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Heidegger and the Nazis

Heidegger et le nazisme

by Victor Farias, translated from Spanish and German into French by Myriam Benarroch, by Jean-Baptiste Grasset, preface by Christian Jambet
Editions Verdier, 332 pp., Fr125 (to be published in the US by Temple University Press in 1989) (paper)

The spiritual strength of the West fails, its structure crumbles, this moribund semblance of a culture caves in and drags all powers into confusion, suffocating them in madness….

Whether or not this will happen depends on one thing: whether we [Germans], as a historical-spiritual people, will ourselves again.”

—Martin Heidegger
May 1933


Two facts about Martin Heidegger (1889–1976) are as incontestable as they are complicated: first, that he remains one of the century’s most influential philosophers and, second, that he was a Nazi.

On the one hand there is Heidegger the philosopher, whose monumental Sein und Zeit (Being and Time), published in 1927, sought to change the course of philosophy by transforming the age-old question about the meaning of reality. Heidegger thought that with the collapse of theism in the nineteenth century (the “death of God”) the West had entered the age of nihilism. His goal was to overcome the metaphysical speculations that he believed had helped bring on that collapse and to awaken the modern world to a new sense of what he called “the mystery of Being.” His philosophy, which fills over seventy volumes in his posthumous Gesamtausgabe (Frankfurt: Klostermann), has had a profound effect on French philosophy from Jean-Paul Sartre through Jacques Derrida, on Protestant and Catholic theologians like Rudolf Bultmann and Karl Rahner, and on two decades of literary criticism in Europe and America. His works have been translated into all major languages, including Chinese and Japanese.

Then there is Heidegger the Nazi, that is: the dues-paying member of the NSDAP from 1933 to 1945 (card number 312589, Gau Baden); the outspoken propagandist for Hitler and the Nazi revolution who went on national radio to urge ratification of Hitler’s withdrawal of Germany from the League of Nations; the rector of Freiburg University (April 1933 to April 1934), who told his students, “Let not theories and ‘ideas’ be the rules of your being. The Führer himself and he alone is German reality and its law, today and for the future,” and who wrote to a colleague: “The individual, wherever he stands, counts for nothing. The fate of our people in their State is everything.”1

This is the Heidegger who, even after the Nazis allegedly began viewing him with disfavor, continued to defend what he called “the inner truth and greatness of National Socialism.” It is the same Heidegger who despised the party system of the Weimar Republic, who liked to cite Homer (Iliad II, 204): “The rule of the many is not good; let there be one ruler, one king,” and who apparently got his wish. Years after the Nazi debacle had ended he excoriated the “democratized decay” of Germany’s political institutions and said he was not convinced that democracy was the best political system for the modern age. In 1974 he wrote his friend Heinrich Petzet: “Our Europe is being ruined from below with ‘democracy’….”2

Heidegger’s support for the Nazi movement has dogged his philosophy for over fifty years. If the man himself was—to put it minimally—a Nazi sympathizer, is his philosophy also in some way fascistic? Does his thought, in whole or part, lend itself to political reaction or at least a nondemocratic view of the world?

Some philosophers answer in the absolute affirmative: Professor Jürgen Habermas of the Goethe University, Frankfurt, for example, and the late Theodor Adorno of the Frankfurt school. Many more answer in the absolute negative and either treat Heidegger’s philosophy as a pure act of thought that developed in a political vacuum, or explain his political “error” as a misguided but well-intentioned effort to “overcome metaphysics,” but in any case as having nothing to do with his philosophy.

Still others (I include myself) would argue that despite the magnitude of Heidegger’s intellectual achievement, major elements of his philosophy are deeply flawed by his notions of politics and history—and that this is so quite apart from the fact that he joined the Nazi party and, for whatever period of time, ardently supported Hitler. Heidegger’s engagement with Nazism was a public enactment of some of his deepest, and most questionable, philosophical convictions. And those convictions did not change when, in the mid-Thirties, he became disappointed with the direction the party was taking. In fact, Heidegger admitted as much. In 1936, when his former student Karl Löwith suggested to Heidegger that his support for Nazism seemed to come from the very essence of his philosophy, “Heidegger agreed with me without reservations and spelled out for me that his concept of ‘historicity’ was the basis for his political ‘engagement.”’3

Victor Farias, a Chilean who studied with Heidegger and now teaches at the Free University of Berlin, has dramatically reopened the question with his Heidegger et le nazisme. Written in Spanish, rejected by a German publishing house, and finally published in French translation last October, the book has been explosive: over the last six months virtually every French philosopher of note has taken a very passionate stand, one way or the other, on l’affaire Heidegger. The book is currently being translated into ten languages. Temple University Press will bring it out in English early next year.

