Two philosophers make war, not love, in an opera

Two philosophers make war, not love, in an opera


norman lebrecht

February 25, 2018

The facts of the affair are incontestable, the letters available for public scrutiny.

In 1924, a philosophy professor at the University of Marburg made love to the brightest student in his class. He was Martin Heidegger, 36 years old and married, on his way to becoming  a force in his field. She was Hannah Arendt, 18, Jewish with mousy hair, probably a virgin. Heidegger abused his power and position to take advantage of a besotted student. By today’s terms, he was a sexual predator.

He went on to formulate his quasi-existential theory of Dasein (being there). In April 1933 he was made rector of the University of Freiburg, revealing himself as an enthusiastic supporter of the Nazi regime. Arendt had to leave Germany, finding refuge in 1941 after many wanderings in New York, where she taught philosophy at the New School and mingled with Manhattan’s intelligentsia.

Incomprehensibly, perhaps unforgivably, Arendt maintained an epistolary romance with the odious Heidegger throughout the Nazi years and beyond. In a 1953 diary entry, she describes Heidegger as a fox trying to lure prey into a trap in which he is already trapped. Was she a willing participant in his mind games? Or a victim of Stockholm Syndrome, where the kidnap victim falls in love with her captor? Either way, the affair is profoundly instructive as a case history in the present #Metoo hysteria, an academic anatomy of mental anguish and physical abuse.

The Israeli composer Ella Milch-Sheriff has turned it into a two-act drama at Regensburg Opera, fittingly indeed in a small town in Germany. The title, The Banality of Love, is a play on Arendt’s famous phrase ‘the banality of evil’, by which she (mistakenly) described Adolf Eichmann at his Holocaust trial.

From the opening scene, the story has little to do with love. Heidegger uses physical force and personal charisma to rip young Arendt away from the attentions of a besotted fellow-student and make her his mistress. Her intellectual development, harnessed to her erotic education, is yoked to Heidegger’s powerful mind. Without actual violence, Heidegger subjects her to varied forms of abuse and captivity.

Milch-Sheriff mitigates the harshness of their connection with sparkling wit. Heidegger, lecturing his class, accompanies himself on a mandolin like a medieval Minnesinger. Snatches of Wagner, Mahler and Bernstein afford a musical context to this cultural confrontation. The opening phrase of Deutschland Uber Alles mutates in a minor key into a morbid stain of spreading evil. The war of ideas is fought out by an excellent orchestra in a score of considerable sophistication.

Regensburg, a town of 100,000, has an elite singing ensemble. Its newest recruit, Sara Maria Saalmann, in her early twenties has a stage presence that belies her slight form. The eye is magnetised by her subtle movements, the ear by her serene handling of a complex phrase. This young soprano will go far.


Vera Semeniuk plays the older Arendt with more sympathy than the score allocates to the role; Angelo Pollak reveals no redeeming features in the younger Heidegger; Adam Kruzel as the older Heidegger appears as corrupted in body as he is in mind. The house was almost full for the performance I attended and the opera will remain in repertoire for the rest of the season, 12 performances in all.

At a time when ‘new’ opera is synonymous with the abstractions of Kaija Saariaho and George Benjamin, this pulsating, all-too-human drama contends with current and recent conflicts of mind, body, gender and nation. It’s one of those rare operas that has something pertinent to say about our present confusions.



  • Michael Endres says:

    An excellent article regarding this topic :

    • John Borstlap says:

      Very interesting. The concept of ‘The Banality of Evil’ was not meant as a trivialization of evil, but in contrary, as a warning it may be closer than you think. It means that the friendly neighbour, the helpful nurse, the considerate dentist, and the dedicated school teacher may – given the ‘right’ circumstances – be killing you, consciously, coldly, cynically, purposefully. Also it is a warning that well-meaning idealism motivated by justice, may as well turn into the very evil which it wanted to counter, like European Jews claiming the land of their forefathers and thereby chasing away the people who had been living there for ages, creating a wound which is still bleeding. And in current politics we see justified criticism of existing institutions and the EU turning into neofascism and racism, subjects having returned as ‘normal’, acceptable perspectives among intellectuals, as appeared in a recent public debate in the Netherlands, where also a neofascist political party is gaining much public support, as in Germany, as in France.

      • V.Lindv says:

        That’s probably the best post I have ever read on this site.

