Heidegger, his Use of Nietzsche and Support of the Nazis
For a period of seven years, from 1931 to 1938, Martin Heidegger, one of the most celebrated German philosophers today, was a member and supporter of the fascist Nazi party as it rose to power and took authoritarian control. Though he eventually came to doubt the party, spoke critically of its development and was for this under surveillance by the Gestapo (the Nazi secret police), he enthusiastically embraced their rise and seizure of power, spoke at propaganda rallies in several cities, and openly spoke of the Nazis as a rebirth of Western civilization, a return to the revolutionary times of ancient Greece.
Because I myself am into and influenced by Hegel, Nietzsche, Heidegger, as well as Marcuse and Foucault who have both been influenced by these three, and because Heidegger took the worst of Hegel (Eurocentrism, the birth of self-conscious individualism in ancient Greece and the destiny and realization of ancient Greek thought in Germany) and the best of Nietzsche (existentialism, the idea of absolute truth as denial of death, perspective, interpretation and transformation), for me Heidegger’s support of the Nazis is the question we would often prefer to ask our opponent rather than ourselves: how is it that our systems aim for the greatest human fulfillment yet support the worst practices of humankind, including genocide, slavery, and censorship?
Heidegger wrote in his major work Sein und Zeit, Being and Time (1927), that authentic being is questioning, that categorical and absolute truth are ignorance of one’s own human nature, and every revealing is a concealing. How is it that he believed the Nazis, a fascist regime enthusiastic about racism, censorship, and brutality were a magnificent chance for questioning, renewal and transformation? Just as Heidegger argues that being is authentic as questioning or inauthentic as a denial of questioning, this is a question that philosophers should ask rather than avoid, particularly as all varieties of philosophy, including the religious and anti-religious, joined the Nazi cause.
Let us examine Heidegger’s thought, with a particular focus on his use of Nietzsche. For Hegel, Nietzsche and Heidegger the beginning of self-conscious questioning that is philosophy began in glorious ancient Greece with Heraclitus, Plato and Aristotle. This set the European West apart from other cultures as philosophical. For Hegel and Heidegger, Germany was the natural culmination and destiny of Greek thought and philosophy, while for Nietzsche the Germans were fooling themselves through science, religion, nationalism and antisemitism into thinking they were the great race, and he moved to Switzerland, renounced his German citizenship and declared himself to be a citizen of no country. I myself would have preferred Nietzsche to be as critical of ancient Greek superiority as he was of German nationalism and antisemitism. In the opening paragraphs of Being and Time, Heidegger looks to the birth of philosophy in ancient Greece in the hopes that he can reclaim this glorious past and rebirth of thought. Heidegger believed, like Hitler and Nietzsche though he was far more critical and cynical, that one should look to the Greeks to be German, as the Greeks were the rebellion that gave birth to authentic thinking and learning. Heidegger, as countless other professors and academics, confuses his own self easily with the identity of the ancient Greeks and the Western mind.
The Great Depression, the 1920s and 30s, was the time when Heidegger did his critical writing and gained fame and position, a time when many feared the fall of the West and the death of Christian European civilization. Heidegger, like Rousseau and Nietzsche, was an anti-modernist anti-technology romantic who spoke of Greece as a more glorious and meaningful time. These thinkers in turn influenced Marcuse, Adorno and the Frankfurt School. Later Adorno, Jewish like Marcuse, both having fled the Nazis for Switzerland and then New York, wrote a 1964 pamphlet, The Jargon of Authenticity, criticizing Heidegger for supporting the Nazis while calling for self-questioning, which is ironic given Adorno hated jazz and argued that music is over after Beethoven.
