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July 01st 2013 print

Mervyn F. Bendle

Heidegger and the Nazi Philosophers

“Only a god can save us”, Martin Heidegger lamented in a 1966 interview with Der Spiegel, as he contemplated the ruins of the Third Reich, to which he had committed his philosophical genius. It was not the Christian God he looked to, but one aspect of the “Fourfold”—world, earth, gods and men—that had come to constitute the pagan universe in his later philosophy. He turned to it as he faced his own Götterdämmerung. As Elzbieta Ettinger describes his state of mind in Hannah Arendt/Martin Heidegger (1995):

Europe no longer existed, he thought. It was moribund because the forces of evil, nihilism and technology, against which he had fought, ultimately prevailed. Germany and National Socialism, the one country and the single ideology capable of reversing Europe’s decline, had failed.

Heidegger had been captivated by Hitler’s rise to power, and had acted quickly to ingratiate himself with the new regime. He coveted the role of Führer of the Nazi philosophers but vastly overestimated his political abilities, embarking on a path that not only led to bitter disappointment but also deeply compromised his personal reputation, intellectual achievement and philosophical legacy.

It is impossible to overemphasise Heidegger’s intellectual and ideological importance. As Charles Bambach observes in Heidegger’s Roots: Nietzsche, National Socialism, and the Greeks (2003), he was “one of the pre-eminent philosophers of the last century, if not of the entire Western tradition”. Heidegger gave profound expression to a pervasive cultural pessimism about the relationship between humanity, knowledge, technology and nature, concluding that “the Western world had declined to a state of commercialism, industrialism, socialism, liberalism—in short, nihilism”, according to Michael Zimmerman, who integrated Heidegger’s ideas into deep ecology (The Heidegger Case, 1992). Behind this bleak diagnosis lay Heidegger’s circular critique of modernity: he criticised modernity in terms of his own interpretation of the ontological basis of the world, while this ontology was essentially a projection of his own anti-modernism. Therefore, what purports to be a philosophical argument is actually just the expression of Heidegger’s völkisch longings—a profoundly nostalgic yearning for a pre-industrial, pre-urban, pre-democratic, and specifically German pastoralism, coupled with a deeply reactionary hatred of every aspect of modernity. It was this that led him to Nazism.

Heidegger and Nazism (1987) by Victor Farias first revealed the previously unimaginable extent of Heidegger’s intellectual and personal commitment to Nazism. Farias exposed the deep völkisch roots of Heidegger’s decision to embrace Nazism, and how this decision expressed “a thought process nourished in traditions of authoritarianism, anti-Semitism, and ultra-nationalism that sanctified the homeland in its most local sense. [It] was closely tied to a radical populism and carried strong religious connotations.” Farias provides innumerable instances of Heidegger’s radical commitment to the Nazi cause, both before and after he was finally outmanoeuvred by his rivals for ideological supremacy within the Party.

Inevitably, Heidegger’s acolytes accused Farias of inadequate scholarship, superficiality, a poor understanding of Heidegger’s work, and of a deliberately sensationalist approach. Leading the attack was Jacques Derrida, whose own work was extremely derivative of Heidegger. In “Heidegger, l’Enfer des Philosophes” (1987), he emphasised Heidegger’s claim that his thought took a turn (Kehre) around 1930, and that his early humanism had led him to support the Nazis, while his later, post-turn work was anti-humanist and therefore free of any Nazi stigma. Derrida was quite happy to sacrifice the early Heidegger, who had always been associated with existentialism, while protecting the later Heidegger, whose “Letter on Humanism” (1947) attacked both humanism and existentialism, a position which Derrida had adopted as the basis of his own career.

Derrida also claimed that there were many Nazisms, of which Germany was just one case, while (by implication) America and Western civilisation provided other examples, meaning that it was unjust to single out Heidegger for condemnation while ignoring other philosophers implicated in the alleged Nazi-like mendacity of the West. According to this tortuous logic: humanism entails Nazism; Heidegger was an anti-humanist; therefore Heidegger wasn’t a Nazi … and even if he was, others were worse. As Tom Rockmore observed in On Heidegger’s Nazism and Philosophy (1992): “there is something absurd, even grotesque about the conjunction of the statement that Heidegger is … a great philosopher … with the realization that he, like many of his followers … failed in the most dismal manner, to grasp or even to confront Nazism” in its monstrous reality.

