Heidegger in France: Nazism and philosophy

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One of the distinctive features of French intellectual life in the post-war period has been the influence of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976). Heidegger’s standing among French philosophers, especially those working in the phenomenological tradition (who are more numerous in France than anywhere else in Europe, let alone the Anglophone world), contrasts dramatically with his reputation in the country of his birth, where his legacy is tainted irredeemably by his political compromises with National Socialism in the 1930s.

The precise nature and extent of those compromises remain a matter of controversy—not least in France, where the murky subject of Heidegger’s political affiliations convulses the intellectual class roughly once a decade. Last week, Nicolas Weill, a journalist at Le Monde, wrote on his blog that the latest volume of Heidegger’s complete works (the Gesamtausgabe), which will be published in Germany in March next year, promises a definitive answer to the question whether “Heidegger was an intellectual led astray by a temporary will to power or whether his political itinerary reflects a more profound tendency”.

Eric Aeschimann, writing in Le Nouvel Observateur, reports that Heidegger’s Schwarzen Hefte (“Black Notebooks”) will trouble even the most faithful of his acolytes in France. It appears that the German editor of the notebooks, Peter Trawny, has written an essay entitled “Heidegger: ‘The Black Notebooks’ and Historial Antisemitism” (“historial” being one of those neologisms of which Heidegger, and Heideggerians, were and are fond) in which he argues that these manuscripts, written between 1931 and 1946, contain ideas that are “clearly antisemitic, even if it is not a question of antisemitism of the kind promoted by Nazi ideology.” One of Heidegger’s French translators, Hadrien France-Lanord, has read Trawny’s essay and has pronounced himself dismayed by many of the extracts from the notebooks that it contains. We are, Aeschimann writes, on the verge of another “Heidegger affair”.

The last time the question of Heidegger’s politics became a matter of public debate in France was in June 2005, when a number of eminent philosophers and historians wrote an open letter to Le Monde expressing their support for Emmanuel Faye, whose book about Heidegger, Heidegger – L’introduction du nazisme dans la philosophie, had attracted a considerable amount of favourable press coverage. The signatories (including Jacques Bouveresse, Pierre Vidal-Naquet and Serge Klarsfeld) denounced the attempt by those they described as “radical Heideggerians” to discredit Faye’s book “by all means”, including attacks on its author broadcast on a dedicated website set up by the writer Stéphane Zagdanski. “We do not accept these dishonourable procedures,” they wrote, “and believe that critical research into the relationship between Heidegger’s work and Nazism must carry on.”

François Fédier, Heidegger’s principal French translator and an ally of Zagdanski, referred derisively to Faye carrying on the “family business”. In 1966, Fédier wrote an article defending Heidegger against charges made in several German books which generated a number of responses, including one by Faye’s father Jean-Pierre. Twenty years later, an even more intense querelle was set off by the publication of Heidegger et le nazisme, written by a former student of Heidegger’s, the Chilean Victor Farias. The facts that Farias assembled were already well-known, thanks largely to the immense archival labours of the German scholars Hugo Ott and Guido Schneeberger, while his treatment of Heidegger’s philosophy was highly tendentious. Yet the impact his book had in France was enormous, with major figures such as Pierre Bourdieu, Jacques Derrida, and Jean-François Lyotard being drawn into the fray.

To see why disputes of this kind have been a more or less permanent feature of the French intellectual landscape since the war, one needs first to understand how a distinctively gallicised version of Heidegger’s thought came to enjoy a position of pre-eminence in France, especially, and perhaps paradoxically, on the left.

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In November 1945, as he awaited the verdict of Freiburg University’s denazification commission, Heidegger wrote to a former colleague describing the unusual situation in which he found himself. Stripped of his chair and shunned by his compatriots, Heidegger was buoyed by news from Paris of his burgeoning reputation there. Elements in the French military, which was overseeing the épuration in Freiburg, had assured him that in France his work “guides and inspires people’s thinking, and in particular the attitudes of the young”. And the philosopher Edgar Morin, then a lieutenant in the French army, had conveyed to Heidegger a letter from the editor of a leading Parisian journal inviting him to write on a subject of his choosing. But Heidegger was reluctant to “promote” his thought in France as long as his position in Germany remained uncertain. Soon, however, he would have no choice.

