Heidegger and his relationship with fascism is a very popular topic: the debates rage on even after half a century’s passing. It is a morbid interest most students of philosophy have in this discussion: for the simple reason that this is a rather painful topic for any serious student of philosophy who deals with the twentieth century. It is difficult to deny the meaning of Heidegger: he spoke of things that were well ahead of his time, and he was a man who would influence all of philosophy that we know which followed him.
And yet he made . what from our point of view can at best be seen as a gross error in judgement, and at worst – as a choice of utmost immorality. To support the phenomena which would come to be one of the greatest fears of the twentieth century, and that from a man whose intellectual judgement we trust on such important matters as Being and Time – well, this merits a twofold reaction from any proper philosopher.
If we give Heidegger the benefit of the doubt, the first reaction is that being a good philosopher does not a good man make, and not even a worldly wise man – but against this notion will instinctively rebel any student of classical philosophy, taught throughout his career that philosophy deals with the most basic and most necessary parts of human existence, and that it imparts wisdom. It is to deny philosophy’s self-image, and very difficult to do. If we go to the other extreme, however, and understand this as conscious choice, then we find ourselves placing Heidegger under one of the greatest doubts in all philosophy.
Heidegger’s proclaimed ethic, as has been noted a variety of times, is ontological – and, since Heidegger is so influential, no serious student can avoid asking themselves whether to accept Heidegger’s breakthroughs would also be to accept the horrors brought by Nazism, and, moreover, to possibly replicate them within our very structures of thinking, the psyche that is formed under Heidegger’s influence. Heidegger problematizes the issue of ethics to the extreme by his very existence, and to even begin dismantling this tangled web requires a serious look into his biography.
For a long time, the classical defense of Heidegger would be to claim his relative ignorance and a certain limited involvement with the Nazi party. There are many voices who speak of him as being unaware of the impact of Nazism, citing first and formost his letters to the Rector of Freiburg: “In April 1933, I was unanimously elected Rector (with two abstentions) in a plenary session of the university and not, as rumor has it, appointed by the National Socialist minister…
The minister insisted that in this way my official relations with the Party and the governing organs would be simplified, especially since up until then I had no contact with these organs. After lengthy considerations, I declared myself ready to enter the Party in the interests of the university, but under the express condition of refusing to accept a position within the Party or working on behalf of the Party either during the rectorship or afterward. … ” These letters are accepted by some thinkers, such as Arendt or Safranski, as at least partial proof of Heidegger’s “innoncence” in the matters of politics.
They ascribe to Heidegger a certain strange kind of naivete, almost showing him to be under the same hypnotic spell that most of Germany fell under at the time. There is always room for a youthful mistake, they say, and even Heidegger’s silence afterward speaks more of shame than of an active position and of a lack of desire to involve in things quite so horrible after it is all done . It was the silence of a man who has done wrong, but for whom this wrong is much too painful to speak out on openly. This view of Heidegger shows him as a man of fear, one who cannot face social stigma, and, thus, himself.
His philosophy is thus unaffected: it was, at least later on, the product of a mature mind and a much better understanding of the innermost workings of the world, if not of the outer world around it. Coming more from a general reading of Heidegger’s philosophy, it is difficult to accept this understanding. Heidegger deals with fears that lie much deeper than any social stigma can attain: it is no mere coincidence that modern mystics at times point to Heidegger as a source of explanation to their own experiences.
Heidegger borders on the lines betwen consciousness and the subconscious depths beneath it and superconscious heights above: his philosophy is often-times dealing with the human being in its total incomprehensibility. If Heidegger truly thought on those subjects – and if he did not work them through his innermost thoughts, who can we name that did? – then he felt that horror which characterizes the writings of anyone who has dealt with the Absolute in a close manner, the transcendental fear of something Other. Sociality here is, at best, a manifestation of philosophy: and, I would surmise, nothing to be truly feared.
It may incite concern, or anger, or any other emotion that is less primal – but it is nothing that cannot be dealt with by one who has dared to look into the Abyss and see It stare back, to use Nietzshe’s expression. No, fear is certainly not the culprit here. A more elaborate version of this argument is that Heidegger is often argued to be an idealist, unable to see what he views he held would lead to, and, moreover, one that when he actually did being to see parts of the truth (after 1934) began to distance himself from the movement as gently as he could (perhaps attempting to do as little harm as possible) .
The proponents of this view speak of a certain philosophy that, while it coincided in ways with Fascism, diverged from it later, and afterwards its creator did what he had to do to survive – and nothing more. In this case, Heidegger’s philosophy is certainly influenced by fascism, but later he “repents”, and his latter philosophy is free from the taint of fascism, as if it went through this experience to temper it.
After its failing, Heidegger supposedly grew bitter and silent, for either the reason listen and refuted above, or for another one that we shall return to somewhat later. For now we note that Heidegger’s critics show this process as one of conscious and semi-conscious deceit, started by Heidegger himself. As Alex Steiner puts it: “By presenting himself as accidentally caught up in a form of “philosophical” Nazism for a brief period that was later transformed into one of “spiritual resistance” Heidegger tried to build a wall around his philosophical views. “