& Nazism Essay, Research Paper

Heidegger & Nazism

Martin Heidegger, one of the twentieth century’s most distinguished philosophers, whose influence has spread far throughout many academic fields and thus changed the look of Western philosophy. In his 1927 book Being and Time, his first major publication, broke the trend of Western philosophy which had dominated thinking since Descartes. It set the tone of the radically new patterns of thought in an era ‘grounded’ in technology in society, and the reaction to the death of God, as defined at the end of the previous century by Nietzche, in philosophy. Martin Heidegger was also however, a Nazi. Although his active involvement with the regime as rector of Freiburg University lasted less than a year, he had been a supporter of Nazism, and continued to be, for much of his life. What reactions does this bring upon his philosophy – were his politics and philosophy concurrent with each other, or were there distinct and important differences between them?

Hugo Ott, in his biography of Heidegger, subtitles one chapter “The Perpetual Advent,” a phrase which also seems neatly to summarize the character of what could be construed as Nazi ‘philosophy.’ The Nazis attempted to convince the German population that their coming to power represented the beginning of a vastly different time and culture in their country. The feeling was however always one of being on the brink of this fundamental transformation that was miraculously to happen, catapulting Germany to both world dominance militarily supported by a culture higher than ever before. Coming into government, or rather Hitler taking the post of Chancellor in January 1933, dictated as it was by the bourgeois trivialities of Weimar liberalism, did not however constitute this revolution. Their consolidation of power, through its various stages between 1933 and ‘39, was merely the preparation for this Germanic rebirth, the beginning of the Second World War too only a prelude for the fundamentally greater things to come. The invasion into Russia, in the quest for Lebensraum and the conquering of the Slavic hordes, was perhaps supposed to beckon the start of the new era, but it was here, of course, where the Nazis realized their fate rested on the considerably more earthly concerns of military might and strategy than the mystical dominance and culture of the Germanic people. There was therefore a continuing tension and feeling of anticipation within Germany, particularly with the fanatical Nazi ‘true believers’. This anticipation and the conflict between the heady rhetoric and grand schemes of the Nazi world vision, and the mundane day-to-day realities of twentieth century Western politics, was reflected in Heidegger’s philosophy, stylistically if not in some of its major theses. The quest for authenticity, the demand for fundamental ontological understanding of the world, in competition with the ‘idle talk’ and ‘average everydayness’ of Dasein create in Being and Time a peculiarly ‘German’ kind of feeling which hints at elitism.

Heidegger’s (and many of the more ‘utopian’ Nazis’) view then of the new regime was often as a catalyst for the birth of some kind of higher culture. “The question is whether or we want to create a spiritual world. If we cannot do so, some kind of savagery or other will come over us and we will reach an end as a historical people.” (From a lecture entitled “The Basic Problems of Philosophy,” in H. Sluga, Heidegger’s Crisis, Harvard University Press, 1993 p. 3) This seems to be a highly civilized, optimistic, almost Nietzchian view of the benefits of Nazism in Germany, which was, however, in total contradiction with the realities of the time. How could Heidegger, a brilliant intellectual, have spoken of the new Nazi regime as the antitheses (potentially at least) of “some kind of savagery,” when the political turmoil of the day expressed itself in mass arrests, oppression and racial violence, the party’s brown – shirt SA thugs given the legitimacy to wreak havoc nation – wide? Although the regime may not have yet graduated to the mass slaughter of the war years, savage would have been an apt description of the time. Heidegger sought “discipline and education,” (ibid.) in a regime characterized by confused chaos in the streets and government, and ignorance and naivet? in leadership. These misunderstandings were widespread; the Nazi regime was admired in England for its supposedly tight leadership and social cohesion, which of course was the public face of a regime which privately simply eradicated the old, infirm, disabled, politically dissident and morally or racially distasteful to create the illusion of a society at ease with itself. Heidegger’s shortfallings in his estimation of the regime reflect Sluga’s assertion that “Philosophy and politics make uneasy bedfellows. As far back as Plato, their relationship has been complex and troubled, sometimes intimate yet often estranged, occasionally familiar though generally ruled by mutual suspicions.” (H.Sluga, Heidegger’s Crisis, Harvard University Press, 1993, p. vii) Heidegger however was of the view that his philosophy was the perfect compliment to Nazi politics, being “a private supporter of Nazism from its inception…he believed his philosophy to be the spiritual parallel to Hitler’s leadership. In 1933 he was made Rektor of Freiburg University, a position which he hoped would enable him to put into practice his political and social views. He became one of the main instigators of the Nazification of the German universities, encouraging students to salute him as if he himself were the Fuhrer…” (H. Ott, Martin Heidegger, HarperCollins, 1993)

