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Heidegger and Nazism: The Philosophy of Being and the Politics of National Socialism

I argue against the apologetics of the sycophantic defenders of Heidegger who claim that his involvement with National Socialism is wholly reducible to his political naïveté, which includes his gross overestimation of philosophy’s power to sway and influence the development of Germany’s ‘political’ history.”

American Heidegger scholarship continues to flourish, and the approach to interpretation generally proceeds along two lines: The first approach is focused on phenomenological and post-phenomenological writings, and the second seeks to elucidate the pragmatic elements of Heidegger’s earlier philosophy. It is the case that many scholars continue to engage with Heidegger’s philosophy in a legitimate and productive manner without focusing on any political implications, which is indicative of an approach that might be termed “winnowing the chaff from the grain.” This consists of an interpretive process that distinguishes what is pertinent, useful, and valuable from all that is useless or inconsequential. However, a third line of inquiry or, more accurately, critique has recently established itself in the world of ideas, and it seeks to explore and understand Heidegger’s undeniable and complex relationship with (and to) the philosophy and the politics of National Socialism. This third line of critique and debate surrounding Heidegger and Nazism continues to rage in academia, and it resoundingly eschews any and all approaches engaging in apologetics. This line of critique has radically expanded with the English translation and publication of selections of what is termed Heidegger’s Black Notebooks: Ponderings (Schwarze Hefte), which inspired a number of edited collections devoted to their critical analysis such as Heidegger’s Black Notebooks: Response to Anti-Semitism, an anthology of scholarly essays edited by Andrew J. Mitchell and Peter Trawny and published in 2017. 

I am of the view that Heideggerian scholarship should continue to acknowledge and grapple with the relationship between the philosopher and his politics, which undoubtedly includes working through new ideological chasms from his recently published Notebooks. Other interpreters agree with this view, and to provide but three examples from contemporary philosophy, Tom Rockmore, a professor of Philosophy at Duquesne University, emphatically contends, “Heidegger’s Nazism raises important moral and political issues that cannot simply be evaded and must be faced as part of the continuing process of determining what is alive and what is dead in Heidegger’s philosophy.”

Thomas Sheehan, a professor of Religious Studies at Stanford University, in a somewhat controversial essay, “
Heidegger and the Nazis,” which appeared in the New York Review of Books in 1988, concludes: “One would do well to read nothing of Heidegger’s any more without raising political questions.” Likewise, Michael Zimmerman, an emeritus professor of Philosophy at the University of Colorado-Boulder, who also publishes extensively on Heidegger, firmly believes that since “Heidegger’s political orientation, especially his contempt for Enlightenment values, profoundly shaped his interpretation of Western history, [Heidegger] should also be read in light of those [political/historical] implications.” However, Zimmerman is careful to point out that readers and interpreters should avoid reducing Heidegger’s thought to an ideological reflex of the reigning social-historical conditions. In his view, interpreters would do well to resist the postmodern and post-structural tendency to view all “ideas,” philosophical or otherwise, as being largely determined by political and social activity.

To think Heidegger and National Socialism involves exploring the relationship between philosophy and politics and, in addition, the potential link between philosopher and philosophy. This includes thoughts on the value of philosophy in relation to its ability to provide answers to the questions it raises in terms of philosophy’s potential for practical efficacy, especially as this might be related to the real world exigencies of state and global politics. However, as Hans-Georg Gadamer observes, philosophical knowledge in the realm of praxis is often misconstrued as “bankable knowledge,” knowledge that is calculable and can be put—in the extreme—to predictable practical use. Yet, for Gadamer, what is unfortunately lost is the philosophical understanding that true practical philosophical knowledge (phronesis) “requires a special gift that does not rely on merely technically acquired information,” and this relates to the crucial sense of judgment or discernment that plays an indispensable role in practical philosophy. This opens the possibility that our deliberation and choice, our decisions leading to practical comportment, will be guided in a desirable manner by a philosophical sense of good judgment. It also, unfortunately, holds the unfavorable potential for the exercise of bad judgment in the practical decisions we make, in that there is perhaps the danger to overestimate philosophy’s power to address and solve practical problems. With this in mind, I turn to the interrelated issues of Heidegger, politics, philosophy, and National Socialism.

