Martin Heidegger is one of the great and most influential philosophers of the 20th century - and he is also one of the most divisive figures in philosophy due to his service to the Nazi party during the 1930s and through 1945. He later explained his affiliation with the Nazis as a matter of circumstances - he did what he had to do in that particular atmosphere.
It's hard to buy that explanation. For a few decades, Heidegger's long-time lover and intellectual defender Hannah Arendt, "helped usher Heidegger back into the intellectual version of polite society, indeed assisted in preventing his ostracism as a Hitlerite, at least by those who considered his notoriously opaque use of philosophical language to offer something of value beneath it—apart from further opacity."
Arendt was 18 when she became Heidegger's lover, and even after the war they maintained a "warm" relationship with him, as the above quote reveals.
As the extent of Heidegger's enthusiastic embrace of Nazism becomes more apparent, and as it becomes ever clearer that the allegiance was not merely opportunistic and careerist but derived from a philosophical affinity with his Fuhrer's effusions, it becomes impossible not to reexamine certain questions. Such as: How much did Arendt know about the depth of Heidegger's allegiance? Did Heidegger lie to her? Did she believe him the way she believed Eichmann? Did she assume his complicity with the genocidaires was something careerist and banal? Or worse, did she know? And did she disingenuously (or self-deceptively) construct her false banal Eichmann from her false banal Heidegger?Despite all of this, Heidegger remains a major figure in European philosophy, and there are few contemporary philosophers who do not owe him some intellectual dept.
April 18th, 2013
German philosopher Martin Heidegger, whom readers of post-structuralist theory have to thank for popularizing the ubiquitous phrase “always already,” was a very labored writer who coined much of his own terminology and gave many a translator migraines. His prose betrays an obsession with the power of language that many of his students and successors, such as Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, inherited in the construction of their own elaborate theories. While Heidegger’s first book Being and Time (1927) had enormous influence on Existentialist and Phenomenological thought, he also wrote extensively on technology, theology, and art and poetics, engaging with the ideas of Edmund Husserl, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and the romantic German poet Friedrich Hӧlderlin.
In the short film above, see the man himself in excerpts from a lecture and three different interviews. The footage comes from a 1975 documentary called Heidegger’s Speeches. Heidegger first discusses some theory of language, quoting Goethe, then, in an interview, talks about how he came to the central preoccupation of his philosophical career: the “question of being,” or Dasein. The third interview concerns Heidegger’s thoughts on Karl Marx. He quotes Marx’s radical dictum, “philosophers have only interpreted the world; the point is to change it,” and offers a critical perspective based in hermeneutics. In the fourth and final interview segment, Heidegger proffers some thoughts on religion and communism.
For a much fuller picture of Heidegger’s life and work, watch the BBC documentary above, from their Existentialist series “Human All Too Human” that begins with Nietzsche and ends with Sartre. And this page also has video of a number of philosophers discussing Heidegger’s work, which left such a lasting impression on the character of late modern and postmodern thought that it’s hard to find a contemporary philosopher who doesn’t owe some sort of debt to him.
It may be impossible to overstate Heidegger’s importance to twentieth century European philosophy in general, and upon several prominent Jewish thinkers in particular like his former student and lover Hannah Arendt and ethicist Emmanuel Levinas. But it also must be said that Heidegger’s legacy is tainted with controversy. While it’s typically good form to separate a thinker’s work from his or her personal lapses, Heidegger’s lapses of judgment, if that’s what they were, are not so easy to ignore. As the documentary above informs us, Heidegger was a Nazi. A reviewer of a recent biography colorfully sums up the case this way:
Let’s be clear about this: Martin Heidegger, a thinker many regard as the most important philosopher of the twentieth century, was indeed a bona-fide, arm-aloft, palm-outstretched Nazi. Zealously renewing his party membership every year between 1933 and 1945, his commitment to the National Socialist cause was unstinting. Nowhere was this more in evidence than in his public role as rector of Freiburg University, where he praised ‘the inner truth and greatness’ of Nazism in his 1933 rectoral address, and later penned a paean to murdered Nazi thug Leo Schlageter. Heidegger was no token fascist; he was jack-booted and ready. Wearing a swastika on his lapel at all times he, alongside his proud, virulently anti-Semitic wife, also practised private discrimination against Jews, from fellow existentialist philosopher Karl Jaspers to his one-time mentor Edmund Husserl. Not that he was without friends. In fact his friendship with Eugene Fischer, director of Berlin Institute for Racial Hygiene, lasted years.Heidegger’s Nazi sympathies are hardly evident in his philosophical work, yet it is still difficult for many readers to reconcile these facts about his life. Some refer to a 1966 Der Spiegel interview in which the philosopher explained away his Nazism as exigent circumstances. Sort of what we call today a non-apology apology. Others, like onetime admirer Levinas, don’t find the task so easy. In a commentary on forgiveness, Levinas once wrote, “One can forgive many Germans, but there are some Germans it is difficult to forgive. It is difficult to forgive Heidegger.”
You can find more resources on Heidegger in our archive of free online philosophy courses.
- Friedrich Nietzsche & Existentialism Explained to Five-Year-Olds (in Comical Video by Reddit)
- Walter Kaufmann’s Lectures on Nietzsche, Kierkegaard and Sartre (1960)
- Hannah Arendt’s Original Articles on “the Banality of Evil” in the New Yorker Archive
Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him @jdmagness