The Chronicle Review

Heil Heidegger!

Imagno, Getty Images

Martin Heidegger in 1961: Twenty-eight years earlier, the German philosopher told his students of Nazism’s “inner truth and greatness,” declaring that Hitler alone “is the present and future of German reality, and its law.”
October 18, 2009

How many scholarly stakes in the heart will we need before Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), still regarded by some as Germany's greatest 20th-century philosopher, reaches his final resting place as a prolific, provincial Nazi hack? Overrated in his prime, bizarrely venerated by acolytes even now, the pretentious old Black Forest babbler makes one wonder whether there's a university-press equivalent of wolfsbane, guaranteed to keep philosophical frauds at a distance.

To be sure, every philosophy reference book credits Heidegger with one or another headscratcher achievement. One lauds him for his "revival of ontology." (Would we not think about things that exist without this ponderous, existentialist Teuton?) Another cites his helpful boost to phenomenology by directing our focus to that well-known entity, Dasein, or "Human Being." (For a reified phenomenon, "Human Being," like the Yeti, has managed to elude all on-camera confirmation.) A third praises his opposition to nihilism, an odd compliment for a conservative, nationalist thinker whose antihumanistic apotheosis of ruler over ruled helped grease the path of Adolf Hitler in the 1930s.

Next month Yale University Press will issue an English-language translation of Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism Into Philosophy, by Emmanuel Faye, an associate professor at the University of Paris at Nanterre. It's the latest, most comprehensive archival assault on the ostensibly magisterial thinker who informed Freiburg students in his infamous 1933 rectoral address of Nazism's "inner truth and greatness," declaring that "the Führer, and he alone, is the present and future of German reality, and its law."

Faye, whose book stirred France's red and blue Heidegger départements into direct battle a few years back, follows in the investigative footsteps of Chilean-Jewish philosopher Victor Farias (Heidegger et le Nazisme, 1987), historian Hugo Ott (Martin Heidegger: Unterwegs zu Zeiner Biographie, 1988) and others. Aim? To expose the oafish metaphysician's vulgar, often vicious 1930s attempt to become Hitler's chief academic tribune, and his post-World War II contortions to escape proper judgment for his sins. "We now know," reports Faye, "that [Heidegger's] attempt at self-justification of 1945 is nothing but a string of falsehoods."

The Heidegger exposés, like Annie Leibovitz's tasteless photos of partner Susan Sontag in the latter's final battle against cancer, force even refined, sophisticated observers of intellectuals to gape. See "Professor Being and Time" wear his swastika like a frat pin while meeting German-Jewish philosopher Karl Löwith! Recoil at the hearty "Heil Hitlers" with which Martin closed his missives! Wince as he covertly maneuvers another Jewish colleague or student out of a job with a nasty, duplicitous "recommendation" letter!

Unfortunately, Faye's scrupulously documented study, like Jytte Klausen's controversial The Cartoons That Shook the World, about depictions of Muhammad, lacks the satirical illustrations that might have given it knockdown force. In the case of Heidegger, it may be that only ridicule—not further proof of his sordid 1930s acts—can save us.

To his credit, Faye takes the usually avoided logical step of articulating that goal. He essentially calls on publishers to stop churning out Heidegger volumes as they would sensibly desist from hate speech. Similarly, he hopes librarians will not stock Heidegger's continuing Gesamtausgabe (collected edition), shepherded by the Heidegger family, a project that Faye rightly attacks as sanitized and incomplete.

Even on this side of the Atlantic, one can share Faye's distaste for the flow of reverent Heidegger volumes. In 2006, MIT Press brought us Adam Sharr's Heidegger's Hut, about the philosopher's Black Forest hideaway in Todtnauberg. It began with Simon Sadler asking in a foreword, "Is the hut described in this text the smallest residence ever to merit a monograph? Might it be the most prosaic, too?" A couple of quick yeses would have stopped the project right there. We wouldn't have had to read that while Heidegger's "politics were an abomination," the reader must "concede that any belief in something at Todtnauberg conducive to political crime would be essentialist." Oh, really? Sounds bad. You wouldn't want "essentialism" to make you think Heidegger's mullings at home base for 50 years had any connection to his rancid politics.

MIT, in fact, gifted us that year with a doubleheader, also offering up Heidegger's Topology: Being, Place, World. That came from Jeff Malpas, professor of philosophy at the University of Tasmania, which is about as far away from the camps as you can get. While conceding Heidegger's true-believer behavior, Malpas wrote of "the addresses from the early 1930s in which Heidegger seems to align himself with elements of Nazi ideology," as if there were any doubt. Malpas repeated a falsehood put into play by Heidegger himself after the war, that the philosopher had resigned his rectorship "after having apparently found it increasingly difficult to accommodate himself to the demands of the new regime." For Malpas, "Heidegger's own politics cannot be taken, in itself, to undermine his philosophy in any direct way."

In that respect, Malpas revived an old standard view that Faye seeks to eliminate once and for all. For Faye, new material about Heidegger's 1930s teaching and administrative work turns a crucial point upside-down. While other thinkers, including Löwith and Maurice Blanchot, suggested that Heidegger's Nazism stemmed directly from his philosophy, Faye counters that his philosophy grew out of his Nazism, forcing us to see it as a kind of philosophical propaganda for Nazism in a different key.

