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Hot for Teacher

Long after Hannah Arendt stopped being his “saucy wood nymph,” Martin Heidegger had absolute control of their heady correspondence.

Adam Kirsch
January 21, 2004

The correspondence between Martin Heidegger and Hannah Arendt was a rumor long before it was a book. In 1982, Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s biography of Arendt, For Love of the World, revealed publicly what Arendt’s friends had long known: that in the 1920s, Arendt and Heidegger had been lovers. But it was only in 1995 that their relationship, which ended only with Arendt’s death, became a subject of urgent debate in the world press. The reason—one might say, the culprit—was a slim book by Elzbieta Ettinger, Martin Heidegger/Hannah Arendt, which revealed the existence of the unpublished correspondence, and used it to draw a lurid, judgmental portrait of their relationship. Ettinger did not have permission to quote the original letters, but her paraphrases were calculated to excite readers who might not have previously devoted much attention to Heidegger’s Being and Time. “He needed her in order to breathe fully and deeply, to enjoy being alive”; “Arendt gave her love freely, happily, defying convention”: in such cliched phrases was the Arendt-Heidegger correspondence first reported to the world.

But for all its flaws, the publication of Ettinger’s book had two good results. First, it convinced the Heidegger and Arendt estates to authorize a complete edition of their letters; it appeared in Germany in 1998, and now arrives for the first time in English as Letters 1925-75. Second, in addition to all the gossipy speculation, it set off a significant debate about the intellectual legacies of both thinkers. A leading figure in this discussion has been Richard Wolin, whose book Heidegger’s Children argued that Heidegger’s philosophical influence on Arendt was negative, even sinister. In his New Republic review of Ettinger’s book—tellingly entitled “Hannah and the Magician,” after Thomas Mann’s parable of fascist demagoguery, “Mario and the Magician”—Wolin argued that Arendt’s loyalty to Heidegger may have “led her to purvey…calumnies about the Jews” in her controversial Eichmann in Jerusalem. For Seyla Benhabib, writing in Boston Review, on the other hand, the German publication of the letters was an occasion to argue that, for Arendt, “the personal is not the political,” and to insist that “politics should not…force individuals to make public the shadowy and obscure recesses of the human heart.” Now that the Letters are no longer just a rumor to readers of English, this debate can be, if not finally settled, at least easier to understand.

As the Letters show, the Arendt-Heidegger story is really three stories, each of considerable human and symbolic interest. First, it is a story of lovers separated by the disasters of the 20th century, only to be reunited decades later. When they first met, in 1924, Arendt was an 18-year-old student at the University of Marburg, Heidegger her charismatic (and married) 35-year-old professor. The first group of letters in the book, written between 1925 to 1928, show their official relationship giving way to an intimate one. “You are my pupil and I your teacher,” Heidegger wrote, “but that is only the occasion for what has happened to us.” A few weeks later, he describes “what has happened” in the poetic language typical of his philosophical writing: “The demonic struck me”; “This is the homeland of pure joy.”

However, throughout the book, Heidegger’s testimony is not balanced by Arendt’s. In fact, of the 166 letters that survive, about three-quarters are from Heidegger; what’s more, the majority of Arendt’s date from the 1960s and 1970s, when their relationship had become more sedate and professional. It is hard to know, then, what the ambitious young woman made of Heidegger’s warning against “the terrible solitude of academic research, which only man can endure.” Here, as throughout the early letters, we see the commanding position Heidegger enjoyed—as a professor, an older man, and of course a genius. When Arendt left Marburg in 1926 to continue her studies in Heidelberg, Heidegger encouraged her to go, but the affair continued. The letters chronicle their clandestine meetings (“If the light is on in my room, then I am home”) and Arendt’s half-hearted attempts to escape into other relationships, to which Heidegger responded with ostentatious generosity (“You will not know how joyous I am about your happiness.”) Not until 1928 did Heidegger finally break off the affair, provoking one of Arendt’s few surviving letters of the period. “I would lose my right to live if I lost my love for you,” she writes in farewell, “but I would lose this love and its reality if I shirked the responsibility it forces on me.” The next year she married Gunther Stern, another pupil of the Master’s, but the marriage quickly failed. “I married,” Arendt was to confess years later (oddly enough, in a letter to Heidegger’s wife, Elfriede), “somehow indifferent as to whom I was marrying, without being in love.” Not until she met her second husband, Heinrich Blucher, in 1936, did Arendt leave her romance with Heidegger behind.

