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A Philosophy for Hitler

Roger Caldwell reviews Heidegger’s Crisis – Philosophy and Politics in Nazi Germany by Hans Sluga.

The main contours of Martin Heidegger’s involvement with the Nazi movement are by now well-known. He joined the Party in 1933 and, on assuming his duties as Rector at Freiburg University, proclaimed that “the Führer himself is the only present embodiment and future embodiment of German action and its law,” then attempted to steer the university in accordance with this dictum. He meanwhile aspired to the position of dominant Nazi philosopher – an aspiration that, mercifully for his later reputation, was unsuccessful – and then gradually drifted away from any open political commitment, disappointed at his lack of preferment. This drifting away, however, involved no repudiation of the Nazi movement. In the post-war years there was to be no condemnation, no comment on the Holocaust; rather, he found only that the Nazis had been “too limited in their thinking” to accept his philosophy. He had long since turned his back on any politics whatever.

It is Hans Sluga’s contribution, in this excellent and multi-faceted account of the Heidegger affair, to put it for the first time in its proper historical context. He shows that Heidegger’s enthusiasm for Hitler was nothing exceptional: about a third of his philosophical contemporaries in Germany likewise joined the Party, and Heidegger had a number of rivals similarly aspiring to the title of Philosopher-in-Chief of National Socialism. Sluga here takes issue with the thesis propounded by Georg Lukács in The Destruction of Reason. For Lukács saw German thought as having taken a lengthy detour into irrationalism such that its philosophers prepared the route which led straight to the inglorious orgy of unreason that was Nazism. Some elements of early Nietzsche were, indeed, grist to the Nazi mill and works such as Fichte’s Addresses to the German Nation of 1807 with its depiction of the Germans as a privileged ‘primordial’ nation somehow akin to the Ancient Greeks in their profundity (a theme dear too to Heidegger) likewise proved helpful to the cause. But other great ‘irrationalists’ such as Schelling, whom Lukács discusses at length, were never seriously invoked.

In any event, as Sluga points out, some philosophers espoused the Nazi cause precisely in the name of reason. Frege, scarcely on any account an irrationalist, was nonetheless happy in has later years to employ his intellect on devising plans to expel the Jews and silence the Social Democrats. Heidegger was perhaps more willing than most philosophers to acknowledge forces in life other than those of reason, and his philosophy from Being and Time to the end of his career was thoroughly undemocratic and contemptuous of ‘Das Mann’ (for which read ‘the masses’) as well as deeply reactionary in its disdain for science and technology. This does not in itself make it fascist. Rather, its culpability lies in its lack of critical power, in its willingness to lie supine before a cult of unreason such as National Socialism. Clearly, Lukács himself scarcely had a clean pair of hands. He had his own particular axe to grind as defender of a tradition leading through Hegel to Marx. More damagingly, his own ritual obeisances to Stalin can now be seen as quite as culpable as those of the German philosophers to Hitler. In the end, however, it may be that Lukács’ thesis has more substance to it than Sluga is willing to concede. Heidegger’s philosophy matters to us in a way that those of his equally ardent Nazi contemporaries do not: his has survived, theirs is deservedly forgotten. Without Heidegger the work of Sartre, Gadamer and Derrida, among many others, is unthinkable, and he remains an essential presence in many strands of contemporary philosophical thought. Yet it is undeniable that his thinking has its roots in soil that is, if not Fascist per se, then proto-Fascist. The best of him, as Sluga says, is in a consistent and basic questioning, and an awareness that philosophy’s role is not to pronounce certainties or issue dogmas, but to continue that role of interrogation. Yet in Heidegger’s case the Great Questioner is also the Solitary Leader, the great guru who has disciples rather than those who will also question him. Karl Jaspers had already noted his messianic propensities in the 1930’s, and it is scarcely surprising that the charismatic Heidegger should wish to join hands with the charismatic Hitler, in order, as he himself put it, “to lead the Führer”. In a famous interview for Der Spiegel he said that “Only a God can still save us.” In his Introduction to Metaphysics, a product of the Nazi years, he wrote that “the world is darkening. The essential episodes of this darkening are: the flight of the gods, the destruction of the earth, the standardisation of men, the pre-eminence of the mediocre.” Such apocalyptic utterances have perhaps met more respect than they deserve. An attitude of distrust seems more appropriate. They are better met with mockery than reverence.

Sluga has much to tell us of the philosophical politics of the period, and many wise words to say, not least on the subject of nationalism. He invokes Foucault’s notion of the historical a priori to explain how the questions asked by Heidegger and his contemporaries never quite went far enough. They recognised that the idea of the German nation was an inchoate one, but went on to posit an underlying metaphysical entity of German-ness for which there was no empirical basis. Sluga points out that nations, in fact, are impermanent, accidental entities with no reality outside the speech which defines them. His analysis here is of perennial relevance, and particularly so in the present world of resurgent (and often vicious) nationalisms. His conclusion is that there is no essential relation between philosophy and politics. If in the Nazi period, some philosophers were, like Heidegger, deeply embroiled in the politics of the time, others, like Jaspers, held themselves aloof. That, unfortunately, bears no relation on the worth of the philosophy itself. Wagner, like Heidegger, was in many ways an odious man, and with odious politics, yet he is undeniably one of the greatest of composers. Heidegger’s work, for all its appalling moral lacunae, for all its insufferable grandiosity and pseudo-poetry, likewise retains an enduring force. If it tells us nothing else, the Heidegger affair reminds us that there is no justice in the world, that in philosophy, as in anything else, greatness is not achieved by being nice or good.

Heidegger’s Crisis – Philosophy and Politics in Nazi Germany by Hans Sluga (Harvard University Press). It costs £23.95 hardback. ISBN 0674 387 112

© Roger Caldwell 1994

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