On May 27, 1933, Heidegger delivered the Rectoral Address, “The Self-Assertion of the German University,” when he became the Rector of Freiburg University. He viewed himself as its spiritual leader and guide. Richard Wolin, a professor of History and Comparative Literature at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, points out that in his short, infamous tenure as rector, “Heidegger was quite active in the promulgation of Gleichschaltung legislation, which entailed the transformation of university life in line with the Nazi Furerprinzip or leadership principle.” At that time, Heidegger was consumed with unbridled enthusiasm; he believed that National Socialism held the potential to renew and transform the spirit and world of the German people, and remarks found in both the 1935 lecture course Introduction to Metaphysics, lamenting the historical failure of National Socialism, and the Black Notebooks speak to this. 

Karl Löwith finds it impossible to divorce Heidegger’s politics from his philosophy, his abject failure from his pursuit of the question of Being. As such, to condemn Heidegger’s political affiliations is to condemn his philosophy: For, as Löwith argues, Heidegger’s questionable and beyond horrendous political decision cannot be grasped or judged “in isolation from the very principles of Heideggerian philosophy itself.” Despite such claims, I avoid the potential fallacy of transferring Heidegger’s fanatical and ebullient reception of National Socialism as expressed in the Rectoral Address onto his entire philosophical corpus. Such a move is impudent because it is debatable whether the works prior to or after 1933, e.g., the masterwork from 1927, Being and Time and the 1935/1936 lecture/essay, “The Origin of the Work of Art” can legitimately be labeled as “philosophical” attempts at doing “political philosophy.” However, the Rectoral Address is an unabashed testimony to Heidegger’s personal vision of the ineluctable relationship between his philosophy and German politics. For in no uncertain terms, this manuscript brings together with politics, philosophical ontology and education to inform the unfolding of the envisioned future historical beginning that the National Socialist movement might establish, as it stretches back to recapture and repeat the original Greek genesis. 

As Dennis Schmidt, a professor of Philosophy at Villanova University, observes, Heidegger placed “great faith in the power of knowledge to lead” and believed that the political leaders must be educated by the philosopher. This erroneously indicated for Heidegger, in a manner reminiscent of Plato’s fateful miscalculation, that the will to politics must be subordinated to the superior guiding and controlling force of philosophy, as conceived by Heidegger. We must be clear that knowledge as Wissenschaft, which as opposed to representing knowledge related to the natural sciences, for Heidegger, points to a primordial form of understanding, a “true and deep sense of knowing.” And this finds its philosophical grounding in the Seinsfrage or “Question of Being.” Ultimately, Germany’s potential for a renewed beginning is grounded in this Heideggerian conception of the will to Wissenschaft. And the wille zur Wissenschaft is not a will in service of science; instead, it is a will directed toward forging the historical spiritual destiny of the German Volk. Indeed, in a university memo, “A Word from the University,” circulated on January 6, 1934, Heidegger writes that in order to fulfill the monumental task of awakening Germany’s epochal historical mission, a repetition of the original pre-Socratic Greek beginning, “German education [must bring] its work in line with the National Socialism political will [Staatswille],” the Volksgemeinschaft of the national community. 

It is possible to understand the historical-ontological core of National Socialism as envisioned by Heidegger by attending to the notions of service and struggle, which are grounded in the will to Wissenschaft. However, I begin with Heidegger’s crucial reference to Greek tragedy, specifically the tragic wisdom that Aeschylus attaches to Prometheus, in the ancient tragedy Prometheus Bound: “Techne d’anangkes asthenestra makro,” which translates as, “knowledge is far less powerful than necessity.” Heidegger claims this phrase expresses the “essence of Wissenschaft,” and based on what was stated about Wissenschaft, I offer the following re-translation as related to the “Turn” and Heidegger’s developing view of history, destiny, and the question of the truth of Being: “Technicity-machination is far less essential—originarythan the necessity of Dasein’s dawning historical destiny.” The overarching understanding, as related to Heidegger’s philosophy, is that all truth is fundamentally grounded in “concealment” or the recession of Being, which in an important way, bespeaks the mystery and elusiveness that is bound up with (and is inseparable from) truth.  

