heidegger_and_nazism1

Heidegger’s Nazism

A review of Victor Farías’
Heidegger and Nazism (1987)

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This one’s from the archives. I stumbled across it today while trying to dig up another file. Upon rereading it, I was surprised to see that I still agree with most of the sentiments it conveys. Of course, there are some bits that annoy me that I’d like to change, but I’m going to post it as is. Don’t be too hard on me; it’s from 2006.

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Very little can be written concerning Victor Farías’ polemical Heidegger and Nazism which has not already been extensively discussed. Since its release in French translation in 1987, the book has been the subject of furious criticism, defended by an army of staunch advocates while simultaneously decried by a host of equally resolute detractors. For both extremes this work merely provided a pretext for debate. The battle lines had for the most part already been drawn: the response on either side to its publication was generally automatic. More judicious commentators have since been able to appreciate the truly groundbreaking revelations of Farías’ study, at the same time recognizing its severe limitations. The question of an author’s reasons for conducting this sort of investigation must inevitably arise, after all, given the controversial nature of the issues at stake. This was no small undertaking on his part. The painstaking archival process by which Farías gathered his data was carried out systematically over the course of several years. This no doubt casts some suspicion on his motives. Moreover, the striking lack of ambiguity in his results (which invariably implicate Heidegger as a loyal Nazi all along), combined with a number of questionable arguments and characterizations he makes, only serves to damage the integrity of his otherwise impressive research. So what might then be salvaged from Farías’ contentious analysis? The reader might proceed with cautious reservation, acknowledging the disturbing discoveries it relates while sifting out its more dubious insinuations.

Brief memorandum circulated by Heidegger addressing the students at Freiburg, 1934

Brief memorandum circulated by Heidegger
addressing the students at Freiburg, 1933

We shall begin by examining the general methodology of the text. The technique Farías employs throughout in assessing Heidegger’s thought is primarily external. That is to say, the book does not look to excogitate the subtle nuances and abstractions of Heidegger’s philosophy from within. Instead, Farías devotes most of his attention to relatively minor documents (memos, speech transcripts, personal correspondences, etc.). Aside from briefly glossing over some passages from Being and Time[1] and lecture notes from such later essays as “Introduction to Metaphysics,”[2] “The Origin of the Work of Art,” and “Ways to Language,”[3] his examination is restricted almost entirely to biographical material. This approach cannot be thought altogether inappropriate to the matter at hand, however. By centering his exposition on more mundane facts, Farías shatters the lofty image of Heidegger that his theoretical writings often suggest, unveiling the disgraceful realities of his practical everyday conduct. No longer are Heidegger’s more knee-jerk advocates allowed to retreat behind vague speculations — Farías confronts them with inescapable material corroboration for his claims. Nevertheless, his reasoning is careless in some sections of the work. He reads too much into some of his findings, overstepping the bounds of sensible criticism. As the reader continues through the text, he will witness readily enough indications of the uneven quality of Farías’ evaluation.

Beyond considering the author’s basic approach, we might also say a few words about the book’s structure, in terms of its content and formal organization. Farías’ fundamental thesis is that Martin Heidegger, the most celebrated German philosopher of the twentieth century, was from his earliest adolescence predisposed to the jingoism and folk anti-Semitism which would eventually find its political voice in Adolph Hitler’s National Socialist ideology. In doing so, Farías contradicts the traditional line taken by Heidegger’s apologists, who maintain the assertion that he had unfortunately stumbled into involvement with the party out of a real concern for his professorial standing, which might have been threatened had he not assented to its policies.[4] According to this account, Heidegger was far from being a committed Nazi. Instead, he was politically naïve, and, upon discovering the regime’s brutal nature, was dismayed by what he found, and began to privately distance himself from its principles. Farías forcefully denies this argument by providing overwhelming documentary evidence that undermines Heidegger’s post-war testimony. He arranges his argument into three distinct periods, tracing the chronology of Heidegger’s political development: first, he offers a narrative of Heidegger’s upbringing in southern Germany through to his intellectual career just prior to his assumption of the rectorship of Freiburg in 1933; next, he scrupulously details the philosopher’s activities during his tenure at the university, up until his eventual disfavor following the assassination of the radical populist leader of the SA, Ernst Röhm; finally, the book concludes by chronicling the years after his deposition from the rectorship, through the Second World War and on to the end of his life. Few complaints can be made about the text’s overall layout. It lends itself to a straightforward and lucid presentation of the pertinent historical facts. This outline is also convenient for the purposes of this review, as each section can be compactly synopsized without much fuss.

