How did it happen that one of the greatest philosophers of the twentieth century was a Nazi? And how did it happen that seriously leftist philosophers continue to pretend that it did not matter? Why, in the case of Martin Heidegger, did so many of his fellow philosophers willingly ignore his service to National Socialism and his lifelong failure to recant his views?
If it was not a will-to-power, perhaps it was a will-to-ignore… to ignore the fact that, in extolling Heidegger’s thought, they were teaching people how to think like Nazis.
It becomes that more complicated when we reflect that Heidegger’s work is borderline unreadable. Even before he joined the Nazi Party, Heidegger was writing some of the most impenetrable prose anyone had ever seen. For a language that gave us Kant and Hegel, that’s a considerable achievement in its own right.
So, very, very few people really understand what Heidegger was talking about. They do understand what Nazism was, but they cannot make the connection.
Considering how much time and effort it takes to figure out what Heidegger was about, they are not about to admit that they were duped by a Nazi. Academic thinkers like to think that they are impervious to demagoguery. When it comes to Heidegger they should think again. Surely, they do not agree with any of the tenets of Hitler’s thought, but they have become what medical science would call “carriers.” They transmit the disease without suffering its symptoms themselves.
Now, Adam Kirsch, in an exceptionally clear exposition of the Heidegger problem explains the internal contradictions that have beset those who continue to defend the great Nazi:
… no matter how much we find out about Heidegger’s Nazism, it still seems like a contradiction in terms. After all, we think we know what Nazis are like and what philosophers are like, and the two identities simply don’t match. Thinkers are supposed to be idealistic, moral defenders of the highest values of civilization; fascists are brutal, barbaric, appealing to humanity’s lowest instincts. Nazis burn books; philosophers write them. But Heidegger did both. In 1927, he published one of the most influential books in the history of philosophy, Being and Time; six years later, as rector of Freiburg University, he presided over a public bonfire of “un-German” books, proclaiming, “Flame, announce to us, light up for us, show us the path from which there is no turning back.” Like the famous optical illusion in which the same figure is both a duck and a rabbit, then, we keep twisting and turning our image of Heidegger, trying to see in him both the Nazi and the philosopher at the same time.
Could it be that those who have devoted their lives to disseminating the Heidegger’s thought have misunderstood it?
When I asked a young college graduate about this contradiction one day many years ago, he offered up what he had been taught in a college philosophy course. He suggested that, perhaps, Heidegger did not understand his own philosophy. To which I replied: And you do?
But, why should anyone care?
For one, as I explained in my book The Last Psychoanalyst, Heidegger’s thinking seems to have been perfectly consonant with Freudian theory.
For another, Heidegger was the progenitor of what is now called the practice of deconstruction. College students often thrill to this new method. They love deconstructing texts to expose the way Western, that is Judeo-Christian civilization contaminates our minds and destroys our authentic individuality.
And yet, precious few of those who practice deconstruction understand that it is just a fancy philosophical terms for “pogrom.” Deconstruction does to texts what the SS and the Gestapo did to the cities, towns and villages that were conquered by the Wehrmacht. If you do not understand that these are fundamentally the same thing, you do not understand deconstruction.
And, how smart do you have to be to understand that the assault on Judeo-Christian culture would naturally lead to the destruction (or deconstruction) of Jewish culture, Jewish customs, Jewish learning and Jewish people?
To repeat a point that I made in my book, Heidegger’s thought was designed to create a form of human being that was perfectly amoral, and thus, that was exempt from responsibility for personal behavior or even political actions.
Kirsch explains it in terms that place Heidegger firmly within Nietzsche’s orbit:
That is largely because Heidegger is not very interested in the central problem of ethics (and of politics), which is how to live with other people. For him, the key experiences and challenges of existence are individual: Alone we suffer, alone we die, and alone we must make meaning out of our fate. The highest value, then, is not goodness but authenticity; above all, authenticity in the face of death. To accept one’s actual condition of mortality and thrownness, not to flee from these difficult facts into consoling illusions and abstractions, is for Heidegger the ultimate moral achievement.
Could it be that philosophers who drunk too deeply of this philosophy found that their moral judgment was numbed to the point that they could not hold Heidegger accountable for his grotesque moral failings?
