s mother (who complained endlessly that Blücher was unable “to make a living”). For most of the time, Arendt supported all three, working at first as an au pair for an American family in Massachusetts, later as a freelance journalist, and then as an editor at Schocken Books, and, after 1945, teaching European history in the Graduate Division of Brooklyn College. She had not spoken English before but picked up the new language with remarkable speed. Less than three months after their arrival, she wrote Blücher from Massachusetts, “My English is not exactly presentable, but now I can pretty much understand everything…. When push comes to shove I can also make myself understood.” She found it astonishing that after three or four generations in Massachusetts people were still thought of as Irish or Poles. The WASPs she met struck her as “fabulous.” They reminded her of the Prussians. “If only there were more of them. Very puritanical, but without prejudices, totally tolerant, not self-righteous, quite a bit of ‘Prussianness.’ Duty [Pflicht] is written with a capital D.” She felt at home among them. Blücher had a much harder time adjusting, balking at first even at learning the new language:
When your Stradivarius has been filched and you are forced to pay an incredible price for a beer-fiddle—for that is all a foreign language can ever be to you—then you should at least refuse to start studying…. Maybe someone will sell you back your violin.
Largely because of Arendt’s work as a regular contributor to Aufbau, the German-language magazine, and as an editor at Schocken, they soon made friends among the New York intellectuals. Her weekly columns in Aufbau have recently been made available for the first time in book form by the German publishing house Piper. Many deal with her sharp criticism of Zionism. She regretted that Zionists were more eager to establish another narrow-minded nation-state instead of seeking a rapproachment with the Palestinians. In the Partisan Review, she introduced her readers to the complexities of German existential philosophy. Nevertheless, in 1946, in her first letter after the war to Karl Jaspers, she still claimed that “intellectually I live here only with Monsieur [Blücher]; that is, we’re the only people we know who speak the same language.” They were still stateless persons and proudly held on to their outsider, pariah status. “I am more than ever of the opinion that a decent human existence is possible today only on the fringes of society, where one then runs the risk of starving or being stoned to death. In these circumstances a sense of humor is of great help.”
Blücher’s sense of rootlessness was stronger in New York than it had been in France and drew him closer to his wife. He accepted his “displacement” and he did not have any desire to go back to Germany. He could always say, he told Arendt, “where I am, I am not at home” but “where you are with me there is my home.” When she made her first visit back to Germany in 1949, she was surprised to see poor people were living better than in France. But she wrote: “Do you know how right you were never to want to go back here again? The lump of sentimentality that begins to rise gets stuck in one’s throat. The Germans are living off lifelong illusions and stupidity.” It took five more years (eleven since their arrival in America) before they were able to become American citizens. When, after almost twenty years of being stateless, Blücher took the oath and his papers arrived in the mail, he informed Arendt that the horrible time without papers “in this even more horrible time of papers” was finally over—“till the next time.” “Tomorrow I’ll pay the lawyer, and then forget the whole thing.”
Arendt was becoming well known now. The Origins of Totalitarianism, dedicated to Blücher, was widely praised. Her picture appeared on the cover of The Saturday Review. He seems to have taken pleasure in her fame without reservations or envy. She became a visiting professor at Chicago, Princeton, and Berkeley. Along with prominent fellow exiles, she and Blücher now saw Alfred Kazin, Dwight Macdonald, Meyer Schapiro, Robert Motherwell, Mary McCarthy, Randall Jarrell, Robert Lowell, and Wystan Auden (who proposed marriage to her after Blücher died). Until the mid-Fifties, Blücher contented himself with being her prince consort. Later, they would be known jointly as the “double monarchy.” In the early Fifties, Blücher was still getting nowhere. In despair he wrote Arendt: “Nothing works out, in spite of many interviews. You know, I think all these people find me highly suspect. The most restrained things I say frighten them. The quieter and more modest I appear the more arrogant they think I am…. I feel as if I had the plague.”
