Heidegger and the Politics of Greatness

Martin Heidegger on March 14th 1959 © René Spitz

Martin Heidegger on March 14th 1959 © René Spitz

When confronting the history of fascist regimes, professional philosophers often like to think that we exist at a comfortable distance from any complicity in such regimes. We like to think that we belong unequivocally to an “us” that could never be involved in what “they” did. We go about our daily business self-satisfied in the conviction that there is something honourable, just, even noble about the life of the philosopher, all too often ignoring how we are imbedded in institutions, structures and histories that remind us of philosophy’s sordid past and complex present. ​ As the Nazis rose to power in 1933 many German university professors responded with great enthusiasm to Hitler and the Nazi platform of restoring greatness to Germany. In the early years, as the burgeoning revolution sought to gain legitimacy, the humanities – history, philosophy, Germanic studies above all – responded to the call. These public alliances with the regime were of significant symbolic value, for these very disciplines, especially philosophy, still formed the intellectual core of the classical German university. As the Nazi party sought to reshape its public image and temporarily tone down its vociferous anti-Semitism to appeal to more traditional German conservatives, the gesture of professors publicly aligning themselves with the party was highly significant. German full professors (the Mandarins, as Fritz Ringer referred to them in his influential social history The Decline of the German Mandarins) have always assumed a role as public intellectuals. These alliances were far from being simply symbolic, for many professors, especially philosophers, began to lend their efforts to the administrative task of the Nazi revolution. At Frankfurt University, Ernst Krieck became one of the earliest Nazi university rectors and went on to rise through the ranks overseeing academic surveillance in the Security Service. In Berlin, Alfred Baeumler went through a meteoric rise from being forced upon the faculty to assuming powerful administrative positions within Alfred Rosenberg’s Office of Intellectual Surveillance. In 1939, Erich Jaensch assumed the Rectorate at Marburg University. Perhaps most infamously, Martin Heidegger assumed the Rectorate of Freiburg University on April 21st, 1933 and began – in Nazi parlance – to “Aryanize” the university with ruthless efficiency. ​ Ernst Krieck, Alfred Baeumler, Erich Jaensch, and Martin Heidegger – surely there is something wrong with the assumed equivalence of this list of philosophers. Surely Heidegger is not one of them? As philosophers Krieck, Baeumler, and Jaensch are certainly worthy of the proverbial dustbin. As philosophers, they belong, as Johann Chapoutot put it in his recent book Law of Blood: Thinking and Acting as a Nazi, to a “whole vast continent neglected and dusty from disinterest.” Surely Heidegger does not deserve to be named among a quartet of thinkers whose academic careers were only possible in such a compromised institutional setting. It is a testament to Heidegger’s successful post-war rehabilitation that his defenders are so quick to distance him from the likes of these decidedly mediocre figures. ​ The dubious category of greatness, working alongside the equally dubious and always deeply gendered category of the genius, has facilitated Heidegger’s rehabilitation in ways that were not possible for his run-of-the-mill colleagues. Already in the Nazi era, internal surveillance documents on Heidegger rarely failed to mention his international stature. This same reverence flowed seamlessly into his two Denazification processes, the first under the French occupation forces and the second under an independent university-led commission. This notion of philosophical greatness has worked in tandem with an immense will to forgive Heidegger for purportedly being naïve and, as he declared to the Denazification Commission, “[n]ot only was I uninterested in the routine of taking care of such empty official business, but at the same time I was also inexperienced.” Hannah Arendt also reflects this tone of diminishment in a letter from the early 1960s: “I doubt that Heidegger at that time had any clear notion of what Nazism was all about. But he learned comparatively quickly, and after about 8 or 10 months, his whole ‘political past’ was over...”

What accounts for this immense will to diminish Heidegger’s complicity? What do we forgive under the name of greatness? What do we overlook when we rely on a divide between the philosophical and the “merely” political? The lives of countless artists, politicians, athletes, academics, and many other public figures confront us with these questions anew on an almost daily basis. In the case of Heidegger, he has benefitted from what I call the logic of quarantining, which Arendt, despite her own nuanced understanding of the political, performs in her effective dismissal of Heidegger’s “political past”. This logic operates in subtly different ways, but according to identifiable patterns. Roughly speaking, it goes like this: If something in Heidegger’s work seems too dangerous, too resonant of the Nazi era, or too violent in tone, then it is sectioned out of the inquiry. Those “unfortunate” or “unseemly” moments are diminished as “political” or “short- lived” and then cordoned off in the name of enforcing disciplinary boundaries, in the name, say, of a strictly aesthetic, epistemological or ontological inquiry. An author who applies the logic of quarantining generally does not deny the importance of those political moments per se, but instead simply denies their relevance to the particular inquiry at hand. This allows the professional philosopher to conveniently evade the necessity of engaging with the questions provoked by confronting the political commitments of Heidegger’s work.

With the publication of Heidegger’s infamous Black Notebooks and their testament to Heidegger’s depth of commitment to the Nazi racial project, many scholars have lent the logic of quarantining a robust vocabulary, diagnosing an entire array of maladies that justify sequestering the notebooks. This manoeuvre succeeds by diminishing the philosophical importance of the Black Notebooks, reducing them to mere notes, jottings, reminders, diaries, or autobiographical dalliances. Whatever they represent, so the logic goes, they are not works of philosophy and, while not unimportant in general, they do not demand the attention of a philosophical investigation, or at least not this particular philosophical investigation. That is just not what we do. Thus, with a neat- and-clean divide, one can push aside the 1,200 pages of jottings, dust off one’s hands, and get back down to the real work of philosophy. Is it possible that this reaction is a betrayal of the responsibility of the philosopher?

