Heidegger’s Illusions

by E. John Winner


In 1934, shortly after the infamous murder spree of the Blood Purge, Hitler delivered a speech before the Reichstag. Referring to an unspecified threat to himself – and thus to the government, and thus to the German nation, and thus to the German people – Hitler announced that in initiating the murders of the leadership of the Brownshirts, the leadership of the Berlin National Socialist organization, a handful of “left-wing” politicians, and a couple of minor recalcitrant old-guard military figures – he had become identical with the self-preservation of the German people, their will, and their law. According to all the opinion polling data at the time, the German people either agreed or acquiesced. This effectively ended the legitimacy of the government of Germany. If a single man’s will can be said to be the law, then there is no law; no autonomous standard of regulation by which individual behaviors may be judged. Only Hitler’s word kept a nation called “Germany” together as a political entity. The conceptualized entity, “the State,” is an invention of theory, agreed to (even if only by acquiescence) by the participants, and when it reduces to nothing but power, it is powerless as an idea. Adolf Hitler identified Germany with his own body, his own thought, and his own will, and the German people allowed him to do so. What theory of the State could correspond with this?

“The state exists,” wrote Martin Heidegger in his Introduction to Metaphysics, only a year after the historic moment when the German state had ceased to exist as anything other than a vehicle for the will of Adolf Hitler. [1] As Heidegger began to realize his disappointment with political events in Hitler’s Germany, did he have any idea how powerless his thinking was in relation to those events? Did he not see that events were reducing his address to them to parody? The nation within which these events occured – inhabited, Heidegger asserts, by the world’s “most spiritual people” – was everywhere falling into the barbarism that has at its command the forces of Modern technology; the same technological regimentation of Modern life for which Heidegger denounces America and the Soviet Union, but threatening the very existence of the world; not some metaphysical “world-order,” but the world of living people. But Heidegger preferred to tease the essence of Being out of a state facing an existential threat from its own leadership.

Given that the Introduction to Metaphysics is a lecture given in an academic setting, it is easy to read Heidegger’s questioning of the ontology of the state and presume that whatever he says following a question, will constitute an answer to the question. But what if Heidegger is actually asking himself questions, e.g.: “What is the state of National Socialist Germany? Can such be even referred to as a state? Where am I situated if the state is not; that is, the state no longer is what is claimed for it, the legitimate institution of government by law for the community of Germany?” How did whatever it was that Heidegger took to be the promise of National Socialism deliver Germany into nihilism? Heidegger seems to be trying desperately to raise the question of Being, only because the “essence” of National Socialism amounts to nothing.


There is not nothing in Heidegger’s infamous “Nothing.” Nor is it something. Nor is it negation. It is the absence of Being. There is, for Heidegger, certainly, a National Socialist government, but where the being of the state is sought, we find only the absence of essence, the lack of Being, that is, the Nothing – certainly nothing of the essence that was sought.

However, Heidegger seems to want to say that there is an essence of National Socialism, not found as a national state, clearly, but rather as the “spirit” of a movement in history. The Introduction to Metaphysics is an attempt to raise that issue indirectly, as a questioning of Being, in order to raise the being of National Socialism that, in the event, never emerged in history, but only as a “spirit” in this text. Heidegger tells us precisely what he identifies as this “spirit,” when he quotes from his notorious “Rektoratsrede” of 1933, to the effect that ‘spirit’ can be defined as an informed will to discover the essence of Being. It is the “will to power” as will-to-truth; a will to express truth historically. One hears echoes of Nietzsche here, obviously, yet there is more. In another well-known passage, where Heidegger writes of the dissolution of the European “spirit” as a whole, he remarks that they proved unworthy of the greatness of German Idealism.

I suspect that what Heidegger expected from National Socialism was a resurrection of the lively culture engendered by the “nation” of “Dichter und Denker” (as Germans liked to think of themselves occasionally), as it existed and promised to become when that culture was dominated by the thought of the German Idealists. But as something of a Nietzschean, Heidegger also wanted this culture to avail itself of all the resources enjoyed by any Modern culture – and to produce new cultural resources as well. This would require a new generation of poets and thinkers who would establish the grounds of knowledge in the new era they would bring forth – possibly by accepting the completion of Western metaphysics by the German Idealists themselves, while correcting the misdirection of Western metaphysics as a whole, literally from the ground up. The German philosophers would at last have an opportunity to get to the source of all philosophy, and, effectively start from scratch. Heidegger appears to have believed that it would be National Socialism that would provide this opportunity.

Unfortunately, the National Socialists chose not to do this. Instead, Heidegger was left to lecture on metaphysics, while wondering why National Socialism would not do this. Why have such a sudden diremption in history presented to a people, as a moment for rethinking the whole of their culture and its destiny, just so they could adopt the industrialism of Russia and America and the technological regimentation that came with it?

