This book has a past, which begins at least in 1995, when Elzbieta Ettinger brought out a controversial account of the unpublished correspondence between Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger, but probably much earlier. It was 1982 when Arendt’s biographer, Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, described the “first amour,” as Arendt called it, in some detail. And for years before Arendt’s death in 1975, the affair with Heidegger, and even more its aftermath, was known to her second husband, Heinrich Blücher, and to many close friends. It was not an experience that could be kept secret; not by Arendt, who was moved at a time–she was 18 when she met Heidegger in Marburg in 1924–that left her moved forever.
But it was the publication of Ettinger’s Hannah Arendt/Martin Heidegger–which drew upon a half-century of unpublished correspondence that she was unable to quote directly at the time–that brought this improbable and disturbing relationship to the attention of a wider public. (Less than a quarter of the surviving letters are by Arendt, something Ettinger ignored.) According to Ettinger, Arendt succumbed to a “girlish crush” that never wore off. When she was reunited with Heidegger in Germany after the war, the story goes, she was struck as much by their continuing love as by his political misdeeds, and resolved to defend him in the court of public opinion even if that meant downplaying the importance of her own work, which subverted Heidegger’s project from within. Arendt, she says, “gave her love freely, happily, defying convention. She held up for Heidegger a mirror in which was reflected an almost godlike being,” while Heidegger retained a “capacity for ruthlessness and cunning,” and a “constant need of worship and adulation.” He “was in a position of power. He enjoyed power, and he used it as he saw fit.” He “reinforced the ‘slavish’ streak in her,” Ettinger wrote.
Sensationalist though it was, Hannah Arendt/Martin Heidegger was reviewed seriously, even by its harshest critics, because it purported to unlock the mysteries of a relationship that has troubled Arendt’s admirers while confirming the longstanding prejudices of her detractors that, in Gershom Scholem’s words, she had “no love of the Jewish people.” How could a Jewish philosopher, the author of The Origins of Totalitarianism and an unswerving critic of fascism and intolerance, have fallen in love with a philosopher of the German right–and, moreover, refused to break with him even after his sordid record of Nazi collaboration was starkly revealed? For critics of Arendt’s explosive book on the Eichmann trial, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, the Heidegger relationship was added to her list of unforgivable sins, and was advanced by some as an “explanation” of her intellectual failings. “Hannah Arendt did not only have a Jewish problem,” Richard Wolin wrote in a caustic review of Ettinger’s book in The New Republic. “She also had a Heidegger problem. And they were, in many respects, intertwined with each other.”
But were they? With the publication of the Arendt-Heidegger correspondence, edited by Ursula Ludz, it is finally possible to assess the meaning of the relationship. Arendt may have been guilty of poor judgment in maintaining ties with a man who failed to repudiate his National Socialist involvement, but Ettinger substitutes a banal fantasy for what the letters say, and one is hard-pressed to believe she refers to the same material.