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Arendt’s Affair

The woman with the sharpest insight into the philosopher’s love for Heidegger had a parallel history

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Elżbieta Ettinger, 1989. (All photos courtesy of Maia Ettinger)
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Long after Hannah Arendt stopped being his “saucy wood nymph,” Martin Heidegger had absolute control of their heady correspondence.

Ettinger wanted to present the story of this complicated relationship because she felt it “provided a key to understanding their lives.” Perhaps it would give some clues to Heidegger’s embrace of National Socialism, his behavior toward Edmund Husserl, toward Professor Hermann Staudinger, as well as toward two students, Eduard Baumgarten and Max Mueller. She wanted to describe the circumstances that led to the moral decisions made by both Arendt and Heidegger—including the former’s apologies for the latter.

But the letters also called to mind her own love affair with Manfred Lachs, the man who was, as she put it, “the father of my daughter.” Ettinger had met Lachs after the war when she was a university student and he was a married professor. Lachs was a Galician Jew whose family had been entirely wiped out by the Holocaust. He was also a brilliant jurist, representing Poland at the Paris Peace Conference in 1946 and at the Nuremberg War Trials. He served on the World International Court from 1967 (the year Ettinger left Poland) until his death in 1993. The humiliation she experienced in her illicit relationship with Lachs and its obstacles to intimacy must have been toxic on top of the degradations she had experienced during the war. Ettinger went over details in her mind, and eventually the two love affairs blurred together. It was almost impossible not to speculate about Arendt’s motivations based upon the memories of her own life.

When the book was finally published, it was met by a hubbub of criticism, with many people—including Alan Ryan, Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, and Wendy Steiner—attributing spurious motives. Ettinger had of course been hampered because she wasn’t allowed to publish Heidegger’s letters in full. For those people who don’t want their philosophy or political thinking diluted, it is understandably not their cup of tea. While Arendt comes across as flawed, there’s a great danger in erasing flaws or pretending they don’t exist. In the end, I think Ettinger managed to stay on message. That is, she wrote a book that was descriptive of a love affair.

Interestingly, the book barely mentions Eichmann in Jerusalem, though its publication stirred up the old controversies. Had she lived to write the larger biography, I know that Ettinger would have dealt with this text. Much as she respected Arendt’s intellectual accomplishments, she was offended by the flippancy of her tone, especially in addressing Eastern European Jewish survivors “each of them convinced of his right to his day in court.” Alfred Kazin called it “heartless.” I think Ettinger felt it as a failure of empathy.

When Ettinger was beginning the project, I asked about Arendt’s characterization of Eichmann as “normal” or the “irregularities” and “abnormalities” of the trial. Ettinger had little to say about these perceptions. Rather, she was interested in the things she knew from the inside. The role of the Jewish Councils, the Jewish police, the issue of Jewish compliance, and Arendt’s attitude toward the Jews from Eastern Europe. Ettinger knew only too well that members of her family survived because they disregarded the Jewish leadership. Her mother, who had Aryan features, lived as a Christian for the entire war outside the ghetto. She arranged, bargained, and did business—as she put it, “outsmarting the bureaucracy of war,” to save her family, understanding that some people helped because of religious teachings, some because of conscience, and others because of the bribes. I remember exactly what Ettinger said about the Jewish police—the ghastly and unnatural situation of Jews brutalizing other Jews: “We despised them.” Her cousin Daniel died violently at Warsaw’s Umschlagplatz during the liquidation, when the Jewish police who surrounded him had become the most savage.

Two small passages in her book Kindergarten render the remembered heartbreak Ettinger experienced from inside the ghetto and inside the child in herself:

November 15, 1940

The ghetto was sealed off today. It was the last day Mama could come here. Heavy guards—German, Polish, Jewish policemen—are watching the ghetto outlets. Along the walls—on both sides—patrols. Day and night.

November 21, 1940

Through the loose bricks in the wall Mama whispered to me that she loves us, and then I saw her go. My world came to an end.


For more of Frances Brent’s Tablet magazine profiles of Jewish intellectuals and artists, click here.

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dizzyizzy says:

Even my secular Jewish friends on the Left thought Arendt was antisemitic. I recommend my many blogs on how liberal Jews can’t win here: Index to blogs on antisemitism. Just found out that Joshua Trachtenberg’s once unavailable book (1943, Yale UP) on the persistence of medieval antisemitism can be downloaded as ebook or perhaps read online.

herbcaen says:

Arendt had Nazi envy in the ways that others have peni$ envy. She would have been an ardent Nazi herself has she not suffered from the “disability” of being born Jewish. I often wonder if she had the hots for Eichmann too

Richard D. Cameron says:


rameshraghuvanshi says:

Love affair between Hannah Arendt and Heidegger started long before Nazi era.There no doubt contribution of Heidegger in philosophy. was unique Even Karl Jasper was also his ardent love relationship between two natural.Greatest mystery was why so talented philosopher turned to Nazism?many study published on this issue but not satisfied.In his last interview which was published after 15 years death of Heidegger on his term and condition,there also he lie manipulated expressed hypocrisy.Why Heidegger not confessed honestly his attraction to Hitler?What purpose he did treachery with his teacher?I think though Heidegger was great philosopher psychologically he was coward afraid too much progress of science and technology and dreamed Hitler was savoir of doomsday. When Hitler was defeated Heidegger suffered by anguish , think Hitler cheated him,His hope of coming savoir messiha never died.Last moment of his life he was waiting for God.When he had seen play Waiting for God. by Becket he exclaimed that Becket read his books.Greatest puzzle is why Arendt love him so passionately after she knew his treacherous character?Why Karl Jasper was ardent admirer up to end of his life?

CiporaJuliannaKohn says:

The entire German intelligentia, the upper echelons of the armed forces, the aristocrats, the jurists, the musicians, the artists, were all supporters of the Nazis and of Hitler.

It is a mistake to think that intellectuals are morally superior to ordinary people. Heidegger was a German first, and a philosopher second.

Germany lost WWI and was in a financial meltdown. Hitler promised greatness and used all means of propaganda to sell himself and his thousand year Reich. His unflinching anti-Bolshevism and his virulent anti-Semitism worked in his favour.

The Weimar Republic was not only weak, but militias were allowed to flourish.

Hitler’s attempted coup in Bavaria was very mildly punished, already showing the sympathies of judges and authorities to his person and to his agenda.

Ultimately, it is impossible to grasp German total infatuation with the rather mediocre and histrionic Hitler.

rameshraghuvanshi says:

I fully agree why entire Germans became mad illusion of Hitler but Heidegger was remain end of his life spell of illusion that some angel will born and control the speed of science and technology which may engulf mankind.He was waiting for God end of his life.That was his incurable obsession.


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Arendt’s Affair

The woman with the sharpest insight into the philosopher’s love for Heidegger had a parallel history

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