Kaufmann, Heidegger, and Nazism

Philosophy and Literature 12 (1988): 325-36.

Denis Dutton

Walter Kaufmann’s three volume set, Discovering the Mind (McGraw-Hill, 1980, $14.95, $14.95, and $17.95), presents overview of German intellectual history, including detailed attention to Goethe, Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Buber, Freud, Adler, and Jung. As ever, Kaufmann’s opinions are passionately held and forcefully stated. Call it arrogance or honesty, Kaufmann, like the best philosophers, is not concerned with what anyone thinks of him. He is at his debunking best in his long essay, “Heidegger’s Dogmatic Anthropology,” in which he presents “six theses” concerning Heidegger and Sein und Zeit.

Martin Heidegger

According to Kaufmann, “Heidegger’s elaborate system of terminology invites futile controversies less about substantive matters than about the meanings of words. Heidegger’s peculiar coinages suggest “some warrant of rigor and scientific precision, but in fact the rigor is wholly spurious.” His whole project, Kaufmann claims, “was shaped decisively by his Roman Catholic upbringing, and it is therefore no cause for wonder that his philosophy ... has been taken up so enthusiastically by so many Roman Catholic scholars.” He calls the analysis of authenticity and inauthenticity in Sein und Zeit “shallow and Manichaean” and says that Heidegger himself is flagrantly guilty of the Gerede and Geschreibe (chatter and scribbling) of which he so sarcastically accuses others. Kaufmann points out how Heidegger seems to possess all of Nietzsche’s conceit but none of his wit or talent for self-criticism. In fact, Kaufmann is skilled at using Nietzsche as a foil to make Heidegger appear ponderous and empty.

Kaufmann finds Heidegger’s way of thinking “exceptionally formulaic. He himself seems to be mesmerized when he has found a complicated, unusually forbidding, formula and subsequently treats it as if it had been delivered by an oracle. Such imposing formulations are repeated over and over....” The appeal of this thinking, moreover, comes from the way it presents a “secularized Christian preaching about guilt, dread, and death.” This from a man who claimed to break with two thousand years of Western thought.

Three aspects in Kaufmann’s discussion strike me as particularly intriguing: his description of the heavy authoritarian element in Heidegger’s thought, an anecdote about some Nietzsche manuscripts, and his remarks on Heidegger’s Nazism. Kaufmann describers Heidegger’s thinking as “deeply authoritarian.” His anthropology is “absurdly dogmatic,” by which Kaufmann means that it puts forward “apodictically, without considering negative evidence or alternatives, commonplaces dressed up in an imposing but confusing jargon.” Even if one can accommodate oneself to the Heideggerian vocabulary, I think there is an undeniable truth in Kaufmann’s observation that Heidegger fails over and over to consider reasonable alternative views or objections to his interpretations. Kaufmann illustrates the point: “To give a single example, in his long discussion of ‘Being-toward-death’ [in Sein und Zeit] it never seems to have occurred to him to ask whether human attitudes toward death might differ (1) according to one’s age and the stage one has reached on one’s development, (2) at different stages in history, and (3) in different cultures.” Instead, he talked about that matter in a tone suggesting the revelation of timeless, universal truths, with Heidegger “cast in the role of interpreter or mystagogue.”

Both in his own practice and in the actions of his followers, Heidegger thus encourages what Kaufmann calls “exegetical thinking.” The exegetical thinker “endows his text with authority, reads his ideas into it, and then gets them back endowed with authority.” Heidegger does this to some extent to Hölderlin, he does it to Nietzsche, and he is notorious for doing it to the pre-Socratics. Kaufmann calls him “a virtuoso of violence and manipulation” in his exegetical practice. I would add that, along with his secularized Christianity, this exegetical frame of mind also helps prepare a ready welcome for Heidegger in many places where Thomist philosophy retains a hold.

