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Chalk and the abyss

The secret transcripts of Heidegger's notorious seminar "On the Essence and Concepts of Nature, History and the State" have been published for the first time. By Alexander Kissler

The bitter word stands in the room. It casts huge shadows over his work. Was Martin Heidegger a "Nazi philosopher"? Did Heidegger, as his student the philosopher Ernesto Grassi emphasised in 1988, derive "justification from his theoretical principles for an anti-Semitic and National Socialist position"? The case against the dark thinker is made with recourse to passages from his "Being and Time" as well as an assortment of statements, letters and reports and, above all, the Freiburg rectoral address and a seminar from the winter semester of 1933/34.

This seminar was declared to contain decisive evidence for "the total identification of Heidegger's teachings with the principles of Hitlerism". This was how Emmanuel Faye expressed it in his book "Heidegger. The Introduction of Nazism into Philosophy", which was published last year in English and German translations. Faye was building on the 1987 book "Heidegger and Nazism" by the Chilean historian Victor Farias, who turned 70 last week.

Until now you could either believe Emmanuel Faye's theories or not; the seminar in question was completely inaccessible. The "Heidegger Jahrbuch" (Heidegger yearbook) closes this gap. For the first time you can read and judge for yourself.

You can understand the fury of Holger Zaborowski, the editor. Emmanuel Faye's 2005 book with its brash thesis capitalised, most tendentiously, on secret knowledge. Zaborowksi accuses his French colleague of "polemical obfuscation". Faye, he said, had interpreted sources, which at the time were inaccessible to a wider public, in a most unscholarly fashion. "He always only reads into the respective texts what he intended to find and conceals this strategy from the reader". Zaborowksi does indeed find Faye guilty of lying. Faye claims, in the objectionable seminar of 1933/34, that "the extermination of the Jews in all of the conquered territories in the East was justified in advance." This simply not true.

Now everyone can read for themselves what, according to student transcripts, Martin Heidegger lectured on between November 1933 and February 1934 under the title "On the Essence and Concepts of Nature, History and the State". In April 1933, he became rector of the Albert Ludwig University and in 1934, he handed in his resignation. During his year in power he applied himself single-mindedly to organising the university's Gleichschaltung (bringing into line). All the documents from his rectoral term are now all being published together. The lack of empathy in their tone stands in contrast, for example, to his speech honouring the the Nazi martyr figure Albert Leo Schlageter from May 1933. The documents show that during the one year intermezzo, the new masters could rely on Heidegger. He cancelled the evening readings in January 1934, so that the "swearing in of the People's Chancellor" could be celebrated in style. He called upon people to make donations to the Winterhilfswerk so that it might become a "visible demonstration of the Volksgemeinschaft" (people's community). He arranged, "after consultation with leaders of the student body", that the hand should only be raised for the fourth verse of the Horst Wessel Lied.

On the other hand, his son Hermann Heidegger, without whose "friendly support and generous help" (Zaborowski) the documents would never have been published, points to the complementary side of this truly two-sided coin. Martin Heidegger "never denied his temporary involvement in die Bewegung (the movement) at that time". Yet he was able to "retain two Jewish professors at the university", he prevented book burnings and the putting up of the Judenplakat (Jewish poster) and even nominated "non-Nazis" as deacons. Karl Jaspers praised his rectoral address in a letter, saying that its location of the essence of the university in early Greece lent it "credible substance".

But it was his inaugural address that really impressed the Nazis. Heidegger wanted to "provide education and culture to the leaders and guardians of the German people" with the help of "the German university". At the same time, without mentioning the Nazis or Hitler, he defined leadership as "the strength to walk alone, empowered by the deepest determination and broadest obligation". Hans Naumann, professor of ancestral Germanic culture, glimpsed in his language many crossovers with the "Führer godhead" Odin. Richard Harder, Hellenist and head of the "Institute for Research on Arian Intellectual History" praised Martin Heidegger's "battle cry" and its "decisive and compelling way of situating itself in the present time." Benedetto Croce, on the other hand, condemned Heidegger's "prostitution of philosophy" and called out in dismay: "What decadence in comparison to true German philosophers such as Kant, Schelling and Hegel!"

