Heidegger and Nazism
At the end of May 2016, it was the 40th anniversary of the death of German philosopher Martin Heidegger, one of the leading Nazi propagandists of “Drive to the East” (Drang nach Osten), whose work continues to play a major role in the political and intellectual scene of Europe…
We would be incorrect to try and establish a direct relationship between Nazi ideology and Heidegger’s philosophy, particularly if we were to look for the basis of Heidegger’s thought in Nazi ideology. Heidegger’s philosophy and Nazi ideology are closely related in as much as they both come from the same source. They are branches on a tree growing from German expansionism.
In the lecture delivered on April 8th, 1936 in fascist Rome, and entitled “Europe and the German Philosophy” (“Europa und die deutsche Philosophie”), Heidegger clearly indicates the strategic political goals of German philosophy. Its primary task is to “shield European people” from “the Asiatic” by overcoming the “rootlessness and disintegration” of the European nations. Heidegger advocates a “transformation of the historical survival” of Europe, which cannot be achieved as a “blind pushing forward into an indeterminate future”, but “only as a creative confrontation with the whole of history up to now”. He ends his war-mongering speech with Heraclitus: “War is the father and king of all: some he has made gods, and some men; some slaves and some free…” It is easy to see who was supposed to be turned into slaves by the imminent war and who would be masters.
Heidegger actually presented German philosophy with the task of removing from the history of European people all that can impede their integration into a Nazi “new European order”. It is a Gleichschaltung, a process meant to destroy the emancipatory heritage of European people and use them in the realization of Germany’s most important strategic task: the annihilation of the Slavs and the invasion of their living space (Lebensraum). Heidegger’s philosophy provided the philosophical grounds for the basic existential interests of German capitalism and became a strategic platform for German colonial expansion. Heidegger supported the idea of a „Greater Germany“, an idea that long predates Hitler. For Heidegger, the Nazi regime was but one of the historical forms through which this idea was to be realized. Even after the collapse of Nazi Germany, Heidegger remained faithful to the idea of a „Greater Germany“ and, in that context, to the strategic goals of the Nazi regime.
To express it in a more popular, contemporary jargon, Heidegger appears an “expert on strategic issues”. This is the main reason why Heidegger was adamant that his philosophy not have a political nature. His thought is not concerned with temporary political events, but with the “increase of Being”, which manifests itself in the development of the conquering abilities of the Germans as a master race. Heidegger’s philosophy appears to be in the essential sphere, however, for the essence of “Being” is not freedom and justice, but the existential interests of the German capitalism.
If we tried to establish the political doctrine that rises from Heidegger’s fundamental ontology, we might conclude that it is fundamentally totalitarian. In Heidegger’s philosophy, all social spheres are alienated from man and are but the means for man’s integration into the ruling order. Man does not create the world, he is “in the world”; he does not create history, he is “in history”; he does not create a language, he is “in the language”… Heidegger does not offer freedom to man; he offers him “eternity” in the shade of “Being” – provided he pledges unquestioning loyalty to the ruling order, which deprives him of everything that makes him human. Heidegger embalms man. Deprived of any humanness, man travels to “eternity” as a mummy.
Heidegger’s philosophy represents the basis of a political strategy which seeks to build not only a totalitarian state, but also a totalitarian society. In that context, Heidegger sets out to create a “new man”, one deprived of all the properties that enable him to create a humane society. Instead of insisting on the development of a dialectical mind, enabling man to create a humane world, Heidegger insists on the experience of a tragic existence with a fatal character and, based on that, on a faith in “Being”, representing the idealized essence of the existing world.
Is the abolishment of man’s reasonable relation to his existence and the world and the shifting of the question of “Being” to the sphere of an instrumentalized mysticism the strongest bond connecting Heidegger’s philosophy to the Nazi ideology? Both doctrines try to bring themselves into favour with the mystic powers that rule the world. The darkness of “nothingness” becomes the source of the “will to power”. A mystical language penetrates the dark labyrinths of sub-consciousness and enables suppressed needs to be projected, by verbal manipulation, into illusions, which by means of a political indoctrination turn into spectres that will devour the world. Heidegger was among those who fed the demons growing in the murky depths of the German petty-bourgeois sub-consciousness.
