“During the past few years before, I had struggled with—and then firmly said goodbye to—the Catholicism of my upbringing, and I was searching for a new philosophy of meaning that did not seem to depend on so many leaps of faith.”
hen I was in the second year of my undergraduate degree, I was utterly enamored with the German philosopher Martin Heidegger. It would not be overstating it to say I thought he was the greatest philosopher in history (not that I had read that many then!). Perhaps the timing in my own life contributed. During the past few years before, I had struggled with—and then firmly said goodbye to—the Catholicism of my upbringing, and I was searching for a new philosophy of meaning that did not seem to depend on so many leaps of faith. Heidegger—and, to a lesser extent, Friedrich Nietzsche—seemed to promise just that. In their philosophies was thinking that directly and consistently spoke about Being, existence, nihilism, and many of the other big spiritual questions that consumed me. At the same time, my formal studies were dedicated to human rights law and cosmopolitanism, much of it inspired by the horrors of the Holocaust, which had liquidated millions of Jews, LGBTQ persons, Roma, and others. So imagine my horror upon discovering that two of my intellectual heroes were so closely aligned with the Nazi movement; worse, Heidegger had actually joined the Nazi Party and had insisted others do the same. Needless to say, I took considerable comfort from authors such as Hannah Arendt and Jacques Derrida, who insisted that there was no need to let this association cloud one’s appreciation for Heidegger as a philosopher. One simply needed to detach the treasure trove of philosophical riches from the nasty politics, which were not that important anyways.
Ronald Beiner’s excellent, recent book Dangerous Minds: Nietzsche, Heidegger, and the Return of the Far Right would no doubt have been a disappointment to my younger self, who was determined to insulate his intellectual heroes from reprisal. Beiner insists that we need to take the problems of Nietzsche and Heidegger’s politics far more seriously than we typically do. This is particularly true for progressive thinkers, who have been strangely willing to draw liberally from the two German firebrands, while ignoring the reactionary bent of their views. Troubling though this may be, Beiner’s case is very compelling. By the end, one is left with little doubt that Nietzsche and Heidegger’s politics needs to be seriously rethought.
For a long time, the standard approach of progressive admirers of Nietzsche and Heidegger has been something halfway between creative interpretation and acting as a public relations agent.
Nietzsche, Heidegger, and the Far Right
“The great majority of men have no right to life, and serve only to disconcert the elect among our race; I do not yet grant the unfit that right. There are even unfit peoples.”
– Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power
For a long time, the standard approach of progressive admirers of Nietzsche and Heidegger has been something halfway between creative interpretation and acting as a public relations agent. Nietzsche and Heidegger were not political thinkers, the line goes. They were concerned with metaphysics, the history of philosophy, the problem of nihilism, and other issues far beyond the nitty gritty of the political realm. Yes, they do occasionally make problematic statements, and there is that little embarrassment of Heidegger joining the Nazi party and making anti-Semitic remarks. However, it is important to remember that they grew up as rural Germans in conservative households and simply held many of the unfortunate but predictable prejudices shared by most men and women of their time. When invoking their work, make the requisite apologias and then move on to discussing the real philosophical meat.
Beiner minces no words in insisting that we stop relying on these well-worn tropes. He points out that many of the more ambitious commentators on the far-right, including Richard Spencer, have long found a great deal of intellectual solace in Nietzsche and Heidegger. And Beiner suggests that it is time to accept that there are reasons for this attraction. As Beiner puts it:
“Highly relevant to the contemporary neofascist revival is the fact that since the Enlightenment, a line of important thinkers has considered life in liberal modernity to be profoundly dehumanizing. Thinkers in this category include, but are not limited to, Maistre, Nietzsche, Carl Schmitt, and Heidegger. For such thinkers, liberal modernity is so humanly degrading that one ought to (if one could) undo the French Revolution and its egalitarian ideal and perhaps cancel out the whole moral legacy of Christianity. For all of them, hierarchy and rootedness are more morally compelling than equality and individual liberty; democracy diminishes our humanity rather than elevating it. We are unlikely to understand why fascism is still kicking around in the twenty-first century unless we are able to grasp why certain intellectuals of the early twentieth century gravitated towards fascism…”
From here, Beiner does a deep dive into Nietzsche and Heidegger’s work that spans several hundred pages. He points out that the conventional excuse that they were largely disinterested in politics does not bear out when examining their writings closely. Nietzsche wrote voluminously on history, morality, and civilizational traits, with plenty of commentary on contemporary 19th century politics peppered throughout. He was also infamously sexist, famously declaring in Thus Spoke Zarathustra “goest thou to woman? Bring a whip.” In his 1889 work Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche even comes to mourn the decline of the patriarchal family, claiming that “all rationality has clearly vanished from modern marriage…the rationalist of marriage—that lay in the husband’s sole juridical responsibility, which gave marriage a center of gravity, while today it limps on both legs.” He endlessly critiques the vulgar egalitarianism of liberal modernity, invoking a more ancient ideal of a noble aristocracy that rose above the mediocrity of the herd and its banal needs. Nietzsche was also unafraid to call for force to bring about an end to liberalism, constantly invoking martial rhetoric when describing the new philosophers who would bring about the future. By the end of Beiner’s long chapter on the formidable German, he has assembled a damning array of textual evidence showing that whatever else he was, Nietzsche was a reactionary figure. And he was a figure who condemned a huge array of modern political systems for their egalitarianism and soft concern for the well-being of the unworthy mediocrities. Nietzsche desired for these political systems to be replaced by harder, stratified hierarchies, where the strong would be uninhibited by obligations towards the weak—whether these “weak” be women, the sick, a wide variety of other cultures, etc.
