In praise of Heidegger, the Nazi

The philosopher Martin Heidegger was a Nazi. He was a member of the party from 1st May 1933, ten days after becoming Rector of Freiburg University and three months after the Nazis took power in Germany, to the end of World War II.

This is problematic for the likes of me who have been profoundly influenced by Heidegger’s writings and find beautiful, even magical, insights in them. (For me, reading Division I of Being and Time, though slow and painstaking, was like turning a light on to the world as it really is.)

Recently, with his so-called ‘black notebooks’ apparently revealing deeper anti-Semitism than was previously thought, attacks on Heidegger and his philosophy for being Nazi have reached a crescendo. The Guardian for example published this article, entitled: ‘Heidegger's 'black notebooks' reveal antisemitism at core of his philosophy’.

That piece and, it seems, the notebooks themselves, reveal nothing of the sort – though to begin with it is a strange idea that the core of someone’s philosophy is not mentioned in their actual philosophical writings. However Heidegger himself does indeed seem to have been a rather soft cultural anti-Semite who saw Jewish culture as uniquely suited to the rootless, calculating technologically-driven modernity which he disliked. But the Guardian’s and other articles in recent times have shown there is a big drive not just to condemn Heidegger for this but also to invalidate his whole philosophy on the basis of him being, in the words of one of my interlocutors on Twitter, a ‘nazi philosopher’.

These views need to be challenged and debunked as the absurdities they are.

Helpfully, Heidegger himself provides some good tools to do that – specifically in his core focus on ‘the question of being’ (what ‘is’) and on ‘phenomena’ (how beings and entities reveal themselves to us). The latter is constitutive of phenomenology, a practice which Heidegger inherited from his mentor Edmund Husserl, and offers us a more interesting and useful version of ‘sticking to the facts’ which doesn’t preclude individual human experience.

Heidegger’s being

The question of being that Heidegger was interested in can be applied to Heidegger himself here, as a question of his own being and that of his philosophy. He joined the Nazi party, but are we right to define him as Nazi, or to define him in his essential being as one? There is certainly a case for doing so, though as I have written before, defining someone by one characteristic like this cannot possibly reach identity with them. After all, my membership of the Labour Party doesn’t reach anywhere near identity with me. It doesn’t tell you much about who I am, what I say and what I do day-to-day. Are we right to say that Heidegger’s party membership does?

This is really about the essence of someone or something, of what is essential or ultimately real about them. Those who seek to reject Heidegger’s writings on the grounds that he was a Nazi are dancing around this idea, that Heidegger’s essence was Nazi and so therefore his philosophical writings are also Nazi.

This is a wholly understandable and even tempting position to take – indeed it would surely look obvious and sensible to anyone who doesn’t know the philosophy.  When we turn to that philosophy however and compare it to the phenomenon of Nazi ideology in the 1920s-40s, a huge gulf opens up.

As Ian Kershaw says in his epic double-biography of Hitler, three values determined the fate of a people for Hitler: ‘blood-’ or ‘race-value’, the ‘value of personality’ (the great man or culmination of the will, embodied in the leader himself), and the ‘spirit of struggle’ or the ‘self-preservation drive’.

At the core of Heidegger’s philosophy meanwhile you find the ‘question of being’ and the conception of Dasein, which means ‘existence’ in German, or literally ‘being the there’, and is what he used to represent all human being, distinct from the wider natural world and not distinguishable by race.

Hammers and doors

In his philosophical investigations, Heidegger got particularly interested in the being of hammers and the activity of hammering, and also the being of doors and the phenomenon of opening and going through doors. He overturned the tradition of Western philosophy by reconceiving the being of objects like these and the everyday activities associated with them.

While the tradition from Descartes onwards had looked at activities like hammering and opening doors as problems solved by the human mind, Heidegger said that, in normal everyday life, this is not the case. Opening a door is an activity that is barely thought about, if at all. It hardly passes through consciousness; likewise hammering.

A door
Heidegger saw the door and the door knob as part of a world of familiarity, and their existence as not normally problematic to us unless something goes wrong or for some reason we are drawn to think about them.  When I go through a door its being as a door may not even pass through my consciousness because it is so familiar to me in my world. I certainly don’t think about the door as, say, a wooden plank that opens and closes on hinges and calculate that I should turn the door knob in order to open it.

The philosophical and wider Western cultural tradition since Descartes has conceptualised such things as doors primarily as objects with material properties like mass, length, height and density. Heidegger said what is primary about them to us is rather their situatedness in a world of significance to us; the door is not separate from us in that sense – rather its situatedness in our world is constitutive of its being. Hence a hammer isn’t primarily a piece of wood with an iron shank attached, but is first and foremost, in the world that we live in, a hammer that we hammer with. Its creation, manufacture and spatial and temporal location at any one time are all bound up with its existence as a hammer. Its physical characteristics are of course important, but they don’t actually define what it is at all.

