Martin Heidegger: a Political Life
By Hugo Ott
Martin Heidegger has been described as one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century. His work is considered difficult even by other philosophers and his magnum opus Being and Time is thought by some to be the most difficult book ever written. The nature and meaning of his philosophy (for commentary on which see The Scorpion issues 11 and 13) are not however the main concern of Ott’s book. He is concerned with two things, Heidegger’s involvement with National Socialism and the question of whether this was accidental to his philosophy, and his relationship with Roman Catholicism.
Heidegger grew up in a committed Catholic family in Baden, a strongly Catholic part of Southern Germany near the Swiss border. His father was the Sexton of the Catholic parish of Messkirsch, and young Martin was educated at grammar schools in Constance and Freiburg which, though not strictly Jesuit since the abolition of the Society of Jesus in 1773, were nevertheless strongly influenced by Jesuitism. It was at Constance that his interest in philosophy first developed, having been given a copy of Brentano’s ‘On the Manifold Meaning of Being according to Aristotle’ by Conrad Grober, later Archbishop of Freiburg. In 1909 Heidegger applied to join the Jesuit order in Austria but was rejected on health grounds and switched instead to the theological seminary in Freiburg. This trajectory was also ended by health problems and Heidegger changed first to the study of mathematics and logic, and then philosophy. Ott attaches great importance to Heidegger’s Catholic origins as he believes that it was the wrestling with the faith of his birth which set up a series of conflicts in Heidegger’s deepest soul, this having various manifestations in his thought and actions over the decades. Having married a Lutheran Heidegger distanced himself from Catholicism to the point where he came to be regarded by many as a Protestant thinker, or at least as a link man between philosophy and Protestant theology, though Heidegger himself later claimed to have remained a Catholic all of his life. The real relevance of this in Ott’s contention is that the break with the system of Catholicism allowed Heidegger to pursue a style of philosophy not ultimately Protestant so much as a style in which “ethical and theological questions were deliberarely not asked.”
Having been made a full professor of philosophy at Freiburg to succeed his former mentor Husserl in 1929, Heidegger went on to become Rector in 1933, making the notorious pro-Hitler remarks in his inaugural address. Taking issue with the ‘official’ Heideggerian line expressed in Facts and Thoughts and elsewhere regarding the Freiburg Rectorship, Ott argues persuasively that Heidegger became Rector as a result of a carefully conducted plan executed by a cadre of National Socialist lecturers. Ott further claims that Heidegger used his position as Rector to carry out the Gleichschatung (restructuring along National Socialist lines) of Freiburg University, thereby lending the authority of one of Germany’s foremost thinkers to the whole nationwide process. At this point Heidegger was clearly committed to the pushing through of a radically authoritarian reformation of German academic policy, and with himself as the leading figure in this process. This, together with the fact that he declared in favour of Hitler in the vote of 12th November 1933 would appear to argue against the claim before the denazification committee in 1945 that he had realized by the summer of 1933 that events were moving in a direction contrary to his own political values. Ott also reveals that Heidegger had a part in the removal and attempted removal of several academics from their posts due to their ‘political unreliability’. Nevertheless, Heidegger had powerful enemies within National Socialist institutions, notably Erich Jaensch, who regarded Heidegger as representative of the previous, decadent order. With the passage of time it became clear that his own interpretation of National Socialism was not going to predominate; that, as Ott puts it, “1933 was the crucial event, the moment of truth – but the Germans failed to recognize it. They turned their backs on the interpreter of the event. So the essence of Truth remained veiled, fleeing from the ‘unique and unrepeatable time-space’ to seek refuge in ‘the immemorial incipience of the beginning’ “.This attitude, born of Heidegger’s philosophy also helps to explain why he continued to hold out hope for an eventual German rebirth, even amongst the ruins of 1945.
As further examples of the congruity of Heidegger’s thought and National Socialism Ott cites the use of militaristic language – words and phrases such as ‘struggle’, ‘fighting front’, and ‘combat’ litter the works of this period. and the organisation of the academic summer camps at which Heidegger intended to inculcate within a generation of students an understanding of his philosophical principles. These camps took place in an SA-like military atmosphere, and it was here that a conflict arose with the representatives of the more down to earth National Socialism, apparently over Heidegger’s failure to give prominence to the Party’s racial doctrine. Later, this issue re-emerged as Heidegger challenged the Party-line interpretation of Nietzsche as promoted by Alfred Baumler.
Heidegger’s attitude towards the Jews was ambivalent. On the one hand he was capable of writing “…what is at stake here is nothing less than the need to recognize without delay that we face a choice between sustaining our German intellectual life through a renewed infusion of genuine native teachers and educators, or abandoning it once and for all to the growing Jewish influence – in both the wider and narrower sense. We shall get back on the right track only if we are able to promote the careers of a new generation of teachers without harassment and unhelpful confrontation.” (Letter to Victor Schwoerer, 2.10.1929). On the other hand his assistant Werner Brock was Jewish, as was a substantial group of his students, including, at different times, Hannah Arendt and Herbert Marcuse. This ambivalence was reflected in the National Socialist attitude towards Heidegger, with many regarding him as a loyal, if idiosyncratic, party member, while others argued that his thought had a particular appeal for Jews because of its supposed “hairsplitting sophistries”, which was held to be similar to Talmudic thought.
Ott details the career of Heidegger’s post-war tribulations and eventual rehabilitation – the part occupation of his house, the threats to confiscate his library, the teachng ban, and then later the triumphant return to public lecturing on such subjects as ‘The arts in the age of technology’, and ‘What does it mean to think? Heidegger’s thought was taken up by the circle around Jean-Paul Sartre and had a significant influence on French existentialism and beyond, reaching into such diverse areas as interpretations of Nietzsche, the sociology of everyday life, the conservative critique of technology and linguistics.
So where does this leave Ott’s contention that Heidegger was plagued by his difficult relationship with the faith of his birth? It seems clear enough that Heidegger hankered after a rebirth of German intellectual life drawing on the pre-Socratics, particularly Parmenides and Heraclitus. It seems that he came to see Christian philosophy as untenable since it assumes the answers before the questions are asked, and for Heidegger the philosopher’s duty is to question the very ground upon which he stands. However, this is not the same as an outright rejection of Christianity, and indeed Ott describes how Heidegger was buried as a Catholic. Perhaps the answer lies in Guillaume Faye’s idea regarding the surpassing of Christianity (see The Scorpion, issue 13), in which the German and European rebirth will not appear out of nowhere as a totally new culture, nor will it be a recreation of a largely unknowable past, but rather it will integrate the higher elements of the various periods of our past in a questioning but confident and invigorating new synthesis.
[The Scorpion, Issue 23, 2004]