A Normal Nazi

The Heidegger Controversy: A Critical Reader

edited by Richard Wolin
[formerly published by Columbia University Press] MIT Press, 305 pp., $16.95 (paper)

Martin Heidegger: Politik und Geschichte im Leben und Denken (Martin Heidegger: Politics and History in His Life and Thought)

by Ernst Nolte
Propyläen, 330 pp., 48 DM

People haven’t been very nice to me.”

Martin Heidegger,
September 18, 1969


In 1987 Victor Farías’s Heidegger et le nazisme dropped like a bomb on the quiet chapel where Heidegger’s disciples were gathered, and blew the place to bits. The myth Heidegger had concocted after the war—that he supported the Nazis briefly and only to protect the university—was shattered by the evidence Farías mustered of Heidegger’s deep and long-lasting commitment to National Socialism, his blatant anti-Semitism, his blackballing of colleagues for no more than holding pacifist convictions, associating with Jews, or being “unfavorably disposed” toward the Nazi regime.

Badly shaken, the Heideggerian faithful struggled to piece their beliefs together again. Strategies for coping with this new and damning information ranged from partial disclaimers (“Yes, he joined the Party in 1933 but went into opposition soon after”) to exculpatory incantations (“Metaphysics made him do it”). When a few months later a second bomb fell—Hugo Ott’s Martin Heidegger: Unterwegs zu seiner Biographie (Campus Verlag, 1988)—the strategy quickly shifted to triage: “Admit the Nazism, but save the philosophy!”1

The official apologists of the Heidegger church insist that the causes of Heidegger’s “political error” were ultimately metaphysical and that virtually no one is yet capable of understanding, much less judging, the matter. This claim has something to do with the fate of Professor Richard Wolin’s edited collection, The Heidegger Controversy. Why did Columbia University Press stop publishing the book, especially when it had sold so well during its brief four months of life? The answer is not simple, but it begins with the objections to the book by Jacques Derrida.

The Heidegger Controversy, which Wolin presents as a complement to his monograph on Heidegger, The Politics of Being (Columbia University Press, 1990), is a useful collection of Heidegger’s Nazi speeches from the Thirties and of his later efforts at explaining his actions. These are accompanied by relevant essays, interviews, and letters by Otto Pöggeler, Karl Löwith, Herbert Marcuse, and others. Among the latter is an interview with Jacques Derrida, entitled “Philosopher’s Hell,” which Le Nouvel Observateur published in 1987 and which it gave Wolin the rights to translate into English.

Wolin’s collection was published in October 1991, and soon afterward Derrida chanced upon a copy of it in a New York bookstore. He was not pleased. The problem was not just that Wolin’s concluding essay finds Derrida’s position “far-fetched and illogical” and guilty of “hermeneutical chicanery” in attributing Heidegger’s Nazism to “a surfeit of metaphysical humanism.” No, the issue, Derrida claims, is that Wolin’s entire book is nothing but “a sneaky war machine” (une machine de guerre sournoise) for attacking Heidegger. Imagine Derrida’s reaction, then, at finding his 1987 interview translated in the book without his previous knowledge!

Back in Paris, Derrida had his lawyer write a letter to Columbia University Press threatening that if the press dared to reprint the present volume with the interview—which it was planning to do in paperback—Derrida would take action to…

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