This piece of creative writing, which imagines a conversation that might have occurred (but most reliably didn’t) between well-known thinkers Hannah Arendt and Karl Jaspers at the time of the early days of Nazi Germany, is, for all its historical inaccuracies, possessed of a few notable facts:
- Einstein did indeed put a word against Jaspers joining the American university the famous physicist was tied to, at least according to Jaspers himself in his writing on Einstein preserved in his multi-volume work Lives of the Great Philosophers
- Heidegger’s legacy has been tainted by his involvement with National Socialism and is the source of much spilt ink and continued intellectual enmity between his supporters and detractors
- Jewish people did wind up getting a home in the form of the modern state of Israel whose existence and actions remain the source of much controversy and bitter resentment today, whether it be on the side of those who support and defend the nation’s right to exist and protect itself violently or those who deny its legitimacy and demonise its actions and those of alleged Zionist conspirators.
- Karl Jaspers did indeed have cyanide pills stored under his bed in case his wife and he were rounded up by S.S. militia on account of her being Jewish and he a dissident and known non-sympathiser to the Nazi regime.
- While Hannah Arendt did manage to eventually flee to America and become a world famous political thinker, writing the majority of her output in English, the fate of Walter Benjamin, also Jewish and under persecution, was not so lucky once his adopted nation of France came under Nazi and collaborative influence. He committed suicide in tragic circumstances near the French-Spanish border.
Issues of Legacy
In a lecture hall full of unsuspecting students, somewhere in Nazi Germany, a philosophy professor pushes for the cause of Hitler’s nascent Reich:
“We Germans lie in the pincers, caught between the two unholy empires of Technocratic America and Bolshevik Russia. Only a strong leader can avert the cataclysmic situation we find ourselves in. Modernity has brought down to its knees what was once great about our nation of thinkers and poets. Henceforth let only the Führer be your law and guiding light.”
A pretty student quietly leaves the auditorium to commune with her dissertation director.
“I cannot believe the words that came out of Professor Heidegger’s mouth, Herr Jaspers. It seems as though he has reneged on everything that he once stood for, be it truth, being, or care. I cannot help but wonder at how political considerations can warp and usurp the critical faculties of even the most cerebral of men!”
“Dear Hannah, this is nothing new. Many thinkers in the past have taken sides with those in power, blinded either by wordly rewards or deluded romantic yearnings. Most if not all great philosophers wound up becoming traitors to their own cause, losing sight of their blind spots let alone the fallibility and finite nature of human understanding which they did so much to highlight in the first place. As Nietzsche said so well in his prelude to Thus Spoke Zarathustra, let the tragedy begin!”
“But Herr Heidegger is using precisely Nietzsche’s legacy to buttress National Socialism and its most unpalatable of agendas. It seems that Herr Heidegger’s only gripe with the Movement is that, as it stands, it has taken the sides of science and technology rather than those of poetry and philosophy. But does Herr Heidegger have even the slightest idea of who these National Socialists are? What kind of despicable men they are?”
“Martin has never been the most astute of psychological observers and his seduction by Nietzsche’s ghost, as posthumously laid down in published writings, has made him lose sight of Moral Law: do not treat others in a way you would not wish to be treated. He has failed to grasp the immorality of the police State as an institution and has instead wholly identified with its nefarious plans for the governed. I fear that Martin’s moral shortcoming in this as in other areas will taint his legacy. We can only pray for posterity to forgive his myopia if only as a reminder of the frailty of even the most developed intelligence.”
“I for one cannot forgive him, Karl. How can he prostitute himself in such a dramatic fashion? Has he lost all in the manner of self-respect? Perhaps I am also partly at fault in my disappointment; I misapprehended his spirit and person, seeing him as a wise, courageous thinker standing his own ground like old Socrates when in fact he is the first to run behind the cause of crackpots and criminals. Anyway enough about him. I must leave this country as soon as possible. I have already made plans. However, I am concerned about my dear friend Walter.”
“Walter Benjamin you mean? I think he told me he was headed for the safe haven of France, although how much of a haven it will prove to be in time remains to be seen. But I must confess that I too feel I have lost a friend in the shape of Martin; while so much more vigorous than I in philosophical protreptic, he has nonetheless failed to comprehend the immutable and consequentialist principles of Natural Law which pays back violation with suffering. I fear for our people Hannah, or rather my people as a German - for God knows what fate has in store for Jews like yourself. We are looking at dire consequences for our fatherland once all this nationalist craze has blown over and we finally reap what we have sewn.”
“I have no sympathy for the German people, Karl. My only tie with your countrymen is the German language and nothing more. And even then I will start writing my thoughts in English to spite even the last bond I possess with these uncivilised brutes you call your people. I belong to the Jewish people, the homeless, ever-wandering ones. God have mercy on us should we ever have a home that seeks supremacy over all! But it will never come to that… We are, as we always have been, the underdog.”
“May good fortune be with you Hannah and that your flight from this darkened land of ours brings you and your loved ones a measure of peace in this, our tortured world. I myself am concerned about my wife who is also Jewish. However, should an unwelcome knock at the door wake us up one night I have an escape plan at ready.”
“A quick, painless death brought on by poison. Better die free than live a slave, as Cato the Younger knew well.”
“Oh Karl is there not some other means for you to escape? Why not come with me to America?”
“I am getting old Hannah and a fellow named Albert Einstein put a word against my joining a particular American university, making out that my writings were those of a rambling drunkard. Were it not for him I would have been given safe passage to the Promised Land. My last hope to flee this mess has been summarily dashed I fear. I cannot reliably fend for myself as a refugee in foreign country, not at my or my wife’s age. It appears that I must confront the evil genie that Hitler has unleashed on this land with fortitude and steadfastness. After all to philosophise is to learn how to live well, which is to say, to die well.”
“Karl my thoughts will be with you and your wife even as I reach the other side of the ocean, should I be so fortunate. May it never come to you poisoning yourselves. There are too few decent people on this planet as it is. I couldn’t bear for humanity to lose as enlightened a figure and wise a spokesman as yourself. May your deeds outshine in time Martin’s words. Farewell Karl, God be with you.”
“And you Hannah. I will be in touch once the inevitable catastrophes in wait for my country have subsided and the sun shines again, at least for a brief while, on us god-forsaken Europeans."