On Heidegger's Nazism and Philosophy

by Tom Rockmore

University of California Press, 1992

In recent years [Martin Heidegger] has allowed his anti-Semitism to come increasingly to the fore, even in his dealings with his group of devoted Jewish students... The events of the last few weeks have struck at the deepest roots of my existence.

Edmund Husserl (1859–1938), 4 May 1933, after Heidegger, as Rector of Freiberg University, had revoked Husserl's access to the University Library [quoted by Richard Wolen, Heidegger's Children, Princeton University Press, 2001, p.11].

Given the significant attachment of the philosopher to the climate and intellectual mood of National Socialism, it would be inappropriate to criticize or exonerate his political decision in isolation from the very principles of Heideggerian philosophy itself. It is not Heidegger, who, in opting for Hitler, "misunderstood himself"; instead, those who cannot understand why he acted this way have failed to understand him. A Swiss professor regretted that Heidegger consented to compromise himself with the "everyday," as if a philosophy that explains Being from the standpoint of time and the everyday would not stand in relation to the daily historical realities that govern its origins and effects. The possibility of a Heideggerian political philosophy was not born as a result of a regrettable "miscue," but from the very conception of existence that simultaneously combats and absorbs the Zeitgeist.

Karl Löwith (1897–1973), "The Political Implications of Heidegger's Existentialism," [quoted by Wolen, ibid., p. 85-86, boldface added].

Among these prophets, Heidegger was perhaps the most unlikely candidate to influence. But his influence was far-reaching, far wider than his philosophical seminar at the University of Marburg, far wider than might seem possible in light of his inordinately obscure book, Sein und Zeit of 1927, far wider than Heidegger himself, with his carefully cultivated solitude and unconcealed contempt for other philosophers, appeared to wish. Yet, as one of Heidegger's most perceptive critics, Paul Hühnerfeld, has said:  "These books, whose meaning was barely decipherable when they appeared, were devoured. And the young German soldiers in the Second World War who died somewhere in Russia or Africa with the writings of Hölderlin and Heidegger in their knapsacks can never be counted."... What Heidegger did was to give philosophical seriousness, professorial respectability, to the love affair with unreason and death that dominated so many Germans in this hard time... And Heidegger's life -- his isolation, his peasant-like appearance, his deliberate provincialism, his hatred of the city -- seemed to confirm his philosophy, which was a disdainful rejection of modern urban rationalist civilization, an eruptive nihilism.

... When the Nazis came to power, Heidegger displayed what many have since thought unfitting servility to his new masters -- did he not omit from prints of Sein und Zeit appearing in the Nazi era his dedication to the philosopher [Edmund] Husserl, to whom he owed so much but who was, inconveniently enough, a Jew?

Peter Gay, Weimar Culture, the Outsider as Insider [Harper Torchbook, 1970, pp. 81-83] -- Husserl had actually become a Lutheran in 1887, though, of course, this was irrelevant to the racial theories of the Nazis.

Heidegger's political views are commonly deplored today on account of his early and open support of Nazism. Because of this connection, many like to suppose that his influence on subsequent political thought (as distinct from general intellectual thought) in Europe has been meager. Yet nothing could be farther from the truth. Heidegger's major ideas were sufficiently protean that with a bit of tinkering they could easily be adopted by the left, which they were... In the writings of numerous thinkers like Jean-Paul Sartre, "Heideggerianism" was married to communism, and this odd coupling became the core of the intellectual left for the next generation.

James Ceaser, "The Philosophical Origins of Anti-Americanism in Europe," in Understanding Anti-Americanism, Its Origins and Impact at Home and Abroad, ed. Paul Hollander [Ivan R. Dee, Chicago, 2004, p.58].

After the paroxysm of the Nazi and Hitlerian period, long elaborated in Heidegger's writings even before 1933, and after the toxic spite often characterizing his courses taught in 1933-1934, the diffusion of Heidegger's works after the war slowly descends like ashes after an explosion -- a gray cloud slowly suffocating and extinguishing minds. Soon the 102 volumes of the so-called complete work (sixty-six volumes have appeared to date), in which the same assertions are repeated over and over through thousands of pages, will encumber by their sheer bulk the shelves reserved for twentieth-century philosophy and continue to spread the fundamental tenets of Nazism on a world-wide scale.

Emmanuel Faye, Heidegger, The Introduction of Nazism into Philosophy in Light of the Unpublished Seminars of 1933-1935, translated by Michael B. Smith, foreword by Tom Rockmore [Yale University Press, 2009, p.xxv].

For what is healthy and what is sick, every people and age gives itself its own law, according to the inner greatness and extension of its existence [seines Daseins]. Now the German people [Volk] are in the process of rediscovering their own essence [sein eigenes Wesen] and making themselves worthy of their great destiny. Adolf Hitler, our great Führer and chancellor, created, through the National Socialist revolution [nationalsozialistische Revolution], a new state by which the people will assure itself anew of the duration and continuity of its history.... For every people, the first warranty of is authenticity and greatness is in its blood, its soil [in seinem Blut, seinem Boden], and its physical growth. If it loses this good or even only allows it to become considerably weakened, all effort at state politics, all economic and technical ability, all spiritual action [alles geistige Wirken] will remain in the end null and void.

Martin Heidegger, address to the Freiburg Institute of Pathological Anatomy, August 1933 [quoted by Emmanuel Faye, ibid., p.68, German text, p.351, note 35].

The enemy [Feind] is one who poses an essential [wesentliche] threat to the existence of the people [des Daseins des Volkes] and its members. The enemy is not necessarily the outside enemy, and the outside enemy is not necessarily the most dangerous. It may even appear that there is no enemy at all. The root requirement is then to find the enemy, to bring him to light or even to create him [oder gar erst zu schaffen], in order that there may be that standing up to the enemy, and that existence not become apathetic [und das Dasein nicht stumpf werde]. The enemy may have grafted himself onto the innermost root of the existence of a people, and oppose the latter's ownmost essence [eigenem Wesen], acting contrary to it. All the keener and harsher and more difficult is then the struggle, for only a very small part of the struggle consists in mutual blows; it is often much harder and more exhausting to seek out the enemy as such, and to lead him to reveal himself, to avoid nuturing illusions about him, to remain ready to attack, to cultivate and increase constant preparedness and to initiate the attack on a long-term basis, with the goal of total extermination [völligen Vernichtung].