Faye's leitmotif throughout is that Heidegger, from his earliest writings, drew on reactionary ideas in early-20th-century Germany to absolutely exalt the state and the Volk over the individual, making Nazism and its Blut und Boden ("Blood and Soil") rhetoric a perfect fit. Heidegger's Nazism, he writes, "is much worse than has so far been known." (Exactly how bad remains unclear because the Heidegger family still restricts access to his private papers.)

Faye pulls no punches: Heidegger "devoted himself to putting philosophy at the service of legitimizing and diffusing the very bases of Nazism," and some of his 1930s texts surpass those of official philosophers of Nazism in "the virulence of their Hitlerism." Lacking any respect for Heidegger as thinker, Faye writes that the philosopher Hannah Arendt so deeply admired "has done nothing but blend the characteristic opacity of his teaching with the darkness of the phenomenon. Far from furthering the progress of thought, Heidegger has helped to conceal the deeply destructive nature of the Hitlerian undertaking by exalting its 'grandeur.'"

Faye agrees that it was possible, even in the wake of Farias's and Ott's work, "with a lot of self-delusion, to separate the man from the work." He asserts it's no longer possible, since scholars can now access "nearly all the courses" that Heidegger taught in the 1930s. According to Faye, "we witness, in the courses and seminars that are ostensibly presented as 'philosophical,' a progressive dissolving of the human being, whose individual worth is expressly denied, into a community of people rooted in the land and united by blood." The unpublished seminar of 1933-34 identifies the people with a "community of biological stock and race. … Thus, through Heidegger's teaching, the racial conceptions of Nazism enter philosophy."

The "reality of Nazism," asserts Faye, inspired Heidegger's works "in their entirety and nourished them at the root level." He provides evidence of Heidegger's "intensity" of commitment to Hitler, his constant use of "the words most operative among the National Socialists," such as "combat" (Kampf), "sacrifice" (Opfer) and völkisch (which Faye states has a strong anti-Semitic connotation). He also cites Heidegger's use of epithets against professors such as the philologist Eduard Fraenkel ("the Jew Fraenkel") and his fervid dislike for "the growing Jewification" that threatens "German spiritual life," mirroring Hitler's discourse in Mein Kampf about "Jewified universities."

For Faye, Heidegger's 1930s Nazi activism came from the heart. Pains takingly providing sources, Faye exhibits Heidegger's devotion to "spreading the eros of the people for their Führer," and the "communal destiny of a people united by blood." We learn of Heidegger's desire to be closer to Hitler in Munich, and his eagerness to lead the Gleichschaltung, or "bringing into line," of the German universities with Nazi ideology. According to several witnesses, Heidegger would show up at class in a brown shirt and salute students with a "Heil Hitler!"

Tellingly, Faye also mines the internal papers of the Munich philosophy faculty, showing that the department's professors considered Heidegger's work "claptrap," and saw him as so politicized that they believed "no philosophy could be offered the students" if he were appointed. They considered appointing Heidegger only because of his well-known status as a professor favored by the Nazis. Synthesizing details with the precision of a Simon Wiesenthal researcher, Faye further undermines Heidegger's later lies that he was not involved with book burning or anti-Semitic legislation, withdrew from active support of the party after he resigned his rectorship, and became rector only to protect the independence of the universities.

"We must acknowledge," Faye says in one fierce conclusion, "that an author who has espoused the foundations of Nazism cannot be considered a philosopher." Finally, he reiterates his opposition to the Heidegger Industry: "If his writings continue to proliferate without our being able to stop this intrusion of Nazism into human education, how can we not expect them to lead to yet another translation into facts and acts, from which this time humanity might not be able to recover?"

Is it superficial to yoke wildly different cultural worlds (Daseins, if you will) together? Might much the same reasoning heard among a few Manhattan TV executives recently about David Letterman—like Heidegger, a would-be touchstone for the authenticity of his Volk—apply as well to the Meister from Messkirch? Well, Heidegger did think that Daseins intersect.

"Only the jokes can do him in," opined one savvy network veteran in the group. All agreed that Letterman would survive or fall at the hands of fellow talk-show hosts and comics torn between instincts to eviscerate and guild solidarity. No sober column by, say, The New York Times's Nicholas Kristof, analogizing Ball State University's most famous alum to a Cambodian brothel owner, would pack the requisite resonance with key audiences.

It would seem that Heidegger, likewise, will continue to flourish until even "Continental" philosophers mock him to the hilt. His influence will end only when they, and the broader world of intellectuals, recognize that scholarly evidence fingers the scowling proprietor of Heidegger's hut as a buffoon produced by German philosophy's mystical tradition. He should be the butt of jokes, not the subject of dissertations.

In the meantime, we can expect Heidegger's Faux Tyrolean Wardrobe and the Specter of Carl Schmitt to roll off a university press before too long, sans cartoons or illustrative plates.

Carlin Romano, critic at large for The Chronicle Review, teaches philosophy and media theory at the University of Pennsylvania.