With the introduction of Prometheus, the connection addressed above between philosophy and politics is made explicitly in the Rectoral Address, where the spirit of the German people, through a proper education, emerges and is nurtured, willed, as “the determined resolve to the essence of Being, a resolve that is attuned to origins [Greek beginnings] and knowing [truth in relation to Being],” a power, as Heidegger stresses, that is related foundationally to “the soil and blood of a Volk.” This resolve manifests its spirit in—and through—three bonds, which give shape to the German ethnic and national community (Volksgemeinschaft). There is “knowledge service,” which grounds the Volk’s dedication to the other two forms of “practical” and “political” service: labor service and military service. Importantly, though Heidegger speaks of the Volk submitting to the “power of the beginning,” of their spiritual and physical struggle to claim their history, this is not to indicate “resolute openness” (Entschlossenheit) or “releasement” (Gelassenheit) toward their approaching destiny, as understood in relation to Heidegger’s later thought. Rather, there is the palpable presence of voluntarism in the Rectoral Address: Heidegger advocates the willful pursuit and appropriation of Germany’s new destiny, expressed in terms of the Volk’s appointed “task” or “vocation.” In 1933, Heidegger stressed the necessity of the “struggle” of the will, for all “capacities of will and thought, all strengths of the heart, and all capabilities of the body must be developed through struggle, must be intensified in struggle, and must remain preserved as struggle.” Returning to Aeschylus, it is the necessity (d’anangkes) of history standing over Germany that has “already decided this,” and it is the Volk’s task to assume this fateful responsibility and will its “historical-spiritual” mission. This struggle, as related to the German students, which is always in service of the state, ultimately attunes them to the “fundamental mood [Stimmung] out of which self-limiting self-assertion will empower resolute self-examination to true self-governance.” 

Although Heidegger envisioned practical implications for his ontological vision of National Socialism, there are many reasons to question the validity of his view. Despite his personal assessment of the functionality and supposed applicability of his philosophical ideas to the practical politics of National Socialism—both in terms of his ontological “blue-print” for university and social-political reform—there is an undeniably abstract quality to many of the concepts Heidegger employs in the address. This curiously speaks to the inherent inapplicability of these concepts to the realm of praxis. On this point, John Caputo, the David R. Cook Professor of Philosophy at Villanova University, argues that far from embracing Heidegger’s thought, the Nazi party members “were baffled by the connection that Heidegger was making between the meaning of the [National Socialist] revolution and the question of Being”; the Brownshirts were certainly not up to the monumental task of reading such pre-Socratics as Heraclitus and Anaximander. 

Heidegger was ultimately correct in realizing that the Nazis would fail to understand his lofty ontological ideas. Additionally, as Caputo contends, though they relied on his political devotion, they “did not have the slightest inclination to let either Heidegger as a man or an ideology be a guiding force for the new Reich.” We must appreciate that the Nazi’s understanding of the German revolution was in no way radical enough for Heidegger: The Nazis were concerned with Germany’s revolution representing a “new start,” whereas Heidegger, as stated, demonstrates the far loftier ontological concern for historical “origins” and “beginnings.” Heidegger believed this would transcend the hold of the metaphysics of presence, ushering in the other Greek beginning through the German state. Caputo reasons that because of Heidegger’s dense philosophical conceptions (with tenuous connections to “practical” politics), Nazi officeholders were correct to be skeptical of Heidegger’s talk of the “questionability of Being, the groundless abyss beneath whatever we call ground.” Thus, when attempting to persuade the Nazis that a “revolution from the ground up required a questioning of the ground,” it was unclear to them whether this type of ontological probing could be deleteriously “turned against the grounds of the National Socialist revolution itself.”  

Ultimately, after stepping down as rector in 1934, Heidegger, in his apologia to the 1945 Denazification Committee of Freiburg University, recognized the failure of attempting to steer the movement in the direction of an ontological understanding of Being and destiny in light of the Grundfrage. Steven Crowell, the Mullen Professor of Philosophy and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Rice University, succinctly concludes that, as early as 1934, Heidegger “realized his hopes for metapolitics were doomed by the imperatives of ontic politics.” Prior to considering the so-called “failure of Heidegger” in terms of the failure of philosophy itself, I briefly examine the role that Heidegger’s character might have played in this failure. Admittedly, this is also a complex issue, for though Heidegger’s involvement with National Socialism is part of his biography, which includes, of course, his deeply held beliefs and stature of character, it is a difficult matter to ascertain whether (and to what degree) biography is relevant to Heidegger’s philosophy, or any philosophy for that matter.