Martin Heidegger [quoted by Emmanuel Faye, ibid., p.168, German text, p.376, note 47, boldface added].

But let some day triumph Satan and that evil pantheism of which all the saints of the Old and New Testaments, and the Koran too, warn us -- then shall a thunderstorm of persecution be drawn down upon the heads of the poor Jews that will surpass by far all their earlier sufferings.

Heinrich Heine, 1838 [quoted by Paul Lawrence Rose, German Question/Jewish Question, Revolutionary Antisemitism from Kant to Wagner, Princeton, 1990, p.164]

I appeal to the philosophers of all countries to unite and never again mention Heidegger or talk to another philosopher who defends Heidegger. This man was a devil. I mean, he behaved like a devil to his beloved teacher [Husserl], and he has a devilish influence on Germany.

Sir Karl Popper [quoted by Eugene Yue-Ching Ho, Intellectus 23 (Jul-Sep 1992), pp. 1-5, Hong Kong Institute of Economic Science, IES, 29th January 1997].

The works that are being peddled about nowadays as the philosophy of National Socialism but have nothing whatever to do with the inner truth and greatness of this movement (namely the encounter between global technology and modern man) -- have all been written by men fishing in the troubled waters of "values" and "totalities."

Was heute vollends als Philosophie des Nationalsozialismus herumgeboten wird, aber mit der inneren Wahrheit und Größe dieser Bewegung (nämlich mit der Begegnung der planetarisch bestimmten Technik und des neuzeitlichen Menschen) nicht das Geringste zu tun hat, das macht seine Fischzüge in diesen trüben Gewässern der »Werte« und der »Ganzheiten«.

Martin Heidegger, An Introduction to Metaphysics, Translated by Ralph Manheim, Anchor Books, New York, 1959, p.166; Einführung in die Metaphysik, Max Niemeyer Verlag, Tübingen, 1953, 1998, p.152; color and boldface added; the infamous post-War endorsement of Nazism by Heidegger, who has been said by many to be one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th Century. The parenthetical remark added for post-war publication, as though this excuses Nazi ideology and actions.

...most existentialist thinking seems to me either optimistic romancing or else something postively Luciferian. (Possibly Heidegger is Lucifer in person.)

Iris Murdoch, "On 'God' and 'Good'," The Sovereignty of Good [Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970, Routledge Classic, 2001, p.70]

The controversy about Martin Heidegger's membership in the German Nazi Party ultimately reveals one very important thing:  The very illiberal and irrational principles that attracted Heidegger to Hitler and the Nazis are also the principles that attract Heidegger's defenders to him. Thus, a doctrine that some might try to represent as an endorsement of freedom and liberation instead leads to ideologies that are collectivist, authoritarian, and totalitarian. We know what is going on when "individualism" is attacked, or when there are sneering allusions by leftists (not by Rush Limbaugh) to "liberalism," meaning a social order of individual rights and freedom -- something that Heidegger (and Nietzsche) and the Left never admired.

That most of Heidegger's defenders, in the United States at least, are leftists and "progressives" (like Richard Rorty) simply reveals a characteristic of the history of the 20th Century:  that the Left (socialists, communists, American style "liberals") has far more in common with the far Right (fascism, populism) than anyone on the Left has ever wanted to admit. The phenomenon of illiberal politics dismissing the authority of conventional morality but embracing the authority of "progressive" government, even in its police state incarnations, is examined elsewhere under the moral fallacy of "moralistic relativism". Heidegger should be grateful that the whitewash of Communism by trendy intellectuals, past and present, ended up spilling over into an apologia for his Nazism [note].

Tom Rockmore's book does not concentrate on bringing out this circumstance, but it could. We get the clear parallel in one passage:

There is finally no significant distinction between Heidegger's call for submission to the whim of the Führer and Lukács's similar betrayal of reason in the service of Stalinism. As concerns their voluntary subordination of philosophical criticism to political totalitarianism, both thinkers are outstanding examples of the betrayal of reason in our time. [p.66]

In his exhaustive examination of Heidegger's texts, he sometimes seems to be beating around the bush. However, he may have done things this way to guard against accusations from Heideggerians that he is unfamiliar with the texts or is misinterpreting them. And since his treatment is discursive and readable, which cannot necessarily be said for Heidegger himself, the thorough nature of the examination is not tedious. Putting together the bits and pieces, however, Rockmore's analysis is damning, and obviously applicable to all subsequent Heideggerians.

...it must be noted that Heidegger's theory has no intrinsic resources to prevent him from accepting either National Socialism or another similar theory. [p.72]

Whereas I regard Heidegger's philosophy as ingredient in his politics, Heidegger's defenders are concerned to exonerate his thought from any significant role in his actions. [p.75]

-- Heidegger turned to Nazism on the basis of his philosophical position.
-- Heidegger's theory of Being, or fundamental ontology, includes a political dimension that can only lead to Nazism or something like Nazism -- in short, a totalitarian political movement.
-- Heidegger shared with National Socialism a common goal of the realization of the essence of the German Volk. [p.123]

The very title of the book, On Heidegger's Nazism and Philosophy, contains a suggestive ambiguity. Is it On Heidegger's Nazism and Philosophy, or it is On Heidegger's Nazism and Philosophy? In the one case we just worry about Heidegger. In the other we worry about the meaning of this for philosophy as a whole. We certainly should worry about the meaning of it for philosophy as a whole, but Rockmore leaves this mostly as an implication, until the last sections of the book, on "Heidegger's Nazism and the Limits of His Philosophy" and "Heidegger's Thought, Its Reception, and the Role of the Intellectual."

The picture that emerges of Heidegger is mainly of someone whose enthusiasm for Nazism was dampened only by the lack of interest of the Nazis for him. When he became the Rector of Freiburg University in 1933, Heidegger delivered an address in which he basically announced that he had the right understanding of the meaning the National Socialism, which had been confused by "political science" and should turn to philosophy (i.e. to him). This should have made him the Philosopher King, or at least Herr Hitler's official philosopher, the way Hegel had in effect become the official philosopher of Prussianism. Nothing of the sort happened, and not many Nazis liked his attitude.