Now a second wave of critical analysis has come crashing upon the Heidegger edifice. Although various excellent studies appeared in the wake of Farias’s onslaught—such as Richard Wolin, The Politics of Being (1990); Keith Windschuttle, The Killing of History (1994); Richard Safranski, Martin Heidegger: Between Good and Evil (1998); and Max Weinreich, Hitler’s Professors: The Part of Scholarship in Germany’s Crimes Against the Jewish People (1946, 2nd ed. 1999)—it appears there is still much to be discovered and analysed about Heidegger’s Nazi past, as two recent books make clear.

Yvonne Sherratt’s Hitler’s Philosophers (2013) is an intellectual history that explores Heidegger’s role in the context of the general response of German philosophers to the rise of the Third Reich. It surveys not only Heidegger and other pro-Nazi philosophers (Alfred Rosenberg, Ernest Krieck, Alfred Baeumler, Carl Schmitt), but also their opponents (Theodor W. Adorno, Hannah Arendt) and victims (Walter Benjamin, Karl Huber). In contrast, Emmanuel Faye’s Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism into Philosophy (2005; Eng. ed. 2009) is very much in the forensic, inquisitorial mode of Heidegger and Nazism. It provides a stupefying amount of detailed evidence of Heidegger’s deep commitment to Nazism, and argues that his thought has infected philosophy with the core ideas of Nazi ideology. The picture that emerges from these books is of intellectuals caught up in a maelstrom of ambition, pride, idealism, commitment, opportunism, self-confidence, delusion and mendacity at a time of crisis without parallel in modern history.

Heidegger’s case exemplifies this phenomenon amongst the Nazi philosophers. He fell victim to a hubris that had its primary roots in his exceptional intellectual powers and uninterrupted academic and personal success through the 1920s. He had long enjoyed a reputation as a charismatic rising young star amongst German philosophers, attracting adoring students, who hung on his every word and eagerly handed around his articles and notes taken at his classes. Leo Strauss, who was his student in 1922, recalled:

I had never seen before such seriousness, profundity, and concentration in the interpretation of philosophic texts … Gradually the breadth of the revolution of thought which Heidegger was preparing dawned upon me and my generation … There had been no such phenomenon in the world since Hegel. (The Rebirth of Classical Political Rationalism, 1989)

They saw him, in Hannah Arendt’s words, as “the uncrowned king of the empire of thought”, in an era “marked not only by a deep bitterness among the extremely nationalistic young people over the defeat of World War I, but also by their dissatisfaction with the ‘bottomless pit’ of scholastic rationalism” at German universities, which Heidegger’s work explicitly challenged, as Farias recounts.

Heidegger confronted this complacent scholasticism with a “radicalism of the pure decision”, meant to open the way to “an authentic existence, authorized only by itself”, as Faye explains. Already in 1920, Heidegger felt he was “living in the present situation of a de facto revolution”, as he excitedly told Karl Löwith, who was then his student, in which the important thing was to avoid any disabling doubt, and to act instead with total resolution, heedless of the future. In Löwith’s view, it was this radical decisionism (which Heidegger appropriated from the Protestant theology of crisis) that gave Heidegger’s teachings their great appeal, his students responding not to the promise of yet another philosophical system, but precisely to the lack of any such promise, embracing instead “the indeterminateness … of the pure call” in Heidegger’s evangel. Löwith was convinced that this message rendered Heidegger’s followers “spiritually disarmed and open to the ‘call’ of the National Socialist Revolution”.