Heidegger (the shortest, standing behind a row of marchers and an SA guard) processing with other members of Freiburg's faculty in 1934

Heidegger (the shortest, standing behind a row of marchers and an
SA guard) processing with others of Freiburg’s faculty in 1934

The first third of Heidegger and Nazism offers much that one might expect in a biographical narrative of a thinker’s formative years. While it contains some intriguing information to this effect (especially for someone as unfamiliar with Heidegger’s life as myself), this section is undoubtedly the weakest of the three. Farías’ intention for this part of the text was to illustrate the intellectual atmosphere that surrounded Heidegger’s childhood and early years at the Catholic seminary in Freiburg, eventually culminating in an analysis of the tumultuous interwar period preceding the Nazi rise to power in 1933. No one can accuse Farías of laxity in his archeological work here, as he thoroughly exhausts every avenue of possible interpretation. The historical background Farías provides for Heidegger’s hometown is thus in some sense illuminating, but the lack of concrete connections to actual instances from the young philosopher’s experience leaves the reader disappointed. The regional history of anti-Semitism is no doubt an important factor to be assessed, but no less important is it for Farías to mention that he was unable to find specific factical correlations to Heidegger’s life. Without so much as a token admission that this is the case, we are left here with empty suggestions. Similarly, the comprehensive histories Farías compiles of Heidegger’s teachers at Freiburg, replete with their anti-Semitic and conservative credentials, fail to find support in corresponding evidence that Heidegger inherited his instructors’ cultural prejudices. As is repeated with disappointing frequency throughout the rest of the book, Farías relies on innuendo to condemn Heidegger. The epitome of this kind of questionable interpretation can be shown in Farías’ examination of Heidegger’s first published article, “On the Occasion of the Inauguration of a Monument to Abraham a Sancta Clara at Kreenheinstetten, August 15th, 1910.” This article, written during his time at the seminary, celebrates the life of an iconic Augustinian monk, Abraham a Sancta Clara, whose storied career in southern Germany/Austria included numerous nationalist exploits. Farías, however, dedicates an entire chapter to listing Abraham’s tracts against the Jews and Turks, highlighting his radical intolerance. No matter how rigorous and commendable this investigation might be, its relevance to gauging Heidegger’s own beliefs is highly suspect. In Heidegger’s article, Abraham’s anti-Semitism was of no interest. It is therefore difficult to conclude that any meaningful correlation exists between the two figures.[5]

The brief treatment given in the latter half of this first section, describing Heidegger’s eventual disillusionment with his Catholic faith and the beginnings of his academic career in philosophy is, by comparison, fairly even-handed. But even here one must notice the worrisome bias that underscores this work. An author’s partiality to a particular viewpoint might often be ascertained not only by observing what points he chooses to stress, but also by seeing the points he chooses to understate. Farías glosses over the relationship between Heidegger and the man who in many ways was to become his philosophical mentor, Edmund Husserl, by devoting a measly two paragraphs to its description. The author tries to excuse this choice by announcing that “[t]he meeting of the two thinkers [Heidegger and Husserl] has already been widely discussed.”[6] This is an incontestably true statement, but it does little to relieve us of the fear that Farías would rather have the reader pay less attention to this defining apprenticeship. The fact that Husserl was ethnically half-Jewish (though he eventually converted to Catholicism), and had nonetheless commanded the respect of the young Heidegger, is something that Farías would clearly prefer us to ignore. Heidegger’s later mistreatment of his former master, which is dealt with in the second third of the book, is immaterial. This is not to say that his admiration for a prominent Jewish intellectual would absolve Heidegger of all charges of anti-Semitism. His philosophical relationship with Husserl, much like his high-profile affair with the Jewish political theorist Hannah Arendt, does not prove one way or another that Heidegger might have harbored racial prejudices. We might simply contrast Farías’ superficial allusion to Husserl’s influence on Heidegger with the much more detailed references to his minor teachers whose pasts held evidence of anti-Semitic sentiments.