 Hubert Dreyfus discussing Heidegger with Bryan Magee

A Heideggerian riddle

There is a good riddle based on Heidegger’s account of being, which is the question:

If a tree falls down across a river, is it a bridge? And if not, what would make it a bridge?

This is about the ‘being’ of a bridge. Someone walking along the river and wanting to cross who is not aware of any bridges nearby would consider the tree as a possible means to do so, and they therefore might try to make it into a bridge. By doing so, they would be fulfilling the role of a traditional problem solver in philosophy – thinking, considering, rationalising and acting to solve a problem.

But, as Heidegger understood it, human beings are not problem solvers all the time in their everyday lives. If a person were not thinking about crossing, they would likely not think about the tree as a bridge, especially if there were other bridges nearby.

A Heideggerian answer to the question would be that the ‘totality of equipment’ surrounding the tree is what would make it, or not make it, a bridge. If I walked along by the river not intending to cross and saw the tree spanning the river, I would see it as a bridge if there were pathways or roads leading up to it on either side. Likewise if I am in a field and looking for the way out, I would naturally be drawn over by observing scuffed up ground. I would not even necessarily think about it, but it would draw me.

Heidegger said a lot more, but this question of being is how he revolutionised philosophy, by seeing everyday existence for how it actually reveals itself to us, rather than as all about mindfulness, thinking and problem-solving as other philosophers had it, and many still do. This is the core of his philosophy, and quite how any of this is Nazi in character, or even touched by Nazi-like ideology, is beyond me. I would like to see someone try to argue it though.

Approaching judgement

This is not to say there are no linkages between Heidegger’s philosophy and his politics of the 1930s. As Richard Polt has written: “It is disturbing to watch Heidegger use concepts from Being and Time to justify an authoritarian and nationalistic vision – vague though this vision is. He obviously had high hopes for Nazism, of a peculiarly metaphysical kind.” He was also determinedly antagonistic to liberal democracy, and though he always rejected biologism and racism, it nevertheless didn’t stop him from pinning his hopes for a rebirth of German national spirit on Nazism, despite repeated attacks on Jews by Nazis both before and after Hitler came to power.

Some of Heidegger’s critics and attackers have also made a lot of his conception of human ‘authenticity’ from Division II of Being and Time (which I have not read [Ed: I have since]). It is true that a set idea of an ‘authentic’ human person as against an ‘inauthentic’ person (who goes along with the way things are done) can be taken in an authoritarian direction. But the idea of a genuine ‘authentic’ human entity seems to contradict the conception of human being in Division I as always ‘falling’ into the world, into customary habits and shared ways of being. From reading these passages in Division I, I took the idea that authenticity was something we could reach towards, but never get to.

Nevertheless these ideas of authenticity have proved highly influential, though mostly so on the existentialist left of politics, with Jean-Paul Sartre perhaps the most notable appropriator of them (though not in ways of which Heidegger himself approved).  Jewish thinkers including Hannah Arendt and Jacques Derrida have acknowledged their profound debt to Heidegger, as have others on the broader left including Michel Foucault – who admitted that great influence on his deathbed.

Myself, I find great inspiration from Heidegger in many areas, including in thinking about democracy, which he disdained. Heidegger laid great emphasis on letting entities (or beings) show themselves (we might say metaphorically ‘to breathe’) rather than us forcing our understandings upon them; in his later writings he used the term wesen (literally ‘to essence’ or perhaps better, ‘to show of its essence’) to describe this. This is a form of freedom he is describing, and it is a powerful one. It is also powerful when looking at how we regard the wider natural world, with many 'green' thinkers including Tom Greaves having been profoundly influenced by his writings.

Nevertheless, Heidegger’s politics must be acknowledged and condemned for what they were, and he for what he said and did.

Richard Polt, who has written probably the most accessible introduction to Heidegger’s writings, says: “In a sense, it is a blessing that Heidegger’s life makes it impossible for us to be completely comfortable with his writings. For Heidegger never respected Heideggerians. He never wanted his thought to be a comfortable party line; he wanted it to be thought-provoking and highly questionable.”

The philosopher Richard Rorty put it more succinctly:In our actual world Heidegger was a Nazi, a cowardly hypocrite, and the greatest European thinker of our time.”

There is a lot more worth saying, but that is enough for now. Perhaps others will engage so more can be shared and discussed.