Heidegger was not alone among philosophers however in his support for the National Socialist cause; Sluga notes that “about thirty German philosophers joined the Nazi party in 1933; they were joined in subsequent years by forty others. By 1940 almost half of Germany’s philosophers were members of the Nazi party.” ( p. 7) Although many of these philosophers may have been only nominal Nazis, that is, who joined the party to safeguard their livelihood and avoid suspicion without subscribing privately to Nazi values, it is still a significant percentage for a profession with at least a tendency towards the liberal. While there is no reason to suppose all philosophers would back an explicitly leftist political position, particularly in Germany with its strong authoritarian heritage, Nazism was arguably intrinsically anti – academic, denying the freedoms that philosophers ought to hold dear. It was the confusion about the attitude of Nazism towards philosophy in which Heidegger failed to properly understand about the regime towards which he had publicly displayed his admiration, and his desire to work for. Although he was later to describe his association with the Nazis as ‘a great blunder,’ Heidegger believed “even in the 1950’s…despite the Nazis’ outrages and wrongheaded ideas, National Socialism still had ‘an inner truth and greatness.’” (L. Ferry and A. Renaut, Heidegger and Modernity, University of Chicago Press, 1990, p. 55)

The end of the Weimar Republic and the first months of the Third Reich were characterized by great tensions and contradictions as noted above, nowhere more so than in the relationship between the politics and the philosophy of the time. The assention of Hitler to power on 30th January 1933 lead quickly to various decrees designed to minimize opposition to the new regime. Aswell as the campaigns against Jewish businesses and power of power, and the violent mass arrests of hundreds of communists, socialists and liberals, many distinguished German academics were relived of their positions. It was moves such as this, which lead to the view of Nazism as inherently anti – philosophical, anti – academic. Much of the Nazi rhetoric, its slogans of ‘Blood and Soil’ and such like, its often base – instinct, lowest – common – denominator reactionary ideals, seemed to constitute a half – baked ‘philosophy’ which was really anything but a coherent system or ideology. Sluga quotes the Nazi historian Gerhard Lehmann from his 1943 review of the country’s philosophy in the first half of this century. Lehmann derides the pluralism of differing schools of thinking that most philosophers would agree constitutes the richness and challenge of the discipline. “He ascribed the situation to “a process of spiritual dissolution in the last decades before the war,” resulting in an array of weak and fruitless movements marked by “the exaggeration and formlessness that is characteristic of everything false…an abysmal intellectualism foams in glistening bubbles and accelerates the ideological disintegration of the nation.” (G. Lehmann in M. Heidegger, Being and Time, Blackwell, 1995, p. 13) Essentially then, according to this Nazi at least, the pursuit of the academic is fundamentally opposed to the ideals of National Socialism.

Other protagonists however saw the events of 1933 as quite on the contrary. Rather, the National Socialist revolution was to represent a great amalgamation of politics and philosophy, of popular and high culture. In the high and heady rhetoric at his rectoral inauguration address in Freiberg university, Heidegger says “…if we submit to the distant command of the beginning, science must become the fundamental happening of our spiritual being as part of a people.” ‘Science’ here is understood in the Germanic sense, embracing not only chemistry, biology, physics et al as in English, but the pursuit of the academic generally. Philosophy then, a science to which Heidegger is referring, must become imbedded in society, in ‘the people’, if the German revolution (as its supporters tagged it) was to achieve its goals.

This address for his rectorship marks a significant change in some ways from the Heidegger of Being and Time, and raises contradictions and questions surrounding the link between his philosophy and the political ideas of the Rektorarsrede. Heidegger uses the term ‘spirit’ (Geist in German) plentifully throughout, a term alien to the vocabulary of Being and Time and in some senses alien to the book’s major theses. The book’s radically anti – Cartesian take on the phenomenology of Heidegger’s early mentor Husserl, which also owes much to ancient Greek philosophy, takes as its basis the assertion that Dasein’s (Heidegger’s term meaning vaguely ‘humanness’, that which makes all humans human) essence lies in its existence. It is our Being-in-the-world which is the a priori condition from which all other interpretation must stem. ‘Spirit’, a concept uncharacteristically for Heidegger laden with connotations, on first reading, betrays the philosophy of Being and Time. Heidegger defines spirit in his address as “neither empty cleverness, nor the noncommittal play of wit, nor the endless drift of rational distinctions, and especially not world reason; spirit is primordially attuned, knowing resoluteness towards the essence of Being.” Heidegger seems to have clumsily attempted to incorporate this pseudo – mystical term into his apparently concretely based philosophy, which has abandoned metaphysics and attempted to connect on a fundamental level with the world. The inclusion of ‘spirit’ must surely distort Heidegger almost entirely, but it could reveal the fundamental weakness of his philosophy which could make it concurrent with some of the precepts of Nazism.

