A Letter from Hannah Arendt to Karl Jaspers

The reknowned political philosopher Hannah Arendt came to the U.S. in 1941 as a refugee from Hitler’s Germany. Karl Jaspers was a leading representative of existential philosophy, which originated in Germany in the 1920s.

The relationship between the two prominent thinkers began as far back as 1926, when Arendt was studying philosophy under Jaspers at Heidelberg University, and lasted until his death in 1969. Most of their exchanges were focused on the postwar period in Germany, Israel and the United States. They shared enthusiasm for the U.S. until the rise of McCarthyism compelled them to change their minds on the basis of the persecution of leftist intellectuals and other related issues of postwar U.S. policy.

The following letter, written by Arendt to Jasper, reveals some astonishing similarities between the McCarthy era and the present. We’d like to thank Dore Ashton for bringing this letter to our attention, the trustees of the Hannah Arendt Trust, and Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc for giving us the permission to reprint this letter from the volume of Hannah Arendt/ Karl Jasper Correspondence 1926-1969, edited by Lotte Kohler and Hans Saner, translated from German by Robert and Rita Kimber, first published in 1992.

142- Hannah Arendt to Karl Jaspers
New York, May 13, 1953

Leiber Verehrtester—

I’ve been wanting to write you for months, to thank you for your letter, to let you know that the foreword for Milosz arrived too late, alas, alas! because it is wonderful— devastated and devastating—(but Knopf will find another use for it; Hadas, professor of Greek at Columbia and very good in German, and I translated it together), to say how delighted I was about your honors— and yet I didn’t write because what it is I have to tell you weighs so heavily on us every day now that it takes away all desire to do anything.

You probably know a lot from the papers. Can you see from them how far the disintegration has gone and with what breathtaking speed it has occurred? And up to now hardly any resistance. Everything melts away like butter in the sun. Most important of course is the disintegration of the governmental machinery and the presumably quite conscious establishment of a kind of parallel government, which, though with no legal power, possesses the real power. And this takes in far more than just the civil service. The whole entertainment industry and, to a lesser extent, the schools and colleges and universities have been dragged into it. It is essentially impossible to consider any specific parts of the society as set apart from it, for even where the Congressional investigating committees aren’t sticking in their dirty noses, an extremely effective self-censorship takes place. The editor of a newspaper or a magazine, for example, or the director of a business or the professors at a university will quietly conduct a “purge.” (No professor will write a recommendation for a student anymore in which he fails to mention the student’s “unquestioned loyalty.” If he doesn’t do that, the recommendation is useless, and the young man needs a job!) In this self-censorship, everyone actually censors himself. It all functions without any application of force, without any terror. Basically, nothing at all happens—and yet the whole thing eats its way farther and deeper into the society.

Of major importance is the role of the ex-Communists, who have brought totalitarian methods into the thing (not methods of government but methods used within the party). Because it is obvious that no one can know whether another person has really broken with the party or is only acting as if he had, everyone—and that includes really good people! —has accepted as a principle that the only proof of such a break is for the person in question to give the names of people he saw or met fifteen or twenty years ago. This forces into public view just about everyone who at any time quite innocently sympathized with the party (usually at a very young age or in outraged opposition to fascism or in agitation over the Spanish Civil War) and who has long since forgotten it all. That takes in a large number of people, particularly among intellectuals. And so the originally small number of genuine ex-Communists is constantly growing. Important in this regard is Chambers’s book, which played a key role in the election campaign here. Biographical research plays a role here quite similar to the one that ancestral research did in Germany. (But there is no trace of anti-Semitic or other kinds of racial influences here. On the contrary, the Jews are playing a prominent role in the whole mess simply because they make up a major percentage of the intelligentsia.) The great danger that the ex-Communists represent at the moment is that they are introducing police methods into normal social life. Because, without exception, they name names, they make police agents of themselves after the fact, as it were. In this way, the informant system is being integrated into the society. I’ll spare you a description of how that works in detail. The trap into which they are lured is built like this: One of the committee members asks the person in question if he is now or has ever been a Communist. If he answers this question, without taking the fifth amendment, which provides that no one is obliged to testify against himself, then he has to answer all further questions under oath. If he doesn’t, he can be cited for contempt of Congress and face a jail sentence. The whole thing has become a farce: 1. Anyone who refuses to testify does himself the greatest harm because he appears guilty in the eyes of society, even if not in the eyes of the law, and his job, position, etc. can be affected. It is standard practice at all schools and universities, even the private ones, to fire immediately anyone who takes the fifth amendment! 2. When people have refused to testify—i.e., in the few cases where they have really refused—they have done so because that was the only way to refuse further testimony without making themselves guilty of perjury or contempt of court. In other words, the original intent of the fifth amendment has been stood on its head; it no longer protects one’s own interests but is instead a kind of self-incrimination; and it is used deceptively because the witness involved uses it—and has to use it—for purposes other than for what it was intended. Anyone who does not take the fifth amendment (and taking it is of course very difficult for people who are writers, because everyone knows what they thought ten or twenty years ago) has to name names. Or go to prison. The remarkable thing is that nobody has gone to jail yet. Several people have slipped through the committees’ fingers by lying. The minimum sentence for lying is six months.