When writing of “revolution” and “our revolution,” Heidegger may be referring to the event of German Idealism. That promise had been made by writers like Kant and Hegel, and never realized: the promise Heidegger himself identified with National Socialism, but with which the Nazis themselves never identified; the promise embedded in the text of Introduction to Metaphysics, present in the occasional tone of bitter disappointment, expressions of a deep anxiety over the Nothing of the new era of National Socialism.

Concerning much of our discussion here, Hans Sluga has contributed a cogent interpretation. [2] Heidegger’s own understanding of his relationship with National Socialism, which he reads as a relationship to “historical Being,” was clearly very confused. It is also clear that Martin Heidegger adopted National Socialism in 1933 precisely because he had not the slightest idea what that movement was about. Heidegger was not able to conceive the real historical situation in which he found himself. The phenomenon Heidegger’s text labels “National Socialism” happens to be wholly imaginary, a fantastic fictionalization of history. And this fiction was not derived in opposition to traditional philosophy, but from it, as mythopoesis of certain tendencies in the texts of German Idealism, as implicated in the published readings of those texts available to Heidegger in the Germany of his time.

As Sluga points out, Heidegger’s argument against Modernity pivots on an insistence that the re-interpretation of “spirit,” as produced and dispersed by Modernist theorists has degraded the inherent nobility of the “spirit” by reading it as a form of intelligence, a tool, a value, an aesthetic. But the discourse of Modernity regarding “spirit” is not a re-interpretation of anything. It in fact forms the context from which the text of what Moderns know as “spirit” was produced. This notion of “spirit” is an invention of Modern discourse (especially that of German Idealism), clearly intended to replace Classical and Medieval discourse concerning “the intellective soul,” the generative locus of reason that identifies the human from other forms of animal life. Unfortunately, the German Idealists tended to get carried away by the rhetoricity of their own discourse. The term appears to have been set in motion as a trope for an ambiguous theoretical model; e.g., although Hegel’s attempted rendition in the Phenomenology is adequate, its dialectical presentation leaves considerable room for variant readings. But it soon became reified into a nebulous something-or-other that was made to appear, in deus-ex-machina fashion, whenever an a priori authority for a theoretical axiom was needed to justify a line of argument. (Here I am thankful to Jacques Derrida’s reading of Heidegger’s “Rektoratsrede,”) [3]

As the discourse of the “Spirit” was developed precisely to these ends, the “spirit” can only label an intelligence, a tool, a value, an aesthetic – these are its historic and originary significations. Heidegger was clearly blinded by the hypostatic quality of such discourse into accepting such reification as a given: Dasein (loosely, Human Being) realizes its essence through its historical encounter with Being, which thus brings Being into disclosure historically as truth. This essence is its “spirit.” But such yet remains assertion; the ground remains ungrounded.

For Heidegger, the “spirit” of National Socialism should have been the realization of Dasein’s encounter with Being in history. But he has hitched this hope to a creaky wagon full of illusions: that the German Idealists had resurfaced an historically determined truth from the ancient Greeks, signified as “spirit,” which in fact was their own construction; that this supposed re-surfacing had in itself provided the German people an opportunity to realize ancient truths in a new form; that this opportunity effectively centralized Germany as the special locus of important historical change, ushering in a new age of thinking, of poetic encounter with Being, or cultural creativity promised but unfulfilled in Western metaphysics; that there could even be a “National Socialism” different from that of Adolf Hitler’s. Heidegger has introduced us to metaphysics, but his anxiety that all his hope might be grounded in illusion (evident in the bitterness of his social commentary, in his ironic self-reflection) has revealed the nothingness of the National Socialist state, the inherent nihilism grounding its industrially driven construction, predetermined to realize itself in death camps and world war. In 1935, it was poignant to ask “Why is there Being rather than Nothing,” because the German people were nearing the political abyss of the Nothing of historical obliteration.

Heidegger himself raises the issue, under the rubric of “appearance.” Unfortunately, his discourse on appearance is itself misguided. What Heidegger wants from appearance as a presentation of Being is two-fold. First, he needs to acknowledge that appearance can be deceptive, as everyone knows; thus it should provide a standard of judgment as to its own veracity. But Heidegger also wants appearance to be useful for engendering an encounter with Being. But how do we know when appearance is leading us toward being, and when it is misleading, as illusion? Heidegger does not provide us with guidance.

Let us think of the sun. Every day it rises and sets for us. Only a very few astronomers, physicists, philosophers – and even they only on the basis of a specialized approach which may be more or less widespread – experience this state of affairs otherwise, namely as a motion of the earth around the sun. But the appearance in which sun and earth stand, e.g. the early morning landscape, the sea in the evening, the night, is a appearing. This appearance is not nothing. Nor is it untrue. Nor is it a mere appearance of conditions in nature which are really otherwise. This appearance is historical and it is history, discovered and grounded in poetry and myth and thus an essential area of our world.

