No apologies: Martin Heidegger

Yesterday we saw how Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), considered by many to be the most distinguished philosopher of the twentieth century, was also a devout Nazi and anti-Semite.

martin-heidegger-in-1933-011
Martin Heidegger in 1933, with his Hitler mustache

What happened to him after the war? Well, while other high-profile Nazis were put on trial or at least enrolled in denazification programs, he was forbidden from teaching but otherwise left alone. Fortunately for him, he had a number of prominent friends and admirers (among them Jean-Paul Sartre) who were eager to help in his postwar rehabilitation. His most fervent champion was Hannah Arendt, his former student and lover, whose 1951 book The Origins of Totalitarianism made her a big name and gave her a great deal of influence in intellectual circles on both sides of the Atlantic. Arendt, who had fled Europe for America in 1941, was herself Jewish, but Heidegger’s longtime, outspoken anti-Semitism didn’t keep her from doing everything she could to try to rescue her mentor’s reputation and to try to make everybody else believe that he hadn’t really been as devout a Nazi as he actually was.

arendt
Hannah Arendt

She promoted him tirelessly, and as late as 1971 was still trying to get him off the hook by comparing him to Thales, an ancient Greek philosopher who became “so absorbed in the heavens that he stumbled into the well at his feet.” (One point: isn’t it curious for a Jewish woman to describe a Hitler-besotted man as “absorbed in the heavens”? Another point: isn’t it pretty obvious that a philosopher who’s “so absorbed in the heavens that he stumbled into the well at his feet” is absolutely useless as a guide to life, which is supposed to be the whole point of philosophy?)

For his part, Heidegger, after the war, guilefully spun his sincere devotion to the Third Reich as, alternatively, (a) a charade he’d pulled off solely to save his own skin or (b) a noble effort by a serious educator to protect German education from pollution by Nazi thought.

sartre_22
Jean Paul Sartre

Even after the war, however, Heidegger couldn’t entirely disguise his real sympathies. For example, he actually equated Nazi death camps with the “motorized food industry” – the idea being that both phenomena were deplorable instances of runaway technology. In a letter to a former student, he suggested that the student, who had apparently expressed outrage about Nazi genocide, should instead be angry about the Communist treatment of East Germans.

In any event, Heidegger never explicitly apologized for his own Nazism. Never.

Sartre and Arendt weren’t alone in striving to clear Heidegger’s name. He had innumerable apologists, and to read through their writings is to see the same arguments surfacing again and again. One: he was only a Nazi for a certain number of years, and then snapped out of it. Two: hey, a lot of Germans were Nazis – it was in the water back then. Three: he may have been a Nazi, but he was not as fanatical as many other Nazis, and in fact his intellectualism may well have helped take the edge off of Nazism in the minds of his students and others who came under his influence. Four: okay, he was a Nazi, but that fact doesn’t discredit his philosophy, because they’re too different, utterly disconnected things.

Dr. Paul Joseph Goebbels, during a speach in September 1934.
Paul Joseph Goebbels

But none of these arguments will wash. Yes, he was an outspoken Nazi for only a few years in the 1930s, until he was removed from his post as university rector – but after that, he never openly opposed the regime, and in his private notebooks continued to express admiration for Hitler’s regime. Yes, a lot of Germans were Nazis – but nobody’s asking us to treat their philosophical reflections with respect. Yes, he might not have been as evil as Goebbels or Goering or Hitler himself, but what kind of standard is that to hold a philosopher up to?

eliot
T.S. Eliot

As for the idea that Heidegger’s philosophy and his Nazism can be viewed as unrelated to each other – no, this won’t do. T.S. Eliot was an anti-Semite too, and his anti-Semitism crops up once or twice in his poetry. But it doesn’t completely cancel out the value of his work. Eliot was an artist. Heidegger was not. He was a systematic thinker, all of whose ideas were parts of a coherent whole. His philosophy, indeed, was all he had to offer, and his prose was nothing more or less than a sturdy vehicle by means of which he communicated it. And an inextricable element of Heidegger’s philosophy was his Nazism.

