The Magazine

Natural Reich

Martin Heidegger didn’t accomodate the Nazis; he embraced them.

Feb 8, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 20 • By MARK BLITZ
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Heidegger

The Introduction of Nazism into Philosophy in Light of the Unpublished Seminars
of 1933-1935
by Emmauel Faye,
translated by Michael B. Smith
Yale, 464 pp., $40

This book, which appeared in 2005 in France and is newly translated into English, has caused a stir, and rightly so. Emmanuel Faye argues that Martin Heidegger’s work is so closely connected to the Nazis that it should be shelved with books from the Third Reich and not permitted to share space with Aristotle, Descartes,
and Kant. Heidegger’s works are artifacts of darkness, not paths toward Enlightenment. By design, they perpetuate Nazism long after its battlefield defeat. His effect on philosophy is pernicious.

Faye’s study differs in several respects from others that show the connection between Heidegger and the Nazis. He claims that Heidegger’s writing and teaching was (and is) primarily a defense of Nazism and Hitlerism, not something independent of them that discovered an ugly affinity and use. He uses notes and summaries from unpublished courses from 1933-35 that demonstrate Heidegger’s racial teaching. And he compares Heidegger at length to contemporaries and followers who worked with the Nazis, such as Carl Schmitt and Erik Wolf, to show the deep similarities among their arguments. Only the willfully ignorant could deny the connections Faye draws between Heidegger and Hitler. 

Much of what Faye argues is based on what is already well known. In 1933 the Nazis made Heidegger rector of the university in Freiburg. During his rectorate he attempted to set scholarship and administration on the Nazi path, appointing sympathetic deans, and leading or organizing reeducation retreats. He enthusiastically worked for the Nazification, the “coordination,” of academic institutions. He made speeches and wrote messages that urged support for Hitler and his policies.

“To the man of this unprecedented will, to our Führer Adolf Hitler,” he concluded one Freiburg address, “a threefold ‘Sieg Heil.’ ” Who, upon hearing such a statement, would not know where things stood? After the war, authorities banned him from the classroom for several years; figures such as Heidegger’s erstwhile friend Karl Jaspers were among those who urged the prohibition.

The attention that scholars paid to these facts varied with the ebb and flow of Heidegger’s influence. Heidegger resigned the rectorate after a year in office. This made it easier for the credulous to believe the excuses and explanations that he and his supporters offered for his outrageous behavior. Others correctly saw his explanations primarily as lies and half-truths. For the past 15 or 20 years, however, largely because of the publication of a biography by Heinrich Ott filled with damning facts about Heidegger, no fair-minded person has been able to deny the seriousness of Heidegger’s collaboration. Although the peak of Heidegger’s active political support for the Nazis may have been the Freiburg rectorate, denunciations of Jewish colleagues, encouragement of teachers who supported the Nazis, and involvement in Nazi efforts such as the Academy for German Law preceded the rectorate and continued after it. There is no evidence at any point of active political opposition. 

The issue of Heidegger’s association with the Nazis has, for scholars, as much to do with the link between his thought and actions as it does with his actions themselves. Here, too, awareness of the link ebbs and flows. Because the tie is less obvious, or easier to deny, than the political facts of the rectorate, and because it more clearly impugns his followers’ judgment, many academics have tried to ignore or obfuscate it. Nonetheless, several among Heidegger’s first group of students, such as Karl Lowith, recognized it quickly, and wrote about it during and just after World War II. There have been other works available for decades that also make the link visible. Not until the fascist connections of the leading literary deconstructionist, Paul de Man, became obvious 20 years ago, however, did it become impossible for Heidegger scholars to ignore the subject. The attempts to explain away any link between Heidegger’s thought and action took on new levels of sophistication, but the effort to explain the link honestly proceeded nonetheless. 

Faye’s argument is an extreme version of those that tie Heidegger’s thought to his Nazism. His claim is that Heidegger’s understanding of Being, essence, destiny, and people is at root nothing but a distortion of the central elements of philosophy, a distortion that is meant to serve the Nazis. He certainly believes that this was true during the early 1930s. He also believes it so, in whole or in part, for the late 1930s and ’40s when Heidegger lectured at length on Nietzsche. He further claims that Heidegger’s successful rehabilitation of his reputation after the 1950s was governed by his wish to continue insinuating Nazism into philosophy. Indeed, he thinks that Heidegger’s understanding of destiny, decision, and the “people” in Being and Time (1927) was similarly perverse. Although Faye does not, and could not, show that Heidegger’s work was Nazi ideology from beginning to end, this is the thrust of his claim, at least from the mid-1920s on.

