previous chapter
3 The "Official" View and "Facts and Thoughts"
next sub-section

The "Official" View

I have interpreted Heidegger's turning from fundamental ontology to Nazism through the intrinsically political character of his thought. In my interpretation, Heidegger's political turn is squarely based on, and follows from, his philosophy. I discern an intrinsic link between his philosophical theory and his political practice. Heidegger also endorses an interpretation of his political action as deriving from his thought, for instance, in his acknowledgment that he was led to National Socialism by his conception of historicality,[2] in his admission that he regarded the Nazi rise to power as an opportune moment to seize the destiny of the German people,[3] and so on.

Now it is well known that theories are underdetermined by the facts on which they are based. The obvious consequence is that it is only rarely that factual material cannot be employed to support different, even incompatible, interpretations. It is, then, not surprising that the same material which I have adduced in support of my reading of the link between Heidegger's philosophical thought and political commitment is construed by others to provide a less damaging, more favorable reading of Heidegger's life and thought. Whereas I regard Heidegger's philosophy as ingredient in his politics, Heidegger's defenders are concerned to exonerate his thought from any significant role in his actions.

What I will call the "official" view is propagated not only by Heidegger but by some of his closest students. It is the view that, roughly speaking, there is no, or no important, link between Heidegger's philosophical position and National Socialism. It emerges in Heidegger's writings directly concerned with the rectoral period as well as in occasional hints scattered throughout his later corpus, and it is further developed and propagated by some of his closest followers in their own writings. This view was initially formulated by Heidegger himself at a time when he was threatened with loss of his relation to the university at the end of the war. Not surprisingly, it is intended to deny or at least to minimize a durable, profound, or even significant concern with National Socialism.

There is an interesting analogy between what I am calling the official view and Heidegger's later thought. His writing after Being and Time is largely a series of commentaries on that work, which is widely considered as his main philosophical contribution. There is an analogy between the efforts by Heidegger and certain of his followers after the fact to stress a peculiarly favorable interpretation of his life and thought and Heidegger's own effort to create a kind of Heideggerian orthodoxy. Like Marxism, which for more than a hundred years has subsisted on the claim of a privileged insight into the thought of the master thinker, so Heidegger's closest followers continue to dispute his "authentic" legacy


through differing interpretations of his works and days. When all is said and done, the official view is vitally important to the orthodox followers of the master thinker, whose careers are inextricably linked to his, and who are, hence, concerned like the master to deny what can reasonably be denied and to limit the effect of what must be admitted. The aim in view that motivates both the master thinker and his disciples is finally the same: to save the phenomena, so to speak, by showing that however deplorable Heidegger's political engagement and actions might be, they have nothing, or nothing essential, to do with the master thinker's thought. Depending on the interpretation, it is possible to hold the master at fault with respect to his politics but not his thought, which, dissociated from him in a conceptual realm of its own, remains entirely unsullied by either time or circumstance.

The official view is not confined to Heidegger scholars only. An example of someone influenced by Heidegger, but not in any sense a Heidegger scholar, who also accepted the official view is provided by Jean-Paul Sartre, in his response to Lukács's critique of Heidegger's Nazism. In a polemical work, Lukács criticized Heidegger's connection to fascism and described Heidegger as a pre-fascist.[4] In response, Sartre objects to Lukács's supposed inability from an orthodox Marxist perspective to comprehend Heidegger because he simply will not read him; he will not make the effort to grasp the sentences one after the other. According to Sartre, who admits that he studied Heidegger's thought in Berlin in 1933 when Heidegger should have been at the summit of his "activism," "Heidegger has never been an 'activist'—at least not as he has expressed himself in his philosophical works."[5]

Sartre's view that Heidegger is not an "activist" is due, not to his own research into the matter, but rather to his uncritical acceptance of the "official" view of Heidegger's Nazism, which was already in evidence in the second half of the 1940s, significantly just around the time when Heidegger published the "Letter on Humanism." It is present in the first important discussion of Heidegger's Nazism in the pages of Les Temps Modernes , edited by Sartre. The discussion began with an important article by Karl Löwith, Heidegger's former student and later colleague. In response, Alphonse De Waelhens, the Belgian scholar of existentialism and phenomenology, immediately invoked two aspects of the "official" view: the insistence on a distinction in kind between Heidegger the philosopher and Heidegger the man; and what we can call the "expert defense," which consists in invoking the critic's alleged lack of sufficient expertise in Heidegger's thought.

