Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism into Philosophy
in Light of the Unpublished Seminars of 1933“1935

by Emmanuel Faye
Yale, 464 pages, $40

If Martin Heidegger is an unimportant philosopher, then the fact that he was a Nazi is no special catastrophe. Germany was full of second-rate thinkers who were convinced Nazis. Unfortunately, we also know of a number of Nazis who were far better than second-rate. One was Werner von Braun, who played an important role in the U.S. space program after the Second World War. Some serious musical composers, as well, were Nazis or Nazi sympathizers.

From one point of view, anyone’s becoming a Nazi is a disaster, but a talented scientist or artist’s becoming a Nazi is a greater one. So it is understandable that Emmanuel Faye works as hard as he does in this new book to diminish Heidegger. If Heidegger were a philosophical charlatan, we could all breathe easier.

The problem is that it is not easy to cut Heidegger down to size. Why else would someone like Emmanuel Levinas, the French philosopher and deeply committed Jew, have devoted his whole philosophical life to refuting Heidegger? For Heidegger, first philosophy is ontology; for Levinas, it is ethics. But the very fact that Levinas stands in constant dialogue with Heidegger indicates that he did not think of Heidegger as a lightweight. “For me,” Levinas wrote, “Heidegger is the greatest philosopher of the century, perhaps one of the very great philosophers of the millennium; but I am very pained by that because I can never forget what he was in 1933.” It is worth noting that Faye mentions Levinas only once in his book, very much in passing.

Another example is Gilbert Ryle, the distinguished Oxford analytic philosopher, who reviewed Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit ( Being and Time ) in 1928 and whom Faye does not mention at all. “I have nothing but admiration for his special undertaking,” Ryle wrote of Heidegger, “and for such of his achievements in it as I can follow, namely the phenomenological analysis of the root workings of the human soul.” Ryle concluded that Heidegger “shows himself to be a thinker of real importance by the immense subtlety and searchingness of his examination of consciousness, by the boldness and originality of his methods and conclusions, and by the unflagging energy with which he tries to think behind the stock categories of orthodox philosophy and psychology.”

A philosopher taken so seriously by both a leading Jewish phenomenologist and a leading analytic philosopher cannot be ignored. So what is philosophically important about Heidegger? His most important work, Being and Time , was published in 1927. In it, Heidegger chooses the German word Dasein to refer to the human mode of being. The word means a number of things, one of which is “existence.” Thus, one could say in German that my Dasein is endangered, which would mean “I am in danger of being destroyed.”

It was Søren Kierkegaard who distinguished between objective and existential questions. Under some exceptional circumstances”if, say, I am an astronaut running low on fuel as I return to earth”the question of the distance between the earth and the moon could be an existential question. Under most circumstances, however, is a purely objective question, without existential import.

Learning from Kierkegaard, Heidegger always keeps the existential element apparent. Thus, for example, one section of Being and Time is titled “Care as the Being of Dasein.” By this, Heidegger means that caring is not an accidental attribute of existence but constitutive of its being. To be human is to participate in care, to be concerned, to be worried about the future and its possibilities. Heidegger transforms a matter of objective fact into an existential diagnosis of human being. Another example: Heidegger on death. On one level we all know that we will die. But Heidegger turns this into “being toward death.” Death is not something that waits for us at the end of the day, but it is the mode of our being, namely, being-toward-death.

So is Faye all wrong? Is Heidegger a profound philosopher who has gained deep insights into human existence that have shed light on the human condition?

We must begin with the fact that Heidegger was a committed Nazi and a liar. After the war, he engaged in all kinds of tricks and evasions to pose himself as a good man who joined the Nazi party to change it from the inside. I suspect that there must have been Auschwitz guards who claimed they sought assignment to that hell on earth to help the prisoners. When you run out of plausible excuses, you resort to implausible ones.

Heidegger was a loyal follower of Hitler who never condemned Hitler’s death camps or his many other crimes. When my first book, Kierkegaard and Heidegger: The Ontology of Existence , was published in 1953, there were those who urged me to send Heidegger a copy. A positive statement about the book would have been helpful for my career. But I wanted to have nothing to do with the man. His work, yes. I thought then, and I do now, that he was an important philosopher, not without flaws; but, then, who is without flaws?

The basic argument of my work, the first book-length study of Heidegger in English, was that Heidegger’s turn to ontology was a betrayal of Kierkegaard’s focus on the concern of the individual, particularly in the context of the ethico-religious dimension of human existence. While Kierkegaard’s thought had clearly influenced Heidegger, the latter’s turn to ontology”the theory of being”had turned Heidegger away from Kierkegaard’s interest in the drama of the single one before God. Unlike God, being could not love and be loved.

