Martin Heidegger. Black Forest, undated.

In a review of Emmanuel Faye’s 2004 book Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism into Philosophy, Harvard historian Peter Gordon wrote of the tendency of philosophy to trouble the public sphere “only when some outrage calls the very legitimacy of philosophy into question.” This specter has once again arisen with the publication of notebooks kept by the Martin Heidegger (the so-called Schwarze Hefte) between 1931 and 1938.

Once again the journalistic knives are being sharpened, with such popular publications as the Guardian and the New Yorker offering up opinions on Heidegger’s relationship to National Socialism, his anti-Semitism, and the implications of these matter for philosophy. But, as is so often the case when philosophy becomes grist for the popular media, the amount of heat generated far outstrips the light. Interesting as they may be to specialists, Heidegger’s notebooks offer little that is new in terms of either his political or philosophical beliefs. Yet these texts, the actual readership of which is vanishingly small even among academic specialists, present an opportunity for further passionate, and yet all-too-often insubstantial debates on the relationship of scholarship in general, and philosophy in particular, to politics.

The question of how it was that scholars, some of them quite brilliant, could become entangled with the major totalitarian movements of the 20th century is one which dogged European intellectual life throughout the second half of the 20th century. Stalinism, could count among its acolytes the likes of Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Ernst Bloch, and Berthold Brecht. It at least had a nominal claim to an ideology of human liberation, which functioned to provide a measure of ideological cover for overlooking its fundamentally murderous and repressive actuality.

National Socialism moved from a simplistic, prating nationalism to calls for the physical elimination of those deemed racially external to the “Aryan” race. It was, from its outset, intensely anti-intellectual, which thus makes it rather surprising that a number of quite prominent European intellectuals rallied to its banners. Heidegger is certainly the most prominent German figure to have done so, although others of slightly lesser rank (the sociologists Arnold Gehlen, Hans Freyer, and Helmut Schelsky, the jurist Carl Schmitt) were either party members or fellow travelers. Younger scholars were drawn to National Socialism by a mix of conservative nationalism and their desire to accelerate their progress up the crowded and exclusive professional ladder of German academia. But, in the case of figures like Heidegger and Schmitt, the reasons were similar: authentic political commitment paired with overweening ambition.

Several points are worth making to lay the groundwork for what follows. The first is that Martin Heidegger was simply a wretched human being. He was startlingly arrogant, even by the standards of the German professoriate, and he had an unfortunate habit of expressing savage criticisms (even about his mentor and friend Edmund Husserl) behind people’s backs. His thinking was freighted with the full measure of anti-Semitic prejudice common amongst educated Germans. In The Decline of the German Mandarins, the historian Fritz Ringer described a typology of scholarly anti-Semitism. One passage in particular bears detailed quotation for what it illustrates about Heidegger:

The third type of anti-Semite is a member of the academic establishment. He is socially respectable, even conventional, he has a rather snobbish dislike for the “radical,” rabblerousing anti-Semite, although he may occasionally feel a certain paternal fondness for the “idealism” of the volkish student. He develops his ideals within the framework of mandarin political orthodoxy. When he undertakes, within that context, to build a flimsy theoretical bridge between the symbol of the Jew and the shortcomings of modern interest politics and “materialism” generally, he moves the whole weight of the mandarin political tradition into the anti-Semitic camp.

Much of this fits Heidegger to a tee, particularly his views from the 1920s before he (or practically anybody else in Germany) became enamored with the NSDAP. Heidegger seems to have developed an interest in the NSDAP in the early 1930s. The earliest mention of the party in the Schwarze Hefte comes from 1932. He was already convinced of what he would later term “the inner truth and greatness” of National Socialism by the time he engineered his election to the post of rector of the University of Freiburg in April 1933. In his inaugural address as rector, he equated academic work with labor and military service in such a way that, as the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu would later comment, “at the end one doesn’t know whether the read Diels on the pre-Socratics or join the SA.” In just under a year in office, Heidegger was an avid participant in the political reconfiguration of the University’s teaching staff, doing much to bring it into line with Nazi orthodoxy. He went as far as to found his own labor camp near his cabin above Todtnauberg, in the hopes that German youth could combine scholarship and physical labor.

