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Saturday, 14 February 2015

The Heidegger question ~or~ what happens when an academic icon turns out to be a Nazi nut?

What happens when one of the most interesting and original thinkers of the 20th century turns out to have been a full blown Nazi?

A scandal and crisis is currently running rampant trough German philosophy departments, and to some extent the wider philosophical world, as the publication of Martin Heidegger’s notebooks from 1931 to 1948 has revealed him to be significantly more on board with the Fuhrer’s kinda thang than anyone previously realized.

The Velvet Underground of continental philosophy

Who is this Heidegger and why does it matter, you may ask – well, while he may not be a household name, his position in 20th century philosophy is unassailable. His influence on French and German thought in particular is HUGE. Well known, but never quite getting mainstream popularity, he is the Velvet Underground of continental philosophy: His legacy is in the mark he made on the big names that followed him – from Jean-Paul Sarte and his existentialism (a running philosophy joke is that Sartre’s whole career is based on a chapter of Heidegger's Being and Time) to Jacques Derrida and his deconstruction (good band name).

He was one the leading lights of the phenomenology movement, which may sound like gibberish to you, but I can assure you his ideas are still having an impact today, perhaps behind the scenes of modern life in academia, but still there none-the-less.

And besides, his philosophy is just so damn intriguing, packed with original, surprising and profound insights. He said western philosophy since the Greeks had been so concerned with knowledge and ethics and so on, it had ignored the question of beingwhat IS being, what is it to BE? He wanted nothing less than a complete overhaul of philosophical thinking – to destroy traditional metaphysics and build up a new account of existence by going back to raw experience itself. And, if you can get past his awful, over-complicated, jargon-heavy writing style, it’s far-out, revelatory stuff, with surprising parallels to eastern philosophy such as Zen Buddhism and Chinese Toaism (see here) and all that good stuff.

So, it’s doubly upsetting for me, someone who studied him intensively for over a year and found wisdom and solace in his musings, to learn that his appropriately named “black notebooks” are full of frankly nutty endorsements of the work of the National Socialist German Workers' Party.

Didn't we already know he was a Nazi?

In fairness, it should be said that none of this is out of the blue – it was known that Heidegger was a paid-up supporter of the Nazi Party from 1933 until the end of the war, and vocally endorsed Hitler and his cronies. But you kind of hoped his prolonged flirtation with fascism was kind of an embarrassing mistake, that he was caught up in the zeitgeist and swept along with the propaganda.

He was, after all, an iconoclast, wanting to sweep away the tired old order and start with a clean slate – so it’s easy to see how leaders promising the same in politics and society might have chimed with him. He is also very critical modernism in his work - modern life, modern ideas, particularly technology - and has a romantic notion of a more authentic, primordial, simpler way of being in the past. He very much sees the individual in modern society as having “fallen” from authentic being in some way, having become lost and dehumanised – so it is possible to understand why Hitler’s back-to-the-land, harking-back-to-a-forgotten-golden-age rhetoric might have appealed to the idealistic academic.

On the plus side it is known Heidegger prevented students from holding a book burning, and from displaying anti-Semitic posters, at the entrance to the University of Freiburg while he was rector, despite his ongoing support for the Nazis at the time. You hoped his silence on the matter after the war was because he was just too proud and ashamed to talk about his stupidity in backing the Third Reich. You hoped he felt a crushing sense of betrayal when it became clear the politicians he naively trumpeted turned out to be more monstrous than even their enemies imagined with the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

You also hoped whatever Heidegger’s personal politics, they did not impact on his work – his philosophy is not overtly political, it is about being in general – asking what it is for a self-aware consciousness to exist in the world, what it is to be “a being for whom its own being is an issue” – fundamentally, what are we and what is the world?

But no.

Oh dear

The black notebooks (as yet unpublished in English) apparently make it more than clear that Heidegger himself had a deep seated anti-Semitism that was deeply integrated into his philosophy. He talks of “world Judaism” as one of the main drivers of western modernity – ie everything he loathes as dehumanising us and taking us away from authentic being. Why and how exactly "the Jews" are responsible is not clear, except that Jewish communities in Europe tended to be necessarily rootless, itinerant people “divorced from the soil” (a bad thing for Heidegger) and tended to be happy to grasp the new possibilities offered by modern society. There was also a view prevalent at the time that "world Judaism" was really behind the Russian revelation, and that most threatening of modern ideas, communism.

Never mind that blaming a relatively small and peripheral ethnic minority for all the ills of the modern era is fucking ridiculous. Of all the possible roots of modernity, with all its mechanisation, exploitation, tranquilisation and alienation from authentic existence, “The Jews” is really not an obvious go-to-source. The European Enlightenment or “Age of Reason”, yes. The Industrial Revolution, yes. Free-market capitalism, the afore-mentioned communism and – FFS – fascism, absolutely. Jews? Um. No.