Adolf Hitler, Austrian born dictator of Nazi Germany, 1938. Hitler (1889-1945) became leader of the National Socialist German Workers (Nazi) party in 1921. After an unsuccessful coup attempt in Munich in 1923, for which he was briefly imprisoned, Hitler set about pursuing power by democratic means. His nationalistic and anti-semitic message quickly gained support in a Germany humiliated by defeat in World War I and the harsh terms of the Treaty of Versailles and, from the late 1920s, suffering from economic collapse. Hitler came to power in 1933, and persuaded the Reichstag (parliament) to grant him dictatorial powers. He proceeded to crush opposition both within his own party and throughout German society, and set about re-arming Germany. Hitler's aggressive policy of territorial expansion to secure 'lebensraum' (living space) for the German people eventually plunged the world into the Second World War. A print from Kampf um's Dritte Reich: Historische Bilderfolge, Berlin, 1933. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Many a professional philosopher, to be sure, has strenuously resisted this view. There is a tendency in the philosophical profession to act as if a philosopher’s real-life conduct, prejudices, and public statements do not necessary have anything to do with the value of his published philosophical works. They behave as if philosophy is all about abstractions on the page or in the classroom. On the contrary, philosophy is supposed to be a guide to living life, a set of prescriptions for how to conduct oneself in the company of one’s fellowman.

For years, Heidgegger’s defenders sought to preserve a firewall between his Nazism and his philosophy. Then, in 2014, came the publication of his so-called Black Notebooks, which contained expressions of Nazi enthusiasm and Jew-hatred more vehement than anything of his that had been previously published. The notebooks, which were widely discussed and reviewed, made it harder than ever for his admirers to dismiss or minimize his politics and prejudices. More on this tomorrow.

Baader-Meinhof: The legacy

raflogoThe Baader Meinhof Group, also known as the Red Army Faction (RAF), officially disbanded in 1998, after many years of relative inactivity. But it has never really gone away.

We’ve already mentioned the massive scale of support that the group enjoyed in its day among young West Germans. RAF members were also, as Michael Burleigh has put it, “the darlings of Germany’s left-wing cultural elite.” Among those who defended them publicly were such internationally famous writers as Jean-Paul Sartre and Heinrich Böll. When RAF leaders Gudrun Ensslin and Andreas Baader fled for a time to France and Italy, Tennessee Williams reportedly played host to them. Marianne Faithfull’s 1979 song “Broken English” was inspired by the group.  

Then there’s Brian Eno’s 1978 song “RAF,” which incorporates “sound elements from a Baader Meinhof ransom message made by public telephone at the time of the Lufthansa Flight 181 hijacking.” Adorable.

In more recent years RAF has not only been remembered in films (as we saw yesterday) but also celebrated in song and story – and T-shirt.

raf3
The “Prada Meinhof” T-shirt

Aside from Che Guevara T-shirts, the “Prada Meinhof” T-shirt is perhaps the famous sartorial example of what has been called “terrorist chic.” A 2005 exhibit at the Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin drew widespread criticism. “The RAF’s terrorism is downplayed, if not even glorified,” Friedbert Pflueger, a member of the German Parliament, told the Washington Post after viewing the exhibit, adding that it made “no distinction between culprits and victims.” Another source has noted that “photographs of Baader, Ensslin and Meinhof’s suicides feature in New York’s Museum Of Modern Art’s permanent collection.” Ulrike Meinhof’s story, moreover, has figured in the work of Nobel Prize-winning authors Günter Grass and Elfriede Jelinek. 

If the RAF’s members were outraged that many former Nazis remained ensconced in the West German government of the 1970s, today’s Germans have reason to be outraged that their current cultural, media, and political elite is packed with people who, in their youth, cheered on the RAF. As a 2009 article observed, “many people from the protest movement went into German institutions as judges, lawyers, journalists and politicians, and…had far more impact than Baader-Meinhof’s violence.” 

rohl
Bettina Röhl

In 2001, for example, Bettina Röhl unearthed an archival film clip in which Joschka Fischer, who at the time was German Foreign Minister, could be seen beating up a cop in 1973, when he belonged to a Marxist group called the Cleaning Brigade. Röhl also claimed to possess taped witness accounts attesting that Fischer, back in the 1970s, had been a leading figure among far-left militants in Frankfurt, had advocated the use of Molotov cocktails, and had led a gang of bullies “who would come in and beat up his opponents or anyone standing in his way.” Other sources, meanwhile, alleged that Fischer had hidden RAF terrorist Margrit Schiller in his flat.

