Martin Heidegger: Nazi

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Martin Heidegger was a Nazi. This fact is not disputed. This fact has also generated an acrimonious dispute. Some, like Victor Farias, believe Heidegger should no longer be read; others, Jacques Derrida among them, believe that Heidegger presents an opportunity for understanding one of the most puzzling episodes of twentieth century history. Many want to emphasize Heidegger's philosophical contributions, and relegate his Nazi connections to an embarrassed footnote or aside. Hannah Arendt excuses Heidegger's penchant for the Nazi regime as a déformation professionelle, an occupational hazard of philosophers. She is quite correct to note that an "inclination toward the tyrannical could be demonstrated theoretically in many of the great thinkers (Kant is the great exception)."[1] The curious case of Martin Heidegger, Nazi, raises many fascinating questions having to do with the ethics of intellectual activity, the role of intellectuals in society, the evaluation of a thinker's career, and the connection between thought and action. Let's begin with a look at the details of Heidegger's Nazi career; just how much of a Nazi was he?

From April 1933 to April 1934, Heidegger served as rector of the University of Freiburg. His predecessor had been dismissed by the Nazi Minister of Culture and Education, Otto Wacker, for being insufficiently supportive of the Nazi Party's educational program. The Minister had wanted certain professors dismissed and the "Jewish Notice" (requiring Jewish professors to write in Hebrew) posted, but the rector refused to cooperate. Heidegger's own refusal to cooperate with these exact same demands resulted in his forced resignation ten months after his appointment (Heidegger offered his resignation at the end of February 1934, but the installation of his successor did not occur until April). In his first address to the university community. In his first address to the university community, "The Self-Assertion of the German University," Heidegger announced an ambitious plan to reorganize the university, to restore the lost unity of the sciences, and to integrate the university into the life of the national community. The speech is not a Nazi polemic; nowhere does Heidegger refer to the NSDAP or Hitler, even obliquely. In fact, Wacker later chided Heidegger for circumventing the Party program, specifically, for not making race more of an issue. Moreover, Heidegger's notion of science was wholly incompatible with the Nazi's notion of politicized science.

In his only written apologia concerning the Nazi episode, to be withheld from publication until after his death, Heidegger stated that he became rector in order to realize the scheme outlined in his 1929 inaugural lecture, "What Is Metaphysics?" He saw the Nazi revolution as setting a precedent for his revolution in the university: "At the time, I saw in the movement tat had come to power the possibility of an inner self-collection and of a renewal of the people, and a path toward the discovery of its historical-Western purpose. I believed that the university, renewing itself, might also be called to significantly participate in the inner self-collection of the people."[2] Indeed, Heidegger says as much in the rectoral address. The rectoral address itself gives us little reason to condemn Heidegger.

Heidegger belongs to the line of thought traced by Fritz Stern in The Politics of Cultural Despair and Jeffrey Herf in Reactionary Modernism. Heidegger shares with the writers discussed in these two texts a feeling that "something is rotten" in contemporary German life, a loss of bearings caused by industrialization and modernization. But while the reactionary modernists saw technology as salvation, Heidegger saw technology as the clearest expression of the problem of modernity. The modern crisis resulted from a metaphysical error made by the ancient Greek philosophers, and perpetuated by their Roman, Christian, and modern successors; this error was responsible for the objectification of humans in the technological age. The solution required both a return to the origins and an overcoming of those origins in order to undo the mistake. In short, a revolution was needed. The reactionary modernists, the Nazis who adopted elements of their thought, and Heidegger all agreed on this point. However, there was almost no agreement between Heidegger and the Nazis about the nature of the revolution. Heidegger admits he was informed about the political events of 1933 and discussed them with his students and colleagues. Given his knowledge of Nazi politics, and given the fate of his predecessor, surely Heidegger knew that he was making a dangerous liaison when he became rector. Could he have seriously, realistically expected that his vision would be realized? We might ask the same question of Plato who journeyed to Syracuse three times in the hope of teaching philosophy to the ruling tyrant and thereby reform him. When Heidegger returned from the meeting at which he submitted his resignation, one of his students asked if he had enjoyed his trip to Syracuse.

