Tainted by Nazism, Heidegger’s Philosophy Casts a Long Shadow
Professor Richard Wolin’s new book exposes the moral failings and pernicious influence of one of the most widely read modern philosophers.
The 20th-century philosopher Martin Heidegger isn’t just well known in academic circles, he also has a large popular following. The English translation of Being and Time, his dense treatise on the nature of existence, has sold over 100,000 copies since its initial printing in 1962. And, lately, he has gained cachet among far-right activists and leaders who invoke his ideas to prop up their nationalist and anti-immigrant rhetoric.
Heidegger, who rose to prominence in the late 1920s, was a member of the Nazi party. But scholars have debated the extent of his Nazism and antisemitism and how they influenced his ideas. Graduate Center Distinguished Professor Richard Wolin (Comparative Literature, History, Political Science) has written extensively on the topic and has maintained that Heidegger was no fringe Nazi, but that his fealty to National Socialism influenced his thought and his writing.
The 2014 release of Heidegger’s Black Notebooks — voluminous journals he wrote between 1931 and 1970 — shed new light on the philosopher’s political views and his embrace of Nazism. Now, in his latest book, Heidegger in Ruins: Between Philosophy and Ideology, Wolin delves into the Black Notebooks to show how intertwined Heidegger’s philosophy and politics were, and why his legacy is compromised.
One reviewer called the book a “timely work of enduring importance,” and Stephen Pinker at Harvard gave it a shout-out on Twitter. Wolin spoke to us about his book, his discoveries, and the impact he hopes to make.
The Graduate Center: What do the Black Notebooks reveal about Heidegger's philosophy and his links to Nazism?
Wolin: We realized that although Heidegger had specific, material criticisms of the way Nazism was evolving during the 1930s — there were aspects of the Third Reich he disagreed with — he maintained his hopes and expectations that something like National Socialism, or Nazism, embodied the western world's — Europe's — last hope for salvation or redemption. This was the language he used. It saved Europe from the fate of nihilism that had been diagnosed by Nietzsche and taken up by other German thinkers in the 1920s. For Heidegger, nihilism meant the exclusive reign of technology — he called it “machination.” It was fairly apocalyptic.
So you get these extremes between this fallen world of western humanity with nihilism, on the one hand, and this hope for some totalizing solution, which of course helps account for the eschatological expectations with which he greeted the onset of Nazis in 1933.
GC: In the book, you write that, “I do not argue that Heidegger was a Nazi philosopher, and that, on these grounds, his work should be condemned and dismissed. … I have sought to historicize Heidegger's work, not to impugn its originality but to broaden understanding of his scope and aims.” Can you explain that?
Wolin: That's really important. I made that claim explicit and tried to underline it because there have been some previous studies on this theme that have sought to do exactly what I'm claiming that I haven't done. I shy away from dismissing the entirety of Heidegger's work — 102 volumes, potentially — as Nazi philosophy, which would, on the face of things, be absurd because, politically, the Nazis were nowhere in the 1920s. Their breakthrough came after the great economic crash of '29 and subsequent depression. They emerged from the wilderness to be Germany's second largest political party in 1930.
To say that something like Being and Time was already Nazi or even proto-Nazi would be a real stretch. However, it's important to recognize that there were ideological aspects to the book. Heidegger talks about kampf (struggle) community, heroism in battle — these are all freighted words in the period after World War I. So there were ideological aspects of Being and Time, but to say that it could be construed as Nazi or proto-Nazi is going too far.
GC: You make the case that Heidegger's rhetoric provided a rationale for the genocide of the Jews, including the final solution in 1942. Can you explain that?
Wolin: Yes, this is probably his low point. And maybe if he could select a sentence or a statement in the Black Notebooks that he wished he'd extruded or kept out, this would be it. Because in 1942, when word leaked out about the final solution, Heidegger commented that this was an act of “Jewish self-annihilation.”
What did he mean by that? Well, it's pretty ugly because he implied, and this is consistent with other statements he made that are in keeping with a commonplace anti-Semitic prejudice, that Jews were leading carriers of modernity, technology, and “machination.”
