Two Pariahs

Child Hannah’ and lifelong friendship with Jaspers

One of the most beautiful qualities of true friendship is to understand and to be understood.” – Lucius Annaeus Seneca

The friendship for her and for Jaspers is a space where we meet and truly listen, even across time and place, language and cultures. Ever he accepted Heidegger’s references for which he felt responsible for Arendt as one of his first doctoral scholars in 1926. She wrote her doctoral dissertation “The concept of Love in Augustine” in 1929. Jaspers exacting analysis of her contribution showed that he was struck by her creativity of her interpretation.

Hannah Arendt thought of Karl Jaspers as a Socratic figure, and argued he was the only successor Kant ever had. His work on philosophy as fundamental dialogic activity had a lasting influence on Hannah Arendt throughout her career. And yet Jaspers has long been under appreciated in the Western Canon. Today, amidst a renewed interest in Existentialism, though his writing is receiving attention attention from younger generation of scholars interested in Existentialism and in the legacy of Hannah Arendt.


Arendt’s father died when she was 6, and she was an only child. Jaspers had no children. Throughout her life Arendt addressed Jaspers as “Lieber Verehrtester” (Dear Honoured One) and found it difficult to bring herself to say the word “Karl.” It took her 10 years to honour Jasper’s repeated requests for a picture of her husband, whom she referred to impersonally in these letters as “Monsieur” and whom she kept very much out of the picture, until Jaspers was nearly 80 years old. Arendt was married to Heinrich Blucher, a non-Jewish German whom she had met in Paris in the 1930s. Blucher taught philosophy at Bard College, New York and the New School. Arendt and Jaspers referred to him as the “identical twin of Socrates.” Jaspers, of course, was the fraternal twin.

The circle of scholars, intellectuals, artist and writers surrounding Arendt and Jaspers embraces two centuries and some legendary personalities. Jaspers was himself a student of Max Weber, one of founders of modern sociology. Arendt and Jaspers seemed to know and develop every major German and French intellectual of the century: Martin Heidegger, Edmund Husserl, Thomas Mann, Karl Manheim, Theodor Adorno, Paul Tillich, Jean – Paul Sartre, Albert Camus. Their opinions are not always flattering.

Here is one notes by Jaspers on Heidegger in 1949: “Two and a half years ago he was experimenting with ‘existence’ and distorted everything thoroughly. Now he’s experimenting more seriously, and, again, that doesn’t leave me unconcerned.” The philosopher and sociologist Theodor Adorno, another dark figure in these letters, is described by Arendt as a “repulsive” human being who tried unsuccessfully to go along with the Nazis (he later wrote a book called “The Authoritarian Personality“. Nineteen thirty-three was a moment of truth, and some very fancy people did not pass the test.

Arendt replies in a letter that was not included in the published exchange between Arendt and Jaspers, because it was only found later.

In this reply, dated December 29, 1963, Arendt states that “the banality of evil” is her own concept, and not something someone else has formulated for her.However, the juxtaposition of “evil” and “banality” goes back to a much earlier exchange between Arendt and Jaspers, which both of them seem to have forgotten. In 1946, when they resumed their exchanges after the war, Jaspers underlines in a letter to Arendt that the Nazis are to be seen as banal criminals: “It seems to me, because this is how it really was during the war, that we should see the total banality of these things the Nazi crimes, their sober nothingness—bacteria may cause pandemics exterminating peoples and yet remain just bacteria.”

The correspondence between Hannah Arendt and Karl Jaspers that began in 1924 and ended only with Jaspers’s death in 1969 attests to a friendship that underwent periods of greater and lesser intensity, that often reached heights of intellectual brilliance, but that also descended to trivia and gossip, not to mention an inexhaustible variety of physical ailments. This long friendship between such temperamentally opposite individuals, the passionately engaged and identified Jewess and the Protestant German patriot who once called himself a “norddeutsche Eisklotz,” a North German ice block, had many facets: mentor and student, older man and younger woman, Heidelberg professor and American public intellectual, each of which would alone merit discussion. This essay focuses on one perhaps understated yet striking theme in their letters and in Jaspers’s writings of the mid-1940s, the juxtaposition — at times explicit, at times implicit — of the status of Jews and Germans as pariahs. It proposes that Arendt’s interpretation of the Jews as a pariah people — which appears at the very outset of their correspondence and is in her (and Jaspers’s) judgment a “negative” concept — became, after the war, the source of Jaspers’s hope for a new, post-Hitlerian German identity. This transposition is most clearly expressed in Jaspers’s Die Schuldfrage (1946), which appeared in English as The Question of German Guilt, where, in an astonishing reversal, the Germans are described as a people deprived of their statehood and excluded from the community of nations because of the enormous suffering they had inflicted on others, above all, the Jews.