Farias says his aim is “to study the relation between a thinker and a political system,” and although his historical method and political analysis have come under sharp fire from critics (particularly his association of Heidegger with the SA leader Ernst Roehm), it would be wrong to say that one cannot learn from this book. Farias has assembled much if not all of the available data on Heidegger’s relation to the Nazi regime between 1933 and 1945. Even though some of his information has been public knowledge for a long time, much of it, especially the documents Farias found in East German archives and in the Documentation Center in West Berlin, had not been published before and is of enormous value.

The merit of Farias’s book is that it draws our attention anew to an important issue that deserves more careful treatment than Farias has been able to give it. (I say this without having seen the forthcoming German edition of the work, which will add three new chapters and correct the numerous errors that mar the French edition.4 ) The relation of Heidegger and Nazism has been thoroughly investigated by the historian Hugo Ott of Freiburg University—whose book, to be published in Germany in September, will be the definitive study of the topic—and by philosophers like Otto Pöggeler of the Ruhr University, Bochum, and Karsten Harries of Yale. In what follows I use Professor Ott’s work to supplement, and sometimes to correct, Farias’s account.5

In outline, the story of Heidegger and the Nazis concerns (1) a provincial, ultra-conservative German nationalist and, at least from 1932 on, a Nazi sympathizer (2) who, three months after Hitler took power, became rector of Freiburg University, joined the NSDAP, and tried unsuccessfully to become the philosophical Führer of the Nazi movement, (3) who quit the rectorate in 1934 and quietly disassociated himself from some aspects of the Nazi party while remaining an enthusiastic supporter of its ideals, (4) who was dismissed from teaching in 1945, only to be reintegrated into the university in 1951, and who even after his death in 1976 continues to have an immense following in Europe and America.

Whatever the value of his philosophy, the picture we now have of Heidegger’s activities during the Third Reich is deeply disturbing and frequently disgusting. For example:

Heidegger’s inaugural address as Rector Magnificus of Freiburg University (May 27, 1933) purported to assert the autonomy of the university against Nazi attempts at politicizing the sciences. However, it ominously celebrated the banishing of academic freedom and ended up as a dithyramb to “the greatness and glory” of the Hitler revolution (“the march our people has begun into its future history”), which Heidegger tried to combine with the goals of his own philosophy. The essence of the university, he says, is the “will to knowledge,” which requires returning to the pre-Socratic origins of thought. But concretely that means unifying “science and German fate” and willing “the historical mission of the German Volk, a Volk that knows itself in its State”—all this within a spirituality “that is the power to preserve, in the deepest way, the strengths [of the Volk] which are rooted in soil and blood.”6

Three months later, as if to fulfill the promise of his inaugural address, Heidegger rushed to establish the Führer-principle at Freiburg University (August 21, 1933)—his first big step toward becoming the intellectual high priest of Nazism. According to the Führerprinzip the rector would no longer be elected by the academic senate but would be appointed by the Nazi minister of education and made the virtual dictator of the university, with authority to impose his own deans on the departments. (On August 22, the vice-rector, Joseph Sauer, wrote in his diary: “Finis universitatum! And that idiot Heidegger has gotten us into this mess, after we elected him rector to bring us a new spiritual vision for the universities. What irony!”) Heidegger prepared the ground with a public telegram to Hitler on May 20, 1933, and on October 1, 1933, got himself officially appointed Führer of Freiburg University, thereby ending its autonomy. On December 20 he wrote a colleague that “from the very first day of my assumption of the office” his goal had been “the fundamental change of scientific education in accordance with the strengths and the demands of the National Socialist State” (his emphasis).7

