Weimar in Partibus

Norman Stone

  • Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World by Elizabeth Young-Bruehl
    Yale, 563 pp, £12.95, May 1982, ISBN 0 300 02660 9
  • Hannah Arendt and the Search for a New Political Philosophy by Bhikhu Parekh
    Macmillan, 198 pp, £20.00, October 1981, ISBN 0 333 30474 8

Hannah Arendt arrived in New York as a refugee from Europe in 1941. She was, there, at the centre of a world that included a great deal of ‘Vienna 1900’ and ‘Berlin 1930’. Her friends, whom she referred to as ‘the tribe’ – ‘the clan’ would have been a better translation – included Alma Mahler, the novelist Hermann Broch, whose essay, Hofmannsthal und seine Zeit, is the best short evocation of Fin-de-Siècle Vienna there is, and his mistress, the wife of the art-historian Meier-Graefe. There was a host of minor literary and artistic figures of the Weimar era. The Frankfurt School, in exile, established itself at West 117th Street, and it was there, on her arrival, that Hannah Arendt deposited the surviving manuscripts of Walter Benjamin. Characteristically, and perhaps accurately, she thought that the Frankfurt people handled them dishonestly. New York in the Fifties was Weimar in partibus.

There are emigrations and emigrations. Chateaubriand elegantly described the French emigration of the 1790s, at Coblenz, where it reproduced all of the fantasies and the incompetence, in heightened degree, of the Ancien Régime, before petering out, in the next two decades, into a set of dancing-masters, hairdressers, mercenaries, literary poseurs and embittered snobbish old roués. The Russian emigration of the 1920s still awaits its historian. The Weimar emigration is a different matter. It hit any country that it affected with the force of a powerful missile.

Hannah Arendt made a great name for herself in the Fifties and is still, apparently, regarded as a classic in America and Germany. She arrived in America from fallen France where, for the previous few years, she had worked for Zionist causes. She continued to work for these in New York, but soon became an editor at Schocken Books (an enterprise which, like Pantheon Books, had been started by Weimar émigrés). But she also worked hard on books of political philosophy, and her Origins of Totalitarianism, published in 1951, made her name. It was followed by other ambitious works, also celebrated: On Revolution and, more grandly, The Human Condition. The paperback reprints of these works arrive with a drum-roll of critical enthusiasm – admittedly, for the greater part delivered by personal friends such as W.H. Auden, who proposed marriage to Hannah Arendt shortly before his death.

In the Sixties, Hannah Arendt was very Sixties. Her friends in America were of the Left – Philip Rahv, Mary McCarthy (her generous literary executor) and Dwight MacDonald – and she supported, usually with some individual overtone, the advanced causes of the era, from Castro to Vietnam. In the early Sixties she achieved a succès de scandale with her articles (for the New Yorker) on the Eichmann Trial in Jerusalem. There, she more or less wrote off the whole affair as a show trial, which would have been better performed by an international court. More pertinently, she accused the leaders of European Jewry, in the Judenräte or Jewish Councils, of having performed a fatal role in collaboration with the Nazi exterminator. The controversy which she fomented has continued to this day, to the point where, in German, Kontroverse means only one thing. She became a famous woman, was awarded honorary degrees and continually invited to lecture here, there and everywhere. She suffered a heart attack in 1974 while delivering the Gifford Lectures at Aberdeen (she had to send out a research student to find out what her invitation referred to, and accepted it only when she learned that William James had been there before her, with his Varieties of Religious Experience). The lectures were subsequently put together, after her death in 1975, by Mary McCarthy, as The Life of the Mind. The question that crops up, unstated, throughout Elizabeth Young – Bruehl’s lengthy and thorough biography, and in Bhikhu Parekh’s Hannah Arendt Made Simple, is this: how much of the Sixties survives to the Eighties?

She comes across, certainly, as a good egg. She looks out of the back cover of Dr Parekh’s book with a face that has been through the mill. She was born in 1906, in comfortable middle-class circumstances in North Germany, and was raised in Königsberg, the Prussian Edinburgh (or perhaps, more accurately, Aberdeen). Her father, an engineer, died, after a painful and lengthy illness, when she was a little girl. Inflation, after the First World War, hit her family badly. Still, she was able to attend famous universities and to sit at the feet – in Heidegger’s case, more than feet – of famous philosophers. She shone. By 1929, she was living a characteristic Weimar intellectual life. She had a small scholarship, was preparing a complicated doctorate, and lived, with a man she subsequently married, in a studio in Berlin which had to be vacated during the daytime for the purposes of a school of dancing. Both dancers and couple had to negotiate the Bauhaus-style sculptures of the landlady’s son, which were left in the studio. They kept the rent down – not a usual result of Bauhaus doings.

In the early Thirties, Hannah Arendt became conscious of her Jewishness much more than before. Hitler’s advent found her writing a biography of Rahel Varnhagen, a well-known Jewish figure of the Enlightenment, which she took an unconscionable time in finishing. It is a straightforward piece of transferred autobiography, in the manner of Deutscher’s Trotsky, though less inaccurate. It is also an extremely difficult read. It was felicitously summed up in an English newspaper by Sybille Bedford as ‘relentlessly abstract, slow, cluttered, static, curiously oppressive; reading it feels like sitting in a hot-house without a watch.’ Marriage to Günther Stern, with whom she had lived, did not work out at all well. He was a promising philosopher and a commendable performer on the violin. He aimed to combine the two, and worked on the philosophy of music. Theodor Adorno, to whom the result was submitted, was jealously down-putting. Stern relapsed into sub-polymathic journalism, writing now on mystery novels, now on the latest conference on Hegel. Marriage to Hannah Arendt went off the tracks, and she remarried a more suitable figure in the later Thirties. In 1933, when Hitler came to power, she worked for Zionism, was briefly imprisoned, and emigrated, first to Czechoslovakia and then to Paris, which she again escaped from, in the nick of time, in 1940.

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