Being at that TimeMartin Heidegger: A Political Life, by Hugo Ott (trans. Allan Blunden; New York: Basic, 1993).
MARTIN HEIDEGGER HAS BEEN DESCRIBED as one of the influential philosophers of the twentieth century. His work is considered difficult, even by other philosophers, and his magnum opus, Being and Time, is thought to be one of the most difficult books ever written.
The nature and meaning of his philosophy (for commentary on which see The Scorpion issues 11 and 13) are not however the main concern of Ott’s book. He is concerned with two things, Heidegger’s involvement with national socialism and the question as to whether the was accidental to his philosophy, and his relationship with Roman Catholicism. Heidegger grew up in a committed Catholic family in Baden, a strongly Catholic part of Southern Germany near the Swiss border. His father was the Sexton of the Catholic parish of Messkirsch, and young Martin was educated at grammar schools in Constance and Freiburg, which, although not strictly Jesuit since the abolition of the Society of Jesus in 1773, were nevertheless strongly influenced by Jesuitism. It was at Constance that his interest in philosophy first developed, after he had been given a copy of Brentano’s On the Manifold Meaning of Being, according to Aristotle by Conrad Grober, later Archbishop of Freiburg. In 1909 Heidegger applied to join the Jesuit order in Austria but was rejected on health grounds and he switched instead to the theological seminary in Freiburg. The trajectory was also ended by health problems and Heidegger changed first to the study of mathematics and logic, and then to philosophy. Ott attaches great importance to Heidegger’s Catholic origins, as he believes that it was the wrestling with the faith of his birth which set up a series of conflicts in Heidegger’s deepest soul, this having various manifestations in his thoughts and actions over the decades. Having married a Lutheran, Heidegger distanced himself from Catholicism to the point where he came to be regarded by many as a Protestant thinker, or at least as a link between philosophy and Protestant theology, although Heidegger himself later claimed to have remained a Catholic all his life.
The real relevance of Ott’s contention is that the break with the system of Catholicism allowed Heidegger to pursue a style of philosophy not ultimately Protestant so much as a style in which “ethical and theological questions were deliberately not asked.”
Having been made a full professor of philosophy at Freiburg to succeed his former mentor Husserl in 1929, Heidegger went on to become rector in 1933, making pro-Hitler remarks in his inaugural address. Taking issue with the “official” Heideggerian line expressed in Facts and Thoughts and elsewhere regarding the Freiburg rectorship, Ott argues persuasively that Heidegger became rector as the result of a carefully conducted plan executed by cadres of national socialist lecturers. Ott further claims that Heidegger used his position as rector to carry out the Gleichschaltung (reconstructing along National Socialist lines) of Freiburg University, thereby lending the authority of one of Germany’s foremost thinkers to the whole nationwide process. At this point Heidegger was clearly committed to the pushing through of a radically authoritarian reformation of German academic policy and with himself as the leading figure in the process. This, together with fact that he declared in favour of Hitler in the vote of 12th November 1933, would appear to argue against the claim before the denazification committee of 1945 that he had realised by the summer of 1933 that events were moving in a direction contrary to his own political values.
Ott also reveals that Heidegger had a part in the removal and attempted removal of several academics from their posts because of “political unreliability”. Nevertheless, Heidegger had powerful enemies within National Socialist institutions, notably Erich Jaensch, who regarded Heidegger as a representative of the previous, decadent order. With the passage of time it became clear that his own interpretation of National Socialism was not going to predominate; that, as Ott puts it, “1933 was the crucial event, the moment of truth-but the Germans failed to recognise it. They turned their backs on the interpreter of the event. So the essence of Truth remained veiled, fleeing from the “unique and unrepeatable time-space” to seek refuge in the “immortal incipience of the beginning”. This attitude, born of Heidegger’s philosophy, also helps to explain why he continued to hold out hope of an eventual German rebirth, even amongst the ruins of 1945.
As further examples of the congruity of Heidegger’s thought and National Socialism, Ott cites the use of militaristic language, words and phrases such as “struggle”, “fighting front” and “combat” litter the works of this period and the organisation of the summer camps at which Heidegger intended to inculcate within a generation of students, an understanding of his philosophical principles. These camps took place in an SA-like military atmosphere and it was here that a conflict arose with the representatives of the more down to earth National Socialism, apparently over Heidegger’s failure to give prominence to the Party’s racial doctrine. Later, this issue re-emerged, as Heidegger challenged the Party-line interpretation of Nietzsche, as promoted by Alfred Bäumler.
Heidegger’s attitude towards the Jews was ambivalent. On the one hand he was capable of writing, “what is at stake here is the need to recognise without delay that we face a choice between sustaining our German intellectual life through a renewed infusion of genuine native teachers and educators, or abandoning it once and for all to the growing Jewish influence-in both the wider and the narrower sense. We shall get back on the right track only if we are able to promote the careers of a new generation of teachers without harassment and unhelpful confrontation.” (Letter to Victor Schwörer 2.10.1929). On the other hand his assistant Werner Brock was Jewish, as was a substantial group of his students, including, at different times, Hannah Arendt and Herbert Marcuse. This ambivalence was reflected in the National Socialist attitude to Heidegger, with many regarding him as a loyal, if idiosyncratic party member, while others argued that his thought had a particular appeal for Jews because of its supposed “hair-splitting sophistries”, which was held to be similar to Talmudic thought.
Ott details the career of Heidegger’s post-war tribulations and eventual rehabilitation.-the part occupation of his house, the threats to confiscate his library, the teaching ban, and then later, the triumphant return to public lecturing on such subjects as “The arts in the age of technology” and “What does it mean to think?” Heidegger’s thought was taken up by the circle around Jean-Paul Sartre and had a significant influence on French existentialism and beyond, reaching into such diverse areas as an interpretation of Nietzsche, the sociology of everyday life, the conservative critique of technology and linguistics.
Where does this leave Ott’s contention that Heidegger was plagued by his difficult relationship with the faith of his birth? It seems clear enough that Heidegger hankered after a rebirth of German intellectual life, drawing on the pre-Socratics, particularly Parmenides and Heraclitus. It seems that he came to see Christian philosophy as untenable, since it assumes the answers before the questions are asked, and for Heidegger the philosopher’s duty is to question the very ground upon which he stands. However, this is not the same as an outright rejection of Christianity and indeed Ott describes how Heidegger was buried as a Catholic. Perhaps the answer lies in Guillaume Faye’s idea regarding the surpassing of Christianity (see The Scorpion Issue 13) in which the German and European rebirth will not appear out of nowhere as a totally new culture, nor will it be a recreation of a largely unknowable past, but rather it will integrate the higher elements of the various periods of our past in a questioning but confident and invigorating new synthesis.
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