Only the tired latecomers with their supercilious wit imagine that they can dispose of the historical power of appearance by declaring it to be ‘subjective,’ hence very dubious. The Greeks experience it differently. They were perpetually compelled to wrest being from appearance and preserve it against appearance. (The essence of being is un-concealment.)

This is a decisive moment in Heidegger’s text, which we can call “the parable of the sun.” What Heidegger wants from this parable is evidence that the common perception of the sun “rising” in the East and “setting” in the West contains a truth within it, the truth of sensory knowledge, from which the ancient Greeks communally wrested the truth of their experience with Being, in a history-making, poetic manner. The conceptual and mathematical description of the earth in its double rotation – on its axis and around the sun – is simply not as close to Being as the undeniable, visually ascertainable appearance of the sun ‘moving’ toward, then behind, the horizon to the west at dusk. Heidegger is not dismissing the knowledge discoverable in mathematics and astronomy. He is simply saying that the truths of these sciences will not get us any closer to the being of the sun as we experience it, than contemplating it at dusk as an essential existence revealed to our thought.

But this line of thought is troubled by problems both internal and external. As an example, at one point Heidegger notes that it is difficult to sense the double rotation of the earth, to be there in it, which would be required such that one could look at the sun and encounter it in its essence as the star around which the earth moves. This seems, at first, difficult – but it may be possible to imagine an entire culture generated around the experience of the earth’s double rotation and perceiving the sun in this fashion. But if even a “gut feeling” of the earth’s double rotation is possible (further supported with reasoning and evidence), why would we want to affirm the old notion of the sun revolving around the earth, as anything other than myth and poetry? There is a point in the development of all learning where a knower accomplishes a knowledge that cannot be unlearned. The reason why we can never return to the Ptolemaic universe is because we have accumulated an enormous quantity of internalized discourse explaining why Ptolemy was wrong. This discourse includes mathematical proofs and astronomical models, but it also now includes poems, philosophy texts and even the testimony of contemporary farmers. It is not that the visual imprint of the sun “rising” and “setting” is wrong, and it is certainly not nonsense. It’s simply no longer necessary to see it in this way, and it is now impossible for us to agree that such an appearance is the truth of our experience of the sun.

Truth, even scientific truth, but also the truth of immediate experience, is historically determined, just as Heidegger says it is. But this only means that the wise and courageous act to perform here is not the embrace of promised radical change in the future, but the acceptance of change as it has already occurred. The sun does not “set.” It never has. Theories implicating double rotation were actually in play in ancient Greece and Egypt, but the early Christians discredited and suppressed them. The actual visual appearance of the sun is a matter of complete indifference. Our knowledge will tell us what to see and how to see it. If it is the duty of philosophers, poets, and other thinkers to provide alternative perceptions, other possible knowledges and ways of knowing – and I believe Heidegger would agree that this is right – then we must always begin with what is presently known, in our own language now, and not seek revival of older usages long debunked. The history of knowledge – our history, our knowledge – will not allow it as anything other than a nostalgic glance backward. What can be said of an appearance is precisely what can be known of it, nothing more.


Heidegger says of anxiety that it arises when matters appear to us as though wholly unknown. I agree that this anxiety allows us an opportunity to learn what we did not know before. But profound, uncontrollable, enduring and unendurable anxiety is simply panic, and no one learns in a state of panic. Confusion everywhere reduces human response outside of the thoughtful and down to the level of primate fear and aggression. Such was exactly what Adolf Hitler was counting on politically, in the historical condition of an impoverished Germany in the early ’30s.

The Ptolemaic model of the universe was part and parcel of an ideology. It was false. Our current conception of the universe is part of the ideology of Modernity. It may, in the future, prove false. But this does not mean we cannot now trust it to be true. Ideology just is the logic of the ideas one has in mind, true or false. But when an ideology moves a populace to harm others, or themselves, we should consider it with extreme caution and suspicion.

What Heidegger seems to want to say in Introduction to Metaphysics, is that National Socialists certainly manipulated false appearances in order to bring about unpleasant political change, but that we should look to those appearances to discover a truth that, if properly noticed, thought, decided and acted upon, could at last bring forth a breach in history, a poetic encounter with Being; a deeper spirituality. Not any of this is true. Mein Kampf does not need a close reading to reveal Hitler’s project for a permanent condition of pan-European war, enslavement, oppression, anti-Semitic violence, and vicious intra-governmental squabbles leading to execution (or simply murder). [4] If Hitler had chosen a path to power that was simply a manipulation of appearances, an obvious deception of the German people, he would never have written Mein Kampf.

What appears to have happened for Heidegger, is that the appearance he thought the National Socialists presented – a revival of German Idealism – was only what he wanted from them. Beyond the texts of Heidegger and a handful of conservative intellectuals in correspondence with him, there exists no evidence that the National Socialists had any desire to bring forth such a revival. They didn’t even think reference to that era of German thought useful for propaganda purposes. This supposed promised revival of German Idealism was an invention of Heidegger’s inner ideology. He imposed it on the culture of National Socialism in order to find a place for himself within it. Despair in the face of growing evidence that the National Socialists had no interest in this was inevitable.