      • David R Osborne says:

        …”‘The Banality of Evil’ was not meant as a trivialization of evil, but in contrary, as a warning it may be closer than you think.”…

        Very well said, thanks John.

      • Curious Girl says:

        Perfect, John!

      • Heath says:

        “European Jews chasing away people who have been living there for ages??” John, there was no such thing as a “Palestinian people” before 1967! No “people,” no long history. You know the story. The lies of the international media are sickening.

  • MB says:

    Please – Between the city Regensburg and the county Regensburg there are almost 350,000 inhabitants.

  • James says:

    Obviously, there was more to Heidegger than simply an odious sexual-predator,
    and member of the NSDAP, who employed ‘physical force’ to violate and win poor benighted ‘besotted’ young Arendt.
    She was no foolish bimbo, she knew who the enemy was(and it was NOT Heidegger) and even after the war she was attached to him, until the end.
    If she loved him, and he her, so be it, and so what. It was their affair, and their’s
    alone, plus their spouses’.
    I find that those who forever pose ha ha ‘moral questions’ of this sort are very often up to no good, are primarily on the make.
    Of course, John Borstlap is right. People will do anything, and what do we know of ourselves until truly tested?

  • Andreas B. says:

    “excellent orchestra” – thank you 🙂

    Regensburg, a UNESCO world heritage city, has around 150,000 (!) inhabitants;
    the theatre offers opera (also operetta and musical), drama, ballet, children’s/youth theatre, as well as a series of orchestral and chamber concerts.
    a new opera is commissioned almost every year.
    more than 600 performances per season, around 300 full time employees, a budget of ca. 20 million euros – figures similar to lots of smaller, ‘provincial’ companies in Germany.

    I enjoy being a small part of this cultural landscape and it’s encouraging to know that sometimes our work is noticed and appreciated – even more so when it’s by NL!

  • John Borstlap says:

    One time, when I was struggling with the question whom I was, my therapist instructed me to read Hamlet, but I couldn’t proceed after to be to be or nottoobee when I burst into tears! so he told me to take-on a bit of Heiddegger and I immersed myself for 2 weeks in ‘Sein und Zeit’ until I got the meaning of being and be something of not-being. So I didn’t need to be at all and being something while not being was being OK! So relieved I felt that I immediately applied for this job and was accepted, grumbling that is, but still it’s good salary and when I want to take a day off I simply remind the boss of Heiddegger’s ‘das sein des nicht-seins’ and get away with it. So I can understand Hannah’s infatuation because that may have been the case but also the opposite had been possible. That’s where aleatorics come in!


  • Sharon says:

    I wonder if the personality of the characters and the dynamics of the relationship as portrayed in the opera is actually based on fact, such as what was actually said in their letters, diaries, or maybe interviews with those who knew them. Does anyone know?

    • David R Osborne says:

      Sharon there is a lot of info available online on that. From what I can tell, she kept his letters, but most of hers he got rid of. Which is a shame for me because I’m more interested really in what she was thinking.

      This is also a composer we should really be hearing a lot more from.

      • Joe O'Leary says:

        A new genre, “hate-opera”? Well perhaps it was Wagner who invented it in his his creation of Beckmesser, Mime, Klingson. And “hate-theater” or “hate-cinema” has been with us a long time, as in “Tom and Viv”.

  • David R Osborne says:

    My reaction to this article? What a great summing up of a remarkable story and without a doubt, a story that is perfect for opera. Inspiring!

  • Mike Z. says:

    Dude, this reveals you don’t understand a damned thing about #MeToo. Arendt & Heideigger had something between them that you can’t fathom. #MeToo is about women not consenting. Period. It’s not that hard.

  • Judy Katz says:

    You ever heard of the Balfour declaration or the British Mandate, you ignoramous!!

    • Siegfried says:

      Dear Sir or Madam

      would you kindly translate your no doubt deep thoughts into coherent form.
      As best you can. And mind your manners while you’re at it.

      Thank you.

      A Concerned Citizen

    • John Borstlap says:

      The Balfour Declaration, in spite of its describing Palestinian rights, did not help to stop their violations in the following years:

      I rest my case.

    • V.Lind says:

      Ever heard of the McMahon-Hussein Correspondence? Or actually read the terms of Balfour, which promised Palestinians no loss of civil or religious rights? I’d say being kicked out of your house was a loss of civil rights.

