From Hitler to Hölderlin

Much has been written about Heidegger's involvement with the Nazis. But Desmond Christy welcomes a new biography which refrains from hasty judgements, and lets the life speak for itself
June 19, 1998

Martin Heidegger, one of the great philosophers of our century, was born in Messkirch, a little town between Lake Constance, the Schwaben mountains, and the Upper Danube in 1889, the same year as Adolf Hitler. Heidegger's involvement with the Nazis, uncovered in books by Victor Farias and Hugo Ott, has made it easy to condemn the man and his philosophy. Why listen to a philosopher who bangs on about Being when he supported a "revolution" which would murder millions of people?

R?iger Safranski's new biography of Heidegger, a huge success in Germany and already translated into half a dozen languages, tries to answer that question. Heidegger the man was for long hidden behind his work. More recently, publishers have jumped at the opportunity to mention Nazis and "one of the world's greatest philosophers" in the same sentence. Both the life, in as far as it was known, and the work have created mountains of commentary. But Safranski's book is the first attempt to let Heidegger's life speak for itself. He does not write about Heidegger as if he knows more about him than Heidegger did himself. He tells the story of the life as a whole rather than as judge and jury over episodes of it. As Safranski says, Heidegger's story "covers the passions and disasters of a whole century." Heidegger aside, the book is a wonderful account of the battle of ideas in Germany.

Had Heidegger stayed faithful to Roman catholicism, the faith into which he was born, we would probably have heard no more about this poor but clever little boy, the son of a church sexton. It was the church, imagining that it had a future theologian in its care, which sponsored his education. Initially, he was happy to champion catholicism's cause against modernism, secularism and nihilism. Freedom, and happiness, came from the teachings of the church. What would this Heidegger have said, had he known that he would become such an influence on philosophers such as Foucault, Derrida and Lyotard who many now find as threatening to "Truth" as Nietzsche once was?

During the first world war, Heidegger served in the meteorological service, providing weather forecasts for gas attacks. The tragedy of war was a blessing for Heidegger: around him a world "that merely played with the spirit" was in ruins, but he had intuitions of what "a truly lived" life could be. He became an "undogmatic protestant," even married a protestant. He also became assistant to Edmund Husserl, founder of phenomenology.

Heidegger's lectures on Aristotle, St Paul and St Augustine began to win him fame and he moved from Freiburg to Marburg University. By then, writes Safranski, Heidegger had discovered that he was Heidegger, "the secret king of philosophy."

Hannah Arendt, who after the second world war wrote The Origins of Totalitarianism, but in 1924 was an 18-year-old student, discovered Heidegger, too. The Great Master and his Jewish pupil, 17 years his junior, began an affair. She was the muse behind Being and Time, which was published, unfinished, in 1927. One wishes that she had had a bigger influence on her lover; although she later moved to the US and married, she always stayed faithful to him.

Being and Time transformed modern philosophy. It is one of those rare and difficult books that deserves the accolade "seminal." In Being and Time, Heidegger tried to describe the features of Being, an enterprise which forced him into an orgy of neologisms. The fact that they are in German seems to add to their difficulty, but once they are translated and understood, they often seem just the right word for something of which we have already had an inkling.

Why should Being, and its history, matter to us? We would expect Heidegger to give us answers. His contemporaries were, after all, crying out for solutions and sectarian movements were offering countless new roads.

But part of Heidegger's philosophy is an attack on the idea that we can treat life as a problem, an object we can manipulate as we have manipulated the planet. Heidegger's answer to the meaning of our being is time. He offers a description of Dasein, his word for being there, for existence, and perceiving that we exist. Heidegger shows that time is what makes Dasein possible. Time guarantees that our Dasein will end, and because we exist in time, the existential constitution of our lives is anxiety or "care"-we try to preserve our Dasein in the face of death, we spend our time planning, calculating, foreseeing. Heidegger argues that we should embrace the certainty of our end, because it is the only way we can have meaning. We must grasp our fate, make it our own, authentic fate. But to do this we must break free from the shackles of convention and habit.

Why did Heidegger focus so much on the "mood" of anxiety? Safranski shows that while there may be philosophical justifications for this, it also derives from Heidegger's own personality. "It would be easy to say that Heidegger had taken his own predominant mood and the mood of the crisis period of the Weimar Republic as his starting point." None the less, he is trying to describe moods that are fundamental "not only to his Dasein and that of his period but Dasein altogether."