For the German Idealists themselves, the world as appearance, as imposed by us on the world through our reason, could be guaranteed, not by blindly accepting knowledge just as given, not by allowing ‘gut feelings’ and intuition to guide us to dramatic encounters with being or poetic disruptions of history; but by rectifying the reasoning by which knowledge is known; through which Being is encountered; according to which we must negotiate history as it actually happens. Philosophy is about understanding, it’s not about effecting revolutionary change.

Heidegger wanted the important question to be, “Why is there Being, rather than Nothing?” But that turns out not to be the question. Despite his remarks on Sartre, the “Letter on Humanism” (1946), Heidegger’s thinking always really concerned the question: What is it to be human? [5]  Raising such questions and thinking them through is the task of philosophy. Heidegger love wisdom. If ultimately, he could not find it, and even for a time allowed politics to mislead him away from it, it is because he forgot to seek it in the one place it ever finds its home, the mind of the rational animal.


[1] Martin Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics. Trans R. Manheim. Doubleday, 1961.

[2] Hans Sluga, “Conflict is the Father of All Things,” in A Companion to Heidegger’s Introduction to Metaphysics, R. Polt and G. Fried, eds.; Yale, 2001.

[3] Jacques Derrida, Of Spirit: Heidegger and the Question; G. Bennington and R. Bowlby, trans.; U. Chicago, 1989.

[4] Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, R. Manheim, trans.; Houghton Mifflin, 1943.

[5] Martin Heidegger, “Letter on Humanism,” in Basic Writings, F. A. Capuzzi with J. G. Gray D, trans.; D. F. Krell, ed.; HarperCollins, 1993.


20 responses to “Heidegger’s Illusions”

  1. 1970scholar

    This is a remarkable essay on Heidegger. Indeed, it is one of the most interesting things I have read on him since the now (in)famous debate between Jean Luc Nancy and Victor Farias way back in the 1980s. I am far harder on Heidegger that Nancy. I consider it almost disqualifying , even of BEING AND TIME, and hover around the idea that his Nazism was feature and not a bug (a shamelessly anachronistic metaphor on my part, but there we are). On the other hand I recognize his brilliance ad insight at one and the same time.

  2. This is outstanding EJ, and it already has been picked up and promoted by Brian Leiter, who certainly knows a thing or two about Heidegger. Well done, man!

  3. After reading this piece I can’t help thinking that Heidegger was either an opportunist or an astonishingly stupid person. As you suggest yourself, a few pages of Mein Kampf, a look at the main characters in the national-socialist movement, a cursory awareness of the political climate in Germany (and in a few surrounding countries) could have shown him that, whatever his hopes were, there was nothing even remotely “spiritual” or whatever about Hitler and Nazism.

  4. s. wallerstein

    Heidegger was certainly something of an opportunist, but E.J. Winners’ piece is accurate insofar as it focuses on Heidgger’s illusions.

    In this age of “better than Trump”, it’s easy to forget the illusions that many people once had about politics. That’s true about Heidegger and Nazism and about lots of brilliant people who supported Stalin or Fidel Castro as well. The most nationalist Trump supporter hasn’t the innocent faith in America that most everyone had in 1961 when they listened to Kennedy’s inaugural address. That faith disappeared with Viet Nam.

    The illusions are gone almost everywhere. Even the most fanatical militant woke people are more against things than in favor of some utopian ideal.

    When progressive people here in Chile look for a model, it’s no utopia or magical place any more, it’s Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand, who is a sensible social democrat and manages things well. Almost no one expects anything more of anyone in politics, especially in the age of Trump.

    However, it wasn’t that way in 1934.

  5. I’ve known them too, the people who thought in the 1970s and the early 1980s that Albania was on the right path, Mao’s China was a model, and Cuba close to heaven. But these places were 1000s of kms from where I live, and very few of these people actually knew what the situation in Albania, China, Cuba was.
    Heidegger on the other hand was geographically right in the middle of the surge of national-socialism. He was not an average Joe but an academic who could have know that national-socialism was a crude, despotic movement driven by violent thugs.
    I still don’t know if his position was an aspect of his extraordinary capability for illusions, if he was an opportunist or if the roots of his convictions were intimately tied to his philosophy. Perhaps it’s a combination of all these things. Or perhaps he was just a believer in “la stratégie du pourrissement”. Perhaps he saw all the crudeness but thought that something good would grow out of national-socialism – after it had made Germany much worse.