Beiner’s case against Heidegger is less rhetorically provocative—in part because one rarely sees Nietzsche’s flights of rhetorical excess in dense technical works such as Being and Time. Nevertheless, Heidegger’s work is, in many respects, even more disturbing. Nietzsche never lived to see his work bastardized by the Nazis in films such as Triumph of the Will, which featured Adolf Hitler descending from the clouds like a modern Zarathustra trucking down his mountain. Heidegger, though, not only joined the Nazi Party; he actively worked to further its ends for several years. Even after being sidelined and growing more conflicted in the late 1930’s, Heidegger never left the Party until it ceased to exist following the Allied occupation of Germany. Heidegger never apologized for his involvement or offered much in the way of an explanation, beyond some tactless “whataboutism”-style arguments chiding the Allies for the damage wrought against the German people.
Beyond these now well-known biographical facts, Beiner delves into Heidegger’s philosophy for an explanation for his damning political decisions. Perhaps the most original analysis is his take on Heidegger’s 1946 “Letter on Humanism,” which was written and published shortly after the Second World War in response to Sartre’s existentialism. Beiner reads Heidegger as offering a rather strange history of Western civilization as read through the filter of its philosophers. Modern times are radically “banal” because we have been influenced by second-rate thinkers who have forgotten to “think Being.” This is, of course, a classic Heideggerian injunction, which is also legendarily obscure. As Beiner approaches it, Heidegger sees modernity as radically fallen since it places the human being at the center of Being itself. The consequence is that we no longer shudder at the mystery of existence but, instead, appropriate the world for our vulgar and selfish purposes. This explains why in his 1953 book Introduction to Metaphysics, Heidegger castigated liberal capitalism and communism as “metaphysically the same.” Despite all of the overstated differences between liberal defenders of capitalism and their opponents on the political left, both ultimately agree that the point of existence is to more efficiently design and distribute better refrigerators.
By contrast, to truly think Being we need to exist in strikingly unmodern environments—like Heidegger’s beloved Black Forest; and we would need to engage in a more authentic way of living with the world as a whole, unmediated by the selfishness of humanistic reason. Beiner points out that Heidegger often tries to cast this in humble, pastoral terms—invoking images of German peasants and soldiers with a distinct capacity to “commune with Being.” But this humility concealed a deep-rooted arrogance and ethnocentrism. The converse of Heidegger’s noble and conservative German peasants, who are in touch with being, is the rest of the world, which is radically fallen and incapable of producing anything of great value. Only the German volk, for Heidegger, was capable of enacting the “spiritual renewal” of Europe, which is why Heidegger supported the Third Reich until its dying days.
Most disturbing in all of this is Heidegger’s lack of repentance for such a colossal error, which was excused or even justified by an appeal to philosophical pretension. In his posthumous works, one sees Heidegger musing that one must approach history in epochal terms—and that the fullness of time will vindicate his decisions. We can only hope that, like many of Heidegger’s “prophecies,” this turns out to be untrue.
The one weakness of Beiner’s book is that he never spends much time connecting his analysis of reactionary philosophers to the contemporary era and to the return of the far-right. There are some scattered comments on how Nietzsche and Heidegger’s work has been picked up and interpreted by figures such as Spencer and former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon. However, for the most part, the reader is left to draw the connections independently, which is somewhat frustrating given the promise of the title and the initial chapter. But this fact does not detract from what is an exhilarating and crisp intellectual takedown of two major philosophers. Beiner stresses that his critiques should not be taken as a recommendation to ignore or not read Nietzsche and Heidegger. He points out his own deep fascination with their work, and he encourages the reader to learn from it what one may. But Beiner is all too correct that one ought not try to foist a politically correct version of these two German philosophers on the world, stripped of all the nasty and worrying politics. Nietzsche and Heidegger may have been brilliant men, but they were also aligned with some of the most sinister movements of their time. Wrestling honestly with that fact can help us better understand our own strange politics.
Matt McManus is a professor of politics at Whitman College and the author of The Rise of Post-Modern Conservatism, among other books. He can be added on Twitter via @mattpolprof