[House of Anansi Press; 2021]

“Well,” writes Hannah Arendt with her singular synthesis of breeze and solemnity, “he was neither the first nor the last to be ruined by modesty.” Dr. Ann Heberlein, however, is in no danger of such a fate with her new book, On Love and Tyranny: The Life and Politics of Hannah Arendt. Arendt, at the very least a giant of 20th century political thought (and in my view one of the smartest people to ever live), is not only impossibly erudite but mercilessly nuanced. And yet, Heberlein boldly announces, “I want to tell the story of Hannah Arendt and the concepts that became major themes in her life.” No, Heberlein’s book will not be ruined by modesty and in that respect, it honors the spirit of the audacious Arendt. Heberlein deserves further acclaim for at once making so towering a figure accessible to the newcomer and adding crucial color and context for the devotee.  

Let me return to the two quotes from the previous paragraph. First, the tragically modest “he” is Adolf Eichmann, one of history’s great villains. Second, the two major themes Heberlein identifies in Arendt’s life are “love and evil.” The focus on Arendt’s personal love life avoids feeling like an irrelevance largely, as one might guess, because of Heidegger. For the unfamiliar, Martin Heidegger, himself a genius philosopher, was Hannah Arendt’s mentor at the University of Marburg, where she was both his student and mistress. He infamously became a Nazi, but — notwithstanding a substantial interlude — he and Arendt remained friends and (at least emotionally) lovers for life. Heberlein’s chronicling of that trajectory and its historical-political backdrop is supremely compelling on several levels.

The essentially lifelong love affair between the equally brilliant German-Jew Historian and Nazi Professor is an arresting puzzle playing out in parallel to Arendt’s academic (though wholly non-hypothetical) relationship with the Third Reich, and totalitarianism more broadly. I suspect most readers will, like me, enter and exit this book caring nothing about the two men Hannah Arendt actually married. I experienced that uncanny feeling of forgetting about them as I was reading about them. I think it is uncontroversial to say sometimes the husband to the Great Woman is only interesting for what they facilitate in their spouse, either in life (Gunther Anders and Heinruch Blucher for Arendt) or death (Dave Goldberg for Sheryl Sandberg). But Martin Heidegger and Hannah Arendt: friends till the end? How is that possible? Well, to be breezy and solemn myself, they were neither the first nor the last to prioritize love over principles. Yes, even the presumably non-negotiable “Don’t Be a Nazi” criterion had to yield to that warm fuzzy feeling. Problematic? More like banal, really. (For the uninitiated: Arendt’s book on Eichmann — the key logistical engineer of the Final Solution — was subtitled “A Report of the Banality of Evil”).

“[T]he road to hell,” writes Arendt in her otherworldly yet ever local The Origins of Totalitarianism, “may just as well be paved with no intentions as with the proverbial good ones.” That disturbing claim is the crux of her less titanic but more influential, Eichmann in Jerusalem. Arendt was pilloried for sharing what to her became obvious — Eichmann was just a typical guy, consumed by the quotidian imperatives and concerns of his particular little time and place, which, unfortunately for his victims, happened to be 1930s Germany. In Arendt’s words, “A leaf in the whirlwind of time, [Eichmann] was blown . . . into the marching columns of the Thousand-Year Reich.” Her point was not that he was innocent but that his guilt sprang from the failure to choose. More than exotic malevolence or grandiose ambition, the utterly unexceptional and effortless failure to pause and consider one’s moral position in the universe is what allows a random guy to transport human beings to their deaths with horrifying efficiency. For pointing this out, Heberlein explains, “Hannah was repeatedly described as heartless and devoid of empathy, accused of being cold and indifferent. Colleagues turned their backs on her, and friends cut off contact with her.” 

But today, writes Heberlein, Arendt’s “concept of ‘the banality of evil’ is well known and uncontroversial.” Is it though? Well-known maybe, but uncontroversial? I imagine the suggestion in the previous paragraph — let alone the harshest of Arendt’s claims — that Adolf Eichmann was pretty much a normal guy despite his mass-killing was enough to make some readers uncomfortable. 

I think it is more likely people forget, or allow time to water down, the unapologetic and frankly radical bluntness of Hannah Arendt, the unsentimental moral historian par excellence. Towards the end of her book, Heberlein asks, appropriately enough, “What can we learn from Hannah?” But her answer, “That we should love the world so much that we believe change is possible, and that we should never give up,” really will not do. There is nothing exactly wrong with that statement, but it fails the key test: The Eichmann Test. That’s to say, what if he lived by that principle? Well, Hannah Arendt would demand that we recognize it is wholly plausible to imagine him, or anyone else, vowing to never stop loving the world and to always do his best . . .  and still carrying out his duties as a prolific genocidaire. What we learn from Arendt is that there are truly heartbreaking limits to how much we can ever trust ourselves. 

