Hannah Arendt and Walter Benjamin became friends in that wartime Paris of 1933. They remained close until 1940 when, believing he was about to be captured by the Gestapo, he killed himself. The death brought Arendt closer to Benjamin's great friend Gershom Scholem. Subsequently, the two exchanged letters, mostly about him, until their falling out in 1963 over Arendt's treatment of the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem. I recently wrote something about an article Benjamin on aura in art and something about Arendt's conception of evil.
Arendt and Benjamin had much in common. Both were determined individualists and neither's lasting significance or accomplishments can be summarized in only a few words. Both understood the immense destructive potential of the modern nation state. Both believed that subject peoples (whether defined by enthnicity, religion, culture, or class) were fundamentally at risk unless they had means of defending themselves. Both believed that the Jewish people should not form a state of their own, but that they should work to set up federal structures in which groups could live together in harmony.*
And both rejected the self-confident materialism of their parents' milieu. They rebelled against the whole generation of German Jews represented by their parents, with their assertion of class-superiority among lesser Jews and their blindness to the deeply rooted antisemitism of the Christian culture in which they lived.
There are many lesser common threads in the lives of Hannah Arendt and Walter Benjamin. He was quite a bit older than she, but they were both secular, assimilated, German Jews, both born to families having substantial means, both urban, both highly educated. They were both members of the European intelligentsia and were both articulate, creative, and highly individualistic. Both suffered from the obscene antisemitism which the Nazi's brought out in the German people. Both were incarcerated for being Jews and managed to escape. Both confronted the Zionism of their times and both developed beliefs that were political and cultural rather than religious. Both confronted Marxism and, undogmatically, neither joined the Communist Party, but both had proletarian sympathies, were anti-capitalist, and both gave serious consideration to the possibility that Marxist theory might offer a solution to the impasses of European politics (though benjamin's thought aligned with Marxism much more closely than Arendt's).
Both endured periods of hand-to-mouth existence. Both were theorists. Both worked to help young people. Both hated clichés. Both had lovers and spouses. Both were great talkers who loved impassioned conversation.
As friends they supported one another. Arendt, for example, tried to help Benjamin in 1939 when he, despondent and eager to leave occupied Paris, needed contacts in safer places.
Their similarities are somewhat clarified by seeing how they differed from their common friend Scholem. He had been born in the same circumstances -- substantial, assimilated, secular, urban, German, and Jewish. But, unlike Arendt and Benjamin, his rebellion against crude materialism and fruitless attempts at a true assimilation led him to a deep commitment to the Jewish faith. Where they stayed secular, worldly, deeply skeptical about the irrationalities of religious belief, he became a mystic and, ultimately, a celebrated professor of Judaism at the university in Jerusalem.
There were also differences between the two. For example, he was morose, she outgoing. His work was as a student of culture, hers as a student of politics.
Their biographies are worth reading. I've listed some sources below.
some of my sources:
Walter Benjamin, By Gershom Gerhard Scholem, Gershom Scholem, Lee Siegel, Harry Zohn
Hannah Arendt at Jewish Virtual Library.
A Question of Justice, on Arendt, at the Malaspina modern lit site.
ZION’S REBEL DAUGHTER in New Left Review.
Hannah Arendt and Heinrich Blücher at Louis Proyect's blog.
Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) at Kirjasto.Sci.Fi a literary calendar site.
Encyclopedia of World Biography on Walter Benjamin.
Benjamin Chronology (pdf)
Walter Benjamin: The Story of a Friendship by Gershom Scholem.
Walter Benjamin: the Story of a Friendship, review by Mike Mosher of the book by Gershom Scholem.
Gerschom Scholem by Sharon Naveh.
Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, by Walter Benjamin.
The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin, 1910-1940, Translated , edited, and annotated by Manfred R. Jacobson and Evelyn M. Jacobson.
‘I merely belong to them’, Judith Butler's LRB review.