Guided by the ruling political logic, Heidegger strives to turn the misery experienced by man on a daily basis into the active power of the ruling order. His philosophy attempts to convert the existential anxiety of the Germans into the driving force of German expansionism. At the same time, he sees in the Germans the organic part of a “folk community”, whose active will is based on the myth of “racial superiority” and is institutionalized in the form of the ruling (Nazi) order. The ultimate goal of Heidegger’s philosophy is to turn German society, as a politically and culturally pluralistic community of emancipated citizens, into the “German nation”, which is “united” under one (totalitarian) political banner and which, based on a fanatical mythological consciousness, has the “feeling of intrinsic superiority” and as such is ready to fulfill its “historical mission”. The militant Greater German fanaticism, with its mythological foundation, becomes the basis of the collective consciousness.
For Heidegger, Germany’s future is on the capitalist horizon, the state being the supreme regulatory mechanism of all social life. Anti-liberalism and anti-communism are the cornerstones of his political doctrine, and his relation to Nazism is based on them. Heidegger seeks to limit the “freedom of the market”, which leads to economic instability and does away with political pluralism, which then leads to political instability. In that context, he seeks to confront the workers’ movement and the idea of socialism (communism) and to integrate workers into the ruling order as members of the “German nation”. Ultimately, Germany’s economic and political stability were meant to ensure its successful colonial expansion. Heidegger’s political doctrine is close to that of Nazism, whose aims, according to Herbert Marcuse, were to “organize monopolistic production”, “shatter the socialist opposition” and “restore imperial expansionism”.
In Heidegger’s philosophy, we can discern a political doctrine underlying the Catholic and fascist vision of the future. It is an “industrial feudalism”, which involves the abolishment of man as an emancipated citizen and thus as a political agent in the establishment of society as a political community; reduction of the state to an instrument of the most powerful capitalist groups in their attempt to establish “social peace”; the abolishment of trade unions and the degradation of workers to industrial serfs and the exaltation of capitalists to feudal masters; the abolishment of a class society by replacing it with a “folk community”; the establishment of a totalitarian political will embodied in a “Leader” and in the ruling order …. “Ein Volk – ein Führer!” – this is the political essence of Heidegger’s fundamental ontology. It is explicitly expressed in Heidegger’s view from 1933, that “the Führer alone is the present and future German reality and the law”.
Heidegger’s open support of the Nazi regime is not only the product of his careerism and cannot be separated from his philosophy, which abolishes the emancipatory legacy of bourgeois society and provides the theoretical grounds for German expansionism. We should remember here the very beginnings of Heidegger’s cooperation with the Nazis. The enthusiasm with which Heidegger, as a professor and rector, endorsed Hitler, supported Nazism and denounced his colleagues, are expressions of his endeavors to become the leading philosopher of Nazi Germany, while his philosophy was to be the generally accepted basis of the Nazi ideology. In Heidegger‘s view, Hitler was the political leader of the Germans, but he reserved to himself the role of their spiritual leader.
Heidegger belonged to the group of German intellectuals who tried to prove that the Germans’ “predestination” to be a “Messianic people” is based on German cultural heritage that makes them superior to other cultures. Long before Heidegger, the myth of the Germans as the “nation of philosophers” had been an integral rationale for German expansionism. In that context, Leonardo da Vinci, Giotto, Buonarroti were all claimed as Germans… At the same time, German intellectuals appropriated the Ancient Greek spiritual heritage and used it to create the myth of “German spiritual superiority”. A typical example is the archaeological excavations in Ancient Olympia, started at the time of Bismarck and finished by Nazi archaeologists (Emil Kunze), with Hitler’s “personal” donation in the amount of 300 000 Reichsmarks. The carrying of the “Olympic Torch”, during the organization of the Nazi Olympic Games in Berlin in 1936, from the “holy Olympia” to the Nazi Berlin, has a special symbolic value and served to prove to the Nazis that they were the legitimate heirs of the cultural legacy of the Ancient Helada, “the spiritual cradle” of Western civilization.
Heidegger’s vision of Germans as a “metaphysical nation” is a political idea par excellence. It is the basis of the political rationale for German expansionism. Philosophy becomes a support, a justification and philosophical foundation for the governing political project. Rather than using the Nazi regime in the realization of his ideas, Heidegger used his philosophy to provide philosophical legitimacy to the Nazi‘s political and economic goals, and ultimately to Nazi practice.
