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Heidegger’s Feeble Excuses

John Mann reviews Martin Heidegger: A Political Life by Hugo Ott.

Martin Heidegger was arguably the most important philosopher of the twentieth century. According to this book he was also a devout Nazi who never recanted his evil political beliefs.

During the Second World War Martin Heidegger lived and worked in Germany. There are a number of sympathetic accounts of how he spent his time:


The “He Quietly Worked Away at Philosophy” Theory

According to this theory Heidegger ignored the outside world, and continued to do his philosophy, working on ancient Greek thinkers, Holderlin, Nietzsche and so on, until the war was over and he was able to – well, carry on ignoring the outside world and continue with his philosophy!

One little problem with this theory is the fact Heidegger was appointed Rector of the University of Freiberg from 22 April 1933 until he resigned on 23 April 1934; this was a major position in Nazi Germany, and so he cannot have been totally lost to the outside world.


The “He Tried to Do Good as a Rector” Theory

According to this theory Heidegger had the Rectorship pushed upon him, and thought he could do some good opposing the Nazis. When he realised he could do no good, he went back to philosophy (see Theory 1, above).

Ott shows there are enough falsehoods in this sentence to write a book about (the one under review). Firstly, Heidegger joined the Nazi group at Freiberg and was their candidate for the post of Rector – he was the official Nazi choice. Secondly, he certainly didn’t oppose the Nazis once he took the post – he pushed the Nazi cause and hastened the process of Gleichschaltung, the Nazi reorganisation of the universities. One of his most obvious achievements was the imposition of the ‘Sieg Heil’ Nazi salute within the University. Finally, the reason he resigned from the post is due to a power struggle within the Nazi party which Heidegger lost.


The “Heidegger’s Nazism wasn’t real Nazism” Theory

According to this theory Heidegger was a bit out of touch with the real world, and completely mistook Nazism for quite a nice political theory. He might have gone about with a little Nazi lapel badge and given the Hitler salute, but in his head he was not really a Nazi.

It certainly appears to be true that Heidegger thought only he could explain the meaning of Adolf Hitler, and aspired to be the Nazis’ leading intellectual. He saw the coming of Hitler as the advent of Being itself. In his Rectorship address he says “let not your being be ruled by doctrine or ‘ideas’. The Führer himself and he alone is the German reality, present and future, and its law.”

Yet Heidegger wasn’t simply concerned with using his Rector’s position to achieve intellectual power. He paid close attention to everyday matters, such as attending Nazi student ‘military’ exercises, and at the Rectorship inauguration ceremony ensuring the Nazi anthem, the Horst-Wessel Lied, be printed on the back of the programme.


The “But He Always Acted Honourably” Theory

According to this theory, Heidegger might have innocently been led astray by Nazism, but he was still basically a good person – if rather naive.

Heidegger cannot be called a ‘good person’ even before his Nazi period. He typically took from anyone offering, and never gave anything in return. Edmund Husserl is a good example of this – Heidegger played the ‘good pupil’ while Husserl did all he could to get Heidegger the chair at Marburg, but after obtaining the position Heidegger turned his back on Husserl, closed all personal ties and almost immediately began attacking his work.

In Nazi Germany Heidegger happily denounced those he did not like to the authorities – the case of Hermann Staudinger, who Heidegger denounced to the Gestapo is a good example. He tried to block Eduard Baumgarten’s academic career by claiming he was a friend of Jews (“he established close contact with the Jew Fraenkel, who used to teach in Gottingen and has now been dismissed from there”). Other examples are where Heidegger blocks academically able students if they have a negative attitude to the Nazi state (e.g. he does this with Max Muller in 1938/ 39).


The “He Was Only a Nazi For a Short Time” Theory

This theory admits that Heidegger was a Nazi for a short time – in the early 1930s – but that he soon realised its true nature and quickly escaped from it.

As can be seen from the report he sends to the Freiberg office of the League of University Lecturers on Max Muller’s negative attitude to the National Socialist state in 1938/39, Heidegger’s ties to Nazism last a lot longer than his defenders would like to admit.

In 1935 Heidegger is still writing about the “inward truth and greatness of National Socialism”, and even as late as 1942 he writes against academics who do “no service to National Socialism and its unique historical status – not that it stands in need of such favours”. Clearly Heidegger was a supporter of Nazism even into the 1940s. After the war it is well known that he was reluctant to speak of his time in Germany under the Nazis, and certainly he never spoke openly against Nazism.

What does it mean if one of the greatest philosophers of the twentieth century was a Nazi? Does it someone disprove or invalidate Heidegger’s philosophy? Does it somehow invalidate philosophy in general?

There are no simple answers to questions like these. Certainly many people, including the present writer, have found Heidegger’s writings profound and thoughtful. How can someone who has inspired writers, theologians and artists as well as other philosophers, be simply ‘wrong’? The solution, if there is one, lies in the recognition that Heidegger’s experience is not an exception – we know clever people are not always good people, even that sensitive, artistic people are not always good people. The lesson of Heidegger and those like him is that what one creates may be totally unrelated to what we are. Don Cupitt in his book Solar Ethics makes a similar point.

“I am not claiming… that by writing Die Einterreise Franz Schubert procures either therapy or even relief for his psychic distress and his grief… but if he loved music more even than himself, if he longed to express himself musically, and if he poured his heart out into his music… the artwork becomes his objective redemption by what it does for us, rather than for him.”

Reading Heidegger after reading this book is difficult, but Cupitt shows that no matter how mean and wretched the individual spirit, what it creates may yet shine. Heidegger’s soul was black, but his books may still give out light.

© John Mann 1997

Hugo Ott Martin Heidegger: A Political Life (Fontana), 407 pages, £8.99 for the paperback.

John Mann is a Software Engineer and lives in Hadleigh, Suffolk

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