The commission had already produced a report on Heidegger’s activities during the early 1930s, paying close attention to his behaviour while rector of the university in 1933-4 and noting that he “consciously placed the full weight of his academic reputation and the distinctive art of his oratory in the service of the National Socialist revolution”. Heidegger joined the NSDAP in May 1933 not long after assuming the rectorship and quickly set about establishing the Führerprinzip at the university, ensuring that the institution would no longer be autonomous but instead directly answerable, through the person of the Führer-rector, to the Nazi minister of education. This chimed with his assertion, in his inaugural address as rector, that traditional notions of academic freedom were empty and merely “negative” and that real freedom lay in a German student body that was now “on the march”.

But Heidegger’s rectorship was shortlived, and he resigned after falling out with the minister in Berlin. The report concluded that the “label ‘Nazi’ ceased to be applicable to him after 1934″ and that consequently there was “no danger that he would ever again promote the ideas of Nazism”. It recommended that Heidegger be given emeritus status and be allowed to do a limited amount of teaching.

One member of the commission, however, continued to insist that more serious action be taken and so the process dragged on. It only reached a denouement when one of Heidegger’s oldest acquaintances, the philosopher Karl Jaspers, was asked to provide the commission with a reference. In December 1945, Jaspers delivered the following devastating verdict on his former friend: “Heidegger’s mode of thinking, which seems to me to be fundamentally unfree, dictatorial and uncommunicative, would have a very damaging effect on students at the present time. And the mode of thinking itself seems to me more important than the actual content of political judgements, whose aggressiveness can easily be channelled in other directions. Until such time as a genuine rebirth takes place within him, and is seen to be at work within him, I think it would be quite wrong to turn such a teacher loose on the young people of today, who are psychologically extremely vulnerable.”

Thanks in part to the teaching ban that followed, the “mode of thinking” Jaspers refers to would not take root after the war in Germany, where the reception of Heidegger’s work was always as much political as it was narrowly philosophical and where that work’s affinities with the “conservative revolutionary” thought of writers such as Carl Schmitt and Ernst Jünger were, for better or worse, taken for granted. According to this “historicised” interpretation, the famous “turn” in Heidegger’s thought, in which he abandoned the quasi-Kantian categories of his masterpiece Being and Time (1927) for what he termed a “history of Being”, can only be understood in the light of his abandonment of the rectorship and his disillusionment with the course taken by the National Socialist revolution after 1934.

Heidegger came to believe that the present is characterised by a forgetfulness of “Being” and that this forgetfulness shows itself in the global domination of modern science and technology. Where, in 1933, Nazism, and the Führer in particular, had promised an “awakening” of the German people and salvation from the “nihilism” of the modern age, now Heidegger regarded it as the latest embodiment of that dispensation. But, as his former student Karl Löwith pointed out in 1946, this did not mean that Heidegger had stopped believing in the necesity of national revolution after 1934—far from it. And Löwith maintained that what a “naïve apology” for Heidegger published the same year in French in Les Temps Modernes really showed was that he was a “distinguished representative of the German Revolution”.

In France, by contrast, Heidegger’s “History of Being” was taken up in a decidedly ahistorical fashion, and the author of the Temps Modernes piece, Jean Beaufret, played an important role in its dissemination. He was the addressee of the “Letter on Humanism”, the founding text of French Heideggerianism.