Heidegger originally studied to be a Catholic theologian, but in studying Neoplatonism he switched his study to philosophy and wrote his thesis on Duns Scotus. Husserl, the phenomenologist, took him under his wing as his star pupil, and as phenomenology (the school of studying the mind by focusing on how we experience the phenomena or things around us) rose to fame and gathered followers Heidegger began to gather fame and followers of his own. Husserl wanted a science of the mind, a radical criticism of all philosophy and psychology up through Kant and Hegel. Husserl is famous for the idea of intentionality, that consciousness is always directed toward something or away from something by intention. Nietzsche similarly believes that thought is always instinct and drive. Wanting, fearing, loving, and assessing objects is never neutral, nor is our own philosophical grasping of our grasping cold or objective. Husserl studied the various and often subtle ways we are intentional in our world under the banner of phenomenology, a term invented by Hegel but intended as an open speculative psychology by Husserl. The world and subject co-develop together in an evolving symbiotic relationship. Husserl kept writing and expanding his work, but rather than develop a new alphabet for thought as he had originally intended his work snowballed out of control and continued to amass until his death. Heidegger picked up Husserl’s work, but merged this with Nietzsche and took it in an anti-scientific existential direction. Heidegger forms his own insights based on the work of Hegel, Nietzsche, and Husserl. Husserl’s scientific Freudian ego becomes Hegel’s dasein, or being-there. Heidegger emphasizes the open-ended multiplicity of being and interpretation romantically like Nietzsche.
Heidegger argues in Being and Time that philosophy means being a beginning, the way one weighs anchor while setting sail out into the vast ocean. We are thrown into the world, called “thrownness”, as a being-there, or there-being, in German, “dasein”. Heidegger is famous, some would say infamous, for inventing his own vocabulary and Heideggerians follow this jargon to an equally infamous extent. Welcome to Heidegger-speak 101. Heidegger asks, how do we experience reality before and as we arrange it? What is the ground of being that supports our views and values? The world is “worlding” around us and as us, and thus we are “being-in-the-world”. We approach the world, each other, and objects either as closed and identified or as mysterious, uncanny and miraculous. Industrialization and technology have disenchanted the world, and so we must question the world and re-enchant it. Mystery and truth appear only in the cracks of our industrialized reality when things break or go missing. My good friend who got me interested in philosophy, who was at the time a Heideggerian, used the example of dropping the soap as you take your morning shower. Objects and persons disappear until they are out of place or misused, and then we become conscious of them. Consider a poster on a wall that we stop seeing after time, which then becomes new again and leaps out if we call attention to it again. Consider Nazis, and times of crisis.
This tendency to box and categorize the world is imperfect, and cracks can become ruptures. This is remarkably similar to ideas in communism and anarchism (especially among artists such as the Dada who believe we can reanimate and enchant the world to break beyond its boxes). Nietzsche, an existentialist like Heidegger, similarly romanticized ruptures and struggle with the categorical and the dead in thought. We build meaning as individuals, as groups and as cultures in the face of the infinite. While Nietzsche would implore us to strike out on our own here as an individual, and only individuality could give our meaning and perspective authenticity, Heidegger parts ways with Nietzsche and declares that our being-there is always a they as much as it is an “I”. As with Hegel’s master/slave dialectic, the individual comes into the world already populated by a “they”, and one is a part of this “them” as much as one is thrown against it. While I am in favor of this view, we must note that Heidegger’s identification with Germany and the Nazis is in stark contrast to Nietzsche’s renunciation of German citizenship and denunciation of German nationalism.
Heidegger famously argues that every revealing is a concealing, that history both gives us our meanings as it removes others from our sight. Being and beings withdraw from our grasp as we grasp them. Time continuously gives us the present as it takes the present from us. Meaning is always historical, always has “historicity”. Remember that one of Hegel’s great contributions to philosophy was to understand all thought as historical process. For Heidegger, being is always bound up with time, and thus the title, “Being and Time”. Time is the horizon of being. As time and being are seen and unseen, so there can be no absolute judgment, interpretation or meaning. Nietzsche argues for a multiplicity of interpretation and meaning that cannot be reduced to a single objective truth. Care and life are always as much for oneself as much as for another who never fully arrives, just as we never reach the horizon as we walk.