In this fashion, according to Faye, the seeds of Heidegger’s Nazism were present from the beginning and even found expression in his masterwork, Being and Time (1927). This book used insights derived from the phenomenology of Heidegger’s mentor, Edmund Husserl, to explore the nature of Being, and envisaged human being (Dasein) as essentially time-bound, located always in history, and orientated around an acute awareness of mortality. Heidegger also introduced a new philosophical vocabulary, including such concepts as the abyss, angst, authenticity/inauthenticity, decision, despair, falling, finitude, guilt, historicity, homelessness, the moment, mood, nothingness, resoluteness, and thrownness, which not only reflected the cultural despair of the postwar period, but also evoked a deep sense of the individual confronting a threatening and uncaring world. Used with sensitivity, such an integrated array of concepts appeared to offer important insights into the human condition, and they electrified his followers.

On the other hand, Heidegger carried out a concerted attack on the concept of self as it has been developed since Descartes, and it was principally this, according to Faye, that delivered Heidegger (and his followers) into the clutches of Nazism. According to Heidegger, the Cartesian cogito reduced the person to an isolated rationalistic “thinking I” and ignored the need to consider the “whole person”, including its emotions, moods, embodiment, racial and ethnic predispositions, located within both history and community. The atomised Cartesian self finds its fullest expression in the nihilistic individualism of liberal democratic society, whereas National Socialism, Heidegger later insisted, recognised the need for the German people to be collectively integrated into the history and destiny of the Volk, within which alone Dasein can be most fully realised. In this fashion, Faye points out, Heidegger followed the Nordic supremacist Ludwig Clauss, another Nazi philosopher who had studied under Husserl, and whose book The Nordic Soul (1923) also developed a phenomenological theory of race that elevated a specifically German form of Dasein onto a superior level of being.

Heidegger’s academic ascendancy was confirmed in 1928, as the publication of Being and Time ensured that there would be no difficulty with his appointment to the chair in philosophy at Freiburg vacated by Husserl. (He would later treat Husserl, who was Jewish, with unforgiveable callousness.) He was only thirty-nine when he assumed this senior position, and five years later he was rector of the entire university. His students included some of the most prominent intellectuals of the century, including Hannah Arendt, Hans Jonas, Emmanuel Levinas, Karl Löwith, Charles Malik, Herbert Marcuse, Ernst Nolte and Leo Strauss.

Heidegger’s hubris was nourished also by his success in seducing Hannah Arendt, an eighteen-year-old intellectual prodigy who bedazzled her teachers and fellow students. Arendt was born in 1906 into a literary, middle-class Jewish family and brought up in Königsberg, where tragedy struck when she was seven. First, her beloved grandfather passed away, and then her father died of syphilis. “Hannah had seen and experienced the entire horrible transformation of her father from dignified scholar to immobile lunatic, infested with syphilitic sores,” Sherratt recounts. The trauma haunted Arendt all her life, leaving her frequently melancholic, and afflicted with insomnia and recurrent nightmares. Moreover, “she would always yearn for a father figure, a yearning that would lead her into a deadly and treacherous relationship”. This trauma was followed by a desperate flight from Königsberg in the face of the advancing Russian army at the outbreak of the Great War. Crammed into a railway carriage amongst German troops, nauseated by smoke, filth and fumes, Arendt nearly lost her mother, while “terrifying tales of pillaging, burning, rape and violence were told” around her. Possibly in reaction to such ordeals, Arendt withdrew into the world of the mind, reading Kant’s The Critique of Pure Reason, the German Romantics, Kierkegaard, and other challenging philosophers whilst in her teens. Growing into an attractive young woman, with striking eyes, she was regarded by other students as “an exceptional phenomenon”, who exhibited “an intensity, a purposefulness, a feeling for quality, a quest for the essential, a profundity that lent her an aura of magic”, as Hans Jonas recalled.

Studying for her doctorate, Arendt lived in an attic near the university with a pet mouse, and there, in 1924, Heidegger, “the uncrowned king of the empire of thought”, but also her teacher and seventeen years her senior, deflowered her, and the pair began a relationship conducted in strict secrecy lest Heidegger’s wife and two sons discover the affair. As passion demanded, they met in hotels and inns, with her making repeated rendezvous at only a moment’s notice, until Heidegger was appointed to his professorship and he abruptly ended the relationship. Thereafter, Heidegger continued his academic ascent, while Arendt went away to complete her doctorate under Karl Jaspers, living hand-to-mouth in France, going through two marriages, working surreptitiously to aid Jewish refugees, enduring arrest and internment, before escaping in 1941 to America and her own unique destiny.

