Eighty years ago, Adolph Hitler became Chancellor of Germany and the Nazis took power. Beginning in March 1933, following the Reichstag arson, new laws gave Hitler police powers over every facet of German private and public life.
That same March, Martin Heidegger, Germany’s most famous living philosopher, joined the Nazi Party. His life and his thought, which was extremely influential in his time and long after, brings us face to face with the ever-perplexing question of the connection between what a public intellectual or artist creates and his or her actions, especially in the realm of politics. Heidegger, as it turns outs, is a particularly difficult case in the long history of brilliant bigots.
In May, he was appointed rector of Freiburg University. During his year in office, he enthusiastically supported the regime. At his induction, he had the “Horst Wessel Song” — the Nazi anthem — printed on the program and sung by the assembly. He raised the Hitler salute at his lectures and he sometimes wore a brownshirt uniform.
As rector, Heidegger was charged with enforcing the Nazi civil service law, which was pointedly anti-Jewish, expelling and excluding Jews from government service and, therefore, from teaching in the universities. Heidegger observed the law with rigor: excluding Jewish students and terminating Jewish professors. Among the suspended professors was Heidegger’s mentor, the philosopher Edmund Husserl, whose efforts had secured Heidegger his teaching position. Heidegger severed all connection with his longtime champion.
In the 1920s, Heidegger had been a highly regarded lecturer with a dedicated following of brilliant graduate students. In 1928, his book, Being and Time, made him famous (his dedication of the book to Husserl was removed from later editions). During that period, Heidegger had four students especially notable for important contributions to postwar social, political and philosophical thought: Hannah Arendt, Karl Lowith, Hans Jonas and Herbert Marcuse.
Each was from a highly assimilated Jewish family. Each was deeply devoted to German intellectual thought. Each had his or her life upended by the Nazi takeover and left Germany before the war. Still, for each in different ways, Heidegger’s influence was the petrie dish in which ideas and themes fermented and evolved: The work of each is arguably a project to dissect or redirect his philosophy.
For all of them during productive lives as thinkers, the connection between Heidegger the charismatic philosopher-teacher and Heidegger the card-carrying Nazi was an unresolved, unresolvable puzzle.
Arendt, Heidegger’s student lover, was distinctly his best postwar advocate, helping to arrange the translation and publication of his work even as she critiqued the totalitarian state.
Heidegger’s critique of modernity and technology, his analysis of existence and alienation, and his call for individual authenticity in mass society still resonate across the humanities and social sciences.
But no analysis, however, can resolve the central dilemma Heidegger presents: It is the vexing question of the connection between creative work and the individual’s personal conduct, especially in the political realm. It becomes most difficult when prejudice is embedded in the work. How, then, are we to judge the creator and the creation?
T. S. Eliot’s distaste for Jews is evident in his letters and is a bit more subtle in his poems. Wagner hated Jews. Hitler loved Wagner’s music, but, in and of itself, there is nothing anti-Semitic in the work.
Whether the expression of ideas and political engagement are separate categories or inextricably linked is an inexhaustible argument. The problem is complicated by efforts to extract the creator’s intentions from the creation. We may be offended by the character of Shylock, Wagner’s vocal anti-Semitism and Eliot’s prejudice but can still appreciate, even love, the creative power and beauty in evidence.
However, Heidegger’s example demonstrates a functional difference between giving offense and doing harm. In 1936, Heidegger told Lowith that the philosophy of Being and Time was the “basis of his political engagement.” The postwar commission that barred Heidegger from teaching concluded that his reputation helped make National Socialism legitimate for educated Germans. Bluntly put, Heidegger’s celebrity, inseparable from his ideas and his creative power, was wholeheartedly put in service to radical evil.
For us today, while the influence of Heidegger’s thought persists, persistence carries a lesson. It reminds us that the history of big ideas in action is littered with charred cities and millions of dead. We descendants of Europe’s Jews know this all too well. So, perhaps, one way to judge ideas is when action in their name makes us ashamed to belong to a species capable of such horror.
Jay M. Starr is a lawyer and former chairman of the Board of Governors of Gratz College.