In 1988, the prominent critic George Steiner announced that “when we look back over the twentieth century the two dominant philosophers will clearly be Wittgenstein and Heidegger.” That the second of these two should also have been one of Adolf Hitler’s most eloquent champions in the early years of the Nazi regime is a very bitter pill for twentieth century intellectuals to swallow. That they should honor so highly the thought of a man who at the prime of his professional and mental life openly embraced a politics and national vision rooted in mayhem and murder seems almost as much a judgment on their own intellectual choices as it is evidence of Martin Heidegger’s perversity.
In 1987, a Chilean student of philosophy and German culture, Victor Farias, published an expose’ of Heidegger’s connections with National Socialism that shocked the international community. That Heidegger had been an enthusiastic supporter of the Nazis until 1933 had been more or less common knowledge. After the war, however, under interrogation by the French Occupying Forces he maintained that he had seen the light as early as 1934 and that his efforts to contain the worst influences of Nazi ideas on the university had resulted in his losing the rectorship at Freiburg and finally being put under police surveillance. Heidegger’s “rehabilitation” was actually encouraged by the French intelligentsia in Paris, where Jean-Paul Sartre’s existential-ism recognized in Heidegger’s philosophy of Being a precursor of its own ontology. How could the man who had sparked the first important school of philosophy in postwar France have had any serious connection with the Nazi tyranny from which France had just been liberated?
Farias’ book made crystal-clear that Heidegger had been no more deluded by Nazism in the early years than he was significantly disillusioned by it throughout the entire period of the war. Furthermore, in the thirty years of life that Heidegger enjoyed after the war, he never once categorically disavowed his embrace of Nazism. Nazism, as he understood it, represented the essence of his idea of Being in Time. Hitler’s underlings were responsible for the vulgarization of his ideas. The Fuhrerprinzip (leader principal) embodied in Hitler was adopted by Heidegger as a model for his own rectorship at the University of Freiburg. Just as Germany’s Being had to be embodied in heroic authority, so did the German university require a complete shedding of its hypocritical democratic organization in order to redefine itself in the name of a purified German intellect. Heidegger’s egotism, writes the contemporary liberal humanist Jurgen Habermas in an introduction to the German edition of Farias’ book, smoothed his identification with Nazism before and during the war and made impossible any significant recantation after the war.
Hugo Ott began his research into Heidegger’s Nazi past some four years before Farias published his book. The German historian deals with many of the same matters as Farias, but his book is not a sensational expose’. It is rather a very carefully researched, somewhat ponderous, very loosely organized discussion that wanders in search of a point of view that will do justice to the facts and to the man. Ott has no illusions. He does not try to save Heidegger’s reputation, as so many of his German apologists have tried to do since the war. Nor does he fall into the trap of a Faustian apology, a tragic scenario in which the great sinner comes to illumination after all. There is a touch of this in Ott’s epilogue. He exaggerates the significance of Heidegger’s return to Catholic surroundings, the small town of Messkirch where he was born, both as a haven in 1945 in the face of the Allied advance and as a resting place in death as the site of his Catholic funeral in 1976. Did Heidegger’s pious Catholic youth bring him full circle? No, Ott comes to realize that such a conclusion is inappropriate and erases the “closure” of this epilogue with an afterword to the present “second, revised edition” of his book. Here he insists he did not intend to suggest that Heidegger was...
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