Dark Genius: Martin Heidegger was central to modern thought--and a Nazi
by Robert Fulford

Review of Rüdiger Safranski's book Martin Heidegger: Between Good and Evil
(Ottawa Citizen, May 10, 1998)

Long after it was over, long after everyone who cared knew that Germany's great philosopher had made a tragic fool of himself, Martin Heidegger was still working on his alibi, still hoping to make his most infamous performance on the public stage marginally acceptable. His crime was brutally obvious: in May, 1933, already established as a major thinker, he put on a Nazi uniform, swastika and all, to assume his new position as Nazi-approved rector of the University of Freiburg. In the November of that first year of Hitler's new Germany, he told the students, "Let not axioms or 'ideas' be the rules of your Being. The Fuhrer, himself and alone, is the present and future German reality and its law." By then, the persecution of Jews, book-burning, and the suppression of opposition were public facts. Heidegger endorsed the whole Nazi project.

This scandal burdens his reputation and will no doubt follow behind him, clanking its chains, through the next century. In his lifetime, however, he worked hard to make it look less like the historic blunder it was. To a considerable extent he succeeded, and at his death in 1976 his Nazi period was widely considered brief and aberrant, almost an eccentricity, not something we should worry about when considering his greatness. After all, mistakes happen. Times were tough. In 1960, when he received a letter from an admirer who couldn't reconcile the philosopher Heidegger with the Heidegger who supported Nazi thugs, he replied by describing German conditions in 1933--the 7-million unemployed, "Germany's economic throttling by the Treaty of Versailles," mass confusion that "spread to the universities," etc. He implied that he had reluctantly fallen into step behind the Nazis, because only they could save Germany.

That was a lie--and not the only significant lie in his career. Rüdiger Safranski's rich, engrossing biography, Martin Heidegger: Between Good and Evil, a best-seller in Germany, treats Heidegger fairly, and treats his ideas with respect, yet leaves us with an unavoidable conclusion: he was an artful dodger, shifty and often mendacious. Ignore his relationship to the Nazis for a moment and consider his struggle with the Catholic church; his love affair with Hannah Arendt; and his treatment of his mentor, Edmund Husserl.

Heidegger was the product of a seriously Catholic family, his father a church sexton. He was briefly a Jesuit seminarian and then, for several years, a Catholic teacher supported in graduate school by Catholic officials who believed they were grooming a future star for their universities. There was a period, perhaps two years long, when he privately turned against what he called "the Catholic system" while accepting subsidies from the church and scheming for a Catholic teaching job. Then, when he had acquired the education the church paid for, and the job was out of the question, he left the church and let it be known that, contrary to his promise at marriage (to a Protestant), his children would not be reared Catholic. When this happened, around 1919, a deception of that kind mattered far more than it would today; church doctrine was of rather more than academic interest. So at the foundation of his university life there was an element of deceit that must have stained his later life.

In 1924, as a 35-year-old husband, father and professor, he had an affair with Arendt, a brilliant 18-year-old student--the great passion of his life, he later said. At his insistence, they kept it totally secret; not even her closest friends could know about this deeply significant event in her life. The lovers operated like spies, Heidegger sending her cryptic notes to announce the time and place of their next meeting, complete with signals involving lights switched on and off.

He of course deceived his wife, who, as a vicious anti-Semite, was doubly affronted when eventually she learned he had been sleeping not only with a student but a Jewish student. In a more subtle way, he deceived Arendt. He claimed from the beginning that he admired her brilliance and wanted to see her intellectual promise fulfilled, yet his ego made it impossible for him to treat her as a thinker. As in the most banal professor-student affair, the professor wanted sex and flattery.

Even after the war, when Arendt was herself a famous philosopher and helped to bring his work to the attention of readers in America and elsewhere, he ignored her books. She saw this as simply a condition of their relationship. In 1955, she wrote in a letter, "I am quite ready to behave toward Heidegger as though I have never written a word and will never write one." Why did she accept such nonsense? From beginning to end, she was his acolyte. She spoke his name in the same breath with Plato's and called him "the secret king of thought." On the other hand, she did note that he "lies always and at each opportunity." Her admiration, while immense, did not quite blind her.

As for Edmund Husserl, Heidegger's attitude to him was doubly corrupt. He was Heidegger's sponsor and guide, and for years Heidegger seemed devoted to Husserl's philosophical approach, phenomenology, which Safranski defines with great skill and patience.

Safranski emphasizes that phenomenology was an exciting movement as well as a set of ideas--it had "the aura of a new dawn," and Heidegger wanted badly to be a part of it. Husserl and his colleagues imagined that their project would dominate philosophy for centuries. They thought they could uncover the essence of consciousness, strip away rhetorical and self-serving language, and see both the world and our relations with it in a clear light. As Heidegger said, phenomenology would teach us all to "set aside our prejudices, learn to see directly and simply and to abide by what we see without asking...what we can do with it."

Heidegger spoke those words as a loyal follower and assistant of Husserl. But when he acquired the security of a permanent university position, he began to chatter behind the master's back. At one point he wrote to another academic: "Husserl has totally gone to pieces--if indeed he ever was in one piece--which I have lately been increasingly questioning....He lives by the mission of being 'the founder of phenomenology,' no one has any idea what that is..."

Still, they maintained good relations, until the Nazis came to power. Then Husserl, a Jew (and also, ironically, a fervent German patriot), had to be pushed out of academic life. He was soon completely isolated, and died in 1938--of a broken heart, by some accounts. Heidegger did nothing to console Husserl or lessen his anxiety. And in the 1940s, when a new edition of Heidegger's Being and Time was being published, he prudently withdrew the dedication he had written to Husserl in 1927.