Heberlein talks about Jews in Germany as wanting only to belong, to at last be recognized as true Germans, equal citizens of their home country. There could of course never be any moral equivalence between European Jews and their European oppressors (who had all the power), and everyone is right to worry about even inadvertently suggesting there could be. But nearly a whole third of The Origins of Totalitarianism deals with the historical fact that European Jews had, at most, a limited interest in assimilating into Christian Europe. Arendt not only confronts that complicated history but also addresses the shock it provokes. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt writes on the fraught topic of European Jews’ contributions to their own separateness, fully aware of how incendiary it is to the standard historical framework of Jewish self-understanding: “When this Jewish tradition of an often violent antagonism to Christians and Gentiles came to light, the general Jewish public was not only outraged but genuinely astonished, so well had its spokesmen succeeded in convincing themselves and everybody else of the non-fact that Jewish separateness was due exclusively to Gentile hostility and lack of enlightenment.” And that is from her non-controversial book.

A constant in Arendtian analysis is that everyone has agency, including victims, whose agency she points out not in order to blame them but to simply state the obvious fact that people make choices and those choices impact history on both the individual and societal level. She was willing to stand fast to that principle even if it meant — and it often did mean — losing friends, so it is incumbent on those who read her to face up to it head-on.

The topic of losing (or not losing) friends brings us back to Heidegger. The tone Heberlein uses for their relationship is one of personal and even sentimental anguish. “The pain of being without him for much of her life was greater than the pain he had already caused her.” At first this sounds discordant. Two of the great thinkers of the last century study together, sleep together, side against each other in the great moral-historical struggle of their age (the German Jewish student ends up exiled, in an internment camp, and ultimately America; the Christian German professor joins the Nazi Party and ends up disgraced in his defeated homeland), and then reconcile. The prism through which Heberlein presents all this is that of the generic (if deeply felt) experience of falling out with a loved one. Surely this is wrong? Or perhaps it is sublime. Surreal for its overwhelmingly banal reality. In other words, entirely correct.

Because not only did that wild true-life historical-fiction relationship happen, crucially, all it did was happen, despite the fact that something resembling an infinite regress of fudging the details in the name of making sense plays out in Heberlein’s book. First, we learn that Arendt not only resumed her relationship with Heidegger, but defended him by minimizing the length and depth of his involvement with the Nazi Party when (we are pretty sure) she knew what she was saying was inaccurate:

Hannah became his most enthusiastic defender, and she went to great lengths to excuse, smooth over, and downplay both Martin’s association with Nazism and his explicit support for Hitler and the Third Reich. In her tribute to him, ‘Martin Heidegger at Eighty,’ she goes so far as to acquit him entirely. Hannah describes Martin’s dealings with Nazism as ‘an error’ that lasted just ‘ten short hectic months.’ . . . [But by] 1969, when she wrote her tribute, it was common knowledge that he had been a member of [the Nazi Party] from May 1933 until the party ceased to exist in 1945.

Okay. It is not morally acceptable, but perhaps that is the kind of mendacious defense affection can inspire — or perhaps the kind of denial of reality guilt can inspire? But then — not to suggest any moral equivalence — Heberlein does something similar and rationalizes Arendt’s decision to rationalize Heidegger’s decisions. “Yes,” writes Heberlein simultaneously trying to understand and ventriloquize Arendt’s defense and forgiveness of Heidegger, “he sympathized with Nazi ideology, but he had no blood on his hands.” 

Are we sure about that? Granted, Heidegger may not have literally killed anyone with his bare hands, but does that really mean we can put such moral distance between him and those who did? I think not. But Hannah Arendt does, and she is the heroine of Heberlein’s book (and a heroine of my life, for that matter), so what is one to do? 

Tragi-ironically, I think the best we can do to understand Hannah Arendt’s behavior is to return to her work because Arendt’s unseemly rehabilitation of her favorite Nazi (I am not sure there is a gentler way to put it) in a frightening way really does jibe with the highest levels of her philosophy. The banal overwhelmed the moral. Predictably, Arendt did not so much defend the evil in Heidegger’s record as she simply chose not to reckon with all that was there. Even for Hannah Arendt, friendship was big enough to obstruct, at least momentarily, what was otherwise the absolute clearest of clear-eyed views of an unmissable mountain of evil. Of course, the misrepresentation of a friend’s complicity falls well short of making Arendt a Nazi sympathizer, let alone a blood-stained Nazi like Eichmann. But the key point is that combining Arendt’s work on Eichmann with Heberlein’s on Arendt and Heidegger allows for a double proof, a corpus, and a chronicle of banality, of some incredibly striking things (a Jewish expert on Nazism intentionally getting a Nazi’s history all wrong, and an absentminded moron becoming a mastermind of mass-slaughter) just . . . sort . . . of . . .  happening. The priceless contribution of Heberlein’s book, for all its occasional bowdlerizing, is that it offers the requisite connective tissue for the grand and the ground-level. 

“One can’t say how life is,” Heberlein quotes from Arendt’s diary, “except by telling the tale.” The letters, literature, and life of Arendt would suggest that narrativization is the closest thing to an answer for the question of how to avoid the worst, both individually and societally. Narrativizing, after all, is a form of moral awareness. The challenge is: how to do it earlier? How to survey the field and do a holistic accounting of what is actually happening, if not in real time, at least not in memoriam? The work of Arendt the thinker perhaps is most instructive for the way she shows us it is the non-choices of the small moments which send our stories farthest and fastest off the rails. So even more than its rich substance, Dr. Ann Heberlein’s quick little book might be just the right form and style for keeping us on track.

Erin Bloom is a writer living in Providence, Rhode Island.

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