That Martin Heidegger is still frightening the liberals is hardly a surprise. His thought, which blustered and bloomed in interwar Germany, always drew deep on the catastrophic-cum-redemptive impulses of that most excitedly destructive of historical moments. The intellectual air in which Heidegger breathed was thick with heady pessimism. While Oswald Spengler was issuing his downbeat prognosis, The Decline of the West, Max Weber, surveying the ‘disenchantment of the world’, was waxing disappointedly about people’s post-faith entrapment in the ‘iron cage of rationality’. But, as shown by the appeal of the war-worshipping Ernst Junger or the democracy-challenging Carl Schmitt, there was something else in the air, too: revolution, be it of the Bolshevik or, in Heidegger’s case, conservative, anti-capitalist, anti-liberal, anti-modern variety. For liberal democratic society, the end was most definitely felt to be nigh.
This apocalyptic yearning remained opaque in Heidegger’s opus Being and Time, published in 1927. But by the time of Heidegger’s year-long rectorship of the University of Freiburg in 1933, it was clearly National Socialist. He spoke in praise of Nazi icon Leo Schlageter, a swastika often adorned his lapel, and each one of his famous lectures was prefaced by a whole-hearted Heil Hitler. What’s more, through his virulently anti-Semitic wife, he informed his one-time mentor, the Jewish philosopher Edmund Husserl, that he agreed with the ‘hard new law, rational from Germans’ point of view’, which excluded Jews from university teaching. He may have retreated from the frontline of Nazi politics in 1934, but his card-carrying commitment, which lasted until the bitter end in 1945, was as unstinting as his friendship with Eugene Fischer, director of the Berlin Institute for Racial Hygiene.
All of which would have been unremarkable if Heidegger’s work wasn’t so remarkable. ‘The secret king of thought’, Hannah Arendt called him. Her assessment is not far off the mark. His vision of the possibility of an authentic existence ran through French postwar existentialism; his ‘destruktion’ of Western metaphysics inspired any number of structuralisms, post- or otherwise; and, more broadly, his probing, elusive critique of modernity seduced large swathes of the intellectual left, emboldened the resolutely conservative, and revitalised the elusively theological. For thinkers as diverse as the French Communist Louis Althusser, the proto-neoconservative Leo Strauss, the countercultural inspiration Herbert Marcuse, or the godly Emmanuel Levinas, Heidegger was the devil in their detail.
But with the immense debt owed to Heidegger’s thought has come a ceaseless reckoning with his politics. Between 1945 and 1948, Les Temps Modernes, edited by Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, and de Beauvoir, dwelt, defensively, on the relation between Heidegger’s thought and the advent of Nazism. A few years later, the French journal Critique pursued the same question. In the mid-1980s, Victor Farias’s muckraking Heidegger et le Nazisme reignited the controversy, and Hugo Ott’s soberly scathing Martin Heidegger: A Political Life, published in the mid-1990s, fanned the flames. More recently, with Emmanuel Faye’s assiduously researched Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism into Philosophy to the fore, the question of whether this massively influential thinker was also a massively Nazi thinker has been asked with increasing urgency.
Now, with the German-language publication of several volumes of Heidegger’s Schwarze Hefte (the ‘Black Notebooks’) from the 1930s and 1940s (he carried on writing them up until the 1970s), the focus on Heidegger’s putative Nazism, and especially his anti-Semitism, has intensified. Which is hardly surprising given the frequency with which Heidegger bemoans ‘Jewry’s temporary increase in power’, and their ‘tenacious aptitude for calculating and profiteering and intermingling’ in a series of entries from the late 1930s and early 1940s. So unvarnished, not to mention banal, is Heidegger’s anti-Semitism, that earlier this year the University of Freiburg philosopher Günter Figal resigned as chair of the Martin Heidegger Society. ‘After reading the Schwarze Hefte, especially the anti-Semitic passages, I do not wish to be such a representative any longer’, Figal said. ‘These statements have not only shocked me, but have turned me around to such an extent that it has become difficult to be a co-representative of this [society].’