Heidegger goes on to observe that his address was understood neither by those to whom it was addressed nor by the Nazi party. He reports that Otto Wacker, the Staatsminister für Unterricht und Kultur in Baden, complained that the talk advanced a form of private National Socialism, not based on a concept of race, and that the rejection of "political science" was unacceptable. [p.110]

In sum, Heidegger is unhappy that the National Socialists are unaware of his own ontological difference. What is surprising is that Heidegger should be either surprised or dismayed to learn that the Nazis were less than fully absorbed, were in fact uninterested in his own approach to Being, in the same way that they were also uninterested in the effort of Rosenberg, the well-known Nazi "philosopher," to bring about a profound spiritual renewal. Heidegger's objection reveals, then, an astonishing lack of awareness of the nature of Nazism. [p.193]

What Heidegger thought was hardly even comprehensible to the Nazis, and today it is hard enough to credit when baldly stated.

Heidegger seems literally to have thought that the future of the West depended on the proper understanding of metaphysics, supposedly presented in his own thought. In other circumstances, someone who advanced such ideas would be a candidate for psychiatric treatment. It is a measure of the loss of perspective of contemporary philosophy that it accords such delusions serious consideration. [p.92]

Here, his objection to National Socialism is always limited to its failure as a theory of Being. Heidegger's failure to object to the political consequences of the Nazi worldview is significant, since it suggests an incapacity of his thought -- that is, the thought of a great thinker, in the opinion of some observers the most important thinker of this century -- to grasp the political specificity of National Socialism. It is an error to hold that after the rectorate Heidegger breaks with Nazism on a political plane. Even in the rectorial address, his commitment to National Socialism was tempered by his refusal of the hegemony of politics, which he intended to found in philosophy. In the Beiträge his view has not changed, since he continues to accept the point he has always shared with Nazism: insistence on the authentic gathering of the Germans. [p.201]

In the Beiträge, in his "postphilosophical" phase, from the vantage point of the other beginning Heidegger criticizes National Socialism as a mere Weltanschauung like Christianity or liberalism. According to Heidegger, both the Christian view of transcendence and its denial in terms of the Volk as the aim of history are forms of liberalism (Liberalismus). [p.190]

The problem with the Nazis, according to Heidegger, was not that they terrorized and murdered people, and started World War II, but that they had the wrong attitude towards metaphysics. Whether they would have still been murderers if they had the right metaphysics is a good question. One of the most disturbing things about Heidegger's thought is that the murders -- or even the public thuggery that he could have seen in the earliest days of the Third Reich -- don't really seem to have disturbed him all that much. It was not the murders or the public mayhem that discredited "existing" Nazism but simply the wrong attitude towards philosophy, i.e. Heidegger himself. The most damning accusation, however, is just that Nazism was a form of liberalism!

We are already familiar with Heidegger's frequent assertions, common in claims of orthodoxy, with respect to the views of Kant, Nietzsche, and Jünger, that only he, Heidegger, has understood them. Here [in the Introduction to Metaphysics], he makes a similar claim with respect to Nazism. For Heidegger evidently thought of himself as the only "orthodox" Nazi, as the only one able to understand the essence of National Socialism... To the best of my knowledge there is nothing in the public record to suggest that Heidegger was at all sensitive to the human suffering wreaked by Nazism, in fact sensitive to human beings in more than an abstract sense. [p.240]

Heidegger is not a moralist and does not have anything like a theory or system of moral principles. It is not clear how a prohibition of murder would even be grounded in his system. A "resolute" and "authentic" murderer actually sounds pretty good.

Although in theory resoluteness is the call of conscience, in practice there are absolutely no criteria that enable one to recognize where conscience lies, to make a rational choice. The words and deeds of the Nazi dictator are as good as any other form of resoluteness. For a theory that insists on resoluteness at all costs, resoluteness about pushpin is as good as that about poetry, and Nazism is as good as altruism. Heidegger's notion of resoluteness is, then, the ultimate parody of the Kantian idea of moral responsibility based on intellectual maturity and a wholly rational choice of moral principles. [p.65]

If the ethical component is not present in the beginning, it will not be present at the end; and it was not present in -- in fact, it was specifically excluded from -- Heidegger's "antihumanist" meditation on Being. [p.12]

This absence of ethics means that lack of concern about the murders and thuggery of the Nazis should really not surprise us.

A point made by Jaspers, the former psychiatrist, whose testimony proved most damaging in the deliberations of the [de-Nazification] committee, is relevant here. "He [i.e., Heidegger] does not perceive the depths of his earlier mistake, which is why there is no real change in him but rather a game of distortions and erasures." [p.86]

Although Heidegger's Nazism was not, in the judgment of Otto Wacker (seen above) and both modern defenders and critics, based on race, it is now hard to see how there was in fact not a racial, or at least an ethnic, element in it -- the racial, or ethnic, element of the German people.

He fails, however, to mention his conviction, which he seems never to have abandoned, that the German people possess a Western historical vocation that requires realization. [p.91]

Here and in other writings, Heidegger's chauvinism is evident in his repeated insistence on German philosophy as the sole legitimate heir of Greek thought. [p.103]

...he now believes that Nazism did not fail him but that Hilter and other Nazis failed Nazism. He seems never to have regretted his adherence to National Socialism for the purpose of realizing the essence of the German people, or to further the understanding of Being, ends that he still accepts as valid. [p.94]

The recurrence of Heidegger's stress on the Germans as German at this late date [the Beiträge, only published in 1989] in his thought is not less, but even more, troubling than before. [p.187]

In this way, he obliquely suggests that his turn toward Nazism was not only intended to bring about a gathering of the Germans as Germans, hence, not only for the perverse humanism whose highest form is National Socialism. Rather, his Nazi turning is also, perhaps above all, for the purpose of realizing his own authentic thought of Being. [p.192]

Heidegger's statement offers a remarkable anticipation of his persistent identification, present throughout his later writings, with a kind of ideal Nazism, distinguished from its real, Hitlerian form. [p.110]

We have already noted that Heidegger's remark that he did not renounce his thought in his effort, in an official capacity, to realize the essence of what is German, is significant. This statement should be recognized as what it is, as a clear admission of a seamless web, a direct link, between his own thought, as he understood it, of the concept of authenticity applied to the Germans as a whole and his turn to Nazism as presenting a propitious moment, a kairos, to realize this goal. [p.118, kairós = "the right time"]

The ultimate purpose of Heidegger's thought, however mediated by Being, was always for the German people. This is easily excused and adaptable for the ethnic reification that we see in politically correct thought today, but then these excuses and adaptations are used precisely by the same leftist totalitarians (e.g. Richard Rorty) whose moral kinship with Heidegger is so conspicuous.

