Heidegger, National Socialism, and Nihilism

There are few who would deny Heidegger his rightful place as the most influential and important philosopher of the Twentieth Century; it is equally undeniable that Heidegger was at the same time one of the most controversial thinkers of his time. As a thinker, Heidegger set about to deconstruct the entire history of Western philosophy – dislodging the tradition of metaphysics-as-presence and setting a groundbreaking new path towards originary thinking that continues to be felt long after his demise. Yet, Heidegger was also extremely controversial outside of his role as  thinker – but also as a living, concrete individual who found himself engaged in the most fascinating and demanding of times. Nowadays, in the wake of the explosion of scholarship delving into Heidegger’s association and involvement with German National Socialism, it is seemingly impossible for any serious student of Heidegger’s thought to ignore this feature of both the philosopher and his philosophy.

Yet at the same time, much of the existing scholarship is fundamentally inadequate – committing itself to following a path that Heidegger himself would’ve surely criticized for having utterly missed the point. Beginning with Farias’ book, Heidegger et la Nazism, all the way through Faye’s Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism into Philosophy (2009)–  the debate surrounding “Heidegger and Nazism” has largely polarized into two opposing camps: his critics who claim that Heidegger’s affiliation with National Socialism was a “natural” consequent stemming or deriving from his philosophy;  versus his supporters, who largely claim that Heidegger’s preoccupation with National Socialism was a “personal error” or mistake – the actions of a great thinker who simply lacked political acumen.

That the very structure of this discursive endeavor has degenerated into such an artificial dichotomy presents itself as a significant obstacle standing in the way to any further understanding of the complex relationship between Heidegger’s thought on the one hand, and National Socialism as an historical phenomenon on the other.  Worst of all are those attempts by the likes of Victor Farias which betray a complete lack of effort to fully engage with Heidegger’s thought;  but moreover, insofar as one treats historical phenomena as mere “present-to-hand,” one artificially (and superficially) strips the phenomena of that upon-which such phenomena was constituted (made possible) in the first place.  In other words – the very attempt to study Heidegger as a concrete individual confronted with the calling of his time through the lens of dispassionate and objective historical science misses an important piece of this never-ending controversy.

The “Heidegger and Nazism” controversy almost exclusively takes as its starting point the proposition that National Socialism is, was, and always has been, something that needs to be denounced, thoroughly discredited, or de-legitimized less one becomes labeled a “revisionst,” or worst – sympathetic with National Socialist ideals. This is not only patently absurd, but represents a great disservice to genuine scholarship and thinking.  That modern day historical discourse with respect to National Socialism has the tendency to reduce that event as synonymous with genocide and mass-murder, war and destruction, is to trivialize National Socialism and conceal its importance as an epoch-defining moment in Twentieth Century history. In short, the entire framework of the discourse of National Socialism operates merely at the level of ontical-valuation. Such a framework is problematic in particular because it fails to take account for the very ontological, as opposed to ontic, meaning by which Heidegger’s engagement with National Socialism took place. Likewise, it has the particularly un-helpful effect of reducing the complexities of National Socialism as unique historical phenomena and thereby “annihilating” any genuine understanding with regards to an otherwise incredibly serious subject matter. This much can be accounted for by the attempt to constrain National Socialism within the delimitations of the progressivist-historical narrative and liberal-democratic ideology.  Thus, the interpretation of National Socialism was always already premised on a series of particular, albeit un-defined, presuppositions. Consequently, it follows that the dominant narrative constrains the horizon upon which National Socialism is subsequently interpreted as always already something “evil,” “monstrous,” and “repulsive.”  National Socialism, if one begins from the presuppositions of the liberal-democratic ideology and progressivist historical narrative, is an aberration, a suspension from the normal course of events upon which human consciousness marches teleologically towards ultimate Enlightenment and universal the humanitarian ideal.

But restricting the interpretation of National Socialism to this extant narrative renders such interpretations fundamentally flawed for two critical reasons. First, this narrative takes itself to be objective, and therefore always already privileges the meaning upon-which it itself imposes on the historical phenomena – thus concealing its own fatalistic approach to historical interpretation. The progressivist-historical narrative interprets in a manner fundamentally incapable of truly coming to an understanding with the “meaning” of National Socialism that may have appeared to Heidegger – and countless other Germans of that particular point in time – as the “inner truth and greatness” of the movement. Focusing exclusively on National Socialism as a doctrine and philosophico-political expression of racialist supremacy and state terrorism is about as useful as reading the Wikipedia entry for Being and Time and allowing yourself to be convinced that you “understand” the intricacies and radical possibilities set forth in that publication. In other words – the failure to have a meaningful discussion with respect to Heidegger’s involvement in National Socialism is in part on account of a failure to truly grasp National Socialism not only in its actuality, but in the wholeness of its totality.