And yet gradually, after many false starts, Blücher too found a place for himself in America as a teacher. It happened almost by accident. Arendt was abroad. He had gone, he wrote her, to a meeting at a new artists’ club in Greenwich Village, to hear a discussion of André Malraux’s book La Psychologie de l’Art. Forty or fifty people attended. Meyer Schapiro and Joseph Frank were supposed to speak, but neither turned up. “So they got hold of me and I ran the whole show” (in his still-halting English).
The evening was an overwhelming success. Questions were asked late into the night. He was invited to do a series of five more lectures. “I will do my best. Maybe there is an opportunity here [the German text breaks into English] to make a living.” Alfred Kazin recommended him for a job as a permanent lecturer at the New School. Arendt enthusiastically congratulated him for what they both saw as a breakthrough. “Oh, Stups, so you will turn into a professor after all.” Their circumstances were still relatively modest. Blücher was reluctant to install an air conditioner in his room (“A New School professor can’t afford things like that”). From Manchester, England, Arendt scolded him: “For God’s sake have your room air-conditioned.” To make ends meet, Hannah’s room in their new flat had to be rented out during her absences.
Students came to his lectures at the New School in record numbers. In 1952, when Bard College was looking for a “charismatic” lecturer, Blücher, who had attended only high school, was appointed professor of philosophy. The New School would not let go of him. He continued at both.
Blücher’s breakthrough coincided with Arendt’s first prolonged trip to Europe after the war and with what seems to have been a midlife crisis between the lovers. Blücher, writes Lotte Kohler, who edited these letters, was susceptible to the feminine charms of the women in their close circle of friends. “His wife knew this, or at least surmised it, and had been hurt by it and given it much thought.” But theirs was a mature relationship. He told her at one point that he didn’t want to be unique like “Jehovah.” There are veiled hints about some difficulty in these letters, but not more than hints. (“I might not want to be liked by as many people as you do,” he wrote, “but I do want to be liked all the more by you.”) Two weeks later she sends a harsh letter shorn of all the usual terms of endearment. She addresses him bluntly “Heinrich” and signs off simply with “Hannah.” She writes: “I am very upset. I simply can’t understand your complete lack of sense about the most primitive human responsibilities and obligations.” Six days later she is back to “Dearest.” She apologizes for having sent him a “bitter and angry letter right in the middle of your kidney-stone attack, and no birthday letter, just a telegram. That is the way of old married couples and old sinners.” The crisis seems to have been repressed or overcome.
The crisis also coincided with Arendt’s first reunion after the war with Martin Heidegger. For the teenager, the illicit affair and its end had obviously been painful, causing her to vow never to love a man again, a vow she claimed she had kept until she met Blücher. Heidegger had hoped to become Hitler’s Plato and had been a card-carrying Nazi from 1933 onward. After the war, he refused to apologize for his role under the Nazis and was banned from teaching for several years. In a notorious speech, as rector of the University of Freiburg in 1933, the author of Being and Time had told the students: “Not theorems and rules ought to be the rules of your Being. The Führer himself personifies German reality and its law for today and the future.” Arendt had last been in touch with him a few weeks before her flight from Germany. In response to her demand for clarification of his support of the regime, Heidegger had sent her an arrogant letter in which he denied prevailing rumors that he was an anti-Semite. He was no more anti-Semitic, he announced, than some of his Jewish colleagues.
Now she could again see Heidegger. Two days before meeting him, Arendt was still tense and insecure and wrote Blücher that she “no longer [had] the slightest wish ever to see that man.” Then she changed her mind. The reputed “king of thought”—married and with two children, poetic and gifted to the point of genius—had swept her off her feet in 1925, as a philosopher and as a lover. She had been eighteen at the time. He told her that she had been the muse that inspired him to write his grand opus. He had overwhelmed her with declarations of love, some of them expressed in free verse; then, anxious to preserve his marriage and his job, he crushed any hopes she might have had by sending her off at term’s end to Freiburg to study with his colleague Jaspers. After this, they had met surreptitiously and only rarely.
