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Rights and Wrongs

Katrina Goldstone

On Love and Tyranny: The Life and Politics of Hannah Arendt, by Ann Heberlein, transl Alice Menzies, Pushkin Press, 320 pp, £18.99, ISBN: 978-1782276098

One of the stranger consequences of the early days of the Trump era was the voracious appetite for political books it unleashed. His election caused many to cast around in confusion, seeking new co-ordinates with which to navigate the nightmarish landscape. A literary tide buoyed up a number of curious works, and reignited interest in authors who had not been in fashion for decades. Sales of certain books soared and a new heroine emerged ‑ Hannah Arendt.

Arendt was a key witness, literally and metaphorically, at the emergence of Nazi totalitarianism and an early refugee from its persecutory zeal. The upheaval of displacement and life put on hold lasted from 1933 till she reached a place of safety in the United States in 1941. There she thrived, eventually managing to become the first woman appointed full professor at Princeton University. She later observed the trial of one of the key perpetrators of Nazi genocide, Adolf Eichmann, who denied he was any such thing. Arendt coined the term “the banality of evil”, which quickly became a catchphrase. She had had a front row seat as the Nazis grabbed power and later wrote The Origins of Totalitarianism. What could she tell us about Trump? Arendt, Paul Mason wrote in the New York Review of Books in 2019, had become “something like the patron saint of liberal angst”. He also concluded that “[r]eading Arendt is not enough.”)

Now in the aftermath of that reawakening of interest in Arendt, we have this book, a kind of primer on her life and thought, though it is somewhat curiously billed as “an immersive biography”. Ann Heberlin, its author, is a philosopher, has written on theology and ethics, and is clearly an admirer of Arendt. She asserts from the beginning: “I make no claim to providing a complete picture of Hanna’s life and philosophy; that was never my intention; Instead I have taken the liberty of focusing on the events in Hannah’s life that interest me most, lifting out ideas I find most fruitful and attempting to place Hannah, her story and her thinking into a wider context.” As a result of that approach, we have a curious literary smorgasbord, blending personal observation, references to other philosophers and history in semaphore, interspersed in among the biographical detail and author reflection. Heberlin also likes to surmise what Arendt’s thoughts on events and texts might be, using philosophers and political theorists to further finesse these reflections.

The book is structured around grand themes – passion, the Holocaust, forgiveness, fidelity, good and evil, the pain of displacement, being a refugee. Arendt of course lived these all in their full intensity as she used her intellect as a tool to navigate through the enormities of twentieth century history. This is one of Heberlein’s key assertions: “Hannah’s weapon against evil was her intellect …”

Heberlein passes quickly through Arendt’s childhood and girlhood, a daughter of an assimilated Jewish family in the Hanover suburb of Linden, born in 1906. The family was not particularly religious, and although Hannah would later cleave to a secular complex Jewish identity, Heberlein tells us that as a child she loved to accompany her grandfather to synagogue, and “was fascinated by the rituals, and listened wide-eyed as Grandfather Max welcomed her into his trove of Jewish stories, parables and myths”.

When Arendt met the philosopher Martin Heidegger, she was an impressionable, intensely clever young woman. When she attended his classes in Marburg in the 1920s, Heidegger was already “… a brilliant professor who was on the verge of revolutionizing German philosophy”. The chapter title, “Passion”, shows the lens through which the relationship is interpreted. Arendt was not the first, nor the last, female intellectual to find the senior male mentor type irresistible. This section sometimes reads like a romantic novel: “For weeks, Martin sought out Hannah’s gaze across the room, and after two months of intense eye contact, he finally invited her to his office.” Reader, she didn’t marry him. He was already married, with no intention of leaving his wife. Heberlein makes the important point that while much has been made of Heidegger’s influence on Arendt, less has been made of her influence on him. She was a nineteen-year-old student when they met but, Heberlein argues, “she gave him something in return: she was able to look at things that had become familiar to him with fresh unclouded eyes”. Today professor-pupil relationships are viewed less benignly than they might have been in the 1920s. Heberlein introduces theories about seduction and the portrayal of self-sacrificing love, reflecting the character Sonya Marmeladova in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Heberlein does acknowledge the power imbalance between the two, but perhaps it is too simplistic to frame the relationship in such a romantic light when it was conducted entirely on Heidegger’s terms.

