In 1948 Hannah Arendt caught trains through ruined cities and landscapes of rubble, through German towns where they were still selling postcards of churches and bridges that were gone, destroyed. It was the first time she’d been back to Europe since the war.
People have called Hannah one of the most famous philosophers of the twentieth century, because of the way she could “think without banisters.” But Hannah didn’t consider herself a philosopher. Hannah’s world was a place of politics, of messy, complicated interactions, where the past was in constant conversation with the present. When she saw those postcards for sale, people pretending towns still looked as they had before the war, Hannah cried out, “This is not real–real are the ruins, real are the past horrors, real are the dead whom you have forgotten.”
In Germany after the war, Hannah was working for a Jewish Cultural Reconstruction organisation. The depots were full of the past: half a million confiscated books, hundred of thousands of candlesticks and ruined households. In town after town, in the country that used to be her home, she looked for survivors of the Holocaust. And she found her old lover, the philosopher, Martin Heidegger. She hadn’t seen him in over 15 years. He was her first love, and he had betrayed everything she stood for.
It’s hard to imagine Hannah as a child. In photographs she is a perpetual adult, flickering between the dark-eyed, serious woman of her twenties and the fiercely sad, intense woman of her fifties, gripping a cigarette between her long teeth, frowning through a cloud of smoke. Her voice is filled with the gravel of long nights and dark dreams, mornings drenched in black coffee, the German language that was her home slipping into her half-mastered French, her hard-won English.
But Hannah was young, before the wars. She was born in 1906, the only child of East Prussian intellectuals. When she was just seven, her father, an entrepreneur, died of cerebral atrophy. Her mother remarried, and Hannah grew up stubborn and brilliant, refusing to attend classes she thought wasted her time. At 15, she was expelled from high school for organising a student strike, and finished her education in Berlin.
Hannah first saw the philosopher Martin Heidegger in a university lecture theatre. In 1924, he was on the verge of a breakthrough. The power of his mind kept whole audiences enthralled. His was a new philosophy. Before Martin, people asked what “beings” did in the world. Martin asked what “being” was itself. His idea of the “self” stood at the edge of a black and sparkling void, was totally free, unhinged from the past. Many years later, after everything that happened, Hannah would look back on Martin’s idea of the “self” and say its most essential characteristic was its “absolute egoism, its radical separation from all its fellows.”
A married man, 20 years older than his student, Martin and Hannah made love in empty offices, met in the forest, talked late into the night. Martin wrote to Hannah, “A human fate gives itself over to another human fate, and the duty of pure love is to keep this giving alive as it was on the first day.”
Hannah moved away to Heidelberg to study, where she immediately established herself as a powerful mind, earning the respect of the philosophers around her. But every time Martin wrote to Hannah, she dropped friends and family to find him. Once, after Martin left her to return home to his wife, Hannah ran to the train station to watch him board his carriage, just to see him, for a moment longer. And then he was gone.
Martin considered his love to be private. People, in Martin’s world, were alone, isolated. Only once in his long work, Being and Time, did he even mention the word “love”, and even then, it was in a footnote.
In Hannah’s world, people were connected. “Not man,” she would one day write, “but men inhabit this planet. Plurality is the law of the earth.”
Martin would not leave his wife. In 1929, Hannah published her thesis on love.
The decade drew to a close with a crash as the US stock market collapsed. In Germany, the National Socialist Party clambered atop the economic ruins to stake its claim in political space. Adolf Hitler was marching to power. Hannah heard rumours that Martin was flirting with National Socialism. She wrote to him, worried. In reply, he assured her that it was nonsense: “… above all it cannot touch my relationship to you.”
Criticising the state became illegal: “malicious gossip” and “horror propaganda”. Hannah began work for a Zionist organisation collecting information on anti-Semitic propaganda in the hope they could get it out to the wider world. One day, leaving the Prussian State Library, she was caught. It was the early days of Nazi terror, and the young policeman who arrested her wasn’t sure what to charge her with. After eight days, she was released.
Hannah fled on the night train to Czechoslovakia, not knowing she was embarking on 18 years of statelessness, that she would never again call Germany her home. In Paris–a city of swirling fears and escapees who looked back at the border they had just crossed–she waited. And at some point, Hannah found out about Martin. That he had joined the Nazi party, that he had been elected to the head of his university in Freiburg.