So, what Heidegger’s getting at is the irony that the Jews had been leading carriers of modern technology, and they were now being annihilated by advanced technological methods in the gas chambers — industrial mass death, one might say. That seems to be what he meant, which points to the limitations of his perspective and the prejudices of his understanding of modern technology.
Often after the war people were interested in his work because the critique of technology seemed relevant to ecological thinking, anti-nuclear groups, and the like. But now that we see its derivation, we have second thoughts about its viability.
The goal is to provide a new interpretive framework of Heidegger ... not to dismiss him, but to understand the context in which he emerged and the thick relationship between some of his main ideas and what I call in a more general sense, not just Nazism, but the “German ideology.” — Richard Wolin
GC: One important point you make in the book is that Heidegger's connection to Nazism isn't just a thing of the past. You point out that neo-Nazi and far-right activists and leaders have embraced his philosophy. How is Heidegger's philosophy propping up the far right?
Wolin: Yes, the extent really surprised me. At one point I started examining the alt-right in the U.S., the French Novelle Droite, which goes back to the 1960s, and now we have a German new-right, the Alternative for Germany. And lastly, Alexander Dugin, whose name of course has been in the news lately with the Russian invasion of Ukraine as a proponent of Russian geopolitical hegemony in Eurasia, and a leading ideologue in Russia for a couple of decades. Dugin is a self-professed, card-carrying Heideggerian. He writes books on Heidegger, not very good ones, but still at some level it counts because he's influential.
Heidegger was always critical of the heritage of Enlightenment, of reason and rationality, and of western individualism, and needless to say, democracy and liberalism. And of course, he came of age politically during World War I, but also during the Weimar Republic, which the German right vehemently criticized.
It's not rocket science to see that all of a sudden with the rise of these far-right parties globally, Heidegger's thought could be outfitted and tailored to provide powerful ideological ammunition. This is someone who is often considered the greatest philosopher of the 20th century; hence, if you can rely on his prestige and power, that tends to lend credibility and heft to your program. Often they can be – as is the case with Dugin – superficial readings of his philosophy. Be that as it may, the fact that the far right feels a need to rely on Heidegger rather than other thinkers tells us something about his influence from beyond the grave.
GC: The book has a very provocative title, Heidegger in Ruins. Do you have an aim or a hope for the book?
Wolin: Yes, I do. The goal is to provide a new interpretive framework of Heidegger, again, not to dismiss him, but to understand the context in which he emerged and the thick relationship between some of his main ideas and what I call in a more general sense, not just Nazism, but the “German ideology”: the delusion that goes back to the early 19th century that German culture and traditions are something very unique and have a redemptive capacity.
Every nation, virtually every national group, has an exceptional sense of its mission. In Germany, it had a particular valence. It unleashed a world war that led to tens of millions of deaths.
I think that Heidegger's attachment to the German ideology is indisputable; and the Black Notebooks have provided us with a lot more evidence for that, which helps us to understand the motivations that underlay his involvement in Nazism.
I took note of the initial literature on the Black Notebooks shortly after they'd appeared, and I felt that it was maddeningly apologetic. Most of it written, of course, by Heidegger supporters and diehards. And there needed to be a corrective to these tendencies.
GC: Throughout your career and with this book you've positioned yourself as a public intellectual. What advice do you have for students and fellow scholars on writing for the public or influencing public thought and discussion?
Wolin: The good news is that, as one might expect, the opportunities for establishing oneself as a “public intellectual” have expanded significantly with the Internet. Yet, along with the increased opportunities, competition has also intensified.
To ensure that your contribution is relevant and topical, make sure that you keep on top of current events. Thereby, your input stands a better chance of adding a fresh angle or gloss to what readers and editors already know.
Don’t be discouraged by rejection! Instead, treat it as a learning experience. It also helps to cultivate a direct relationship with the editorial staff of a publication you admire. Of course, this process can take time.
Lastly, one must be well-versed at formulating a pitch: a pithy, succinct, and original proposal for the article you intend to write, crafted in a way that leaves the editor virtually no choice but to go with your idea.
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