Heidegger was therefore at the height of his powers as the forces of history gathered in the early 1930s to propel Hitler to power. With Weimar democracy collapsing around him, Heidegger felt a strong calling, a moment of destiny. As Safranski recounts, he was convinced that the limits of philosophy had been reached and that he was living in the midst of a revolution that was far more than just political. “It was a new act of the history of Being, the beginning of a new epoch”, comparable to the foundation of philosophy 2500 years ago in Greece. It was an “overturning … a new chapter in Western history … the great second clash of arms”, in which he had a pivotal role to play. Declaring that “we are under the orders of a new reality”, he embraced notions of “redemptive violence” and “the primitive”, and succumbed to the desire to merge with the masses in an act of surrender that he would have once denounced as a supreme act of inauthenticity.

Heidegger came to believe that his philosophy alone could give voice to the “power of command of the new German reality” brought by Nazism, which demanded the total immersion of the self. It was the sort of revolutionary reality, he insisted, that “can be experienced only by he who has the right sense for experiencing it, not by the observer … Such reality calls for an entirely different relationship than does a fact”. Freed from any limiting concern for facts, he began exploring notions of “empowerment”, while conceding that “as for what it means, there is no need now to speak any more about it, we merely have to act”. Committed to this decisionist posture, Heidegger aspired to be “the herald of a historical-political and … philosophical epiphany”. It was a time for vigilance, “lest he miss the moment when politics can and must become philosophical and philosophy political”. (Safranski, p.224)

He didn’t miss the moment, and acted with opportunistic zeal once Hitler ascended to the Chancellorship on January 30, 1933, and the Nazis began to consolidate their grip on power. He quickly ingratiated himself with the new regime, joining a Nazi group within the German Academics Association that advocated the introduction of the Führerprinzip in the universities and their formal political alignment with National Socialism. He was then appointed Rector of the University of Freiburg on April 21, 1933, duly announcing himself as Führer of the institution, dispensing with the university senate and issuing instructions, memoranda and circulars couched in a suitably imperious tone. He subsequently joined the Nazi Party on May 1, and delivered his inaugural address on May 27 in support of the Nazi Revolution, declaring that it alone offered salvation “when the spiritual strength of the West fails and the joints of the world no longer hold, when this moribund semblance of a culture caves in and drags all that remains strong into confusion and lets it suffocate in madness”. (Steven E. Aschheim, The Nietzsche Legacy in Germany 1890-1990, 1992, p.265) He also vigorously supported Hitler in articles and speeches, urging students to “not let principles and ‘ideas’ be the rules of your existence. The Führer himself, and he alone, is the German reality of today, and of the future, and of its law”. He implemented anti-Semitic policies, sacrificed class time for paramilitary manoeuvres, required academics to attend forest camps addressed by leaders of the SA, accentuated the elements of Nazi ideology in his philosophy, and began a frenetic campaign to establish total Nazi control over the intellectual life of German universities, with himself at the top.

His hubris blinded Heidegger to the reality of the Nazi Revolution and led him to make some fundamental strategic errors. Politically, he aligned himself with the paramilitary SA faction led by Ernst Röhm, which pursued a total revolutionary transformation of German society, was locked in a lethal dispute with other factions, and was ultimately liquidated in June 1934 in the “Night of the Long Knives”. Philosophically, he really believed that there was an “inner truth and greatness” to National Socialism, as he insisted in a 1935 lecture, and that this operated at an intellectual level that he alone grasped and was qualified to articulate.