  6. couvent2104,
    A number of points, not to dissuade you, but to enrich the discussion:
    1. Heidegger did not serve in the military during World War I. In fact he spent his entire life in the Academy, except towards the end of WWII and in the immediate years after it. His thinking is entirely insulated from the social experience of Germany in the WWI years and in the years leading up to WWII. (By contrast, I think a case can be made that his own military experience in WWI impelled Wittgenstein to completion of the Tractatus – an almost apocalyptic end-of-philosophy simplification of philosophy – and later influenced his turn towards the Philosophical Investigations, which required study of people at work and play.) The working people in Being and Time belong to the 19th Century – as does, frankly, that text in total. I would argue that it is the philosophy of a formerly agrarian culture developing into a industrial, urban culture – a transition that took more than a century, only completed by the Nazis. If so, that goes a long way to explain some of the exhilarating futurist passages, but also the underlying conservatism, which generates an anxiety over Modernity that dominates Heidegger’s later thought.

    2. Nonetheless, Heidegger was well known as a brilliant and much admired teacher; and his early scholarly writings, especially on Kant, are exceptional. I highly recommend them. His much later texts raise important questions in a meditative manner, and should not be ignored. Is Nazism implicit in his philosophy? I don’t believe so; but their implication is strongly social-conservative. But that itself raises questions, because Hitler himself knew he was hard Right, and actually hated conservatives (Mein Kampf’s sub-title, “A Reckoning,’” i.e. a settling of scores; is actually a reference to the political conservatives that had failed to support the Beer Hall Putsch).

    3, It should be noted that German Idealism, its poets and philosophers, even in their occasionally trenchant disagreement, had an enormous impact on not only the culture, but the politics and even social structures, especially of education, across the German states on the early 19th century. There was no analogous impact of academics in the Anglophone countries, where politics. social structures and culture were largely dominated by economic concerns, and the Academy developed out of a different set of priorities. Heidegger almost certainly looked back on that era through nostalgia-tinted glasses. I’ll put it as baldy – and crudely – as possible to put the case: I think Heidegger wanted to be the Hegel of a new era in German polity. Was that even possible? Of course not; and that’s where illusion becomes delusion. However, it’s the sort of thing we see every day, even among highly intelligent people.

    4. In an earlier draft of this essay, I wrestled quite a bit with whether Heidegger had even read Mein Kampf, given that he was a voracious reader. I think not. While not unreadable, the prose of Mein Kampf is atrocious. I think Heidegger would have started and abandoned it. Most people are unaware, now, that there was a ‘moderate’ wing of the Nazi party, centered in Berlin and led by the Strasser Bros. (Gregor was murdered in the Blood Purge and Otto fled to America, where he later helped the OSS develop its psychological profile of Hitler.) My point being that before the Blood Purge, there was a wider range of appeal to Nazism than the Hitlerism it inevitably coalesced into.

    5. The big question of course is whether Heidegger was an anti-Semite, given that anti-Semitism is integral to Nazism. Without it, there’s certainly a problem in reading Heidegger as a fascist intellectual, but it’s not quite as crucial (Ortega y Gasset is a fascist intellectual, but still occasionally interesting), because fascist intellectuals are all over the place, and their precursors go back well into the 16th Century. Hegel himself has been excoriated as a photo-fascist, even though his text plainly argues for a parliamentary monarchy. But unfortunately, with Heidegger, it’s never that clear. For every crude anti-Semitic remark in the Nachlass. there’s an anti-antisemitic remark in Ereignis. Personally, I think that Heidegger came from a background of what I have elsewhere called “casual anti-Semitism” – the ant-Semitism of the night-club, the German version of the Chamber of Commerce, the after-service Sunday brunch at church – basically, what most non-Jewish Germans inherited and believed, and which required considerable effort for intellectuals to over-come. Occasionally Heidegger made that effort (he had to – although married before he met her, Arendt was the real love of his life). But the rise of Nazism allowed him to withdraw into the culture of his youth (and his marriage). His problem, as the Post-Structuralists pointed out, was not what he said or wrote – his problem was his silence.

    Otherwise, from Introduction to Metaphysics to the end of WWII, Heidegger’s texts are laced with implicit criticisms of the real Nazism as it systematically destroyed Europe. including Germany itself. He just could never admit that this was the only Nazism that mattered. Can even intelligent people be stupid? Unfortunately, yes they can. Aristotle wears his stupidity on his sleeve, that’s why he no longer has any influence on the sciences; Plato’s stupidity is much more subtle, but the Republic remains largely a choking point to anybody who values human potential and the hope of any kind of representative democracy.

    We want intelligence to be vaccinated against stupidity; but it’s only a petri-dish awaiting the properly opportunistic stupid.

  7. Kudos. An excellent article, that again demonstrates a confrontation between a possible essence of philosophy (“What is it to be human? Raising such questions and thinking them through is the task of philosophy.”) and the personality/character of its purveyors. Nowhere, perhaps, is the dichotomy as stark as Heidegger and his philosophy.

