Heidegger and the Nazis, by Jeff Collins

Heidegger cvr1

To subscribe wholeheartedly to such a totalitarian ideology seems so completely at odds with the intellectual vigour required to make a significant contribution in philosophy that Martin Heidegger’s embrace of Nazism has long puzzled and discomfited those who would like to find something of worth in his thought.  An examination of his advocacy of a profoundly distasteful cause raises a couple of issues:  firstly, can someone seduced into following a creed generally considered noteworthy for its anti-intellectualism still have something of worth to say?  Secondly, for those who think the answer is yes and wish to explore aspects of Heidegger’s thought, is there a parallel with the scientist who uses data that were collected by Nazis employing unethical methods on concentration camp inmates?  Can the two strands be separated even if Heidegger was merely using words rather than active brutality?  Is short, is his entire body of work tainted by association with the Nazi sentiments he espoused?

Jeff Collins’s short (70 page) book, published in 2000 in Icon Books’ Postmodern Encounters series, discusses Heidegger’s relationship with the Nazis.  He shows that while apologists have tried to downplay Heidegger’s Nazi allegiance, of which he was an early adopter, as a temporary ‘political error’ as if it were somehow done in a fit of absent-mindedness, it was actually very strong and vocal, and not to be explained away as a naïve aberration that was quickly rectified.  Instead Collins situates the ‘error’ within Heidegger’s evolving philosophy, showing that even in his 1927 Being and Time there were currents that prefigured the emerging Nazi ethos.  Heidegger’s support was more than shrewdly foreseeing a time when the institutions of higher education would be brought under party control.  Rather it stemmed from his philosophical views, and to that extent at least was a principled decision.

In fact Collins goes further, showing the termination of the brief duration of Heidegger’s vocal support, which his defenders contend reflects a disenchantment with Nazism, to be something else – actually a disenchantment with the Nazis for not adhering rigorously enough to his ideal conception of National Socialism as ‘a total transformation of our German existence’.  He became disillusioned with the practice, not the theory, and the would-be ideologue, who fantasised that the new state entailed a change in ‘German reality’, withdrew, disappointed, from the fray.  While being in that sense more Nazi than the Nazis, his lofty concern with ontology and the totality of Dasein left little room for the details of how totalitarianism actually affects people’s everyday lives.  Those were irrelevant to his conception of what Germany could become under the new regime.  Even after the war, when there could be no disputing the extent of its atrocities, he refused to condemn it.

So can something be salvaged from Heidegger’s anti-humanist philosophy?  Sartre definitely thought so, separating Heidegger’s political actions from his thought in his own formulation of existentialism, maintaining that one should take what is of value, discarding the rest, as Marx did with Hegel.  Despite his dubious political affiliations Heidegger continues to be used as a philosophical resource.  It may even be possible, ignoring its associations, to utilise his thought in order to resist what he once espoused, and so it has proved, Collins argues, with Heidegger’s influence on post-structuralism.  The last portion of the book moves away from Heidegger in tracking what might constitute a Heideggerean ethics, focusing on Derrida and deconstruction, though its opponents may consider any defence that relies on deconstruction for support to be a priori unconvincing.

It’s a very compact book that cannot do full justice to the complexities of the debates, and the concentrated style does make it hard to follow at times.  But for anyone interested in Heidegger and how he might be considered beyond his endorsement of the Nazis, it is a useful overview, though there is obviously a much longer book trying to get out, and the Postmodern Encounters series theme is a straightjacket.  In the end it unclear what useful contribution Heidegger’s legacy might have for politics today.  He is a case study warning that Marx’s final Thesis on Feuerbach – ‘Philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it’ – threatens to be a dangerous maxim in the wrong hands, though it perhaps overestimates the practical influence philosophers have.

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