The correspondence trails off, before coming to a grinding halt in a letter dated “Winter 1932/33.” And here we see the emergence of the second great Arendt-Heidegger story: that of a Jew and a German turned from lovers to something like enemies by the rise of Nazism. Responding to a lost letter of Arendt’s, Heidegger indignantly defends himself against the charge of anti-Semitism: “That I supposedly don’t say hello to Jews is such a malicious piece of gossip that…I will have to take note of it for the future.” But the ensuing 17-year gap in the correspondence tells a more troubling story. For in 1933, after Hitler took power in Germany, Heidegger became the rector of Freiburg University, where he eagerly participated in its Gleichschaltung, or “alignment” with Nazi principles. Arendt, meanwhile, fled the country; she would spend the next eight years in France before escaping to New York in 1941.

Heidegger’s behavior during the Nazi period has attracted a huge amount of scholarly attention in recent years. Books by Hugo Ott, Victor Farias, and Rudiger Safranski have helped to fill in the stark gap in the correspondence. Heidegger’s rectorship lasted only a year, but his eager embrace of Nazism has large implications for his whole philosophical achievement. Though he never endorsed the Party’s biological racism, he carried out its anti-Semitic edicts and counted the vilest propagandists among his colleagues. Perhaps even more troublingly, in his Rectorial Address he fused his own philosophical language with the rhetoric of Nazism: “Our nation realizes its own fate by risking its history in the arena of world power in which all human existence is affected and by continually fighting for its own spiritual world.” The very ease of this fusion has led recent critics to explore the fascist affinities of Heidegger’s thought. Heidegger’s Roots, an excellent study by Charles Bambach published last year, showed that many of Heidegger’s philosophical themes—the overcoming of nihilism, the importance of rootedness, the need for decisive action—found vulgar echoes in Nazi “thought.”

When the Arendt-Heidegger correspondence resumes in 1950, the shadows of Nazism, war, and the Holocaust are unavoidably present. Yet the letters demonstrate a remarkable evasion of the subject, by both parties. Just after the war, Arendt had written in public and private blaming Heidegger for his conduct. But when they met in person for the first time in two decades, during Arendt’s trip to Germany on behalf of the Commission on European Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, her reservations seemed to fall away. On February 9, she wrote: “This evening and this morning are the confirmation of an entire life.” Heidegger, too, dwells on the continuity, not the rupture: “I am delighted to have the chance to acknowledge our early encounter as something lasting.”

Yet over the next two years, as Heidegger sends Arendt romantic-philosophical poems and attempts, rather comically, to include Elfriede in their friendship, the evasions only continue. At times, the reader is even angered by Arendt’s refusal to engage with Heidegger’s provocations. His self-pitying references to the Soviet threat (“I, with my ideas, am among the most threatened, the ones who would be wiped out first”) echo Nazi apologetics about defending the West against Communism. Incredibly, in the whole correspondence, he makes only a single oblique reference to the Holocaust: “the fate of the Jews and the Germans has its own truth, for which our historical calculation is no match.” This evasive fatalism, this refusal of concrete politics and moral judgment, surely infuriated the author of The Origins of Totalitarianism. Yet Arendt, whose voice is again missing much of the time, seems never to have argued back. Heidegger’s absolute control of the terms of their relationship is never so damaging as here.

What brought the letters to another halt was, instead, an entirely personal matter—evidently, an explosion of jealousy by Elfriede. The correspondence does not resume until 1966, when for the first time it becomes something like an equal dialogue. Equal in terms of space, at least—for the first time, Arendt was keeping copies of her letters. But in practical terms, Arendt remained subordinate, advising Heidegger on translations and the sale of manuscripts, responding eagerly to his new work. Heidegger’s resolute silence about her work—by then world famous—is all the more glaring by contrast. Writing to Karl Jaspers, the philosopher who was her mentor and Heidegger’s rival, Arendt explained:

I know that he can’t bear to see my name appear in public, that I write books, etc. All my life I have, as it were, pretended to him, always acting as if all this didn’t exist, that, in a manner of speaking, I couldn’t count up to three, except of course in interpreting his own writings; in that respect he was always very pleased to find that I could count up to three and sometimes perhaps up to four.