Martin Heidegger

Kaufmann relates a fascinating anecdote about his first meeting with Heidegger, Easter Sunday 1953: “He claimed that Nietzsche could not yet be fathomed because his most profound ideas were contained in incompletely published notes that were inaccessible in ‘the East.’ He claimed to have photostats but would not say where. They were hidden ‘in a safe place — because nobody knew Nietzsche’s handwriting well enough to decipher them.” Kaufmann goes on to speak of Heidegger’s “great courtesy, his forcefulness, and his charisma ... he was so small and so vibrant with energy.” But Heidegger’s remarks “revealed, as in a flash, his obscurantism. Why should one assume that Nietzsche’s profoundest ideas are to be found in notes that one cannot read? And if one does assume this, why should one hide the notes, expecting that at some future time people will find it easier to read the writing?” Eventually, Nietzsche’s notes were published, says Kaufmann, and they shed no significant new light on his philosophy. I like to imagine those dusty, forgotten notes — the dark, secret truth of Nietzsche — awaiting discovery on some East German shelf, next to the Hitler diaries, no doubt. Kaufmann’s is a telling little account which reveals something of the mentality of a man obsessed with the imagery of disclosure and uncovering, of memory and forgetting, and of revelation.

And finally, Nazism. Heidegger belonged to the romantic revival in Germany. According to Kaufmann, the prophetic antirationalism which he cultivated fitted the times perfectly; in particular, his ideas on authenticity and inauthenticity were very much in the air in the 1920s. Beyond Kierkegaard, Tolstoy’s treatment of the issue in The Death of Ivan Ilyich was well known, and Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf, to cite another example, deals with a man outraged by the inauthenticity of others. Hesse had asked in the epigraph of Demian, “I did not want anything except to live what wanted to come out of me all by itself. Why was that so difficult?” Heidegger seemed to German students of the time to provide an answer which was authoritative and academically respectable. Yet Heidegger’s themes were vague enough to allow young fascists to read what they would into his texts — and the tone was portentous. “The romantics,” Kaufmann observes, “had always been fond of fragments and ruins and intimations. As Nietzsche said ironically: ‘They all have the same logic: “...whoever leads us to have intimations is profound”.’ Heidegger’s romanticism was not that of a lonely outsider; he joined in the romantic revival of the Twenties — and then in the political ‘revival’ of the Thirties, as soon as Hitler had actually come to power. He was anything but a loner.”

Kaufmann offers a discussion of Heidegger’s 1933 inaugural address as the first Nazi rector of the University of Freiburg. Here are some passages from that address:

The German student body is on the march. And what they seek are those Führer through whom they wish to elevate their own vocation into a grounded, knowing truth....From the resoluteness [Entschlossenheit, the criterion of authenticity in Sein und Zeit] of the German student body to persevere under the German fate in its most extreme need there issues a will to the essence of the university. This will is a true will insofar as the German student body, by means of the new student law, places itself under the law of its essence and thus draws boundaries for this essence. To give oneself the law is supreme freedom [according to Kant]. “Academic Freedom,” celebrated so often, is banished from the German University; for this freedom was not genuine because it was only negative. It meant mainly lack of concern, randomness of intentions and inclinations, lack of all bonds in what one did and omitted. The concept of the freedom of the German student is now brought back to its truth. From this truth the bond and service of the German student body will unfold in the future.

The whole address is strewn with the rhetoric Nazism: Führerschaft (leadership), Gefolgschaft (following), Studentenschaft (the student body), Volksgemeinschaft (the national community). Heidegger also published a statement on November 10th, just before the elections: “The German people has been summoned by the Führer to vote. But the Führer does not beg anything from the people. Instead he gives the people the most immediate possibility of the highest free decision: whether it — the whole people — wills its own Dasein or whether it does not want this ....” Authenticity, Kaufmann remarks, required a vote for the Führer. Placed beside this, Wittgenstein’s private passions as described in Bartley’s “revelations” seem — however much they tortured Wittgenstein himself — trivial and innocuous. (Indeed, so far as I can tell, they were innocuous, involving nothing but the activities of consenting adults). Not so with the behavior of the Freiburg Professor: there is no way to excuse or mitigate the stunning ugliness of the Rektoratsrede and Heidegger’s other statements from the period.

Many Heidegger commentators merely ignore the Nazi episode. Others feel obliged to mention it, but appear to agree with Arne Naess’s declaration in Four Modern Philosophers that it “adds nothing to an interpretation of Heidegger’s philosophical writings to go into his strange relationship to Hitler’s Germany.” If you can agree that our knowledge of Socrates’ conduct at his trial and execution adds nothing to our interpretation of his (or Plato’s) thought, then maybe you can agree with Naess about Heidegger. I can no more accept that than I can the claim of devoted disciple Walter Biemel that “it is superficial to pounce on” what he calls “the 1933 political error” in order to discredit Heidegger. The point is not to discredit but rather to understand the authentic and unified being of the whole man — and the whole philosophy. Perhaps, as with Wittgenstein’s homosexuality, we’ll find it makes no difference to our view of the body of thought. But maybe it will make a difference, as indeed I believe it must in the case of Heidegger. Kaufmann too thinks it makes a difference, but he also suggests that between on the one hand holding that the politics is irrelevant to Heidegger’s thought and on the other hand rejecting him outright because “he is a Nazi,” a third way must be found.