With Heidegger, philosophy discovers the flux of time and can, from then on, only think of itself as part of it. "Deprived of its universalist, time-stripped pretensions, philosophy discovers that in the meaning of Being is Time, there can be no escape from Time into a reliable Being... Philosophy no longer provides answers, it can only comprehend itself as 'caring' questioning." After Being and Time the world is not a world of Truth but of interpretations.

Although Being and Time is concerned with the fate of the individual Dasein, it is not a philosophy of individualism. Part of one's Dasein involves being thrown into a particular period of a country's history, with its tradition and culture. This entanglement can be lived "authentically" or "inauthentically." Dasein can consciously assume the national fate, make the nation's cause its own, even while the individual still holds on to his self-responsibility.

Deeply immersed in the thought of Plato, Heidegger felt humbled; he was tormented that he had nothing to say that met the demands of the hour. There were times, however, when he felt that he was Plato's equal. Gradually, Heidegger began to think of himself as a heroic philosopher ready to be martyred in the attempt to lead others out of the darkness of the cave of appearances. "And the philosopher as martyr," says Safranski, "must even accept the death of philosophy. The 'poisoning' of philosophy, Heidegger says, occurs because it submits to the customs and practical considerations of the cave dwellers." Philosophy, said Heidegger, was an atrophied form of religious edification, writing in the fairground of intellectual vanities. It must transform itself. A time was approaching which would be worthy of philosophy. Heidegger waited for the moment when politics must become philosophical and philosophy political.

National Socialism was to be the moment. "To Heidegger the National Socialist seizure of power was a revolution. It was far more than politics; it was a new act in the history of Being, the start of a new epoch."

Heidegger was even prepared to damage his own philosophy in his rush to let the world know that the moment of transformation had at last arrived: "We are under orders of a new reality." For Heidegger, Hitler was simply what he claimed to be: destiny personified. "Heidegger had always maintained that the principle of 'mood' determines our Being-in-the-world. That is why he now takes the revolutionary mood as his starting point. Reprisals by the state, rioting by the mob, and anti-Semitic actions are for him concomitant phenomena that have to be accepted."

Heidegger plotted to become rector of Freiburg University. When he was elected, he did not convene the academic senate. Rather, he proclaimed the F?rer principle and the Gleichschaltung (bringing into line) of the university. His infamous inaugural address was well received, even if it did express an idiosyncratic version of National Socialism. It was not clear, remarked Karl L?h, whether one was being called upon to study the pre-Socratic philosophers or join the SA brownshirts.

Heidegger's rectorship did not last long. Most of his colleagues thought he was a visionary gone wild. He came to be seen by the authorities as someone who was playing at National Socialism. After the war, Heidegger claimed that he resigned in support of two deans whom the authorities wanted to dismiss. In fact, he resigned because party policy was not revolutionary enough. Heidegger dreamed on-he even wanted to establish a kind of monastery of philosophers in Berlin.

Plato had gone to Syracuse in the hope of realising his political utopia. After his resignation, Heidegger is said to have been asked in the street: "Back from Syracuse?" But the return journey was not easy. After Hitler, Heidegger found another hero-the poet, Hölderlin. He saw his own fate in Hölderlin. They had both been too far out in the thunderstorm of Being. Their message to the German nation had gone unheard.

Safranski's calm, detailed account of Heidegger's rectorship, of his lies, his treatment of Jewish colleagues and students, and of his friends, is in the end much more damning than that of those who set out to prosecute Heidegger at every turn and convict his philosophy at the same time as they convict the philosopher.

Heidegger is often accused of being silent about Auschwitz but Safranski argues that when Heidegger refers to the perversion of the modern will to power he always, explicitly or not, means Auschwitz. The real silence is about himself. "He failed to ask the question: 'Who am I really when I am thinking?' The thinker has thoughts, but sometimes it is the other way around-the thoughts have him... He who is acquainted with his contingent self is less likely to confuse himself with the heroes of his thinking self."

Here lies the great irony: that the analyser of Dasein should take so long to learn about his own self. But how appropriate that the philosopher who taught us that we cannot stand outside the world and time should be shown by his biographer to be, like the rest of us, gripped in all of life's contingencies. 

Martin Heidegger: Between good and evil

R?iger Safranski

Harvard University Press 1998, ?23.50