Heidegger always saw a special philosophical status and destiny for the German people because of their language. He always saw the German language as the heir to Classical Greek as the truly philosophical language. He could draw real connections between the two languages, since German is highly inflected, still has an active case system for nouns, and makes extensive use of compounds. All these were characteristic of Classical Greek, but have otherwise disappeared from Western European languages. Russian preserves the same features, but then there was not much in the way of real Russian philosophical writing for Heidegger to notice. Now, as with the ethnic reification, the topic of language can also be adapted by Heidegger's trendy admirers, and Heidegger can be made out as another linguistic philosopher, right up there with Wittgenstein. This is to ignore, however, the specificity of Heidegger's valuation. It is not language, but the German language, that interests Heidegger. It is not just any poetry that takes over from the Nazis to uncover Being, but German poetry. Heidegger is thus not a "linguistic philosopher," but a self-consciously German philosopher. This made him a natural and logical admirer of Hitler.

The flagship of Nazi racism, of course, was their animus for the Jews, which led to the attempt to exterminate them during World War II. Heidegger's obscurantism and inconsistency have served to protect him from accusations that he was actually an anti-Semitic fellow traveler with the Nazis, even from Jews, like Hannah Arendt, who reestablished friendly relations with him after the War. But Heidegger, to an extent, did actually subscribe to and practice anti-Semitism, as we see here:

Recently, the efforts undertaken to protect Heidegger against this charge [anti-Semitism] have been refuted through the publication of a previously unknown letter, written by Heidegger in 1929, that is, before the Nazis came to power, which clearly shows his anti-Semitism in his pointed rejection of the "'Jewification' of the German spirit [Verjudung des deutschen Geistes]." [p.111]

Whether a full blown racism or not, Heidegger's attitude reflects the conflict between German nationalism and the tolerance of the Jews that would be characteristic of a liberal society. That conflict goes all the way back to people like Fries. Peter Gay [Weimar Culture, Outsider as Insider, 1968] already noted, before Heidegger's Nazism had become much of an issue, that Heidegger removed the dedication of Being and Time, which was to the "inconveniently Jewish" Edmund Husserl. There are various stories of Heidegger stiffing his Jewish graduate students, not signing their dissertations, but he also seems inconsistent in this, since he was very enthusiastic about some Jewish students, like Hannah Arendt, and did decline to take some Nazi anti-Jewish measures. What this looks like is that Heidegger actually had no real positive dislike of Jews but that he was, fitfully, willing to apply the logic of his own glorification of the German Volk, or to conform, occasionally, to the political direction of the Führer. This reveals him as a morally weak person (the Aristotelian moral category is incontinence) whose own beliefs directed him towards evil. Since the anti-Semitism was more or less incidental to this, it could be dismissed and forgotten when, after the War, it had become a personal and professional liability.

Heidegger's Germanism, then, is the functional equivalent of, and not so different from, Nazi racism. But what is the positive connection between this and his philosophical thought? That is the key question. There are at least four ways in which there is a connection: (1) the here and now of Dasein, (2) the revolutionary "uncovering" of Being in Time, (3) the conservatism of the idea that his "uncovering" is a return to a purer past, and (4) the collectivist authoritarianism of Heidegger's notions of freedom and authenticity.

  1. Heidegger's original approach to Being was as being is manifest in the "here and now" -- Dasein, being (sein) here (da). This introduces a positivistic, Hegelian ("the real is rational") aspect to any possible moral guidance from this system. The here and now in 1933 meant Adolf Hitler. The truth and greatness of National Socialism was an authentic "uncovering" of Being. When this didn't seem to work out, Being "withdrew" itself, according to Heidegger.

    "The Führer himself and alone is today and in the future German reality and its law." [from the Rectoral Address, p.65]

    The relative optimism present when he became rector was later transformed into a bleak pessimism about the possibility of surpassing what Heidegger, in the rectoral address, describes as "the forsakenness of modern man in the midst of what is." [p.216]

    Everything is now dominated by the will to power that holds sway in the space left through the withdrawal of Being, now present only in the mode of absence. [p.95]

    If Hitler wasn't bad enough, the "withdrawal" of Being leaves the Nietzschean "might makes right" ethic of the Will to Power.

    Heidegger now argues that the suggestion that God is dead and the reduction of value to will, or nihilism, can be understood only in terms of the will to power, in his view the central concept of Nietzsche's philosophy. [p.93]

    The "withdrawal" of Being suggests something else. Heidegger, and all of humanity -- or at least Germans -- are left alone and disconsolate since the death of the Führer -- which of course is the equivalent of the withdrawal of Being. One might say that we see this in the movie Dr. Strangelove [1964], where the actual Dr. Strangelove, played by Peter Sellers, clearly longs for his lost youth in the Third Reich. Perhaps the same was true for Martin Heidegger, who in the dark of night could hear again in memory those long speeches that stirred the German Nation with hope and purpose, long since lost in the materialism and emptiness of modern life.

  2. The "uncovering" of Being is a violent, irrational, revolutionary process. As this appealed to the irrationalism of fascists in the 30's, it appealed to the nihilists and irrationalists of the left from the 50's to the present. It is intensely romanticist in both groups.

