The exquisite love letters between Hannah Arendt and Heinrich Blücher
“We each do our work, and then come together to discuss.” This is how Heinrich Blücher once described his marriage with Hannah Arendt. The poet Randall Jarrell described their union as a “dual monarchy.” There was, from the beginning, a genuine sense of excitement between them, and together they nurtured one another’s passion for the life of the mind.
Their correspondence has been out of print for a while, which is unfortunate, because the neatly organized volume, which spans 32 years, contains some of the greatest love letters of the 20th century. In them one finds a sense of intimacy and openness, which doesn’t exist anywhere else in Arendt’s papers.
In For the Love of the World, Elizabeth Young-Bruehl wrote that Hannah Arendt’s poems were her most private life, but I would wager that her most private life is found in her letters with Heinrich. In them, there emerges a sense of unmediated reflection and genuine partnership. There are doubts, jealousies, poems, desires, wishes, proclamations of love and longing. One sees Arendt’s vulnerabilities, emotional insecurities, and even her temper.
Hannah Arendt met Heinrich Friedrich Ernst Blücher in the early spring of 1936 at a public lecture. A former communist militant who had fought on the streets of Berlin with the Spartacus League, he fled to Paris by way of Prague in 1934, and became friends with Bertolt Brecht and Walter Benjamin. He was a fantastic talker. The poet Hermann Broch described his speaking style as an “unstoppable flow of oratory brilliance.” Dwight Macdonald said he was “a true, hopeless anarchist both in mind and in thought.”
Blücher was a Socratic spirit. He never published. His great work was teaching and conversation. He told Arendt that at his birth he had been blessed and cursed, by a good fairy who had given him a good brain, and by a bad fairy, who had given him writer’s block. Thankfully, this curse did not prevent him from writing Arendt long letters about Kant, Jaspers, loneliness, and love.
A few weeks after their initial meeting, Chanan Klenbort arranged for a dinner at Arendt’s apartment so that they could get to know one another better. When Blücher arrived in a suit and hat, carrying a walking stick, Arendt playfully took to calling him, Monsieur. He had no papers, which meant he couldn’t get a job, and like many émigrés, he was forced to move from hotel to hotel. He spent his days wandering the streets of Paris pretending to be a tourist.
Their relationship was the kind of love affair that one could make a film about. It unfolded under conditions of exile in Paris in the 1930s, sitting in cafés in the Latin Quarter talking with Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, attending seminars on Jewish mysticism led by Walter Benjamin in his cramped living quarters, attending Kojeve’s lectures on Hegel at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Ētudes. The erotic attraction between them was nourished by their intellectual connection.
When asked how they met, Arendt liked to say that it had been one evening’s courtship. Their dinner that night lasted into the early hours of the morning until Arendt kicked both men out. A couple weeks later, Blücher told Arendt that she was in love with him, and that they were going to be married, but she just didn’t know it yet.
When they moved in together a couple months later on rue Servadoni, they took to calling one another husband and wife. Arendt still had no idea that Blücher was married. She had told him that her husband, Günther Anders, had left Paris for America, but Blücher was not as forthcoming. Arendt found out about his wife at work one day when a new coworker began raving about his sister’s marvelous husband, only to realize the husband was the man she was living with.
There was a tender playfulness between them that lasted until Blücher’s untimely death in 1970. Arendt called him Stups, and Snubby, because of his snub nose, and Blücher constantly teases her with promises of spankings and punishments for taking too long to write.
Blücher wasn’t Jewish. He hadn’t been formally educated. He was auto-didactic and what one might call a lüftmensch. He came from a poor, working class background, and spent his days organizing with communists and his nights working in cabarets. Arendt’s mother, Martha, never liked him. Her petit-bourgeois sensibilities clashed with his working class ego, but from the moment Arendt met him, she felt at home in the world, and the overwhelming shock of love frightened her. In one early letter she writes, “And about the love of others who branded me as cold hearted, I always thought: If you only knew how dangerous love would be for me.”
Because of this, Arendt met Blücher’s advances with reticence at first:
My dearest, I think I love you. I meant it. And slowly, very slowly, I am beginning to see that no reasons should stand in the way of love. If only I didn’t have such damned good reasons. … As compensation, I kiss your mouth and nose.
Heinrich is relieved with Arendt’s reply. He had said “I love you” in a letter days earlier and received no response.
Your letter came yesterday; I can breathe again, and how I breathe! Deeply, filling myself with your love. It warms me. Now the schnapps is no longer lying on ice in Geneva, but flowing through my blood. The thick letter, that I believed long lost, finally dropped belatedly through the slot in the door today. And how could this letter, so weighed down with doubts and caught up in the jumble of three French holidays, have reached me on time? I’m glad it took its time—this way the melody of ‘My dearest, I think I love you’ had a chance to overtake it. You think you do? Seriously. I believe you, and I’ve never believed another woman before you. Many have told me that they loved me—but I never believed a single one of them. You I believe; if you would only tell me. When your second letter overtook the first, it was the second time that your actions anticipated your brooding words. For I’ve always thought of ‘your day,’ because it was the best day of my life. And when your letters filled with doubts came, I said to myself: Why keep dissecting her tormented words, you for whom the seal of all her actions forever burns on your lips? One thing I know for certain: With you there can be no lasting contradiction between word and deed. ….”
