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Martin Heidegger: The philosopher embraced Nazism yet was rehabilitated after the war

Perhaps only if one is under mortal terror can one understand why highly civilised people endorse extreme dictatorships. One thinks of the fear in which Stalin forced Shostakovich to live; or the obedience that Furtwängler and Richard Strauss chose to show to the Nazi regime. Yet how does one explain why civilised people who not merely have the capacity for thought, but whose life is thinking, embrace evil? In her new book Hitler's Philosophers (Yale, £25) Yvonne Sherratt explores, among other things, this conundrum. She does not merely look at those who, literally, should have known better but who threw themselves and their learning behind the Nazis. She also looks at those, mainly but not exclusively Jewish, who maintained a sense of intellectual and moral integrity and took against Hitler, and shows what happened to them. It is, in the end, a peculiarly unedifying story, though exceptionally well told.

The industry that portrays and describes the Third Reich is now considerable, with many authors and publishers regarding the subject as inexhaustible. This aspect of Hitler's terror — how he sought to control the thought processes first of academia and then, presumably, of the rest of Germany who would defer to the eminent philosophers in the Reich's universities — has been insufficiently explored.

Dr Sherratt describes the influences on Hitler before he rose to power — notably Houston Stewart Chamberlain, from the Wagner family circle in Bayreuth, Feuerbach, Schopenhauer and (insofar as he could understand him) Nietzsche. Hitler does not really seem to have understood philosophy. Had he done so he would have recognised Chamberlain as a charlatan and seen that his reading of Nietzsche was superficial and selective. This leads inevitably to the main problem with Hitler: of all "his" philosophers, he was the philosopher-in-chief. Since his principal tract was the ragbag of prolix bigotries that is Mein Kampf, we know how warped and inadequate the quality of his "thought" was, and how little qualified he was to judge others.

Dr Sherratt provides compelling studies of the philosophers who fled or died rather than play along with Hitler. There was Walter Benjamin, a philosopher who was supposedly the finest writer in German, who went into exile shortly after Hitler came to power. It was his misfortune to have made France his home, and as the Gestapo closed in on him near the Spanish border in September 1940 he took enough morphine "to kill a horse". There was Theodore Adorno, a musicologist who went first to Oxford (where he was taken up by Maurice Bowra, but patronised and derided by Isaiah Berlin, in further proof that his judgment and humanity were not all his adorers claim them to have been) and then to America. He ended up in Los Angeles, immersed in Hollywood. There was also Hannah Arendt, brilliant student and sometime mistress of Martin Heidegger, who managed to escape round-ups in an almost miraculous fashion. And it is Arendt who brings us back to the most puzzling and disturbing feature of this story.

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Frans Mikkelsen
March 29th, 2013
11:03 AM
The important lesson here is that official academics in any society can never be trusted to guide and protect their society with their wisdom - for they are just careerists who will always grovel to the viewpoints that best advance their careers.

Lars J.
March 27th, 2013
7:03 PM
I suggest that readers interested in Heideggers ambiguous relationship with nazism read Pierre Bourdieu's "The political ontology of Heidegger". Here Bourdieu shows how Heideggers work is very strongly related to nazism although sublimely so.

Tom Becks
March 9th, 2013
5:03 PM
One of the most disturbing and baffling mysteries of the modern era (ca. 1500 - 2000) is the one involving the voluntary acceptance by tens of millions of Germans of the absurd and perverse enticements of Hitler and the Nazis. Like anyone born in the post-war years, I've been able to smell the residual stench of the calamity in Germany, but I lack the kind of understanding that can only come from interpersonal relations within the zeitgeist concerning its delusions and yearnings. I've read everything I can about the period, and I've probably viewed every Nazi/WWII documentary ever made. Still and all, I just don't get what anybody ever saw in Hitler, his passionate and captivating speechifying notwithstanding. Several commenters who apparently are academic philosophers themselves or serious students of philosophy have defended Heidegger by separating his "political" mistakes from his contributions to pure thought. The position appears to say that the genius or near genius quality of mind he demonstrated in ontology should be considered distinct from the doofus he showed himself to be when reading and interpreting political tracts and political acts in Germany in the 1930s. Do philosophy and politics occupy separate realms? That would be news to Plato, I suspect. Does the mind operate on one frequency when engaged in technical minutiae and another frequency when assessing universal values? Possibly. But the difference in definition between minutiae and universal should give us some clue as to which is more important. Someone once aptly called philosophy a "walk on a slippery rock." Slippery rock walking is a nice skill to have, I suppose, although I would suggest that it comes in handy only rarely. For me, good common sense trumps it, and quite decisively, too. There was nothing good, common, or sensible about the Nazis and their followers.