      • Michael says:

        The Palestinians were “kicked out” after they (along with Egypt, Jordan, and Syria) declared war on Israel after the UN Partition Resolution which called for a Jewish and an Arab state side by side and was rejected by the Palestinians so they could go to war instead. Context matters.

        • John Borstlap says:

          Indeed, but the most important factor in this context was the fact that the European Jews were uninvited immigrants. We know how such things can provoke a certain kind of emotions, as the news in our days generously demonstrates.

          • Michael says:

            “Uninvited immigrants” seems an odd characterization for how the Jews came to inhabit Israel again in large numbers. During the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, the inhabitants of what is today Israel willingly sold European Jews plots of land. It made sense. There was available land, there were willing sellers, the Jews needed a refuge, and the land had a close connection to the Jews’ history and ideology. If the Jews were not wanted (or “uninvited”), the then landowners simply could not have sold to them.

  • Luciano Tanto says:

    La “banalidad del mal”, lectura superficial y prejuiciosa de la Sra. Arendt. Bettina Stangneth lo explicó sin dejar dudas: “Eichmann vor Jerusalem. Das unbehelligte Leben eines Massenmörders”.

  • Judy Katz says:

    Siegfried , my apologies!
    I simply get hot under the collar a little too easily especially when unqualified people quote Wikipedia as their argument. Please visit Israel and see the reality as is lived by the Jews and the Palestinians/muslims who are unwilling to accept the existence of Israel.
    However, this forum is musical! It’s a shame to have it descend into the political quagmire of the Middle East

  • Judy Katz says:

    Oh! And may I say, Mr Borstlap
    Please read Michael’s post! Succinct, concise and to the point! Oh! So true too.

  • Judy Katz says:

    Please read Michael’s comment!! Nobody was kicked out of their house!

    • John Borstlap says:

      I thought it is generally known that gradually, the locals were driven-out of their habitat, sometimes on gunpoint. The history of Europeans buying land in the 19th century does not mean that such processes change over time, as nowadays we see the Israeli government annexing more and more Palestinian territory. It has become a swamp of entangled emotions and legal quickmires that no longer can be undone.The obvious solution: a united, secular, Western-model, non-Jewsih / non-Arab society where different people from different cultures can live under a common constitution and rule of law and secured equality, is still a very remote utopia. The only possible model of a peaceful multicultural society is the Western secular model based upon human rights, rule of law, equality before the law, and accessibility of all the social and cultural assets available.

      Whatever we think of Hannah Arendt and her abject lover, she was right in assessing in the late forties that the installation of the state of Israel would begin a never-ending cycle of violence and bloodshed, because it was based upon an injustice. A very painful truth that, after the Holocaust, was very difficult to acknowledge but time has proven Arendt right.

      • Michael says:

        Unfortunately so much of what is “generally known” is not true. There were many reasons the Palestinians left what is today Israel and it is wrong to attribute it solely to Israeli “gunpoint.” Before the war, most left voluntarily assuming the Arabs would win the war and (wrongly) believing they could return when the war was over. Some were urged by their Arab neighbors to leave to clear the path for the destruction of the Jews. And yes, after the war began, some were forced to leave by Israel (there are many reasons some Palestinians were forced out, not least of which is that one cannot have a nation when an enemy is within its borders carrying out terrorist attacks on its population on a daily basis). It’s noteworthy that many neighboring Arab nations expelled their Jewish populations too, some who had been living there since the diaspora. The only reason there wasn’t a Jewish refugee problem is because Israel accepted the Jewish refugees.

        Israel captured Gaza and the West Bank during the 1967 war, a defensive war where it was attacked by several of its neighbors. It is perfectly within international law to capture defensive territory when you are attacked. It is evident that this was defensive territory because when Israel returned Gaza to the Palestinian Authority in 2004, the Palestinians proceeded to use that land to fire rockets into Israel. You could argue, and probably rightfully so, that Israel should have never allowed settlements to be built to begin with. But nations have been capturing, annexing, and settling land for centuries. To single out Israel for something nearly every country has done seems unfair at best and anti-semitic at worst.