In part, what I am calling the "official" view derives from a clement interpretation of the rectoral address, the text which, except for occasional hints, remained the only published statement directly confronting


Heidegger's Nazism from 1933 when it was delivered until his passing in 1976. Further elements of the "official" view have continued to emerge from Heidegger's Nachlass , including the appearance of the Spiegel interview immediately after his death and the publication in 1983 of the article from 1945. Since the official view of Heidegger's Nazism is partly based on his posthumous writings, the record is incomplete and still subject to change as further texts from his Nachlass appear. Unquestionably, the view of his Nazism and even of his entire later thought in the period after Being and Time has been altered by the recent publication, more than fifty years after its composition, of his important Beiträge zur Philosophie (Vom Ereignis ).

Sartre's remark points to, but does not state, the "official" view. Oddly, there is no official presentation of the "official" view, which continues to inform the discussion. Although it has more than one version, it seems appropriate to illustrate it in the form favored by Hermann Heidegger, Heidegger's son and literary executor (Nachlass-Verwalter ). Although not a philosopher, even in an extended sense, he is clearly a close follower and defender of his father's life and work; and he provides an average form of the "official" view in a clear, even transparent fashion.

The version of the "official" view favored by Hermann Heidegger is stated in an extremely brief foreword to a small work containing the rectoral address and Heidegger's 1945 article on his period as rector. In his foreword, Hermann Heidegger's comments are limited to these two texts only; but they suggest a proper way to approach Heidegger's Nazism in general. According to the son, his father's relation to Nazism, which was at most unimportant, has been largely misunderstood because of the misrepresentations of his father's rectoral address.

Hermann Heidegger makes this argument in a text of less than a page and a half. The text is divided into five paragraphs in which Hermann Heidegger describes the circumstances of the republication of these two texts. The statement of the "official" view is confined to the third and fourth paragraphs, which I will simply reproduce:

Much has been said about the content of the speech that is false and untrue. From 1945 on down to the most recent past, even university professors have cited in their publications what were supposed to be statements from the Rectoral Address, which are not found there. The words "National Socialism" and "National Socialist" do not occur in this address; there is no mention of the "Führer," the "Chancellor of the Reich," or "Hitler."

At the time, the title of the address alone made people listen more attentively. No doubt, Martin Heidegger was caught up in the mood that


seemed to promise a fresh start for the nation, as were also many of those who later became resistance fighters. He never denied his entanglements in the movement of the time. And to be sure, he made mistakes while rector. He did not deny his own inadequacies. But he was neither an uncritical fellow traveller, nor an active party member. From the very beginning he kept a clear distance from the party leadership. This showed itself, for example, in his prohibition of book burnings and of the posting of the "Jew Notice" in the university; in his appointment of deans, not one of whom was a National Socialist; and in that as long as he remained rector, he was able to keep the Jewish professors von Hevesy and Thannhauser at the University.[6]

Let us examine the son's narrative account of the supposed misrepresentations. In support of his interpretation, Hermann Heidegger offers two incompatible readings of his father's relation to Nazism. The first reading denies a link between Heidegger and Nazism. The second reading admits the link, which it then attempts to minimize.

Hermann Heidegger begins by denying Heidegger's Nazism. He asserts that even university professors have from 1945 until today cited passages in their writings which do not figure in this text. He then notes that in this text, we do not find any of the following words: National Socialism, der Führer, der Reichskanzler , or Hitler. The suggestion that Heidegger's view has been misrepresented by discussion of his rectoral address is strengthened by the further indication, in a passage preceding the one quoted, in which his son notes that the second edition of this speech was withdrawn from sale by the Nazi party, or NSDAP, after his father's resignation as rector.[7]

What is the intention of this paragraph? I believe that Hermann Heidegger intends for the reader to infer that since Heidegger does not refer directly in his speech either to Hitler or to Nazism, his speech cannot reasonably be construed as evidence that his speech is about National Socialism or that his thought led to Nazism. If there is nothing in the rectoral speech that identifies it as a statement of support for National Socialism, then there is obviously no reason to hold that fundamental ontology in fact led to Heidegger's Nazi turn. It follows that Heidegger's turning to a totalitarian form of political practice is, then, merely a contingent matter, unrelated to his philosophical theory, just one of those things, so to speak, but certainly not explicable on the basis of his philosophy, to which it may not even be related.

The text, which is meant to engender these inferences exonerating Heidegger, is remarkably vague. Since there is no indication of who cited what passages from this speech incorrectly, we cannot evaluate Hermann Heidegger's claim. The son is correct that the words listed do


not occur in the text. We do not find the word "Führer " in the singular, but only in its plural form. But Hermann Heidegger's statement fails to consider a number of relevant issues, which we can put in the form of questions: How did the philosopher intend his speech to be understood? How was it understood? Was he misunderstood? There is no evidence that any of those who heard this talk, including Heidegger's followers or even representatives of official Nazism, ever doubted that his sibylline language referred to those items which, according to his son, he does not name, in fact precisely Hitler and the Nazi party.

