Hannah Arendt is one of the few intellectuals of the twentieth century to retain a reputation among non-academics. Her magnum opus, The Origins of Totalitarianism, again became a bestseller in 2016, decades after its first publication in 1951 and her book on the Eichmann trial, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, remains highly controversial and highly influential. Arendt was one of many brilliant Jewish intellectuals who left Germany as refugees in the wake of Hitler's ascension to power, but before that she was a star student at the University of Marburg. It was there she met and studied with Martin Heidegger, a philosopher who was about to publish his most influential work, Being and Time, and a married man of thirty five who soon began an affair with the seventeen year old Arendt.
Such a relationship would already trouble us in this day and age, but the concern is compounded because of Heidegger's queasily ambiguous participation in and support for Nazism. Heidegger joined the Nazi Party in 1933. Although he ceased active involvement in the Party in 1934, keeping his head down for the remainder of the duration of Hitler's regime, he never left the Party and even after the war never publicly expressed regret for his participation. He never spoke about the Nazis' extermination of Jewish people and the closest he came to recanting was an off-hand comment about his own stupidity. Controversy continues to swirl regarding his attitudes towards Nazism and anti-Semitism. Since the publication of his Black Notebooks, in which several damning anti-Semitic comments appear, and especially as his defending colleagues and friends have passed away, Heidegger's unrepentant Nazism and implicit anti-Semitism have been increasingly accepted as the unfortunate truth, even as his philosophy continues to be a frequently cited touchstone in scholarship.
Hannah Arendt believed that Heidegger had made an "error," that he had fallen into a dangerous, but forgivable intellectual flirtation, and that his philosophy was not tainted by Nazi ideology. She was not alone in supporting him, though there were many equally prominent intellectuals, such as Theodor Adorno and Jürgen Habermas, who believed that Heidegger's involvement with the Nazi Party revealed intrinsic problems and tendencies towards Nazi ideas in his philosophy. After the war, Arendt resumed an affectionate correspondence with Heidegger that would continue until her death. Their friendship was interrupted by the war, but seemingly intact. How are we to parse the Jewish refugee Arendt's lifelong defense of the Nazi supporter Heidegger?
Heidegger obviously played an essential role in Arendt's life as an intellectual mentor, but he was also her first lover, and a man with whom she shared an extremely complicated relationship that traversed the terrain of romance, friendship, and Socratic exchange. Emotionally speaking, Arendt was confronted with a profoundly flawed man who nevertheless she continued to love. Though this presents a shattering psychological conundrum, love and friendship are not based on ideological agreement, but on a more total engagement with and commitment to another, different person. However, Arendt, ever the rigorous thinker, left signs of the intellectual work that permitted her to excuse Heidegger, to forgive him, to continue to cherish him as a mentor and a man. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, she writes:
In all fairness to those among the elite, on the other hand, who at one time or another have let themselves be seduced by totalitarian movements, and who sometimes, because of their intellectual abilities, are even accused of having inspired totalitarianism, it must be stated that what these desperate men of the twentieth century did or did not do had no influence on totalitarianism whatsoever, although it did play some part in earlier, successful, attempts of the movements to force the outside world to take their doctrines seriously. Wherever totalitarian movements seized power, this whole group of sympathizers was shaken off even before the regimes proceeded toward their greatest crimes. Intellectual, spiritual, and artistic initiative is as dangerous to totalitarianism as the gangster initiative of the mob, and both are more dangerous than mere political opposition.
This passage is found in chapter ten, "A Classless Society," under the second heading, "The Temporary Alliance Between the Mob and the Elite," and it reads suspiciously like a defense of Heidegger. In her analysis, Arendt puts the totalitarian ideology into the active role of seducer and the errant intellectual into the passive role of the seduced. This choice of vocabulary is instructive, since it encompasses an element of beguilement with a connotation of gendered violence. Nazism is the Don Juan to Heidegger's Donna Anna. Though she admits that the support of intellectuals contributed to the legitimization of the Nazi regime in the international community, she insists that the labor of philosophy is inherently incapable of shouldering the burden of creating a totalitarian regime. On the one hand, it is true that your average working men probably wasn't spending his lunch hour poring over Being and Time, but on the other, Heidegger did wield a great deal of influence on the German philosophical community, his book was hailed (is still hailed) as a work of genius, and German scholars were not divided from the rest of the intellectual and artistic world, as American scholars are today. Can one really describe Heidegger, who, despite his diminished political involvement lived through the Nazi era unmolested, as a "desperate man"?
Still, Being and Time, though it can certainly be interpreted through a lens of Nazi ideology, does not declare a political allegiance or plan of action, as Hitler's own Mein Kampf does, or "Woman as Thing," by the most vicious of fascist philosophers, Julius Evola. Heidegger's involvement does not ascend to the level of Italy's most prominent philosopher of the fascist period, Giovanni Gentile, who ghost-wrote Mussolini's "Doctrine of Fascism." One would be hard-pressed to assign Heidegger a significant influence on the trajectory and development of Nazi regime, but such a standard ignores the responsibility of the individual, which Arendt is usually so keen to insist upon. By the end of the passage quoted above, the seduced intellectual has nearly become a victim, since his work is so dangerous to the regime. Yet, the worst that Heidegger suffered, either during or after the war, was to be deemed a Mitläufer, a fellow traveler, and be denied the opportunity to teach - that is, until 1951.
The question of Heidegger's guilt could not possibly be resolved in a brief essay, but Hannah Arendt's extraordinary ability not just to forgive her friend, not just to refuse to turn her back on him, but to defend her friend, publicly, and discover paths of forgiveness through intellectual labor reveals the incredible humanity underlying Arendt's work. Arendt, a Jewish woman, had the fortitude and compassion to forgive by means of the work that Nazi thinkers would have deemed her unable and unfit to perform: by means of philosophy. Whether she was right about Heidegger or not, Arendt's actions towards him could not have been more starkly opposed to the totalitarian ideologies she denounced.