        I agree with your vision of a Western style democracy. Israel is just that. Contrary to being a Jewish state, Israel is secular in every sense that matters. There are free elections, all religions are equal under the law, and Jews, Muslims, and Christians occupy important positions in Israel’s government. There is only one area I’m aware of where Jews are treated differently under the law. That is the right of return. This allows Jews to return to Israel and gain citizenship and was enacted in order to protect persecuted Jews around the world. Other than this, Israel is a totally secular, Western-style democracy where Arabs have more legal rights than in many Arab nations. Arendt may have been right that the creation of Israel has led to bloodshed, but placing the guilt on Israel is blaming the victim.

        • John Borstlap says:

          Thank you for the additional information. You see how complex it has become, and I still believe the settlement of people with a totally different, modern culture in a backward territory was not the best possible idea. And, offering reparation and apologies for things that went wrong in the past by past generations, woul take the sting out of the conflict. Your description of a just multiculti Israel secular nation seems rather abstract to me and not quite answering the reality on the ground.

          • Michael says:

            It’s a fair point you make that settlement of a people with an entirely different culture was a mistake. Ideas were floated to create a Jewish state in numerous other areas, one of which was Alaska! (Imagine how different life would be for the Jews had that come to fruition.) I don’t believe the single state solution is tenable. The British made that mistake following WW I when they partitioned the Ottoman Empire into nations of religions and sects that have shown historical animosity to each other, leading to civil wars and other internal strife/instability in many Arab nations. I continue to believe the two-state solution is the most likely to succeed, but that can only occur when, to paraphrase Golda Meir, the Palestinians start loving their children more than they hate the Israelis.

  • Curious Girl says:

    With all the respect, saying that “Heidegger abused his power and position to take advantage of a besotted student” is making little, very little of Hannah Arendt. She was 18 years old when this affair started. Definitely very young, but undoubtedly an adult – specially in those days, where most women were wives and mothers by the age of 22 or 24. She was brilliant, strong and had a mind of her own. He had his qualities as well. And something very powerful happened between these two: a physical, sexual, affective, romantic and intellectual attraction. That explains why their correspondence, their mutual admiration and (probably) even some of that attraction managed to survive even the strong disagreements they had later…

    • Hilary says:

      Very well said.
      As Ian Pace has noted, the relationship between Clara and Robert Schumann might be problematic under today’s criteria.

    • John Borstlap says:

      This is ‘softening’ the incredible fact that a brilliant mind wholeheartedly embraced the basic tenets of national socialism, which he never rejected after the war. It is one of those cases of someone who is unhappy with the problematic nature of modernity (the chaos after WW I, industrialization, erosion of values etc. etc. in the twenties and thirties) and thus is captivated by archaic, mythological narratives. We see that again in our own time where extreme rightwing movements mobilize dangerous, primitive mass emotions, trying to undermine civil society and liberal democracy, to replace it with divisive and neofascist models: Front National in France, AfD and Pegida in Germany, Orban and his gang in Hungary, the cranks in Italy and Greece, Forum for Democracy (!) in the Netherlands…. all primitive, destructive reactions to complex contemporary problems.

      • Curious Girl says:

        Well, I wasn’t really “softening” anything. Everything you said in your comment is absolutely true; yet it does not annul anything I wrote. He had his qualities. Hannah wouldn’t have fallen for him for no reason, would she? But he also had this serious problem with the nature of modernity (a great interpretation of yours, by the way, which makes a lot of sense and with which I agree). To sum it up, human beings – including the brilliant ones – can be complicated!

        • John Borstlap says:

          Alas, that is very true. But it seems to me that it would not have been too difficult for a brilliant mind like Heidegger to see through the scam of the nazis, as ‘simple’ musicians could do, at the time, people without a thorough training in Socrates, Aristotle, Plato, Augustine, Spinoza, Kant, Schopenhauer et al. Even Toscanini – who was not even a Jew and came from the rough Italian countryside, and had no manners at all, and was a restricted man in many ways, was not fooled.

  • Judy Katz says:

    The thing is, Mr Borstlap,
    Secularism isn’t going to solve anything. Israel is more then willing to subscribe to a two state solution with Jerusalem as the capital city. But please explain how would that be possible when the Palestinians are not willing to accept the existence of Israel as a state just like them. They teach children in schools that there is NO state other then Palestine in the region.
    And so it goes…round and round in ever dizzying circles.

    • John Borstlap says:

      By openly electing a terrorist organisation, a majority of Palestinians excluded itself from any reasoned debate about the area. But the cause of such craziness is a deeply felt injustice. If this could be taken away, or appeased, the two groups could create a nation together. Utopian thought, of course.