Hannah and Carl lived their dangerous times, times of war, times in which this war forks about in other directions, ideological conflicts, and they knew many people from intellectual circles. Hannah lost many friends after her book on Eichmann and among them Gershom Scholem while her correspondence and friendship with Heidegger had its ups and downs. Heidegger was indeed a “Serpent at heart” – who believed that philosophy was only possible in Germany and Ancient Greece while Jaspers remained one figure in Hana’s life who replaced the role of an early deceased father. At the Jaspers’ home, she was accepted as “Hannah’s Child” because Karl and his wife Gertrude had no children. Jaspers has always acknowledged Heidegger’s genius but their friendship definitely fell apart due to Heidegger’s open support for Nazism and the snitching of some colleagues to openly distance himself from his mentor Edmund Husserl.

Were they both pariahs? German Jaspers was forced to resign as a full professor in 1937 because of his non-Aryan marriage while Hannah was forced to flee the country she considered her own in 1933. She eventually managed to escape with her husband to the United States because she was among the 200 lucky ones who obtained a visa to the United States in 1940. While Karl Jaspers survived his days in Heidelberg and then he became a citizen of Basel after the war. In the 1930s and 1940s, the world was crumbling in the vortex of war, friendships disappeared burdened with ideologies and political passions but Hannah and Karl Jaspers remained friends. Witnesses of an era, analysts, critics but each in their own way.

While Hannah says I am not a philosopher, I deal with political theory in one of her interviews Jaspers will write about collective guilt and whether reconciliation is possible. The question is whether there is repentance for what the Germans did. Both will think from their positions, painfully survived experiences in the 1930s and 1940s. Has human existence remained the same? Questions about totalitarianism, forgiveness, hope, reconciliation, or seeking solutions. It’s as if humanity has learned nothing from its history. We are changing, but some eternal questions remain quite the same since Plato wrote the Republic. All forms of government have remained as a general matrix in today’s political discourse.

The twentieth century simply cannot be understood without Hannah Arendt, wrote the author Amos Elon. Arendt significantly influenced two concepts that are essential for the understanding of the twentieth century: “totalitarianism” and the “banality of evil”. Arendt’s insights were rarely left unchallenged. However, we will later write about famous book Eichmann in Jerusalem Report of Banality of Evil, actually report of Hannah Arendt from trial in Jerusalem, which still not be accepted by Jews in Israel.

In Germany, Arendt lived a difficult existence under the increasingly discriminatory and violent Nazi regime and was not allowed to teach at university due her Jewish heritage. Yet she stayed to study anti – Semitism and take a part in political resistance until she was arrested by Gestapo in 1933. She narrowly escaped and flee from country.

In 1933, shortly before Arendt departed from Germany, Jaspers had written to his young student, “I find it odd that you as a Jew want to set yourself apart from what is German.” In 1947 he proclaimed, “I will never subscribe to a concept of Germanness by which my Jewish friends cannot be Germans or by which the Swiss and the Dutch, Erasmus and Spinoza and Rembrandt and Burckhardt, are not Germans.”

Hannah Arendt is undoubtedly one of the greatest and most influential thinkers of the 20th century speaking about her interviewer Gunter Gauss:


And she chose consciously not to be a philosopher in the sense of thinking and reflection in isolation from the world, but saw herself as a political thinker whose philosophy is nourished by life’s experiences. She experienced it all first-hand: world wars, Nazism, the Holocaust, totalitarianism, revolutions, postcolonialism, refugeehood and migration. Rare are the thinkers who have introduced into their work so many critical issues for deciphering the world, and did so with an intellectual passion and brilliance.