On September 4, 1933, in response to an offer to take the chair at the University of Munich, Heidegger said: “For me it is clear that, putting aside all personal motives, I must decide to accomplish the task that will allow me to best serve the work of Adolf Hitler.”8

On November 3, 1933, Führer-rector Heidegger issued a decree applying the Nazi “cleansing” laws to the student body of Freiburg University. He announced that economic aid would henceforth be awarded to students who belonged to the SS, the SA, or other military groups but would be denied to “Jewish or Marxist students” or anyone who fit the description of a “non-Aryan” in Nazi law.9

On December 13, 1933, Heidegger sent a letter to a group of German academics, requesting financial support for a book of pro-Hitler speeches by professors that was to be circulated to intellectuals around the world. At the bottom of his letter he added the editor’s assurance that “Needless to say, non-Aryans shall not appear on the signature page.”10

On December 22, 1933, Heidegger suggested to Baden’s minister of education that, in choosing among applicants for professorships, one should ask “which of the candidates (granted his academic and personal appropriateness for the job) offers the greatest assurance of carrying out the National Socialist will for education.”11

Equally disgusting are Heidegger’s secret denunciations of his colleagues and students, actions long the subject of rumor and now conclusively documented.

  1. 1

    Texts in Guido Schneeberger, Nachlese zu Heidegger (Bern: Suhr, 1962), pp. 135ff.; and in Hugo Ott, “Martin Heidegger als Rektor der Universität Freiburg i. Br. 1933/34,” Zeitschrift des Breisgau-Geschichtsvereins, Vol. 103 (1984), p. 117. Otto Pöggeler takes the first text as meaning: “not the National Socialist Party program and theories of race”: “Heideggers politisches Selbstverständnis” in Heidegger und die praktische Philosophie, ed., Annemarie Gethmann-Siefert and Otto Pöggeler (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1988), p. 32. (Note: In this essay I often make my own translations from the German.)

  2. 2

    National Socialism: Heidegger, Einführung in die Metaphysik (1935), Gesamtausgabe Part II, Vol. 40 (1983), p. 208 taken with p. 234 (cf. below). Democracy: Heinrich Wiegand Petzet, Auf einen Stern zugehen (Frankfurt: Societät, 1983), pp. 82 and 232; and Heidegger’s Spiegel interview, “‘Only a God Can Save Us,”’ trans., William J. Richardson, in Thomas Sheehan, ed., Heidegger, the Man and the Thinker (Precedent, 1981), pp. 45–67, here p. 55.

  3. 3

    Karl Löwith, Mein Leben in Deutschland vor und nach 1933 (Stuttgart: Metzler, 1986), p. 57.

  4. 4

    In a work that purports to provide definitive documentation of Heidegger’s Nazi period, the sloppiness of Farias’s notes is appalling. Apart from references to archival material, I have checked virtually every one of his notes, and many of them cannot be traced with any reasonable ease because the usual rules of critical apparatus have not been observed. The reader might try tracking down the following references, a small selection among many that could be cited: p. 310, nn. 67, 68, and 75; p. 313, nn. 147 and 148; p. 316, nn. 42 and 51; p. 319, n. 130; p. 324, nn. 277, 287, and 296; p. 327, n. 66; p. 329, n. 145; p. 332, nn. 255, 256, and 267. The works attributed to Karl Oehling are written by Karl Moehling: p. 166, p. 322, n. 213, and p. 331, n. 203. (I am grateful to Ms. Lorna Newman, Loyola University librarian, for helping me trace many of Farias’s references.)

    The tendentiousness of the French translations of Heidegger’s statements in Farias has been noted by François Fédier, who provides his own translations in Le débat, Vol. 48 (January–February, 1988), pp. 176–192. I would add that on p. 78 Heidegger’s statement is not “these times were devoted to confronting brutality” but “one could endure these times only with toughness.” On the same page, he did not say “combat had been healthy for him” but “he had come back from the war in good health.” At p. 75 the French translation adds the prejudicial word “Aryan” and the phrase “of a knowledge that comes from authenticity,” neither of which is found in the German. And ridiculous though it might seem, on p. 29 Farias, without notice, makes the word “Kapaun” (“capon,” or “brat”) come out as “Capuchin,” so that he can thereby bolster his claim that Heidegger, from his youth, was an anti-Semitic follower of the monk Abraham a Sancta Clara.