Beaufret had written to Heidgger after Jean-Paul Sartre delivered a lecture entitled “Existentialism Is a Humanism”, which was subsequently published to considerable acclaim. In the lecture, Sartre had claimed to derive from Heidegger’s Being and Time an existentialism according to which man’s existence precedes his essence; in other words, man is free to decide his own essence. Responding to Beaufret, Heidegger denied all connection between his thought and Sartre’s. Sartre takes for granted, he argued, precisely what ought to be questioned, namely: the meaning of “the human”. In assuming that man’s essence lies in action or decision, Sartre misses the more fundamental question about the meaning of Being. Sartrean existentialism, it turns out, is but another mode of forgetfulness. The history of the West, for Heidegger, is the history of the growing power of human subjectivity, in which man enjoys technological dominion over nature rather than the more humble role of “shepherd of Being”.

Heidegger appeared on the post-war French scene, therefore, as a critic of technology and of modernity more generally. And in his book, Emmanuel Faye notes the influence that Heidegger’s anti-humanism had on major currents of post-war French thought, from Althusser and Foucault to the work of Jacques Derrida. It’s that influence, moreover, that explains why successive “Heidegger affairs” in Paris have been so charged.

In the 1970s, a leftist anti-humanism derived from Heidegger’s history of Being filled the gap left by the decline of Marxism, on the one hand, and the more or less complete absence in France of any tradition of normative political theory on the other. It was not the least of Faye’s achievements, in a work whose philosophical sophistication outstrips that of Farias by several orders of magnitude, to show to a French audience what German philosophers such as Jürgen Habermas have been arguing for many years: that, in fact, Heidegger’s undifferentiated and undialectical hostility to modernity was intimately bound up with his commitment to “national revolution” in Germany (a commitment that outlasted his brief formal adhesion to the Nazi Party).

For example, Faye shows that the critique of “biologism” that Heidegger developed in lecture courses given after he resigned the rectorship was not, as Heidegger himself and certain of his French epigones claimed, evidence of his growing opposition to the “National-Socialist worldview”. Heidegger certainly rejected the biologistic racial theories propounded by Nazi ideologues such as Alfred Bäumler and Ernst Krieck. But this critique is compatible, Faye argues, with Heidegger’s retention of a “metaphysical” conception of race. What Heidegger objects to is the grounding of biologistic theories in the “Darwinian conception of life”, which he regarded as of a piece with a “liberal conception of man and human society” towards which he remained unequivocally and unremittingly hostile.

Back in 2005, I spoke to Richard Wolin, an American intellectual historian who signed the open letter in support of Faye. He told me: “Faye does a very effective job of showing how fully committed Heidegger was to Nazism [and] demonstrates that Heidegger’s commitment was also intellectual and philosophical.” However, Wolin insisted that we ought not to conclude from this that Heidegger’s philosophy as a whole should be placed on the index (something Faye comes close to saying). Perhaps a more appropriate conclusion to draw from Faye’s remarkable book is the one argued for by his colleague, the philosopher Jean-Michel Salanskis. In Salanskis’s view, what Faye taught us is that the French left should now recognise that there is nothing in Heidegger that has anything whatsoever to do with the “promise of freedom and equality”.

  1. December 14, 2013

    Gene Schulman

    The debate on Heidegger’s influence in France certainly predates the one in June 2005. I remember the scandal over the publication of Victor Farias’ book “Heidegger and Nazisme”. This caused a spate of articles and even a televised debate on the French program “Oceanique” on 14 December, 1987. (The program actually ran for several days, with other luminaries piping in with their opinions.) The panel included such luminaries as Michel Cazenave, Andre Glucksman, George Steiner, et al. Steiner had published his own book on Heidegger in 1979, in English, in which he did not defend Heidegger’s Nazism, but rather explained his philosophy. On the above mentioned TV program, he did the same versus all those who were more concerned about Heidegger’s Nazism.

  2. December 14, 2013

    Lucien Aychenwald

    As someone who has met (and extensively read) both François Fédier and Hadrien France-Lanord, I would attest to their impeccable integrity as men and very exacting interpretative powers in translating Heidegger into French. The recently published Dictionnaire Martin Heidegger in France, which they co-edited (and to which Peter Trawny contributed) is a magisterially comprehensive treatment of Heidegger’s thought. There is much new material in it that reveals the heretofore untranslated criticism by Heidegger of the Nazi régime.

