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Heidegger, the Fuhrer-principal

By James Heartfield, 24 May 2009
Image: Heidegger


Heidegger with oak leaves

Rudiger Safranski, Martin Heidegger: Between Good and Evil, Princeton University Press, £10.95 pbk, 469pp  

Safranski’s biography of the philosopher Martin Heidegger adds to another volume to the pile that properly begins with the Chilean Victor Farias’ Heidegger and Nazism published in France in 1987, followed by Hugo Ott’s Martin Heidegger: A Political Life in 1994 and Elzbieta Ettinger’s account of the love affair Martin Heidegger – Hannah Arendt in 1995. On top of the biographies, came the commentaries on the biographies, from such intellectual heavyweights as defenders Jacques Derrida (Of Spirit: Heidegger and the Question, 1989), the late Jean François Lyotard (Heidegger and ‘the jews’, 1990), Pierre Bourdieu (The Political Ontology of Martin Heidegger, 1991) and critics Luc Ferry and Alain Renault (Heidegger and Modernity, 1990) and Farias’ translator, the American writer on philosophy Tom Rockmore (On Heidegger’s Nazism and Philosophy, 1992). Quite apart from the discussions of Heidegger’s life is the mountain of criticism and re-publication of his work.  

Safranski’s Martin Heidegger affects to walk a path between the ideological condemnations by Farias, Rockmore and Ott, on the one hand, and the apologists like Derrida and Bourdieu on the other. The problem is quite simple, and it was clearly set out by Farias, a one-time student of Heidegger’s: From 1933 right up until 1945, the greatest single influence on philosophy in the twentieth century was a paid up member of the National Socialist Workers’ Party, NSDAP, or colloquially, Nazi. Of course, lots of Germans were members of the NSDAP. But Heidegger was plainly an enthusiast who embraced the Führer-principle, even to the extent of having his student’s give him the Hitler salute in his classes. If Heidegger’s fascism is difficult to deny, so too is the intellectual debt owed him by so many of the century’s greatest philosophical and political thinkers. Amongst his followers were not just reactionaries like Jacques Maritain and Jean Beaufret, but also radicals like the Frankfurt School thinkers Max Horkheimer and Herbert Marcuse (both students), the existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre, the philosopher who analysed totalitarianism, his student and lover Hannah Arendt, and the post-structuralists like Jacques Derrida and Lyotard. The complexity of the problem then is this, how to account for the fact that so much of our intellectual life is indebted to a thinker who embraced fascism? Safranski’s biography walks a careful line between defenders and critics, but it cannot avoid the contested nature of Heidegger’s life, and the demand for an account of this conundrum.  

Heidegger with NSDAP

If Heideggerian, then Nazi?  

Jean-François Lyotard described the trap set by the revelations in Victor Farias’ book like this: ‘If Heideggerian then Nazi, if not Nazi, then not Heideggerian’ (Heidegger and ‘the Jews’, p51). The French post-structuralists were resistant to the idea that Heidegger’s philosophy was tainted because they were so reliant upon it. There is of course a well-established argument that says one should simply ignore the political prejudices of the philosopher’s work as unimportant detail. The logician Frege was also a political reactionary, but it in no way bears upon his notational logic. Defenders of Heidegger’s work have tried to insist that it works on an altogether higher plain than mere politics, and cannot be criticised on the mundane basis of the philosopher’s political affiliations. There’s some truth in this argument. It would be quite wrong to reduce Heidegger’s philosophy to his political affiliations. But unlike Frege, Heidegger’s philosophy is intrinsically related to his politics.  

young HeideggerEven before he signed up with the NSDAP, Heidegger had the reputation of being a reactionary. In the spring of 1929 Heidegger was chosen as the obvious opponent for Ernst Cassirer, humanist and constitutional democrat, in a series of philosophical debates in Davos, Switzerland. In 1930 when Culture Minister Adolf Grimme mooted Heidegger for a prestigious post, liberal newspapers protested ‘A socialist minister wanted to bring to Berlin a Cultural reactionary’ (Safranski, p210). Of course, reactionary ideas were common in Germany at the time, especially amongst the rural, catholic peasant communities from which Heidegger came. The impoverishment of the peasantry and the subordination of food production to the state mirror the decline of the Catholic political parties, as well as Heidegger’s own passage from Catholicism, through Protestantism to fascism. Why Heidegger’s own journey to the right was such a surprise to his followers and friends is itself something that needs to be explained.  

