Hannah Arendt and Gerhard (later Gershom) Scholem were in the vanguard of distinguished German-born Jewish thinkers in what the late Tony Judt called the “republic of letters” of uprooted Europeans of the mid-20th century. Arendt flourished in New York, Scholem in Palestine. Yet Mittel Europa and its tribulations continued to preoccupy both.
They met in Paris in the late 1930s, drawn together by common admiration for Walter Benjamin, who would commit suicide in the Pyrenees when fleeing the Nazis. One of the bright vistas in this collection is Arendt’s description for Scholem of his boyhood friend’s last destination: “The cemetery [of Portbou] looks off at a small bay, directly on to the Mediterranean. It is composed of terraces carved out of stone. The coffins are shoved into these stone walls. It is one of the most fantastically beautiful places I’ve ever seen.”
Such snapshots contrast with the dreary slog both writers are often compelled to perform, such as to rescue Benjamin’s literary remains from interment. They share in vituperation directed at Max Horkheimer and Theodor Wiesengrund (aka Adorno) who gained rights over part of Benjamin’s estate. These fellow émigrés are characterised by our pair as lolling in the lotus-land of California crafting opportunistic proposals to extract funds from well-meaning but overly credulous, wealthy Jewish-American sponsors.
Struggle for funds is a leitmotiv. One patron lampooned is Salman Schocken, Scholem’s publisher in Palestine who for a time became Arendt’s employer in New York. With a volatility familiar in supplicants of largesse, they depict the “old man” as alternately a sleepy philistine who hardly reads what he is given and a benevolent Croesus without whose unremunerated efforts work of intellectual merit would never see the light.
Many letters are concerned with detail of attempts to wrest Jewish artefacts and libraries from the rubble of postwar Europe. Cultural renewal results from this important work, and its tergiversations shed light on the politics of the time, not only in the writers’ devastated country of origin but also in those to which they have emigrated. McCarthy’s America is dismaying to Arendt, while the birth years of Israel are predictably tumultuous for Scholem.The pair fell out early over Zionism, which Arendt as ardent cosmopolitan deprecated, and late over the Eichmann trial, and her famed verdict on “the banality of evil”. Scholem branded this “a slogan”. The fiery Kabbalist in him believed in “radical evil” and he castigated his old friend for “heartlessness”. Despite affection, they had ever been hard on one another when provoked, or – if function demanded – simply bureaucratic. But this historic, quite public, confrontation killed off further communication.
The book includes Arendt’s reports on postwar Germany through to Jewish cultural reconstruction, as well as detailed notes. A handful of proofing errors — a doubled-up paragraph here, illogical dating there — should not deter scholars of Jewish history from welcoming it as a definitive work about an epoch of crisis and rebirth.
Stoddard Martin is a novelist and critic. His books include ‘Monstrous Century’