Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Martin Heidegger's Nazism

In my new book, The Last Psychoanalyst I discussed the great Nazi philosopher, Martin Heidegger.

After World War II, at a time when Heidegger was banned from teaching in Germany, French intellectuals took up his cause, proclaimed him a great genius and lobbied, ultimately successfully, for his reinstatement.

Among the French intellectuals rallying to Heidegger was the man I called “the last psychoanalyst,” Jacques Lacan.

To Lacan, Heidegger’s philosophy was congruent with Freudian theory. Thus, he promoted a marriage of their minds.

Like most French intellectuals at the time Lacan must have dismissed the fact of Heidegger’s allegiance to the Nazi cause. He was wrong to do so.

Other French thinkers, most notably Jacques Derrida, the founder of deconstruction found Heidegger’s thought to be congenial and they adopted it, though with a Gallic flair.

After a time, the practice of deconstruction invaded the best literature departments in America. Derrida was a lesser god, but professors took Heidegger to be the great genius on whose work the movement had been founded.

It seemed to be going well until 1987 when a Venezuelan philosopher named Victor Farias reminded everyone that Heidegger had been a member of the German Nazi Party and had refused to renounce his Nazism, even after the war ended and the extent of Nazi depravity became known to everyone.

Professors who took themselves to be the radical vanguard against right-wing oppressors discovered that they might have been in bed with the enemy. Were they teaching their students how to think like Nazis?

From that point on, serious academics have been engaged in a vigorous debate. Was Heidegger’s Nazism consonant with his more abstruse philosophical work or was it an excrescence, something that could be wiped away without doing any real damage to the core concepts.

Among those who have done the best in showing that Nazism and anti-Semitism were integral to Heidegger’s philosophy was Richard Wolin, professor at CUNY in New York. Wolin’s book, The Politics of Being was a refreshingly clear-headed exposition of the links between Heidegger’s philosophy and anti-Semitism.

For my purposes, a man who joined the German Nazi Party in 1933 and who lent his prestige to the Third Reich was an anti-Semite. If he isn’t, the word has no meaning. It is useful to look beyond the obvious, but that is no excuse for ignoring the obvious.

Now, however, the recent publication of what are called Heidegger’s Black Notebooks, his private writings about his developing philosophical concepts leave little doubt that the connection between his philosophy and National Socialism/ anti-Semitism was essential, not incidental

Richard Wolin guides us through the notebooks in a masterful essay in the Jewish Review of Books. Some of the concepts resonate well with my own arguments in my book.

Wolin explains:

With the publication of the Black Notebooks, what has now become indubitably clear is that racial prejudice against non-Germanic peoples—the English, the Russians, the French, the Americans, and, especially, the Jews—lies at the very center of Heidegger’s philosophical project. It is inseparable from the Volk-concept that he had embraced already in Being and Time (1927) and that he continued to exalt throughout his lectures and seminars of the 1930s. Heidegger’s belief in the ontological superiority of the German Volk underwrites his political view that inferior peoples may be justly persecuted in the name of “the history of Being,”….

For my part I argued that Heidegger’s philosophy was yet another effort to reject modernity, to reject the Industrial Revolution and liberal democracy, the better to return to more primitive roots in blood and soil, in primitive instinct and small communities.

Wolin writes:

Heidegger held that the superiority of his Existenzphilosophie(existential philosophy) derived from its claim to being rooted in life or Being. Significantly, thevölkisch ideology on which Nazism was predicated was based on the virtues of Bodenständigkeit, or “rootedness in soil,” and, in Heidegger’s view, this was the source of the deep-seated affinity between National Socialism and his own “fundamental ontology.

He elaborates the point:

Heidegger’s antipathy to Jews, of course, has a context as well as a history. In German anti-Semitic circles, it was a widely shared truism that Jews were the chief carriers of the corrosive spirit of modernity, which was associated with excesses of abstract thought. It followed that Jews must be held directly responsible for modernity’s manifold degenerative tendencies: above all, the dislocations associated with the momentous transition from organic communities (Gemeinschaft) to modern mass society (Gesellschaft). Although such anti-Jewish prejudices had long been common currency, they rose to fever pitch following the defeat of the Central Powers in World War I. It was at this point that the “stab-in-the-back” legend originated, alleging that Jewish shirkers had been responsible for the German defeat.