This “inner truth” was Nazism’s insight into “the encounter between global technology and contemporary man”. His defenders claim this involves a critique of dehumanisation, as if Heidegger believed the Nazi Revolution would put an end to this. In fact, dehumanisation was intrinsic to Heidegger’s thought, so that he could observe in his 1949 Bremen Lectures that “the fabrication of corpses in the gas chambers and the death camps … is the same thing in essence” as the mechanisation of the agricultural industry. Moreover, such victims don’t really die, they merely “perish [and] become supply pieces for stock in the fabrication of corpses”. Faye rejects this trivialisation of the Holocaust and explains that, for Heidegger, the victims didn’t die because they weren’t alive to start with. According to Heidegger, they were non-Aryans and therefore they didn’t participate in Dasein, that is, human being in its full authenticity. As Faye observes:


it is impossible to go further in the negation of the human being than Heidegger does … The entire populations who were gassed … none of that involved human beings. Not only did the massacred populations not die, they could not even live.

Nevertheless, it appears that Heidegger expected that the Nazi regime—a champion of accelerated industrialisation and an exponent of Blitzkrieg and mechanised warfare on a gargantuan scale—would turn its back on technological development. For this he was later ridiculed in the Nazi Party journal in 1938 as a philosopher “who owes his celebrity solely to the fact that nobody can understand him, and who teaches the doctrine of Nothing”, while he belittles the “vital work of professional scientists”. Heidegger had no excuse for his misreading of the Nazi program, as he had read Mein Kampf in 1931 at the insistence of his wife, who was a fervent Nazi. As Richard J. Evans observes in The Third Reich in Power (2006), in that tome “Hitler had assembled the ideology of Nazism from disparate elements of anti-Semitism, pan-Germanism, eugenics and so-called racial hygiene, geopolitical expansionism, hostility to democracy, and hostility to cultural modernism”, but with no mention of delivering Germany to a pre-industrial or post-technological state. Heidegger appears to have assumed that he knew better than Hitler what the Nazi Revolution was about.

This was characteristic of the miscalculations made about Hitler by many people, including Alfred Rosenberg, the supreme “Party Philosopher” for the Nazis, and custodian of the realm of Nazi philosophy and ideology that Heidegger aspired to rule. His racist tome, The Myth of the Twentieth Century (1930), was regarded as second only to Mein Kampf as a statement of the Nazi worldview, invoking an empowering “myth of blood, which under the sign of the swastika unchains the racial world-revolution. It is the awakening of the race soul, which after long sleep victoriously ends the race chaos.” And yet, despite his prominence, Rosenberg was ridiculed in private by Hitler and other leading Nazis, who recognised the absolute supremacy of power over ideology in the Third Reich.

Like Heidegger, “it was Alfred Rosenberg’s tragedy that he really believed in National Socialism”, as Joachim C. Fest observes in The Face of the Third Reich, (1972). Like Heidegger also, “he saw himself as the scribe of a new gospel of salvation” for the German people, “the ‘philosopher’ of a movement whose philosophy almost always boiled down to power”. Moreover, Rosenberg shared with Heidegger a fascination with paganism and the mysticism of Meister Eckhart, a loathing of modernity, and, above all, a fierce belief in the world-historical destiny of the German people. He raged against the “asphalt literature” of the cities, which he identified with the Jews, saw as evidence of dissociation from völkisch ideals, and condemned as intellectual nihilism. Unlike Heidegger, however, Rosenberg explicitly based his theory of Aryan supremacy on a biologically racist theory of history, according to which civilisations rise and fall according to their “purity of blood”. He insisted that the Nazi mission was to eliminate the impure and degenerate elements contaminating the “race soul” of the nation, represented especially by the Jews, so that Germany could exercise her divine right to a vast Lebensraum in Eastern Europe and the Ukraine, where the Aryan master race would rule over the enslaved masses.