The flaws in Heidegger’s character become evident if, in addition to examining his private correspondence and personal observations in the Black Notebooks, attention is paid to the many questionable and unethical decisions rendered as acting Rector of Freiburg University. Indeed, as Wolin stresses, Heidegger was not merely a “Nazi sympathizer, but was in fact found guilty of political crimes by a (favorably disposed) university peer review committee following the war.” Heidegger’s alliance to Nazism, as Wolin makes clear, was “grandiose and profound: at least for a short period of time, Heidegger labored under the delusion that he could play the role of ‘philosopher king’ to Hitler’s Fuhrersstaat.” We should not be surprised, as Gadamer points out, that despite—and indeed perhaps because of—Heidegger’s superior philosophical powers that he was susceptible to a certain blindness that caused him to “lose himself to delusions.” Fred Dallmayr, a professor emeritus at the University of Notre Dame, also identifies this tendency toward delusional thought and beliefs. He argues that Heidegger’s grandiose persona—and we might say without risking hyperbole, megalomania—drove his outlandish “ambition to guide and lead Hitler (den Fuhrer Fuhren).” 

To further this line of thought, Gregory Fried, a professor of Philosophy at Boston College, recognizes that Heidegger’s immense ego led him to the conclusion that National Socialism would “succeed only if the German Volk, the youth, the university, even the Nazi party itself,” understood what was at stake on “his terms.” Fried goes on to point out that in the Black Notebooks Heidegger reveals that he never saw himself as a failure. Insured, he placed the blame for the failure of National Socialism on the weakness of the German Volk, as well as on the flawed state of higher education. Indeed, for Heidegger, the entire “revolution itself had failed to shoulder the task set for them by history.” In addition to Heidegger’s egregious overestimation of his potential philosophical influence, it must be noted that Heidegger demonstrated a glaringly naïve understanding of politics, and this also contributed to Heidegger’s gross misunderstanding of philosophy’s relationship to politics. Collectively, and as summarized by Wolin, a certain “metaphysical hubris, stemming in part from a philosophically conditioned neglect of empirical findings—for example, the disciplines of history and the social sciences—adversely affected the philosophical capacity for political discernment.” 

In addressing the issue of philosophy’s relationship to social-political realities, Gadamer makes two crucial observations about the so-called “Heidegger problem,” as related to National Socialism. First, as I have touched on above, the problem is grounded in the limitations of Heidegger the man, the mortal, the human, all too human thinker and philosopher. Second, the problem is also traceable to the inherent limitations, or danger, at the heart of the philosophical project as conceived and practiced by Heidegger. Reaffirming this claim, Gadamer argues that Heidegger fell prey to his own “secret wishes for happiness and the shimmering dream of fulfillment” through philosophy’s perceived power. Further, even beyond Heidegger, all those practicing philosophy must be aware of the impending “danger of misjudging” themselves and of “clinging to illusions.” As stated, Heidegger, as an extremely gifted philosopher—often ranked alongside Wittgenstein as one of the two greatest philosophers of the 20th century—was perhaps more predisposed to fits of delusion than other lesser thinkers; the superiority of his powers predisposed him to be led all too easily astray by his own genius. “Whoever envisions possibilities with great clarity,” observes Gadamer, “may also see what he wants to see—which may not actually exist at all,” and Gadamer claims that Heidegger after 1933 eventually recognized this but unfortunately “admitted it through his later silence.” 

The failure of Heidegger in 1933, as related to Gadamer’s insights, might also be traced to the unique essence of philosophy itself. Consider that philosophy asks questions that cannot be answered with the certainty of the sciences. So why, Gadamer asks, “should [philosophy] be considered especially qualified to penetrate and solve daily problems”? Philosophy searches and seeks but never truly arrives at definitive answers. Philosophy is, as Heidegger himself always believed, far more adept at formulating questions than arriving at answers. The most and perhaps best philosophy can offer is what Gadamer terms, borrowing from Karl Jaspers, the “clarification of existence” by means of illuminating the “boundaries of knowledge.” All the while, it tends to lack the prescient and prophetic insight to “anticipate which practical goals will be manageable and realistic.” Here, Gadamer is indicating the radical difference between “fundamental” or ontological knowledge and “finite knowledge” of the world, a difference marked out by the Existentialist philosopher Gabriel Marcel between mystery and problem; a problem might be related to propositional truth and scientific techniques “that can be applied and repeated at will.” 