Faye tries to prove his point in detail only for the lectures and speeches that Heidegger gave around the time that he was rector. Much that he discusses makes visible connections that others already have shown between some of Heidegger’s central terms and Nazi language. What Faye also makes evident, however—and in some cases newly evident—is Heidegger’s orientation not only to Nazism in general but to Hitler in particular, the totalizing standpoint of his view of politics and, especially, the place of racism in his understanding.

Heidegger or his friends may have sided with this or that refinement in racial teaching, denounced crude biologism in favor of something more spiritual, engaged in vague discussions of the “Asiatic” and not always in the crudest ethnic slanders, and talked endlessly of war, struggle, and confrontation, while leaving it a bit vague if they had in mind sports, academic back-stabbing, self-control, or the Luftwaffe. None of this confuses Faye, who understands that, whatever the talk, primacy is to belong to the Germans, the central enemies are the Jews, race and Volk are never separate from blood and soil, and war often meant just that. The destiny of the German people under the Leader’s direction, something that Heidegger affirmed on the basis of his understanding in Being and Time, had consequences that expanded from subjugation, to brutality, to terror, to annihilation. One need not lay at Heidegger’s feet encouragement for each of the Nazis’ criminal acts to wonder just where, in his mind, such deeds would corrupt his words, or show their unbearable meaning. 

Despite Faye’s evidence and discussion, however, it is not clear that the affinity between Heidegger and the Nazis is an identity, or that his primary intention was to distort philosophy for their sake. Authentic resolve within the people’s destiny, Heidegger’s standpoint for choice, can result in different actions in different times and circumstances. Heidegger’s active political support for the Nazis waned, for example, and during the 1960s his concerns about technology had something in common with the Greens. Heidegger’s views, moreover, can certainly be short-sighted, even in his own terms, because the difference between understanding things as they truly are and, instead, being mastered by public sentiments, is often difficult to discern and always difficult to sustain. One might even try to argue that Heidegger’s later praise of the Nazis for their “encounter with global technology” shows a difference between his goal in supporting them and their own goals for themselves.

Although the affinity between Heidegger and the Nazis is not an identity, one should recognize that Heidegger’s political standpoint is always profoundly illiberal. His situating of all activities within a people’s destiny eliminates the grounds on which to defend one’s own independence within the political order, or to understand properly activities whose soul transcends any political order. The distortion of the free and the cosmopolitan also leads to inordinate hopes for political action, when it is not fostering inordinate despair. Heidegger’s support of the Nazis is so far from an accident that Faye’s overstatement of its inevitability is much closer to the truth than the opposing view.

It is also true that, despite Faye’s claims, many of Heidegger’s arguments and analyses remain forceful and arguably correct. That he could assimilate his analyses, or the language of his analyses, to the Nazis does not make them wrong. Faye does not succeed in showing that Heidegger’s discussions in, say, Being and Time, are mistaken, nor does he attempt seriously to do this. He correctly sees the importance of Heidegger’s discussions of the people and destiny there, as many scholars still do not, but he then downplays the status of individual anxiety, guilt, and the anticipation of death. He attacks Heidegger’s attacks on Cartesian subjectivity, but offers little convincing in reply. He acts incorrectly as if Heidegger’s discussions of being and essence are only attempts to fill these terms with Nazi offal, and he apparently thinks that Heidegger’s discussions of other thinkers are nothing but strategies to dismiss them altogether when they cannot be made useful politically. 

Yet, if this is so, why are Heidegger’s discussions of them so dense and detailed? Faye tellingly uncovers the connection between Heidegger’s first delivery of what became a famous address on art and the Nazi’s 1935 Nuremberg laws. But he then seems to reduce Heidegger’s thought on art to this connection. In general, Faye discounts too much of what one learns from Heidegger about man, being, temporality, art, nature, theoretical and practical understanding, truth, guilt, death, and technology.

Intelligent young men and women will come upon these questions and phenomena, and will want to examine them. They will also come upon the apparent confines of our own liberalism, the flattening of our aspirations, the vulgarization of our arts and education, the dominance of technological and economic ways of thinking. These difficulties are brought out in Heidegger’s works, among others. We must learn to elevate ourselves even if only to preserve ourselves. Heidegger should still be read, and his arguments pondered; but the reading should be prefaced with a reminder of his political actions, and of the horrors perpetrated by the Leader he glorified. Attention should always be paid to the question of the link between action and thought, the central question of political philosophy. So we are indebted to Faye’s book, and to the passion for justice with which it is written.

Mark Blitz, the Fletcher Jones professor of political philosophy at Claremont McKenna College, is the author, most recently, of Duty Bound: Responsibility and American Public Life.

Recent Blog Posts