Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) ranks at or near the top of lists of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century, thanks especially to his magnum opus, Being and Time, published in Germany in 1927. Beginning in 1933, when Hitler came to power, Heidegger was also a member of and advocate for the National Socialist Party, to whose “inner truth and greatness” as a movement he attested in a lecture course at the University of Freiburg in 1935.
The relation of Heidegger’s philosophy to his Nazism has long been a matter of controversy. Some have tried to paint Heidegger’s involvement with Nazism as no more than a flirtation in the early days of the German Reich, against which he subsequently turned (though only to the extent commensurate with maintaining his position under Nazi scrutiny as a professor at Freiburg). In this telling, Heidegger’s Nazism was largely irrelevant to his philosophy.
Heidegger himself did much to encourage this judgment about himself, and indeed, it is the most exculpatory view possible in light of the incontestable facts of his party membership and his acceptance of the position of rector at Freiburg in 1933. It also requires a willful blindness to the many other indications the record provides of the sincerity of Heidegger’s commitment to National Socialism.
Others, less extravagantly generous in their inclinations toward the philosopher, have detected definite points of connection between the philosophical matters he is exploring and the tenets of Nazism. Throughout his work, Heidegger elaborated a stance of general opposition to liberalism in the classical sense, to democracy, and to modern technological society. But in particular, exhibit A is section 74 of Being and Time, where Heidegger discusses “destiny.” He disavows a view of “destiny” as “composed of individual fates”; rather, the term “designates the occurrence of the community, of a people.. . .In communication and in battle the power of destiny first becomes free.”
One must ask, in the context of the faltering Weimar republic and the emergence of Nazism and its racial doctrines of Aryan superiority: Who is this “people” (volk)? What is the character of this “communication” (presumably among the “people”) and of this “battle” (presumably against another “people”)? Heidegger doesn’t elaborate at all, let alone with regard to the contemporary scene in Germany. Indeed, one could say that the biggest philosophical problem with Being and Time is Heidegger’s failure to explore more fully the question of “being-with-one-another” before he jumps directly to consideration of “a people” and its “destiny.” But here a door opens between an element of the philosophical analysis and the racialism of the Nazis.
Emmanuel Faye, a professor at the Université Paris Ouest–Nanterre La Défense and a scholar of Rene Descartes, published a book in 2005, now available in English translation, that wants to go much further than identifying the points of connection between Heidegger’s philosophy and his Nazism. Faye seeks to discredit Heidegger as a thinker by demonstrating that “it is not as a philosopher that he is expressing himself but as a being who has agreed to put all his faculties at the service of the supremacy of Nazism.” Heidegger’s collected works “cannot continue to be placed in the philosophy section of libraries; its place is rather in the historical archives of Nazism and Hitlerism.” To this end, Faye examines some of the courses and public lectures Heidegger gave at Freiburg following 1933, as well as passages (such as section 74 from Being and Time) from Heidegger’s earlier work. He also examines Heidegger’s postwar emendations to some of his lecture texts, detecting an effort to sanitize the record.
The context of Faye’s book is very much the long-simmering, occasionally boiling debate in French intellectual circles over whether Heidegger’s noteworthy influence on French thought has been undue. Faye’s book accordingly includes rather more pages of score-settling than necessary with French thinkers who have been defenders of Heidegger. Fortunately, the English edition includes a useful foreword by Tom Rockmore setting the context.
Faye is also a Descartes partisan who clearly bristles at Heidegger’s relentless criticism of the French philosopher for placing the thinking “I” at the center of knowledge of being: “I think, therefore I am.” Faye sees the criticism of Descartes as of a piece with Heidegger’s deeply antihumanist, antiliberal (thus pro-Hitler) doctrine. The book is nothing if not impassioned, and if there are points at which it seems as though Faye does not understand what Heidegger is saying very well, Faye’s heart is surely in the right place. He also probes the writings of some of the major Nazi ideologists, usually in pursuit of points of connection with what Heidegger is saying, and he is ingenuously repulsed.