Heidegger is not original. In order to justify German expansionism, he refers to “spiritual values”, in the same manner that imperialist France and England referred to “culture” and “civilization” in their attempts to justify colonial expansion and the eradication of “colored races”. Indeed, Heidegger’s philosophy rejects the emancipatory heritage of German culture, particularly the heritage that opens a space for overcoming colonialism and racism. In view of the events on the contemporary global scene, Heidegger’s philosophy is not only a philosophical expression of an expansionist strategy for the Nazi‘s “new European order”, but also for the expansionist strategy of the American “new world order”. Nothing new on the Western Front.
Considering Heidegger’s authority in the intellectual circles of Nazi Germany, we can safely say that his philosophy created a significant intellectual space for the affirmation of the German ideology. Heidegger’s philosophy greatly contributed to the development of a theoretical foundation for the idea of the Germans as a “master race”. In the concrete political conditions in Nazi Germany, the claim that the Germans have a “superior culture and mind” relative to other nations, inevitably led to nationalism and racism, and it is what the transition from the “leading nation” to the “master race” is based on. The myth of the Germans as the “nation of philosophers” became one of the sources of their racist ideology. German racism was elevated to the throne of philosophy.
Did the German cultural heritage not oblige Heidegger, as well as other German intellectuals, to oppose Nazism? Instead of being the basis for a criticism of the Nazi ideology and practice, German philosophy provided philosophical legitimacy to Nazi barbarism. Scumbags and snitches like Adolf Hitler and Josef Goebbels became the embodiments of the German “philosophical spirit”.
It should be noted here that during the 20th century the torch of the “German philosophical spirit” was carried by Jews (Wilhelm Dilthey, Edmund Husserl, Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Ernest Bloch…), a people who were almost eradicated as a “lower race” by the “philosophical” Germans in the concentration camps of the Third Reich.
It is a sad truth that Adorno and Horkheimer allowed themselves to be used in post-war Germany‘s attempt to conceal the true nature of German “democracy” under the American boot. While they were giving lectures in German philosophy at West German universities to recent fanatical members of the Hitlerjugend, the Americans built an army of 40 000 SS members, still highly loyal to Hitler and led by one of the most notorious of Hitler’s storm troopers, Reinhard Gehlen, a force meant to “protect German democracy from communism” under the American command.
Heidegger’s relation to the German language illustrates the racist and totalitarian intention of his fundamentalism. The German language becomes a prayer language par excellence with which to appeal to the “Being” and establish a “neighborhood” with it, while Heidegger’s philosophy becomes the German “Holy Scripture”. With his fundamental ontology, Heidegger sought to deify the political project of the future he advocated, where the Germans, in the form of the Nazi movement, would take on the role of the “Messianic Nation”.
In addition to being based on a cultural imperialism, Heidegger’s view that the Germans are the “nation of philosophers” and that his philosophy, as manifested in the German language, is the “home of Being”, also indicates that the Germans, as manifested in Heidegger’s philosophy, are the indisputable owners of the truth. This entitles them to be a “chosen people” with the duty of bringing humanity back to the right path. In other words, in spite of being “thrown into a world” ruled by nihilism, the Germans, as the “nation of philosophers”, uniquely possess such mental and spiritual qualities that both enable and entitle them to bring about a spiritual rebirth of humanity.
Since the Germans, as the “nation of philosophers”, are the bearers of the supreme wisdom, a criticism of their (criminal) practices is possible only as their own (German) self-criticism. This is one of the reasons why Heidegger, who saw himself as the most authentic representative of the “German philosophical spirit”, indignantly rejected the very possibility of being questioned about the responsibility of the Germans for the Second World War and the atrocities committed.
Friedrich Nietzsche charged the “new nobility” with the task of “re-evaluating all values” (“Umwertung aller Werte“) and returning humanity to the right track. Heidegger entrusted the same chore to the Germans, whose active power appears in the form of the Nazi movement. The Germans are predestined to be the „master nation“ with an exclusive historical task to return humanity to the track abandoned in Ancient times. How can the crimes committed by the Germans – and never condemned by Heidegger – even compare to this Messianic task? Concentration camps and the eradication of entire nations – all this is nothing compared to the crucial task that Heidegger bestowed upon them. The nature of that task determined the nature of the political practice necessary for its realization. The principle that „the ends justify the means“ obtained, with Heidegger’s philosophy, a fundamental-ontological foundation.