And this:

In this regard, one of the main obstacles to accepting Heidegger’s philosophy of existence is that, historicity, as Heidegger defines it, is inextricably tied to his idea of the Volk, and to the entire array of racist and anti-democratic prejudices that accompany it. Only Völker (peoples) can be “historical,” in Heidegger’s sense, since they alone are rooted in soil and place and possess a common bloodline. 

And also:

Heidegger believed that the Soviet Union, America, and England, as embodiments of Machenschaft, were expressions of the spirit of “World Jewry”—“a human type whose world historical goal is the uprooting of all beings from Being.” According to Heidegger, the problem with Machenschaft “is that it leads to total deracination, resulting in the self-alienation of peoples.” He continues: Whereas “World Jewry which is everywhere ungraspable, does not need to resort to arms”—since, presumably, it has stealthily infiltrated all global centers of power— “conversely, we Germans sacrifice the most racially gifted representatives of our Volk.” In other words, according to Heidegger, “World Jewry” had everything to gain from World War II without having wagered a thing.

Wolin also notes Heidegger’s inability to find anything wrong with the activities of Hitler’s Reich:

Whereas Heidegger excelled at finding fault with non-Germanic cultures, he was strangely impervious to Nazi Germany’s predatory and genocidal practices, despite living in the midst of them. In the early 1940s, he observes that reports of Soviet atrocities have been especially gruesome, but concerning the depredations of the Wehrmacht and the Einsatzgruppen in the East, he is entirely silent. He justifies Germany’s inhumane treatment of Czechoslovakia and Poland by claiming that were France and England to triumph they would do the same to Germany. Yet, from the standpoint of the history of Being, a French and English victory would bemuch worse: France would undoubtedly inflict its “ahistoricality” on Germany. England would presumably do the same, turning all that it touched into a “giant business concern.” Thus, a German triumph is the only way to ensure what he goes on to describe as a “transition toward reflection” as the initial step toward an “other Beginning.”

After the war Heidegger continued to hold fast to his Nazi beliefs:

Even after the war, despite many entreaties on the part of his students, Heidegger refused to renounce the Nazi regime. Writing to Herbert Marcuse, Heidegger claimed that the atrocities perpetrated by the Allies had been just as terrible; moreover the Nazi atrocities had been concealed from the German people. Heidegger’s claim is, needless to say, specious. As terrible as the firebombings of Dresden and Tokyo were, they pale in comparison with Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Babi Yar. And although the Final Solution may not have been public knowledge, the immense scale of the Nazi persecutions and deportations was apparent to everyone. After all: Where did Heidegger think that Germany’s 500,000 Jews had gone?

Case closed.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I read "Being and Time" a few years ago as part of a personal project to understand the philosophical underpinnings of one of my mentors, who thought it the greatest work of the 20th century, if not ever. Aside from the torturous prose typical of German and Russian authors, I got to the clear, salient point that united my mentor with Heidegger: separating ontology (being) from metaphysics (spirituality). The fact that one could be whatever he said he could be, just by willing it, was theoretically understandable in isolation. Heidegger is hardly the first person to deny metaphysics, but he does it in a way that seeks to destroy the discipline conceptually, which does influence Derrida's deconstruction. This pushes philosophy further into abstraction, disconnecting it from its educational value on how to live a good life. Heidegger's approach to being means anything goes, and his denial of metaphysics separates it from any consequence or making the individual subject to something greater than himself. That's the monstrous Nazi connection and why denial of responsibility is a logical conclusion of Heidegger's philosophical construct(s). It also explains my mentor's savage antipathy toward religion, as well as his denial of any social duties or obligations incumbent upon the individual. When man is separated, and comes to believe in his own divinity while denying the divinity of others, he is adrift. In fact, he is a danger to others, as Nazism demonstrated so horrifically. Which means that Kierkegaard's being grounded in his religious faith was so important, and why existentialism went off the rails after he effectively invented it. Thank you for this post. It helped me see and sort through a number of things.