    Berlin's account of the antirationalistic, romantic approach to human life and action, including the problem of alienation, in the writings of Joseph de Maistre, an early forerunning of fascism, is an accurate description of the Volk-ideological approach to modern life which influenced Heidegger's own Nazi turning.... [p.38]

    The entire effort [the Nietzsche lectures, "Letter on Humanism," Beiträge zur Philosophie, Hölderlin lectures, etc.] represents a strengthening of the antirationalist, even gnostic side of Heidegger's thought.... The incipient antirationalist side of his position is already evident in Being and Time in various ways, for instance in his insistence on the analysis of Dasein as prior to and apart from the various sciences (§ 10), in the antiscientific perspective of the work in general which Jaspers, for example, found objectionable, in the abandonment of the Husserlian conception of transcendental truth, on which Heidegger insisted early in the book (§ 7) in favor of the view of truth as disclosure (§§ 44,68) and in the idea of resoluteness (§ 74). The conceptions of truth as disclosure and resoluteness are basically antirational since there are no criteria to discern the correctness of either one. [pp.126-127]

    The irrationality of the "uncovering" of Being is an artifact of the unknowability of just what we are going to get from it. To find out what we are getting we have to look (at the Brown Shirts in the street), and to participate we have to be taken up into the furor of Being (in Heidegger's case, the furor Teutonicus). In the following quote we get a classic expression of "existence over essence" Existentialism, later echoed by Sartre, with the "here and now" of Dasein, and the revolutionary characteristic of being future oriented.

    Heidegger identifies two basic characteristics of Dasein: "the priority of existentia over essentia and the fact that Dasein is in each case mine." Unlike entities, or mere things, Dasein is intrinsically directed toward the future. It is essentially characterized by the fact that its "'essence' lies in its 'to be' [Zu-sein."]." [p.44]

    Since most people, especially leftists, like to think of fascism as essentially conservative, the revolutionary aspect of it tends to be overlooked. But fascism, especially Nazism, was something new. It used as much from Marxism as from traditional culture. This is why the artists of the Italian "Futurism" movement could end up as Fascists. A similar phenomenon could later be see in Irân, where the Islâmic Revolution was intensely reactionary but also a novel event, with all the trappings of other 20th century revolutionary, "people's liberation" struggles. The Ayatollâh Khomeini certainly had much more in common with Fidel Castro than with Jimmy Carter, despite the atheism of the former and the Born Again piety of the latter.

  3. Besides the revolutionary aspect to fascism, there is also the conservative side. If the "here and now" means Germany and the German language, this is a history, a tradition:

    Clearly, a heritage is what is transmitted from the past to later generations. For Heidegger, who here anticipates Gadamer's notion of the tradition as itself valuable, what is "good" is a heritage, since goodness makes authenticity possible, and goodness is transmitted in resoluteness. It follows, since authenticity is understood as the realization of the possibility that most intimately belong to the individual person, that such possibilities are by their nature traditional in character. There is, then, a fiercely conservative strain in Heidegger's view of self-realization as the free choice of oneself, since to realize oneself, to resolutely seize the most intimate possibility available to one in choosing oneself, is finally to extend past tradition; for tradition itself is the vehicle of the "good." In a fundamental sense, the authenticity made possible by resoluteness is not innovative but repetitive in character; it is not the realization of what is new and unprecedented, but rather the repetition of a prior tradition which as such embodies "goodness." In a deep sense, for Heidegger to be authentic is to embrace or to repeat the past in one's own life through a reinstantiation of the tradition. Since Nazism claimed to embody the values of the authentic German, of the German Volk as German, there is, then, a profound parallel, providing for an easy transition without any compromise of basic philosophical principles, between Heidegger's conception of authenticity through resoluteness and National Socialism. [p.47]

    The "good" as tradition not only fits into the positivist, Hegelian "here and now" as intrinsically valuable, but it also reflects a characteristic of the "uncovering" of Being. That is, Is the Being that is "uncovered" something new all the time, or is it the same Being that has always been? There appears, indeed, to be a primordial and authoritative Being. Each "uncovering" reveals the same, original Truth. That is the lesson of Heidegger's own investigation of the Presocratics. To him, the Greeks knew something and were more authentic than we moderns know or are now. Our own revolutionary activity, however radical, is thus essentially revivalist in character, a revival that is, however, independently inspired since it involves return to the same ontological point of origin. Past and future come together in a Dasein that is at once traditional and ancient but also revolutionary and futurist. This is why someone observed, after reading the Rectoral Address, that he didn't know whether it meant he was supposed to read the Presocratics or start goose-stepping.

    Heidegger's conservatism is also reflected in his hostility to modernity, not just in the form of liberal democracy, but in the form of science and technology and commercial culture. This is another area where he appeals to modern leftists, who not only want a socialist mandarinism, run by themselves, rather than liberal democracy, but who are also constitutionally hostile to science, which depends on criteria far harder than their own self-persuasive rhetorical sophistries, and to technology and commerce, which are not only similarly hard edged but have done far more to improve the life of most people than the chatter of Marxist dialectics ever has.

    In this way, Heidegger establishes to his satisfaction that modern technology, and by implication the whole modern period, is only possible because of the turn away from an authentic comprehension of Being. The double consequence of Heidegger's analysis is to forge a metaphysical link between the question of Being and technology, and to uncover a metaphysical ground to oppose technology and modernity. [p.211]

    Ernst Jünger's influence on Heidegger's conception of technology, which has been studied in the secondary literature, is visible in a number of Heidegger's texts... Jünger's book reads like a kind of mad Spinozism in which determinism is freedom and the worker is free in submitting to a centrally organized dictatorship. [p.217]

    ...Heidegger's understanding of technology is incompatible with a commitment to democracy, democratic values, and what is called the democratic way of life... Yet Heidegger rejects democracy because of his commitment to Being, but not to human being... There is a continuous line of argument leading from the Enlightenment commitment to reason to the insistence on responsibility as the condition of morality, which peaks in Kant's ethical theory. When Heidegger attributes ultimate causal authority to Being, he clearly reverses the Enlightenment view that through the exercise of reason human being can attain dominion over the world and itself. In the final analysis, if Heidegger is correct, human actions depend on the gift of Being, hence on a suprahuman form of agency. Heidegger's insistence on Being as the final causal agent signals an abandonment of the idea of ethical responsibility. [p.237]

    Nothing is so trendy today as "post-modernism," which is largely a repackaging of nihilism and Marxism, a Nietzschean will to power which is hostile to almost everything characteristic of modern commercial culture. This is now folded together with an extreme environmentalism which sees the miserable poverty of say, Castro's Cuba, as a noble and virtuous "ecotopia." That such regimes are now demonstrably worse for the environment than free market development cannot dent the stubborn vision that using "natural resources" freely is bad for the future and for the planet. This general hostility to technology, wealth, and development is one of the key areas where everything that Heidegger hoped for from the Nazis is all but indistinguishable from what contemporary "progressive" academics and intellectuals want from the totalitarian, thought controlling police state that they constantly promote. "Modernity," meaning all the trappings of science, wealth, and freedom, is a dirty word among the modern leftist anointed.

