‘On Love and Tyranny’ chronicles complex life of Hannah Arendt

Ann Heberlein

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Swedish author Ann Heberlein has taken a fresh look at the complex, controversial and often contradictory life, loves and writings of Hannah Arendt in a beautiful new book, “On Love and Tyranny:  The Life and Politics of Hannah Arendt” (Anansi International, $19.95). Heberlein’s book, superbly translated by Alice Menzies, combines rigorous biographical research with a novelistic story of Arendt’s passion.

This book should be required reading for serious scholars and anyone who wants to be immersed in an intercontinental epic romance.

Arendt (1906-1975) was a towering Jewish intellectual who fled Nazi Germany with her mother in 1933, making their way to France. When the Nazis occupied France, they were detained in the Gurs internment camp. After making it safely to America in 1941, Arendt worked tirelessly to protect Shoah-scarred children through the Zionist Youth Aliyah program. 

By turns admired and scorned, Arendt wrote a groundbreaking book, “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” which is still widely studied by history and political science students and professors the world over. In that book, Heberlein writes, Arendt describes the totalitarian vision as “the urge to organize the infinite plurality and differentiation of human beings as if all humanity were just one individual.” She adds that Arendt “considered propaganda a necessary part of creating and maintaining a totalitarian state.” This clear-eyed and coldly rational definition found its most horrific expression in Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany, which she fled as a young girl to move to the United States.

Arendt gave primacy to the power of the mind and rationalism but was also at heart a Middle European Romantic in the tradition of her French intellectual friends Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre. Arendt had a decades-long love affair with the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, whom she met at Heidelberg University, where he was a renowned philosophy professor. Arendt shocked friends and admirers by flagrantly continuing the affair even after Heidegger joined the Nazi Party and cold-bloodedly shunned and purged his Jewish colleagues from their Heidelberg University professorships.

Arendt and Heidegger remained friends and lovers for the rest of Heidegger’s life. Heberlein documents Arendt’s continued affair with Heidegger, for which many of her colleagues in the Zionist Youth Aliyah program never forgave her.

Arendt also provoked widespread outrage for her articles and book on the 1961 Israeli trial of the Nazi mass murderer Adolf Eichmann, which to Holocaust scholars and survivors seemed to minimize Eichmann’s role to that of a faceless bureaucrat who was “only following orders” and her assertion that some European Jews were complicit in the Shoah.

In fact, Eichmann was proud of being called the “Mastermind” of the “Final Solution of the Jewish Problem.” He infamously boasted to a Holocaust survivor, “I will leap into my grave laughing because I have the feeling that I have five million human beings on my conscience is for me a source of extraordinary satisfaction.” This is hardly the stance of a petty functionary.

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Arendt titled her book “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil,” which provoked widespread outrage for whitewashing the mass murderer and for slandering his Jewish victims.

Arendt’s assertions have been effectively rebutted in numerous books, including “Justice in Jerusalem,” by Gideon Hauser, the lead Israeli prosecutor at the Eichmann trial, where the defendant was famously observed the proceedings from a bulletproof glass booth. 

Despite the firestorm of anger provoked by her refusing to break with Heidegger even after he joined the Nazi Party and downgrading the Holocaust as “the banality of evil,” Arendt had a circle of loyal friends in the New York intellectual community and was an iconic figure in academic circles.

Arendt remained active with her circle, often hosting salons at her New York apartment that she filled with the blue smoke of her ever-present cigarette and the latest gossip in the literary world in which she and her friends lived.

Heberlein provides a useful appendix of brief biographies of esteemed members of the Inteligensia, including German philosopher Walter Benjamin, Jewish Mysticism scholar Gershom Scholem, German historian Heinrich Blucher (who married Arendt in Paris), and Bertolt Brecht, the famous anti-Nazi German playwright. After Arendt left France in to settle in New York City, she became a close friend and confidant of the acid-tongued playwright Mary McCarthy and her own American intellectual circle.   

Arendt was seriously injured in a car accident in 1962 and was cut adrift when both her loyal and patient husband, Heinrich Blucher (a German historian), and Heidegger, her lover, died in the 1970s. 

Heberlein describes a poignant visit that the world renowned British poet W.H. Auden paid to Arendt after the death of her husband. Out of the blue the poet asked Arendt to marry him. Both flattered and embarrassed, she politely declined Auden’s proposal. Having lost both her loyal husband and her longtime lover, she had no interest in marriage or a committed relationship.

Exhausted and lonely Arendt soldiered on with her writing and teaching at the New College in New York. She died after a coughing spell while entertaining friends in her Riverside apartment on Dec. 4, 1975. Her funeral a few days later was secular, although a psalm was read aloud. 

Arendt has been the subject of numerous books—some highly critical and others admiring—and of a recent positive biopic starring Barbara Sukowa.

Heberlein expertly weaves together the complex and sometimes contradictory strands of Arendt described by scholar Janice Grossman Stein as “one of the most important minds of the last century,” as indeed she was.

Arendt became a highly regarded scholar, but her refusal to break with Heidegger and her outrageous book on the Eichmann trial will forever be blots on an otherwise admirable career.

The good, the bad, the ugly and the beautiful are thoroughly explored in Heberlein’s multi-layered and compelling book.