Sleeping in the park. Chicago, 2012.

Sleeping in the park. Chicago, 2012.

Sadly for Heidegger, he was more interested in the National Socialist movement than it was in him. His aspirations to become the official philosopher of the movement were thwarted by the actions of his rivals, and by the spring of 1934, Heidegger was compelled to step down as rector and to resume his professorial duties. He would later claim that from that point on, he was under scrutiny from the regime, but also that his lecture courses (specifically that devoted to Nietzsche in the late 1930s and early 1940s) were intended as an intellectual critique of the movement. Yet he did not renounce his party membership until 1945, and his did little to distance himself from the Hitler regime until his was hauled up in front of a denazification committee by the French occupation forces and stripped of his teaching credential.

In the years between the end of the war and his death in 1976, Heidegger never recanted, going so far as to retain the above-mentioned quote about the “inner truth and greatness” of National Socialism in the 1953 edition of Einführing in die Metaphysik. Instead, he offered a series of deflections and excuses that ran the gamut from disingenuous to simply vile. Perhaps the nadir of this strategy of self-justification was the point at which, in an exchange of letters with his former student Herbert Marcuse in 1947, Heidegger equated the Nazi genocide with the spread of mechanized agriculture in the USSR and the United States.

The case of Heidegger has excited a particular fascination among academics and the reading public. Serious turbulence arose in French intellectual life in the late 1980s with the translation of the Chilean historian Victor Farías’s book Heidegger y el Nazismo into French. But the revelations in Farías’s book were not really new. Hugo Ott, whose Martin Heidegger: unterwegs zu seiner Biographie was published a year later (in 1988), had been writing articles on the topic of Heidegger’s political activities for several years before this. But even before that,  Heidegger’s political actions in the 1930s were hardly a secret.

Heidegger had been subjected to denazification, and was forbidden from teaching in German universities until he was granted emeritus status at Freiburg in 1951. In 1953, Jürgen Habermas, then a 24 year-old philosophy student at Bonn, published a scathing review of Einführing in die Metaphysik in which he explicitly linked the account of being presented there with National Socialist politics and associated Heidegger with what he called “the fascist intelligentsia.” But it was not until the publication of Farías’s book in France that the topic became front page news. In the postwar period Heidegger’s influence in France had spread as nowhere else, not even in his own homeland. With its withering critique of the Cartesian account of the subject, Heideggerian phenomenology had become imbricated in both structuralist and post-structuralist modes of thought, and the devotees of these philosophical traditions defended Heidegger with both vigor and venom.

'Heidegger Way.' Freiburg, 2010.

‘Heidegger Way.’ Freiburg, 2010.

The controversy continues to percolate, occasionally erupting as it did with the publications of Emmanual Faye’s book in 2010. Faye, it must be said, provided little that was new in terms of evidence. His argument was freighted both with some extreme surmises (for instance that Heidegger may have actually ghostwritten one of Hitler’s speeches) and extreme conclusions. His view that Heidegger’s works should be removed from the philosophy section and placed among the histories of National Socialist (or anti-Semitic) thought seems, in fact, to have as much to do with Faye’s status as an epigonal figure of French Cartesianism as it does with any substantive critique of Heidegger himself.

So what do the newly published Schwarze Hefte add to this story? Generally speaking, not a great deal. The first notebooks (those dating from between 1931 and 1938) have been published as volume 94 of Heidegger’s collected works. What we find therein does have a number of interesting dimensions. We find Heidegger tracking what he views has the most profound transformation of western culture. At points he notes the excitement of youth for a new political order, writing, “the world is being reconstructed, the human being is on the move.” It is clear that he sees the nascent political transformation of Germany and Europe as of a piece with his philosophizing. He writes during the period of his rectorship of the need for the reconstruction of the German university or its destruction (to be replaced with institutions more committed to the actual work of the university) depending on his mood. “The end of the university and the beginning of new knowledge” he announces, “both belong together, this ends that.” He clearly looks forward to the imbrication of National Socialism in the institutions of the university, as the notebooks contain an extensive plan for this composed in December 1933. Here, as in his inaugural address, the talk is of the “self-assertion” of the university leading not to scholarly autonomy but to closer collaboration with the regime.

