In his 1947 Letter on Humanism, written just two years after the devastating collapse of National Socialism and the Third Reich, Heidegger renounced all forms of “nationalism” [including National Socialism] as yet another (modern) manifestation and expression of the Western metaphysics of subjectivity. What is a “nation” – after all, but a collective of subjects? Yet, just thirteen years earlier, Heidegger had taken a radically different position. In National Socialism, he saw the authentic mission of the German Volk as the self-expression of the historicity of Being itself.
To be fair, Heidegger perhaps expected too much from National Socialism; or, at the very least, was too swept up in the political momentum (perhaps) of the times to take seriously the extreme contradictions that plagued (historic) National Socialism. What Heidegger did see was memorialized in his 1935 lecture (later published in 1953 as “An Introduction to Metaphysics”) in which Heidegger speaks of the “inner truth and greatness of th[at] movement (namely the encounter of planetarily deter-mined technology and modern human beings.” (Note: there is a long-standing controversy as to whether or not the bracketed modifier was originally included in the lecture text itself, as Heidegger says it was, or whether it was later added out of political expediency for the publication of “An Introduction to Metaphysics.” Either way, for our purposes here, we’re not so concerned with Heidegger the man, but rather his thought; as such, I see no harm in taking Heidegger at his word with respect to his own textual composition).
Modern historical discourse has no room for entertaining the “inner truth and greatness” of National Socialism. National Socialism is now indelibly linked with the attempted systematic destruction of European Jewry, the political (ontical) rise of Adolf Hitler and the NSDAP, and the military-history of the Second World War. In fact, the entire discourse surrounding the historical significance of National Socialism as a unique and distinctive historical phenomenon must take, or so the extant discursive practices dictate, such a concession as its starting point. All other attempts, including all attempts at an historical re-interpretation of the dominant discourse surrounding National Socialism, are either castigated as “revisionism” – as if a critical inquiry into existing paradigms was something to be discouraged; or simply ignored as apologists for the National Socialist philosophy. Yet reducing this complex historical phenomenon to any one particularity of its practical existence single-handedly closes off all insight into what was most “essential” to National Socialism: a revolutionary confrontation within and against the Western tradition in its entirety.
But it seems as though this failure to take seriously what for Heidegger constituted the “inner truth and greatness” of National Socialism – that is, its own manner of opening up the way towards a confrontation with Western technological nihilism, has only closed-us off from a critical engagement with that unique twentieth century phenomenon. In essence, it conceals more than it reveals. Now we’re left with a mere “ontico-historical chronicling” of National Socialism (as interpreted through the dominant paradigm of the Victors of WW2) in which the phenomena (of National Socialism) is no longer allowed to speak for itself.
What is the harm in allowing National Socialism to speak for itself? What about the possibilities of a radical re-thinking of what it was that attracted Heidegger to the “Nazi” movement, and what it reveals about our own understanding of ourselves, our tradition, and the future of thinking? At the risk of being mis-understood, I think Heidegger did see something genuinely transformative and revolutionary in National Socialism – something that we may learn a great deal from, if only we begin to think in an entirely different way. We have so concerned ourselves with the ontical aspect, namely the violence and destruction committed in the name of (historic) National Socialism that we have closed ourselves off, and appropriated the significance of the failures and excesses of National Socialism to signify (to us) as the further grounds for under-cutting all such future attempts at Nationalism generally.
To clarify – this is not to say that historic National Socialism, as it existed from 1933 to 1945, ought to be re-produced in the context of the Twenty-First century. Not only is such a re-production literally impossible – for National Socialism was the expression of a highly particularized period in European history and must be understood as the self-expression of a peculiarly German Dasein, such an attempt at re-production would epitomize an inauthentic historicizing as a blind and un-faithful repetition of a particular and uniquely-situated historical destiny.
What is long-overdue is a radical re-interpretation under the auspices of “destructive retrieval.” By “destructive retrieval,” I have in mind Heidegger’s destruktion as “critical appropriation,” upon which the historical interpretation of National Socialism will be de-structured in order to retrieve/appropriate its beginnings with the aim/intention of a repetition of its original insights and thus inform a new, radical beginning for our present understanding of National Socialism in all its possibility. In another sense, National Socialism ought to be subject to a different type of scrutiny an analysis as a concrete existential possibility of self-expression of a Volk with an eye towards gaining an insight into what constituted its most paradoxical features – chiefly, it’s own failure to confront its contradictory stance upon itself as both (a) violent transcendence and (b) entrenchment of, humanistic thinking.
At the outset, Heidegger’s understanding of destruktion is essential to setting the stage for our inquiry. In Being and Time, Heidegger proposes the de-structuring of the history of metaphysics in order to dissolve concealments brought about by the “hardened tradition,” and thus to return to the “primordial experiences” which constitute its source. Put another way, destruktion is a “critical dismantling” (abbau) of the tradition and at the same time a critical appropriation” of their original source. (Die Grundprobleme der Phanomenologie). Thus, destruktion is at the same time “retrieval” (Wiederholung), by which some facets of the tradition are appropriated and undergo a subsequent repetition – however, such a repetition is by no means a re-production, nor is it the attempt to simulate the past; but rather, it is a creative and active process. “