  4. The "uncovering" of Being is something that is done by a few but is then provided to the many, whose own "resoluteness" and authenticity are found in that process. Thus, the identity of the Germans is not something that they hit upon individually and develop for themselves. It is something "uncovered" by gifted individuals, whether the politician Hitler, the poet Hölderlin, or the philosopher Heidegger, and then taken up by the masses. This vision is collectivist, authoritarian, elitist, anti-liberal, and anti-democratic. As such it fits perfectly into German tradition, since this was already Hegel's vision of the State and the practice of Prussia, of which the Third Reich was merely a logical extrapolation and application. We also find the characteristic sophistry of reversing the idea of freedom, characteristic both of fascism and the political left, whereby it is no longer a matter of individual will but of group, collective conformity. Thus Trotsky could argue, well before Orwell's 1984 ("Slavery is Freedom"), that enforced (i.e. slave) labor was free labor because it would be contradictory to think that workers could be enslaved by the Worker's State. They were thus simply working for themselves.

    There is a kind of aristocratic authoritarianism built into Heidegger's theory of fundamental ontology which leads seamlessly to a politically antidemocratic political point of view. [p.72]

    In sum, Heidegger's pursuit of Being, as he understood it, led to Nazism, and could in fact only lead either to this or another form of antidemocratic, authoritarian political practice. [p.72]

    In his remarks [in the Beträge] on "The essence of the people and Da-sein," Heidegger returns to his conviction that only the few can provide a people with its identity. For Heidegger, who here makes use of a notion of plural authenticity originally mentioned in Being and Time, a people only is one when it receives its unifying idea and so returns to Being. [p.197]

    The idea of the Volk as an authentic community, which Heidegger takes over from German Volksideologie and grounds philosophically in Being and Time in his conception of plural authenticity, remains a permanent part of his position throughout its later development. Beginning with the rectoral address, Heidegger continues to hold one or more versions of the venerable Platonic view that philosophy can found politics as the necessary condition of the good life, as the real presupposition of the radiant future. Heidegger never abandoned the familiar philosophical conviction in the cognitive privilege of philosophy, what after the turning in his position became new thought, with its familiar link to antidemocratic, totalitarian politics. [p.285]

    Consider, for example, the following passage from an article by Ernst Krieck, a leading philosophical theoretician of the Nazi Weltanschauung:

    The revolutionary upheaval made itself known in a displacement of emphasis. Instead of the individual person, the völkische whole is central, as a result of which the basic reality of life comes into view.... The individual does not arrive at his worldview through reason according to his individual situation and inclination to arbitrariness and choice. Rather, we are subject to the movement of forces over us and directed in common. We do not seize, but we are seized and driven.

    ...and if the only metaphysical people is the German people which alone can know Being as the true heirs of the Greeks, then there is an easy, obvious transition from Heidegger's ontology to the concern with the German Volk. [pp.286-287]

    For Heidegger, who now distantly echoes his conception of freedom as submission to authority in the rectoral address, freedom is unrelated to will in any way. He insists that one becomes free in belonging to the area of destiny as someone who listens (ein Hörender) not as someone who obeys (ein Höriger). [p.227]

    For Heidegger as for Nietzsche, the essence of the people is grounded in the few exceptional human beings. Like Kant, who held that the philosopher is the lawgiver of human reason [?!], Heidegger apparently believed that only a "philosopher" could provide a new sense of direction in the age of nihilism. [p.199]

    Rockmore makes a mistake here. For Kant, a philosopher is the lawgiver of human reason only because everyone is. Reason, which is available to all rational beings, enables them all to be morally autonomous. Heidegger, like Hegel, is not in this tradition. He is elitist and authoritarian, like Hegel, not liberal and individualist, like Kant. To Hegel, this made Kant "irrational." To Heidegger, it would make Kant merely an inauthentic "liberal."

    At present [the Der Spiegel interview, 1966], he is unconvinced that democracy is adequate as a political system in a technological age. Heidegger here draws the political consequence of his later conception of Being as the real historical agent. [p.205]

    This is one of the most revealing admissions ever by Heidegger. His illiberal, authoritarian principles simply never changed. The only reason that there is no Führer in 1966 is that Being has "withdrawn" itself.

The earlier philosopher with whom Heidegger identified the most closely was Nietzsche. Nietzsche's own system, largely devoid of moral principle, is amenable to adaptation either to individualism or to authoritarianism.

Mussolini published an article on Nietzsche, in which he wrote: "In order to attain the ideal picked out by Nietzsche a new type of free spirit must arise, spirits which are hardened by war, and loneliness, and in great danger, spirits which will free us from love of our neighbor." [p.149]

"Love of our neighbor" is a principle of Christian ethics, despised by Nietzsche and, apparently, by Mussolini. Modern leftists, of course, have little but contempt for Christianity, but nevertheless affirm a kind of muddled, Marxist version of "love of neighbor." Most people, indeed, who admire Nietzsche for his nihilism, tend to have political views whose politically correct, sentimental moralism would only have been an object of contempt and derision by Nietzsche.

Nietzsche's appropriation by Nazi thinkers for their own purposes is well known but not well studied. Two exceptions are provided by Lukács and Stackelberg. Lukács devotes a long chapter to Nietzsche as a leading irrationalist in the so-called imperialist period in the context of his lengthy study of the rise of irrationalism from the later Schelling and Kierkegaard to Hitler. For Lukács, fascism is the logical successor of vitalism, which draws the conclusions of the work of Nietzsche and Dilthey. [p.149]

Much as Nietzsche's many followers today blanch at his use by the Nazis, Heidegger, it turns out, was one of the Nazis to use him.