For Freud, all thought is denial of sex. For Heidegger, all thought is denial of death. Understanding oneself as a simple and singular being, the conception of closed scientific facts and categorical eternal truths, is the way we cope with the fear of death. We are in a basic state of anxiety towards our world that extends over the horizon just as we are afraid of particular people and objects. Nietzsche gives Heidegger this picture, arguing that we can inauthentically ignore the void by turning to absolute immutable truths, or we can give up and find no meaning in life, but rather we should authentically give and create our own meaning as life itself, though again Nietzsche sees this as an individual activity that is corrupted by participation in social movements. Heidegger agrees that we must make our way from absolute being to nihilism and beyond to understand ourselves as essentially becoming and transformation. We imagine we and our truths simply exist as a denial of death and meaninglessness which have just as central a role to play in our questioning, discovery, and living. Out of the basic state of anxiety spring love, fear, rejoicing, suspicion, and a variety of ways we interact with our world. True freedom is realizing this and gaining self-conscious transparency. We must resist reducing ourselves, our truths and even objects as “ready-to-hand” if we wish to truly live. We kill the world and ourselves continuously in the attempt to avoid death, but if we accept death and meaninglessness, we are free to live and give our lives meaning. If we realize we are running off into the woods to avoid being lost, we can learn to dwell comfortably at home. As for Nietzsche, all truths are idols to be smashed, such that new truths can freely grow in their place.
Hitler and the Rise of the Nazis
In Germany during the Great Depression communists, many of the leaders Jewish, gained many members and for a brief period took over the city of Munich. The right wing, including the military, corporate leaders of industry, and traditional authority leaders, organized the Freicorps as a paramilitary group for fighting communists, many to join the Nazis as they rose to power. Hitler and the Nazi party began mobilizing, marching, demonstrating, and street fighting against communists in this period. As in Italy, in the hard times communism and fascism were the radical options and sources of hope and renewal.
Adolf Hitler, a failed painter and architect, found that he had a talent for giving impassioned speeches, and he rose quickly to leadership of the group and attracted many new members. After he and other Nazis were given extremely light sentences after beating a communist, they attempted the Beer Hall Putsch (or coup) in 1923. Marching into a traditional beer hall where many right sided drinkers were socializing, Hitler announced that the revolution had come and they were taking the city. Hitler hoped that the police would join them or at least look the other way as the police did often for fascists in Italy and Germany, but in the ensuing fight 4 cops and 16 Nazis were killed. Hitler was given, by the same judge who sentenced him to one month in prison before, the lightest sentence possible, 9 months in prison, during which time he wrote Mein Kampf, or My Struggle, a political autobiography and polemic.
Disturbingly, Hitler writes that as a boy he saw nothing in antisemitism and that there was a Jewish boy in his class (who may or may not have been the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein) who was strange but not frightening, and that it was only in the Depression and reading antisemetic works that Hitler began to see that the Jews controlled both capitalism and communism to control Germany and the world. In this work, he argues that Jews should be removed from German society, stripped of citizenship and public positions (including professorships), and expelled from the country for the Treaty of Versailles and the communist takeover of Munich. Hitler argued for Darwinism, survival of the fittest and the law of nature. He believed that leaders, including those within the Nazi party, should take over by force and charisma, not by being appointed or elected.
While the Nazis were a fringe party in 1929 with 3% of the vote, the worsening depression brought them members and power. Banks were crashing, and the middle and upper class were beginning to suffer like the poor who could be sufficiently ignored. The Nazi message stayed the same, but the audience began to grow, such that in 1930 they had 25% of the vote. The communists were also picking up voters and members as the people polarized. Hitler began making plane trips to various cities to make speeches that were enthusiastically embraced by many. In 1932, the Nazis had 37% of the vote, the largest party but still a minority (the “majority minority” as some have said of white Americans living in diverse areas such as the Bay). Businessmen wrote to Hindenburg, the chancellor of Germany, arguing Hitler should be made chancellor to stop communism. By this time, the Nazis had received full corporate backing and had ceased to speak out against capitalism and support socialist policies that benefited workers such as union rights. The army was worried it would not be able to hold the borders if both clashed in a time of crisis. In 1933, Hindenburg resigned and Hitler went from vice-chancellor to chancellor. The communists waited, thinking Hitler would fail miserably and they would have a chance to take control.