More damaging to the case for Heidegger, though is the existence of a whole series of correspondences between his philosophy and the reactionary politics that culminated in Fascism. The first and most pointed is the correspondence between exclusive nationalism and Heidegger’s concept of Dasein usually translated as ‘being-there’, as in da-sein, though the means something less uncanny, like ‘determinate being’ in German. For Heidegger the ordinary conception of being was too abstract and needed to be rooted, as a being-there. It is difficult not to hear the echo of national uniqueness in this emphasis upon the rooted conception of being. Emmanuel Levinas joked ‘Dasein never wonders whether, by being da, “there”, it’s taking somebody else’s place’ (Raoul Mortley, French Philosophers in Conversation, London, 1991, p19). Or perhaps Gertrude Stein had it right when she joked that ‘when you get there, there isn’t any there there’.  

Stabbed in the back  

Heidegger’s nationalism is not pride in the constitution or even the people. In 1935, as the Führer-Principal of Freiburg University Heidegger lectured on the “collapse of German idealism”:   

‘It was not German idealism that collapsed; rather the age was no longer strong enough to stand up to the greatness, breadth and originality of that spiritual world, i.e. truly to realise it’ (An Introduction to Metaphysics, p45).   

The German military clung to the belief that they could have won the First World War if the Weimar politicians had not stabbed them in the back by imposing a negotiated peace after the 1918 revolution. Heidegger’s view that the ‘the age’ was not adequate to the German spirit corresponds to the military theory that the Weimar democracy had failed the spirit of the nation. Heidegger clung to his belief in the special mission of the Germans even as late as 1943, in his lecture on Heraclitus:   

‘The planet is in flames. The essence of man is out of joint. Only from the Germans, provided they discover and preserve “the German,” can world-historical consciousness come’.  

Safranski comments on this passage: ‘This authentic Occidental Germany that is being betrayed all around – does it not ultimately live only in Heidegger’s philosophy?’ (p.330). No. The authentic, Western Germany that is being betrayed all around lives also in the thinking of the Nazi leadership. It is characteristic of the special pleading of German chauvinism. At a meeting of the top Nazi brass in the same year as Heidegger’s Heraclitus lecture ‘all agreed that something decisive must be done... our situation is such that only dangerous decisions can change it’ (Goebbels’ Diaries, p327). Like Heidegger’s belief that ‘the essence of man is out of joint’, Goebbels’ desperation arises out of the disjuncture between Germany’s ambitions on the one hand and its impending defeat on the other.  

Common people  

Safranski rightly sees that in his great work of 1926 ‘Being and Time, Heidegger reveals himself as an opponent of pluralist democracy’ (p168). Safranski recognises the polemics against ‘publicness’ and ‘the They’ as evidence that Heidegger ‘has no sympathy with the principle of a democratic public’. Indeed, the vicious denunciations of the inauthentic They, with their ‘idle chatter’ and ‘publicness’ put Heidegger firmly in the camp of reaction. The ‘They’ (Das Mann), the inauthentic ones are the mass of ordinary Germans, their numbers swelled with Jews from Eastern Europe, the market for mass culture and the makers of the democratic revolution of 1918. Hostility to the masses was commonplace amongst the educated middle classes of Europe in the early century, as John Carey has described in his book The Intellectuals and the Masses. Safranski describes the interaction between Heidegger’s concept of authenticity and National Socialism: ‘He will see the National Socialist revolution as a collective breakout from inauthenticity and therefore join it.’ However, Safranski insists, ‘these conclusions do not inevitably follow from the worldview of Being and Time’, arguing that there is an ‘ontology of freedom’ in Heidegger’s philosophy that was its appeal to Marcuse, Sartre and Arendt. (168)

Is there an ontology of freedom in Being and Time? In a sense yes, but it is a perverse, even morbid ideal of freedom. In the first instance, Heidegger decisively rejects the individual subject of freedom in the conventional nineteenth century liberal theory. Heidegger bemoaned the fact that such concepts as ‘the ego cogito of Descartes, the subject, the “I”, reason, spirit, person’ ‘have served as the primary guides’ but ‘remain uninterrogated’ (Being and Time, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990, p44).  ‘But the Self of everydayness is the “they”’, meaning that individual rights belong to the corruption of mass society (Being and Time, 296). Heidegger’s conception of freedom is at odds with liberal rights and democracy, which take rational persons as their subject.

