Stranger from Abroad: Hannah Arendt, Martin Heidegger, Friendship and Forgiveness
by Daniel Maier-Katkin
Reviewed by William T. Walker
Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) and Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) were considered two of the intellectual giants of the twentieth century. Heidegger, author of Being and Time (1928), was the dominant philosopher of the era until his identification with Nazism and support of Hitler during the 1930s. While he retained his position at the University of Frieburg until his death, his reputation never fully recovered from his support of fascism and the Third Reich -- in spite of his subsequent explanations. Arendt was a German political theorist who was interested in all aspects of power, and, in particular, in totalitarianism and authoritarianism. As a Jew -- though not religious -- Arendt fled Europe in 1941 and arrived in the United States; she became an American citizen in 1950. Arendt taught at the University of California, Berkeley, Princeton University, and the New School of Social Research in New York. Among her numerous works were The Origins of Totalitarianism (1955) and Eichman in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963). Arendt was Heidegger's student and lover when she attended the University of Marburg during the 1920s; while Arendt married twice, she maintained contact with Heidegger and later advanced a sympathetic explanation for his support of the Nazis. Heidegger was married and conducted at least one other affair in addition to that with Arendt; Heidegger's principal love in his life was himself -- everyone else, including Arendt, played supporting roles.
During the past year interest in Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger has been rekindled through the publication of two important and worthy books and a significant seminar at the University of Virginia on April 1, 2010. The seminar on "Reading Hannah Arendt for the 21st Century" included presentations on "The Promise of Hannah Arendt's Politics," by Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, "Immanence, Plurality, and Politics," by Richard Bernstein, and "Reflections on Ruin," by Susannah Gottlieb; these papers suggest that additional major works on Arendt are in the offing. Michael B. Smith's excellent translation of Emmanuel Faye's acclaimed and controversial Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism Into Philosophy in Light of the Unpublished Seminars of 1933-1935 was published in 2009; it was a ringing denunciation of Arendt's 1969 explanation that Heidegger's involvement with Nazism was an aberration, it was inconsistent with his thinking and occurred because Heidegger had departed temporarily from philosophy and focused on public affairs. Faye has no sympathy for Arendt's romantic and baseless explanation for Heidegger's conduct and sympathy for Nazism.
In Stranger From Abroad: Hannah Arendt, Martin Heidegger, Friendship and Forgiveness, Daniel Maier-Katkin explores the long-term relationship between Arendt and Heidegger. In thirty-five short but well-written chapters, Maier-Katkin traces the connections that sustained the relationship between these two very different intellects. More time and text is extended to Arendt and her growth as an intellectual and erstwhile academician than to Heidegger. The great Heidegger emerges as a rather static and manipulative figure who "blossomed" in his thirties and, after his support for Hitler in the early 1930s, spent much of the remainder of his life attempting to disassociate himself from Nazism. Without doubt Maier-Katkin is fascinated with Arendt; the chapters on her are the strongest in this book. In particular, his analysis of the struggling Arendt in America during the 1940s and his account of her coverage of the Eichman trial in Israel are noteworthy for the quality of the scholarship as well as the provocative analysis that he advances. Maier-Katkin's examination of the role and impact of Karl Jaspers on both Arendt and Heidegger portrayed Jaspers as an understanding and empathetic friend to Arendt who recognized her continuing attachment to Heidegger even though she herself discounted it. Jaspers believed that Arendt's acceptance of Heidegger's recanting of his support for the Nazis was at least due in part to her lingering emotional relationship with him; Jaspers was more knowledgeable about Heidegger's Nazi past and used his influence to block his rehabilitation during the 1950s and 1960s. Where Maier-Katkin appears to be less successful is in his section on Arendt's rather unsuccessful attempt to explain Heidegger's Nazi episode; if Arendt was to be applauded for the quality of her research and writing on the Eichman case, should she be permitted to defend or explain Heidegger with nothing more than speculation and weak and incomplete evidence? Regardless of any lingering emotional links that Arendt may have sustained, her arguments in support of Heidegger do not hold much weight; Maier-Katkin's sympathetic support for Arendt in this case appears unwarranted.
Nonetheless, Maier-Katkin is a scholar of repute and his study reflects a command of not only his subjects and their thoughts, but also the era in which they lived; the book's documentation is extensive and illustrates that Maier-Katkin is aware of the relevant scholarship on his topic. An important and valuable work that offers many unique insights into Hannah Arendt's life and thought, it is a substantive contribution to Arendt and Heidegger studies. It evokes aspects of an important life that needs to be known by a larger public and, perhaps, will also stimulate additional research and study from others.
The author of several books, William T. Walker is professor of history at Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia.
This review was originally published in Cerise Press.