Arendt’s submissiveness is what allowed the relationship to continue, but it is very damaging to the correspondence as an intellectual document. Worse, Arendt extended it to her public discussions of Heidegger. In her celebrated broadcast on Heidegger’s 80th birthday—helpfully included in the Letters—Arendt spoke indulgently of his Nazi involvement. He “once succumbed to the temptation…to ‘intervene’ in the world of human affairs,” but after “ten short, hectic months,” she declares, “Heidegger recognized this ‘mistake’…and then risked considerably more than was common at German universities back then.”

This parrots the self-serving account Heidegger had given her, which subsequent historians have shown to be false: Heidegger remained a party member to the end, and never came into serious conflict with the regime. But coming from a Jewish intellectual like Arendt, it was a powerful absolution. Arendt never takes Heidegger to task for his long, deliberate silence about Nazism and the Holocaust, and she never even conceives of interrogating his thought for the sources of his politics. The problem with the speech, in fact, is the problem with the Letters as a whole. What Heidegger called “our encounter” was built on a failure to encounter the most urgent questions. To understand what matters most about Arendt and Heidegger—their thought—we have to look elsewhere.

Adam Kirsch is the book critic of the New York Sun.

‘Faith in the Other Is Love’

From the Heidegger-Arendt correspondence.



Thank you for your letter. If only I could tell you how happy I am about you—to accompany you as your life and world open up anew. And I can hardly see how much you have understood and how everything is providence. What no one ever appreciates is how experimenting with oneself and, for that matter, all compromises, techniques, moralizing, escapism, and closing off one’s growth can only inhibit and distort the providence of Being. And this distortion hinges on how, despite all our surrogates for “faith,” we have no genuine faith in existence itself and do not understand how to sustain anything like it for ourselves. This faith in providence excuses nothing, and it is not an escape that will allow me to be finished with myself in an easy way.

Only such faith—which as faith in the other is love—can really accept the “other” completely. When I saw my joy in you is great and growing, that means I also have faith in everything that is your story. I am not erecting an ideal—still less would I ever be tempted to educate you, or anything resembling that. Rather, you—just as you are and will remain with your story—that’s how I love you. Only then is love strong for the future, and not just a moment’s fleeting pleasure—only then is the potential of the other also moved and strengthened for the crises and struggles that never fail to arise. But such faith is also kept from misusing the other’s trust in love. Love that can be happy into the future has taken root.

Woman’s effect and being—are much closer to the origins for us—less transparent, hence providence—but all the more fundamental.

We have an effect only insofar as we are capable of giving—whether the gift is always accepted immediately, or at all, is a matter of little consequence. And we have only as much right to exist as we are able to care about. For we can give only what we ask of ourselves. And it is the depth with which I myself can seek my own Being that determines the nature of my Being toward others.

And that love is—that is its gratifying legacy to existence, that it can be.

And that is what the new peace spreading across your face is like, the reflection not of a free-floating bliss—but of the steadfastness and goodness in which you are wholly you.




Dear Martin,

You will probably have already heard about me from other random sources. That takes the naiveté of the message from me, but not the trust that our last reunion in Heidelberg once more newly and gratifyingly strengthened. So I am turning to you today with the same security and with the same request: do not forget me, and do not forget how much and how deeply I know that our love has become the blessing of my life. This knowledge cannot be shaken, not even today, when, as a way out of my restlessness, I have found a home and a sense of belonging with someone about whom you might understand it least of all.

I often hear things about you, but always with the peculiar reserve and indirectness that is simply part of speaking the famous name—that is, something I can hardly recognize. And I would indeed so like to know—almost tormentingly so, how you are doing, what you are working on, and how Freiburg is treating you.

I kiss your brow and eyes

Your Hannah.

Letters © Vittorio Klostermann GmbH: Frankfurt am Main 1998 English translation copyright © 2004 by Andrew Shields. Courtesy of Harcourt Books. Photos: Dr. Hermann Heidegger; Hannah Arendt Literary Trust.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.