“Only a spiritual world gives the people the assurance of greatness,” so Heidegger goes on to say. This sounds like a typical piece of high – headed Nazi rhetoric, as empty of meaning as it is ridiculous. However, coming from Heidegger we must examine further. “And the spiritual world of a people…is the power that most deeply preserves the people’s strengths, which are tied to earth and blood…” If we understand the concept of ‘spirit’ as expressed above, vague parallels do begin to emerge with Being and Time. Spirit is “knowing resoluteness towards the essence of Being,” which, in the terminology of Being and Time, is a constituent of authentic existence, an understanding the ‘being of Beings.’ Authentic Being is one which is “essentially futural so that it is free for its death.” (M. Heidegger, Being and Time, Blackwell, 1995, p. 437) Authentic Being understands too it own ‘throwness,’ forced to by the demands of temporality, it exists beyond itself, continually ‘anxious’ about the next moment. Dasein is its ‘not yet,’ and, with the crucially impending nature of Death, a non – relational ‘possibility’ (which is in each case mine), that is, that death could conceivably come at any time, Dasein exists too as its end, peculiarly defined by the limits of its own temporal nature. Authentic Dasein however will possess an ‘impassioned freedom towards death’. Heidegger’s adulation of the ‘spirit’ in his political addresses, apparently a byword for authenticity, adjusted to suit the politics of the situation, seems like an attempt to ‘Nazify’ his philosophy, which, on deeper reflection, bears more relation to the politics than previously supposed. “Thus exposed to the most extreme questionableness of its own being (Dasein), this people wills to be a spiritual people.” The German people will become great by understanding, as Being and Time encourages, the fact of Dasein as an issue for itself and therefore a fundamentally questioning animal. Heidegger, in his rectoral address identified Dasein as a fundamentally questioning Being, but this was far from concurrent with Nazism, for to be a National Socialist was intrinsically not to question but to obey. Herein lies the mistake Heidegger, typically for a philosopher, made. Nazism was a political system based on hierarchy, fear and power. Its rhetoric and reactionary idealism, embracing a very crude racism and moral distaste for the ‘unconventional’ was an ill – fated mix of conservative anti – modernism and beer – hall rabble rousing converted through extraordinary social and economic circumstances into a political reality. Its ideology was vague and its practice contradictory – to assign authentic Being – towards – the – world, or the political expression of modernity was to credit the regime with much more than it deserved.

Heidegger’s philosophy in Being and Time in other ways lent itself to Nazi appropriation. Nazism had a peculiarly ‘religious’ character; the adulation of the Hitler – God, the demand for faith, the extreme suspicion of and punishments dealt out to unbelievers. Herbert Marcuse sees a similar trait in Heidegger, a product perhaps of his strict Catholic upbringing and early theological dedication. Most manifestly, Marcuse notes in Heidegger a stubborn refusal to understand the influence of the social on each particular Dasein. Despite Heidegger’s insistence on Dasein as fundamentally Being – with, “Dasein is for Heidegger a sociologically and even biologically neutral category (sex differences don’t exist)” (H. Marcuse, Critical Theory and the Promise of Utopia, Macmillan, 1988, p. 97) Marcuse, although deeply influenced by Heidegger in his early years, dismissed the validity of Being – in – the – world which was “to the great extent a phony, a false concreteness, that in fact his philosophy was just as abstract and just as removed from reality as the philosophies which at that time dominated German universities [which included] positivism.” (ibid., p. 96) Could ‘spirit’ reveal in Heidegger a weakness that allowed his link with Nazism, an empty idealism mistakenly interpreted as authentic Being – in – the – world?

Heidegger’s support for Nazism was based around his criticism of modernity, and the inability, as he saw it, of the liberal democratic countries to cope with the demands of this cultural reality. Heidegger’s criticism of modernity was based on the rising dominance of technology, which was equivalent as he saw it, to a ‘completed metaphysics,’ the scandal of philosophy (the lack of a fundamental ontology in the West) as expressed at the start of Being and Time, having manifested itself as a scandal of politics or society. The political representation in liberal democracies of inauthentic Being – towards – technology created a situation whereby, “Everyone is the other, and no one is himself,” – lostness in the they – self on a grand scale.

Heidegger interpreted Nazism as having an authentic relationship with the world, whereby the world can be experienced as in its self, echoing Nietzche by admitting that the desire for power is motivated by…power itself, that Nature is to be experienced as Nature, not as a means to a end. “Being and Time, in which Heidegger, describing falleness as the advent of the world of absorption [a characteristic of the technology dominated liberal democracies] , says that for fallen Dasein ‘the wood is a forest for timber, the mountain a quarry of rock, the river a waterpower… (L. Ferry and A. Renaut, Heidegger and Modernity, University of Chicago Press, 1990, p. 57) Following from this then could also be the assertion that Dasein itself in the technological age is too merely a means to an end, that Dasein is no longer characterized by its being as an issue for itself. “This question has today been forgotten,” said Heidegger in the opening lines of Being and Time.

