Wednesday, March 08, 2017

From, What Remains? The Language Remains: A Conversation with Günter Gaus.
Trans. Joan Stambaugh.

["The ellipses here and elsewhere are in the original; they do not indicate omission of material. -Ed."]
Arendt: The expression "political philosophy," which I avoid, is extremely burdened by tradition. When I talk about these things, academically or nonacademically, I always mention that there is a vital tension between philosophy and politics. That is, between man as a thinking being and man as an acting being, there is a tension that does not exist in natural philosophy, for example. Like everyone else, the philosopher can be objective with regard to nature, and when he says what he thinks about it he speaks in the name of all mankind. But he cannot be objective or neutral with regard to politics. Not since Plato!

Gaus: I understand what you mean.

Arendt: There is a kind of enmity against all politics in most philosophers, with very few exceptions. Kant is an exception. This enmity is extremely important for the whole problem, because it is not a personal question. It lies in the nature of the subject itself.

Gaus: You want no part in this enmity against politics because you believe that it would interfere with your work?

Arendt: "I want no part in this enmity," that's it exactly! I want to look at politics, so to speak, with eyes unclouded by philosophy.


Arendt: You see, I came out of a purely academic background. In this respect the year 1933 made a very lasting impression on me. First a positive one and then a negative one. Perhaps I had better say first a negative one and then a positive one. People often think today that German Jews were shocked in 1933 because flitter assumed power. As far as I and people of my generation are concerned, I can say that that is a curious misunderstanding. Naturally Hitler's rise was very bad. But it was political. It wasn't personal. We didn't need Hitler's assumption of power to know that the Nazis were our enemies! That had been completely evident for at least four years to everyone who wasn't feebleminded. We also knew that a large number of the German people were behind them. That could not shock us or surprise us in 1933.

Gaus: You mean that the shock in 1933 came from the fact that events went from the generally political to the personal?

Arendt: Not even that. Or, that too. First of all, the generally political became a personal fate when one emigrated. Second ...friends "co-ordinated" or got in line. The problem, the personal problem, was not what our enemies did but what our friends did. In the wave of Gleichschaltung (co-ordination), which was relatively voluntary —in any case. not yet under the pressure of terror—it was as an empty space formed around one. I lived in an intellectual milieu, but I also knew other people. And among intellectuals Gleichschaltumg was the rule, so to speak. But not among the others. And I never forgot that. I left Germany dominated by the idea—of course somewhat exaggerated: Never again!  I shall never get involved in any kind of intellectual business. I wanted nothing to do with that lot. Also I didn't believe then that Jews and German Jewish intellectuals would have acted any differently had their own circumstances been different. That was not my opinion. I thought that it had to do with this profession, with being an intellectual. 1 am speaking in the past tense. Today I know more about it....

Gaus: I was just about to ask you if you still believe that.

Arendt: No longer to the same degree. But I still think that it belongs to the essence of being an intellectual that one fabricates ideas about everything. No one ever blamed someone if he "co-ordinated" because he had to take care of his wife or child. The worst thing was that some people really believed in Nazism!  For a short time, many for a very short time. But that means that they made up ideas about Hitler, in part terrifically interesting things! Completely fantastic and interesting and complicated things! Things far above the ordinary level! I found that grotesque. Today I would say that they were trapped by their own ideas. That is what happened. But then, at that time, I didn't see it so clearly.

Gaus: And that was the reason that it was particularly important for you to get out of intellectual circles and start to do work of a practical nature?

Arendt: Yes. The positive side is the following. I realized what I then expressed time and again in the sentence: If one is attacked as a Jew, one must defend oneself as a Jew. Not as a German. Not as a world-citizen, not as an upholder of the Rights of Man, or whatever. But: What can I specifically do as a Jew? Second, it was now my clear intention to work with an organization. For the first time. To work with the Zionists. They were the only ones who were ready. It would have been pointless to join those who had assimilated. Besides, I never really had anything to do with them. Even before this time I had concerned myself with the Jewish question. The book on Rahel Varnhagen was finished when I left Germany.  The problem of the Jews plays a role in it. I wrote it with the idea. "I want to understand." I wasn't discussing my personal problems as a Jew. But now, belonging to Judaism had become my own problem, and my own problem was political. Purely political! I wanted to go into practical work, exclusively and only Jewish work. With this in mind I then looked for work in France.

Gaus: Until 1940

Arendt: Yes.

Gaus: Then during the Second World War you went to the United States of America, where you are now a professor of political theory, not philosophy...

Arendt: Thank you.

Gaus: Chicago. You live in New York. Your husband, whom you married in 1941, is also a professor, of philosophy, in America. The academic community, of which you are again a member—after the disillusionment of I933---is international. Yet I should like to ask you whether you ntiss the Europe of the pre-Hitler period, which will never exist again. When you come to Europe, what, in your impression, re-mains and what is irretrievably lost?

Arendt: The Europe of the pre-Hitler period? I do not long for
that, I can tell you. What remains? The language remains.

Gaus: And that means a great deal to you?

Arendt: A great deal. I have always consciously refused to lose my mother tongue. I have always maintained a certain distance from French, which I then spoke very well, as well as from English, which I write today.

Gaus: I wanted to ask you that. You write in English now?

Arendt: I write in English, but I have never lost a feeling of distance from it. There is a tremendous difference between your mother tongue and another language. For myself I can put it extremely simply: In German I know a rather large part of German poetry by heart; the poems are always somehow in the back of my mind. I can never do that again. I do things in German that I would not permit myself to do in English. That is, sometimes I do them in English too, because I have
become bold, but in general I have maintained a certain distance. The German language is the essential thing that has remained and that I have always consciously preserved.

Gaus : Even in the most bitter time?

Arendt: Always. I thought to myself, What is one to do? It wasn't the German language that went crazy. And, second, there is no substitution for the mother tongue. People can forget their mother tongue. That's true — I have seen it. There are people who speak the new language better than I do. I still speak with a very heavy accent, and I often speak unidiomatically. They can all do these things correctly. But they do them in a language in which one cliche chases another because the
productivity that one has in one's own language is cut off when one forgets that language.

Gaus: The cases in which the mother tongue was forgotten: Is it your impression that this was the result of repression?

Arendt: Yes, very frequently. I have seen it in people as a result of shock. You know, what was decisive was not the year 1933, at least not for me. What was decisive was the day we learned about Auschwitz.

Gaus: When was that?

Arendt: That was in 1943. And at first we didn't believe it —although my husband and I always said that we expected anything from that bunch. But we didn't believe this because militarily it was unnecessary and uncalled for. My husband is a former military historian, he understands something about these matters. He said don't be gullible, don't take these stories at face value. They can't go that far! And then a half-year later we believed it after all, because we had the proof. That was the real shock. Before that we said: Well, one has enemies. That is entirely natural. Why shouldn't a people have enemies? But this was different. It was really as if an abyss had opened. Because we had the idea that amends could somehow be made for everything else, as amends can be made for just about everything at some point in politics. But not for this. This ought not to have happened. And I don't mean just the number of victims. I mean the method, the fabrication of corpses and so on — I don't need to go into that. This should not have happened. Something happened there to which we cannot reconcile ourselves. None of us ever can. About everything else that happened I have to say that it was sometimes rather difficult: we were very poor, we were hunted down, we had to flee, by hook or by crook we somehow had to get through, and whatever. That's how it was. But we were young. I even had a little fun with it — I can't deny it. But not this. This was something completely different. Personally I could accept everything else.

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