Given this sorry record, why should anyone be concerned about Heidegger? And why has Safranski gone to the trouble of writing such a good book?

A Berlin writer who was born in 1945, Safranski brings a cultural historian's perspective to Heidegger. He's written a biography of E.T.A. Hoffman, the German literary fantasist and composer who straddled romanticism and realism, and a book called Schopenhauer and the Wild Years of Philosophy, about the development of thought in 19th-century Germany. He admires Heidegger's thinking but views just about every aspect of the life with a cool eye. What brings him to this subject, clearly, is the man's enormous influence, which has now stretched over seven decades and shows no sign of abating.

Martin Heidegger is the great beast standing in the road to modern and post-modern thought. He cannot be escaped. You must go over him or around him to reach Jean-Paul Sartre, existentialism, Jacques Derrida, post-modernism, George Grant, or any one of several hundred other thinkers and thoughts that you will encounter in a march through the libraries, classrooms, art museums, and learned journals of the late 20th century. George Grant always claimed Sartre's entire career was based on plagiarism of Heidegger.

Today the University of Toronto library lists 530 books by or about Heidegger, and seldom does a week pass without the appearance of a new one somewhere. We can ignore Heidegger if we choose, but no more than we can ignore electricity, or skyscrapers, or Steven Spielberg. Some years ago, at a conference at Berkeley on "applied Heidegger," a paper was given (alas, I never saw it) about Heidegger's influence on nursing. When I was writing a book about Toronto, I was trying to explain what's wrong with the expressways that race across many cities. The more I thought about them, the closer I came to Heidegger, until finally I realized that Heidegger had said about the Rhine River precisely what I wanted to say about an expressway: efficient modern planning has made them both so specialized and narrow in their function that they (the river and the road) have lost their connection to humanity and nature.

Of course Heidegger's writing is notoriously obscure, and that's the way he wanted it: he had no desire to help us understand the thoughts that he had spent so much time thinking. In fact, it's probably not too much to suggest that he believed it should be as hard for us as it was for him. And at the end the reader will not be rewarded by a doctrine. As Safranski says, Heidegger had no constructive philosophy, no world picture or moral code: "There are no 'results' of Heidegger's thinking." His interest was in questioning rather than answering. Sometimes Heidegger suggested he was no more than a museum attendant who draws the curtains aside so that great works of philosophy can be seen more clearly.

But he was also trying to draw back the curtain on existence. He tried to teach us not to take our existence--or existence itself--for granted. He wanted to remove "the concealing, the accustomed, the rigidified, that which has become abstract." In Heidegger's view, humans are creatures for whom Being is a problem. We know we must die, therefore anxiety in our lives is not occasional but permanent. (Our theme song is Born To Be Anxious--and to all our other anxieties, he added the anxiety of failing to understand Heidegger.)

Still, there's a worse fate--not to know these truths, to evade them, and thus to be "inauthentic," untrue to ourselves. In the 1920s Heidegger placed the word "authentic" at the centre of modern thought, where it has been ever since--people using it, in any but the literal sense, are accidental Heideggerians. Being and Time says it in one sentence: "Everyone is the other, and no one is himself."

Like many pieces on Heidegger over the years, this review began with his status as a Nazi, and must end there, too, at that dreadful moment when the highest thought and the lowest politics meet in mutual enjoyment. Over the years, Heidegger's admirers have insisted that we can see his philosophy, and his attraction to Hitler, in separate categories. Unfortunately, that's impossible. The record has betrayed him. Documents unearthed by historians since his death have shown that it was philosophy that led him into the camp of the Nazis. His work around 1930 indicates he was dreaming of power, of philosophy operating in the world--and dreaming of himself as a thinker whose words could make history. He was anxious not to miss the moment, and when Hitler appeared, Heidegger seized the day. At the end of 1931 he was privately declaring himself a Hitler partisan. To the depths of his philosophical soul, he believed Hitler was Germany's destiny, the fulfilment of the sense of history Heidegger had been developing for years. Heidegger hated industry, technology, and mass society, he associated all three with the United States and the Soviet Union, and he imagined Nazism as a kind of antidote, a way of maintaining the people's connections with nature. He absorbed and celebrated the Nazi idea of the new Germany as a natural, inevitable, and thus welcome development.

After 1945, Heidegger and his friends liked to say that in the mid-1930s he had withdrawn from the Nazis, and had fallen silent out of disapproval. This idea was widely published and is still sometimes believed. To this moment the Columbia Encyclopedia tells us that after 1933 "he soon became disillusioned with Nazism." Unfortunately, that appears also to be wrong. It would be more accurate to say that the Nazis became disillusioned with him. The record shows they thought him unreliable, and they were highly suspicious when they learned that even his students didn't always understand what he was talking about. In time, he might have rejected them, but the fact is that they rejected him first.

Heidegger was an enthusiastic Nazi, enthralled by Hitler, and apparently willing to tolerate any amount of thuggery if done in the name of the new order. He was not alone, of course: about half of the philosophy professors in Germany were Nazis by 1940. Nor was he alone in ignoring the Holocaust, which his writings barely acknowledged: the greatest crime of all the centuries was apparently not all that important in his view of the world. Certainly the idea that he went reluctantly into collusion with the Nazis was a fiction created long after the fact, then artfully inserted into the record. As Safranski shows, the horrible truth is that when Hitler came to power, Martin Heidegger, the secret king of thought, was in ecstasy.

Martin Heidegger: Between Good and Evil (Harvard University Press, $50.95), by Rüdiger Safranski, translated from the German by Ewald Osers

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