In Paris, Hannah met Heinrich Bloch: a former communist, a German gentile who had once attempted to join a Zionist party. They moved in the same circles of fierce resistance. While thousands of refugees flooded Paris, while the French government began to restrict jobs, while Martin betrayed everything she stood for over the border, Hannah wrote to Heinrich, “I can only truly exist in love. And that is why I was so frightened I might simply get lost. And so I made myself independent. And about the love of others who branded me as coldhearted, I thought: if you only knew how dangerous love would be for me. Then when I met you, suddenly I was no longer afraid…”
Hannah and Heinrich were married in Paris in January 1940. Three months later, the French Governor General, fearing a fifth column, sent all the refugees in France to internment camps. Hannah and Heinrich were torn apart. Contemporary history, Hannah saw, had “created a new kind of human being–the kind that are put in concentration camps by their foes and in internment camps by their friends.”
A month after the internment of refugees in their thousands, France capitulated. The camps were given to the Nazis. In the confusion of handover day, Hannah escaped, along with 200 others. The 6300 women who remained behind were deported to Auschwitz.
Hannah walked and hitchhiked cross-country, following whispers to Montauban, a place where it was said you could escape, where the mayor hid people and smuggled them away. In the street, in Montauban, she turned a corner and found Heinrich. He had escaped a forced march when his column was attacked by German planes.
The waiting list of people desperate to leave France for America held 300,000 names in the final months of 1940. The USA issued 238 emergency visas. Two of them were stamped for Hannah and for Heinrich. In 1941, they sailed to New York City.
Stateless, adrift in another new language, Hannah struggled through the war years, trying to understand what was happening on the other side of the Atlantic. Knowing that something had gone wrong, terribly wrong, with humanity.
When the war was over, she travelled across Europe with the Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, trying to find Jews to return history to. Trying to understand the terrible rift that had drawn a line through the middle of the century, separating the past from the present.
Hannah Arendt went on to become one of the most controversial and celebrated minds of her generation. In 1951, while people were trying to forget the wars, she wrote The Origins of Totalitarianism, describing the descent into madness made logical that was the concentration camps; the inversion of politics. She drew, with her clear mind, the complete dominance of the state in Germany and Russia, the way every sphere was collapsed in on itself, the isolation of sameness and the terror of the camps.
She would become most famous, most infamous, for her coverage of the trial of Hitler’s logistics man, Adolf Eichmann, who designed the trains that took so many millions to the camps.
Writing for The New York Times, Hannah showed that Eichmann was no freak occurrence, but the result of “the banality of evil.” Thinking back to the early 1930s, she saw this: how normal people, blinded by ideology, could commit the worst crimes in history. During the trial, she wrote that “a focus on the behaviour of the offender rather than the suffering of the victims would have shown Eichmann, more frighteningly, to have been an ordinary man behaving with ordinary motives in a culture that produced an abundance of murderers and accomplices.”
Hannah called thinking a dangerous activity. And her ideas have not been popular: that the monsters are inside us, unless we stand vigilant against them. That we are all in danger of sending each other postcards of places that do not exist, of ignoring the proof of the past. That culpability is complex. When she condemned the Jews in positions of power in France and Germany who had handed over ghettos to the Germans, Hannah was accused of a lack of love for her own people. In response, she wrote:
“I have never in my life ‘loved’ any people or collective–neither the German people, nor the French, nor the American, nor the working class or anything of that sort. I indeed love ‘only’ my friends and the only kind of love I know and believe in is the love of persons.”
Since her death at a dinner party in 1975, surrounded by friends and cigarette smoke, Hannah Arendt’s thinking has continued to insist that we look for who is in power: not “the people”, not the platitude.
And she has been called a self-hating Jew, a betrayer, has been tarred by her association with Martin and his early Nazism, by her love for him not as a member of a culture, but as a person.
When Martin and Hannah met, after the war, after the depots full of the past, it had been 17 years. Martin never apologised publicly for the year he spent as an active Nazi, or the many years he spent refusing to speak out against the atrocities. No one knows what they said to each other, as they walked in the forest together again. He returned to his wife, she to her beloved Heinrich. She would publish his writing on “being” in America, on his sparkly, alienated self. When he died, it was Hannah who wrote his obituary, who continued to fight for his place in philosophy.
It is impossible not to think of Martin, impossible not to wonder if it was an excuse, or if it was Hannah in full flight, when she wrote, “Only love has the power to forgive.”