The Intense Humming of Evil
By Max Dunbar.
Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism into Philosophy, Emmanuel Faye, Yale University Press 2010
When the Nazis achieved power in 1933 they were not satisfied with mere control of the state. Fascist ideology spread through the fields of law, medicine and culture as a totalising virus. The universities were no exception. The campus was subject to the purge or worse of dissent, the narrowing of curricula and the book-burning ceremonies that still resonate as a symbol of anti-intellectualism in its worst and truest form.
Writers and thinkers still alive after the fall of the regime were confronted with that ultimate question: what did you do in the war? Academic supporters of Nazism could see several ways to postwar respectability. They could plead indulgence. It must have be easy in the mid-thirties to get caught up in the propaganda whirl of it all: tomorrow belongs to me! Alternatively, one could plead cowardice or pragmatism. Many had to make compromises to spare themselves and to protect family and friends.
The mistake is to see fascism as strictly a yob phenomenon that addresses the short-term frustrations of the poor and ignorant. The mistake is to believe that it cannot possibly appeal to educated men and women. Yet even before Hitler’s takeover there were true believers inside the academy’s lustrous gates. No one now remembers Schmitt, Wolf and Rosenberg but Martin Heidegger continues to be read, studied and quoted. And yet, as Emmanuel Faye shows in his devastating study, the rector of Freiburg held a fervent and unblinking commitment to Nazism. He was the writer at the book burnings.
He raised not a word of protest when a government decree dismissed his former teacher and assistant; he had complained that the universities had been ‘Jewified’ under Weimar, and organised his study sessions as outdoor ‘work camps’ in a creepy homage to the horror that was coming. Heidegger rejected the abstract pursuits of art and humanities. Authentic existence could only be experienced through confict and struggle; the lectures fairly drip with blood and soil. He justified racial selection, eugenics and dictatorship. Reading Faye’s book, I had two thoughts going through my mind. How the fuck did he get away with this? And: Why did anyone take this guy seriously? It’s not the case that a romance with totalitarianism corrupted Heidegger’s philosophy. Heidegger’s philosophy was structured around his support for Nazism. There was nothing else.
Previously unpublished seminar notes reveal how Heidegger provided ontological support for the regime. His rectoral address set the tone: ‘Freedom does not mean being free with respect to… obligation, order and law. Freedom means being free for… resoluteness with a view to spiritual and common commitment to the German destiny.’ This is a constant theme in Heidegger’s notes. He erodes the separation between public and private sphere, between the citizen and the state, negating the individual being. He rejected liberal democracy in favour of an ‘organic’ state that had grown from the will of the people, personified of course in the figure of the Führer. This also animates his support for Nazi health policies. Hitler’s first victims were the sick and disabled. The health of the state replaced the health of the individual. Remember O’Brien: ‘The weakness of the cell is the vigour of the organism. Do you die when you cut your fingernails?’
Heidegger in person comes off as a pathetic Führer groupie. He changed universities so he could be based in the same city as Hitler, to whom he imagined himself as consultant philosopher. Unfortunately, Hitler didn’t find the time for Heidegger personally and so the academic began to style himself as a ‘spiritual Führer’ – a philosophical equivalent. Heidegger feared for the future of the Reich after Hitler’s death. His work was intended to lay the foundations for a regime that would outlast Hitler’s corporeal existence.
Faye makes a convincing case that it was this motive for longevity that drove Heidegger’s postwar behaviour. As you’d expect, he played down his enthusiasm for the regime, rewriting large amounts of his work for publication, casting himself as an opponent of Nazism and claiming that the SD had a file on him. (Which it did – Faye adds it as an appendix – but the report is mostly positive with only minor reservations; the section titled ‘Psychological Evaluation’ reads ‘Character somewhat withdrawn, not very close to the people, lives only for his scholarship, does not always have a firm footing in reality.’) And yet there was a limit to his backpedalling. By the mid 1970s, when Heidegger had achieved an international audience, he was confident enough to republish the courses of 1933-1945, this time in all their grotesque glory.
Heidegger’s success is a testimony to the seductive power of long words. In a lecture that has only been available since 1994, Heidegger attempts a beard-stroking ‘contextualisation’ of the Holocaust:
Hundreds of thousands die en masse. Do they die? They perish. They are put down. Do they die? They are liquidated unnoticed in death camps. And also, without such – millions in China sunken in poverty perish from hunger. But to die means to carry out death in its essence. To be able to die means to be able to carry out this resolution. We can only do this if our essence likes the essence of death. But in the middle of innumerable deaths the essence of death remains unrecognisable. Death is neither empty nothingness, nor just the passage from one state to another. Death pertains to the Dasein of the man who appears out of the essence of being. Thus it shelters the essence of being. Death is the loftiest shelter of the truth of being, the shelter that shelters within itself the hidden character of the essence of being and draws together the saving of its essence.
This is why man can die if and only if being itself appropriates the essence of man into the essence of being on the basis of the truth of its essence. Death is the shelter of being in the poem of the world. To be able toward death in its essence means to be able to die. Only those who can die are mortals in the apposite sense of the word.
This is not philosophy. It is sophistry in the service of crime. Reading this last part of the book, I felt genuinely chilled. Faye: ‘We must bring our minds to focus on the absolute insanity of these words. We are no longer just in revisionism but in total negation, and even in something beyond words – something that is totally unspeakable.’
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals including Open Wide, Straight from the Fridge and Lamport Court. He also writes articles on politics and religion for Butterflies and Wheels. He is Manchester’s regional editor of Succour magazine, a journal of new fiction and poetry. He is reviews editor of 3:AM and blogs here.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, February 7th, 2010.