Even though Heidegger’s view of Germanic superiority was far more abstract, he shared common ground with Rosenberg and other Nazi philosophers. They were all possessed by a sense of national crisis, and committed to the racially exclusive völkisch ideal of loyalty to the Fatherland, founded on a strong sense of national identity and indissoluble links with Germany’s soil, customs, landscape, history and destiny. They deeply resented Germany’s defeat in the Great War, which they saw as a war against the “Ideas of 1789”, including the rights of man, democracy, equality, individualism, universalism, humanism and reason. To these they opposed the “Ideas of 1914” included a re-affirmation of Germany’s destiny to lead the world out of the cultural abyss into which it had plunged, drawing on the völkisch ideals that had sustained life in the trenches. They were convinced that the great conflict was far from over and that Germany would realise her destiny and achieve a spiritual rebirth in a final showdown with Anglo-French “civilisation” and the entire Enlightenment tradition, exemplified by the pitiless impositions of the Versailles Treaty. In this final titanic struggle the German people alone could call upon the irresistible völkisch forces of will, militancy, aggression, decisiveness, hardness, severity, sacrifice and heroism—all qualities that resonated deeply with Heidegger’s philosophy.

The “Ideas of 1914” were well represented by another Nazi philosopher, Alfred Bäumler, who had served in the German infantry for the last three years of the war and emerged from the experience as a zealous far-right ideologue. He became the Third Reich’s authorised Nietzsche scholar, becoming professor of philosophy at Berlin University, where he established the Institute for Political Education for the Nazi elite, and he was also an ally of Heidegger in a campaign to “Nazify” German universities. Sherratt claims he “was the single person most responsible for establishing the link between Nietzsche and Hitler”. Unsurprisingly, given his war experiences, Bäumler presented Nietzsche as a philosopher of the Will, whose heroic realism avoided all delusions about stable norms, values and conventions, positing instead a world in constant flux and conflict where notions of rationality, objectivity, logic and democracy were merely signs of decadence. In Bäumler’s view, Germany’s primary mission was conquest and domination: “Germany can only exist world-historically in the form of greatness … created out of the spirit of Nietzsche and the spirit of the Great War.”

While Heidegger shared such völkisch and nationalist aspirations, he looked beyond mere imperialism and launched himself into the stratosphere of abstraction where few felt inclined or able to follow. Unlike the concrete political objectives proposed by these Nazi ideologues, Heidegger saw Germany’s ultimate goal in ethereal ontological terms. His fear and hatred of technology led him to believe that the very nature of Being itself was being distorted by the reign of instrumental reason, and it was this that he wanted to combat. However, while he longed for a world in which Germans could dwell organically as members of a völkisch community, characterised by a rustic artisanship possessing an inherent poetry that industrial production could never match, he never conceived of a practical way in which this could be achieved, especially as he believed that the root of the problem lay in the rather inaccessible realm of ontology. Heidegger’s solution, which inevitably gained little traction with the Nazi leadership, was to turn for salvation to the mysterious qualities of the German language, which possessed an inner relationship with the language of the ancient Greeks and their thought. This uniquely empowered the new German Reich, which alone had the capacity to re-appropriate the Western tradition of thought and re-connect it with the primordial roots of philosophy and the pre-technological worldview that these expressed.

Operating in an intellectual delirium, Heidegger believed that the Nazi worldview reflected his own ethereal vision and that the Nazis were in the vanguard of a movement to realise Germany’s national destiny through a transformation of the ontological foundations of the world. In this apocalyptic moment he believed he had a supreme leadership role to play, never fully comprehending that the rationale of Nazi ideology was the exercise of power. Unfortunately for Heidegger, other Nazi philosophers had a much clearer understanding of this situation. Amongst these was another Nazi philosopher, Ernst Krieck.

Krieck contrasted sharply with Heidegger. He was born into a family of small farmers and bricklayers and he had only one path into any form of higher education—teacher training, which he undertook to become a schoolmaster at a regional primary school. Desperate for advancement, he became a prolific writer of articles and books on education, which gained him an honorary degree from Heidelberg University. He was also an anti-Semite and champion of far-right causes who joined the Nazi Party in 1932, and was made professor of pedagogy at Frankfurt University upon the Nazi takeover, before becoming the Rector of Goethe University. He subsequently joined the SS, attaining the rank of Obersturmbannführer (lieutenant colonel), and serving as a spy and informer.