Twenty-five years later, Arendt had few illusions about him. She still read him respectfully, as did Blücher, but considered him an opportunist, a spineless coward, and an inveterate liar. Much of what she had recently read by Heidegger she considered “amazing, much of it so wrong and crazy that one can’t believe it.” In Blücher’s view, Heidegger was just a “little German shrimp.” She did not know what we know now (from well-documented books by Víctor Farías and others3) of the full extent of Heidegger’s pernicious activities under the Nazis, his mean treatment of Jewish colleagues, including his own teacher Edmund Husserl, and his collaboration with the Gestapo.
Arendt reported back to Blücher soon after their meeting. The scene was “spectral,” she wrote. So was a subsequent meeting, at Heidegger’s urging, with his wife Elfriede, to whom he had long ago confessed, or so he claimed, that Arendt had been the great love of his life. It could not end well. Arendt pitied Heidegger. Heidegger astounded her by apologizing obsequiously and profusely not for having been a Nazi but for the heartless manner of his parting. He stood before her, she wrote, like a “shamefaced poodle.” The best thing that Elzbieta Ettinger’s book on the Arendt– Heidegger affair4 did was to cause the Heidegger estate to publish their correspondence in full. What emerges from the complete text is not Arendt’s alleged emotional subservience to Heidegger, as Ettinger insinuated, but the musty melodrama between Heidegger and his wife Elfriede. Elfriede Heidegger staged an unpleasant scene in Arendt’s presence. Arendt emerged composed and in full control of herself. After this first reunion, he flooded her with more stilted poetry. “The past 25 years,” he wrote, “have caused you to wander and me to err.” She told Blücher this after this first meeting:
We had a real talk, for the first time in our lives, with the result that I had to think of my darned Stups who’s such a good judge of things. On top of everything, this morning I had an argument with his wife. For twenty-five years now, or from the time she somehow wormed the truth about us out of him, she has clearly made his life a hell on earth…. His wife, I’m afraid, for as long as I’m alive, is ready to drown any Jew in sight. Unfortunately, she is absolutely horrendous. But I’m going to try to defuse things as much as I can…. Stups—for God’s sake, you are my four walls.
This was precisely what Blücher would be to the rest of their married life, and she for him. “My dear, little, marvelous girl,” he wrote to her on her fifty-third birthday in 1959. “How great that you were born. If you were here, where you should really be on such a day, we would surely have one of our ever-longer weekly talks and talk ever deeper into each other.” At his funeral in 1970 Arendt read the kaddish; a friend did the same for her when she died five years later and was buried at his side in the small campus cemetery at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson.
July 5, 2001
Blücher never wrote anything except letters. He told Arendt that at his birth a good fairy had given him a good brain, and a bad fairy, a writer’s block. A sample lecture from the Common Course he gave at Bard College, transcribed by one of his students, is included in the book. One of its main themes is the character of Socrates, who, Blücher said, “although he was almost exclusively concerned with moral questions, never made a statement in the form of a commandment. He went around observing men, himself as well as the people of Athens, trying to find out who that strange creature called man actually was; and he found that man can really do evil and really do good, although he did not know what good is, or evil, for that matter; only that there is a distinction between them.” ↩
Hannah Arendt/Karl Jaspers: Correspondence, 1926–1969, edited by Lotte Kohler and Hans Saner, translated by Robert and Rita Kimber (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992); Between Friends: The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy, 1949– 1975, edited by Carol Brightman (Harcourt Brace, 1995); Hannah Arendt and Kurt Blumenfeld, ‘…in keinem Besitz verwurzelt‘: Die Korrespondenz, edited by Ingeborg Nordmann and Iris Philling (Hamburg: Rotbuch, 1995); Hannah Arendt–Hermann Broch: Briefwechsel 1946 bis 1951 (Frankfurt am Main: Jüdischer, 1996); Hannah Arendt/Martin Heidegger: Briefe, 1925 bis 1975, edited by Ursula Ludz (Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann, 1998). ↩
See Víctor Farías, Heidegger and Nazism (Temple University Press, 1989). ↩
Hannah Arendt/Martin Heidegger (Yale University Press, 1995). ↩