Heidegger Is No Hero

by Ivan Strenski

Dr. Strenski is chairman of the department of religious studies at Connecticut College.

This article appeared in the Christian Century May 19, 1982, p. 598. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


What account ought to be given of Heidegger’s official and unofficial relation to Nazism and the trends of thought and belief which found culmination in the movement? Given the character of Heidegger’s life, I cannot see how that life recommends his proposals for how we ought to order our own lives.

I find myself in a rather odd position writing on Martin Heidegger. I find it particularly odd writing on the relation between his political life, on the one hand, and his philosophical and methodological view, on the other. Odd because, despite my best efforts at finding the “bottom line” in his thinking, I have never been able to get Heideggerians to tell me exactly why Heidegger is so terribly important. Odd again, because, despite my best efforts to see something heroic in this man’s biography, which might explain what his prose does not, I confess to see at best what Stephen Spender referred to, in a 1979 New York Review of Books piece (March 25, p. 13) on modern German self-analysis, as “der Nebel,” the fog that “allows people to live with unbearable experiences”; the fog that made it possible to “go along” or “not know.”

If this were not sufficient to discourage some who, like me, are at best indifferent to and wearied by Heidegger’s thought, such as it is given to us to understand, it seems oddest of all that Heideggerians themselves have not, to my knowledge, taken up the problem of the relation of Heidegger’s life to his thinking -- especially as it marks the involvement of Heidegger (officially and publicly, or privately and spiritually) in the Nazi movement. I say it is odd that Heideggerians have not done this sort of analysis, because Heidegger’s thought seems to demand it. If Heidegger’s philosophy of “historicity” and “authenticity” means anything at all, it surely means that life and thought cannot be separated -- Heidegger’s least of all.

Further, if Heidegger’s reputation for attention to the “big” issues of philosophical anthropology means anything at all, it would also seem to mean that Heidegger’s “philosophy of being” cannot be distinguished from considerations about how one ought to behave -- and a fortiori how Heidegger behaved. For Heidegger, as perhaps for no other philosopher, the distinction between life and thought has meaning only if one perceives Heidegger’s philosophy itself as self-confuting: So, the task is left to me, an outsider, to raise what may really be the quintessential Heideggerian question: the relation of his life to his thought. In so doing, I do not claim the final word. I want to draw Heideggerians into a question that their own philosophy seems to demand that they ask.

This enterprise would, as we all suspect, be academic in the worst sense if Heidegger had had no part in Nazi politics and thought. Yet the question is not whether Heidegger was a believing Nazi, but what kind? What account ought to be given of Heidegger’s official and unofficial relation to Nazism and the trends of thought and belief which found culmination in the movement? Indeed, even those who would want to absolve Heidegger by seeing his official entry into the Nazi party or his Nazi Rektorat (rectorate) as a selfless attempt by him to prevent greater evils, are bound at least to accept the legitimacy of my inquiry. Whether one gives an answer complimentary to Heidegger or not, one still accepts the appropriateness of an inquiry into the character of his political beliefs and their relation to his general ontology -- all the more so, as I have argued, if one is a Heideggerian. Moreover, recent scholarship, especially by philosopher Karsten Harries (“Heidegger as Political Thinker,” Review of Metaphysics, 1976, pp. 642-69), bears out the notion that an inner relation exists between Heidegger’s general ontology in Being and Time and his Nazi-period thought and action. What is intolerable is the kind of brush-off that defenders of Heidegger, such as Walter Biemel in his biography (Martin Heidegger, Harcourt, Brace, 1976), give the question at hand.

What is more, Biemel has the cheek to misrepresent Hannah Arendt as a defender of Heidegger in the process. Citing Arendt, Biemel echoes the view that Heidegger’s attaching himself to Hitler was little worse than Plato’s mistaken regard for Dionysius of Syracuse. So foggy an analogy will not, however, do -- not as an interpretation of Heidegger, or as a reading of Hannah Arendt on Heidegger. In an October 21, 1971, New York Review of Books commentary (p. 54), Arendt does liken Heidegger and Plato in their attraction to strong leaders, but with a twist that shows how very befogged admiring commentators like Biemel can be:

We . . . can hardly help finding it striking and perhaps exasperating that Plato and Heidegger, when they entered human affairs, turned to tyrants and Fiihrers. This should be imputed not just to the circumstances of the times and even less to preformed character, but rather to . . . the attraction to the tyrannical demonstrated theoretically in many of the great thinkers.

Arendt goes on in a footnote to link Heidegger directly to certain proto-fascist trends of thought in Italy (the “Italian futurists”) which, though apparently independent of National Socialism, seem compatible enough. Regarding these Italian futurists (at once a political and an artistic movement), the Encyclopaedia Britannica quotes the following from a manifesto of Filippo Marinetti (1909): “We will destroy museums, libraries, and fight against moralism, and all utilitarian cowardice. . . . We will glorify war -- the only true hygiene of the world -- militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of the anarchist, the beautiful ideas which kill.” Biemel maintains a peculiar silence about matters such as these.

