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Conservative Political Thought

Heidegger's concern with the contemporary situation can be understood in the context of the interest of German intellectuals in general with modern life. He was one of a large group of German intellectuals who found change unsettling and who in various ways longed for a return to an earlier, more stable social structure.[17] He shared the widespread conservative worldview that emerged after the loss of the First World War, including conservative revolutionary tendencies, visible in his Nazi turning, and the rejection of the liberal democratic conception


embodied by the Weimar Republic. He further shared the anticapitalist romanticism that emerged toward the end of the nineteenth century and that can be symbolized by the opposition between Kultur and Zivilisation , according to which culture in the deep sense required a rejection of modernity.[18] This view is evident in Heidegger's writings in his cult of Greek thought as the true form of philosophy. Yet it is important not to confuse the widespread conservativism of this period with support for National Socialism, which at the peak of its electoral success in the elections of April and July 1932 garnered no more than 37 percent of the popular vote.[19]

Heidegger shared the growing sense of unease widely felt by German intellectuals in the waning days of the Weimar Republic.[20] This intellectual sense of dismay found expression among German intellectuals in a concern to "locate" human being with respect to the present. Two extremes can be represented by Max Scheler, the phenomenologist and Jewish convert to Catholicism, whose thought influenced Heidegger's, and Karl Mannheim, a prominent sociologist who studied with the Marxist Lukács and with Heidegger. In 1928 in the "Author's Preface" to his last uncompleted book, significantly entitled Man's Place in Nature , Scheler writes in reference to contemporary work in philosophical anthropology: "In spite of this, however, man is more of a problem to himself at the present time than ever before in all recorded history."[21] Only one year later, from a radically different angle of vision, Mannheim observes that it is "imperative in the present transitional epoch to make use of the intellectual twilight which dominates our epoch and in which all values and points of view appear in their genuine relativity. We must realize once and for all that the meanings which make up our world are simply an historically determined and continuously developing structure in which man develops, and are in no sense absolute."[22]

Heidegger further shared the rejection, following from the concern to seek a third way between liberal democracy and Bolshevism, of modernity as such. Heidegger is already opposed to Cartesianism, a central form of modern philosophy, as early as 1919. Yet modernity is not a problem in Heidegger's fundamental ontology, either in Being and Time or in his other early writings. So far as I know, the word "modernity" does not even occur in the book. The question, however, of what Blumenberg has felicitously called the "legitimacy of the modern age" is in retrospect an obvious issue for Heidegger's philosophy.[23] As became clear in the later evolution of his thought—in his rejection of both metaphysics or modern theory and technology or modern practice—his conception of ontology brought him into conflict with anything modern as such. A typical instance is his later comment in a lecture course that


the danger we face lies not in the decline of the West but in the acceptance and development of the idea of modernity.[24]

Heidegger's embrace of National Socialism is exceptional only for the importance of his thought and the depth of his commitment. But his failure to oppose Nazism is typical of the behavior of German philosophers in general. It is not well known, in part because German philosophy during the Nazi period has not often been studied, that German philosophy played an equivocal role at this time.[25] It has been said that German philosophy failed in three different ways: in removing or even weakening the barriers against National Socialism, in creating an intellectual atmosphere propitious to it, and in apologizing for it.[26] Certainly, German philosophers both collectively and individually did little to prevent the rise of Nazism.

When one reads the texts from this period, the widespread insensitivity among philosophers to the specific currents, such as anti-Semitism, that shortly led to National Socialism is striking. An example among many is Heidegger's remark in a letter of 1926 to Jaspers, who was married to a Jewish woman, about the concern in the University of Marburg to appoint a non-Jew and if at all possible a German nationalist, a remark that typically evoked no protest from Jaspers.[27] It has been pointed out that many Germans unsympathetic to Hitler's anti-Semitism were willing to cooperate with him to revise the Versailles treaty and in general to strengthen Germany's position in Europe.[28] Indeed, it is a mistake to consider anti-Semitism as the single crucial problem, or maybe even as crucial at all, since it was not one of the central themes in Hitler's rise to power.[29]