Heidegger photographed as director of Freiburg University, wearing a Nazi eagle lapel (1934)

Heidegger photographed as director of Freiburg
University, wearing a Nazi eagle lapel (1934)

The true brilliance of Farías’ exegesis is found in the second section of Heidegger and Nazism. This portion of the work, while it covers only a single year of Heidegger’s life (1933-1934), furnishes the reader with a huge body of research, combined with astute criticism and convincing arguments. By far, the most damning evidence of the philosopher’s Nazism is provided here. Starting with his rectoral address “The Self-Assertion of the German University,” given by Heidegger upon his assumption of the post in 1933, Farías methodically lays out the professor’s genuine enthusiasm for and active cooperation with the movement. Incontrovertible proof is given of Heidegger’s loyal obedience to the Nazi agenda. Appearing at several major public functions, including a speech to the Heidelberg Student Association and a discourse at Tübingen, he repeatedly remarked that “[t]he Führer himself, and he alone, is the German reality of today, and of the future, and of its law.”[7] He spiritedly embraced the pageantry of the Third Reich, beginning every lecture and address with a series of Nazi salutes accompanied by the traditional “Heil, Hitler!” When praising the courage of the students in confronting their destiny, he encouraged them all to join him in a tripled recitation of the trademark “Sieg, heil!” (“Hail, victory!”) salutation. Beyond these purely external displays of devotion, Heidegger was administratively complicit in implementing many of the Nazi university protocols. Among the more controversial measures adopted under his rectorship was a decree prohibiting scholarships to students of Jewish birth or any who adhered to the tenets of Marxism, while at the same time awarding financial aid to any students who participated in the SA or SS programs of the Nazi party. Farías demonstrates that Heidegger unflinchingly accepted the directive to issue this decree, contrary to his later claim that he had put forward stiff resistance to such measures. Furthermore, Farías unearths embarrassing evidence that Heidegger, operating under no external pressure from Nazi operatives, denounced one of his colleagues and a former student to party authorities on the grounds of their having allegedly insulted German veterans of World War I, or for being pacifists during that time. This is perhaps the single most appalling incident mentioned in the book, since Heidegger’s actions, borne solely out of personal spite and vindictiveness, resulted in the ruination of the careers of an innocent man (the allegations leveled at the second individual were luckily ignored).[8] All these facts listed in this section of Heidegger and Nazism are supported by copious documentation, and constitute the most convincing condemnation of Heidegger’s personal character.

Conceptually, Farías interprets the actual thought-output of Heidegger during this period (compiled in the various extant addresses and lecture materials) as betraying his true beliefs in Adolph Hitler and Nazism. He notes that the folk-nationalist ideas inherent in Heidegger’s work, coupled with the thinker’s eidetic inclination toward themes of “struggle” (Kampf) and discipline, predisposed him to the ideals of National Socialism. Moreover, the book argues, Heidegger’s revolutionary zeal for university reform had been present for some time. He had come to believe that part of the sickness of the technological age was to be found in the unquestioning, uncritical passivity of modern man. The heroic symbolism evoked by the Nazi movement, with its sense of urgency and call to purposeful, active living, appealed to Heidegger’s romantic sensibilities. The terminology of the Nazi doctrines matched up neatly with some of his own: notions of “courage,” “submission,” and destiny.” Additionally, Heidegger found himself, like so many other Germans at this time, captivated by the magnetic personality of Adolph Hitler, with his intensity and willful determination. Farías shows from the numerous telegrams Heidegger sent to Hitler, as well as from his reverential musings on the Führer’s exceptional character, that the philosopher’s personal commitment to this man was unwavering throughout. Ideologically, Farías places Heidegger alongside Ernst Röhm, as part of the more radical revolutionaries within the party. This he argues decisively, though one must be aware of the limited respect in which Heidegger might be considered “radical.” Certainly, his interests were never in the crude biological classifications of Nazi racial theorists. The object of Heidegger’s reform was ideal rather than material: spiritual (metaphysical) rather than bodily (physical). His speeches returned again and again to the necessity of a spiritual reawakening of the German people, the expulsion of foreign influences on the pure German Weltanschauung. In this sense, he might still be considered an anti-Semite, but not on the basis of racial science, but rather on philosophical doctrines which, like Nietzsche’s, favored Eleatic ontology to Jewish deontology. Certainly, the popular image of the Jew represented the modern era of urbanization, a trend which Heidegger vehemently opposed. Nevertheless, one gets the feeling that Farías would like for him to have been more crudely racist, as it would make him a more convenient target for discredit.