After setting the Reichstag Fire and blaming the communists, Hitler declared a state of emergency and rounded up communists and other opposition leaders. A boycott of Jewish businesses and book burnings were organized. Storm troopers, the brown shirts who followed the Freicorps and the Italian black shirts of Mussolini, engaged in random beatings and killings. Concentration camps were established, but since the average German believed such things were inevitable under communists it was all seen as unfortunate but inevitable evil. At first, the concentration camps were temporary prisons where dissidents and communists would be sent for a year or two. It was only as Germany began to lose WWII in 1941 that the slave labor camps became extermination camps for the Jews, communists, gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals and counterculturals imprisoned.
Hitler was terrible as a political leader, preferring to not interfere with the work and projects of his highly disorganized underlings. Hitler would have visions, often architectural monuments to Nazi power. If an officer had enough power, they would approach Hitler with an idea for a project and Hitler would either approve and the officer would gain favor and try to stay close to Hitler and the top brass or Hitler would ignore the suggestion. The decision to make the concentration camps death camps came in just this fashion. This is strangely similar to bottom-up yet top-down arrangements of capitalism communism, anarcho-syndicalism, and other systems and thinkers we have studied.
Under Hitler’s regime, many Germans did much better than they had during the depression, as did many French, Polish and others under Nazi occupation. Through military industrialization, slave labor and seizure of Jewish businesses, jobs were created, consumerism supported and property maintained. This created many job opportunities, as it did for Heidegger in universities cleansed of numerous Jewish professors including Heidegger’s old master Husserl. There were new opportunities for doctors, lawyers, scientists, and even actors. If one was the wrong sort of person, one faced imprisonment and death, but because this was kept out of sight it was easy for those with money in their pockets to ignore. Synygogs were destroyed to make parking lots, marriage to Jews and foreigners outlawed, citizenship revoked and Jim Crow style laws imposed. Having Jewish or communist friends was enough to be sent to the camps.
Hitler was a great admirer of Britain and American power. He wrote in Mein Kampf, that Germany had lost WWI because they did not have the propaganda of Britain and America that demonized Germany such that the harsh Treaty of Versailles was imposed. Next time, he wrote, would be different. It was the British who invented the modern concentration camp fighting the Dutch. Hitler admired how Britain, a small island, maintained a world-wide empire, and believed that this was proof positive that the Aryan race, though a fraction of the world population, could truly become the master race. He wrote, “What India was for England, Russia will be for us”. Hitler hoped for an alliance with Britain and America that would dominate the globe, and many anti-communist authorities and corporations in the UK and US supported this.
Hitler, as he did in all areas, allowed economic experts and business leaders to do whatever they wanted as long as they were successful and supported his own visionary projects. Hitler liked radical ideas, and German and foreign economists were astonished at how well Nazi control was for business and industry. Authoritarianism and totalitarianism are vast freedom for the powerful and successful, all the while slavery and death for the oppressed. Looking at British success, Hitler believed that Germany needed colonies and expansion to create an empire. As the Nazis had victory after victory in war, and the UK and US said nothing, Hitler told his generals to “Germanize” the new regions and no questions would be asked. In Poland, one general used a campaign of horror to break the spirits of Polish slave labor, while another general simply declared 80% of the population to be German. When rival factions complained about each other’s methods, Hitler often did nothing.
This would be remarkably existentialist, if it happily supported transparent self-questioning rather than brutally suppressing all questioning and dissent. Heidegger is strikingly like Trotsky. Both believed that they supported a regime that would lead to a new era of continuous revolution and questioning, but both came to see that even as power is renewed by new ideas and perspectives it learns to silence opposition and stifle transparency like the overthrown regime it replaces. In front of the Denazification Committee in 1945, Heidegger said that he truly believed Hitler would evolve beyond his views and policies, but by 1938 his dream had become a nightmare. Heidegger, like many in Germany, Britain and America, believed that communism was the death of Western civilization and individual thought, and it took him seven years to realize that fascism, like communism, fails to evolve toward freedom.