Deathly determination  

It is a reversal of the attitude of the middle classes in the early twentieth century that they began to see the extension of democratic rights to the masses as a threat to their own freedom, where in the nineteenth century they had championed the extension of such rights. Heidegger’s rejection of the Subject is coterminus with that shift in middle class opinion. In its place, Heidegger puts an altogether more angst-ridden principle of action. He sees authentic dasein as increasingly hemmed in by the mass society of the Nazi death's head insigniaThey, and driven by its very precariousness to act. This action arises out of a ‘being-towards-death’, or ‘freedom towards death – a freedom which has been released from the illusions of the “they”’. (Being and Time, p.311) This is the outlook of the middle class, confronted with the threat of its own extinction, crushed between big business and the militant working class. Its own subjectivity can only be expressed morbidly as a hysterical confrontation with death. This ‘being-towards-death’ has its counterpart in the ‘decisionism’ of National Socialism, the desire to magically overcome the hopeless situation through the use of force. ‘Heidegger’s Nazism was decisionist’, says Safranski (p254). The cult of death, became endemic in a social order that was built upon militarism, widely adopting the ‘death’s head’ insignia.  

Book burning  

Nazi book burning, 1933Even the book-burning indulged in by Nazi ideologues to clear aside contrary views has its corresponding equivalent in Heidegger’s ideology. Under the heading ‘The Destruction of Ontology’, Heidegger says this: ‘if the question of Being is to have its own history made transparent, then this hardened tradition’, he means rationalist philosophy, ‘must be loosened up ... dissolved’. ‘We are to destroy the traditional content of ... ontology’. (Being and Time, p44) Sweeping aside the intellectual interests of the past appealed to many reactionaries, like Ernst Jünger, whose essay The Worker   (1932) influenced Heidegger. Jünger wrote that ‘one of the best means of getting ready for a new, bolder life lies in the destruction of the values of a detached and lately autocratic intellect, in the destruction of the educational work performed on man by the bourgeois era’. (in Safranski, p.183) Heidegger’s students publicly burned books in Freiburg the same week that he was appointed rector.

The debate over Heidegger’s fascism is generally confused by the fact that few of the commentators know both German history and Heidegger’s philosophy in detail. Safranski by contrast combines the good research by Ott and Farias with a broad knowledge of Heidegger’s work. However, even Safranski has a cloth ear for some of the affinities between Heidegger’s philosophy and the thinking of his time. One of the crucial components of Heidegger’s defence before the denazification tribunal after the war was that, ‘he was a secret opponent of National Socialism ever since the Röhm putsch’ (p336). Analysing Heidegger’s case to the denazification tribunal, Tom Rockmore, patiently outlines Heidegger’s ‘turning away from really existent National Socialism ... towards an ideal form of Nazism’ (Rockmore, p.299). Rockmore aims to grant Heidegger’s argument that he broke with the NSDAP to show that his philosophy was still an idealised form of fascism. But it is Farias who explains exactly what this idealised form of national socialism is: the brownshirt movement of Ernst Röhm. Röhm was with Gregor Strasser leader of the brownshirts that Hitler had slaughtered in the ‘night of the long-knives’, June 30, 1934, after their power had grown too strong. The fact that Heidegger dates his (wholly secret) differences with the NSDAP from this conflict is telling. As Farias says, Heidegger was as supporter of Röhm and the SA, a ‘populist National Socialist to the bitter end, a “revolutionary,” a rebel against any compromise’. (Farias, p.187) In other words, Heidegger was on the right wing of the party.  