The attempted linguistic defense, limited as it is, is inadequate to deny that Heidegger's thought was the conceptual basis of his political allegiance. Even Heidegger's son does not seem convinced by the suggestion that his father's speech has nothing directly to do with Nazism at all. In the next paragraph, he immediately supplements his implicit denial that the rectoral speech is evidence for Heidegger's turning to Nazism by admitting his father's implication in Nazi politics which he has just implicitly denied. His statement of Heidegger's involvement in National Socialist politics is interesting for several reasons, for instance in Hermann Heidegger's employment now of an indirect form of reference to Nazism—a form of reference whose significance he earlier disputes in the observation that neither Hitler nor National Socialism is directly named— through words which unmistakably refer to what he does not directly name.

He states that the title of the talk already caused one to prick up one's ears at that time. According to Hermann Heidegger, like many later resistance fighters his father was at that time caught up in the national mood of renewal (Aufbruchstimmung ), a word that suggests the possibility of basic change. The comparison to "those who later became resistance fighters" suggests that Heidegger, too, was later part of the resistance to Nazism. Now employing the word "movement" (Bewegung ), in line with frequent practice, to refer to Nazi party politics, which he does not directly name, he states that Heidegger never denied his temporary involvement (vorübergehende Verstrickung ) in the so-called movement of the time. The son further admits that his father also certainly made mistakes as rector, which Heidegger never denied. But for the son, his father was never an uncritical fellow traveler nor an active party member. Hermann Heidegger sees his father's clear distance from the party in Heidegger's prevention of the book burning and of the hanging up of the "Judenplakat ," in his refusal to appoint only National Socialists, and in his efforts to retain such Jewish professors as Hevesy and Thannhauser.

The time is now long past in which one could simply deny that Heidegger had ever been a Nazi, that he had joined the Nazi party, that he had


collaborated with it, that he had even believed in it. It is simply too late to deny rationally what is now part of the public record. At most, one can now only minimize or otherwise interpret what one can no longer deny as such. Perhaps for the reason that a simple denial cannot be maintained, in this paragraph Heidegger's son takes a more realistic line based on the admission of a minimal link between Heidegger and Nazism. Although still interested in reducing his father's involvement with National Socialism, he now admits a relation to Nazism which he seeks to minimize rather than to deny. In his grudging admission that his father did after all have a connection with Nazism, in fact that like everyone else he made mistakes during that period, something he did not deny, the son creates the impression of his father as a human being, with human frailties, who was for a short time only caught up with a dreadful situation and who accepted his errors.

This impression is misleading. Although Heidegger was caught up in Nazism, like numerous later resistance fighters, it does not follow that he was in fact a "resistance fighter" however conceived. Despite a number of hints in his writings that he later confronted Nazism, his own "resistance" to National Socialism is mainly limited to objections to its theoretical adequacy, particularly as a theory of Being. Although he collaborated with National Socialism, in part because he identified with its goals, in part no doubt also for opportunistic reasons, he never accepted it as a theory. There is, however, no evidence, nor does his son cite any, that Heidegger ever resisted such familiar Nazi excesses as the efforts to acquire world hegemony or to exterminate whole populations.

These remarks on Hermann Heidegger's account of Heidegger's Nazism can be summarized as follows: Hermann Heidegger illustrates two common forms of the "official" view of Heidegger's Nazism: on the one hand, an extreme form consisting in the denial of Heidegger's relation to National Socialism, for instance by denying that the rectoral speech in fact refers to this political movement; on the other hand, a more moderate form consisting in the denial of a more than minimal relation between Heidegger and Nazism. Common to these two variants of the "official" view is the claim that Heidegger's relation to Nazism was at most transitory and not centrally rooted in his thought. Heidegger's relation to Nazism is either denied or conceded, but a relation of Heidegger's thought to Nazism is denied.

This reading of Heidegger's relation to Nazism as merely contingent and, hence, unrelated to his thought draws support from two main sources. There is the understandable concern of those whose careers are based on Heidegger's thought to minimize or even to deny its role in his turn to National Socialism. This concern overlaps with Heidegger's own interest, which cannot be denied, in attempting to save his thought from


being discredited by his Nazi turning. It is a matter of record that he was able to escape responsibility for his actions. For the most part, at least until the recent publications by Farias and Ott, Heidegger and his followers were able to deny a link between his philosophical thought and his politics, to carry on philosophical business as usual with only occasional attention to the outside world. One must simply concede that the official view of Heidegger's Nazism has been largely successful up to this point in avoiding, or at least minimizing, damage to Heidegger and his thought. At this late date, if the effort at damage control has come undone as the issue has finally escaped from the arid domain of professional philosophy and reached the wider public, it is because a few courageous writers were unwilling to participate in the ongoing whitewash of the relation between Heidegger's Nazism and his philosophy.[8]

previous chapter
3 The "Official" View and "Facts and Thoughts"
next sub-section