Why does Heidegger remain revered?
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 17 May 2016)

In 1929, four years before Hitler became chancellor of Germany, Martin Heidegger mentioned his misgivings about the "Jewification" of the German spirit. His ideas on race were rooted in the "soil and blood" of historic Germany. He believed in its ethnic "purity." As he saw it, real Germans were rural Germans, like himself. Modern Jews were city people, therefore foreign.

That was just one of the things he held against them. He blamed the Jews for the growth of technology, which he considered a plague spreading across the world. He thought Hitler a great man and at the University of Freiburg he began his lectures and signed his letters with the phrase "Heil Hitler." He revelled in the "inner truth and greatness" of the Nazis. He dreamed (vainly, it turned out) that he would be chosen as the philosopher to express their ideals on the highest possible level.

It is among the wonders of intellectual life that this famous Nazi is still considered one of the great philosophers of modern times. It's equally amazing that a good many of his adoring students were Jews.

One of them was a bright and thoughtful 18-year-old, a woman he was much later to describe as the passion of his life, Hannah Arendt. He was 36 years old, a married man with two sons, when they came together. The first phase of their affair lasted a year. When she transferred to another university, partly to get away from him, the affair lasted two more years through a series of clandestine visits.

We see these events in a special perspective in Heidegger's Children (Princeton University Press), by Richard Wolin, a history professor at the City University of New York and author of The Heidegger Controversy and other books.

He discusses, besides Arendt, three other Jewish students of Heidegger: Karl L÷with, Hans Jonas and Herbert Marcuse. First published in 2001, Heidegger's Children has recently been re-issued with a new introduction by Wolin.

Each of his four subjects drew on the insights of Heidegger in making a remarkable career. Karl L÷with left Germany in 1934 on a twisting journey to escape totalitarianism. He went to Italy, then to Japan, then to the U.S. and the Hartford Theological Seminary and the New School for Social Research. In 1952 he moved home to Heidelberg, where he stayed as professor of philosophy until his death. His books, such as From Hegel to Nietzsche and Max Weber and Karl Marx, made him one of most prolific and popular scholars in his field.

He seems to have absorbed the theological side of Heidegger.

Hans Jonas, like Lowith, went to the New School for Social Research in New York, but in his case it was a permanent appointment. Perhaps inspired by Heidegger's fear of technology, Jonas made the environment his main subject.

In 1979 he wrote The Imperative of Responsibility about the social and ethical questions presented by technology. He stated the first principle of morality: "Act so that the effects of your action are compatible with the permanence of genuine human life."

Herbert Marcuse had perhaps the most surprising career in Wolin's quartet. He was a Marxist before he studied with Heidegger and he believed for a while that a synthesis of Marxism and Heidegger's thinking might point the way to a better life for the masses. But Heidegger's decision to follow Hitler turned him in another direction.

By the 1960s he was a severe critic of democracy, capitalism and technology, arguing these modern systems amounted to new forms of social control. His books, notably Eros and Civilization and One-Dimensional Man, made him a hero of the New Left and student movements in several countries, especially the U.S. Heidegger's Children deals with a densely complicated story lived on many levels. The questions it raises are numberless. Was Heidegger, that profound thinker, as heedless of the fate of six million Jews as he seems to have been? Were his Jewish students as angry and hate-filled as most of us would have been in their place? Is a great thinker capable of failing to recognize his era's greatest evil when it walks right into his life and his mind?

Wolin is richly informed in the issues faced by his four students and their renowned teacher. Early in their lives, the students were afflicted by the darkest, most hurtful kind of disappointment. Like all German Jews, they were absorbing the painful truth that they were regarded as more Jewish than German, even if they loved and celebrated the greatness of German culture, even if their fathers won Iron Crosses in the First World War. And their grim, imperious professor was learning that the catastrophe of genocide overshadowed his status as a heroic thinker.

During the war Heidegger and Arendt were out of touch and what she wrote about him indicated that he was diminished in her eyes. Their parting had been angry. But they reconciled in 1950, when he badly needed her.

Her writing and teaching, particularly her famous book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, had given her a current reputation larger than Heidegger's. His Nazi connections made postwar German universities reluctant to hire him. There were few publishers anxious to reissue his books. He needed help in reconstructing his position. She signed on eagerly for the job, making connections with American publishers, checking his contracts and translations. She became, in effect, his publicist and literary agent. When she wrote about him she played down his Nazi past. And she enjoyed recovering her youthful enthusiasm for his work -- though she regretted that, being Heidegger, he showed no similar interest in hers.

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