Heidegger processing in Freiburg, 1934

Heidegger processing in Freiburg, 1934

The final section of Heidegger and Nazism recounts the bitter years spent after Heidegger’s dismissal from the rectorship. Factional infighting between Heidegger and his rival Ernst Krieck, a high-ranking representative of the State Association of German Universities, seriously damaged the former’s reputation. The assassination of his ally Röhm on July 2nd, 1934 (the famous “Night of the Long Knives” purge), would seriously weaken Heidegger’s position. The revolutionary mentality of the Nazi party had been in some sense curtailed by this measure, as it was seen as something of a conciliation to the regular army and students who had grown tired of compulsory summer internship with the SA. Rudolph Hess, the successor to the leadership of the national student body, put an end to these programs. This would eventually spark the outrage of Heidegger, whose vision it had been to see the students at the spearhead of a continuous overhaul of society. He had hoped for them to learn principles of duty from the hard physical labor at their semesterly work details and paramilitary training along with rigorous thinking skills from their active participation in creating the new order. With the relaxation of university policies, Heidegger saw the effective end for his dream of transforming German life. But before this more drastic sequence of events would unfold, he had already by April 23rd resigned from the rectorship at Freiburg. Farías speculates that Heidegger had recognized the political storms brewing in the distance, as some of his more severe student reforms had come under attack by critics. His unusual brand of grassroots populism was on its way out, as more conservative forces within the Nazi party and German society at large demanded a return to normalcy.[9] Farías’ speculation regarding Heidegger’s departure from the rectorate is one of the most fascinating (and plausible) conjectures advanced in the course of the book. Interestingly, it would line up with the later explanation offered by the philosopher that he thought the movement had lost its way. But Farías takes him to task for this claim, for it only confirms Heidegger’s extremism.

Even though he felt that the bucolic ideals of National Socialism were betrayed after 1934, Heidegger continued to support its basic programs. He dutifully paid his party dues until the final collapse in 1945. Throughout, he would take part in minor functions and continue to contribute to the intellectual prestige of the fascist regime. While he was disillusioned and embittered by his defeats, he remained enchanted by the fervor of Hitler’s conviction, and hoped that Nazism might yet lead Germany to attain its destiny. These points are all convincingly stressed by Farías in the concluding chapters of the book. Valuable determinations are certainly made in his analyses. But the investigative quality of his inquiry here nonetheless wavers, as Farías returns to some of the more contestable methods he had employed in the first section. A digression into his wife’s (Elfride Heidegger-Petri) support for her husband’s student initiatives quickly loses its focus. Farías spends a full six pages excoriating Frau Heidegger’s violent anti-Semitic and anti-Communist leanings, providing no substantial evidence that her radicalism had any bearing whatsoever on her husband’s beliefs.[10] Again, the author is trying to transpose the guilt of those who associated closely with Heidegger onto the man himself. The subsequent observation Farías points out, noting some connections which existed between Heidegger and influential members of Mussolini’s government, is likewise immaterial, because it only demonstrates that Heidegger had some powerful academic friends who were willing to help him publish an article that had been hitherto blocked by Alfred Rosenberg. There is no proof given at all that Heidegger was involved in any nefarious dealings with the Italian dictator. Yet Farías chooses the cheerful subheading of “Heidegger and Il Duce” to preside over this selection. The use of Mussolini’s familiar appellation belies Farías’ condescending attitude. It is moreover misleading, since Heidegger did not have any direct relationship with the Italian premier.[11] Farías’ final misstep lies in his resurrection of the useless Abraham a Sancta Clara motif from the third chapter of the book. This can be inferred to be an awkward attempt to lace the text with some thematic thread that might tie together all of its archeological meanderings. The cliché of things “coming full circle” is played out in this gesture. The very title of the last chapter (“Return to Abraham a Sancta Clara”) suggests the absurdity of this contrivance.

