Posted: August 9, 2010
ometime shortly after the publication of Victor Farias's Heidegger and Nazism (1987), I recall a conversation with the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre who complained that the title of Farias's book was misleading. The "and" suggested that Heidegger was one thing and National Socialism something else; the correct word should have been "is." The publication of Emmanuel Faye's Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism into Philosophy would seem to be the work that MacIntyre was looking for.
Faye is far from the first to detail Heidegger's love affair with the Nazis. In addition to Farias, it suffices to mention the work of Hugo Ott and Guido Schneeberger in Germany and Tom Rockmore and Richard Wolin in the United States. But the links between Heidegger and Nazism have never been drawn so clearly and explicitly as Faye draws them. Indeed, Faye goes farther—much farther—than Heidegger's earlier critics. Most of Heidegger's critics have been content to ask the question how could a great philosopher be a Nazi? Faye, an associate professor at the Université Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense, argues that Heidegger's embrace of National Socialism is sufficient to eliminate him from the ranks of philosophy altogether.
In Faye's view, Heidegger systematically distorted the meaning of philosophy to make it serve the ends of Nazi propaganda. What else can you say of a man who used apparently philosophical titles such as "The Fundamental Question of Philosophy," "Of the Essence of Truth," and "Logic" to smuggle in doctrines of Aryan supremacy, völkisch German nationalism, and the Führerprinzip? Henceforward, Faye argues, Heidegger's works should be removed from the philosophy sections of libraries and bookstores and placed under the category of Nazi Studies. A strong thesis, to say the least.
The book concentrates on Heidegger's work of the mid-1930s, at the height of his enthusiasm. Faye begins with a brief, selective treatment of proto-Nazi themes in Heidegger's masterpiece Being and Time (1927), but concentrates on his speeches, seminars, and writings from the 1933-45 period. In addition to the heavily redacted Gesamtausgabe (Complete Works), Faye has had access to previously unpublished seminar materials in which Heidegger often speaks more openly and politically than in the published texts.
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The best parts of the book are devoted to Heidegger's relations with other Nazi celebrities like Alfred Baeumler, Alfred Rosenberg, Ernst Jünger, and Carl Schmitt. We learn in great detail how Heidegger used his position of Rector at the University of Freiburg to introduce the Nazi policy of Gleichschaltung or forcing the university into the party line and instituting a purge of Jewish faculty members, including his aged dissertation advisor Edmund Husserl. A seminar on Hegel'sPhilosophy of Right taught in the winter of 1934-35 provides a case study of how Heidegger tried to enlist Hegel into the cause of Hitler's Reich. Carl Schmitt, the famous Nazi legal theorist, had declared in his book State, Movement, People(1933) that Hegel's constitutional state died in Germany on the day that Hitler came to power. Reversing this reading Heidegger would say, "on the contrary, it was only then that he [Hegel] began to live."
The Nazification of German philosophy was undertaken even more substantially in Heidegger's Nietzsche lectures delivered throughout the period 1936-40 and not published until 1961 under the title Nietzsche I and II. Nietzsche had already been enthroned as an ideological pillar of the Nazi state, and Heidegger was appointed to an academic commission to oversee the publication of a critical edition of his writings and letters. In his lectures, Heidegger pays special attention to Nietzsche's Will to Power, to which he gives an uncompromisingly "metaphysical" interpretation. What he means by a metaphysical act, however, consists of the total mobilization of force for the sake of planetary domination. Faye demonstrates convincingly that when this interpretation was published long after the war it was taken as a critique of the Nazi domination of Europe, but in its original context it was in fact intended as praise of the German armed forces and their recent conquest of France. The "motorization of the Wehrmacht," Heidegger would write, was not just a political but a "metaphysical" act revealing a "new humanity."