    Heidegger’s burrowing into a differentiation between ‘beings’ and ‘being’ runs hollow in hindsight when taking into consideration his membership of the Nazi party and his never repudiating his personal commitment to that movement.

    His claim that ethics entails a relation to being, while his Gestell is what orders our relation to beings is, surely political.

    Stupid he was not. But evil to the point almost of psychopathy could be conjectured when one considers the dissonance in his philosophizing about being and beings that did not include Jews, gypsies, and other Untermenschen.

  8. J.Bogart

    Not on the topic of the essay, Heidegger, but a curious sentence in the essay: “If a single man’s will can be said to be the law, then there is no law; no autonomous standard of regulation by which individual behaviors may be judged.” ?? This seems far too strong. There was no law in Imperial Rome, or in the PRC today?

  9. s. wallerstein

    Hannah Arendt, who knew him well, says that Heidegger didn’t have a bad character: he had no character at all.

  10. I suppose that says much about her!

  11. alandtapper1950

    EJ Winner: I am amazed that you can treat the question of Heidegger’s anti-Semitism so lightly. Have you read Donatella di Cesare’s “Heidegger and the Jews”? It argues (quoting the blurb) “that Heidegger’s ‘metaphysical anti-Semitism’ was a central part of his philosophical project. Within the context of the Nuremberg race laws, Heidegger felt compelled to define Jewishness and its relationship to his concept of Being. Di Cesare shows that Heidegger saw the Jews as the agents of a modernity that had disfigured the spirit of the West. In a deeply disturbing extrapolation, he presented the Holocaust as both a means for the purification of Being and the Jews’ own ‘self-destruction’: a process of death on an industrialized scale that was the logical conclusion of the acceleration in technology they themselves had brought about.” This, if true, is a long way from casual country-club anti-Semitism.

    You say: “It is also clear that Martin Heidegger adopted National Socialism in 1933 precisely because he had not the slightest idea what that movement was about.” Really? Not the slightest idea? He tried to Nazify his university. Point 2 in his Rectorship speech states his goal to be “The lively inculcation of the aims of a National Socialist revolution in our university system”. He ran a semi-military student summer camp to help achieve this. Even after his Rectorship had failed and after the Nazis in Berlin had lost interest in him as a potential leader he could still say that “As the warriors in this struggle [for the National Socialist revolution] we must become a hard race, that cares for nothing of its own, that rests firmly on the foundation of the people and the nation” (and so on). He sure sounds to me like a would-be Nazi. The Berlin Nazis preferred Party hacks to the great philosopher, but I think the great philosopher would have become a Party leader if he could.

    Incidentally, Hans Sluga has written a couple of interesting memoirs on his blog:
    http://www.truthandpower.com/blog/blog/how-to-become-a-philosopher/ and http://www.truthandpower.com/blog/blog/berkeley-years/


  12. alandtapper1950

    I will add Thomas Sheehan’s blunt words:

    “Martin Heidegger’s Black Notebooks (Gesamtausgabe 94–97, with more to come) confirm what has long been known: that this ‘greatest philosopher of the twentieth century’ was an unabashed anti-Semite. He was also a strong supporter of Hitler and the Nazis from 1930 through at least 1934, and a convinced fascist long after he took distance from the Party. If anything, the Black Notebooks reveal how Heidegger tried to launder his anti-Semitism through his idiosyncratic ‘history of being,’ his devolutionary narrative about Western civilization that ends by claiming that ‘machination’—the terrible state of the world today—is amply instantiated in world Jewry …”

    Sheehan is a great admirer of Heidegger’s philosophy.

  13. I don’t treat Heidegger’s dance with Nazism lightly, or I wouldn’t have written this essay (which is actually the precis of a 30000 word essay that I spent considerable time researching and mediating on). And I never take any anti-Semitism lightly. I want to understand variant forms, even casual ant-Semitism on their own terms, rather than swiping it all into the same bin marked ‘do not open.’ Di Cesare “shows” his own interpretation. I have a different interpretation, and evidence supporting it. This issue just doesn’t cut down into an all-or-nothing right-or-wrong, us-or-them positioning. We’ll never understand anti-Semitism – or any racial bias – by oversimplification and demonization.

  14. alandtapper1950

    Here is James Miller’s description of Heidegger’s Rectorship inauguration ceremony:

    “With the new Nazi minister of culture and education in attendance, along with the city’s mayor, archbishop and Nazi leaders, in addition to a larger than normal crowd of students and teachers, anxious to hear what the future might hold in store, Heidegger delivers a speech staking his claim to spiritual leadership, not only of the university, but of the new dispensation in Germany.