Heidegger sitting alongside a group of prominent German rectors in support of Hitler in 1934

Heidegger sitting alongside a group of prominent
German rectors in support of Hitler in 1934

This must seem a poor note to end on. But if anything it should point out the shortcomings of Farías’ book. Heidegger and Nazism helped define a genre of discourse in French academic circles in the late 1980’s, and probably could not have done so if it had not contained so many flaws. Its most serious indictments, when taken on their own strength, cannot be easily written off. Farías proves beyond the shadow of doubt that Heidegger’s loyalties lay firmly with the Nazi party, and that he was a true believer in its promise to seize Germany’s historic destiny. Heidegger was unbothered by the moral implications that his collaboration entailed, most of which would strike any sensible audience as obviously reprehensible. Heidegger’s enthusiastic support for Nazi militarism, expansionism, and nationalism was not forced onto him by external political pressure. All these criticisms Farías brought to light in Heidegger and Nazism, and can be justifiably upheld by his research. However, in his determination to pull back the curtain on Heidegger’s deceitful legacy, he showed himself a bit too eager. The inclusion of dubious materials as evidence undoubtedly weakens his argument. Farías shows, by a simple lack of cautious editing, that he has an axe to grind with Heidegger. This never reflects well on an author, especially if he is attempting to treat a controversial subject. He pursues fruitless lines of inquiry, and, upon finding nothing with which to directly incriminate Heidegger, imprudently fails to remove it from the text. This should serve to show, if nothing else, that even the strongest case, no matter how indestructible it might appear, only harms itself by excess. A fairer analysis, unmarred by extraneous insinuation, would more thoroughly silence potential opposition.

Notes


[1] Farías, Heidegger and Nazism. Translated from French by Paul Burrell and Dominic Di Bernardi, and from German by Gabriel R. Ricci. (Temple University Press. Philadelphia, PA: 1989). Pgs. 59-68.
[2] Ibid., pgs. 215-228.
[3] Ibid., pgs. 239-245.
[4] Though this theme appears throughout the text, the formulation of Farías’ argument is provided most succinctly in his introduction: “Heidegger’s decision to join the NSDAP was in no way the result of unexpected opportunism or tactical considerations. The decision was clearly linked with his already having acted in a way consonant with National Socialism prior to becoming rector of the University of Freiburg and with his actual political practices as rector and member of the party.” Ibid., pg. 4.
[5] Ibid., pgs. 24-37. The editors of this edition of Heidegger and Nazism, Joseph Margolis and Tom Rockmore, chose to preserve this controversial section from the original French manuscripts. They write: “…we have not deleted or abandoned any part of Farías’ original argument, including the much-criticized materials on Abraham a Sancta Clara (which we were urged to excise).” Ibid., pg. xix.
[6] Ibid., pg. 54.
[7] Ibid., pg. 118.
[8] The first outed professor was Hermann Staudinger, who would later go on to win the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. Ibid., pgs. 119-121. After his term as rector had ended, Farías shows that Heidegger attempted to denounce at least one other professor who had crossed his path: the philosophy professor Eduard Baumgarten. Luckily for Baumgarten, the relevant authorities considered this attack to be personally motivated and ignored Heidegger’s request. Ibid., pgs. 209-211.
[9] Ibid., pgs. 177-187.
[10] Ibid., pgs. 228-234.
[11] Ibid., pgs. 260-268.

4 thoughts on “Heidegger’s Nazism

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