The real disastrous consequence is that lawlessness continues to spread. Everything that is going on is taking place outside the law. First and foremost is the fact that the Communist party is not prohibited by law. That is disastrous—and a kind of trap in itself. (Anyone who advocates forbidding it will be told that he is “anti-democratic.”) The CP is not forbidden, but anyone who belongs to it will not be able to get a job, will be defamed, etc. The only person who has understood this is George Shuster, the president of Hunter College in New York. If the party were forbidden, then there would be no more equivocation about it: anyone who belonged to the party now would be violating the law. But what he did in the past would be nobody’s business—provided the law was not made retroactive. And there are some charming examples of retroactivity. Not in the laws themselves, but in the administration.

The administration itself, with the golf-playing president at its head, is as helpless as you have no doubt gathered it is from the papers. It is a government of big business whose sole concern is to make big business bigger. That doesn’t necessarily mean a depression, but it probably does mean the liquidation of small, independent businesses. This is an extremely important point. The really healthy thing about the development of the economy here was that even under the stress of war production major government contracts were awarded to small and medium-sized industries in spite of their higher costs. That has come to an end completely, and the power of the trusts grows every day. The danger in this isn’t so much the increasing power of the big concerns (that power is quite effectively controlled and held in check by the very real power of unions and by the fact that all the big companies are ultimately dependent on government contracts) but, rather, that the small independent man is disappearing as a political factor. In other words, this administration is making this society day by day into more of what it already is anyway: a society of jobholders. And by doing so, it plays directly into McCarthy’s hands, because the blame for this total lack of resistance in the society can be laid squarely at the door of these jobholders. And in all this, prosperity, in which everyone has unlimited opportunity and is therefore obliged to get ahead because everyone is getting richer by the minute, plays exactly the same role here that unemployment played in Germany. Six of one, half a dozen of the other.

At the moment, the ex-Communists are playing a sorry and key role in the process of disintegration. I think their importance will diminish in the long run. Good old American know-nothingness will take their place because it is the only thing that can go hand in hand with the ideology of Americanism that is just beginning to emerge now. This is all quite plain to see already. (The president of Brooklyn College, known citywide as an idiot with an important big job and as what people call a “reactionary” here, said to me in a public discussion that he was born and raised in Iowa and therefore didn’t need to think or read anymore to know what was right. He, along with Sidney Hook—a comical team—then told me that it was un-American to quote Plato and that I, just like Tillich, suffered from being Germanic. Sic!) Some of the more intelligent people are beginning to disassociate themselves from all this. It’s symptomatic too that the Congress for Cultural Freedom, which, God knows, has never lifted a finger in this country for either culture or freedom and has become a kind of collecting point for these types, is not very active here anymore. But the depressing thing is that the by no means small number of really good people who had joined this organization years ago, when things looked very different, have not been able, despite much deliberation, either to leave the organization or to move that it issue a protest against the methods of the investigating committees. It would amount to the same thing, because such a motion would produce a split in the organization. As individuals, they lose interest, fade out of sight, etc. But the power of public opinion is so great in this country that nobody does anything, although for the time being it’s absolutely clear that speaking out would have no dire consequences at all! (Although, to avoid painting a false picture, I should add that Hook—the very man who told me eight weeks ago that the Congressional investigating committees were the only way to preserve academic freedom! —disassociated himself from the committees in the strongest of terms a few days ago. In an open letter to the New York Times.

As you can see, I feel that we’re looking at developments that are all too familiar. Naturally—or, rather, not so naturally at all—in totally different forms and under totally different circumstances. I’m constantly reminded of a quote from Huey Long, who was the petty dictator in a Middle West state in the 1930’s and widely regarded as a fascist. In response to the accusation that he was a fascist, he said: “You are wrong, I am not a fascist, I am a local boss; fascism, if it ever should come to this country, will come in the guise of democracy and it will start in Congress, not in the government of the states.” All that is very “interesting,” especially the fact that public opinion can remain unorganized, that it needs no “movement,” that everything proceeds almost automatically. For example, almost all of the western states have followed the example of the federal Congress and formed their own investigating committees. And there is much more, all of it brought about without violence and only through pressure. Concentration camps are highly unlikely, even if the present course continues to be pursued. Much more dangerous is the role of the so-called psychiatrists and the social workers, all of whom have psychoanalytical training and who give their clients only “psychological guidance,” not material aid. (The material aid is regulated by law; one has a right to it. But anyone who makes use of this right has to accept psychological guidance!! In other words, there is already obligatory psychoanalysis for anyone who is in financial need. For the moment this is of no importance because of the current widespread prosperity.) When prisoners of war from the Korean War were expected home a few weeks ago, the army issued a statement in all the papers saying that the first thing that would be done with any of the prisoners who had been “infected” with Communism would be to put them in psychiatric clinics! I don’t believe that was actually done. But the thinking is typically American. Another ”interesting” thing, too, is the curious reversal of the relationship between the executive branch (the administration) and the legislative branch (Congress), particularly in a country in which the executive has almost dictatorial powers. Congress represents public opinion. And only God knows what that really is.