Once Nazism had taken power, German philosophers typically either rushed to ingratiate themselves with the National Socialist movement, or at least failed to reject it. When they did reject it, they mainly did so in an ineffectual manner, for instance in Husserl's noble but pathetic call to defend the ancient Greek distinction between knowledge and opinion in order to resist the rise of Nazi barbarism.[30] In retrospect, however, Husserl's rejection of National Socialism, weak as it unfortunately was, shines like a beacon in comparison with the more typical philosophical effort to embrace, or at least to cooperate with, Hitler's movement, above all by Martin Heidegger. It is a matter of record that there is no important protest against Nazism by the German philosophical community.[31] Although this has been explained through the unpolitical nature of German philosophers, in fact many German philosophers who represented themselves as unpolitical were intensely political beings, including Heidegger. In 1933, when Heidegger issued his claim as the rector of the University of Freiburg to be the philosophical Führer of National


Socialism, he was only one of numerous philosophers each of whom claimed to provide the only correct idea of the new Nazi state through his own philosophy, including Krieck, Bauemler, Rothacker, Gehlen, and others.[32]

Although Hitler only came to power in 1933, as early as the presidential elections in early 1932 a manifesto of personal support for Hitler was issued by six professors, including a philosopher, Carl August Enge, professor of law (Rechtsphilosophie ) in Jena and scientific director of the Nietzsche Archives in Jena.[33] Between this initial manifesto and the election of the Reichstag in November 1933, there were no fewer than four other manifestos in which a progressively greater number of philosophers participated.[34] On the occasion of the vote for the Reichstag in November 1933, no fewer than a thousand professors, after an address by Heidegger, publicly acknowledged their support for Hitler and the National Socialist state, including Heidegger, N. Ach, O. F. Bollnow, O. Dittrich, K. Graf Dürckheim, H. Freyer, H.-G. Gadamer, A. Gehlen, J. E. Heyde, E. Jaensch, G. Krüger, F. Krueger, K. Leese, P. Lersch, H. Lipps, F. Lipsius, T. Litt, D. Mahnke, H. Noack, K. J. Obenauer, J. Ritter, H. Sauer, W. Schingnitz, H. Schneider, H. Schwarz, and W. Wirth.[35]

In fact, philosophical support for Hitler began even earlier. For instance, Ernst Krieck, professor of pedagogy, with whom Heidegger later collaborated on the National Socialist reform of German higher education, was disciplined for a pro-Nazi speech in 1931; and when he joined the NSDAP on 1 January 1932, he was suspended. Until the end of 1932, slightly more than 1 percent of the German academic establishment had publicly taken a position for Hitler, including eight philosophers: Enge, Schwarz, Krueger, Krieck, Baeumler, Rothacker, Bornhausen, and Jaensch.[36] Apparently the numbers would have been even larger had other philosophical colleagues, like German academics in general, not held back for tactical considerations.[37] The awareness of political consequences was not misplaced, since a number of academics, including more than thirty philosophers, quickly lost their positions in 1933.[38] Among the philosophers, in April, Max Horkheimer, Karl Mannheim, Paul Tillich, and Siegfried Marck; then in July Ernst von Aster was fired and August Messer and Hans Driesch were forcibly retired; and Bernhard Groethuysen was chased out of the university.[39] Other philosophers who were let go in 1933 include Richard Hönigswald, Ernst Cassirer, Jonas Cohn, Arthur Liebert, Dietrich yon Hildebrandt, Helmuth Plessner, Martin Buber, and Theodor Adorno.[40]

From a political perspective, Heidegger largely shared the conservative tendencies prevalent after the First World War, including the basic acceptance, or at least tolerance, of National Socialism with the exception


of its biological anti-Semitism, which was declined by most academics, and his participation, surprising for Heidegger, who seems to have had few or no personal heroes, in the Hitler cult. Heidegger followed other conservative intellectuals in rejecting both Bolshevism and liberalism of all kinds. But he carried his cooperation with Nazism further than most other academics, certainly further than any philosopher with the exception of Ernst Krieck. The main difference between Heidegger and all other philosophers, including Krieck, was his impressive ability to express his conservative worldview, itself typical of the conservative mood of the times among intellectuals, in a series of philosophical doctrines. These doctrines, all of which are deeply rooted in his philosophy of Being, include: the rejection of a democratic form of government as antithetical to modern life, particularly evident in the Spiegel interview; the philosophical reworking of Schmitt's conception of decisionism, the basis of the Führer principle, in his own conception of resoluteness;[41] the rejection of modernity itself in his espousal of Nietzsche's diagnosis of nihilism and European nihilism; and his own later rejection of technology.

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