The new order of society is much on Heidegger’s mind, and he talks frequently about the realization of this order in what he terms “metapolitics.” This concept is explicitly connected at several points with his philosophical views, most plainly when he inscribes the slogan, “Metaphysics as meta-politics.” Somewhat later, he notes, “The metaphysics of Dasein must, through its innermost structure, deepen and broaden itself into the metapolitics of the historical Volk.” Precisely what this metapolitics comprises is never explicitly spelled out. But one can read from the political views that surround it that it refers to a mode of politics (presumably embodied by National Socialism) that gets beyond the mechanistic political structures of parliamentary liberalism and socialism. Underlying it all is an organic view of politics consonant with, but not straightforwardly derivable from, the organicist politics of his writings in the period of Being and Time. “No classes, but rather rank,” he sloganizes, “no strata but rather preeminence.”

Heidegger’s commitment to National Socialism is clear from a wide range of comments that he makes throughout the notebooks, yet his relationship to it is ambivalent. He writes repeatedly that National Socialism has no theoretical dimension, and in doing so seems to be trying to bring it closer to his own analytic of Dasein (which is also in an important sense anti-theoretical), without conceding that National Socialism might be able to dispense with philosophy altogether. He writes at one point of “vulgar National Socialism” of journalists and other “culture makers.” This vulgarity is expressed in the attempt to transform National Socialism from a movement of spiritual renewal to an ethical materialism. It concerns itself unduly with issues of character and in this way strays from the proper spiritual path of the movement:

This flatly bourgeois fuss about character (which could one day come to grief for its own ineptitude) now links itself with a turbid biologism which provides this ethical materialism with the correct “ideology.”

And here it is worth noting that Heidegger, despite his manifold other faults, seems to offer at least a mild critique of biological racism. At other times he seems quite comfortable with Nazi invocations of race, although there is some question (unanswerable on the evidence available in this particular text) as to whether or in what respect Heidegger distinguishes between race and Volk. Those expecting to find extensive discussions of race or (further) explicit evidence of Heidegger’s anti-Semitism will find themselves disappointed. There is little direct discussion of Jews, particularly compared to the wealth of criticisms of technology and bolshevism. The proposition that the Schwarze Hefte open up new vistas for understanding Heidegger’s views on race finds little support in the actual text. As an aside, it is worth noting that Peter Trawny, the editor of this volume of Heidegger’s collected works, has recently written a book entitled Heidegger und der Mythos der jüdischen Weltverschwörung (Heidegger and the Myth of the World Jewish Conspiracy), which mostly relies on other sources than this to reaffirm (one could not at this point say demonstrate) that Heidegger was an anti-Semite.

Tom Rockmore, one of the more measured critics of Heidegger’s politics, has argued that it is wrong to separate Heidegger the philosopher from Heidegger the man. In On Heidegger’s Nazism and Philosophy he asserts both that it is impossible to wholly divorce actions from underlying theoretical views, and that Heidegger himself viewed his own philosophy as consonant with National Socialism. Perhaps this is the clearest possible statement of the problem underlying the prosecutorial approach to Heidegger’s thought. Many still wish to believe, in the face of mountains of evidence to the contrary, that there is some fundamental connection between truth and goodness, or that brilliance in one area implies a brilliant totality.

Much as Heidegger did see his philosophy as having important connections to National Socialism (or to some version of it not entirely consonant with the Hitler regime) this is not in and of itself reason to assume that he was correct to do so. Pace Faye, one of the most important dimensions of Heidegger’s critique of Descartes is the question that is has raised about the unity of the knowing subject and of the validity of our self-interpretations. More importantly, as Peter Gordon notes in his review of Faye’s book, limiting oneself to the role of prosecutor neglects the manifold ways that a body of thought can be read. It is possible to read Heidegger in myriad ways, many of them explicitly at variance with his own self conception.


Photos courtesy of Renaud Camus, daveynin, and Vera Lyubenova. Published under a Creative Commons license.