Heidegger, Nazism, and Postmodernism

By Cooke, Bill | Free Inquiry, Fall 1998 | Go to article overview
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Heidegger, Nazism, and Postmodernism

Cooke, Bill, Free Inquiry

Bill Cooke

It is one of the features of the depressed state of end-of-millennium philosophy that Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) should be experiencing a tremendous upsurge in popularity. Heidegger, once relegated to a chapter in the literature on existentialism, has recently reemerged as a central intellectual influence on the current fashion of postmodernism.

At the same time, the extent of Heidegger's collaboration with Hitlerism has become even clearer. This has developed to such an extent that David Harvey, a Marxist postmodernist, has admitted Heidegger's Nazi past (and that of Paul De Man, another prominent postmodernist thinker) to be a "major embarrassment" for postmodernism.


Heidegger was born into a staunchly Catholic family of modest means in the southwestern corner of Germany in 1889. Acknowledged early on to be brilliant, he was nurtured through the Catholic education system of his region. In his youth he repaid that confidence by advocating a very conservative, authoritarian Catholicism. During the First Word War, Heidegger worked in the censorship office, reading soldiers' mail. It is widely thought he used his position to read the mail of colleagues and rivals for the various academic posts he was applying for at the time.

After the war Heidegger came under the influence of Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), at the time Germany's most influential living philosopher. Husserl recognized Heidegger's genius and lobbied extensively on his behalf to secure an academic position. Within weeks of securing the position at Freiburg that he had coveted, Heidegger stopped visiting Husserl. When Husserl, a Jew, was forbidden to lecture by Nazi legislation, Heidegger didn't lift a finger to help him. He didn't even attend his funeral.

Heidegger joined the Nazi Party in May 1933, only four months after Hitler's rise to power. He was by now Rector of Freiburg University and had enthusiastically launched into a program of reorganizing the university on Nazi principles. This included compulsory military training for students, a militarist code of honor for the staff, and active encouragement of book-burning at the university. Heidegger also abolished all of the university's governing bodies.

Those at the heart of the ideological power centers of National Socialism suspected Heidegger was merely "playing at National Socialism," and they appointed other people to important positions in German curriculum and university administration. After about a year in the job Heidegger resigned as Rector, although he retained his party membership.

After the war the de-Nazification commission banned Heidegger from lecturing until 1949 and holding any official university position. It was decided that his support of the Nazi regime had been significant because his international reputation as a philosopher had given the Nazis respectability that helped cement their control of the country in those early months. Heidegger remained bitter about his treatment, feeling that he had been singled out unfairly. But he never retracted any of the statements he made during his years as an active Nazi. He actually reaffirmed them as late as 1966.

The question that developed was: Is Nazism intrinsic to Heidegger's philosophy? Into this situation stepped two scholars: Julian Young, based in Auckland, New Zealand, and Rudiger Safranski, from Berlin. It was Young's intention in Heidegger, Philosophy, Nazism to undertake a "de-Nazification of Heidegger." Safranski's book, Martin Heidegger: Between Good and Evil, is an attempt at a comprehensive intellectual biography of Heidegger.

Young's job is perhaps the more difficult, as he is running against the current philosophical tide. He admits early on that Heidegger's involvement with Nazism was "much deeper and much less honourable than the official story makes out." Heidegger was, at least for two years "a real Nazi: his involvement was a matter of conviction rather than compromise, opportunism, or cowardice.

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