So Heidegger was guilty of poor judgment; his eyes were bigger than his stomach, he bit off more than he could chew; he was a victim of his own ambition. This alone does not warrant the hue and cry surrounding Heidegger's rectorship. But there is much more. After resigning the rectorship Heidegger resumed his teaching duties in the philosophy department. His lectures, especially the famous series on Nietzsche which began in 1936, subtly stressed his departure from the Nazi ideology. At the same time, however, Heidegger demonstrated what one of his colleagues later charitably called a lack of "civic courage." Heidegger distanced himself from his Jewish mentor, Edmund Husserl, and kept in contact through intermediaries. Even though Nazi regulations forbade it, Heidegger made sure that Husserl had continued access to the philosophy library. The dedication to Husserl in Being and Time was dropped in the fifth edition. Heidegger explains that the publisher decided the deletion was necessary to prevent the book being banned. A tribute contained in a footnote was retained, and the dedication was restored in the sixth edition. Heidegger did not attend Husserl's funeral on account of illness. In addition, Heidegger was responsible for the dismissal of several students whose views were incompatible with Nazi ideology. Heidegger's behavior shows a deep ambivalence. He did not associate with Freiburg professors who supported the Nazi regime, nor did he associate with resisting professors. He never vigorously supported the Nazis, but he never defied them, either. He took care to project an appearance of cooperation.

Heidegger's involvement with the Nazis was to haunt him for the remainder of his life. It was why the French occupying forces dismissed him from the faculty in 1946. In 1949, Karl Löwith published an account of a 1936 meeting with Heidegger during which Löwith stated that "it was my opinion that a partisanship for National Socialism lay in the essence of his philosophy. Heidegger agreed with me without reservation and elucidated that his concept of 'historicity' was the basis of his political 'engagement.'"[3] Thus, the Heidegger Controversy began. The controversy reignited in 1953 with Heidegger's publication of his 1935 lecture series, Introduction to Metaphysics. Heidegger retained a sentence referring to the "inner truth and greatness" of the National Socialist movement. A debate ensued about the interpretation of this phrase, initiated by the 24-year-old Jürgen Habermas. In 1962 Guido Schneeberger published a collection of Heidegger's Nazi speeches; these sinister speeches sound some of the familiar notes of Nazi propaganda, but in conjunction with familiar Heideggerian themes. Adorno's 1964 critique of Heidegger, The Jargon of Authenticity, provoked a particularly active round of discussions. In the late 1960s and early 1970s several books examined the political aspects of Heidegger's thought. In 1976, the Der Spiegel interview, conducted in 1966, was published after Heidegger's death; this was the first occasion Heidegger publicly discussed his experience as a rector. Heidegger's perspective was presented again in 1983 when his son (and executor) published "The Rectorate 1933/34: Facts and Thoughts" together with "The Self-Assertion of the German University." Hugo Ott, a Freiburg historian, published additional damaging details about Heidegger's tenure there. The most surprising aspect of the furor that greeted that 1987 publication of Victor Farías' Heidegger and Nazism is that there was any surprise; the Heidegger Controversy was nearly forty years old. It shows no sign of abating even now, as more articles and books join the debate. An adequate treatment of the intellectual history of the debate would take a full volume in itself.

Farías raises the stakes of the debate by claiming that Heidegger's Nazi involvement discredits both the man and the philosophy. Far from being superficial, Heidegger's Nazi sympathies ran deep. Even the philosophy was tainted by Nazism, and therefore must be rejected in it s entirety. We should no longer read Heidegger. Regardless of the problems with Farías' scholarship, and these problems were numerous, his indictment was taken seriously. Habermas, Gadamer, and Derrida have all rejected Farías' call to reject Heidegger. Gadamer said that Heidegger "was no mere opportunist. It would be better to call his political engagement not a political point of view, but a political illusion that has less and less to do with political reality."[4] Gadamer refers to Plato's experiences in Syracuse. Habermas and Derrida are not willing to be so lenient on Heidegger. Both point to the need to explore the relations between Heidegger's philosophy and Nazi ideology. Derrida believes Heidegger's Nazi involvement is prefigured as early as Being and Time.