To give you a more complete picture I would have to tell you about the role the major foundations play in the universities. The Ford Foundation is in a perpetual panic about how to get rid of its money, which under no circumstances ca be left alone to accumulate profit that would then be taxed away. The foundation’s millions have accelerated a development that was already underway. Support for individual independent scholars, even if they belong to a university, is out of the question, because the foundations could never use up their money paying out such small sums. So everything goes into organized research, and the ancillary institutes gobble up the universities, which is to say, free research. This promotes types that are familiar to you but that are appearing in such great numbers here that they are becoming more dangerous than ever. They are the incompetents, the ignoramuses, who put a staff of college boys to work reading books for them. The whole business operates in a vacuum and produces no results. It is interesting only because by these means the intellectual proletariat is able to acquire positions of power or make positions of power out of ones that never had any power before. This was all evident with the Rockefeller Foundation, but never to such a degree, because such vast sums were not involved there. Culture simply can’t make use of so many millions. It suffocates under the weight of them. This new generation, whose company I had the opportunity to enjoy at the last political science convention, is undermining “morale” at the universities. And the foundations are not “free” either. I have heard from a reliable source that McCarthy let the Ford Foundation know that he would find ways to sabotage sales of Ford cars if the foundation stuck by its decision to give 15 million for the study of civil rights. (Nothing would come of it anyhow, unless some people should suddenly and unexpectedly get together and decide to offer some determined resistance. That’s always a possibility.)

Just about anything is possible here at the moment, among other reasons because neither free speech nor a free press are de facto prohibited. It is not the case either that one cannot publish. On the contrary. For the time being, we are not isolated in the least, perhaps less so than ever. I’ve taken potshots at the whole mob and haven’t suffered in the least for it. Perhaps a few of my friends, very good journalists, will be able to start up a magazine that will not content itself with pious protests couched in general terms (that kind of protest is common here but doesn’t mean a thing), but will report in detail what is really going on in this country. What is typical in this situation is that one can very well express one’s “opinion,” but editors will as a rule refuse to publish straight facts and reports. So everything happens half in the dark. And that in a country where people give credence only to facts and can be convinced only by facts.

I’m telling you all of this in detail in spite of my fear that you’ll think I’m exaggerating, because it seems important to me that you be informed. I feel it is no longer possible, as it was only a few years ago, to stand up for America without any reservations, as we both did. That does not mean that we can join in the European chorus of anti-Americanism. The dangers are clear and present. What will come of all this no one knows. If McCarthy does not become president in 1956, there’s a good chance things will be right again. But we’re seeing now what is possible here. Perhaps you’ll remember that we spoke last year about the Congress for Cultural Freedom. I know very little about its activities in Europe, but it troubles me a bit that you are still so prominent in it. Perhaps the situation is different in Europe. As you may know, the Congress is going to publish a new magazine, in London, with Spender and the director here, Kristol […] as editors. Kristol told me that it’s going to be a kind of English Monat. One cannot work for it of course, but can occasionally publish there. That would not matter. What troubles me is any kind of organizational connection.

Things are going very well for us personally. Heinrich is enjoying his teaching, also the fact that philosophy has suddenly become popular at Bard. Not, of course, with the faculty, particularly not with his colleagues in philosophy. But you know all about that, and it’s always the same old story. He is home only from Friday through Sunday, so I’m playing the grass widow and not liking it much. As compensation, I’m working contentedly and getting a lot done. Please don’t think that we’re personally depressed. Quite the contrary. We never had it so good—as our good old Truman used to say.

I’m preparing my Princeton lectures and a lecture for Harvard. At Princeton I’ll talk about Marx in the tradition of political philosophy. The more I read Marx, the more I see that you were right. He’s not interested either in freedom or in justice. (And he’s a terrible pain in the neck in addition.) In spite of that, a good springboard for talking about certain general problems. I taught a little at the New School this spring and enjoyed it. About forms of government.

Don’t be angry at me for not responding at all to your kind letter. All this other stuff has been on my mind for so long, and now this letter has grown dreadfully long. And at the moment I’m examining this connection between the “new” and the “beginning,” which is everywhere, and I would go on at too great length if I got into it. May I remind you of a statement of Nietzche’s (from the Wille zur Macht)? “The evolution of learning dissolves ‘what is known’ more and more into an unknown. But it wants to do just the opposite and takes as its point of departure the instinct to trace the unknown back to what is known.” I’ve just written a little essay on the difficulties of “understanding,” which will probably appear this summer in the Partisan Review. I’ll send it to you then—without the expectation that you ought to read it right away!!

How is the semester? What are you lecturing on? How I would love to drop in on a lecture! What are your plans for the summer? St. Moritz again?

We’re planning to be away for July and August, first, as usual, at our little hideaway in the mountains here, the hills really, then at the shore. I’ll write again then.

For the distant future we’re planning to go to Europe in 1955, if things stay the way they are now and we can afford it. Heinrich would like to travel through Italy, too. Just thinking of it is like a dream!

All my best to you both.

As always your