Krieck shared with Heidegger and Bäumler the ambition to usurp Rosenberg’s position as chief Nazi ideologue and to become Führer of the universities. He agreed with Heidegger that humanity must learn to live without absolute values: “The house of erudition, culture, humanism, and the pure intellect had collapsed” and universal ideals were illusory. However, unlike Heidegger, Krieck had no time for philosophical abstractions. Basing his philosophy on “blood-and-soil values”, he rejected Heidegger’s “metaphysics from above”, championing “metaphysics from below”. “The blood”, he declared, “revolts against formal reason, race against rational purpose, ties against ‘freedom’ … organic wholeness against individualistic dissolution”, while the nation stands above all. Heidegger regarded this as evidence of “a subaltern mind” incapable of grasping the “second awakening” of Being that only he perceived.

For some months, Krieck and Heidegger worked as allies as they sought to impose a Nazi stranglehold on education, but then the implicit rivalry could no longer be ignored and a fierce bureaucratic battle broke out. Suddenly, Heidegger, on the verge of appointment to prestigious chairs at Munich and Berlin, was being denounced to their ministries by an ally of Krieck as a “German talmudist … who owes his fame to Jewish propaganda”, and as a “dangerous schizophrenic” whose writings were incomprehensible and “psycho-pathological”. “All educated Germany” had to unite to prevent the appointment “of such a dangerous schizophrenic as Führer of universities”. There were reports from academics and students that his work was incomprehensible, with dazed students wandering out of his classes uncertain whether to study the pre-Socratics or join the SA. Krieck himself declared that Heidegger was a nihilist, who “could not write in German because he could not think in German”, and that “the meaning of [Heidegger’s] philosophy is downright atheism and metaphysical nihilism [propounded] by Jewish literati—in other words, [it is] an enzyme of decomposition and dissolution for the German people”. Heidegger fought to defend himself and soon discovered how many enemies he had. Concluding that the Nazi Revolution had been betrayed, he stepped down as Rector and withdrew from the race to be Führer of the universities. In retrospect, it seems Krieck’s victory was inevitable, given that Heidegger’s Nazism operated at a level of abstraction that provided ample ammunition for those who wished to discredit him.

What happened to the Nazi philosophers? Rosenberg was tried at Nuremberg, found guilty of many serious crimes, and hanged. Bäumler and Krieck were assessed as “Major Offenders” (Hauptschuldiger), the worst category of Nazi; Krieck died in prison and Bäumler served three years. Clauss and a vast number of less prominent Nazi philosophers and other academics faced de-Nazification committees, but most escaped harsh treatment, especially once the process was handed over to the German authorities, who allowed most of the Nazi academics to be rehabilitated.

As for Heidegger, he was left marginalised, and aghast at the brutal score-settling of the Night of the Long Knives, retreated into a prolonged study of Nietzsche and the German Romantic poet Friedrich Hölderlin, laying the intellectual foundations for the later phase of his thinking, where the heroic individual resolutely confronting the abyss was replaced by the placid “shepherd of Being” fretting about the earth. Notoriously, he was later able to escape appropriate retribution, prevaricating, evading, obstructing, obscuring, and, as Sherratt puts it, scrabbling and networking his way back into academia. There, with the help of some unlikely allies, including a still besotted Arendt, his reputation once again began to ascend. Memories were allowed to fade and the indefensible was dismissed as inconsequential. Eventually, he became a “Master Thinker” for a new kind of incomprehensible academic scholasticism, and for the deconstruction and deep ecology movements, both of which eagerly adopted his apocalyptic condemnation of the Western intellectual tradition and the technological dystopia he alleged it had spawned.

Ensconced in his hut in the Black Forest, Heidegger basked in the esteem he thought was his due, and when the roof finally fell in on this jerry-built fabrication he was long gone. Behind him he left his acolytes to defend the ethical and intellectual status of his work, produced by a genuine and unrepentant Nazi philosopher, whose only regret was that “the inner truth and greatness” of Nazism, as he saw it, was betrayed before it could be realised.


Mervyn F. Bendle wrote on “Remaking Australia as a Frontier Society” in the May issue.