Enough perhaps for Heidegger’s ultramontane nurture. What of his mature nature? What of the way he was popularly regarded by his political peers? Was the report of Der Alemanne, dated May 3, 1933, correct in saying:

 [Heidegger] has never made any secret of his German character . . for many years he has supported the party of Adolf Hitler in its difficult struggle for existence and power to the utmost of his strength . . . he was always ready to bring sacrifice to Germany’s holy altar, and . . . no National Socialist ever knocked in vain at his door [Dagobert Runes, German Existentialism, Philosophical Library, 1964, p. 13].

Historian Peter Gay seems to think as much, noting that Heidegger was generally understood as a “philosophical fascist” as early as 1927 -- fully six years before Heidegger officially entered the Nazi party. Speaking of the Heidegger of that time, Gay says: “Heidegger gave no one reasons not to be a Nazi, and good reasons for being one” (Weimar Culture, Harper & Row, 1964). Ernst Cassirer confirms Gay’s general estimate of Heidegger as at least a philosophical sympathizer with Nazism in the late 1920s. (Perhaps we should even use Gary Lease’s analysis of Nazism as a religion and describe Heidegger as a “religious” sympathizer of Nazism.) Like Gay, Cassirer saw Heidegger as someone whose thinking lent itself to the confirmation of a world view the Nazis themselves seemed eager to sell the German people. About Heidegger’s view of human nature in particular, Cassirer says the following:

A theory that sees in the Geworfenheit of man one of his principal characters has . . . given up all hopes of an active share in the construction and reconstruction of man’s cultural life. . . . It can be used, then, as a pliable instrument in the hands of the political leaders [The Myth of the State, Yale University Press, 1964].

Even as late as 1937, four years after Heidegger was supposed to have withdrawn from the Nazi party, students at his own university thought it appropriate to protest Nazi denigration of Karl Jaspers by boycotting Heidegger’s lectures.

The conclusion seems inescapable that, though Heidegger was an official member of the National Socialist Party for a little less than a year, the movement of his thinking traveled along the same waves as other proto-Nazi thought of his day. Moreover, the depth and duration apparent in Heidegger’s attraction for fascist “religious” thinking raise questions about the meaning of official Nazi party membership: if this was a “compromise,” what kind of compromise was it? Was it, as Heidegger’s defenders claim, a compromise with the Nazi “religion,” or, as I think seems more plausible in light of what we have learned thus far, a “compromise” with officialdom?

We do not yet understand the details of the Nazi ability to seize on and unite the wide range of German opinion favorable in theory to Nazi religious thinking. Our own predominantly romantic, humanities-oriented vision prevents us from seeing the depth of Nazi romanticism; we take it for granted that the Nazis were basically “machines,” when that is only half the story. They were also in their own way radical romantics, as anyone familiar with the propaganda films of Leni Riefenstahl can attest. Heidegger seems to have stood at the romantic/religious edge of the historical wave that would become the Nazi movement, later moving with the wave toward the turbulent waters of officialdom, only perhaps to crash and withdraw. But this does not mean that Heidegger disapproved of the movement or indeed of those who could move with it. It may just have meant that he did not like getting his feet wet.

This, too, accounts for his apparent difficulties in sorting reality into categories, his inability to understand how his collegial relations with Jews like Hannah Arendt (student), Edmund Husserl (teacher) or Ernst Cassirer (peer) fit into what must have been his own categorical anti-Semitism. How does one square the reality of individual Jews with the anti-Semitic “religion”? Heidegger’s inability to reconcile his Nazi creed with Nazi deed is no more laudable than his inability to convert what seems to be his religious or philosophical anti-Semitism into action.

In either case we would have to deal with the religious aspects of Heidegger’s Nazism on their own terms: what are those religious views? Regardless of whether Heidegger could or would put them into action (as indeed he did during his term as Rektor of Freiburg), are these views commendable?

