The recent publication of transcripts of Martin Heidegger’s 1934 Freiburg seminars on Being, the People and the State simply adds to the confusion over the philosopher’s relationship to Nazism. Michael Wyschogrod reviewed Emanuel Faye’s widely-read book on Heidegger in the March 2010 issue of First Things (sorry, subscription required), noting that despite Heidegger’s open association with the Nazi regime, he refrained from anti-Semitic statements in his published remarks. It won’t do, Wyschogrod argued, to equate Heidegger with the likes of Nazi official philosopher Alfred Rosenberg; he was a Nazi scoundrel, but a complex one. It is a tragedy for anyone to be a Nazi, and a double tragedy for a great philosopher to be a Nazi.
Heidegger, in Wyschogrod’s view, learned a great deal from Kierkegaard, but “betrayed Kierkegaard’s program” by substituting the non-theistic concept of Being for God.
Emanuel Faye had claimed that the 1934 seminars hinted at exterminations to come. But there is no evidence of this in the transcripts:
The significantly smaller circle of addressees was one reason why the seminar remained almost occult. The incomprehensibility of the first six sessions in particular, flummoxing many a note-scribbling student, did the rest. Heidegger’s plan was to examine the mutual intricacies of the three concepts evoked in the title. He would regularly reach for a piece of chalk to illustrate his point. The simple chalk was a “being at hand” whose “what-ness” is not determined by its visible white-ness but by its invisible chalk-ness. It follows that there is an essential difference between being and beings, an “abyss, immense and dangerous but indispensable for the one who asks.”
Truly abysmal were the seventh to tenth sessions in February 1934 dealing with the being of the people, and thus also of the state then in power. According to Heidegger, every people felt the “drive to the state”, which is why it loved the state as “its way of being a people”. As such, the state order is borne by the “free, pure will to allegiance and leadership and therefore to struggle and loyalty”. People and state, beings and being, can therefore no more be separated than the people and their Führer. “The will of the Führer first and foremost makes followers of the others”, and “the Führer-state as we have it is the consummation of historical development: the realisation of the people in the Führer.”
In her analysis of the seminar, Marion Heinz very rightly points to the “Hegelian-like figure of the union of essence and objectivity”. For Heidegger, being alone lends legitimacy to the Führer and the Führer-state. For Heinz such “collective decisionism” is embarrassingly lofty. Similarly, Heinz sees Nietzsche and his Übermensch as partly responsible for Heidegger’s brute “flight to the factual”. Nevertheless she takes objection to Emmanuel Faye’s polemics, maintaining that Heidegger’s arguments are “entirely the result of his own approach as a thinker”, and that there can be no question of his merely following or intellectually elevating the Nazi party programme.
Zaborowksi shows that for all its many unappetizing turns, Heidegger’s arguments are neither racist nor anti-Semitic. Faye’s thesis that Heidegger was paving a philosophical legitimisation for the “extermination of the Jews” in the East is untenable. Heidegger never mentions Jews or extermination. According to the notes, he refers to the “Semitic nomads” whose “specific knowledge” has engendered in them a different relationship with the nature of their land than “a Slavic people”, say, or the German people. The conclusion that Slavs or Semites should therefore be expelled or exterminated is Faye’s invention. In Zaborowksi’s analysis, “Heidegger was much more interested in the difference between the sedentary and nomadic ways of life.”