Volume 35, Number 10 · June 16, 1988 Heidegger and the Nazis By Thomas Sheehan

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Volume 35, Number 10 · June 16, 1988

Heidegger and the Nazis

By Thomas Sheehan

Heidegger et le nazisme
by Victor Farias, translated from Spanish and German into French by Myriam Benarroch, by Jean-Baptiste Grasset, preface by Christian Jambet

Editions Verdier, 332 pp., Fr125 (to be published in the US by Temple University Press in 1989) (paper)

"The spiritual strength of the West fails, its structure crumbles, this moribund semblance of a culture caves in and drags all powers into confusion, suffocating them in madness….

"Whether or not this will happen depends on one thing: whether we [Germans], as a historical-spiritual people, will ourselves again."

—Martin Heidegger

May 1933


Two facts about Martin Heidegger (1889–1976) are as incontestable as they are complicated: first, that he remains one of the century's most influential philosophers and, second, that he was a Nazi.

On the one hand there is Heidegger the philosopher, whose monumental Sein und Zeit (Being and Time), published in 1927, sought to change the course of philosophy by transforming the age-old question about the meaning of reality. Heidegger thought that with the collapse of theism in the nineteenth century (the "death of God") the West had entered the age of nihilism. His goal was to overcome the metaphysical speculations that he believed had helped bring on that collapse and to awaken the modern world to a new sense of what he called "the mystery of Being." His philosophy, which fills over seventy volumes in his posthumous Gesamtausgabe (Frankfurt: Klostermann), has had a profound effect on French philosophy from Jean-Paul Sartre through Jacques Derrida, on Protestant and Catholic theologians like Rudolf Bultmann and Karl Rahner, and on two decades of literary criticism in Europe and America. His works have been translated into all major languages, including Chinese and Japanese.

Then there is Heidegger the Nazi, that is: the dues-paying member of the NSDAP from 1933 to 1945 (card number 312589, Gau Baden); the outspoken propagandist for Hitler and the Nazi revolution who went on national radio to urge ratification of Hitler's withdrawal of Germany from the League of Nations; the rector of Freiburg University (April 1933 to April 1934), who told his students, "Let not theories and 'ideas' be the rules of your being. The Führer himself and he alone is German reality and its law, today and for the future," and who wrote to a colleague: "The individual, wherever he stands, counts for nothing. The fate of our people in their State is everything."[1]

This is the Heidegger who, even after the Nazis allegedly began viewing him with disfavor, continued to defend what he called "the inner truth and greatness of National Socialism." It is the same Heidegger who despised the party system of the Weimar Republic, who liked to cite Homer (Iliad II, 204): "The rule of the many is not good; let there be one ruler, one king," and who apparently got his wish. Years after the Nazi debacle had ended he excoriated the "democratized decay" of Germany's political institutions and said he was not convinced that democracy was the best political system for the modern age. In 1974 he wrote his friend Heinrich Petzet: "Our Europe is being ruined from below with 'democracy'…."[2]

Heidegger's support for the Nazi movement has dogged his philosophy for over fifty years. If the man himself was—to put it minimally—a Nazi sympathizer, is his philosophy also in some way fascistic? Does his thought, in whole or part, lend itself to political reaction or at least a nondemocratic view of the world?

Some philosophers answer in the absolute affirmative: Professor Jürgen Habermas of the Goethe University, Frankfurt, for example, and the late Theodor Adorno of the Frankfurt school. Many more answer in the absolute negative and either treat Heidegger's philosophy as a pure act of thought that developed in a political vacuum, or explain his political "error" as a misguided but well-intentioned effort to "overcome metaphysics," but in any case as having nothing to do with his philosophy.

Still others (I include myself) would argue that despite the magnitude of Heidegger's intellectual achievement, major elements of his philosophy are deeply flawed by his notions of politics and history—and that this is so quite apart from the fact that he joined the Nazi party and, for whatever period of time, ardently supported Hitler. Heidegger's engagement with Nazism was a public enactment of some of his deepest, and most questionable, philosophical convictions. And those convictions did not change when, in the mid-Thirties, he became disappointed with the direction the party was taking. In fact, Heidegger admitted as much. In 1936, when his former student Karl Löwith suggested to Heidegger that his support for Nazism seemed to come from the very essence of his philosophy, "Heidegger agreed with me without reservations and spelled out for me that his concept of 'historicity' was the basis for his political 'engagement."'[3]

Victor Farias, a Chilean who studied with Heidegger and now teaches at the Free University of Berlin, has dramatically reopened the question with his Heidegger et le nazisme. Written in Spanish, rejected by a German publishing house, and finally published in French translation last October, the book has been explosive: over the last six months virtually every French philosopher of note has taken a very passionate stand, one way or the other, on l'affaire Heidegger. The book is currently being translated into ten languages. Temple University Press will bring it out in English early next year.

