Photo of Martin Heidegger by Willy Pragher on Wikimedia Commons.

Examining Heidegger’s Legacy: A Conversation with Richard Wolin

Martin Heidegger’s sympathies for the conservative revolution and National Socialism have long been well known. But the 2014 publication of his “Black Notebooks” reveals a deeper and more radical ideology than previously believed. In Heidegger in Ruins, Richard Wolin explores the impact the notebooks have on the legacy of this important twentieth century philosopher.

For both Heidegger and the Nazi regime at large, work played a central ideological role (as with the “arbeit macht frei” inscription at Auschwitz, or Heidegger’s assertion that the ability to work distinguished humanity from other creatures). Can you explain what work meant in Nazi Germany, and how philosophy supported these perceptions?

RW: One of the major challenges for the German right following the defeat of World War I was to win the working class over to the cause of German nationalism. Prior to the war, German social democracy had been the leading working-class party in Europe. Thus, working class loyalties were solidly socialist and (at a later point) communist. The trade unions, too, were firmly aligned with the left. Shortly after the war, the German right undertook a significant campaign to wean the working class away from internationalism. A good illustration or example is the official the name of the Nazi Party: the NSDAP or National Socialist German Workers Party. Conservative revolutionary thinkers like Heidegger, Ernst Jünger, and Oswald Spengler played an important role in shifting the valences of “work” (Arbeit) from left to right.

What place did the German university system take in precipitating Hitler’s rise to power? What made the university such a significant site of struggle for Heidegger?

RW: When Heidegger became rector of Freiburg University in May 1933, German university students were, largely aligned with the Nazism. Moreover, the ideology of “youth” was central to the self-understanding of European fascism. Hence, universities were an obvious site for promoting the “National Revolution.” Heidegger perceived German universities as a “leadership” school: a training ground for breeding National Socialist elites or cadres.

As implausible as it may seem in retrospect, one of the reasons that he esteemed Nazism is that he regarded it as a vehicle for the revitalization of German spiritual traditions in a manner that was consistent with völkisch values. In this sense he perceived the Volksgemeinschaft of the Third Reich as a vast improvement over the Kaiserreich or Second Empire, which remained highly stratified.  

How can philosophers, and all people, combat violent ontologies? Do you see any similarities between resistance to Nazism and philosophies today (e.g. Afro-pessimist thought) that concern themselves primarily with ontological questions?

RW: During the 1930s, the Popular Front—an alliance of republicans, social democrats, and communists—arose in Europe to combat fascism. But without the support of the leading Western governments, who were interested in appeasing Hitler, its efforts came to naught. Today, in many Western societies antiracism has emerged to combat racial injustice. But like all social movements, unless it can influence legislators and politicians who pass laws, it too will remain marginalized. My main concern about Afro-Pessimism is that, as the name implies, it is too resigned about the very real, if tenuous, gains that the civil rights movement has made in the past, such as, desegregation. To be sure, as the Black Lives Matter movement as shown, there remains a long way to go. But unless there is a concrete political legacy on which to build, the alternative seems to be despair, an option that, in my view, is unwarranted.

You chronicle the influence of multiple fascist novels, including Volk Ohne Raum and the later Le Camp des Saints. What made these works such potent transmitters of racism?

RW: That’s a good point, and it underlines the compelling force of literary narrative. Narrative is able to frame politics and history, thereby rendering human experience meaningful and intelligible. Hannah Arendt captured this aspect of literary form when she spoke about “the redemptive power of narrative.” By telling stories, we render experience meaningful and intelligible. The two reactionary novels that you allude to, which were published fifty years apart, were influential because they dramatized some of the lower middle class’s—an extremely vulnerable sociological stratum—worst fears and anxieties. Whereas more complex literary forms challenge our prejudices and customary beliefs, both formally and thematically, the blatantly ideological novels you cite play on the insecurities and fears of average men and women.

Do you see parallels between Heidegger’s writing and other philosophy from fascist states?

RW: There were important ideological commonalities between the various expressions of fascist discourse during the 1920s and 1930s. They embraced dictatorship, militarism, national redemption, chauvinism and xenophobia, and an understanding of fascism as a “movement”—hence, as an “energetic” alternative to run-of-the-mill, liberal democratic “parliamentarism.” The individual variants of fascism were also distinct, insofar as they relied extensively on indigenous national traditions. This was especially true of National Socialism, owing to its grounding in Aryan racial mythology. Insofar as Germans were deemed the Herrenrasse or “master race,” other races were a priori excluded.

One of the points I stress in the book is Heidegger’s inordinate commitment to the ethos of “Germanocentrism:” to the idea that the redemption of the West depended on Germany’s recognition of its historical “destiny” and “mission.” Not only were Heidegger’s more explicitly political addresses suffused with such claims. The “Black Notebooks” demonstrate that Heidegger’s later doctrine of the “History of Being” is integrally tied to an understanding of German exceptionalism and German self-assertion.

How can we interpret philosophy’s continued reliance on Heidegger? What path forward do you see for the field?

RW: I think there has been a lot of dishonesty and repression, in the psychoanalytic sense, with respect to the reception of Heidegger work. It’s disappointing, because as intellectuals, we claim allegiance to the culture of critical discourse. Yet, in troubling cases like Heidegger’s, it’s often easier to look the other way. In the book I argue that, following the “Black Notebooks”’ publication, it has become impossible to “look the other way.” Concretely, that means that those who teach Heidegger need to acknowledge his prodigious Germanocentric ideological commitments as a “problem;” not just a political problem that one can, in turn, safely quarantine, but as one that pervades his philosophy. Heidegger’s rejection of German idealism and reformulation of first philosophy in the language of “existence” and “being-in-the-world” was ideologically conditioned. The ideological dimension does not subsume Heidegger philosophy, but it is always present. To pretend otherwise is false and dishonest.

Richard Wolin is a Distinguished Professor of European Intellectual History at the CUNY Graduate Center. He is the author of Heidegger’s Children: Hannah Arendt, Karl Löwith, Hans Jonas, and Herbert Marcuse, rev. ed.

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