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Heidegger and Nazism - M.J. Inwood

Monday, 19 May, 2014 - 11:00 am

I should begin by saying that Heidegger’s Nazism would be of little interest if he weren’t a significant philosopher. As a nazi he was very small fry. But his reputation as a philosopher is such that his supporters want to exonerate him and, at the very least dissociate his philosophy from his political behaviour, while his opponents are happy to say ‘We told you so, didn’t we?’ Nevertheless, I will mainly talk about his life, turning to his philosophy only when it seems relevant to his politics. He was born of poor Catholic peasants in Messkirch, a small town in the Black Forest, and because of his brilliance was educated by the Church with a view to the priesthood. He was always deeply attached to the rugged landscape of his birthplace with its simple farmers and woodcutters. Here we already have some of the ingredients of his later career. A dislike of Jews, if he did dislike Jews. Catholic peasants often dislike Jews, though not all Catholics do, I hasten to add – I would certainly exempt Thomas Aquinas, who was Heidegger’s basic reading in his preparation for the priesthood. A dislike of encroaching technology and capitalism, and of the Berlin of Brecht and Marlene Dietrich. A profound attachment to his native Heimat, as the Germans call it, that nurtures his lifelong nationalism and his constant with roots, being rooted in his Heimat. Also a respect for tradition and an insight into everyday life that surfaces in his philosophy. But he pulled up some of his roots, when married a Protestant, who is said to have been a Nazi activist. Hannah Arendt said it was a marriage between the elite and the mob. He then rejected what he called the ‘system of Catholicism’ and more or less became a Lutheran. Having abandoned his priestly vocation he lectured – with spellbinding brilliance – on, among other things, Luther, and on writers congenial to Lutheranism such as St Paul and Augustine. Some writers try to account for his Nazism in terms of Lutheranism but I don’t know of any evidence that Lutherans were more susceptible to Nazism than Catholics. In 1933 Heidegger was a professor at Freiburg and shortly after Hitler became chancellor of Germany, he (Heidegger)  was elected  rector of the university. He was by now the most famous member of the university and his colleagues thought that he could see them through a difficult period. He had never been a member of a political party or politically active. It was now virtually obligatory for him to join the National Socialist Party; in any case if his aim was to protect the university this would be easier if he were a party member.


Heidegger was not, however, just an anti-Nazi doing his best to protect the university from them. He believed until at least the end of 1933, and did not later deny it, that the drastic economic situation could best be resolved by Germans working together under a single leader. He also accepted some aspects of the Nazi programme and supported them while he was rector. For example, he agreed with the measures designed to bring universities and the working class closer together and tried to put them into effect - students did labour service, etc. He was also, both then and to the end of his days, a strong nationalist. But he tends to stress the spirit, Geist, of the German people, rather than their biology. He said in a letter to Herbert Marcuse in 1948: In 1933 "I expected from National Socialism a spiritual renewal of life in its entirety, a reconciliation of social antagonisms and a deliverance of Western Dasein from the dangers of communism." He expressed these views in his rectoral address and in other political texts. He publicly campaigned for Germany to leave the League of Nations and thus urged Germans to vote for Hitler.


Heidegger’s declared Nazism came as a surprise to his students. Herbert Marcuse said: "from personal experience I can tell you that neither in his lectures nor in his seminars, nor personally, was their ever any hint of his sympathies for Nazism ... So his openly declared Nazism came as a complete surprise to us." After 1933, Lowith, Marcuse and others reread his great work, Being and Time, and thought they saw in it the seeds of his conversion - historicity, destiny, resoluteness, choosing one's hero, the rather gloomy view of the world - idle talk, falling, being-toward death, anxiety, dread, boredom - giving, as Marcuse puts it, a picture which plays on our fears and frustrations in a repressive society - a joyless existence overshadowed by death and anxiety; human material for the authoritarian personality." Heidegger’s philosophy has some connexion with his politics. That is, we can tell a plausible story about how it led him to Nazism, whereas we could not tell a plausible story about how Frege’s work on logic and mathematics led him to become a virulent anti-semite, far worse than Heidegger. But his philosophy does not necessitate Nazism. We could tell an equally plausible story about how it led him to communism or to inner emigration, a retreat into private life. 