Rather than being an educator, Heidegger is a modern crusader, who sees the Germans as a „master nation“, the active power of which is manifested in the Nazi movement. Heidegger does not call on the Germans to turn to philosophy, but rather to do whatever it takes to assure the ruling position in the world. A return to the „Being“ is not achieved by their enlightenment, but through the submission and eradication of other nations by means of science and technology. Guided by the governing principle of monopoly capitalism, „Destroy the competition!“, the Nazis, openly supported by Heidegger, a staunch critic of technicity, turned Germany into a death factory. What Heidegger has in mind when he refers to „tradition“ is not German culture, but German militarism. Rather than being attained through philosophy and art, „Being“ is attained with a drawn sword.
With regard to Heidegger’s direct cooperation with the Nazis, the general public has an insight only into his censored biography, missing all the “details” indicating that Heidegger’s support of the Nazis was much stronger and more thorough than officially claimed. This is clearly seen in Heidegger’s “Black Diary” (“Die Schwarzen Hefte“) – parts of which appeared in German bookstores in 2014 – which contains Heidegger’s notes and daily commentaries from the period 1931-1941. At the same time, there is a justified concern that some documents, hinting at Heidegger’s cooperation with the Nazis, have been destroyed in attempts to save „philosopher Heidegger“ from compromising „details“ of his past. In any case, „Dossier Heidegger“ is not closed. Only when true anti-fascists in Germany come to power, and the German citizens finally confront their fascist heritage, will the truth about Heidegger’s past come to light.
The „conciliatory“ attitude of official West Germany to Heidegger in the post-war period reflects its attitude toward Nazism. Details surrounding the interview given by Heidegger to the journalist of „Der Spiegel“ Rudolph Augstein, at the end of September 1966, indicate the extent to which Nazism was present in the post-war history of West Germany, which was an allied „occupation zone“ where the Germans’ Nazi past was the most important warrant of their loyalty to the American occupier. It is the only long interview given by Heidegger in his philosophical and political career, and it lasted 100 minutes. The interview was held in Heidegger’s mountain cabin at Todtnauberg. Heidegger agreed to give the interview under the condition that it be published after his death. Heidegger died on 26 May 1976, at the age of 86. Only three days later, „Der Spiegel“ published the interview under the following titles „Der Philosoph und das Dritte Reich“ („Philosopher and the Third Reich“) and „Nur noch ein Gott kann uns retten“ („Only a God Can Save Us“). The interview was attended by Georg Wolff, former German SS soldier, in his capacity as „editor of social sciences“ for „Der Spiegel“. During the Second World War he held the rank of SS-Hauptsturmführer and participated in the executions of prisoners in Norway. He prepared the interview for publishing. Sapienti sat.
It should be noted here that Heidegger’s attitude towards the Jews is the most important criterion in the West for determining the extent to which he was close to the Nazi movement. Heidegger is thus accused of not condemning the Nazi Germany’s criminal policy towards the Jews. But what about the attitude of Nazi Germany and Heidegger to the Slavic peoples, who were also degraded to the status of a “lower race”? During the Second World War, the Nazis and the regular German army killed over 35 million Slavs. In Poland, the Germans killed over 6 million people. In the Soviet Union, they wiped out 70 000 villages, 1710 towns, 2766 churches and monasteries, 4000 libraries, 427 museums and 32 000 factories, and executed over 27 million Russians, Belarussians and Ukrainians. In Serbia, German soldiers executed children, while in Croatia, Nazi Germany allowed the Ustasha to kill over 700 000 Serbs. Why does the West not criticize Heidegger for not condemning the numerous atrocities committed by Nazi Germany against the Slavs? To cover-up the German genocide carried out against the Slavs actually means to cover-up the essence of the Second World War.
Just as the idea of “American superiority” serves to justify the imperialist policy of the USA in the contemporary world, Heidegger’s idea of the Germans as a “superior nation” served to justify the German “thrust towards the East” (Drang nach Osten) – i.e., the conquest of „living space“ (Lebensraum) and the extermination of the Slavic peoples. Heidegger’s philosophy is based on the totalizing principle of monopoly capitalism, „Destroy the competition!“, and on the expansionist nature of German capitalism, which regarded the conquest of „living space“ as an indisputable existential imperative. This gives vitality to Heidegger’s philosophy in contemporary Germany, where we are witnessing a dramatic biological demise of the Germans and the environment. It is the source of a totalitarian-integrative and expansionist political doctrine, which continues to live in the consciousness of the German petty bourgeoisie.
