Heidegger and Arendt in love

No romance could be stranger than the clandestine affair between the Jewish anti-fascist Hannah Arendt and the Nazi philosopher Martin Heidegger - and yet it spanned more than forty years, from their first meeting as student and teacher in 1930s Germany, ‘till Heidegger’s death in 1976.

As a teacher at Freiburg, when he first met the intense, 19 year old Heidegger was the superstar of the German University. His lectures were so demanding that his cult followers would debate their meaning into the small hours. The brilliant young Jewess, from a family of leftists, immediately aroused suspicion amongst the cult, but Heidegger embarked on an intellectually and emotionally intense affair behind his wife Elfride’s back.

Fear of discovery initially parted them, as Heidegger guiltily palmed his brilliant student off on a colleague, Karl Jaspers. But with the growing Nazi movement their paths divided. Heidegger was already on the right, and his romantic, backward looking philosophy gelled with the rising nationalist movement. Not ardently anti-semitic, Heidegger began to make anti-Jewish remarks, pointedly to a young boyfriend of Arendt’s. Much as Arendt adored Heidegger, she could not understand his identification with the Hitler movement, putting his increasing enthusiasm down to careerism, and the negative influence of Elfride. Hannah escaped the holocaust by the skin of her teeth, leaving Germany only to end up in a French concentration camp before escaping that. Meanwhile Heidegger’s star was rising: with his promotion to the Rectorship at Freiburg he had instituted the Hitler salute, and collaborated in the persecution of Jewish students and faculty-members.

Exiled to America, and with a new husband, a Marxist veteran of the Spartacus uprising no less, Arendt put Heidgger to the back of her mind, and began to develop an independent reputation as a brilliant scholar. Working with Jewish organisations and for the American war effort Hannah’s lectures on the real face of German ‘totalitarianism’ at the New School for Social Research amazed New York’s intelligentsia. And though their subject was the fascism that Heidegger espoused, Hannah’s thesis was still the romantic anti-technology and anti-mass philosophy that Heidegger taught her, only now turned against Fascism, instead of against liberal democracy.

But as Hannah’s star waxed, Heidegger’s waned. He had already been called to task by the Nazi party for his excessive zeal in reorganising the university, and was dangerously allied with the Goering/Strasser wing of the party that had lost out in the night of the long knives. But with the Allied victory, he had become an outlaw in his own home town of Messkirch, disgraced, denied the use even of his library, pending the outcome of the denazification hearings.

When Heidegger called in favours from the many students he had taught it was a roll-call of the emigre European intelligentsia: Herbert Marcuse, Jean-Paul Sartre, Karl Jaspers and the new star Hannah Arendt. It was a testament to his teachings that they still inspired a generation of intellectuals, despite his political disgrace. But much as he was admired for his philosophy, none could stomach his active support of the regime, and, even though Jaspers and Marcuse were tempted to speak up in his favour, Heidegger’s unwillingness to apologise for his past sickened them all. All but one: Hannah.

It was the ruthless Elfride, who swallowed her pride and told Heidegger to get in touch with his former mistress. Arendt’s love for Heidegger was complex, mixing elements of hero-worship and philosophical imitation. It prevented her from seeing the truth, and she continued to deceive herself that Heidegger had merely been na´ve, so elevated was his thinking. She advised him on how to handle the de-nazification hearing, and used her influence to help him. So loyal was Hannah that she mercilessly attacked all those that criticised him like Adorno and Marcuse - even to the point of accusing Adorno of hiding his Jewish ancestry by changing his name from Wisengrund.

The excuses that Hannah cooked up for Heidegger’s trial were too convincing. In a curious interrogation she had only half-consciously led him to a version of events that would satisfy the hearing: He had in reality been a dissident (as he had, for being too right wing), he had followed an ideal that had been cruelly betrayed by Hitler, he thought that Fascism was a rebellion against the machine age, but it had turned out to be modernism gone mad. This apology that they worked out between them was the retention of Heidegger’s philosophy, now disassociated from Fascism: it was the lectures against Totalitarianism, and Heidegger enthusiastically adopted it as his own. But critics suspected that Heidegger’s philosophy now was only the rejection of the actuality of Fascism in favour of its ideals.

Relations between the reunited lovers were tense. She really wanted open affection, but could not understand that his feelings for her were as pragmatic as they had been before. She even blamed Elfride’s interference for his coldness, unaware that it was Elfride that had reunited them.

And as Hannah’s reputation grew, she sensed that Heidegger was jealous of her. His past was a barrier to future success. But Hannah faced no such problems. Her war record reinforced the moral authority of her ideas. Heidegger grew bitter as she became famous, as he saw it, with his ideas. Hannah was stung when Heidegger made a point of not reading her books, starting with On Totalitarianism. Between them, she remained the diligent pupil, even though he was in educated circles an embarrassment from the past, whilst she was an established star.

Heidegger’s bitterness continued throughout the rest of his life, and Hannah’s love was unrequited. The more waspish he became, the more solicitous she was, nervously asking friends what she could have done to offend him. With her husband’s death Hannah renewed the relationship, and thought she felt it thaw. The suspicion must remain that after their initial ecstasy he always saw her as a useful tool, rather than a lover. Foolish as she was in love, though, he had become dependent on her intellect to sustain his own philosophy, in ways that they could never acknowledge. To do so would have disturbed the ritualised role of the despised pupil and the indifferent master, even though she had long before become his teacher.