Once Arendt confesses her love, she reveals her true anxieties. She doesn’t doubt her affection for Heinrich, but she is still married, and she is uncertain about divorce even though she is separated; she is also worried that they will not be a good match for one another.
That I love you—you knew already in Paris, as I did too. If I didn’t say it, it was because I was afraid of the consequences. And the only thing I can say today is: Let us try—for our love’s sake. Whether I can be your wife, will be your wife, I do not know. My doubts have not been brushed away. Also not the fact that I am married (Forgive me, my love, if you can, for this plainspoken brutality.) I will become even more plainspoken, for although it is almost impossible to write these things down, it is still more possible than saying them out loud. I wanted to dissolved my marriage three years ago—for reasons which I will perhaps tell you someday.
When her divorce decree from her first husband finally arrives, though, she lets down her guard and her letters are filled with ecstatic joy:
My dear, beloved, one-and-only dearest, I am very proud and very happy that I was with you in the night. You see, dearest, I always knew, even as a kid, that I can only truly exist in love. And that is why I was so frightened that I might simply get lost. And so I made myself independent. And about the love of others who branded me coldhearted, I always thought: If you only knew how dangerous love would be for me. And when I met you, suddenly I was no longer afraid—after that first fright, which was just a childish fright pretending to be grown up. It is still seems incredibly to me that I managed to get both things, the ‘love of my life’ and a oneness with myself. And yet, I only got the one thing when I got the other. But finally I also know what happiness is.
Six months after they move in together, Heinrich cannot bear to be apart from her. He visited the Louvre while she was away on a business trip and was struck by Rembrandt’s voluptuous sculptures, which threw him into an erotic frenzy. After a dizzying meditation on art, and the liberation of women, he can no longer contain himself:
You—my very own—do you realize that I am the man with the plumb that will sound your depths—the man who has the anchor to anchor himself in you—the man who has the drill that will make all the vibrant springs of passion flow from you—the man who has the plow that will plow you so thoroughly, that all the nourishing juices within you will awaken?
Hannah, do you long for me as I long for my ocean, my harbor, my fountains, my own earth?
I kiss you all over, kiss my way to you, into you; I want once more to be in the arms, between the legs, on the mouth, on the breasts, in the lap of my wife.
Arendt’s response is more measured, but just as desiring:
Dear, dearest Heinrich, my one and only, mine and only mine—I cannot write any further, for all I can do is think of how tomorrow I will have you again with me and in me.
Their marriage was never conventional. Because of the nature of her work, and his position at the New School for Social Research and Bard College, they spent a significant amount of time away from each other. This was not easy for either of them, but letter writing was a way to carry on their conversations.
Perhaps one of the most surprising elements one learns in the letters is that monogamy was never a part of their marriage agreement. Arendt, despite her old-fashioned ways, was quite modern when it came to love. It is no secret that Blücher enjoyed the company of many women, and Arendt never hid her relationship with Heidegger, or occasional dalliances from him. Though, she does soften her language about her romantic interludes in the letters: “I’m not sure if I’ll go see him.” Or, “He’s not very bright.”
After Arendt returns to Germany for the first time, she lets Heinrich know in her own way that she has reunited with Heidegger. The morning after, she sends him a letter recounting their time together:
We had a real talk, for the first time in our lives, with the result that I had to think of my darned Stups who’s such a good judge of things. On top of everything, this morning I had an argument with his wife. For twenty-five years now, or from the time she somehow wormed the truth about us out of him, she has clearly made his life a hell on earth…. His wife, I’m afraid, for as long as I’m alive, is ready to drown any Jew in sight. Unfortunately, she is absolutely horrendous. But I’m going to try to defuse things as much as I can…. Stups—for God’s sake, you are my four walls.
Heinrich’s response isn’t one of jealousy, but tenderness. Up until this point, their letters had been fraught. Arendt was anxious about leaving him, because she had just found out about an affair he’d been having with a close friend before she left, but Heinrich reassures her:
So what if they’re all jealous of you—her at home you’ll find waiting for you your completely jealousless Snubby, who really loves you, though in his own façon.
Arendt responds to Blücher’s letter affirming their marriage:
When I arrive in a city where a letter of yours awaits me, everything changes immediately. It happened in Stuttgart, where your letter to Wiesbaden had followed me, and also in Munich. Yes, dearest, we have become part of each other and our steps tread in unison. And nothing can disturb this unison, even though life goes on. Those fools think that devotion means life coming to a standstill and getting bogged down in one of the two persons. They are cheated not just out of their shared life, but out of life itself. Someone should finally tell the world what marriage really is; if it only weren’t so dangerous! . . .
Arendt’s approach to love was never constrained by an ideal of romance. She was wary of the kind of love that turned one away from the world of being together to a world of two. With Heinrich, she was able to find her “four walls” and “portable home.” They never stopped pining for one another, or desiring one another’s company. After Blücher death, Arendt had a small stone bench installed in the cemetery so she could go and sit with him. Even after he was gone, their conversation continued.
I wish Arendt had written that treatise on love and marriage—and what love can be. It appears from one of her thinking journals that she began to put together some thoughts. But she has left us with an idea in her letters: Love embraces being in the world, devotion grants freedom for another to become, marriage encourages experience and oneness with oneself.
Happy Valentine’s Day,