Heidegger with academic colleagues at a Nazi meeting, November 11, 1933

Unfortunately, he leaves undeveloped the threads which connect Nazism with Heideggerian thought: for that, we may return to the work of George Steiner, a writer (as already seen with Wittgenstein) always eager to connect the philosopher with the philosophy. Steiner’s Heidegger, now published by the University of Chicago Press, treats its subject more in earnest than Kaufmann, and when it takes up the Nazi episode, the tone becomes correspondingly more baffled and depressed. Wading through the material, Steiner says, “is a sickening business ... it is vile, turgid and brutal stuff in which the official jargon of the day blends seamlessly with Heidegger’s idiom at its most hypnotic.” Steiner admires — anyway, wants to admire — Heidegger, but this does not prevent him from approaching the Nazi episode with absolute honesty.

Steiner finds the evidence “incontrovertible: there were instrumental connections between the language and vision of Sein und Zeit, especially the later sections, and that of Nazism. Those who would deny this are blind or mendacious.” There is a Spenglerian sense of apocalypse, a crisis so deep that normal standards of moral conduct can be ignored. There is a sense of the both innocent and mystical relation of hand and tool “which must be cleansed of the pretensions and illusions of abstract intellect.” From this, we come to the “stress on rootedness, on the intimacies of blood and remembrance which an authentic human being cultivates with his native ground. Heidegger’s rhetoric of ‘at-homeness’, of the organic continuum which knits the living to the ancestral dead buried close by, fits effortlessly into the Nazi cult of ‘blood and soil’.” Perhaps most important, the well-known idea that “language speaks” is “an ominous hint of Hitler’s brand of inspiration, of the Nazi use of the human voice as a trumpet played upon by immense, numinous agencies beyond the puny will or judgement of rational man. This motif of dehumanization is key.” As terrible as this is, it is at least “tractable.” Steiner finds simply “intolerable” Heidegger’s silence on the subject of Nazism from 1945 until his death. He speaks of the “feline urbanity and evasions” of the famous 1966 Der Spiegel interview, and its failure to answer the question of why the world of Auschwitz was never addressed by the philosopher: all that remains is the “cold silence and abject evasions of Heidegger’s followers (among whom Jews are implausibly prominent).”

James D. Caputo of Villanova University has written that the abilities to recognize and express the mystical insights of the later writings required from Heidegger “delicate sensitivities and penetrating powers of thought .... It is an endowment, a gift of a higher order, a blessing” (The Mystical Element in Heidegger’s Thought, 1978). But there are many kinds of endowment in philosophy. Another is the innate love of freedom, of creative intellectual activity, including unbridled intellectual criticism. No forty-four-year-old philosophy professor who possesses this gift heaps contempt on academic freedom and instructs his students to find their “freedom” in servility to the will of some Führer. With respect to human freedom, Kant’s little essay in answer to the question What is Enlightenment? is worth the whole of Heidegger’s many heavy tomes. Heidegger’s may have been an exceptional mind, but in some respects his ideas are as nauseatingly common as gulags in our afflicted century.

Caputo has also bravely declared that “Heidegger is the great thinker of this century, and this philosophical age will likely bear his name.” I hope not; in any event, with Kaufmann, I think the chance of that happening is exceedingly small. But in the interest of fairness, not only to Martin Heidegger but to the millions of victims of fascism, and as a reminder of the fallibility of philosophers, let Heidegger himself have the last word. It’s his proclamation in the Freiburger Studenten Zeitung (November 3, 1933):

German Students! The National Socialist revolution brings complete upheaval to our German life....Do not let dogmas and “ideas” be the rules of your being. The Führer himself and alone is the German reality, present and future, and its law. Learn always to know more deeply: from now on every matter requires decision and every action responsibility. Heil Hitler!



Copyright © 1988 Johns Hopkins University Press. All rights reserved.