Heidegger never condemned the Nazi regime and its crimes primarily because he did not want to jeopardize the political foundations of his philosophy. Heidegger saw his philosophy as the indisputable source of the German self-consciousness. In spite of the defeat of the Nazi regime, the Germans were to preserve their self-consciousness through Heidegger’s philosophy as a “superior nation” preordained for the leading role in the world. For Heidegger, the defeat of Nazi Germany was but one of the defeats experienced by the German people in their fight for a “Greater Germany” and not a lost war for the future. Hitler’s defeat and the collapse of Nazism were not to call into question the strategic interests of German imperialism. We should not forget that Nietzsche’s idea of the “eternal recurrence” (“Die Ewige Wiederkunft”) is the alfa and omega of Heidegger’s conception of the future.
In his post-war correspondence with Marcuse, Heidegger tries to present the Germans as the victims of the Second World War. Indicatively, he does not make a distinction between the Nazi regime and the German people, particularly not between the ruling class of Junkers and capitalists, on the one hand, and German peasants and citizens on the other hand. This only goes to show the extent to which the Nazis managed to integrate the Germans into the Nazi regime and how much the Germans identified themselves with the Nazi regime.
Heidegger’s refusal to condemn the Germans for starting the Second World War and for committing atrocities, and his belief that the real victims of the war were actually the Germans, give rise to a political climate in contemporary Germany similar to the climate of the period following the First World War. The Nazi regime resulted from the myth that Germany was the victim of the First World War. Revanchism was used as a psychological instrument for fanaticizing the Germans and inciting war-mongering hysteria. Heidegger laments the fate of the Germans who were expelled from the East and thus creates a political atmosphere that should give rise to a new call for the German people to “return” to the East.
It should be pointed out here that the political instrumentalization of the idea of the Germans as a “superior nation” was based on the German defeat in the First World War; on the collapse of the German Empire; on the humiliation of the Versailles peace treaty; on Germany’s political instability; on the economic crisis of capitalism and mass unemployment… The “need” to conquer and exterminate the “lower races” came from the fear of survival created by capitalism and was a compensation for the misery experienced by “ordinary” Germans in their everyday life. The existential fear in contemporary capitalism that, with the growing destruction of the European nations and their ecosystems’, turns into an existential panic, represents the spiritus movens of a revived fascist barbarism.
Heidegger’s thought is a philosophical mask covering the racist ideology and Nazi practice. However, as it is multi-layered, it can appear in a “pure” philosophical form. That the mask itself acquired the form of a living image is the most important ideological quality of Heidegger’s philosophy. Heidegger’s followers therefore can easily “deprive” his philosophy of its political content. The Nazi ideology similarly had a magical philosophical veil interspersed with the expressions symbolizing the common human values: “peace”, “happiness”, “well-being”… The same can be said for the American “new world order”, covered with the blood-stained veil of “democracy”. Over and over again, bourgeois philosophy appears as a “humanist” mask over the criminal capitalist practice. Instead of trying to demystify a philosophy that turned into an ideology, bourgeois philosophers are turning an ideology into a philosophy.
To “defend” Heidegger against the charge of Nazism actually means to try to preserve the illusion of autonomy and thus of “objectivity” of philosophy – Heidegger being its most important representative in the XX century. Heidegger has become a mythological character “defended’” against the charge of Nazism by his reputation as the “last great philosopher”. If Nazi Germany had won the war, Heidegger’s philosophy would have demonstrated its true potential and Heidegger his true character. The entire philosophical content of Heidegger’s thought, creating the illusion of a political unbiasedness, would have then slid into one blood-stained Nazi swamp. Drawing on Heidegger’s philosophy, the Germans, as a “metaphysical nation”, would have become the “saviours of humanity” and their “Führer” would have obtained a divine aura. Heidegger’s philosophy would have become the “Bible” of the Third Reich.
Translated from Serbian by Vesna Todorović (Petrović)
English translation supervisor Mick Collins