Commentary Magazine

Hannah Arendt/Martin Heidegger by Elzbieta Ettinger

A Fine Romance

Hannah Arendt/Martin Heidegger
by Elzbieta Ettinger
Yale University Press. 139 pp. $18.50

Hannah Arendt’s love affair with Martin Heidegger began in 1925 at the University of Marburg, shortly after her eighteenth birthday. Heidegger, a lapsed Catholic of peasant stock, married with two children, was then the rising star of German philosophy: the publication of Being and Time in 1927 would establish him as one of the foremost thinkers of the century.

Arendt, on the other hand, was a frail if vivacious Jewess from Koenigsberg, half Heidegger’s age, and, as his student, vulnerable to his practiced seductiveness. The child of a well-off and highly assimilated family, she had been left deeply insecure by her father’s gruesome death from syphilis as well as by her mother’s remarriage. But she clearly inflamed Heidegger’s erotic and spiritual imagination, despite or perhaps even because of his latent anti-Semitism.

The romance that followed was a passionate one, physically and emotionally. Incurring considerable risk, Heidegger carried on with it for four years, even after Arendt had transferred to another university to study with his colleague, the existentialist philosopher Karl Jaspers. Eventually, however, Heidegger ended the affair, Arendt herself married, and they suspended all contact in 1933 when she left Germany and he became the pro-Nazi rector of Freiburg University.

It was not until 1950 that the two were reconciled, in Freiburg. And more than reconciled: despite Heidegger’s imperious indifference to her own work and to her growing international reputation as a political philosopher, Arendt eagerly took on the task of becoming his unpaid American agent and publicist, as well as the principal defender of his compromised reputation in intellectual circles. Writing on the occasion of his eightieth birthday in 1969, she contended misleadingly that his involvement with the Nazis had been nothing more than a brief dalliance which he had corrected “more quickly and more radically than many of those who later stood in judgment over him.” Thus it was that she remained under the spell of the man to whom she had confided in 1928: “And with God’s will/ I will love you more after death.”



Elzbieta Ettinger, a professor of humanities at MIT, has reconstructed this strange, tormented, and in some ways tragic love affair in a slim, elegantly written volume. Her research has been thorough, drawing heavily on hitherto inaccessible correspondence: from Arendt to Heidegger and his wife Elfriede, from Heidegger to Arendt (for legal reasons, paraphrased rather than quoted directly), and between Arendt and her second husband, Heinrich Bluecher. This material casts new light on the emotional lives of the main protagonists—much less so on their philosophy and politics—all the while telling a fascinating story.

Among the story’s more troubling aspects is the extent of Arendt’s submissiveness to Heidegger. Both as a student and later as a friend and equal she displayed an extraordinary readiness to put herself at his beck and call, to place him on a pedestal, and to subject herself to his arrogance. Ettinger, whose analysis eschews crude psychological reductionism, accounts for Arendt’s actions in broad sociological and historical terms:

[Arendt] shared the insecurity of many assimilated Jews who were still uncertain about their place, still harboring deep doubts about themselves. By choosing her as his beloved, Heidegger fulfilled for Hannah the dream of generations of German Jews, going back to such pioneers of assimilation as Rahel Varnhagen.

The irony here is that Arendt’s own book-length study of Rahel Varnhagen, a German Jewess prominent in early-19th-century literary circles, displays keen insight into the delusions and self deceptions which are entailed in the Varnhagen “model” of assimilation, but which in her relationship with Heidegger she appeared unable to resist.

To be sure, Arendt did acquire, if only for a brief while, a stronger sense of her Jewish identity. She spent part of the 1930’s in France, working to transfer Jewish youth to Palestine. She felt keenly the betrayal of Jewish intellectuals by their German colleagues, at one point going so far as to describe Heidegger himself as a “potential murderer” for his appalling behavior toward his mentor, the Jewish philosopher Edmund Husserl. Most significantly, she demonstrated her understanding of the scale of the moral catastrophe which overtook Germany and Europe as a whole in her seminal work, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951). As Ettinger suggests, this book, which equates Nazism and Communism as political phenomena, implicitly undermined one of Heidegger’s main arguments in favor of National Socialism—namely, that it would have saved Western civilization from Stalin.

Given all this, Arendt’s eagerness to renew the friendship with Heidegger seems little short of baffling. In 1950 he was at his lowest ebb, banned from university teaching, without a pension, classified by the French occupation authorities as a “typical Nazi.” Jaspers, whose friendship Heidegger had betrayed in the 1930’s, considered him unfit to teach postwar German youth. Yet Arendt, in rhapsodies over her rapprochement with Heidegger—“a confirmation of a whole life,” she called it—chose this precise moment to begin what was in effect a deliberate effort to whitewash his Nazi past. Not only did she deny any connection between his philosophy and his support for National Socialism (the standard position of all Heidegger apologists), but she claimed that he had taken unusual risks during the Nazi period. This was the very opposite of the truth; the only evidence for it was Heidegger’s own testimony, which Arendt accepted without demurral.

For Heidegger, this aid was of course extremely convenient, and, in light of his reputation as an anti-Semite, doubly so since it came from a Jew. Yet his conduct toward his former student showed less gratitude than petty condescension. “For Heidegger,” Ettinger writes, “it was natural to regard her labors [on his behalf] as a privilege he accorded her, for in so doing he proved that he trusted her.” Nor was Arendt blind to this element, complaining in one letter that Heidegger “does not know how to conduct himself,” and in another that “he finds unbearable that my name appears in public, that I write books, etc.” In the end, however, there was nothing she could not forgive this living embodiment of German Geist and Kultur. The inner bond, the inner bondage, remained intact. As she wrote to Heidegger about her book The Human Condition (first published in 1958), it “owes to you just about everything in every regard.”



Three years later, Arendt was sent by the New Yorker to cover the trial in Israel of Adolf Eichmann, who had been chief of operations in the Nazi plan to exterminate European Jewry. Her book on the subject, Eichmann in Jerusalem, appeared in 1963, and it was to prove a watershed in her relations with Israel, with the American Jewish community at large, and with the community of New York intellectuals in particular. Her harsh indictment of “the role of the Jewish leaders in the destruction of their own people,” which she called “undoubtedly the darkest chapter” of the Holocaust, was the cause of immense controversy, as was her characterization of Eichmann and the other Nazi perpetrators of mass murder as mere exemplars of a universal modern phenomenon that she dubbed the “banality of evil.”

Eichmann in Jerusalem does not bear any direct connection to Arendt’s relationship with Heidegger, and is mentioned only in passing by Ettinger. Yet the revelations in Ettinger’s book do cast an oblique and rather grim light on Arendt’s view both of Nazi Germany and of her fellow Jews. To put it bluntly, she seems harsher on the victims than on their Nazi persecutors.

Hannah Arendt/Martin Heidegger does not illuminate such questions as the place of either of its protagonists in modern philosophical and political thought. It offers something else: a startlingly intimate glimpse into some of the more somber byways of relations between Germans and Jews, and into the heart’s perversities.

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