Letters of Recommendation
A look at Hannah Arendt's letters of recommendation
One of my favorite artifacts in Hannah Arendt’s archive is a letter of recommendation she wrote for Susan Sontag.
Dear Mr. Novak:
I’m somehow embarrassed to write a letter of recommendation for Susan Sontag who, after all, has done enough to prove her worthiness of support by the Rockefeller Foundation. This is simply to assure you that this is indeed my opinion.
But my letter to you this week is not about the letters Arendt wrote for Sontag (she got the fellowship), or any of the many students she advised over the course of her long teaching career, it is about Arendt’s applications and the letters that were written for her while she was in exile looking for an academic position in the mid-1930s.
In November of 1934, a year after Arendt was forced to flee Nazi Germany, forfeiting her promising academic career, she applied for help from the Academic Assistance Council. Her application materials survived the war and are held at the New York Public Library archive in New York City.
Her application forms offer readers a rare glimpse into a period in Arendt’s life that is otherwise not well-documented. She describes her educational trajectory, the work she is doing in Paris, and lists her countries of preference for emigration. There is a precarious “yes” between Jewish and Protestant on one intake form that I’ve stared at for no less than an hour, and a letter of recommendation from Martin Heidegger written before the war.
On her general information form Arendt lists “History of christianity till Augustinus, Social history of the German literature from Lessing till 1943, History of Jewish emancipation and assimilation, history of modern antisemitism”. She writes that she has fluent reading knowledge of French, English, Latin, and Greek, and she lists Karl Jaspers, Karl Mannheim and Arnold Zweig as her references.
Arendt’s CV is a slim paragraph, offering her academic qualifications:
I, Hannah Stern, nee Arendt, born on October 14, 1906 in Hannover, studied philosophy, classical philology and sociology at the University of Marburg, Freiburg and Heidelberg from 1924-1928 after completing my humanities Abitur exams in Königsberg. In 1928 I received my PhD with Professor Karl Jaspers in Heidelberg with a dissertation on Augustine. Based on the publication of this work and the recommendations of Professors Jaspers and Heidegger, I received a two-year stipend from the Notgemeinschaft Deutscher Wissenschaft. I left Germany in 1933 and have lived in Paris since, where I am active in various Jewish organizations working in education and organization.
She included the letters of recommendation from Karl Jaspers, Martin Heidegger and the German theologian Martin Dibelius for the Notgemeinschaft Deutscher Wissenschaft with her application to the Academic Assistance Council.
It is of course no coincidence that Arendt drops Heidegger as a reference in 1934. She broke all ties with him when she learned he joined the Nazi party in 1933. Heidegger’s reference mostly praises her unusual interests in philosophical problems and extraordinary cleverness. (I’ve taken some liberties with the translation because of the academic German.)
Ms. H-Stern-Arendt attended my classes and completed her coursework with me in her first semesters.
From the beginning she elicited a pleasing work ethic and an unusual interest. Her sure instinct for what is valuable and her extraordinary intelligence quickly allowed her to enter into problems very deeply.
Her understanding of these problems, coupled with a comprehensive education and a talent for literary description, will allow Ms. Stern-Arendt to do valuable work in the humanities. These days, there are only few who enter upon this field of inquiry with a sufficient philosophical preparation.
Karl Mannheim is a bit more praising. He writes that Arendt is “one of the most gifted persons among the younger generation.” Arendt’s first preference was London, and Mannheim tried to secure her a position at the London School of Economics where he was teaching in exile after he was ousted from his professorship in Germany in 1933.
But the Council was unable to place Arendt and she continued to work for various Jewish organizations in Paris helping to prepare Jewish youth for emigration to Palestine until she was forced to report for internment in 1940. After Arendt arrived in the United States, she sought help through the Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced Scholars in New York City. On her application form she describes her remaining years in Paris:
Apart from practical social work, I succeed to resume my scientific work and to finish a biography of Rahel Varnhagen as a case study of the problematic conditions of Jewish assimilation in Germany. I collected material for a history of anti-semitism and lectured on this topic in different French Clubs and Societies and at the “Deutsche Hochschule” (for refugees) in Paris. Since 1941 in New York: Columnist for the German-Jewish weekly “Der Aufbau”; published a book-review in the “Review of Politics” and an article about the Dreyfus-case in the “Jewish Social Studies”, July 1942.
Arendt never received an academic placement through these aid organizations, but through a desire to understand the most pressing political crises of her day, and the necessity to build a new life in exile, she found a way to make a career.
It’s easy to imagine the success Arendt’s work garnered after she established herself as a scholar and writer within New York literary society. It is less easy, I think, to imagine the precariousness of her time in exile, the tenuousness of her career as a refugee in America, and the work she did to become a writer. These documents are testament to those years.
It was only toward the end of her life that she received renumeration from Germany for the loss of her academic career. She used the money to hire a housekeeper, and rent a room in Tegna, Switzerland, to write The Life of the Mind.