Right of Hitler  

Strasser and GoebbelsSafranski gives no credence to Farias’ interpretation that Heidegger was intellectually aligned with the Röhm-Strasser wing of the party. But this alignment best explains Heidegger’s relationship to the party, and specifically the failure of his rectorate of Freiburg University. Heidegger, once having embraced the NSDAP, was a purist. Having been elected to the rectorate with the support of the Prussian ministry after the Social Democrat rector Mollendorf was hounded out by the Nazis, Heidegger made Freiburg a model of Nazi pedagogy. Along with the Nazi salutes Heidegger instituted a ‘scholarship camp’ in the woods, during summer break, ‘SA or SS service uniforms will be worn’ (p.262). Amongst the discussion topics was nazification of the university. In the first months of the Hitler government, this was a popular programme as the party was particularly strong amongst students. Safranski dismisses Heidegger’s summer school as little more than boy scouts. But the nazification of the universities was viewed with alarm by Hitler’s allies amongst German businessmen, fearing that the programme of subordinating science to ideology would threaten industrial development. Hitler had Rudolf Hess crack down on the SA hotheads, Heidegger amongst them, who were too busy marching and proselytising to teach. Once the nazification of the Universities was reined in by Hess, Heidegger’s position was untenable.  

In June 1933 Röhm wrote ‘there has been a great victory, but not the true victory’. (in Farias, p183) The brownshirt demand for a second revolution, to entrench the victory of fascism against backsliders was one that was echoed in Heidegger’s own thinking. In November 1933 Heidegger declared ‘the revolution in the German Universities is not at an end; it has not even begun yet’. (Safranski, p.271) As Safranski rightly notes, Heidegger’s objection to official Nazi policy came ‘because he was outraged by its concessions to the old bourgeois forces’. (p.257) Just as Röhm was making the demand for a Second Revolution, Heidegger looked forward to a ‘second and more profound awakening’. (p.236) The evidence that Heidegger was under surveillance by the authorities during the war has often been cited as evidence of his underground opposition, and Safranski makes much of it here. The truth is, though, that there was a great deal of in-fighting amongst Nazi factions, and it was hardly unheard of for the fascist state to spy on its own supporters.  

Police spy  

Heidegger and HusserlHeidegger himself, though, had no qualms about using official powers to persecute others. Heidegger denounced Eduard Baumgarten, a nephew of Max Weber (‘closely tied to the Jew Frankel’) and chemistry professor Hermann Staudinger, later a Nobel Prize Laureate, for having written pacifist articles during the First World War: ‘I would have thought this was a case for outright dismissal rather than early retirement’. (Safranski, p. 274. In the event, the authorities decided that Baumgarten’s skills were more useful to rearmament than Heidegger’s purism.) SA supporters at Freiburg closed down the Jewish students’ house on 28 June 1933, but Heidegger insisted in a letter dated 1 August that this was not a matter for the college. Clearing Jews from their posts, however, was, and the most prominent victim was Heidegger’s own inspiration Edmund Husserl, who had supported him in his early teaching career. Heidegger even had the dedication to Husserl removed from the new edition of his Being and Time.   

Many defenders of Heidegger have tried to argue that he was not personally an anti-Semite, pointing to his irritation at Alfred Rosenberg’s more ostentatious race theories, just as many critics have pursued in minutiae evidence to the contrary. But the danger of fascism is not reducible to anti-Semitism. It was the fascists’ violent suppression of democracy that was most destructive. Many casual anti-Semites in the inter-war period nonetheless opposed fascism. Heidegger’s philosophical differences over biologistic ideology made little difference to his willingness to play the race card when it suited him, and like many middle class Germans he gained by the exclusion of Jewish rivals from the professions. It was ‘nonsense that there should be so many professors of philosophy’ he told Karl Jaspers ‘only two or three need be kept in Germany’ but declined to say which ones. (Safranski, p.231) Famously, Heidegger minimised the horror of the final solution, comparing it to the problem of mechanised agriculture – code for peasant unemployment (in Lyotard, p.85).  