Yet Heidegger's overall approach to Nietzsche is redolent of the Nazi line, including his preference for The Will to Power as the height of Nietzsche's art and his treatment of it as a systematic analysis. [p.154]

As considered elsewhere, Nietzsche's moral aestheticism continues in Heidegger. Rockmore, as it happens, disputes charges of aestheticism against him:

It is further inaccurate to regard Heidegger's discussion of art or technology as illuminating the essence of Nazism. One can concede a certain perverse aestheticism in Nazi ideology, for instance in the writings of Albert Speer, the Nazi architect. But one must resist the idea that the massive political phenomenon of German fascism is solely, or even mainly, aesthetic. [p.277]

Rockmore can certainly define "aestheticism" in a way that would make this reasonable. Here, I see moral aestheticism as the denial that there is an intelligible and rational content to morality, and where valued behavior is based on some kind of creative, morally unlimited, activity. This is indeed characteristic of Nietzsche and Heidegger, as it is of the intersection of German and Japanese fascism in Eugen Herrigel's Zen in the Art of Archery, considered in a separate critique of Zen. The most specifically aesthetic manifestation of Heidegger's thought is not so much in his discussion of technology but in his notion that a poet, like Hölderlin, is engaged in the disclosure of Being. Hitler was simply a political artist, which is very much what he looks like in the Triumph of the Will. Nazi aestheticism in part means the devices of propaganda and pageant that were used to arouse and engage the German people in Nazi politics.

In the end, it is hard to understand what there ever was about Heidegger that made otherwise apparently sensible people so enthusiastic. Being and Time does contain some interesting reflections on metaphysics. The value of this can be appreciated even if Heidegger was personally running the gas chambers at Auschwitz.

Frege's well-known, vicious anti-Semitism seems unrelated to his fundamental contributions to modern logic. [p.40]

But Heidegger's moral and political views were not unrelated to the whole rest of his philosophy, including most of the conclusions of Being and Time. Peter Gay's anecdote, that many German soldiers in Russia and North Africa died with Being and Time in their backpacks, is intuitively revealing in a way that many pages of analysis in Rockmore's book are not. Heidegger's thought makes a small contribution to metaphysics; otherwise it is bad, false, dangerous, and even horrifying. Why it continues to appeal is frightening, but illuminating about the corrupt foundations of much of popular modern opinion. What it was that was ever personally appealing about Heidegger to people who actually knew him, but who despised his politics, is even more mysterious.

But both Jaspers and the commission sought to preserve Heidegger's philosophical achievement, which they regarded as untarnished by his turning to Nazism. [p.83]

This is senseless and impossible. Heidegger's "philosophical achievement" is indistinguishable from his "turning" to Nazism. He could literally look out his window in 1932-1933, see Brown Shirts beating up Jews and others, and from this he knew that the Nazis were "uncovering" Being. This bespeaks a moral perversity or blindness that would falsify any philosophical system intended to be a description or guide of proper action.

Arendt locates a turn against Nazism between the first and second volume of the Nietzsche lectures... [p.172]

Why Arendt, a Jew who had to flee Germany for her life, and a life long enemy of totalitarianism, should strain at gnats to derive comfort from Heidegger's feeble condemnation of Nazism as bad metaphysics, can only be explained by a personal attraction which is now inexplicable.

Karl Popper's characterization of Hegelianism and Marxism as the "high tide of prophecy" (in The Open Society and Its Enemies) echoes a remark by Rockmore about Heidegger's apparently privileged epistemological status:

Even were it the case that Being had withdrawn, it is unclear how, otherwise than through the prophetic powers he now attributes to himself, Heidegger could possibly be aware of this occurrence. [p.95]

Prophetic powers indeed. But Popper did not consider in that context a Heidegger who did not even maintain the pretense of rationality, as Hegel and Marx did. Instead, Heidegger's word play and oracular powers are more like what have become popular among recent academics who have no respect for logic or evidence, let alone science, technology, or commercial culture -- just as Heidegger's exaltation of the Nietzschean will to power leads to the typical theory of human life as nothing but "power relationships" manipulated by a Marxist demonology of corporate and class or race ("dead white male") enemies. As long as this continues to dominate intellectual life, as it does in American universities, Heidegger lives. And the Third Reich lives, however much its principles have been transferred to self-described "oppressed peoples."

Postscript, 2010

A recent book, Heidegger, The Introduction of Nazism Into Philosophy in Light of the Unpublished Seminars of 1933-1935, by Emmanuel Faye [translated by Michael B. Smith, foreword by Tom Rockmore, Yale University Press, 2009], features ever more disturbing revelations about Heidegger. This stuff is pretty damning. I was willing to believe that Heidegger, with his own "metaphysical" form of Nazism, did not subscribe to Nazi theoretical racism. Indeed, we find Richard Wolin (who forcefully argues the connection between Heidegger's philosophy and his politics) saying in 2001:

[Heidegger] never subscribed to the racial anti-Semitism espoused by the National Socialists. To him this perspective was philosophically untenable, insofar as it sought to explain "existential" questions in reductive biological terms. For Heidegger, biology was a base exemplar of nineteenth-century materialism -- a standpoint that needed to be overcome in the name of "Existenz" or "Being." [Heidegger's Children, Princeton University Press, p.6]

However, Faye convincingly demonstrates that Heidegger did subscribe to "the racial anti-Semitism espoused by the National Socialists," wishing to avoid Darwinian "biological" racism, not just because of Ninteenth century "materialism," but because it was too Anglo-Saxon and "Liberal." His own "metaphysical" racism, a "spiritual" racism, was not unique to him and was in fact legitimized by some statements from Hitler himself. This provided a Heideggerian theoretical basis for Anti-Semitism. In an epigraph to this page, we see Heidegger speaking of the need for identifying an Enemy, even creating one, with the goal of "total extermination." If we are looking for a Heideggerian justification for genocide, this looks like it.

Also, the apologistic narrative for Heidegger is that he dropped out of Nazi politics after resigning the Rectorship (Wolin also seems to accept this). But it was not true. Faye shows that Heidegger first of all was appointed to a legal commission (he had taught a seminar in Nazi law) which may actually have been responsible for many of the Nuremburg Laws of 1935. Then he was appointed to the editorial committee that was overseeing the Nazi era edition of Nietzsche's complete works, which is one reason why Heidegger was giving Nietzsche seminars later in the 1930s. Both of these were significant appointments for Nazi academics, and Heidegger got them for being politically reliable, not because he was suddenly disillusioned with politics, or Nazi politics.