The fact that Heidegger was a supporter of Nazism does not, however, entail that he was anti-semitic. Now we think of Nazism as essentially anti-semitic, but at that time there were other aspects that made it attractive apart from anti-semitism: its promise of economic revival, for example, and its opposition communism and to the Versailles treaty. His published writings, even his rectoral address, are conspicuously free of any overt anti-semitism. For this reason he was suspected of a ‘private National Socialism’, only remotely related to the official version. He had several Jewish pupils – Arendt, Marcuse, Lowith, etc. – and seems to have kept some of them on even after 1933. He sacked some Jewish professors – as rector he could hardly do otherwise –but helped some Jews to get to England. Karl Jaspers, a philosopher and friend of Heidegger’s, who was neither Jewish nor a Nazi, said that Heidegger was not anti-semitic in the 1920s, but became so in 1933. Jasper’s evidence is this. In December 1933 Heidegger wrote to the Nazi Professors Association in Gottingen advising against the appointment of Baumgarten, a non-Jew, to Gottingen university. One of the reasons he gives in the letter is Baumgarten's association with "the Jew Fraenkel". But it's not obvious to me that it does prove that Heidegger was anti-semitic; if one is a high official writing to a Nazi body on the orders of the regime, presumably one has to pepper one's letter with such phrases - after all it didn’t do Fraenkel much harm or tell the professors anything they didnt already believe. Then there is some counter-evidence. Heidegger persuaded the ministry not to sack two Jewish professors at Freiburg. Richard Wolin, in his book The Heidegger Controversy says that "we now know" that Heidegger’s intercession "had an exclusively pragmatic basis: he was merely concerned that the summary dismissal ... of two internationally renowned scholars might have deleterious consequences for Germany's foreign policy interests". That’s presumably what Heidegger said to the ministry. But what else could he say? How does Wolin know what Heidegger's motives were, at a time when it would have been imprudent and self-defeating for him to reveal any generous motives he may have had? The evidence Wolin cites is that in "his letter of July 12, 1933 ... [he] assured the Ministry of Education of his full support" for the ordinance barring Jews from the civil service. I don’t doubt the existence of this letter, but it seems to me only prudent of Heidegger to write it if he was trying to help his Jewish colleagues. Wolin, I think, puts a more unfavourable construction on Heidegger's actions than the evidence requires.


During his time as rector, Heidegger had more and more problems with the authorities and their interference in University affairs. He resigned as rector within a year. He did not resign from the Party, but it was not possible to resign from the Nazi Party except in a coffin. It’s important to remember that the Nazi Party was not like our Conservative Party and Hitler was more like Al Capone than David cameron.


   Heidegger’s resignation from his office does not entail that he then became an anti-Nazi, and opinions differ more strongly over this than on the events of his rectorship. Heidegger and his supporters say something like this: After his resignation he came to see Nazism as fundamentally evil. Many former students say that between 1934 and 1944 he made his opposition to the regime increasingly clear. For example, he interpreted Nietzsche as a metaphysician, not as an authoritarian racist as the Nazis did. Naturally, his opposition was coded: the SS kept an eye on his lectures. In his 1948 letter to Marcuse, he agrees that he never publicly denounced the regime, but says that if he had "it would have been the end of both me and my family" - and, we might add, it would have had precious little effect. On the other hand, opponents cite evidence that Heidegger remained a Nazi until much later. Karl Lowith, a former student and friend, met him in Rome in 1936. Heidegger, he reports, "left no doubt about his belief in Hitler ... He was convinced now as before that National Socialism was the right course for Germany; one only had to 'hold out' long enough ... He failed to notice the destructive radicalism of the whole movement and the petit-bourgeois character of its "strength-through-joy" institutions, because he himself was a radical petit-bourgeois". He shared Lowith's distaste for Julius Streicher, the editor of an anti-semitic paper, but thought that Hitler didn’t get rid of him because he was afraid of him. (Heidegger seems to have admired Hitler, even after he came to despise his followers.) He thought that the regime would have been better if more intellectuals had participated in it.