Saved from the abyss  

After the war, on July 23, 1945 Heidegger faced the university’s denazification tribunal, established under French jurisdiction, whose attitude was ‘on the whole, friendly’ accepting, against the evidence that Heidegger had ‘not been a Nazi since 1934’. (Safranski, p336, 338) Unimpressed the French military authorities ordered the tribunal to think again. Ever the petit bourgeois, Heidegger was most concerned to save his library from expropriation and his pension. But Heidegger’s books were not burned, and in 1947, his pension – unlike the wages owed Germany’s wartime slave labourers – was restored. In March 1949, Heidegger the conclusion reached was ‘Fellow traveller. No punitive measures’ and in 1951, his right to teach was restored. (Safranski, p.373)  

Hannah Arendt in 1928Heidegger’s rehabilitation owed much to the intervention of his former students and admirers, many of whom were on the political left. Sartre wrote to him soon after the war and popularised his philosophy in France. But it was Hannah Arendt that worked most diligently to re-establish his reputation. After his membership of the NSDAP, it is Heidegger’s relationship to Arendt that has provoked most interest. She was an eighteen year-old Jewish student who had embarked upon an affair with the guru-like philosopher Heidegger, 34, in 1924. Arendt, stylish and gauche was from a liberal-left background – ‘you must pay attention, this is a historical moment’ her mother told her on the occasion of Rosa Luxemburg’s Spartacist uprising.  Heidegger affected a rural appearance in his loden suit and knickerbockers, which, bizarrely, were designed for him by the painter Otto Ubblohde (Safranski, p.131). Married to Elfriede in 1917, Heidegger was scrupulously secretive, arranging to meet for sex in Arendt’s attic room. Besotted, Arendt wrote mystical love letters to Heidegger in the style of his philosophy, though their content is a plea for open recognition: ‘Why do you give me your hand/Shyly as if it were a secret?’ (Safranski, p.139) But Heidegger was intent on keeping the secret, and palmed his student off on to his friend Karl Jaspers at Heidelberg. During the Nazi era Arendt, as a Jew was in considerable danger, fleeing first to Paris and then, just escaping deportation to a concentration camp to escape to America. It was in America that she began to make an independent reputation as a political philosopher.  

Arendt’s naivety  

Arendt’s faith in Heidegger is built upon her belief firstly that, as he told her, she was the ‘passion of his life’ and the inspiration for Being and Time (Safranski, p.136, 140); and secondly upon her belief that he was not a practical fascist, but merely unworldly and naive, and that it was his wife Elfriede that had pushed him into the party. Safranski is astute on this point, taking issue with Arendt for ‘seeing Elfriede merely as the evil demon in Heidegger’s life’. (p.377) He points out that Elfriede often took the blame for his political affiliations, a view held by the denazification committee: ‘yet he himself used his wife as a barrier against what he saw as a hostile environment. Elfriede readily accepted this role.’ (p.378)   

Martin and Elfriede Heidegger

Blinded by love Arendt blamed every negative feature of Heidegger onto his wife. In February 1950, Hannah Arendt met Heidegger for the first time since the war – ‘that evening and that morning are the confirmation of a whole life’ she gushed (Safranski, p.371). Hannah was surprised to be told that Elfriede knew of the affair and wanted to meet her. On their meeting, Hannah argues with Elfriede, which she put down to the wife’s jealousy and anti-Semitism, and assumes that it is she who is standing between Hannah and Heidegger. But on the contrary, it was Elfriede who had counselled Heidegger to seek out Hannah Arendt and ‘who had encouraged him to resume his friendship with her’ (p.376). Elfriede was surely astute enough to know that Arendt’s growing reputation as a political thinker, a Jewish-American writer on political totalitarianism provided just the sort of endorsement that Heidegger needed. And Elfriede knew what Hannah Arendt did not, that Hannah’s was only one of many affairs that her husband had enjoyed. In the end it was Hannah Arendt who was politically naive, still being used by Martin Heidegger.  