    The university, like the nation, must brace for a storm. Faced with an “overpowering fate,” the university ”must develop its highest defiance,” struggling with the German people to create “a world of the innermost and most extreme danger, that is, a truly spiritual world.” Reminding his students of their obligations to the new regime in the form of “labor service” and “military service,” the new rector exalts an unusual sort of “knowledge service,” organized “to realize and administer the people’s highest and most essential knowledge, that of its entire existence.” Such knowledge, the rector explains, does not evolve from “the calm taking note of essences and values” – an investigation, his tone implies, suited only to meek and spineless pedants. No, confronted with a “moribund pseudocivilization” morbidly reproducing enervating pseudovalues, the restoration to health of a “truly spiritual world” rather requires “the placing of one’s existence in the most acute danger in the midst of overpowering being.”

    It is in this spirit – romantic, embattled, intoxicated – that Heidegger exhorts the university’s “Kampfgemeinschaft” a community forged, and purified, through struggle. With the philosopher at the helm, Freiburg’s knowledge-workers stand ready to serve the born-again German Volk – the last, best hope of resurrecting ”a truly spiritual world”.

    Heidegger’s call to arms finished, the crowd sings the German national anthem. (Every phase of this unprecedented ceremony had been planned by Heidegger himself.) A representative of the student body then pledges its allegiance: “Adolf Hitler has become the new leader of the nation. His flags are flying today over Germany and announce the achievements of the German worker and the victory of his movement, of which we are a part and the future.” The assembly rises to sing the “Horst-Wessel Lied.” As the martial strains of the Nazi anthem fill the hall, arms lift in unison. The ceremony ends with the prescribed shouts of “Sieg Heil!”

    (“Heidegger’s Guilt”, Salmagundi, 1996)

  15. In Ereignis (not read widely, a difficult Modernist literary text), Heidegger condemns the Nazi demonization of Jewish intellectuals and particularly what the Nazis labelled “Jewish science” in no uncertain terms.

    You seem to suggest that when I use the phrase “casual anti-Semitism,” I am remarking something relatively harmless – an implicit sentiment in the demonization of thinkers like Heidegger as somehow monstrous death-camp-followers. Nothing could be further from the truth! My study on Hitler necessarily involved study on German anti-Semitism. Ir was all pervasive. The ‘casual anti-Semitism’ was just as corrosive as the openly genocidal anti-Semitism of Hitler and his gang, because it made Hitlerian genocide possible. That is why any racism has to be confronted and somehow brought to light and attacked on its own terms – that is, as it is in the pathology of the common man and woman, who think they are somehow immune to it because they don’t have to think about, or because they didn’t throw a brick through the window of the house next door owned by a Jew/ a Muslim/ a Black family/ a Hispanic family – but of course it’s okay to move away from “them.” And when someone else throws a brick through that window – “well, I didn’t do it. I didn’t hate my neighbor, I just thought they lowered property values – you know how that is….” This is systemic racism – not the racism embedded in laws or institutions, but the casual racism that then embeds racism into laws and institutions.

    I’m perfectly aware of the criticisms of Heidegger, it’s been going on for literally decades now. You seem to be under the impression that I have read the literature. I have not read the Black Notebooks, but I have seen enough passages that I know that Heidegger can jump the shark in terrible ways. I also know that in 1942 the Holocaust had not yet happened for Heidegger (the Wannsee Conference had only taken place January that year). so Di Cesare’s article has a problem. A lot of what’s going on that year for Heidegger has Nietzsche as an immediate backdrop – it was the period of his protracted critique of The Will to Power, intended as a veiled confrontation with Nazism; and Nietzsche’s relationship with anti-Semitism was ambiguous, with far reaching historical consequences (many of the British Zionists of the ’90s were avowed Nietzscheans; but Nietzsche’s own sister set up an expressly anti-Semitic colony in South America). ““Only when what is essentially ‘Jewish’, in the metaphysical sense, combats what is Jewish is the peak of self-destruction in history reached”.- this is pure Nietzsche, isn’t that obvious?

    And on the immediate horizon – the Battle of Stalingrad, the German Army’s suicide at the behest of Der Fuhrer. Of course, if they had won that battle, Germany may have won the war. But they didn’t win; in fact no one outside Hitler’s gang thought they would. By the end of it, Heidegger had turned to the study of poetry.

    My point is – it’s complicated. One problem with demonizing Heidegger – beyond losing some remarkable texts of scholarship and meditative insight – is that this simplifies a very complex historical moment, and effectively seals over real historical research into that era, and the possible lessons we can really learn from it. It’s also a knee-jerk anti-Continentalism, a cheap and easy way to shut down conversations, and ignore the evident fact that Heidegger inspired – and still inspires – intellectuals of real value, none of whom share his ant-Semitism, whether casual or monstrous. ‘Heidegger-the-death-camp-follower’ is as much a myth as ‘Heidegger the Lao-tse of the Black Forest’ myth among his dedicated fans, and neither myth fully explains what he contributed as either philosopher or teacher. It does no honor to history as it really happened (as much as we can know of that), and it doesn’t really confront the anti-Semitism that destroyed Germany and much of Europe, or the racism of any kind with which we still must deal today.

