“Stranger from Abroad: Hannah Arendt, Martin Heidegger, Friendship and Forgiveness” by Daniel Maier-Katzkin— Giants of Thought

stranger from abroad

Maier-Katkin, Daniel. “Stranger from Abroad: Hannah Arendt, Martin Heidegger, Friendship and Forgiveness”, W.W. Norton & Company, 2010.

Giants of Thought

Amos Lassen

Martin Heidegger sought to make the relation between man’s existence and death noble. He was one of the leading German philosophers of his time but he also sought personal advancement and was the most prominent intellectual German to become a member of the Nazi party. Hannah Arendt was his student and his lover. Her goal was to enable a decent society of human beings in relation to one another. The two separated on ideological grounds and years later Arendt looked at Heidegger and found in his past behavior a way to look at Nazism that was to influence her and her writings. This in turn influenced her expression, “The Banality of Evil”—the concept by which she became known by and is still considered to be highly controversial while being profoundly influential still to this very day.

In 1969 Arendt went on the radio and gave a talk called “Martin Heidegger is Eighty Years Old” and it was a celebration of the man who had been her inspiration as both a student and a lover. She talked about how Heidegger had changed the way that philosophy was viewed by students—philosophy was not just an academic study but people had become used to looking at passion as the opposite of reason and of mind and life. She emphasized that passionate thinking brings life and thought together. Both thinkers, Heidegger and Arendt brought passion to thought in their own personal relationship just as does Daniel Maier-Katkin does in his study of the two great minds. Heidegger most definitely influenced Arendt’s work. The author merges personal lives with philosophical thinking in this book. Arendt when she first met Heidegger was an impressionable eighteen years old while he was thirty-five and married to Elfride, an anti-Semite. Nevertheless the two quickly became romantically involved. Heidegger cooled down towards Arendt and she left her university to study somewhere else, swearing that she would never love another man. She eventually married a man she did not love and that relationship ended. She divorced him and then married Heinrich Blucher and even with the differences between them, it was a successful relationship.

As the Nazis came to power, Arendt left Germany and became a person without a country for fifteen years. She was able to secure American citizenship in 1952. Heidegger became deeply involved in the Nazi party in 1933 and stayed with the party through 1934 and never recanted about his affiliation with Nazism. Arendt went on to have a brilliant career in the United States. In 1950 Arendt returned to Europe and met Karl Jaspers, a philosopher she admired deeply and who had resisted the Nazis. After hesitating for a while, Arendt sent Heidegger a note and the two revived their friendship but non-sexually. They continued to exchange letters through the mid-1950s when another long period of silence came between them. In 1967, they once again began to communicate and this lasted until 1975 when Arendt died.

This book is about the themes of redemption and forgiveness. Arendt had to deal with the way Heidegger deceitfully treated her as a young woman as well as with his embrace of Nazism. Arendt felt passionate about him and she regarded him as a genius of a thinker. Maier-Katkin maintains that this can be understood as a natural development of her reflections of him and how a man who was so greatly gifted could become part of such a horrible ideology as Nazism. As she looked at evil, she saw it as commonplace and she came to regard it as banal. She also thought of love, forgiveness and human rights and realized these were not privileges of any single nationality or group.

The author does some very informed readings and explanations of Arendt’s work and in doing so he explains how Heidegger influenced what she wrote. We likewise get some excellent discussions of some of Heidegger’s difficult thoughts and a wonderful look at Heidegger’s changes after World War II and we even sense a bit of his disenchantment with the Nazi party. (As an undergraduate philosophy student we did not spend much time on Heidegger as his ties to the Nazis put him out of favor—it was not until much later and due to my interest in Arendt that I began to read him myself and I found his thought to be quite problematic. This book managed to help me better understand some of what I read. For that alone, for me, it is a worthwhile and educative read).

We also get a look at German intellectual life as well as intellectualism in the United States after the War. After all it was here in America that Arendt made her home and became a member of the intellectual community and at a time that intellectualism was based just upon intellectual output and intellectuals were not regarded as celebrities but as thinkers. It seems to me that this book was written to respond to the critics of Hannah Arendt who felt that her early romance with Heidegger had large influence on her later writings. Personally I find that idea to be ridiculous and anyone who has spent any time reading Arendt knows that is far from the truth. We certainly see with her “Eichmann in Jerusalem” that Arendt is her own person and she answers only to herself.

The book is the story of a relationship between two very special and extraordinary people as well as the story of friendship and forgiveness. In its broadest sense it tells the story of a relationship yet it also informs us about the political lessons that can be learned from the mind of Hannah Arendt and from her reconciliation with Martin Heidegger. As Arendt neared the end of her life and spent time thinking about thinking, willing and judging, we cannot help but see that she was indeed close to her mentor’s thoughts and methods while she still worked through her own questions. Heidegger remained a companion and a presence in the way she thought. The reconciliation brought peace, understanding and “human warmth” into a world which is often hostile, cold and confusing. Arendt saw the reconciliation as love which is, after all, the basis and “foundation of humanity”.

As I sit here with the closed book in front of me, I find myself drifting back to passages I read and I am certain that when Hannah Arendt walked among us we were blessed to be in the presence of a great mind, of the mind of a women who was not afraid to speak out in a man’s world, a woman who held on to her convictions and paid a tremendous price for doing so.

I cannot leave this review without saying that for a book that is so clear on issues that created tremendous disagreements in the world of intellectuals, this is a rare accomplishment. Scholars tend to shy away from saying what only fools would dare to say regardless if these are true thoughts. Hannah Arendt dared to say in “Eichmann in Jerusalem” what she thought and was condemned for it. She revealed the staggering and awful truth about how people just let issues slide into oblivion without addressing them. When she wrote, she let her personal feelings lead her to tell people that it is fine to be friends, to even be lovers with someone who does not think the way you do. It is also fine to say what you think and to back it up—something that most of us will never dare to do.

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