Among other things, Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) is an example of why we called this website Useful Stooges and not Useful Idiots. For Heidegger was no idiot. He’s considered one of the great twentieth-century philosophers. He devoted his entire life to thinking deep thoughts about the meaning of life. During his lifetime, he published enough on the subject to fill over a hundred volumes. He must have been a genius, right?
Or was he? For Heidegger wasn’t just a philosopher, respected – and in many cases revered – by followers around the world, especially in his native Germany. He was a Nazi.
How did this happen? How did such a man come to be a follower of Hitler? Well, in order to try to answer this question, we need to take a brief dive into his philosophy. The son of peasants who was educated by the Church and was, briefly, a Jesuit novice, Heidegger essentially turned away from the entire Western philosophical tradition. In his 1927 book Being and Time, he rejected the timeless, universal ideals served up every great thinker since Plato and insisted rather on the supreme importance of the specific time and place in which any given individual happens to find himself. Dismissing ethical philosophy’s (and Christianity’s) focus on good and evil, he insisted that existence was intrinsically meaningless and that the individual must therefore create meaning for himself by fiercely embracing his ethnic identity, affirming the “hardness of [his nation’s] fate,” and playing an active role in the history of his times.
Opposed, in his view, to this ardent dedication to ethnic identity and identification with the history and future of one’s people was what Heidegger saw as the dehumanization of the modern scientific and technological world. (Of course, it is curious, to say the least, that a man supposedly appalled by technology and dehumanization could embrace a regime that perfected the technologically efficient mass murder of millions.)
Now, the problem with Heidegger’s kind of thinking isn’t that it leads one inexorably down a path to Nazism. It’s that it leaves that path wide open; it doesn’t warn you against taking that path; indeed, it accepts heading down that path as a fully reasonable option. With somebody like Hitler on the landscape, preaching Aryan destiny and national transformation in loud, ringing tones and attracting massive crowds to his cause, Heidegger’s philosophy made the path to Nazism look like a natural way to go.
Or so it was, at least, for Heidegger himself. Appointed rector of the University of Freiburg shortly after Hitler was elected German chancellor, Heidegger gladly took an oath of loyalty to the Führer and delivered an inaugural address in which he called Hitler “the present and future German reality and its law.” Preaching to his students about the “inner truth and greatness” of the Third Reich, Heidegger sported a Hitler mustache, wore a swastika on his collar, “began his lectures and signed his letters with the phrase ‘Heil Hitler,’” and uncomplainingly implemented the ever-mounting restrictions on Jews by, for example, denying financial aid to Jewish students and purging Jewish professors. During the war, while the Nazis were busy carrying out the Final Solution, Heidegger turned victims into perpetrators and vice-versa, depicting “World Judaism” as a powerful, elusive force that was causing the tragic sacrifice of German soldiers as the Allies began to gain the upper hand on the battlefield.
Believe it or not, Heidegger’s own mentor, phenomenologist Edmund Husserl, had been Jewish; but this wasn’t enough to keep Heidegger from demonizing Jews. If the meaning of life was all about embracing one’s nation, one’s Volk, Jews, in his view, were a people who had no country of their own and who, therefore, lacked any kind of meaningful identity. They were nomads – avatars, and advocates, of a pernicious brand of modern rationality that was the sworn enemy of the kind of grand, irrational belief that, in Heidegger’s view, gave a life meaning. For Heidegger, this made Jews in Germany nothing less than a toxin, poisoning the most precious possession that “real” Germans had – namely, a robust sense of their own national identity. If Germans wanted to survive as Germans, he warned, they had to protect themselves by retaliating against this contagion “with the goal of total annihilation.”
And yet the man still has admirers. Many of them are distinguished professors of philosophy. More than a few of them are Jewish. How can that be? More tomorrow.