To fully grasp the significance of National Socialism as historical-phenomenon one simply cannot take the all-too convenient route of de-contextualizing National Socialism’s origins – how it came to be, and that upon-which National Socialism represented itself as the authentic destiny of the German Volk. To miss this piece of the puzzle seems, at least to me, to miss the entire point of Heidegger’s association and interest in National Socialism. For Heidegger’s own association, and later confrontation, with National Socialism always took place within the context of the historicity of the German Volk. More specifically, National Socialism represented the subtle yet complex inter-play between repetition and retrieval of the German Volk whose essence is futural as futural retrieval of the chthonic – its ownmost subterranean rootedness in the Earth.

At the same time, to separate National Socialism from the discourse surrounding the history and trajectory of Western nihilism equally fails to take full account of National Socialism as historical phenomena. In 1933, Heidegger saw in National Socialism the “counter-movement” to Western technological nihilism – a retrieval of the ancient Pre-Socratic Greek way of originary thinking the question of Being as projected into the futurity of the German Volk; only later, however, when National Socialism failed to live up to Heidegger’s expectation of a second “ontological” revolution, did he fully see that National Socialism always already was impregnated with the most destructive type of subjectivism and nihilistic “will to will” of the Western tradition. Indeed, this was the very paradox of National Socialism, which always found itself caught in the midst of a perplexing dialogue with itself in relation to its historical significance: both a counter-movement to nihilism while at the same time nihilistic itself. On the one hand, National Socialism was always-already defined by its hostility to the tradition, particularly in its hostility to the Enlightenment ideals of universal humanism and the explicit tradition of the French Revolution; however, whether or not this would inevitably translate into providing a springboard for Heidegger’s anticipation of the coming of a “new beginning” is another matter altogether. What is clear, however, is that even before the onset of War, Heidegger’s own relationship to National Socialism, and perhaps the broader political dimensions of Heidegger’s thought, underwent what Julian Young has called a transition from the “activist” rhetoric and thinking of Heidegger circa 1933-34 (the days of the Rectorate) to a more quiestist and passive engagement in the form of Gelassenheit.

Nevertheless, no matter how our own post-National Socialism historical narrative depicts Heidegger and/or National Socialism, it is beyond dispute that Heidegger was no “ordinary Nazi.” For example, Heidegger was never a convinced biological-racist. Heidegger’s Nietzsche lectures demonstrate this point – as evidenced in his attempt to provide a counter-interpretation of Nietzsche to the predominantly biologistic-naturalistic interpretation offered by the leading German Nietzsche scholar and Heidegger’s contemporary, Alfred Baeumler. To be fair, it must be conceded that both Heidegger and Baeumler, despite their very significant differences, did belong to a shared historical context that emerged in the wake of the Great War, premised on a vision that saw within National Socialism a re-turn to the autochthonous and rootedness of the German Volk in the soil, and the retrieval of the arche as projected into the opening-up of an-other beginning. Yet, in the first half of the Nietzsche lectures, Heidegger will see in Nietzsche himself the ending-as-beginning, and will re-emphasize Nietzsche’s emphasis on “Being,” as opposed to “Values,” as was the case in Baeumler et. al – only later to see in Nietzsche the very destructiveness of the nihilistic “will to will” long at work within the history of the West — a fatal error that Heidegger also  saw developing within National Socialism that would end in the total destruction of Germany at the hands of the Allies by the end of the War.

Heidegger was never a “National Socialist” in the way in which that term implies adherence to the NSDAP’s main party platform; indeed, Heidegger never fully embraced the standard NSDAP line, but rather devised what Carl von Weizsacker called “Freiburg National Socialism.” Heidegger never embraced or accepted the dominant “worldview” (Weltanschauung). Heidegger’s idiosyncratic approach to the question of National Socialism would even put him at odds with major National Socialist ideologues and philosophers, including Rosenberg, Baeumler, Krieck and others. He also rejected the founding of a new mythos for German Dasein rooted in the Volkisch mythos of the Aryan Master Race– but rather in the autochthonous founding of a new-beginning rooted in the originary thinking and openness to the question of Being of Heraclitus and the pre-Socratics.    

Moreover, Heidegger never fully identified himself with the Revolution of 1933 which saw Adolf Hitler ascend to the position of Chancellor of the Reich. According to Charles Bambach, in his highly-detailed and thought-provoking work, Heidegger’s Roots, Heidegger saw the 1933 NSDAP revolution as merely the first-phase upon-which the groundwork was being laid for a second “ontological” revolution which “alone could achieve the ‘total transformation of German Dasein’” and overcome the rootlessness of Western nihilism.  Such hopes for a coming ontological revolution was the cornerstone of Heidegger’s 1933 Rectoral Address, in which Heidegger saw the German University playing a fundamental and pivotal role. Thus, the “self-expression of the German University” is by no means a mere philosophical endorsement of Hitlerism as it existed in 1933; but rather, a challenge of sorts to push National Socialism beyond the politico-ontical realm and into the spiritual and ontological.  It is a call for the University to take a leading role in the “spiritual” life of the Volk in the battle against the ontological decline of the West; as paving the way for the University beyond a mere institution of specialized learning into its authentic mission as the fundamental site for originary questioning. Thus, it was the University that would serve as the vanguard for the second “ontological” revolution of National Socialism.