In “fairness” to Heidgger he does also point the finger at English, American and Soviet culture, but still – it shows he buys into the then-all-too-common paranoid and idiotic conspiracy theories about “world Judaism” of the kind espoused by Hitler in Mein Kampf, even if he pooh-poohs the Nazis’ racial angle in favour of a cultural one.


But the worst blow comes with the publication of the notebooks from after the end of the war, in which Heidegger talks about the Holocaust. In one jaw-dropping passage he appears to think it is more of a tragedy that Germany’s mission to transform the modern world – which had the potential to “save” the west – was stopped by the Allies before it could come to fruition. He sees this as a crime against history that is even greater than the genocide of six million people.

Surely, you might think, the Holocaust was the ultimate outplaying of the kind of dehumanising effect of modernity and technology Heidegger was so against - the production-line industrialisation of murder itself. But who do you think he blames for it - the Nazis he so stupidly supported? No, of course not. He blames "the Jews". Yes that’s right, they brought it on themselves – because they supported and drove the technological modern era, they are responsible for their own deaths by it. Not the Nazis who actually did it – they were simply trying to wipe out this Jewish culture of hateful modernity (that by Heidegger's own criteria they themselves took to an extreme in order to do that, but let’s not think about that). Yes, it really is bit like saying we can wipe out racism by the genocide of a racist race. Bloody racist races.


It’s not just that his views are vile – the history of philosophy is liberally sprinkled with horrible people who nevertheless had something interesting to say – it’s that they are just fucking nonsense. The fact that they are full of paranoia, hypocrisy, leaps of logic, and vast blind spots missing the obvious, casts serious doubt on his critical thinking faculties and the water-tightness of the rest of his work, which will now have to be re-evaluated in the light of this.

I mean to say, some of the translated passages of the black notebooks that have come my way read like a genteel and wordy version of the foaming-mouthed spoutings of a disgraced UKIP parliamentary candidate – if I read someone spouting this today I’d write that person off instantly as a nut, not worth wasting my time listening to. For that to be coming from someone I happen to think is among the most original and profound thinkers of the 20th century presents me with a hell of an inconsistency. How does one square this? Do I try to shrug off his more unpleasant views (surely an exercise in dishonest cherry picking)? Do I write off all of Heidegger’s thought (surely a bit baby/bathwater)? Have I woefully misjudged bonkers disgraced UKIP parliamentary candidates, who are in fact all philosophical geniuses?

All I can say is at least Heidegger wasn’t anyone’s posterboy. He never achieved the kind of hero status of the likes of Nietzsche or Wittgenstein, partly because his writing style is so impenetrable, pedantic and dull – no teenage philosophy students are scrawling Heidegger quotes such as “The projection of Dasein’s ownmost-potentiality-for-Being has been delivered over to the Fact of its thrownness into the ‘there’,” on Twitter.

Ban or study?

It will be interesting to see how the academic world deals with this. G√ľnter Figal, chair of the Martin Heidegger Society, has already resigned, stating his shock at the content of the notebooks, and that he is no longer willing to act as a representative for such a man. Those of us who always preferred Nieztsche – whose work was appropriated by Hitler and therefore is also tainted with such associations – can sit back and gloat, as our man, who died long before the Nazis and was vocally down on both anti-Semitism and nationalism in general, now looks like John bloody Lennon.

One thing I hope doesn't happen is that Heidegger will be treated like Jimmy Saville and excised from history. If nothing else that would be dishonest, since whole schools of thought with far-reaching consequences in the modern world owe a debt to him, whatever kind of beast he was - and our understanding of the history of philosophy would be poorer for skimming over him.

A ban on Heidegger would serve no one, and that is not the way philosophers do things anyway. What is brilliant about philosophy is that it doesn’t shy away from tough topics and questions for reasons of taste and decency – it delves right in. Burying and censoring things is the very opposite of the philosophical nature – rather it seeks to drag the truth out into the light, in all its ugliness and complexity, and then proceeds to dissect and debate it for eternity, to try and find out how it works, what might be going on and what the meaning and implications might be.

I suspect this is what will happen with Heidegger. If they are not already, people will soon be doing PhDs in the impact of Heidegger’s anti-Semitism on his phenomenology, or the implications of his Nazism for the work of his followers such as Satre (who, by the way, supported Stalin even after it became clear he was a mass murdering Gawd-help-us). And really, that’s the way it should be. Heidegger should not become untouchable – we simply have to handle him in a new and enlightened way.

1 comment:

  1. Savile would quickly have been excised from history anyway - I think you might better have drawn a parallel with that other fallen great, Rolf Harris, whose work was surely destined for immortality and was in no way aggrandized by his celebrity.