Perhaps most revealing is Heidegger's response to a letter written to him by his former student, Herbert Marcuse, shortly after the war. "A philosopher can be mistaken in politics," wrote the future author of One-Dimensional Man and Eros and Civilization, "but he cannot make a mistake about a regime that killed millions of Jews simply because they were Jews." Not only does Heidegger refuse to apologize for his "mistake," he takes the occasion to reaffirm the correctness of his decisions. Encouraging Marcuse to read the "entirety" of his Rectoral Address, Heidegger repeats Marcuse's statement about the murder of millions of Jews and suggests that Marcuse should have said "East Germans."
At the core of Heidegger's self-justification was a belief in the moral equivalence between the Allies (including the Soviet Union) and the Hitler regime. The belief that the issue of the Holocaust could be explained as a form of unfettered technological rationality was central to all Heidegger's later works after the so-called "turn" (Kehre) in his thought. In the Bremen lectures of 1949 Heidegger begins to treat metaphysics as a form of technology that now threatens all humanity. Though he had earlier praised the Nazi conquest of Europe as a supreme metaphysical act, he now gives the term metaphysics an increasingly negative meaning. His statement that "[a]griculture today is a motorized industry of alienation" no different from the fabrication of corpses in the death camps must rank as one of the most odious pieces of self-justification ever uttered. By treating the Shoah and the "Final Solution" as representing the triumph of an autonomous technology, Heidegger issues a blanket exculpation of himself and the whole Nazi hierarchy from any moral and political responsibility. His excuse seems to be "metaphysics made me do it."
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This is a book with many virtues; writing, however, is not one of them. Faye often writes less as an objective historian of philosophy than as a relentless prosecuting attorney zealously marshaling evidence against the accused. The book might well have been called Judgment at Todtnauberg. It gives the reader little sense of what else Heidegger was doing during this crucial period of his life or precisely how extensive these writings are in the context of his work as a whole. In fact, Faye pays little attention to Heidegger's life or work outside the immediate wartime period. For a more complete picture the reader should supplement this book with Rüdiger Safranski's excellent biography, Martin Heidegger: Between Good and Evil (1998).
Faye's is also a very French book, and, to be sure, Heidegger has always had a more revered status in France than in America. When the book was published originally in 2005, it created a whole new chapter in the French reception of Heidegger. This history goes back to Jean-Paul Sartre's early appropriation of leading Heideggerian themes in Being and Nothingness (1943). However, the cult of Heidegger did not begin in earnest until after World War II when the philosopher Jean Beaufret and later the poet Paul Celan visited him at his Black Forest chalet. Thus began the first of several waves of French Heideggerianism, putting his work into the service variously of existentialism, anti-humanism (e.g., Michel Foucault, Louis Althusser), and most recently deconstruction (e.g., Paul De Man, Jacques Derrida). Each of these movements had sought either to airbrush or explain away Heidegger's extreme right-wing politics, until it became simply impossible to do so.
The reception of Heidegger in the English-speaking world has always been more skeptical than in France. Heidegger's works were not translated into English until later, and they were often treated as a non-political form of existentialism as in, for example, William Barrett's Irrational Man (1958). For most academic departments of philosophy, Heidegger belongs to the tradition of "continental philosophy" where he can be safely marginalized and ignored. Those like Charles Taylor and Richard Rorty who have more recently tried to rehabilitate him have done so by treating him as a critic of Cartesian metaphysics, the mind-body problem, and other relatively safe philosophical topics rather than as a social and political theorist.
Heidegger's reception in America would not have been possible without the assistance of his student and former lover Hannah Arendt. Over a decade ago, Arendt's youthful tryst with Heidegger was detailed in a book by Elzbieta Ettinger. It was during a visit to Germany in 1950 that Arendt and Heidegger reunited for the first time since their love affair a quarter-century before, and the project of rehabilitation began. Her book on the Eichmann trial, infamously subtitled "The Banality of Evil," showed the enduring influence of Heidegger's concepts of "everydayness" and "banality" on her thinking. The full-fledged rehabilitation of Heidegger in America can be precisely dated to her shameful article "Heidegger at Eighty," originally published in the New York Review of Books in 1971. Here she confronted the question of Heidegger's politics but explained his affiliation with National Socialism as the product of "thoughtlessness"—as if he had stumbled into Nazism almost in a moment of absent-mindedness.