Jaspers’ antifascist position was of a very specific nature, in which remembrance and judgment lie side by side: “We, the survivors, did not seek death. When our Jewish friends were taken away, we did not go into the streets and shout until we had been exterminated as well. We preferred to stay alive for a weak though correct reason that our death could not possibly help. That we are alibe ours guilt.” He says succinctly: “He didn’t want to risk provoking his own demise, as it wouldn’t have been merely his demise. Jaspers didn’t save anyone’s life with his reasoned caution, except perhaps his own and that of his wife. During that period he extended complete solidarity only to probably the one person whom he completely trusted, his Jewish wife, Gertude. This is quite evident in a statement by Jaspers that was printed in the Rhein-Neckar- Zeitung (25.1.1946): “Following the Nazi era we are more careful than ever to avoid creating false heroes. I am not a hero, nor do I wish to be seen as one.”

Before learning about his removal from office, Jaspers has agreed to lecture at The Freie Deutsche Hochstadt, in Frankfurt am Maine, Goethe birth place, and the Goethe Museum. On this occasions, Jasper’s lectures, Philosophy of Existence given 1937, were to persuade his audience to believe in the future, although he as his approach to philosophy as though it were a drop in the ocean of the chance to survive. The keynote was whether what we called Existenz was to be heard as an appeal to a listener with a open mind, or as dogma that mirrored the prevailing ideology in the contrary at large.

We always live, as it were, within horizon of our knowledge. We strive to get beyond every horizon that still surround us as obstruct us our view. But we never attain a standpoint where the limitation horizon disappears and from where we could survey the whole, now complete and without horizon, and therefore no longer pointing to anything beyond itself.

This assertion of the individual’s predicament in life mirrored the precarious position in which Jaspers found himself: his presence in Nazi Germany that was not interested in hearing from intellectuals.

To see and understand the others helps in the achievement of clarity about oneself, in overcoming the potential narrowness of all self-enclosed historicity, and in casting off towards far horizons. This risking of boundless communication is once again the secret of becoming-human, not as it occurred in the inaccessible prehistoric past, but as it takes place within ourselves. – Jaspers

In an address given in 1958 when the German Peace Prize was awarded to Karl Jaspers, Arendt returned to this theme of the ‘realm’ of philosophy:

This realm, in which Jaspers is at home and to which he has opened the way for us, does not lie in the beyond and is not utopian; it is not of yesterday nor of tomorrow; it is of the present and of this world. Reason has created it and freedom reigns in it . . . It is the realm of humanitas, which everyone can come to out of his own origins.

Arendt was a scholarly nomad who, under the protection of various academic titles — today’s lecturer, this year’s fellow, professor for the spring quarter — migrated among intellectual centers at Oberlin College, Princeton, Wesleyan, Harvard, Bard College, Columbia, the University of Chicago, the New School for Social Research and the University of California, Berkeley. She offered seminars and courses on such subjects as “Basic Moral Propositions From Socrates to Nietzsche” and “Political Theory From Machiavelli to Marx.” She was the author of several influential books: “The Human Condition,” “The Life of the Mind,” “On Revolution,” “The Origins of Totalitarianism.” She spoke with an authoritative voice about Nazism, Israel, ethnic identity and other aspects of Jewish existence.

Actually, Karl Jaspers and Hannah Arendt were both formerly apolitical thinkers who did not develop an interest in politics until quite late. Hannah actually started to read Kant, Kierkegaard and Jaspers in age of fourteen, she was also studied Greek and Latin. She was very influenced with Jasper’s understanding of philosophy as primary dialogic activity; whereas Heidegger always understood it to something you do alone. For Jaspers thinking was very worldly, and about the constituting the world in common. That remained with Arendt thought the rest of her life, and is very apparent in her work.

My heart is heavy. Will we see each other again?

We both feel we still have a great deal to say to each other.

Hannah Arendt to Karl Jaspers, 1956

The extraordinary friendship between Hannah Arendt (1906 – 1975) and Karl Jaspers (1883 – 1969), and their letters actually correspondence between young student and mentor and after that mature professor and successful thinker provides publicly possibility about German – Jewish dialogue at its points of greatest crisis and radical reassessment. Big fail of the Germany into Nazism, nationalism, totalitarianism as radical dissolution of the normal world, and their substance was enriched, rather than impoverished by experience.  Letters shows how their intellectual development as two apparently totally different personalities introvert Karl Jaspers and extravert explosive Hannah Arendt which flourishes not in spite of but because of their huge differences of circumstances and personality.

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