    This article is a mere sketch of the ongoing debate, and does not mention the rebuttal of Faye’s book (Heidegger à plus fort raison) by Fédier among others, which exposes Faye’s poor comprehension of German and takes apart his mistranslations in great detail. It should be pointed out that Fédier has never denied the gravity of Heidegger’s error in 1933, which I have heard him to refer to as a “délire” (an act of madness). It should also be pointed out that Fédier must in no way be associated with Derrida, Foucault, and other French “post-structuralist” or “deconstructionist” thinkers. Fédier’s work consists almost wholly in meticulously examining and commenting on philosophical texts (Plato, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and others), always using the original and then translating it step-by-step with extensive explanations of his choices. Also, Heidegger was not an “anti-humanist” — he specifically states that humanism, as conceived by Sartre, is not human enough. As for Jaspers, he revised his opinion in 1949. And no account of Heidegger would be complete without the point of view of his Jewish lover and great friend, Hannah Arendt.

    My sense is that Heidegger’s work — particularly his reading of the Western metaphysical tradition, and its forgetting of Being — probably constitutes the most important intellectual event of the 20th century. His understanding of the Greeks was without parallel, and his commentaries on art, language, and Being are exhilarating and make much of contemporary analytic philosophy look dry, useless, and fundamentally naive. But this is not to say that there isn’t something problematic in some of his work, particularly his treatment of the “historial” and the destinies of peoples. His view of “Americanism” as fundamentally (“in its essence”) equivalent to Bolshevism is, to put it mildly, debatable. His persistance in interpreting history through a very particular lens may well have blinded him, in my opinion, to a more down-to-earth regard for basic human needs and — to put it simplistically — how people really are. It would have been far less difficult for those of us who consider his work indispensable had he forcefully, openly, and repeatedly denounced the horrors of Nazism, instead of going back to his usual mode of essence-interpretation and likening the Shoah to industrial agriculture — or saying very little at all. The Hesperic Age of Holderlin, the new beginning, dwelling, the fourfold (gods-humans-sky-earth)… all of these are rich sources of inquiry, but there are also times when what’s most important is whether the man next door has the courage and sensibility to shelter a refugee from danger. I’m somehow reminded of Thales falling into the well as he gazes at the stars. Martin Heidegger, one feels, needed to get out of his hut more.

    • December 14, 2013

      Gene Schulman

      “His view of “Americanism” as fundamentally (“in its essence”) equivalent to Bolshevism is, to put it mildly, debatable.”

      Mildly debatable? Given the evolution of America over the years since Heidegger was writing, I’d say it’s closer to fascism.

  3. December 14, 2013

    Lucien Aychenwald

    Actually, to revise a point that I did not express very well (Heidegger’s misunderstanding of people): what is uncanny about Heidegger’s work in general, and particularly his reading of Western metaphysics, is how he works his way upstream to dismantle the concepts we have inherited and to show that they do not rest on anything substantial. It is this, among other things, that makes his critique of science (“Science doesn’t think”) so trenchant, because truth, knowledge, and Being are not what we think they are. Curiously, there is a great liberation in his illumination of this, not to mention the seeds of a real humanism, because we are of an entirely different order than the “rational animals” or indeed the gene-manipulated information processors that so many cognitive scientists take us for. In this sense, as Fédier has pointed out, Heidegger’s thinking is profoundly anti-totalitarian.

    But it seems to me that Heidegger’s interpretation of history is made from this same upstream position, and that he is so concerned with the sweep of the destiny of Being that there is a strange absence of real events and real people in his writing. Heidegger is not concerned with solutions to the nihilistic evening-time he considers us to have entered, but with preparing the way for another kind of thinking, one that is not based on Will. Our task is consider what kind of thinking this may be, without losing sight of the undeniable political and social gains humans have made in recent centuries.

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