As the story progresses we see a steelier Arendt emerge, tempered and tested by the adversity of the Hitler years. Her courage and tenacity are in evidence when she becomes involved in various Jewish initiatives in pre-war Berlin, taking on the gathering and collation of the regime’s anti-Jewish propaganda on behalf of the Zionistische Vereinigung für Deutschland organisation to sound the alarm and inform organisations outside Germany of the persecution of Jews. However she only managed some weeks of research before she was arrested and forced to flee Germany, beginning her eighteen years as a stateless person. We see still more of her courage and tenacity when later, in exile in France, she is interned in Camp Gurs, dispersed across the unoccupied zone in France and spends months in Lisbon until she finally attains a place of refuge and freedom in the United States in 1941. Many, including her dear friend Walter Benjamin, did not survive. Heberlein does not so much chart Arendt’s life as cherrypick the aspects of it that she feels are most representative or illuminating of the dilemmas and travails of the “global intellectual celebrity’s” life. She is touching about the most important relationship in that  life – her thirty-five-year partnership with Heinrich Blücher and their marriage of twenty-seven years. At a time when they were separated by travel for periods in the 1950s, Arendt would write to him: “I cannot wander around in the world, if you do not write.” Yet even their marvellous companionable compatibility had its shadow side, in Blücher’s attitude to fidelity. As Heberlein puts it, “Hannah managed to reason her way to an understanding of fidelity that could accommodate Heinrich’s infidelity.”

Heberlein is ardent in her admiration and is assured in her treatment of Arendt’s significance, her key philosophical arguments and her relevance today. However her admiration also leads her to be overprotective of Arendt’s more inexplicable behaviours. She appears to have had few qualms in assisting in re-establishing Heidegger’s reputation postwar, after his “denazification”. For his eightieth birthday she wrote a sycophantic tribute. Heberlein has admitted in an online interview that she was astonished by Arendt’s behaviour in relation to Heidegger yet she cannot proffer a convincing motive for it. Perhaps no one can. Heberlein plumps for blind love as an explanation, as fans might explain away the egregious behaviour of their pop idols, when past sins are unearthed, asserting “No one but Hannah can answer whether it was right or wrong of her to forgive Martin.”

We are still left with an equalling troubling conundrum – how did a woman of such trenchant intellectualism become so transported by love that she could not see a morally flawed character in his full egregiousness? Arendt apparently had no reservations about condemning Heidegger’s wife, Elfriede, declaring her “openly anti-semitic” and describing her as the “reason behind Heidegger’s political misfortune”. Even though the true extent of Heidegger’s loyalty to and enthusiasm for national socialism and Adolf Hitler was not fully revealed till 2014, long after his and Arendt’s deaths, the episode of her reunion with him, and her role in rehabilitating him, remain disturbing and perplexing.

Then there is Eichmann. Eichmann biographer Bettina Stangneth observed: “Eichmann-in-Jerusalem was little more than a mask.” Some make the argument that Hannah Arendt was entirely taken in. Heberlein doesn’t quite manage to convey the full force of the ferocity of  controversy that engulfed Arendt, particularly in relation to her judgement on what she framed as complicity of Judenrat or Jewish councils during the war. Certain of her close friends felt it necessary to cut her off after the publication in The New Yorker of her view of the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem. The subsequent book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, came out in 1963 and did nothing to dim the furore. Critic Irving Howe would write “within the New York intellectual world Arendt’s book provoked divisions that would never be entirely healed”. Indeed Howe also defined the heated exchanges between New York intellectuals as “a civil war”. Heberlein does not seek to understand quite why the book might have provoked such an intense exchange, rather blaming Arendt’s friends for misunderstanding her stance and argument. “Today,” she writes, “her concept of ‘the banality of evil’ is well known and uncontroversial.” It may be well-known but it is far from controversial.

Arendt’s life in microcosm symbolises in its extraordinary complexity the twentieth century’s barbarities and upheavals. As Judith Butler has written: “Her experience of Fascism, her own forced emigration to France in the 1930s, her escape from the internment camp at Gurs and emigration to the US in 1941 gave her a historically specific perspective on refugees, the stateless and the transfer and displacement of large numbers of peoples.” Despite the travails of exile, she succeeded in refashioning herself anew, becoming a celebrity public intellectual along the way. Over the course of her new life in the United States, she inspired loathing and adoration in almost equal measure, her most controversial assertions shaping discourse on the Holocaust for decades and earning her in some quarters opprobrium and contempt.

We are now well accustomed to literary hybrids that mix and match genres, those that splice together history, memoir and biography. In this book the formula works only in parts, and the fangirl in Heberlein seems to gain the upper hand a little too often. Nevertheless, hers is a valiant effort to synthesise the controversies and triumphs of a formidable leading twentieth century woman intellectual. At its best it functions as an accessible introductory text for those whose curiosity about Arendt has been piqued by the recent political tumult of the twenty-first century.


Katrina Goldstone’s book Irish Writers and the Thirties: Art Exile and War is published by Routledge. See www.katrinagoldstone.com




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