In attaching authentic Being – in – the – world to Nazism however, Heidegger was executing, as I have said, a fundamental misunderstanding. Nazism, for all its rhetoric, its glorification of Nature interpreted by Heidegger as an authentic relationship with the world, was a phony. This element of Nazism was romantic, backward looking reactionary idealism, and the brutal realties of the regime was a product the clash between this empty idealism and the technology of modernity. The Nazi regime was one which manipulated technology and nature alike to serve its earthly political ends. The Nazi use of radio and elaborate displays at party rallies, was the manifestation of this in peacetime; the extremities of war and the escalation of their ideology transferred technology to going even further then Heidegger’s fear of modern man as “the functionary of technology,” forcing large proportions of modern men, women and children to become the victims of technology in the automated killing of the death camps.

The totalitarian state was to be the political reflection of the technology which dominates modern society. Run like a machine, it would be suited better to the machine age. The Nazi way of governing (or rather the idealized picture of how it was supposed to govern) was to have overcome metaphysics by, as I said earlier, understanding the essence of Being as existence, rather relying on abstract concepts such as democracy. In understanding technology as not some neutral, ‘objective,’ metaphysical force, but “Being itself as the ‘essence of technology,’ in other words…inscrib[ing] the advent of technology in the destiny of Being, it is thus a ‘political system’ based on the Fuhrerprinzip that is fitted into the destiny where it achieves better than democracy what is required by ‘completed metaphysics.’” (ibid, p. 65)

The abandonment of metaphysics can however also be used to justify Heidegger’s words of November 1933, “Let not principles and ideas rule your being. Today, and in the future, only the Fuhrer is German reality and its law.” Marcuse called this statement (although Heidegger later acknowledged it as an ‘error’) “actually the betrayal of philosophy as such, and everything philosophy stands for.” (H. Marcuse, Critical Theory and the promise of Utopia, Macmillan, 1988, p. 100)

Heidegger’s ‘neutralisation’, as referred to by Marcuse illustrates his naivet? in the field of politics. “Authenticity would then mean the return to oneself, to one’s innermost freedom, and, out of this inwardness, to decide, to determine every phase, every situation, every moment of one’s existence. And what of the very real obstacles to this autonomy?…Here too the methodical ‘neutralization’: the social, empirical context of the decision and of its consequences is ‘bracketed’.” (Marcuse, p. 101)

Heidegger made clear his view that the liberal democracies maintained an inauthentic relationship with technicity (as he was fond of labeling it) in the famous 1966 interview with Der Speigel magazine:

“Do the Americans today have this explicit relationship [with technicity] ?”

“They do not have it either. They are still caught up in a thought that, under the guise of pragmatism, facilitates the technical operation and manipulation [of things] , but at the same time blocks the way to reflection upon the genuine nature of modern technology. At the same time, here and there in the USA attempts are being made to become free from pragmatic – positivist thinking. And who of us would be in a position to decide whether or not one day in Russia or China very old traditions of ‘thought’ may awaken that will help make possible for man a free relationship to the technical world?” (from interview with Speigel magazine, 1966 in T. Sheehan (ed) Heidegger: the man and the thinker, Precedent publishing Inc, Chicago, p. 61)

Heidegger considered his philosophy as utterly consistent with the ideals of Nazism. His interpretation of the time, which links to his notion of the inherent ‘historicity’ of Dasein, that each particularly person finds themselves existing with a particular legacy behind them and must react to that, formed much of the basis of his support for the regime, as did his criticism of modernity which I have concentrated on. His observations are astute and valuable, and may link to the picture of Nazism which was perceived by its supporters at the time. Heidegger’s failing, which to a degree I think relieves him of an element of blame for the actions of the Nazis, was that he did not see Nazism for what it really was. It was not the re – birth of culture or Germany as a nation – their actions in fact destroyed Germany economically, politically an physically wreaked much of its cultural heritage. Nor could Nazism as it was practiced be seen as ‘authentic’ in any way concurrent with the philosophy of Being and Time.

“Political work was thus ultimately built on philosophical ground. Political structures were to be legitimized by the philosophical search for origins. That is why we have related the question of being to the destiny of Europe, where the destiny of the earth is being decided – since our historical existence proves to be the center of Europe itself.” (Heidegger in his rectoral address from Sluga, p. 27)

Was it not true however that the destiny of Europe and the earth was really being decided by guns and military strategy? The Nazis’ apparent authentic relationship to technicity did not help them win a war – a fact which epitomizes Heidegger’s misunderstandings and why his relationship to Nazism, on a philosophical level, was a mistaken one.


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