And here we come to perhaps the most disturbing part of the Heidegger story: the relation of Heidegger’s notorious Rektoratsrede (rector’s address) to his 1927 classic, Sein und Zeit (Being and Time). So convinced is philosopher Karsten Harries that Heidegger’s turn to National Socialism “cannot be erased from the development of his thought” that Harries painstakingly exposes the network of internal relations between the Rektoratsrede and Being and Time. In outline, Harries claims that the logic of Being and Time traces a pattern leading directly to its fulfillment in the Rektoratsrede. The skeletal structure of this pattern runs something like this: Acknowledging our “guilt” as free beings requires that we “resolve” to make an authentic response to that freedom. For Heidegger, this resolve takes the form of an authentic commitment -- a commitment that occurs without assurances. But far from such an individual commitment’s entailing arbitrariness or anarchism, Heidegger notes that such resolve pushes one back into the world and community. The community can then speak to the individual through the voice of the inherited past, when recognized as worthy of repetition and sanctioned by the individual’s choice of hero. Thus one attains authenticity. Says Heidegger in Being and Time: “Dasein’s fateful destiny in and with its ‘generation’ goes to make up the full authentic historicizing of Dasein.”

The Rektoratsrede fleshes but these somewhat abstract themes of Being and Time, which argues that “resolve demands that man know his place in the world.” In the Rektoratsrede this is accomplished through human work, which may be either freely chosen, or assigned by the “leader.” Oddly enough, however, those who freely design their own work are obliged to do so out of “openness” to the spiritual world -- a world which transcends humanity by being a “power which most deeply preserves the forces stemming from earth and blood as the power which most deeply moves and shakes our being.”

Later, as Heidegger shifts his conception of work to the “work of art,” he also shifts his model of the “leader” to the aesthetic mode. Like the true artist, the political leader must be “violent and willing to use power,” but without normal constraints -- in Heidegger’s words: “lonely, uncanny, without expedients without law and limit, without structure and order, because as creators, they themselves must lay the foundation for all this.” Harries reports finally how the Rektoratsrede “demands of the leader ‘the strength to be able to walk alone’ ”; and how six months later Heidegger would amplify his vision of the leader by declaring, “The Führer himself and he alone is the German reality of today and for the future, and its law” (“Heidegger as Political Thinker,” p. 644).

But why does all this matter to religious conclusions about the methods we employ to study religion follow from my analysis? -- especially in view of the often-stated argument that Heidegger admitted his mistakes, withdrawing from all political activity, leaving the engaged Heidegger of the Rektoratsrede and Being and Time far behind, and giving us instead the “later” disengaged Heidegger.

First, it seems that Heidegger’s views about human being and knowing lack moral authority. Heidegger’s past represents his way of living his philosophy. His life is itself an object lesson in the meaning of that philosophy. As such, given the character of Heidegger’s life, I cannot see how that life recommends his proposals for how we ought to order our own lives. Indeed, the more we know about Heidegger’s attempts to live his philosophy, the less it recommends itself. To those who would defend the moral status of the early Heidegger, I can only call for the counterevidence they would present to the findings I have cited. To those who still say that such a critique is invalid, I would reply that their view is at best totally un-Heideggerian and, at worst, contrary to the results of the careful analysis of someone like Karsten Harries, whose views I have tried to present.

Heidegger’s moral stature also matters for other reasons. To the extent that his philosophy is expressed through a kind of preaching, the moral stature of the man cannot be ignored. To the extent that his philosophy consists of proposals about how to live, we are pressed to ask: By what authority would he lead us? Were Jesus a proven murderer, would we give his gospel a respectful hearing? Moreover, this point holds true for Heidegger’s authority after his so-called “turn.” Since the nature of the political and intellectual “turn” seems to me at best ambiguous, and since the facts of the earlier period still stand, by what authority does Heidegger propose to tell us about the nature of humanism, the proper attitude of humanity to technology or the sacred art of thinking? How has his retreat from worldly life shown us anything worthy of imitation? Where is the moral nobility in this apparent flip-flop from engagement? Why not active opposition instead? Why not voluntary exile like countless others?

Thus Heidegger’s turn from political engagement does not in itself settle anything. We do not yet know why he turned back upon his genuine commitment to National Socialism -- if indeed he did. Nor do we know what the turn toward political retreatism means. We do not know these things partly because we do not knew precisely what his commitment to Hitler meant in the first place. Was it a commitment to heroic, even spiritual, national leadership over against forces like those of traditional German conservatism -- a commitment that may have seemed increasingly mistaken as Hitler reconciled his revolution to the power of the Reichswehr (German military) and other established forces in Germany? If so, the philosopher’s turn represents a move along much the same axis as that of his earlier thought, rather than a reversal. The Nazis disappointed Heidegger and others like him mainly because they were not as “spiritual” as some followers had believed them to be. They settled down to administration and forsook the spiritual revolution Heidegger seemed to have welcomed in 1933.

Heidegger’s reversal, then, was not so much away from a spiritual ideology which he genuinely believed Hitler embodied, but merely away from the Führer’s failure to live up to Heidegger’s Nazi ideals. Say what one will about the dubious quality of Heidegger’s judgment here, the problem for his interpreters seems to remain one of demonstrating that his later philosophical views are any less dubious than his earlier ones -- especially as they are rooted in the manner in which he lived.