  1. Great piece Ben. Here are a few initial thoughts of my own that may be of help:

    - I’m not one of the ‘you must read everything in the original German before you have a right to comment’ types, but is does seem at least a little unethical to make pronouncements without actually reading the books. One thing I like about your piece is that you make it clear what you have and haven’t read.
    - The last time this all kicked off was following the Emmanuel Faye’s book ‘Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism into Philosophy’ and the appearance of Heidegger’s seminars on Hegel ’Nature, History, State’. But everyone seems to have now forgotten about that and I see no attempt to compare the two texts or decide if Heidegger’s view remained the same, changed or developed or anything like that.
    - You say that it is odd to claim that the ‘core’ of Heidegger’s philosophy does not appear in his published philosophical writings. I agree. Although Heidegger himself unfortunately sets the precedent for the idea that the ‘core’ of a philosophy might be found in unpublished notes in his reading of Nietzsche. Although it is of course possible that for some thinkers this is the case. In any case, it seems reasonable for Heidegger to defend his extensive use of unpublished notes in his Nietzsche interpretation.
    - I have read most of one volume of these ‘black notebooks’. So far I’ve found nothing about Jews or Judaism and it seems that these comments come mainly in a later volume. There is a great deal about the failings of Christianity, Marxism, metaphysical thinking, the culture industry, the University system and other Nazis! It is understandable that people focus on the anti-semitic comments, but this focus does seem at least a little disproportionate.
    - You give a great summary of the ‘equipmental analysis’ of Being and Time and I really like the fallen tree/bridge example. However, I’ve never really been convinced by the Dreyfus idea that there is some big change of mind or focus between Division 1 and Division 2. It is definitely not the case that ‘authenticity’ is a fully complete achievement of some that is not open to others. As you say, it is something that is open to all of us that we can cultivate in a certain way. I wouldn’t quite say that we ‘reach towards it but never quite get it’ because that makes it sound like some unobtainable ideal, and holding out such ideals can I think easily perpetuate inauthentic ‘floating’ self-images. If authenticity is a modification of inauthenticity as Heidegger claims, then the crucial point is that when we are authentic that does not mean that we lift ourselves clear of inauthenticity, which is always there for us to fall back into. (see Starting with Heidegger, ch.4)

    1. Interesting thoughts Tom, thanks for taking the time. On authenticity/inauthenticity, it isn't just Dreyfus who has commented on significant differences between Divisions 1 and 2. I was going to quote Taylor Carman on this but felt the Heideggerian language would put off the general reader. Anyway, in the introduction to my copy of Being and Time, he says:

      'The tension between what we might call the ontological socialism of Division One and the increasingly intense psychological individualism of Division Two generates what may be the only explicit contradiction in Being and Time. On the one hand, Heidegger tells us (twice) that “Authentic Being-one’s-Self” is “an existentiell modification of the ‘they’ – of the ‘they’ as an essential existentiale” 130, cf. 267). He reiterates the point later when he says that authentic understanding can never extricate itself from the “interpretedness” it inherits from its historical tradition (383). Received, customary practices and understandings form the abiding background for any self-understanding, no matter how innovative and individualistic. And yet elsewhere he seems to say just the opposite: “the an existentiell modification of the authentic Self” (317). So, which is it?

      Does individual authentic selfhood consist in occupying a preestablished place in an already constituted social and historical world – or perhaps occupying it in a special way, with a special style and sensitivity – or is conforming to social norms necessarily a lapsing from a prior, more basic, more desirable form of “authentic being-oneself”?'

      I'm not sure if that question is as important as I thought on first reading it, but perhaps worth pondering nonetheless. I've been listening to Dreyfus' Berkeley lectures recently and have been interested by the *absence* of any distinguishing between accounts of authenticity as he makes in the first edition of his Commentary, though he does say that he has changed his mind on a number of things since then and intends to correct them in a new edition.

    2. Perhaps he didn't really believe either of these. Liberal democracy assumes it goes both ways, so perhaps he was trying to make them seem as different as possible, so erstwhile supporters of liberal democracy would fall one way or the other, and he didn't care which.

  2. I neglected to mention the bearing Heidegger's philosophy has on the issue of human depression, or anxiety. A while ago, I wrote a piece on depression which invoked Heidegger's account of everyday being contrasted against the problematization of life which comes with the philosophical tradition

  3. Standpoint magazine has an excellent (though very long) article up exploring Heidegger and the Black Notebooks - worth reading if you're interested in this topic:

  4. The ideas of Martin Heidegger, a brilliant but flawed man need to be examined very carefully. This is especially important for the idea that we create meanings as communities without discussing who is dominating those communities:

    The ideas of Heidegger need to be looked at very carefully, especially the idea of beings finding their meaning apart from an overarching transcendent truth:

  5. Heidegger is right since the the cognitive scientist Joscha Bach is applying his ideas to develop artificial general intelligence.


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