 Pages from one of Martin Heidegger’s “black notebooks” from 1931 to 1941

The logic of quarantining operates based on an implicit notion of who we as philosophers are. As perhaps Heidegger’s strongest detractor, Emmanuel Faye takes this to an extreme in his book Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism into Philosophy. We must banish Heidegger from the realm of the philosophers, Faye declares, and restock Heidegger’s books on the shelf labelled “National Socialism”.

Pages from one of Martin Heidegger’s “black notebooks”
from 1931 to 1941
(ens Tremmel, Deutsches Literaturarchiv Marbach)

This rejection is as unsatisfying as the corollary defensive gesture of denial, for both positions assume that we have already understood what National Socialism is or was. National Socialism involved a diffuse range of doctrines and positions, and this diffuseness has allowed for various narratives of post-war denial. For example, Heidegger’s defenders often point to his purported critique of biological racism as the cause for his supposed distancing himself from the regime. However, this assessment overlooks the complexity and capaciousness of what the regime, a diverse conglomerate of interests which did not represent a uniform entity, was willing to ally itself with. As recent research in the collection Beyond the Racial State: Rethinking Nazi Germany reveals, scepticism about biological concepts of race was pervasive throughout the party leadership. Being at odds with racial biology was a well-established position within National Socialism and not necessarily a critique of National Socialism.

Among certain sceptics of race science there was also a strong fidelity to ethno-nationalist (völkisch) concepts of a people which came to its own through its landscape, place and language. This strand of thinking flourished in the early 20th century and persisted through the Nazi era. In order to understand Heidegger’s political commitments not only during the Nazi era, but also in the decades before and after, it is far more instructive to assess Heidegger’s proximity to the völkisch movement than to a stereotypical vision of National Socialism. Jacques Taminiaux, for example, defends Heidegger by saying that he was no “ordinary Nazi”. This is true, but not because Heidegger was in any way special, but instead because there was no such thing as an “ordinary Nazi”. Yet, on the other hand, there was also something quite ordinary about Heidegger’s affinities to certain aspects of the regime’s racial projects, as expressed through Heidegger’s immersion in the literature of the völkisch movement. ​ While the Black Notebooks have dominated much of the recent literature on Heidegger’s “political past” in the most recent revival of the “Heidegger Case”, the publication of Heidegger’s correspondence with his brother Fritz from the 1920s to 1940s in Heidegger und der Antisemitismus has received less public attention. By his own admission in his letters to Fritz, Martin Heidegger’s desk was a veritable clearinghouse for the most tawdry national- conservative and anti-Semitic works of the 1920s: Werner Beumelburg’s Germany in Chains and Germany under Siege, Hans Grimm’s A People without Space, issues of the conservative monthly Die Tat, as well as Hitler’s Mein Kampf, which Heidegger praised profusely.

The philosopher might feel tempted to assert that these texts are not related to what we do. A philosopher might feel safe sequestering these works and assigning the task of interpretation to the historian. Yet what are we doing when we pursue the history of philosophy? If the history of philosophy means tracing lineages, genealogies, and the historical emergence of structures of thought, then what can permit us to restrict the range of thinkers and texts which we deem to be Heidegger’s interlocutors simply because we are uncomfortable with the politics of many of his interlocutors? Should Heidegger be excluded from the völkisch movement simply because of his greatness? Should we so easily and uncritically reassert a notion of greatness that assumes that Heidegger’s only proper interlocutors would be the likes of Heraclitus, Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, and Nietzsche? As I show in my book Heidegger’s Fascist Affinities, an astounding set of affinities, alliances and common themes emerges when we read Heidegger alongside the völkisch movement. Beginning in the 1930s and extending into the 1950s, Heidegger expresses a proximity to the sanctioned lexicon of the völkisch movement that enabled him to express a set of anti-Semitic fidelities. Perhaps more so than any other philosopher of the 20th century, the Heidegger case reveals the unspoken commitments of the discipline of philosophy. Heidegger may or may not be a fascist philosopher, but he was certainly a philosopher who flourished within the space of fascism. While this fact need not determine all of our readings of Heidegger, it should certainly inform those readings. ​ Raising such questions leads to what I take to be the most important issue provoked by the evergreen “Heidegger case”. Although many easily debunked myths still circulate among Heidegger scholars about what is euphemistically called Heidegger’s “political adventure”, the far more urgent question is to ask why the discipline of philosophy is so eager to rehabilitate Heidegger, to make him part of us, all while sequestering them, the philosophers not deemed great. Debunking the myths is easy enough, but diagnosing what has made those myths so persistent, even after the public exposure of the archival record, is far more urgent, for it reveals philosophy’s unspoken commitments and affinities. If the global rise of ethno-nationalist regimes has revealed anything, it has shown that fascist politics is not just something they do, but is a potential that is within us. With no amount quarantining can we immunize ourselves from it. ​ Adam Knowles is Assistant Teaching Professor of Philosophy at Drexel University. His book Heidegger’s Fascist Affinities: The Politics of Silence was published in 2019 by Stanford University Press. @Adam_J_Knowles

From The Philosopher, vol. 107, no. 2 ('Us and Them'). Read more articles from The Philosopher, purchase this issue or become a subscriber.