To be fair, Arendt was not alone in bringing Heidegger's importance to the attention of an American audience. Leo Strauss had also been a student of Heidegger in the 1920s and spoke of his lectures with a sort of reverence. In comparison to Heidegger, he told the philosopher Franz Rosenzweig, Strauss's early hero Max Weber appeared an "orphan child." Strauss did not entertain any of the illusions about Heidegger maintained by Arendt. Heidegger, he wrote, was to philosophy what Hitler was to politics. His "radical historicism" and neglect of the "permanent problems" made his submission to the events of 1933 all but inevitable. Nevertheless, this did not stop Strauss from boldly asserting that Heidegger was "truly important" and "the only great thinker of our time" (emphasis added). Strauss's use of terms like "the crisis of modernity," the growth of nihilism, the return to the Greeks, and "spiritual warfare"; his methodological privileging of founding moments; and other features of his thought were deeply implicated in Heidegger's philosophy. If Faye is even partially correct that Heidegger's concepts cannot be understood apart from their Nazi usages, this should prove a troubling conclusion for those like myself who have looked to Strauss precisely as an antidote to Heideggerianism.
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How should we assess Faye's predominant thesis: that Heidegger can no longer be counted among the philosophers because he systematically corrupted philosophy by using it as an instrument for tyranny and racism? Faye is at his best when he shows how Heidegger's use of certain German words, innocent enough in themselves—Selbstbehauptung (self-affirmation), Mitsein (being with another), Bodenständigkeit (rootedness), Schiksal (fate), and Destruktion (destruction)—freighted them with not so innocent meaning in the context of Hitler's Reich. Heidegger was certainly not alone among 20th-century philosophers in defending tyranny. Georg Lukàcs and Alexandre Kojève, to take just two examples who were in many respects Heidegger's equals, twisted philosophy in defense of Stalinism. But the fact that "others did it too" is no defense.
Much of Faye's case rests on Heidegger's anti-Cartesianism (Faye is himself a Descartes scholar who has written on early modern philosophy). Here he certainly has grounds for complaint. Heidegger twists Descartes until he is virtually unrecognizable. He famously treats Descartes's ego cogitans as a particularly dangerous form of modern "subjectivity" from which there was a straight line to Kant, Hegel, and finally to Nietzsche's will to power. It is this liberation of subjectivity epitomized in Descartes's dream to make us "masters and possessors of nature" that Heidegger regards as a dangerous turn toward nihilism, in response to which he proposes a form of rootedness or situatedness in time and history.
Yet this critique of the Cartesian (and Kantian) "unencumbered self" has become a standard form of criticism that has received a wide range of expressions. Does the fact that Heidegger gave bold expression to this make the criticism itself inherently Nazified? Is this sufficient to drum Heidegger out of the philosophical canon? I think not. We must resist falling into the trap of what Strauss once referred to as a reductio ad Hitlerum. One would get very little sense from reading this book why Heidegger has been considered a philosopher, much less a great philosopher.
In his single-mindedness to convict Heidegger, Faye overlooks the fact that Heidegger's life work was focused almost single-mindedly on one problem, the problem of Being. Our forgetfulness of this problem—this fundamental problem—is what he regarded as the root of modern nihilism. For Heidegger, everything turned on a recovery of the problem of Being, without which life would become increasingly shallow, forgetful, and meaningless. He posed the question—if not perhaps with the greatest clarity, certainly with the greatest depth—who has responsibility for Being? At its best, his work is a call for a renewed sense of responsibility. It is the merit of Faye's book that he shows us how Heidegger, who did nothing but preach responsibility for Being, abnegated this responsibility because he did nothing but think of Being.