But whatever Heidegger's attitudes to the Nazis, the Nazis did not regard him as one of their own. In the Summer of 1944 the philosophy faculty was divided by the then rector into 3 groups: those who were completely indispensable, those who could be partly dispensed with, and those who were completely dispensable. Heidegger was placed in the 3rd group and, as a result was drafted to work on the fortifications on the Rhine. Shortly after that, he was drafted into the Volkssturm, the "people's storm", a sort of dad’s army. Nevertheless, when the war ended he was summoned before a Denazification Committee, consisting mainly of German academics, and, on the recommendation of Jaspers, he was banned from teaching for 5 years, though he was allowed to keep his pension and his emeritus professorship.


   Heidegger’s comments on his Nazi-episode after the war are generally regarded as inadequate. In his 1947 letter to him, Marcuse says: "You have never publicly denounced any of the actions or ideologies of the regime". Heidegger replies: "An avowal after 1945 was for me impossible: the Nazi supporters announced their change of allegiance in the most loathsome way; I, however, had nothing in common with them". He excuses his involvement by asking: "[Who knows] what would have happened and what could have been averted if in 1933 all available powers had arisen, gradually and in secret unity, in order to purify and moderate the movement that had come to power?"  He compared the holocaust with factory farming, and also with the expulsion of Germans from Poland and Czechoslovakia after the war, and he also said: "the bloody terror of the Nazis ... had been kept a secret from the German people". All this is quite unsatisfactory, though it’s quite hard to see what he should have said instead. Both because the holocaust itself is so hard to understand – it’s very different from events that are sometimes compared with it, such as those in Yugoslavia or even the Armenian massacres – and because Heidegger’s own part in it was so small.  In 1933-4 he had no inkling that the Holocaust would occur; when it happened, whether he knew about it or not, he had no power to stop it; his own actions played no significant part in bringing it about; and at no time did he approve of the Holocaust.


So far, then, Heidegger might reasonably be exonerated, not of Nazism, not of folly, but at least of anti-semitism. However, his recently published Black Notebooks, his philosophical diary, so-called because of its black binding, suggest otherwise. Between 1938 and 1941 he carefully wrote remarks that express a form of anti-semitism. Not the crude biological anti-semitism of mainstream Nazism. That is excluded by his philosophy as well as by explicit denials of the significance of blood elsewhere. Rather he attributes to Jews a special talent for ‘calculation’, the sort of talent that Max Weber attributed to Calvinists and that is, in Heidegger’s view, quite different from proper thinking. (I suppose that, as a philosopher, he also had formal logic in mind.) Jews object to the prohibition of marriage or sexual relations with non-Jews introduced by the 1935 Nuremburg Laws, he says, despite the fact that they themselves have practiced this for centuries.[?]  “World Judaism” is presented as a driving force in the dehumanisation of the modern world, a dehumanisation that involved Bolshevism, “Americanism” and (as Heidegger had come to believe in the mid-1930s) Fascism itself. Some of his claims are manifestly false. Take this example: “World Judaism, incited by the emigrés let go [!] from Germany, is everywhere elusive and in the unfolding of its power it does not need to get involved in military action anywhere, whereas we are left to sacrifice the best blood of the best of our people.” ‘Let go’ is rather a charitable description of what happened to Jewish émigrés. “Judaism” cannot fight, of course. But Jews could and did. Fifteen battalions of Palestinian Jews were formed in the British army in 1940 and fought in Greece in 1941. One of Heidegger's  own pupils, Hans Jonas, fought in Italy in the 5000-strong 'Jewish Brigade' set up by Churchill in 1944, on the ground that 'Jews … of all races have the right to strike against the Germans as a recognizable body'. After the war they assassinated hundreds of leading Nazis – but fortunately not Heidegger. German émigrés also played a vital part in British intelligence – something that Heidegger ignores, because he has a sentimental, romantic view of warfare. For him it's all do do with shedding blood on battlefields, whereas much of it was about cracking codes and bugging the conversations of captured German generals. In other words: technology.