Farias says his aim is "to study the relation between a thinker and a political system," and although his historical method and political analysis have come under sharp fire from critics (particularly his association of Heidegger with the SA leader Ernst Roehm), it would be wrong to say that one cannot learn from this book. Farias has assembled much if not all of the available data on Heidegger's relation to the Nazi regime between 1933 and 1945. Even though some of his information has been public knowledge for a long time, much of it, especially the documents Farias found in East German archives and in the Documentation Center in West Berlin, had not been published before and is of enormous value.

The merit of Farias's book is that it draws our attention anew to an important issue that deserves more careful treatment than Farias has been able to give it. (I say this without having seen the forthcoming German edition of the work, which will add three new chapters and correct the numerous errors that mar the French edition.[4] ) The relation of Heidegger and Nazism has been thoroughly investigated by the historian Hugo Ott of Freiburg University—whose book, to be published in Germany in September, will be the definitive study of the topic—and by philosophers like Otto Pöggeler of the Ruhr University, Bochum, and Karsten Harries of Yale. In what follows I use Professor Ott's work to supplement, and sometimes to correct, Farias's account.[5]

In outline, the story of Heidegger and the Nazis concerns (1) a provincial, ultra-conservative German nationalist and, at least from 1932 on, a Nazi sympathizer (2) who, three months after Hitler took power, became rector of Freiburg University, joined the NSDAP, and tried unsuccessfully to become the philosophical Führer of the Nazi movement, (3) who quit the rectorate in 1934 and quietly disassociated himself from some aspects of the Nazi party while remaining an enthusiastic supporter of its ideals, (4) who was dismissed from teaching in 1945, only to be reintegrated into the university in 1951, and who even after his death in 1976 continues to have an immense following in Europe and America.

Whatever the value of his philosophy, the picture we now have of Heidegger's activities during the Third Reich is deeply disturbing and frequently disgusting. For example:

Heidegger's inaugural address as Rector Magnificus of Freiburg University (May 27, 1933) purported to assert the autonomy of the university against Nazi attempts at politicizing the sciences. However, it ominously celebrated the banishing of academic freedom and ended up as a dithyramb to "the greatness and glory" of the Hitler revolution ("the march our people has begun into its future history"), which Heidegger tried to combine with the goals of his own philosophy. The essence of the university, he says, is the "will to knowledge," which requires returning to the pre-Socratic origins of thought. But concretely that means unifying "science and German fate" and willing "the historical mission of the German Volk, a Volk that knows itself in its State"—all this within a spirituality "that is the power to preserve, in the deepest way, the strengths [of the Volk] which are rooted in soil and blood."[6]

Three months later, as if to fulfill the promise of his inaugural address, Heidegger rushed to establish the Führer-principle at Freiburg University (August 21, 1933)—his first big step toward becoming the intellectual high priest of Nazism. According to the Führerprinzip the rector would no longer be elected by the academic senate but would be appointed by the Nazi minister of education and made the virtual dictator of the university, with authority to impose his own deans on the departments. (On August 22, the vice-rector, Joseph Sauer, wrote in his diary: "Finis universitatum! And that idiot Heidegger has gotten us into this mess, after we elected him rector to bring us a new spiritual vision for the universities. What irony!") Heidegger prepared the ground with a public telegram to Hitler on May 20, 1933, and on October 1, 1933, got himself officially appointed Führer of Freiburg University, thereby ending its autonomy. On December 20 he wrote a colleague that "from the very first day of my assumption of the office" his goal had been "the fundamental change of scientific education in accordance with the strengths and the demands of the National Socialist State" (his emphasis).[7]

On September 4, 1933, in response to an offer to take the chair at the University of Munich, Heidegger said: "For me it is clear that, putting aside all personal motives, I must decide to accomplish the task that will allow me to best serve the work of Adolf Hitler."[8]

On November 3, 1933, Führer-rector Heidegger issued a decree applying the Nazi "cleansing" laws to the student body of Freiburg University. He announced that economic aid would henceforth be awarded to students who belonged to the SS, the SA, or other military groups but would be denied to "Jewish or Marxist students" or anyone who fit the description of a "non-Aryan" in Nazi law.[9]

On December 13, 1933, Heidegger sent a letter to a group of German academics, requesting financial support for a book of pro-Hitler speeches by professors that was to be circulated to intellectuals around the world. At the bottom of his letter he added the editor's assurance that "Needless to say, non-Aryans shall not appear on the signature page."[10]

On December 22, 1933, Heidegger suggested to Baden's minister of education that, in choosing among applicants for professorships, one should ask "which of the candidates (granted his academic and personal appropriateness for the job) offers the greatest assurance of carrying out the National Socialist will for education."[11]

Equally disgusting are Heidegger's secret denunciations of his colleagues and students, actions long the subject of rumor and now conclusively documented.

