Many famous intellectuals studied in Heidelberg. One of them is Hannah Arendt.
Hannah Arendt’s work is very rich. Through her lifetime, she experienced two horrific world wars and social revolutions. She was a member of a stigmatized minority and a refugee fleeing Nazi Germany.
At the University of Marbach, Arendt studied philosophy under Martin Heidegger, with whom she had a love affair. Heidegger advised her to write her dissertation in Heidelberg.
From 1926-1929, Arendt lived nearby Heidelberg’s castle, in Schlossberg 16, and wrote her dissertation “On the concept of love in the thought of Saint Augustine: Attempt at a philosophical interpretation”. Her supervisor was the Jewish psychologist Karl Jaspers. Unfortunately, the house, where Arendt used to live, got demolished but you can still access the street and walk towards the Heidelberg Castle. The view is wonderful.
Arendt was prevented from habilitation in Germany because she was a Jew. She conducted research on antisemitism and was arrested by the Gestapo for a brief time in 1933. In the same year, she decided to leave Germany. She fled to France and worked together with Jewish refugee organisations. In 1941, Arendt and her husband Heinrich Blücher were interned in the South of France, but they could escape and flee to New York City.
Hannah Arendt tried to understand what was happening around her. Her books The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) and The Human Condition (1958) are still worth-reading because her findings and arguments are thought-provoking.
My favorite book is Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963). Arendt had the chance to attend the trial of Adolf Eichmann, who was responsible for the detention and transportation of Jews and other minorities to concentration camps. She tried to find out why Eichmann was able to commit such a horrific crime.
“Whether writing his memoirs in Argentina or in Jerusalem, whether speaking to the police examiner or to the court, what he said was always the same, expressed in the same words. The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else. No communication was possible with him, not because he lied but because he was surrounded by the most reliable off all safeguards against the words and the presence of others, and hence against reality as such.”
For Arendt, Eichmann was no evil monster. He was an ordinary man who was unable to think for himself. He could only follow orders. He did not question his own actions, or the actions of the brutal Nazi regime.
“Yet Eichmann’s case is different from that of the ordinary criminal, who can shield himself effectively against the reality of a non-criminal world only within the narrow limits of his gang. Eichmann needed only to recall the past in order to feel assured that he was not lying and that he was not deceiving himself, for he and the world he lived in had once been in perfect harmony. And that German society of eighty million people had been shielded against reality and factuality by exactly the same means, the same self-deception, lies and stupidity that had now become ingrained in Eichmann’s mentality.”
Arendt’s book about the trial of Eichmann reveals why the Holocaust and other terrible crimes against humanity can happen in this world. A large part of society believes the propaganda and lies of their leaders, no matter how wrong or absurd they may sound. They believe that they are special and have to commit certain crimes to reinstall public order.
Joseph Goebbels, the Reich Minister of Propaganda of Nazi Germany, was a student in Heidelberg, too. He wrote his doctoral thesis under the supervision of Max Freiherr von Waldberg. In 1921, Goebbels earned his PhD. Waldberg was forced to retire in 1933 because of his Jewish ancestry.
The remains of a synagogue can be found nearby Heidelberg’s university. It was burned down on Kristallnacht in 1938.
Works by Hannah Arendt
Image by Bern Schwabe