Despite the reference to blood, this is not biological anti-semitism, which is entirely at odds with Heidegger’s philosophy. It is more like Jewish conspiracy anti-semitism, which the Nazis also exploited for their own purposes. But this too does not square very easily with the philosophical ideas that Heidegger was developing in this period and which he began to present in his Letter on Humanism in 1945. He developed the ideas he had expressed in Being and Time in novel directions. Being and Time had seemed to suggest that the human being is the centre of the world and it was this, among other things that aroused the admiration of Jean-Paul Sartre. But now he dissociated himself from Sartre’s humanist existentialism. The human being is not the centre of the world, and, contrary to Sartre, man does not 'make himself.' The centre is Being itself. Being now takes on a somewhat god-like role (despite Heidegger's disavowal of any theological implications), and human beings are the 'shepherd of Being'. The occasional hints in Being and Time that not only philosophers are at fault for having forgotten Being, but that the world itself is out of joint, are now elaborated into an account of 'technology'  that threatens to transform the world, and even ourselves, into a stock of 'resources' to be calculated, manipulated,  and exploited. Technology is a mind-set that underlies the natural sciences and their applications, a mind-set goes back at least as far as Plato but it has come to fruition in the modern age.  Heidegger therefore began to explore pre-Socratic philosophers, especially Parmenides and Heraclitus, in the hope of finding genuine 'thinking', uncontaminated by calculation. He also turned to art and poetry, as providing a possible refuge from technology, if not a cure of it.


Technology, and its accompanying metaphysics, were not, however, the creation of anyone in particular, not even of philosophers, and certainly not of Jews. They were destined by Being itself. Being has a history, a history that is not made by us, but which makes us do its bidding. Richard Wolin speaks of Heidegger's "unpardonable refusal to utter a word of remorse for the victims of the Holocaust" and argues that this is not because he at any time supported the Holocaust, but because on Heidegger's view "it was not the conscious acts of men and women that were responsible for the unfolding of historical events, but the "destining of Being"". I doubt whether this is right. Heidegger surely didn’t deny that our choices make a difference at some level. We have a choice as to whether we gas Jews or factory farm chickens. What we don’t have much of a choice about is the mind-set that underlies both – technology. And it’s this that seems to me to exclude the idea that technology, the general dehumanisation of the world, is the responsibility of any particular individuals or group. It’s perhaps noteworthy that Heidegger tends to speak, in this context, not of ‘Jews’, but of ‘Judaism’ – not of particular people, but of an abstraction. And there are other abstractions too that are complicit in the dehumanisation of the world:

Bolshevism and Americanism – which, despite the anti-semite Henry Ford, he may well have associated with Judaism – but also Fascism itself, which he surely did not regard as part of a Jewish conspiracy.


It’s also noteworthy, I think, that Heidegger has it in for the English as well. He says in the Notebooks: "What else, besides engineering and metaphysically paving the way for socialism, besides commonplace thinking and tastelessness, has England contributed in terms of 'culture'?" And again "The bourgeois-Christian form of English 'bolshevism' is the most dangerous”. With a pleasing touch of egocentricity, he asks: "Can it be a coincidence that in England alone my thoughts and questions have been consistently rejected in the last decade and no translation has even been attempted?" Notice that he speaks of our Christian bolshevism, not of our Jewish bolshevism. He seems to be attacking the English in particular. But that must surely have been a passing mood, induced by the war that he saw gathering around him. He cannot have been unaware of Shakespeare, and he probably also knew that Being and Time had been reviewed in our leading philosophy journal, Mind, at length and not unfavourably, by Gilbert Ryle, a leading Oxford philosopher of the time. Then my question is: Is his anti-semitism more than a passing mood? Is it deeply ingrained in his thought? In his psyche, if not in his philosophy? It may have been, even though he had Jewish friends and lovers. He may not have regarded them as part of the conspiracy.


