Two of the 20th-century’s great thinkers become entangled in romance, the Holocaust, estrangement and reconciliation.
In 1924, Hannah Arendt (1906–1965) was a student of Martin Heidegger (1889–1976) at the University of Marburg in Germany. Although he was married and a father, their relationship quickly became intimate as well as intellectual, and it endured—with long hiatuses, some angry, some merely neglectful, and fundamental alterations—until her death. Although Maier-Katkin (Criminology and Criminal Justice/Florida State Univ.) declares “very weak” the evidence of Heidegger’s anti-Semitism and his involvement with the Nazis before they assumed control of the country, he joined the party in 1933 and allowed them to use his name and considerable scholarly prestige to help legitimize their dominion. In 1936 he was still wearing the party’s lapel pin, though the Nazi authorities, skeptical about his loyalty, never granted him the audience with Hitler he’d once sought. Meanwhile, Arendt—who had completed her doctorate—and her family fled to France, managing through her connections to obtain visas for the United States. They arrived in 1941. Early in the narrative, Maier-Katkin alternates between the two principals, charting their romantic lives, marriages, scholarly work and publications. But after Arendt’s arrival in the United States, the story becomes hers. Although she knew little English, she soon mastered it and had early editorial jobs before commencing her distinguished teaching and writing careers. The author is an advocate for both Heidegger and Arendt—though he is far harder on the former, calling the philosopher’s actions “shameful”—and he provides a lengthy defense of Arendt’s most controversial work, Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963), and its analysis of what she called “the banality of evil,” a phrase that continues to foment fiery debate nearly a half-century later.
Thoroughly researched, but often reads like a sympathetic, tendentious lawyer’s brief.