    I’ve said elsewhere that Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind is the finest critique of Heidegger of its day (and possibly ever). Bloom makes this point: that Heidegger (and his youthful followers in America) mistake lines of philosophic thought that are necessarily esoteric and scholarly, and really intended only for the few who are properly informed, for some political guide book for public activism. For Heidegger’s American followers, this was interpreted according to left-wing concerns about the environment and industrial capitalism; for Heidegger it involved political conservatism, Nazism and, yes, because he was German, anti-Semitism. In fact, while philosophy must consider political realities, it can provide no road-map to any political future, it cannot provide a guide for public activism. Heidegger didn’t get that, and that’s what destroyed him. The demonizers of Heidegger make a similar mistake.

    This essay was written for Tom Rockmore, a Marxist philosopher who taught me at Duquesne, and who believed attacking Heidegger would further a Marxist interpretation of Hegel (which would obviously further Marxist philosophy). Tom was a great teacher, and despite his ideological bias, a fair-minded thinker and debater. But really, politics and philosophy do not mix in any agenda. Philosophy is about understanding, not any agenda.

  16. s. wallerstein

    Walter Benjamin writes “there is no document of culture that is not at the same time a document of barbarism”.

    Jefferson owned slaves, Marx and Mill justified British colonialism in India, no one in Europe except Joseph Conrad seemed to have cared about Belgian genocide in the Congo, almost everyone except Bertrand Russell cheered on World War I (which was a completely senseless homicidal war), Pablo Neruda wrote an ode to Stalin, Sartre justified the Chinese cultural revolution, etc.

    So are we going to cancel everyone? Should we cancel Heidegger?

    Heidegger was an anti-semite obviously, not a great human being, although he wasn’t a member of the SS or the Gestapo. Let’s read him a great philosopher, not as an example of human virtue.

    I write as a Jew by the way, who lost most of my family in the Holocaust and I am aware of the horrid experience that Dan K. parents lived through.

  17. AcademicLurker

    no one in Europe except Joseph Conrad seemed to have cared about Belgian genocide in the Congo

    This is not quite accurate. There was agitation from several international groups and eventual diplomatic pressure to remove the Congo from King Leopold’s control after news of the nature of his rule there was spread. See the Casement Report, for example.

    So are we going to cancel everyone?

    The current fashionable answer appears to be “yes”.

  18. s. wallerstein

    Thanks for the correction.

    A few years ago I exchanged some emails with a woman friend in California. She asked me what I was reading and said Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”.

    “How can you read that? It’s a racist book”, was the reply.

    “Wow, the guy sat down and wrote a denunciation of Belgian imperialism in the Congo and you call it racist”.

    “Yes, he writes from the point of view of a European”.

    “He’s European and he took the trouble to write a book about the mistreatment of the people in the Congo. He probably could have made more money if he had written an ode to King Leopold”.

    But it was no use.

  19. Charles Justice

    “the restoration to health of a “truly spiritual world” .requires “the placing of one’s existence in the most acute danger in the midst of overpowering being.” ” Thanks for bringing that piece of Heidegger’s prose to light Alan. The historical context of the Nazi’s brutal rise to power shows the pseudo-profundity of at least this statement and maybe much more of Heidegger’s thought. I always thought if someone intelligent embraces a movement so radically wrong, there is something deeply wrong with their judgement, which then implies that any system of ideas they produce would probably be infected by that same corruption of judgement. What surprises me is how anyone could have seen any intellectual promise in Nazism. According to E.J. Winner, Heidegger was in his own scholastic bubble, he was politically clueless, and it just seemed to fit in with Heidegger’s fantasies at the time. But I find that quote of Heidegger’s remarkable because it seems so relevant today: eg. Trump and the environmental catastrophes. Our..”existence (is) in the most acute danger in the midst of overpowering being.” And the possibility of our collectively coming to terms with racism does seem like the possibility of a restoration to health of a “truly spiritual world.” Martin Buber, was undoubtedly thinking about the Holocaust, when he wrote: “From the moment when a (large scale) disaster appears inevitable and especially after it becomes a reality, it can, like every great torment, become a productive force for the religious point of view. It begins to suggest new questions and to stress old ones. Dogmatized conceptions are pondered afresh in the light of events, and the faith relationship that has to stand the test of an utterly changed situation is renewed in modified form.But the new acting force is nothing less than the force of extreme despair, a despair so elemental that it can have but one of two results: the sapping of the last will of life, or the renewal of the soul.” It’s interesting how this echoes Heidegger’s inaugural address. Yes, definitely, existential threats can lead us to profound rethinking and reconsideration of our belief systems and of our self-identity. It is happening now, as we speak, with Trumpism and the environmental crisis.

  20. Reading all this, it’s hard to escape the feeling that Heidegger was motivated by the idea that the rise of Nazism gave him (and his philosophy) a unique opportunity to be a relevant agent in an important moment of German history.