    Farias’s confusion of two places called Sachsenhausen—the seventeenth-century suburb of Frankfurt that Heidegger mentioned in a 1964 lecture, and the concentration camp outside Berlin that Farias thinks Heidegger meant—demolishes his absurd conclusion (p. 292ff.) that Heidegger was making an approving reference to the death camps. Farias’s association of Heidegger with Roehm (pp. 202–210) is constructed entirely from circumstantial evidence; Hugo Ott’s research would seem to discredit the claim: Ott, “Wege und Abwege,” Neue Zürcher Zeitung, No. 275 (November 27, 1987), p. 39.

    Farias’s claim on page 39 that a one-page article that Heidegger published in 1910 at the age of twenty “articulates all the determining elements” of “Martin Heidegger’s later ideological and spiritual development” is not demonstrated in the book, and his ruminations (pp. 33ff.) on the psychological conflicts underlying Heidegger’s early heart condition are, to put it kindly, highly speculative.

  5. 5

    Hugo Ott, Martin Heidegger: Unterwegs zu seiner Biographie (Frankfurt: Campus, forthcoming, September, 1988). Ott’s articles include: “Martin Heidegger als Rektor der Universität Freiburg i. Br. 1933/34,” Zeitschrift des Breisgau-Geschichtsvereins, Vol. 102 (1983), pp. 121–136, and Vol. 103 (1984), pp. 107–130; “Martin Heidegger als Rektor der Universität Freiburg 1933/34,” Zeitschrift für die Geschichte des Oberrheins, Vol. 132 (new series, Vol. 93, 1984), pp. 343–358; “Martin Heidegger und die Universität Freiburg nach 1945,” Historisches Jahrbuch, Vol. 105, No. 1 (1985), pp. 95–128; and “Martin Heidegger und der Nationalsozialismus” in Heidegger und die praktische Philosophie, pp. 64–77.

    Otto Pöggeler, Philosophie und Politik bei Heidegger (Freiburg: Alber, 1972); “Den Führer führen? Heidegger und kein Ende,” Philosophische Rundschau, Vol. 32 (1985), pp. 26–67; Martin Heidegger’s Path of Thinking, trans. Daniel Magurshak and Sigmund Barber (Humanities Press, 1987), pp. 274–280; “Heideggers politisches Selbstverständnis,” pp. 17–63.

    Karsten Harries, “Heidegger as a Political Thinker,” Review of Metaphysics, Vol. 29 (1975–76), pp. 642–669. Karl Moehling, Martin Heidegger and the Nazi Party, Ph.D. dissertation, Northern Illinois University, 1972, and “Heidegger and the Nazis” in Sheehan, Heidegger, the Man and the Thinker, pp. 31–44. Many of Heidegger’s statements from 1933 to 1937 are documented in Schneeberger, Nachlese.

  6. 6

    Martin Heidegger, “The Self-Assertion of the German University,” trans. Karsten Harries, Review of Metaphysics, Vol. 38 (March, 1985), pp. 470–480, pp. 475, 480, and 471. Six months later Heidegger linked science with “self-responsible völkisch existence”: text in Schneeberger, Nachlese, p. 149. On Heidegger’s attempt to transform Nazi language, see Graeme Nicholson, “The Politics of Heidegger’s Rectoral Address,” Man and World, Vol. 20 (1987), pp. 171–187.

  7. 7

    Sauer’s remark and Heidegger’s letter of December 20 are cited in Ott, Zeitschrift des Breisgau-Geschichtsvereins (1984), pp. 112 and 116.

  8. 8

    Farias, Heidegger et le nazisme, p. 180.

  9. 9

    Schneeberger, Nachlese, p. 137.

  10. 10

    Farias, Heidegger et le nazisme, p. 176. The book was published as Bekenntnis der Professoren an den deutschen Universitäten und Hochschulen zu Adolf Hitler und dem nationalsozialistischen Staat (Dresden, 1933) and on pp. 36–37 contains the first translation of Heidegger’s work into English: his speech in support of Hitler, November 11, 1933. The names appear on pp. 129–135.

  11. 11

    Ott, Zeitschrift des Breisgau-Geschichtsvereins (1984), p. 117.

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