At the heart of the Nazi worldview was the conviction that Jews, Judaism, and the Jewish spirit were poisoners of German culture. All Jews were dangerous, even those whose dress, language, and earlocks made their Jewishness obvious. But the more German a Jew appeared, the more dangerous he was, and the presence of Jews in the world made the world a dangerous place.

Expelling Jews from the world was a great service that could be rendered to non-Jewish humanity, but an even greater service was the elimination of German-looking Jews who had infiltrated the German spiritual environment. It was essential for good Germans to be on guard against Jewish penetration into the soul of Germany. As Jewish ways of seeing and doing things contaminated Germany, Germans would lose their identity and turn into slaves of the Jews.

Carl Schmitt, the Nazi philosopher of law, addressed this issue in his 1936 lecture titled “The German Science of Law in Its Struggle Against the Jewish Spirit.” To the best of my knowledge, nowhere in the published writings of Heidegger can such a title be found.

Yes, in Heidegger’s private correspondence there are anti-Semitic remarks of varying intensity. Faye documents them all. For example, in a 1929 letter Heidegger wrote: “Either we restore genuine forces and educators emanating from the native soil to our German spiritual life, or we abandon it definitively to the growing Jewification.” But nowhere does Faye point out that anti-Semitism is missing in Heidegger’s published writings.

Some might argue that this is a distinction without a difference. I do not agree, particularly in light of the atmosphere in Nazi Germany. Anti-Semitism was not a peripheral issue in the Germany of Adolf Hitler. It was the soul of Nazi ideology. If I were the Gauleiter of Freiburg, I would worry, particularly in view of the ease with which Heidegger could have inserted anti-Semitic remarks in many of his writings, given that Heidegger was not a universalist or an internationalist. He was not an admirer of English empiricism, and he did not believe that the natural sciences were the model for philosophy. So why are the anti-Semitic remarks missing? This is the question that must have haunted the Gauleiter . It is a question that haunts me.

The mere absence of hard anti-Semitism in his published work does not make Heidegger a saint. He remains a despicable Nazi who has brought shame on the German people and German culture. If anti-Semitic sentiments cannot be inserted easily into the writings of, say, Theodor Adorno and some other German philosophers, then we must ask God to bless them for this virtue. But this does not automatically make them better philosophers. Better persons, yes, but not automatically better philosophers.

When I knew Hannah Arendt, I knew nothing about her romantic relationship with Heidegger. Had I known about it, I would not, of course, have brought it up. But now that both are dead, we can speculate. We know that there was, after the war, some sort of reconciliation between them, and that she appeared on his arm at some public occasions.

I know she respected him deeply as a philosopher; she told me so. In her mind, Heidegger was the German philosopher of the twentieth century who stood in the line of Leibniz, Kant, and Hegel. It is not always easy for non-Germans to understand the awe in which German intellectuals, particularly Jewish intellectuals, held the great German philosophers. Arendt was as deeply German as they came, although she did not lack a significant Jewish identity. I suspect, however, that her German identity was deeper than her Jewish one. Heidegger was the successor to Hegel, and even Heidegger’s Nazi taint could not erase the man’s stature. Perhaps she also noticed that Heidegger did not compromise his integrity totally by defacing his writings with anti-Semitic remarks. And if Heidegger really loved a Jewish woman, could this have persuaded him that Hitler was not altogether right on the Jewish question?

Finally, there is Heidegger’s Catholicism. German Catholicism of the 1920s and 1930s was not particularly biblical. (Protestants were supposed to read the Bible, while Catholics obeyed the Church.) But the Hebrew Bible remained an essential presence in the Christian Scripture. I speculate that a thinker whose spiritual life was largely determined by Hölderlin and Rilke could not break with the religious power of the Hebrew Bible and, therefore, with the religious significance of the Jewish people. Heidegger’s anti-Semitism combined a certain contempt, and even hatred, for Jews with a grudging respect for them. He was a Nazi lout, but an unusual sort of Nazi lout.

I do not agree with those who consider Heidegger’s Nazism and anti-Semitism (and there was anti-Semitism, even if not in his published works) minor cosmetic defects. But I also do not agree with those who think of Heidegger as only slightly better than Alfred Rosenberg, the Nazi hack philosopher executed in Nuremberg. The tragedy of Heidegger lies precisely in his being a philosopher of high quality incarnated in the body of a Nazi.

That such a combination was possible is a riddle that may never be solved.

Michael Wyschogrod is professor emeritus of philosophy at Baruch College of the City University of New York and the author of The Body of Faith.