The Heidegger Controversy is not an insignificant exercise in intellectual masturbation. It touches on the aporia of the twentieth century: how were millions of Germans persuaded to support the Nazi regime enthusiastically. Even a mind as subtle and astute as Martin Heidegger fell prey to the Nazi spell. If we think through the connections between Heidegger and Nazism, perhaps we can reach a better understanding of the Nazi success. Indeed, it is imperative that we attempt to do so. Derrida states:

[M]ore than ever, the vigilant but open reading of Heidegger remains in my eyes one of the indispensable conditions, one of them but not the least, for trying to comprehend better and to tell better why, with so many others, I have always condemned Nazism, in the horror of what, in Heidegger precisely, and so many others, in Germany or elsewhere, has ever been able to give in to it.[5]

While not excusing Heidegger's past, Derrida insists Heidegger yet has much to teach.

Undoubtedly, Heidegger's status as the preeminent philosopher of the twentieth century is responsible for the longevity of the debate. Emmanuel Lévinas does not overstate when he says "I think that anyone who attempts to philosophize in the twentieth century cannot avoid traversing Heidegger's philosophy, even if only to distance oneself from it. His thinking is one of the great events of our century."[6] Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Ricoeur, Foucault, Lacan, Derrida, Gadamer, Marcuse, Habermas, Arendt, Bultmann, Binswanger and Rorty all willingly acknowledge their debt to Heidegger. Heidegger's importance is undeniable. A lesser figure would not provoke such an intense controversy; we would not demand so much. Yet, at the same time we note Heidegger's achievements, we must also note his lapses; Heidegger's own philosophy insists that the man cannot be separate from his thought. Heidegger seems to feel both defensive about his Nazi involvement and embittered by its aftermath. His self-representations in the Der Spiegel interview and "The Rectorate 1933/34: Facts and Thoughts" are self-serving mis-representations. Heidegger wanted his point of view entered into the record, but only posthumously. Even though Marcuse pleaded with Heidegger in 1947 to make a public statement denouncing the Nazis, Heidegger refused to do so. From Heidegger's perspective, an apology was inappropriate: to apologize would suggest he was somehow responsible for Nazi atrocities. Heidegger preferred silence, even if this silence called forth his own condemnation. Richard Wisser, who interviewed Heidegger in 1969 for a television broadcast, tells how Heidegger eliminated questions which even remotely touched on political issues. In private discussions after the camera crew left, Heidegger blurted out at one point: "People haven't been very nice to me!"[7]

The essence of thinking, for Heidegger, was the pursuit of questions: "Questioning then is no longer merely a preliminary step that is surmounted on the way to the answer and thus to knowing; rather, questioning itself becomes the highest form of knowing. Questioning then unfolds its most authentic strength to unlock the essential in all things."[8] We can pay no greater tribute to Heidegger than to question relentlessly into the connections between his philosophy and his political activity. As Derrida says, the Heidegger affair "leaves us the commandment to think what he himself did not think."[9]


1. Hannah Arendt, "For Martin Heidegger's Eightieth Birthday," in Martin Heidegger and National Socialism: Questions and Answers, Günther Neske and Emil Kettering, eds., Paragon House: New York, 1990, pp. 217-218.

2. Martin Heidegger, "The Rectorate 1933/34: Facts and Thoughts," in Martin Heidegger and National Socialism, p. 17.

3. Karl Löwith, "Last Meeting with Heidegger," in Martin Heidegger and National Socialism, p. 138.

4. Hans-Georg Gadamer, "Superficiality and Ignorance: On Victor Farías' Publication," in Martin Heidegger and National Socialism, p. 142.

5. Jacques Derrida, "Comment Donner Raison? 'How to Concede, with Reasons?'" in Diacritics, 19(3-4), 1989, p. 8.

6. Emmanuel Lévinas, "Admiration and Disappointment: A Conversation with Philippe Nemo," in Martin Heidegger and National Socialism, p. 152.

7. Richard Wisser, "Afterthoughts and Gratitude," in Martin Heidegger and National Socialism, p. 117.

8. Martin Heidegger, "The Self-Assertion of the German University,"in Martin Heidegger and National Socialism, pp. 8-9.

9. Jacques Derrida, "Heidegger's Silence: Excerpts from a talk given on 5 February 1988," in Martin Heidegger and National Socialism, p. 147.

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Written December 1992 at University of California at Berkeley for Seminar in Modern European Intellectual History. Grade: A.

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