Much of the confusion as to the intent behind the Rectoral Address is the result of Heidegger’s otherwise inflammatory language – with its many references to common National Socialist themes and terminology. But one cannot take this at face value – and as several scholars have remarked, the Address is much more couched in terms of a Nietzschean, rather than Hitlerist, dialogue. Moreover, separating the Rectoral Address from the totality of Heidegger’s engagement and eventual confrontation with National Socialism offers only a superficial interpretation, for such an interpretation leaves one in the dark as to regards what Heidegger is actually trying to say in the Rectoral Address. Even Heidegger’s references to “Blut und Boden” (Blood and Soil), which permeate the Rectoral speech, should not be constrained to the way in which these terms were formulated in the traditional National Socialist rhetoric. For Heidegger, Blut und Boden had everything to do with retrieving the ancient, autochthonous roots of German Dasein in the form of originary questioning – and not the otherwise biological framework as articulated by the more “traditional” National Socialist ideologues such as Darre.

Above all, it behooves scholars interested in the question of Heidegger’s engagement with National Socialism to recognize how National Socialism as a concrete expression of German Dasein in 1933 constituted what appeared as a genuine and authentic response to the crisis of Western nihilism. This situatedness within the history of Western nihilism constituted for Heidegger what was most attractive in the National Socialist Revolution – or what he himself identified as “the inner truth and greatness” of the movement. Heidegger, for his part, was indeed as much a product of what has become known as the “ideas of 1914,” which included a radical and militantly antagonistic opposition to the “Ideas of 1789.” There is considerable evidence to suggest that Heidegger was undoubtedly influenced by the so-called “Conservative Revolution” in Germany in the inter-war years. Again, Blambach’s work is essential in understanding this point. In Heidegger’s Roots, Blambach goes to great lengths to situate Heidegger within the historical context of crisis following Germany’s humiliating defeat in World War I and the nation’s abysmal treatment at the hands of the victors.  For Heidegger and many others at the time – National Socialism represented an authentic confrontation with democratic-bourgeois-liberalism on the one hand, and Bolshevism on the other; a “third-way” so-to-speak between the two nihilistic camps, which for Heidegger represented the culmination of technological nihilism (Introduction to Metaphysics). National Socialism, for its part, especially in 1933-4, represented a genuine and understandable alternative to the German Volk between two otherwise nihilistic tendencies that threatened to swallow Germany whole; it represented a constituted force and phenomena that understood itself as projecting a possibility of a new beginning outside the tradition of metaphysics-as-presence and technological nihilism.

There are many factors that likely motivated Heidegger to involve himself with National Socialism. I think German philosopher and historian Ernst Nolte (a student and family friend of Heidegger’s during the NS period) has perhaps said it best when he says that Heidegger’s motivations in 1933 were largely the result of certain philosophical assumptions and hopes; that such assumptions and hopes were a product of Heidegger’s youth and the broader cultural-philosophical milieu in which Heidegger found himself and his generation in the wake of the annihilation and devastation of the Great War.

At this juncture it must absolutely be stressed that none of the above is intended to suggest, however that there is any necessary connection between Heidegger’s thought on the one hand, and the explicitly political worldview of National Socialism. Rather, Heidegger’s involvement with the NSDAP was ultimately and fundamentally his personal doing. To attempt to draw such necessary and causal connections is exactly the problem. However, it is equally important to stress the manner in which Heidegger took seriously the problem of Western nihilism and National Socialism and not treat it as a mere “personal error” of someone caught up in the spirit of the times who simply misjudged or miscalculated the intentions of the NSDAP and National Socialism generally. What can be adduced, however, is that Heidegger’s personal and philosophical engagement with National Socialism was always a unique and idiosyncratic one; an engagement that, perhaps premised on certain expectations, hopes, and prejudices, did in fact attempt to apply his own body of thought to National Socialism as it emerged. It was not the case that Heidegger’s philosophical thought was ready-made for National Socialism – but that rather he, as a concrete existing individual, sought to situate ontological thinking within the historical, cultural, and political discourse of National Socialism.

In conclusion, if we are to have any genuine insight into the relationship between Heidegger and National Socialism, then we must do so on the terms by which such events took place. It is imperative that the phenomena of National Socialism be understood within the proper context, and not merely treated as “objective” or “present-to-hand” data by which yet another narrative may be construed –subject to the privileges and prejudices of our contemporary post-WW2 perspective. The point is not to re-construct yet another or alternative narrative; but to de-construct existing narratives, and to delineate the limitations of our historical understanding. So long as our discursive practices with regards to the question of Heidegger and Nazism operate within the framework of either indictment or exoneration, we delude ourselves into thinking that what is merely present is truth, thus concealing ourselves from a more primordial engagement with the underlying phenomena.

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One comment

  1. neutronhammer

    I’m glad you’re back, this is by far my favorite blog. I’m just relieved to know that there are others who feel the same way i do.

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