Philosophical evaluation today is more balanced. Bernd Grün's conclusion on the rectoral address is that it is a document of "Selbstgleichschaltung" or self-alignment, radical certainly "but certainly not radically National Socialistic". For Grün, Heidegger's new definition of scholarship, with its Platonic roots and its aristocratic-intellectual underpinnings, exploded the Nazi programme. On the other hand Heidegger gave the new state the "most valuable thing he had to offer: his knowledge, his power of persuasion and his will to shape the intellectual environment". The same could not be said of the seminar "On the Essence and Concepts of Nature, History and the State"; whose impact was at once more fragile and more profound.

The significantly smaller circle of addressees was one reason why the seminar remained almost occult. The incomprehensibility of the first six sessions in particular, flummoxing many a note-scribbling student, did the rest. Heidegger's plan was to examine the mutual intricacies of the three concepts evoked in the title. He would regularly reach for a piece of chalk to illustrate his point. The simple chalk was a "being at hand" whose "what-ness" is not determined by its visible white-ness but by its invisible chalk-ness. It follows that there is an essential difference between being and beings, an "abyss, immense and dangerous but indispensable for the one who asks."

Truly abysmal were the seventh to tenth sessions in February 1934 dealing with the being of the people, and thus also of the state then in power. According to Heidegger, every people felt the "drive to the state", which is why it loved the state as "its way of being a people". As such, the state order is borne by the "free, pure will to allegiance and leadership and therefore to struggle and loyalty". People and state, beings and being, can therefore no more be separated than the people and their Führer. "The will of the Führer first and foremost makes followers of the others", and "the Führer-state as we have it is the consummation of historical development: the realisation of the people in the Führer."

In her analysis of the seminar, Marion Heinz very rightly points to the "Hegelian-like figure of the union of essence and objectivity". For Heidegger, being alone lends legitimacy to the Führer and the Führer-state. For Heinz such "collective decisionism" is embarrassingly lofty. Similarly, Heinz sees Nietzsche and his Übermensch as partly responsible for Heidegger's brute "flight to the factual". Nevertheless she takes objection to Emmanuel Faye's polemics, maintaining that Heidegger's arguments are "entirely the result of his own approach as a thinker", and that there can be no question of his merely following or intellectually elevating the Nazi party programme.

Zaborowksi shows that for all its many unappetizing turns, Heidegger's arguments are neither racist nor anti-Semitic. Faye's thesis that Heidegger was paving a philosophical legitimisation for the "extermination of the Jews" in the East is untenable. Heidegger never mentions Jews or extermination. According to the notes, he refers to the "Semitic nomads" whose "specific knowledge" has engendered in them a different relationship with the nature of their land than "a Slavic people", say, or the German people. The conclusion that Slavs or Semites should therefore be expelled or exterminated is Faye's invention. In Zaborowksi's analysis, "Heidegger was much more interested in the difference between the sedentary and nomadic ways of life."

After his resignation as rector, Heidegger went on to praise the individual and the unique, he turned away from public life, which he had lent a form and voice, and discovered "passion for the poverty of great silence". The task, it said in a 1939 letter to Kurt Bauch, was now "to clarify and consolidate a future position in oneself based on one's daily achievements". All "previous 'literary forms' of philosophical thinking" had been rendered impossible, but "what the 'new' is, I cannot say." Heidegger kept his silence in order to become a philosopher from scratch. The abyss had become chalk again.


ALFRED DENKER, HOLGER ZABOROWKSI (Ed.): Heidegger und der Nationalsozialismus. Dokumente und Interpretationen. (Heidegger-Jahrbuch, Volumes 4 and 5.) Verlag Karl Alber, Freiburg und München 2009.
Heidegger's 1933/34 seminar can be read here in its complete form for the first time.

This article was originally published in the Süddeutsche Zeitung

Alexander Kissler is a freelance cultural journalist and author of a number of books.

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