* The ideal of a federation of peoples was fairly widely held from the end of the 19th century through the early 1950's. It began with a statement of principles from the Social Democratic Party in Austria, became a more widely held position in the aftermath of World War I, and was resurrected by Arendt in criticising plans for the establishment of a Jewish nation-state in Palestine.
Judith Butler explains Arendt's thought on the subject in a review of The Jewish Writings in LRB, May 10, 2007:
In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Arendt thought that the Jews might become a nation among nations, part of a federated Europe; she imagined that all the European nations that were struggling against Fascism could ally with one another, and that the Jews might have their own army that would fight against Fascism alongside other European armies. She argued then for a nation without territory, a nation that makes sense only in a federated form, that would be, by definition, a constitutive part of a plurality. Later she would prefer the proposal of a federated Jewish-Arab state to the established notion that the state of Israel should be based on principles of Jewish sovereignty. ... If the nation-state relies on nationalism and invariably produces massive numbers of stateless people, it clearly needs to be opposed. ... The polity she comes to imagine, however briefly, is something other than the nation-state: a federation that diffuses both claims of national sovereignty and the ontology of individualism. In her critique of Fascism as well as in her scepticism towards Zionism, she clearly opposes those disparate forms of the nation-state that rely on nationalism and create massive statelessness and destitution. Paradoxically, and perhaps shrewdly, the terms in which Arendt criticised Fascism came to inform her criticisms of Zionism, though she did not and would not conflate the two.See also:
- ‘I merely belong to them’
The Reluctant Modernism of Hannah Arendt, by Seyla Benhabib:
Arendt distinguishes the grand French idea of the "sovereignty of the people" from "the nationalist claims of autarchical existence." The sovereignty of the people refers to the democratic self-organization and political will of a group of people, who may or may not be members of the same nationality, to constitute themselves as a self-governing and self-regulating body politic. Through such acts of sovereignty, as a nation of citizens, as opposed to a nation of ethnic affiliation.Regarding the proposal by the Austrian Social Democrats, see the wikipedia article on Austromarxism:
- The Reluctant Modernism of Hannah Arendt
Austromarxism was a Marxist theoretical current, led by Victor Adler, Otto Bauer, Karl Renner and Max Adler, members of the Social Democratic Workers' Party of Austria during the late decades of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy and the First Austrian Republic (1918-1934). It is known for its theory of nationality and nationalism, and its attempt to conciliate it with socialism in the imperial context. Hence, Otto Bauer thought of the "personal principle" as a way of gathering the geographically divided members of the same nation. In Social Democracy and the Nationalities Question (1907), he wrote that "The personal principle wants to organize nations not in territorial bodies but in simple association of persons.", thus radically disjoining the nation from the territory and making of the nation a non-territorial association.And a 1935 article by the Spanish Communist revolutionary, Andrés Nin:
The nation is a “personal association”. The complexity of present day economic relationships and the ease of communications encourage constant migration within multi-national States, with the result that those who leave their native land are considered foreigners and receive worse legal treatment. “No nation can be confined to pre-determined limits.” Therefore the principle of nationalities is fundamentally anti-national.
According to Renner, a solution will be found through a “personal”, not a territorial principle. “Nations should organise, not according to territorial units but as associations of persons, not as States but as peoples ...” “Naturally, as a people cannot exist without territory, the local population must be able to influence the administration. If that is organised on the basis of the personal principle, a territorial organisation will be a useful coordinator which will allow nationalities to be identified and help isolated people to join the relevant group.” The Nation State is adequate in situations where there are few internal national conflicts, but if applied in Austria it would cause problems and ultimately break up the State. Everything will be for the best, as in the best possible world, if the territorial principle is replaced by the panacea of a complicated system of “judicial” and “cultural” institutions.
People of the same nationality, living in a given area within the State, outside their own territory, will form a “national Community”, that is a “Corporation with its own public and private law, with capital and the power to make laws and raise taxes”. A given number of communities, linked territorially and culturally will form a district with similar corporate rights. “Those districts combined constitute the nation, that is a legal person in public and private law.”
- Austro-Marxism and the National Question, Andrés Nin, 1935