I should perhaps mention another aspect of Heidegger’s thought that is perhaps relevant to anti-semitism: his idolisation of Greeks, in the long tradition of what has been called the tyranny of Greece over Germany. The possible significance of this was drawn to my attention a Greek friend, who associated Heidegger with the hellenocentricity of some Greek nationalists. I said earlier that he returned to pre-socratic Greek thinkers, and he regarded them as the ‘first beginning’ of Western civilisation. Implicitly Jews are denied any part in this. Christ was of course a Jew, but Heidegger assigns an equal role to the Greeks in Christianity from the very beginning. He says that ‘original Christianity [was] co-determined … through Greek conceptuality’. That may well be true, there were Greeks all over the place after the campaigns of Alexander.  But this is a marginal issue, I think. He doesn’t, as far as I know, make any derogatory comments about Jews when discussing the Greeks and although Greek thought was corrupted he puts this down to its translation into Latin. As I’ve said, Heidegger’s philosophy is compatible with Nazism, but also compatible with much else besides. It is incompatible with anti-semitism, in both its biological version and its world conspiracy version. Besides, it is now too deeply involved in European philosophy to be excised from it. Sartre, Derrida and many others, Jews and non-Jews, are influenced by Heidegger and cannot be understood without him. One of Heidegger's detractors, Emmanuel Faye, said that his books should be removed from the shelves in philosophy departments and replaced in the history of Nazism section – alongside Mein Kampf. Heidegger may be defective as a philosopher and as a man, but his books are nothing like Mein Kampf. Any student who read them in the hope of finding out about Nazism would wonder what on earth they had to do with the subject.


Heidegger himself arranged for the Notebooks to be published after all his other writings had appeared. Why? He must have known that some of the items in it would give offence and damage his reputation. My hypothesis is that above all he wanted to be remembered, to be read and reread – like his great predecessors: Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Hegel and so on. That is why he arranged for the posthumous publication of all his lectures, saying that he didn’t want any thought that he’d ever expressed in lecture to get lost – a process that is only now complete, nearly 40 years after his death. The Nazi entanglement and his expression of unpopular beliefs, even absurd beliefs, would make him interesting and mysterious. We would need to read his works, if for nothing else, to fathom his complex personality.


Another suspicion I have is that Heidegger projects onto Jews characteristics of his own. He had a safe desk job during the First World War, and felt guilty about it because his friends were dying on the battlefield. So he says that Jews do not fight. He often speaks of rootlessness, the rootlessness produced by technology. And perhaps we are meant to think of Jews as rootless, with no homeland of their own. But Heidegger himself pulled up his own roots, as I said. He didn't go to Berlin, he stayed in the Black Forest. But he married a Protestant, then became a Protestant, and had affairs with Jewish women. So he was in a way a wandering Jew himself. But his wandering came to an end in death in 1976. He was buried in the churchyard at Messkirch next to his parents. At the Catholic mass held in his memory, the priest, who was his nephew,  quoted Jeremiah 1: 7: 'But the Lord said unto me, Say not, I am a child; for thou shalt go to all that I shall send thee, and whatsoever I command thee thou shalt speak'. 

Comments on: Heidegger and Nazism - M.J. Inwood

George Helal wrote...

I read Professor Inwood's lecture with great interest. Much has been said and written about Heidegger's anti-semitism. This lecture strikes me as putting the various aspects of Heidegger's thinking in perspective. Indeed, Emmanuel Faye's view of the latter's philosophy is a complete exaggeration, as far as I'm concerned. Heidegger's many statements about Jews and Judaism would appear to be a reflection of his own complex personality and philosophy. After all, what various meanings does his use of the word ''being'' cover?