I must say that I felt that I had Heidegger's number merely from reading An Introduction to Metaphysics back in the class of Professor J.L. (Jarava Lal) Mehta (1912-1988) at the University of Hawaii in 1973. And it wasn't just the "the inner truth and greatness of this movement" quote, although that was bad enough. It was the actual theory, of the "terrible" and "shattering" Uncovering of Being. There was nothing rational or moral about that theory. At the time, there was also Peter Gay's Weimer Culture, Outside as Insider, which was without illusions when it came to Heidegger (see above). At the time I recommended Gay's book to some people in the Philosophy Department, who (sometimes literally) shrugged it off. With that in mind, I have never been able to think of admirers of Heidegger as anything but very confused people, philosophically and morally.

Now my old advisor from UH, Lenn Goodman, tells me that Professor Mehta "told me once about Heidegger’s flattering him by saying that only Sanskrit, Greek and German were real languages." This sounds like Heidegger indeed, both to be adding Sanskrit to Greek and German and to characterize them as the only "real languages."

One of the most chilling features of the story of Martin Heidegger is the interview that he gave late in life to Der Spiegel magazine, which was only published postumously. I was long under the impression that he still was asserting the "the inner truth and greatness" even in that interview. On the other hand, I recently have seen some comment that he distanced himself from Nazism in the interview. Faye settles the matter with the actual quote:  "National Socialism indeed went in the right direction," der Nationalsozialismus ist zwar in die Richtung gegangen [op. cit., p.242]. I do not agree with Karl Popper that people simply should not speak about Heidegger; but when anyone does talk about him, they must face the fact that he was a bad man and that his politics were the obvious application of his thought. And we must wonder about the agenda of the apologists, especially if we find them disparaging individualism, rationality, liberalism, or modernity (i.e. democracy and capitalism). Since we get a lot of this among recent intellectuals and academics, it is no wonder, again, why they have been attracted to Heidegger.

Reflecting on the damage done by Heidegger's philosophy, and on the principle that what attracted Heidegger to Hitler is what attracts Heidegger's apologists to him, it strikes me that there is one point in particular that illustrates all this:  Heidegger's critique of Descartes. The threat of solipsism, Descartes' inability to convincingly get out of his own mind, creates the Problem of Knowledge for the subsequent history of Modern Philosophy. One way to avoid this is to cut it off at the root:  to deny that the isolated, private mind exists in the first place. This is the approach that Heidegger takes. Dasein, our existence, is not trapped in subjectivity. Neither is it objectified. Heidegger seems to like the idea that Dasein is neither subject nor object, or perhaps is beyond them as a synthesis, like Hegel's Spirit.

While this has a certain elegance to it as a solution to the Problem of Knowledge (ignoring falsifying facts such as the subjective point-of-view of perception, the subjective loss of consciousness in sleep, the privacy of memories and imagination, etc.), another consequence of such a move has another kind of appeal:  the ontological abolition of individuality. Thus, while Heidegger's thought appeals to many as a description of individual experience, especially in the confrontation with the nothingness of death, and Heidegger appears to continue in the Aristotelian tradition of his Catholic seminary days in taking individual existence to be primary, individuality, as we customarily imagine it, is not exactly what we end up with. Dasein is concrete and immediate, as is individuality, but the isolated and subjective individual, an "abstraction" already to Hegel, has been lost into the concrete of the collective -- as, indeed, in Hegel.

The result therefore is something absolutely conformable to the totalitarianism of Hediegger's Nazi political preferences. The universals are gone -- as in the moral universals of humanity -- and the individual is gone also -- as in the moral individual who possesses a private life apart from the state. All that is left, as Heidegger actually said often enough before the Fall of the Reich, is the living, breathing Volk as embodied and led by the living, breathing Führer.

As it happens, this is all music to the ears of the modern, leftist totalitarians. Descartes ideologically "constructed" individuality, which Locke then used to ideologically "construct" Liberalism, and Adam Smith, Capitalism. The Post-Modern "deconstruction" of Descartes thus pulls down Liberalism and Capitalism with it. American universities are filled with this sort of thing, as the present illiberal and nihilistic professoriate follows the path blazed for the Nazis by Martin Heidegger. As their favorite accusation, however, is the fascism of everyone else, the modern totalitarians have never owned and admitted the provenance of this strategy. And dishonest apologetics for Heidegger, of course, only help to obscure the truth.

A Letter to Commentary, "Of Time and Being a Nazi," Tod Lindberg, March 2010

Book Reviews

History of Philosophy, Modern


Home Page

Copyright (c) 2000, 2004, 2005, 2007, 2008, 2010, 2013, 2014, 2018, 2022, 2023 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved

On Heidegger's Nazism and Philosophy, Note

My favorite quote related to the liberal defense of the illiberal is the classic statement of Susan Sontag (1933-2004) that "Communism is fascism with a human face." This is enough of a criticism of communism to qualify as politically incorrect, but one must also then explain Alexander Dubček's statement that the revolution in Czechoslovakia in 1968 was to produce "Communism with a human face."

Presumably Dubček didn't think that it already had one. Since he had to live under communism and Sontag didn't, we probably can count on him to have gotten it more right. Sontag, however, who also said that Americans could learn more about the Soviet Union reading Readers' Digest than The Nation, got it far more right than most of her intellectual peers (Rockmore:  "Sartre holds that Marxism is unsurpassable as the philosophy of our time," p.147). Despite these flashes of insight and expression, Sontag in general retains her leftist bona fides.

I have previously used the spelling "Naziism" for "Nazi-ism" because, as far as I can tell, both "i's" are pronounced, and are pronounced differently (long, then short). The conventional spelling, "Nazism," used by Rockmore and others, does not reflect that pronunciation. Perhaps they actually do only use one "i" in speech. I don't know. It doesn't sound right to me. The nearly universal use of "Nazism," however, has moved me to that usage.

Return to Text