What Heidegger does here is to pluck a kind of meaning from the midst of nihilism. It is precisely because life is meaningless, because it has no value or purpose imposed on it from above or outside, that the individual human being must endow it with meaning by deciding on an authentic existence. But authenticity and decision are fundamentally anti-ethical concepts, because they deny the existence of any established values, such as justice, equality, or sympathy. Why be a “good” person rather than a “bad” person, if terms like good and bad are mere conventions? If life has the meaning we decide to give it, what’s to stop us from finding that meaning in arbitrary violence, domination, or irrationality? What if we choose to find meaning in serving a Volk or a Führer?
Don’t these ideas have a ring of familiarity? We are not born as we are, but we can make ourselves over, recreate ourselves in order to have an authentically anti-social existence. Wasn’t Heidegger merely doubling down on anomie?
If we follow this program we will overcome all established values and will transvalue, as Nietzsche put it, values like good and bad, which to Heideggereans are, as Kirsch says, mere conventions, or better, social constructs.
And what could be a better sign of our ability to transcend custom and convention than to take actions that any civilized human would consider to be evil and then declaring them to be good. It is any wonder that Heidegger thrilled to the pogroms carried out by the SA and that he was not especially moved by the Holocaust.
In the hermetic world of Heidegger’s thought, our lives are meaningful because we give them meaning. They do not gain meaning by our values, our actions, or our membership in groups. Trying to get along with other people is a waste of time. Trying to be a good person is to fall prey to an illusion.
In Kirsch’s words:
This hope is expressed again and again in the “Black Notebooks” for 1933, the year Hitler took power and Heidegger became rector of his university. “A marvelously awakening communal will is penetrating the great darkness of the world,” Heidegger writes. Nazism, with its rhetoric of destiny and rebirth, was going to define new coordinates for human life, simply by the authenticity and confidence of its self-assertion. These coordinates might be upside-down, from the perspective of conventional morality; Nazism might call murder, conquest, racism and dictatorship good, where the old Judeo-Christian morality thought them bad. But because values are determined by conviction, not vice versa, the Nazis could succeed in bringing into being a new world in which evil actually was good. “The mission—if precisely this were the mission: the full imposing and first proposing of the new essence of truth?” Heidegger asks, thrilled at the prospect that truth itself can be transformed.
Of course, Heidegger’s minions have been fighting to remove the taint of anti-Semitism from their guru’s reputation. And yet, Kirsch explains, the recent publication of Heidegger’s Black Notebooks shows that they are fighting in a losing cause:
In his published work, Heidegger traces it all the way back to Plato and Aristotle, suggesting that it was the fate of Western civilization to turn against itself in this way. But in the “Black Notebooks,” he finds a much simpler and more familiar scapegoat: the Jews. “World Jewry,” Weltjudentum, with its overtones of hostile conspiracy, was a common Nazi phrase that the philosopher had no qualms about embracing, using it several times in the privacy of the notebooks. Thus in 1941 Heidegger writes: “World Jewry, spurred on by the emigrant that Germany let out, remains elusive everywhere. Despite its increased display of power, it never has to take part in the practice of war, whereas we are reduced to sacrificing the best blood of the best of our own people.” This is a breathtaking example of how Nazi anti-Semitism precisely inverted reality: At just the moment when the Holocaust was killing millions of helpless Jews, Heidegger suggests that it was “elusive” World Jewry that was killing Germans.
Following Heidegger, Jacques Derrida also traced the beginning of Western civilization to the time of Socrates and Plato. Derrida, who seems have believed that the civilization was founded on the repression of the activity of writing—Socrates did not write—did not see that putting his theories into practice would produce a multitude of anonymous internet trolls.
And Derrida did not seem to know that Alfred Rosenberg, a great Nazi ideologue and member of the Nazi Party high command—high enough to be tried at Nuremberg and summarily executed for his crimes—had once said that Plato and Socrates had ruined it all because they had suffered the influence of Judaic thought. Jewish ideas—ideas like free will—had contaminated the Being that had been extolled by pre-Socratic philosophers.
It is true that very few people really have anything like an understanding of Heidegger’s project. Conservative thinkers tend not to be familiar with it at all. And yet, great ideas trickle down through the academy and the media. Before you know it, students are acting like Brown Shirts, asserting their authentic being and working to destroy anyone who does not accept their own self-creation.
Even on a more mundane level, a current debate over the value of small talk seems to reflect Heidegger’s critique of what he called idle chatter. When a behavioral economist like Dan Ariely declares that small talk is a waste of time because it does not produce authentic connections and because it does not engage meaningful topics of conversation, he is communicating, without knowing it, a basic tenet of Heidegger’s philosophy.