Master and pupil  

Intellectually, the relationship between the two is even more perverse. In Arendt’s mind, as in Heidegger’s, he is the intellectual master, she the student, right up until the end. But the war reversed the public perception, casting him into ignominy just as it elevated her into respectability that Nazi Germany denied her. Arendt, not Heidegger, on this Deustche Post stamp

How could she, a critic of totalitarianism, defend Heidegger intellectually? The answer, paradoxically, is that Arendt’s critique of totalitarianism owes a great deal to Heidegger’s critique of democracy. Arendt rejected Heidegger’s political affiliation to the NSDAP, but she shared the underlying philosophy, adapting it to an altogether distinct purpose.   

Heidegger had seen democracy in the West and Communism in the East as sharing a common basis, writing in 1935 that: ‘Russia and America ... are metaphysically the same’, because of ‘the domination in those countries of a cross section of the indifferent mass’. (Introduction to Metaphysics, p.45-6)   

In 1945 Heidegger struggled to persuade the denazification committee that he had been an anti-nazi all along. In a document written for the hearings, ‘Facts and Thoughts’ he says that in the winter of 1939/40 he came to analyse the ‘universal rule of the will to power within history, now understood to rule the planet’. Now the ‘domination of the indifferent mass’ was seen to characterise not just Russia and America, but Germany, too: ‘Today everything stands in this historical reality, no matter whether it is called communism, or fascism, or world democracy.’ (In Rockmore, p.94. I see no reason to take the backdating of the argument before 1945 seriously.) The conceptual slippage is important here, and characteristic of Heidegger’s intellectual juggling. Now his criticism extends not just to democracy and communism, but applies also to fascism. We can see the same evasive use of moral equivalence in the ‘Essay Concerning Technology’, where Heidegger seeks to minimise the final solution by comparing it with the allies’ economic blockade against Germany. But the underlying continuity in Heidegger’s critique is that the blame is with ‘inauthentic being’, or what he calls the ‘rule and shape of the worker’ in ‘facts and thoughts’ – only this time national socialism is added to the list of those pernicious societies that owe their origin to the rule of the worker.  

How Heidegger defined fascism for the left  

Heidegger’s apologetic argument is important, because in many respects Hannah Arendt shares it. She too sees Fascism as the product of mob rule. In her classic work On Totalitarianism, she argues that ‘a mixture of gullibility and cynicism ... became an everyday phenomenon of masses’ and the basis of totalitarian power. (On Totalitarianism, p382) Herbert Marcuse, advising the US authorities on denazification came to similar conclusions in his paper on ‘The German Mentality’. (Technology, War and Fascism: The Collected Papers of Herbert Marcuse, vol1, 1998) Though they were rejecting Heidegger’s political support for the NSDAP, both Arendt and Marcuse were endorsing his underlying hostility to the masses. In the 1930s distrust of the masses drove Heidegger into the arms of the NSDAP. In the 1940s distrust of the masses framed Arendt’s, Marcuse’s, and ultimately even Heidegger’s explanation of the NSDAP’s success. Though Arendt was never tempted by the NSDAP, for obvious reasons, she nonetheless was distant from the working class opposition to it, which was in any event crushed in 1933 (her husband Hans Blücher had been a member of a leftist fringe group). It was easy to believe that the mass of German people had endorsed Nazism, even though their acquiescence had only been won by the most brutal repression of their organisations and political parties.  

 Heidegger in 1968

After the war, Martin Heidegger was disgraced for his political affiliations, but his philosophy not only survived but also prospered. It was galling for him that it advanced in the vulgarised form given to it by his epigones, Hannah Arendt, Herbert Marcuse, Jean-Paul Sartre and Max Horkheimer (of Sartre's Being and Time, Heidegger asked 'how could I read such dreck [shit]?' The continuing appeal of his thinking has created a difficult paradox for philosophy. The view that the philosophy is unrelated to his political thinking is just too insipid. Conversely it can be said that in some senses Heidegger still appeals to the enduring sense of an embattled elite, fending off the inauthenticity of the ‘They’. Those might not be the terms in which the Frankfurt School framed their criticisms of mass culture, but they are the underlying sentiments, just as they are of the enduring theory of ‘totalitarianism’. But beyond that it is perhaps best to think of Heidegger’s moral evasions and somersaults as intellectually productive. Rather than trying to insulate the profundity of his thinking from the awfulness of his behaviour, the disturbing answer might be that it was a spur to his creative powers.