Culture Shock: The Nazi past that causes a cultural problem

It is hard to overstate Martin Heidegger’s cultural influence. Now that the philosopher’s notebooks show him to have been a thoroughgoing Nazi, we’re going to have to rethink how we use his ideas

Active Nazi, thinking philosopher: Martin Heidegger. Photograph: Apic/Getty Images

Active Nazi, thinking philosopher: Martin Heidegger. Photograph: Apic/Getty Images

Sat, Apr 5, 2014, 01:00

Very few people can claim to have read and understood in its entirety Martin Heidegger’s masterwork, Being and Time . And most of them are liars. The standard joke about Heidegger’s extraordinarily convoluted language is that it is impossible to translate, even into German.

And yet it’s no great exaggeration to say that pretty much any cultured person over the past 50 years has been touched by Heidegger’s thought. If you’ve read any great postwar novel, or seen any play that follows on from Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot , or even enjoyed any of the movies or TV dramas that reflect their ideas at one remove, some bit of Heidegger has lodged in your brain. Which is awkward, because, as the publication for the first time of his philosophical notebooks now reveals, he was a thoroughgoing Nazi.

That Heidegger was a Nazi in a literal sense is not news: he joined the Nazi party in 1933 and remained a member until its dissolution, in 1945. Nor is it news that he behaved atrociously throughout the Hitler period. He took over as rector of Freiburg University in April 1933, after it had been “cleansed” of Jews, specifically in order to carry out the Gleichschaltung , or “bringing into line” of its teaching with that of the Hitler state.

He told students in November 1933 that “the Führer and he alone is the present and future German reality and its law”. He presided over a public book-burning. And he consistently minimised the Holocaust, categorising it as another of the distortions created by the modern technology he deplored.

So why is Heidegger’s Nazism even up for discussion? Because he had the extraordinary good luck to have an apparently unimpeachable advocate. Heidegger’s former student and lover Hannah Arendt was not just a brilliant and hugely influential thinker in her own right. She was also Jewish.

Arendt led the rehabilitation of her old professor’s reputation by arguing that his involvement in Nazism was not essential to his thought. It was an “escapade”. If it contained a moral, it was merely that great thinkers are unworldly creatures who should stay out of politics. Heidegger’s mistake resulted from the naive way in which he “succumbed to the temptation . . . to ‘intervene’ in the world of human affairs”. The active Nazi and the thinking philosopher were two entirely different people.

Arendt’s rationalisations were always pretty weak, but they have gradually become untenable. The weight of evidence from scholars, such as Emmanuel Faye in Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism i nto Philosophy , showed conclusively that the Nazism and the philosophy were utterly intertwined. Heidegger used his own seminars to make his ideas into tools of Nazi indoctrination.

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