John Lobell
March 7th, 2013
3:03 AM
Several commenters claim that Heidegger's philosophy is separate from his Nazism. Wrong. Heidegger says that true philosophy can be done only in Greek or German (or by ancient Greeks or contemporary Germans.) His antisemitism is rooted in his philosophy. Being and Time means that Being is dependent on ones culture. Germans can "Be" better than Jews can "Be." Nothing could be more racist.

March 3rd, 2013
5:03 PM
Read Heidegger's correspondence with Karl Jaspers and you will see that he never once expresses regret about his Nazi enthusiasm. He was scum, and his post-war rehabilitation leaned heavily on the exploitation of Jews and, in Jaspers's case, those associated with Jews. Like all shallow demagogues, a foul opportunist. And, by the way, being elected by 1933 Germans is NOT a mark of moral distinction.

March 3rd, 2013
12:03 PM
This glorification of Heidegger into Nazi is typically driven by a blind fanaticism of its own. The situation is far more ambiguous than certain people would wish to allow. And then there is the extraordinary greatness of Heidegger's philosphical accomplishment throughout the whole of his career. There can be no doubt that the later Heidegger was transformed by the tragic experience of war. And it is also a fact that there were remarks made by Heidegger in his seminars as late as 1944 that were transparently critical of this murderous regime. Heidegger dropped out of politics after 18 months. Why? Being a philosopher-and collaborating with the Nazis- was no longer possible. Don't let stupid journalism perpetuate stupidity.

Ralph Blumenau
March 3rd, 2013
12:03 PM
If the SA supported Heidegger's election to the Rectorship of Freiburg it would have been because they knew that he was already an under-cover Nazi, though not yet an official one. (See Orr- Martin Heidegger, p.144). I very much doubt whether the Night of the Long Knives "ended what support Heidegeer had had in the new regime". The SA was hardly known for its intellectual sophistication, and they were likely to have agreed with the Nazi "philosopher" Erich Jaensch that Heidegger's "hair-splitting distinctions" were positively "Talmudic" (Ott, p.257). The likes of Jaensch persuaded the Nazi ideology chief Alfred Rosenberg, that Heidegger did not sufficiently embody the National Socialist spirit. Heidegger had hoped to be appointed the Fuehrer of the entire German University system, and was disappointed when instead Rosenberg appointed a Wuerzburg professor to that post instead. That was presumably the reason why Heidegger resigned his Rectorship, rather than that "he was such a disaster in his new post". Heidegger claimed after the war that he had resigned rather than dismiss von Moellendorff (the elected Rector whom Heidegger replaced when Moellendorff had been forced to step down as Recor because he was a Social Democrat, but who, not being Jewish, was still part of the faculty). As for delaying until November the implementation of the April decree to remove all Jews from the University, at least one emeritus professor of Jewish origin, Heidegger's old teacher and friend Edmund Husserl had been dismissed as soon as the decree had been promulgated, and 17 Jewish professors had been barred from the body that elected Heidegger.

Ramesh Raghuvanshi
March 3rd, 2013
5:03 AM
I read most of books of Heidegger carefully. Read his last interview which he allowed to published after15years of his death.In my opinion he was hypocritical, coward,and buffoon. He had no daring to published his last interview in his lifetime.He lied too much in that last interview Why he supported to Hitler?Simple reason is he thought Hitler was Messiah can stop advance of science and technology and bring new norms for living.When Hitler was defeated and suicide he was fully disappointed and expressed that Hitler cheated him.In his last years he dreamed that another messiah will come on Earth[Waiting for God] and give new values to people.He boasted watching the play Waiting for Godo that that was his idea.stolen by Bucket.Why his fiancee Hannah Arendt rehabilitated him after war? that is mystery.After all how can man understand the psyche of woman?

Heidi Lamb
March 2nd, 2013
10:03 PM
Heidegger's work has been popularized in the west through the Landmark Forum / Landmark Education company. Landmark has been very influential for over 20 years with business and cultural elites and media adopting it's language and conceptual framework which has evolved over time. Like all philosophy it has something to offer, but as a business it is akin to scientology and practices a wide range of denial to define it's aims and objectives at any given moment. It is no surprise it is influential with political elites.

March 2nd, 2013
4:03 AM
A poorly written article. The penultimate sentence in the first paragraph contains the phrase "and took against Hitler," which I guess means "and stood against Hitler." The final paragraph makes it sound as if in respecting Heidegger's metaphysical thought (which rests primarily upon Sein und Zeit, which was published in 1927), we are embracing his Naziism, rather than seeing his politics as an absurd excrescence having little to do with his metaphysics. His Naziism is vile, but his thought about matters other than politics is quite good. By the way, Karl Löwith, racially a Jew, has interesting things to say about his quondam mentor Heidegger.

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