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The philosophical Madonna

Daniel Cohn-Bendit recalls his relationship with Hannah Arendt and reflects on her and his generation

Hannah Arendt was born on October 14, 1906, to parents of Russian-Jewish origin. She studied theology at the University of Marburg, where she met and fell in love with Martin Heidegger and later at the University of Heidelberg under Karl Jaspers. Arrested by the Gestapo for conducting research on anti-Semitic propaganda, Arendt escaped to Paris where she met the German communist Heinrich Blücher, who was to become her husband. The couple was interned by the Nazis and managed to escape to the USA. After taking American citizenship, Arendt pursued a career as a journalist and academic. Her coverage for the New Yorker of the trail of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1960 became the basis of her most controversial work. Best known for her profound analysis of totalitarianism, Arendt is one of the 20th century's foremost intellectuals. She died in 1975.

Daniel Cohn-Bendit was born in 1945 in Montauban, France and grew up in Germany. He was one of the leading spokesmen of the May Revolution 1968 in Paris, was a member of the Frankfurt "Sponti" (radicals) scene in the 1970s, edited the legendary magazine "Pflasterstrand", joined the Green Party in 1984 and is today co-chairman of the Greens in the European Parliament. Interviewer was Hannes Stein.

Die Welt: What did Hannah Arendt mean to you, when you were still a real, radical leftist 68er?

Daniel Cohn-Bendit: That's complicated, because she was a friend of my parents. I knew her and was aware of her theses as a child. After emigrating in 1934, she belonged to a group of intellectuals in Paris along with my parents, Walter Benjamin and Hannah Arendt's husband Heinrich Blücher. My father and Blücher were interned together at the beginning of the war, and that resulted in a deep friendship. But you make a point in your question: Hannah Arendt was not the most influential thinker for me at that time.

mmmmmHannah Arendt 1941. Foto: Fred Stein
When did you meet Hannah Arendt?

When she held a laudatio for Karl Jaspers in 1958, when he received the Friedenspreis des Deutschen Buchhandels. My father had just died and she visited my mother. The second time I saw her was at the Auschwitz trial in Frankfurt. I was there with my school class – and she happened to be there too.

When did you begin to get interested in Hannah Arendt's work?

In the 1970s, as the discussions about totalitarianism became more and more pressing. I was a leftist anti-communist and when I came to Germany in 1968, I was perplexed by the reluctance to compare communism with national socialism, which was rooted in German history.

Did your referring to Hannah Arendt's "The Origins of Totalitarianism" lead to conflicts with your colleagues?

There was conflict from the outset, because when I was expelled from France in 1968, I was absolutely certain that, despite my revolutionary convictions, I would prefer to live in West Germany than in the GDR. I saw in France and the GDR bourgeois societies – that's what we called them back then – that needed reform but not totalitarian systems.

What does Hannah Arendt's still controversial book "Eichmann in Jerusalem" mean to you?

That the demonisation of the Nazis doesn't help us in the long run. The most insane thing, that has to be understood is that the Nazis were "normal people"! Eichmann was a nobody who was only to achieve the status and commit the annihilation he did in a totalitarian, totally racist system.

But some of the claims that Hannah Arendt makes in "Eichmann in Jerusalem" don't hold up historically. Take for example her complete condemnation of the Jewish councils...

mmmmmDaniel Cohn-Bendit facing the police in Nanterre 1968
Nonetheless, the question that she asks with the Jewish council remains relevant: when does one accept developments and at what point does one put up resistance? It's possible that Hannah Arendt was not fair on the Jewish councils. But her basic question is still legitimate: Was it right to collaborate in the first place? Because it wasn't just the Jews who didn't want to see the annihilation that was facing them. When the western democracies signed a treaty with Hitler in Munich in 1938, they didn't see the annihilation potential that was being developed in Germany. It's basically this question that is still being asked in Israel. The injustice that Israel is doing to Palestine is related to the feeling that one doesn't want to ever end up in the same situation again. That's a problem that, in my opinion, has not been dealt with adequately – but it's a real problem.

Hannah Arendt's position on Zionism was complicated in an interesting way; she vacillated between agreement and rejection. Do you see your own position reflected in that?

Hannah Arendt realised that Jews wanted to have a place somewhere where they could live in peace as Jews. That's a kind of primary Zionism that I can understand for the generation of people who lived through the Holocaust. I was born later. And I am A-Zionist. That means I am neither pro nor anti Zionist. I can understand Jews wanting to live in Israel – but I want to remain a Jew of the diaspora. Hannah Arendt sensed in 1947 and 48 that the violent-military assertion of the state of Israel would lead to a permanent state of conflict. At the same time, the Six Day War represented a reality: there was only one state of Israel and despite all criticism, she stood in solidarity with the people of Israel. She did not want to do away with Israelis.

On another subject: Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger. Can you explain that for us?

No! But that's the nice thing about life: love and sex cannot be explained rationally, philosophically. I always say: Hannah Arendt is the philosophical Madonna. Put it this way - Madonna is the woman who said: I'll take the man that I want. Whether that's Christ - who she takes down from the cross in her famous music video – or her sports teacher, or whoever else. And Hannah Arendt is a political philosopher who can think radically, who takes on her teacher Heidegger with her radical thinking, who falls totally in love with this man – and the love was enduring. It was buried deep in her head and in her body. Some relationships are not to be explained; one has to accept that.

Back to politics...

We've been talking about politics the whole time. It's crazy to assert that Hannah Arendt should only have politically correct relationships. By the way, she also had a politically correct love. The interesting thing about her life is these two men. The other one was her husband, the former radical leftist who remained leftist later. Heinrich Blücher influenced Hannah Arendt a great deal in her book "The Human Condition". She always had a leftist understanding of the social. She thought in liberal terms about democratic institutions but she was very left in the social realm. She said America was politically democratic, and socially totalitarian. That's true! If you go into an American suburb, you see communism realised. Communist levelling is fully achieved. One identical row house after the next, for kilometres.

Since we're talking about America... how do you think Hannah Arendt would respond today to Islamicism?

She would say that Islamic fundamentalism is a form of totalitarianism. And that we need to have the power to fight this totalitarianism while at the same time considering Islam as a religion as equal to others. But she would also say that all religions have totalitarian moments in them. That our democracies developed in the emancipation from religion. And that's what Islam has to address: the emancipation of Muslims from their religion, through which a changed Islam and a Muslim atheism would emerge.


This article appeared in German in Die Welt on Saturday December 3, 2005.

translation: nb

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