As early as the tail end of 1931, the 43-year-old Heidegger sent his brother a copy of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf for Christmas, praising the future dictator’s “extraordinary and unwavering political instincts.” Heidegger interprets the right-wing conservative minority cabinet under Reich Chancellor Franz von Papen — which governed with the help of President Hindenburg between June and December 1932 — as a Jewish conspiracy. And he complains that the Jews are:
gradually extricating themselves from the mood of panic into which they had fallen. That the Jews were able to pull off such a maneuver as the Papen episode just shows how difficult it will be to push back against everything represented by Big Capital (Großkapital) and the like.
Just how strange Heidegger’s conspiracy theory was can be gathered from the fact that von Papen’s allegedly Jewish-controlled cabinet actually received support from another influential right-wing intellectual in the Weimar Republic, Carl Schmitt, an anti-democratic constitutional law expert whose intense anti-Semitism is now well established. Schmitt represented von Papen’s government in a Leipzig court case against the Prussian government in 1932.
On April 13, 1933, Heidegger writes enthusiastically:
It can be seen from one day to the next how great a statesman Hitler is becoming. The world of our people and the Reich finds itself in a process of transformation, and all those who have eyes to see, ears to hear, and a heart for action will be swept along and put in a state of extreme excitement.
Heidegger’s commitment to Hitler’s state and his membership in the NSDAP turn out to be based, quite logically, in his long-standing questionable convictions. As the letters now show beyond doubt, this was in no way the decision of an opportunistic careerist or the oblivious aberration of a political ignorant — as has been argued for decades in the philosopher’s defense. The familiar apologetic assumption that Heidegger adhered to a private, idiosyncratic notion of National Socialism, allegedly free from any form of racism, should be laid to rest.
The banker Fritz Heidegger (1894–1980) was always the philosopher’s most important confidant: “In reality, he has one friend only — his brother,” Hannah Arendt wrote in 1952. Far fewer of Fritz’s letters survive. In these, he also expresses hostility toward the Weimar Republic, but he seems to be quite persistent in his skepticism about National Socialism, to which his brother Martin is trying to win him over. Nevertheless, at least one of Fritz’s associations in the correspondence, made in April 3, 1933, is quite curious indeed:
I don’t know if it is pure delusion or not: Some of Hitler’s postures and his gaze in current pictures often remind me of you. This parallel alone sometimes leads me to the conclusion that Hitler is an exceptional individual.
The opprobrium Martin Heidegger directs at Jews in the letters may have been typical of the widespread anti-Semitic discourse and conspiracy theories of the time. As early as 1916, he complained to his future wife of the “Jewification of our culture and universities,” against which the “German race” must “summon inner strength” to “rise up.” Still, in the case of Heidegger, such baseness is particularly abhorrent; not only were his famous academic instructor Edmund Husserl and his student and lover Hannah Arendt Jewish, but so were many other students that sat with him in his classes, including Karl Löwith, Herbert Marcuse, Leo Strauss, Jacob Klein, Elisabeth Blochmann, Hans Jonas, and Werner Brock, his last assistant prior to 1933. Complaining about his growing workload on April 13, 1933, Heidegger explains coldly: “three Jews are disappearing from my department.”
Overt arguments for the Nazi regime disappear from Heidegger’s letters to his brother after 1934; the philosopher hadn’t managed to persuade Fritz and abandon his attempts. In the foreword to this correspondence volume, Martin’s grandson Arnulf Heidegger claims that students perceived his grandfather’s lectures during the war as critical and courageous. The letters themselves, however, suggest that Heidegger’s thinking never really shifted. Just like National Socialism itself, the war was, for Heidegger, a battle in defense of the “Occident” and “German-ness” against the “great threat” posed by “Bolshevism” and “Americanism” (Jan. 29, 1943). On June 7, 1942, the philosopher still wonders why “our propaganda” doesn’t reveal “Americanism in all of its excesses.” Ultimately, he was left befuddled: “What the Weltgeist (world spirit) has in store for the Germans is a mystery. Just as murky is why it is using the Americans and Bolsheviks as its servants” (Jan. 18, 1945).
After the end of the war, Heidegger stayed true to this victim mentality, both in regard to his country and to himself. On July 23, 1945, he writes of “KZ-people” — presumably referring to concentration camp survivors who were housed in Heidegger’s apartment — as being “not so nice,” just like the situation at his university, where “everything is dreadful and worse than during Nazi times.” The postwar expulsion of Germans (from regions east of present-day Germany) exceeds, Heidegger argues in April 1946, “all organized criminal atrocities” prior to 1945. And the Jews? “I find a Heinrich-Heine-Street to be completely unnecessary, because it makes no sense in Messkirch,” Heidegger writes to his brother Fritz on July 31, 1945. The newly published letters show clearly that it can no longer be denied: the case of Martin Heidegger has been both a scholarly and moral disaster in Germany’s intellectual history.
Translated from the German by Charles Hawley. The review first appeared in Die Zeit on October 12, 2016.