This, according to Gadamer, is unfortunately what Heidegger in 1933 seemed to be rendered momentarily blind to with respect to his philosophy of Being. However, it is obvious that in the 1935 lecture course, Introduction to Metaphysics, Heidegger painstakingly details the limitations of philosophy and writes in considerable depth on this issue, offering what might be interpreted as a radical reassessment of the earlier views he held in 1933 regarding philosophy’s power and value to influence or control praxis. “Philosophy,” Heidegger recognizes, “can never directly supply the forces and create the mechanisms and opportunities that bring about a historical state of affairs.” Thus, in 1935, Heidegger indicated in no uncertain terms that we cannot do anything with philosophy; however, this is not the end of the story. For he goes on to pose the following thought-provoking query for our consideration: “Even if we can’t do anything with it, may not philosophy in the end do something with us, provided that we engage ourselves with it?” It is possible to state, along with Gadamer, that as Heidegger moves deeper into the “Turn,” he becomes acutely aware of the “political incompetence of philosophy.” 

Heidegger’s fellow philosophers and former students were the hardest on him, and, ultimately, what they wanted—and indeed demanded—from Heidegger was his admission of guilt. They expected from him that which he never adequately provided: an ideological salve that served to justify his involvement with National Socialism—and, beyond this, an apology for Auschwitz. Philosophers, educators, and concerned artists and intellectuals all desired, as the German philosopher, Rüdiger Safranski observes, “a word that would finally clear Heidegger of being identified with Nazism,” and this “word” never came, not even in the posthumously published and infamous 1966 interview in Der Spiegel. Heidegger remained silent about the Holocaust, the single most horrific event of the 20th century. I do not embrace the position—as it is sometimes framed—that Heidegger broke his silence in the 1949 Bremen lecture, when he compared the death camps and production of corpses to the mechanized food industry, for this callously relegates the Holocaust to a single historical event among many tainted by the attunement of technicity (das Ge-stell).

Overall, through my reading of Heidegger and his commentators, critics, detractors, and apologists, it is dubious to attempt any plausible extraction of political theory from Heidegger’s expansive body of work and secondary discourse. Although a political agenda can certainly be read into and imposed upon Heidegger’s texts from the outside, there is neither a Nazi philosophy nor a blueprint for a political agenda that can be lifted with any sense of certainty—save for the Rectoral Address of 1933—from major works such as Being and Time or the later writings of the “Turn.” However, despite this, it is necessary to take Heidegger to task on the issue of Nazism. I argue against the apologetics of the sycophantic defenders of Heidegger who claim that his involvement with National Socialism is wholly reducible to his political naïveté, which includes his gross overestimation of philosophy’s power to sway and influence the development of Germany’s “political” history. Heidegger’s former students would perhaps agree with the following point: namely, that a naïve complicity is complicity nevertheless. 

I conclude with the following question that is inspired by the path traveled herein: Is it fair to demand a consistency between the life lived and the life philosophized by the philosopher? I offer two possible responses, though there are certainly many more ways to approach this highly complex and controversial issue. Heidegger, undoubtedly, made some egregious moral decisions. It can be argued, in a manner reminiscent of Jean-Paul Sartre, that in affirming the politics of Nazism, Heidegger was at once affirming every single atrocity committed in the name of Germany during World War II, leading to the Holocaust and Europe’s destruction. However, as Richard Polt, author of Heidegger, a classic introduction to Heidegger’s most difficult works, and others have cogently argued in an ethically appropriate manner, if we dismiss Heidegger’s work on the grounds of his politics and moral past, we must as well dismiss the work of all the other philosophers and, further, artists, poets, and the like, who have also behaved immorally. Wolin’s thoughts on this issue are particularly eloquent and, I believe, on target. He  adopts the view that we should not disqualify wholesale Heidegger’s philosophy because of his political misdeeds despite their egregious nature. “For the requirements of intellectual honesty demand that we judge a philosopher in the first instance on the merits of his or her thoughts,” while at once considering the failure of Heidegger as representing a “cautionary tale about the uncritical veneration of intellectual genius.” In closing, though it is unrealistic to demand that the philosopher’s life represent the embodiment of the work in its totality, there must be some relation between the two. There must, therefore, linger some subsequent responsibility for his actions and thoughts, that is to say, Heidegger’s political life, which represents his involvement with Nazism, and his philosophical life as the grand philosopher of Being.

James M. Magrini holds an Ed.D. in the philosophy of education from the National College of Education in Chicago and has taught philosophy and ethics at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, Illinois for over 15 years. He has published numerous peer-reviewed articles on Heidegger’s thought and has authored seven philosophy monographs.

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