BRU102 - 20021025 - BRUSSELS, BELGIUM : German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer pictured during a news conference prior to the second working session at the European Council building in Brussels, 25 October 2002, the second day of the European Summit of Heads of State and Government, due to prepare the financing of the enlargement. EPA PHOTO BELGA/ BENOIT DOPPAGNE
Joschka Fischer

But Fischer wasn’t alone. As Röhl put it, he was just one of many Germans of his generation who suffered from the “Baader-Meinhof complex” – meaning that they were “traumatised by the roles they played during the student demonstrations” and “horrified by the recognition that they enjoyed the violence and are somehow nostalgic for it.” Röhl noted that in an interview with her years earlier, Fischer had bragged about the non-violent activity of his youth, clearly wanting her had “to see him as a hero of the 70s.” Such, indeed, is the mentality of many members of today’s German establishment.  

Fidel’s Hollywood Rat Pack

marquez_castro6
Fidel Castro, Gabriel García Márquez

Last time around, we pondered the late author Gabriel García Márquez‘s friendship with Fidel Castro, for whom he informed on fellow writers who were insufficiently loyal to the great caudillo. This despicable conduct, however, didn’t prevent García Márquez from being celebrated in the recent Academy Awards ceremony’s “In Memoriam” segment alongside movie stars and film directors.

Let’s look at a couple more high-voltage international figures who have sucked up to Castro.

In 2002, Steven Spielberg – the most successful and most honored of living movie directors – visited Havana for a film festival in his honor and dined with Castro long into the night, an encounter that he described as “the eight most important hours of my life.” Spielberg’s only critical remark on the occasion was not about Fidel’s tyranny but about America’s Cuban policy. Among those who were outraged by Spielberg’s enthusiasm for his meeting with the dictator was actor Robert Duvall, who, in a reference to Spielberg’s support for the U.S. Holocaust Museum, said he’s like to ask him: “Would you consider building a little annex on the Holocaust museum, or at least across the street, to honor the dead Cubans that Castro killed?”

spielberg_castro
Steven Spielberg, Fidel Castro

Nicolás Calzada, an NYU film student who confessed to an ardent admiration for Spielberg, was also upset by the director’s chumminess with Fidel. In a passionate open letter to Spielberg, Calzada wrote: “I expected you on this trip to be the eloquent enemy of tyranny that you have always been, but instead you insulted the memory of the people you have portrayed and those of all the Cuban people who have died at the hands of Fidel Castro,” whom Calzada described as “a tyrant whose 43-year rule has seen many of the same atrocities so powerfully depicted in your Schindler’s List.” Calzada asked : “Did you know that a mere two days before your visit, Oscar Elías Biscet finished serving his three-year prison sentence for hanging a Cuban flag upside down in protest of his government?”

Cuban emigré Humberto Fontova actually wrote a whole book entitled Fidel: Hollywood’s Favorite Tyrant, in which he cited praise for the dictator by celebrities ranging from Jean-Paul Sartre to Naomi Campbell, from Jesse Jackson to Gina Lollobrigida, from Norman Mailer to Chevy Chase. A visit to Havana, complete with a courtesy call on Castro, has long been de rigueur for a certain type of American celebrity – such as Robert Redford, who went scuba-diving with Fidel in 1988 and hung with him again in 2004.

Jesse Jackson and Fidel Castro
Jesse Jackson, Fidel Castro

But even in the company of knee-jerk leftists like Redford, director Oliver Stone is a standout. He’s called Fidel “one of the Earth’s wisest people.” In 2003, he made a documentary about Castro, Comandante, that, according to one observer, Damien Cave of the Washington Monthly, “should have been titled From Cuba With Love.” Asks Cave: “Who but the director of Salvador, a preachy indictment of U.S. policy in Central America, would take Castro at his word when he says ‘we have never practiced torture,’ a statement that Human Rights Watch contradicts pretty much annually?” Comandante and two later Stone documentaries, Looking For Fidel (2004) and Castro in Winter (2009), are pure hagiography.

Castro is isolated in the hemisphere,” Stone said in 2006, “and for those reasons I admire him because he’s a fighter. He stood alone, and in a sense he’s Don Quixote, the last revolutionary, tilting at this windmill of keeping the island in a state of, I suppose, egalitarianism, where everyone would get the break, everyone gets the education, and everyone gets good water.”

Except, of course, for opponents of his autocracy, who get arrested, imprisoned, and tortured. If not executed.

stone_castro
Fidel Castro, Oliver Stone