(1) Hermann Staudinger had been professor of chemistry at Freiburg University since 1926 and would later (1953) be awarded a Nobel prize. On September 29, 1933—knowing full well that this could cost Staudinger his job—Heidegger leaked information to the local minister of education that Staudinger had been a pacifist during World War I. The Gestapo investigated the matter and confirmed Heidegger's tip. Asked for his recommendation as Führer-rector, Heidegger on February 10, 1934, secretly urged the ministry to fire Staudinger without a pension.

Three weeks later Heidegger recommended a milder punishment, but only because he feared adverse international reaction to the dismissal of such a famous scholar. On March 5, 1934, he wrote: "I hardly need to remark that as regards the issue nothing of course can change. It's simply a question of avoiding, as much as possible, any new strain on foreign policy" (Heidegger's emphasis). The ministry humiliated Staudinger. It forced him to submit his resignation, then dangled it in front of him for six months before tearing it up and giving him back his job.[12]

(2) A bit closer to home was the case of Dr. Eduard Baumgarten, a student of American philosophy. After lecturing at the University of Wisconsin in the Twenties, Baumgarten returned to his native Germany to do advanced research under Heidegger. They struck up a close friendship; Heidegger and his wife even became the godparents of Baumgarten's son. But in 1931 they had a falling out over philosophy. Heidegger refused to support Baumgarten's work on American pragmatism, and soon thereafter Baumgarten left Freiburg to teach American philosophy and culture at the University of Göttingen.

On December 16, 1933, Heidegger, unbeknownst to Baumgarten, wrote a damning letter to Dr. Vogel, head of the organization of Nazi professors at Göttingen:

By family background and intellectual orientation Dr. Baumgarten comes from the Heidelberg circle of liberal-democratic intellectuals around Max Weber. During his stay here [at Freiburg] he was anything but a National Socialist. I am surprised to hear he is lecturing at Göttingen: I cannot imagine on the basis of what scientific works he got the license to teach.

After failing with me, he frequented, very actively, the Jew Fränkel, who used to teach at Göttingen and just recently was fired from here [under Nazi racial laws]….

Have there been any changes in his political attitude since then? I know of none. Unquestionably his stay in the United States—during which he became very Americanized—allowed him to acquire a solid understanding of that country and its inhabitants. But I have excellent reasons for doubting the sureness of his political instincts and the capacity of his judgment.[13]

Dr. Vogel, to his credit, found Heidegger's letter so "charged with hatred" as to be unusable, and he filed it. But fourteen months later Vogel's successor dug out the letter and sent it to the minister of education in Berlin, who thereupon suspended Baumgarten from teaching and recommended he leave Germany. Through a friendly secretary at Göttingen University Baumgarten got to see and copy out Heidegger's letter; and on appeal he managed to keep his job.

In 1946, after a de-Nazification committee had confronted him with the letter, Heidegger sent Baumgarten a brief note. The present time, he wrote, "is a peril before which the past slips away. Sophocles has a saying about time that may help us think of the future: 'It leaves tasks unopenable and takes appearances back into itself."' Perhaps Heidegger thought this explained matters, or constituted an apology. [14]

In his 1933 letter on Baumgarten Heidegger mentions "the Jew Fränkel"—that is, Eduard Fränkel, the noted professor of classics at Freiburg. It is interesting that five months earlier Heidegger as rector had come to the defense of three Jewish professors, Siegfried Thannhauser, Georg von Hevesy (Nobel laureate in chemistry in 1943), and Fränkel, all of whom were about to be fired for racial reasons. In a letter of July 12, 1933, Heidegger appealed the dismissal of Von Hevesy and Fränkel, but again, as with Staudinger, his real reasons were pragmatic. He assured the local Ministry of Education of his own "full awareness of the necessity of implementing unconditionally the law on reconstructing the Civil Service" (the decree "cleansing" the civil service of Jews); nonetheless, he thought that firing two Jews of such international renown might prove embarrassing to Germany's foreign policy interests "in intellectually prominent and politically important non-Jewish circles abroad."[15]

The question of whether—or to what degree—Heidegger was an anti-Semite is much debated. On the one hand, Heidegger claimed after the war that his defense of certain Jewish professors and his support for certain of his Jewish students during the Thirties proved that he was not anti-Semitic; this was before the Baumgarten letter became known publicly. On the other hand, as we have seen, Farias and Ott have documented despicable conduct concerning Jews. And from other sources we now know that after 1933 Heidegger declined to direct the doctoral dissertations of Jewish students: he sent all those students to his Catholic colleague Professor Martin Honecker. Toni Cassirer, the widow of Ernst Cassirer, claimed that she had heard of Heidegger's "inclination to anti-Semitism" by 1929.

