The Love Letters of Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger

The noto­ri­ous four-year affair between Han­nah Arendt and Mar­tin Hei­deg­ger has occa­sioned many a bit­ter aca­d­e­m­ic debate, for rea­sons with which you may already be famil­iar. If not, Alan Ryan sums it up suc­cinct­ly in a 1996 New York Review of Books essay:

She was a Jew who fled Ger­many in August 1933, a few months after Hitler’s assump­tion of pow­er. He was elect­ed Rec­tor of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Freiburg in the spring of 1933, and in a noto­ri­ous inau­gur­al address hailed the pres­ence of the brown-shirt­ed storm-troop­ers in his audi­ence, claimed that Hitler would restore the Ger­man peo­ple to spir­i­tu­al health, and end­ed by giv­ing the famil­iar stiff-armed Nazi salute to cries of “Sieg Heil.” The thought that these two were ever soul­mates is hard to swal­low.

Arendt went on to write The Ori­gins of Total­i­tar­i­an­ism and Eich­mann in Jerusalem, in which she used the phrase “banal­i­ty of evil” for the Nazi func­tionary on tri­al at Nurem­berg. Hei­deg­ger refused to dis­cuss his col­lab­o­ra­tion pub­licly and “remained silent about the exter­mi­na­tion of the Jews, about the ter­ror­ism of Hitler’s regime.” But as we’ve learned from his recent­ly pub­lished jour­nals, the so-called Black Note­books, he was pri­vate­ly a “con­vinced Nazi,” as Peter Gor­don observes, who “did not awak­en from his philo­soph­i­cal-polit­i­cal fan­tasies. They only grew more extreme.”

But indeed, Arendt and Hei­deg­ger were in love, dur­ing an affair that began when she was an 18-year-old stu­dent and he her mar­ried 36-year-old pro­fes­sor. Their let­ters show an illic­it rela­tion­ship devel­op­ing from cau­tion to infat­u­a­tion. Hei­deg­ger waxed roman­ti­cal­ly philo­soph­i­cal:

.…we become what we love and yet remain our­selves. Then we want to thank the beloved, but find noth­ing that suf­fices.

We can only thank with our selves. Love trans­forms grat­i­tude into loy­al­ty to our selves and uncon­di­tion­al faith in the oth­er. That is how love steadi­ly inten­si­fies its inner­most secret.

But both of them knew the rela­tion­ship could not last, and Hei­deg­ger sug­gest­ed that mov­ing on from him would be in her best inter­est as a young schol­ar. In 1929, Arendt met and became engaged to a Ger­man jour­nal­ist and class­mate in Heidegger’s sem­i­nar. She sent her pro­fes­sor a note on her wed­ding day which begins, “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.”

Before his Nazi appoint­ment, Arendt wrote to her for­mer lover and men­tor in 1932 or 33 upon hear­ing rumors “about Heidegger’s sym­pa­thy with Nation­al Social­ism.” (Her let­ter has been lost.) He replied with a num­ber of excus­es for spe­cif­ic acts—such as refus­ing to super­vise Jew­ish students—and assured her of his feel­ings, but “nowhere in the let­ter is there any denial of Nazi sym­pa­thies,” writes Adam Kirsch at The New York­er. The two met after the war in Freiburg, and Hei­deg­ger lat­er sent Arendt a pas­sion­ate, poet­ic let­ter in 1950, extolling the “excit­ing, still almost unspo­ken under­stand­ing” between them, “emerg­ing from an affin­i­ty that was cre­at­ed so quick­ly, that comes from so far away, that has not been shak­en by evil and con­fu­sion.”

Lat­er, in a 1969 birth­day trib­ute essay “Mar­tin Hei­deg­ger at Eighty,” Arendt penned what has gen­er­al­ly been tak­en as an exon­er­a­tion of Hei­deg­ger. In it, she “com­pared Hei­deg­ger to Thales,” writes Gor­don, “the ancient philoso­pher who grew so absorbed in con­tem­plat­ing the heav­ens that he stum­bled into the well at his feet.” The truth is quite a bit more com­pli­cat­ed than that, and quite a bit less lofty. But as Maria Popo­va elo­quent­ly writes, their rela­tion­ship “expos­es the com­plex­i­ty and con­tra­dic­tion of which the human spir­it is woven, its threads nowhere more ragged than in love.” Read many more excerpts from their let­ters at Brain Pick­ings. And find com­plete let­ters col­lect­ed in the vol­ume, Let­ters: 1925–1975 — Mar­tin Hei­deg­ger and Han­nah Arendt.

via Brain Pick­ings

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A Look Inside Han­nah Arendt’s Per­son­al Library: Down­load Mar­gin­a­lia from 90 Books (Hei­deg­ger, Kant, Marx & More)

Heidegger’s “Black Note­books” Sug­gest He Was a Seri­ous Anti-Semi­te, Not Just a Naive Nazi

Mar­tin Hei­deg­ger Talks Phi­los­o­phy with a Bud­dhist Monk on Ger­man Tele­vi­sion (1963)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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