Magazine article Foreign Affairs

What Heidegger Was Hiding: Unearthing the Philosopher's Anti-Semitism

Magazine article Foreign Affairs

What Heidegger Was Hiding: Unearthing the Philosopher's Anti-Semitism

Article excerpt

What Heidegger Was Hiding Unearthing the Philosopher's Anti-Semitism Gregory Fried Heidegger und der Mythos der jüdischen Weltverschwörung (Heidegger and the Myth of the Jewish World Conspiracy) BY PETER TRAWNY. Klostermann, 2014, 124 pp. euro15.80.

The German philosopher Martin Heidegger died in 1976, yet scholars are still plowing through his life's work today-some of it for the very first time. Indeed, few modern thinkers have been as productive: once published in their entirety, his complete works will comprise over 100 volumes. Fewer still have rivaled his reach: Heidegger deeply influenced some of the twentieth century's most important philosophers, among them Leo Strauss, Jean-Paul Sartre, Hannah Arendt, and Jacques Derrida. And although Heidegger's work is most firmly entrenched in the Western tradition, his readership is global, with serious followings in Latin America, China, Japan, and even Iran.

But Heidegger's legacy also bears a dark stain, one that his influence has never quite managed to wash out. Heidegger joined the Nazi Party in the spring of 1933, ran the University of Freiburg on behalf of the regime, and gave impassioned speeches in support of Adolf Hitler at key moments, including during the plebiscites in the fall of 1933, which solidified popular support for Nazi policies.

Nevertheless, Heidegger managed to emerge from World War II with his reputation mostly intact. The Allies' denazification program, which aimed to rid German society of Nazi ideology, targeted regime supporters just like him. Freiburg came under French control, and the new authorities there forced Heidegger into retirement and forbade him from teaching. But in 1950, the now-independent university revoked the ban. This resulted in large part from Heidegger's outreach campaign to French intellectuals with anti-Nazi credentials, including Sartre and the resistance fighter Jean Beaufret. In short order, Heidegger won over a wide following in France. Once his international reputation was secure, the university gave him emeritus status and allowed him to resume teaching.

To his new champions, Heidegger portrayed himself as the typical unworldly philosopher, claiming that he had joined the Nazi Party and accepted Freiburg's rectorate primarily to defend higher education from the worst excesses of the regime. He insisted that he had quickly realized his mistake, which led him to resign as rector less than a year into his term and start including veiled critiques of the Nazis in his subsequent lectures and writings.

Among European and American intellectuals friendly to Heidegger, this exculpatory narrative quickly became the conventional wisdom. If the philosopher had betrayed a touch of anti-Semitism, the logic went, it was only of the kind that had been ubiquitous in Germany (and most of Europe) before the war: a conservative, cultural reflex that was nothing like Hitler's viciously ideological racism. Moreover, Heidegger had many Jewish students, one of whom, Arendt, was also his lover. After the war and long after their passions had waned, Arendt resumed contact with Heidegger and helped get his work translated into English. Would an inveterate opponent of the Nazis really have assisted an unrepentant anti-Semite? Not everyone was convinced of Heidegger's innocence, but his defenders worked hard to protect the philosophical work from its author's scandal. And until recently, the strategy largely worked.

The official story began to wear thin in the 1980s, however, when two scholars, Hugo Ott and Victor Farías, using newly uncovered documents, each challenged Heidegger's claim that his brush with Nazism had been a form of reluctant accommodation. More recently, in 2005, the French philosopher Emmanuel Faye drew on newly discovered seminar transcripts from the Nazi period to argue that Heidegger's thinking was inherently fascist even before Hitler's rise to power. Faye accused the French Heideggerians of having orchestrated a cover-up of Heidegger's political extremism and advocated banishing Heidegger's work from the field of philosophy; no one, Faye said, should associate the greatest barbarism of the twentieth century with the West's most exalted tradition of reason and enlightenment. …

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