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Stranger from Abroad: Daniel Maier-Katkin on Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger

It's been my great pleasure to have some inkling of the extent to which Daniel Maier-Katkin--former dean of the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Florida State University--has immersed himself in the subject matter of his new book Stranger from Abroad: Hannah Arendt, Martin Heidegger, Friendship and Forgiveness. The book is the product of several years of inquiry and research, and the final text is a profoundly detailed, complex, and thoughtful view of two controversial figures, the times in which they lived, and the ideas they came to represent.

Who were Arendt and Heidegger? For once, a book's jacket copy is of use: "Shaking up the content and method by which generations of students had studied Western philosophy, Martin Heidegger sought to enoble Man’s existence in relation to Death. Yet in a time of crisis, he sought personal advancement, becoming the most prominent German intellectual to join the Nazis. Hannah Arendt, his brilliant, beautiful student and young lover, sought to enable a decent society of human beings in relation to one other. She was courageous in the time of crisis. Years later, she was even able to forgive Heidegger and to find in his behavior an insight into Nazism that would influence her reflections on 'the banality of evil'--a concept that remains bitterly controversial and profoundly influential to this day."

Stranger from Abroad has already received much praise, including a recent starred review in Booklist, which wrote, "Readers welcoming diverse perspectives will benefit from this inquiry into a relationship uniquely freighted with historical meaning." It's a fascinating book.

I recently interviewed Maier-Katkin via email. For more information, visit the dedicated website, which includes extensive video excerpts.

   Stranger Others have written about this subject. What is new or different about your approach?

Maier-Katkin: My approach, especially to Arendt, is more sympathetic than that of most others who have written about her relationship with Heidegger. Richard Wolin, for example, starts from the assumption that Arendt was excessively critical of other Jews and of Israel, and constructs an argument that she was uncomfortable with her own Jewish identity, felt more German than Jewish, and that this was somehow explained by her love for Martin Heidegger. Other critics have been more hostile, characterizing Arendt as a self-hating, anti-Semitic Jew because she conceived of the complicity of ordinary Germans with Nazi evil as somehow "banal," and because she argued that Israeli militarism was more likely to result in some cataclysm for the Jewish people than in perpetual domination of the Middle East through raw power.

I don't see Arendt as having been hostile to Israel. She had a long personal history of working for Zionist organizations, and even when she was most critical, characterized herself as the "loyal opposition." From this perspective Arendt's challenge to the Jewish leadership, arguing that the leadership had put the Jewish people on a path that leads toward disaster, does not seem hostile, anti-Semitic or self-hating so much as courageous.

There remains the question of how she could have forgiven Martin Heidegger with whom she had a love affair in 1925, and who became an enthusiastic Nazi at least for a few years in the 1930s. Arendt's detractors have used this as evidence that she loved all things German more than anything Jewish, that her judgment was distorted, and that when such a person criticizes Israel, it is not to be taken seriously. I have examined Heidegger's behavior during the Nazi years carefully, with an eye to presenting evidence from which readers can make their own judgment about whether he was the sort of German with whom reconciliation after World War II and the Holocaust was possible.

Certainly he was not a war criminal, and in Germany in general was welcomed back into the civilized community. I have tried to make it possible for readers to understand the complex relationship between Arendt and Heidegger, and form their own judgments about the reconciliation between them. How did your opinions change based on your research on both parties?

Maier-Katkin: I knew relatively little about Heidegger at the beginning of this project. I came around to the position that he was an opportunist and a liar, and also a German nationalist with an elevated view of the magnificence of German culture, especially the German language and German philosophy, and that his behavior during the Nazi years was despicable. I did not come around to the view, however, that the whole corpus of his thinking about human existence should therefore be dismissed. In addition, as I read Heidegger I could understand why Arendt had fallen in love with him when she was young and why she was reluctant to write him out of her life and unwilling to write him out of intellectual history.

I knew a little more about Arendt--or at least about her thought--at the beginning of the project, but as I learned more about her life, especially from reading thousands of pages of her letters, I was especially taken by the quality of her friendships with such amazingly interesting people as Karl Jaspers, Kurt Blumenfeld, Mary McCarthy, Randall Jarrell, and her quite remarkable husband Heinrich Blücher, of whom she said that wherever she was in the world, and however dangerous it was (escaping from Nazi occupied France, for example), that when she was with him, she felt secure as within her own four walls. Most of all, I think, I was taken by the strength of Arendt's friendships. In the purely intellectual realm, I suppose, I was most taken by her thinking about the perpetual possibility of new beginnings even in a deeply troubled world. These two commitments, I think, to friendship and to the possibility of starting over again, go a long way to help understand how she was able to reconcile with Martin Heidegger. What was it like to more or less live with these two people for an extended period of time?

Maier-Katkin: What a wonderful question. I did feel that I was living with Arendt and Heidegger for several years--more so with Arendt (whose picture is on the wall next to my desk) than Heidegger (whose thinking and language I came to appreciate but who never became a sympathetic character to me).

But it’s not just the two of them. Readers of Stranger From Abroad will also see that I was living with Heinrich Blücher (who is really a heroic figure in my telling of the story) and also with Arendt's best loved friends, which means that I was intimate "across the distance the world puts between us" with the philosopher Karl Jaspers, the poet Randall Jarrell, and the writer Mary McCarthy among others. This, as your question seems to recognize, was a great spiritual and intellectual adventure. What would you hope readers would take away from the book?

Maier-Katkin: This is a difficult question. Most of all, I think, I'd like the readers to enjoy the story and to come away inoculated against the calumny that Arendt was a self-hating, anti-Semitic enemy of Israel. It would be nice if some readers incorporated elements of Arendt's thinking about justice into their own being, and thought about what justice means in domestic policy and international politics. I'd be happy too if readers came away from the book thinking a bit more about Arendt's conception of the new beginning and how it can be realized in the lives of individuals and nations. I'd be very happy if readers found themselves wondering about some of the same things I've been wondering about, principally about how to explain what happened to the Germans: how did a nation of "thinkers and poets" with great accomplishments in the arts, sciences, music and philosophy become perpetrators of mass murder and other crimes against humanity? That question is certainly present in Stranger From Abroad, and I hope to be addressing it more directly in my next book. It would also please me if reading Stranger From Abroad left readers wanting to know a little more about Heinrich Blücher because I plan to spend some more time with him over the months and years ahead.


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