Frederic Raphael

The evil of banality

Aimez-vous Heidegger? According to his admirers, he was the most significant and influential philosopher of the 20th century.

Text settings

Stranger From Abroad: Hannah Arendt, Martin Heidegger, Friendship and Forgiveness

Daniel Meier-Katkin

W.W. Norton, pp. 384, £

Aimez-vous Heidegger? According to his admirers, he was the most significant and influential philosopher of the 20th century. For Hannah Arendt, despite her claims eventually to have found the perfect husband in Heinrich Blucher, Heidegger was the love of her life. She was his precocious teenage pupil when he lectured on Plato’s Sophist at Marburg in 1924, and the Herr Doktor’s dark-eyed Jewish mistress not long afterwards. He was 35, married with two sons, only one of whom (it emerged much later) he had fathered. His wife Elfride was an eager anti-Semite; Heidegger’s eagerness was for his own advancement and fame. Hannah never got over the thrill of being his cookie.

When Hitler came to power, the proponent of ‘the truth of Being’ embraced the Führer-prinzip. In 1933 he took Mel Brooks’ advice: ‘Don’t be stupid, be a smarty/ Come and join the Nazi Party’. Even as he worked to destabilise the liberal rector of Freiburg university in order to replace him, as he soon did, he was still writing love letters to his little Jewess, who was now in exile in Paris. He was also dumping and betraying his Jewish friends, including Edmund Husserl, his maitre-à-penser. Making it takes many forms.

Hannah Arendt stands to Heidegger as Simone de Beauvoir to Jean-Paul Sartre, whose own Being and Nothingness was a tribute (sourly received) to the German master’s Being and Time. Both women had claims to fame of their own, but derived their glamour, if not notoriety, from the world-famous philosophers with whom, as Héloise with Abelard, they will always be associated. In Stranger from Abroad, Daniel Meier-Katkin, a professor of criminology at Florida State university, re-assesses the great romance in clerk-of-the-courtly style.

His main subject is Arendt, who returned to Germany in 1950, an American citizen and an intellectual whose high-minded careerism had made her big in New York literary/academic circles. She had decided that she would not see Heidegger again, but soon sent him a ‘note’, as a result of which he reported promptly to her hotel, after which there was a ‘joyous reconciliation’.

During the war Arendt had done a lot of public thinking, not least on Jewish topics. As early as 1944, she abandoned her youthful Zionism and, with the Shoah in progress, was already arguing against a Jewish state which could trust nothing but ‘rude force’ when ‘surrounded inevitably by Arab states and Arab peoples’. She advocated that the ‘victorious Allies and liberated peoples renounce fascism and embrace pluralism by welcoming back’ the surviving Jews. Fat chance, as the lady professor would never stoop to say.

Christopher R. Browning’s recent Remembering Survival tells how, when Polish Jews returned to reclaim their houses and property, they were either murdered or run out of town. Arendt’s grandly planned prescriptions for human concord showed small acquaintance with the twisted timber of humanity. The windiness of German philosophical method inflated much of her thinking into vacuous generalities.

Her great claim to fame is as the inventor of the slogan ‘the banality of evil’. If she had not put herself up for the plum job of reporting the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1960, and if she had not, in Eichmann in Jerusalem, spent a great many words denouncing the Jews of pre-Holocaust Europe for failing to unite (and recruit ‘allies’) in the fight against the Nazis, she might now rate no more than a footnote in the voluminous attention paid to Heidegger’s verbosity, despite — if not because of — his ‘spiritual playfulness’. It made a spicy change from what he called his ‘ecstatic relationship to the truth of Being which man alone in creation can comprehend’. Since ec/stasy implies standing outside of something, it describes quite well the great man’s attitude to the truth.

Arendt’s disdain for Eichmann was equalled only by her scorn for almost every Jew she met in Israel apart from the judges whose German origins exempted them from being, like all the ‘orientals’ in Jerusalem, ‘loud and horrible … making life impossible for all reasonable people’. The full repertoire of her disdain (‘oily, adroit and corrupt’) falls on Jews, never on Germans. Eichmann’s ‘banality’ makes it seem that Ben-Gurion and company are hitting on some stupid kid in a playground of their own devising. All her work was, in some sense, a ‘report to Heidegger’.

While Hitler’s Germany is coolly anatomised, Arendt’s sense of outrage is visited only on the ‘leaders’ of European Jewry. Whether in France, Poland or Hungary they traded with the devil. In the end, she comes close to alleging that the Jews all but exterminated themselves (an early vestige of one aspect of Holocaust denial). She is pleased to claim that Eichmann’s regular recourse to cliché, and genteel meiosis, renders him bad casting for the Judas role in which the prosecution sought to cast him. His place as ‘architect’ of the Final Solution was certainly exaggerated, but Arendt mimicked her lover’s heartlessness by producing a paradoxical verdict on the Shoah which came close to making it a collaboration between victims and executioners (Isaiah Berlin, not renowned as a hater, loathed her for that callous vanity).

Meier-Katkin’s attention to the evidence is his virtue and his limitation: he has nothing markedly intelligent to add. Since he attributes Lucan’s most famous line to its subject, Marcus Porcius Cato, we may guess that cultural refinement is not among his specialities. Otherwise he might have asked just what Heidegger could possibly have meant by gracing the German Geist with a unique affinity with ‘the [pre-Socratic] Greeks’ (most of them, in fact, from Asia Minor) who preferred ‘Being’ to virtue or God. Thales’ remark that philosophy began with Θαύμα is a recurrent slogan, also attributed to Plato. Its translation as ‘awe’ ignores the element of watchfulness which lies at the root of Greek ‘science’. Thales also said ‘the world is full of gods’, an inconvenient fact.

Discounting religion, Arendt, like Karl Popper, never reckoned with the abiding irrationality of dogmatic faith. Her glib panacea, ‘universal pluralism’, remains the banal prescription of the New York school’s headgirl.