But what about the central charge? Of Heidegger’s Nazism and his enthrallment with Hitler, there can be no doubt. Faye makes a compelling case. Here is a passage from the seventh session of Heidegger’s winter 1933-34 seminar:
Only where leader and led together bind each other in one destiny, and fight for the realization of one idea, does true order grow. Then spiritual superiority and freedom respond in the form of deep dedication of all powers to the people, to the state, in the form of the most rigid training, as commitment, resistance, solitude, and love. Then the existence and the superiority of the Führer sink down into being, into the soul of the people and thus bind it authentically and passionately to the task. And when the people feel this dedication, they will let themselves be led into struggle, and they will want and love the struggle.
This is simply nauseating. As rector, Heidegger was an enthusiastic implementer of the new policy of Gleichschaltung, or the “bringing into line” of the universities, which the Nazi regime considered to have been too influenced by un-German (read: Jewish) thought and professors. He was also instrumental in the introduction of theFührerprinzip, according to which the rector of the university had absolute authority over its operation in the manner of (and in service to) Hitler’s absolute authority over the German state. In one 1933 letter, Heidegger muses wistfully about the possibility of taking a position at the University of Munich: “That would have the advantage of a larger theater of activity and would not be as remote as Freiburg is at the present time. The possibility of approaching Hitler, and the like.” Sigh.
Faye is also right that Heidegger has little trouble incorporating his Nazi enthusiasms into his philosophy, as his lectures and seminars for philosophy students demonstrate. This extends well beyond the “Sieg Heil”s and “Heil Hitler!”s sprinkled throughout the reports of his public comportment and correspondence, which bespeak the bonhomie of a true enthusiast and, moreover, confidence that all will end well. When, as Faye notes, Heidegger can speak of “the motorization of the Wehrmacht” as a “metaphysical act” and refer to the defeat of France by the German Reich as “the day when a people no longer measures up to the metaphysics that has sprung from its own history” (take that, Descartes!), something other than philosophy is going on—or perhaps one should say that philosophy has been brought into line.
But the gravamen of Faye’s argument goes much further. It’s not that Heidegger places his philosophy (and his reputation as a thinker) in the service of Nazism. It’s that the “philosophy” itself, from the beginning, boils down to nothing more than an elaborate justification of Nazi racial doctrine. The outcome of Heidegger’s quest for the “truth of being” turns out to be “indissociable from the future ‘purification’ of the German essence and race [Faye’s emphasis].”
In Faye’s view, this was true from Being and Time onward. Section 74 was opaque by design, and throughout, Faye argues, Heidegger left much unsaid: he believed it was not yet politic to spell out his true meaning. His teaching was esoteric until the coming of Hitler, became explicit as Hitler came to total dominance over Germany in accordance with the Führerprinzip Heidegger enthusiastically endorsed, and grew obscure again in an effort to preserve Heidegger’s reputation after the war. In Faye’s view, the motive of that last move was not merely Heidegger’s survival, freedom, and comfort. It was also to preserve the reputation of his work so that his racial doctrine could continue to insinuate itself into the thinking of future generations: “To lead astray, lay waste, and radically destroy philosophy—such was indeed Heidegger’s intent.”
Heidegger did in fact famously pronounce that “philosophy is at an end.” That pronouncement, however, has its origin in his reflection on the purpose of his own work, an attempt to reach back to the ancient Greeks to try to release the truth of being from its captivity in Western metaphysics. It’s not reducible to the proposition that Heidegger, for nefarious reasons, wants to put an end to philosophy. Heidegger is a difficult thinker to understand, but he is not the esoteric thinker Faye makes him out to be. On the contrary, there is something repulsively guileless and genuine in Heidegger’s manifest affection for der Führer and his willingness to throw himself into the cause of National Socialism as the solution to the philosophical problem he had identified.
But this is not to say that the problem Heidegger identified, the question of being, is of no moment or that his inquiry into it is other than profound. Faye wishes to overturn Heidegger as a philosopher because he wishes the embodiment of a great thinker and a proponent of National Socialism in one and the same person to be, well, unthinkable. This does justice neither to the Western philosophical tradition, National Socialism, nor Heidegger. Confronted with the ghastly, indeed terrifying spectacle of the Nazism of the man who may have been the greatest thinker of the 20th century, Faye’s desire to pretend that such a figure never was is perfectly understandable. But therein lies the danger, because of the implicit but entirely false reassurance it provides that a similar combination of philosophical genius and political evil could never come along again.