Nonetheless, for all his opposition to Heidegger from 1936 on, Karl Jaspers, whose wife was Jewish, never took Heidegger for an anti-Semite, even though in June of 1933, when Jaspers ridiculed the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Heidegger replied, "'But there is a dangerous international alliance of Jews." In 1983 Heidegger's close friend Heinrich Petzet wrote, as if no explanations were needed, that Heidegger felt ill at ease with big-city life, "and this was especially true of that mundane spirit of Jewish circles, which is at home in the metropolitan centers of the West. But this attitude of his should not be misunderstood as anti-Semitism, although it has often been interpreted that way."[16]

(3) Finally there is the case of Max Müller, who was to become one of Germany's best-known Catholic intellectuals after the war.[17] From 1928 to 1933 Müller was a member of the inner circle of Heidegger's most gifted students. But he was also an active anti-Nazi, and when Heidegger entered the NSDAP on May 1, 1933, Müller stopped attending his lectures. Seven months later Heidegger, as Führer-rector, fired Müller from his position as a student leader because he was "not politically appropriate."

Then in 1938 Müller discovered that Heidegger had blocked him from getting a teaching position at Freiburg by informing the university administration that whereas Müller was an excellent scholar, he was "unfavorably disposed" toward the regime.

With his career in jeopardy Müller went to Heidegger's office and asked him to strike that one sentence from the letter. As Müller recalls, Heidegger calmly explained that he had been asked about Müller's politics and "I gave the answer that simply corresponded to the truth." He added: "As a Catholic you must know that everyone has to tell the truth." With that, Müller's career was in shreds. As he was leaving, Heidegger asked him not to take things badly. Müller replied, "It's not a question of taking things badly. It's a question of my existence." In November of 1938 the Education Ministry in Berlin informed Müller that he had been denied a lectureship "for reasons of world-view and politics."

Finally, there is Heidegger's stunning silence about the Holocaust. For the hundreds of pages that he published on the dehumanizing powers of modern civilization, for all the ink he spilled decrying the triumph of a spiritless technology, Heidegger never saw fit, as far as I know, to publish a single word on the death camps. Instead, he pleaded ignorance of the fate of the Jews during the war—even though the Jewish population of Baden, where Heidegger lived, dropped dramatically from 20,600 in 1933 to 6400 in 1940, and even though virtually all of the 6400 who remained were deported to France on October 22, 1940, and thence to Izbica, the death camp near Lublin. As Heidegger was lecturing on Nietzsche in the Forties, there were only 820 Jews left in all of Baden. We have his statements about the six million unemployed at the beginning of the Nazi regime, but not a word about the six million who were dead at the end of it.[18]

Heidegger used to enjoy telling a humorous story about the rarified philosophy of his teacher Husserl, who, when asked why he had omitted the topic of history from a series of lectures he was preparing for London, told Heidegger, "I forgot it!" Did Heidegger, who had so much to say about the "recollection of Being," suffer from a far deeper forgetfulness?

But even though he did not publish anything on the Holocaust, he did mention it in two unpublished lectures and in at least one letter. All three texts are characterized by a rhetoric, a cadence, a point of view that are damning beyond commentary.

On December 1, 1949, in a lecture entitled "Das Ge-Stell" ("The Con-Figuration") Heidegger listed some of the things technology had done to the world:

Agriculture is now a motorized food-industry—in essence, the same as the manufacturing of corpses in gas chambers and extermination camps, the same as the blockading and starving of nations [it was the year of the Berlin blockade], the same as the manufacture of hydrogen bombs.[19]

That same day, in another lecture, "Die Gefahr" ("The Danger"), Heidegger remarked:

Hundreds of thousands die en masse. Do they die? They succumb. They are done in. Do they die? They become mere quanta, items in an inventory in the business of manufacturing corpses. Do they die? They are liquidated inconspicuously in extermination camps. And even apart from that, right now millions of impoverished people are perishing from hunger in China.

But to die is to endure death in its essence. To be able to die means to be capable of this endurance. We are capable of this only if the essence of death makes our own essence possible.[20]

Two years earlier, on January 20, 1948, Heidegger answered the letter of his former student, Herbert Marcuse, who had inquired why he had not yet spoken out about the Nazi terror and the murder of six million Jews. Heidegger responded by comparing the Holocaust to the Soviet Union's treatment of Germans in Eastern Europe:

I can only add that instead of the word "Jews" [in your letter] there should be the word "East Germans," and then exactly the same [terror] holds true of one of the Allies, with the difference that everything that has happened since 1945 is public knowledge world-wide, whereas the bloody terror of the Nazis was in fact kept a secret from the German people.[21]

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