Part 4 of 4
French translation here
10. Heidegger on National Socialism
It is in the context of his discussion of “values” that Heidegger makes the most notorious statement in all his writings:
In particular, what is peddled about nowadays as the philosophy of National Socialism, but which has not the least to do with the inner truth and greatness of this movement [namely, the encounter between global technology and modern humanity], is fishing in these troubled waters of “values” and “totalities.”
To understand what Heidegger is saying here, let us first address what and who he is attacking. There were those who supported National Socialism by asserting that it would restore “traditional values” – much like American conservatives today speak of “family values.” In short, they saw National Socialism as a reactionary movement. (Ironically, of course, these same people uncritically appropriated the modern, liberal discourse of “values.”) But Heidegger believed that National Socialism had the potential to be much more than this.
Heidegger claimed that the bracketed phrase in the above quote was present in his 1935 lecture text. Recent scholarship has demonstrated fairly conclusively that it was actually added in 1953, when the material was first published. As a result, some scholars have taken the position that this phrase is disingenuous – that Heidegger is in bad faith here and trying to cover his tracks by concocting a false account of what he saw as National Socialism’s “inner truth and greatness.” But there is no basis on which to claim that Heidegger must really have meant something else. If we genuinely wish to understand what Heidegger meant, we should take him at his word here. Clearly, in 1953 he felt that he needed to add some sort of explanation about what he had meant by these remarks. But (unwisely) he chose to counter any suggestion that he was simply concocting a disingenuous explanation after the fact by insisting that this statement had been present in his original manuscript.
So what does Heidegger mean by “the encounter between global technology and modern humanity”? And how did he see National Socialism as (potentially) addressing this? One of Heidegger’s principal concerns was the problem posed by technology. In his essay “The Question Concerning Technology” (published in 1954), Heidegger argues that technology is a certain kind of “revealing”: it reveals beings to us in a particular way. Essentially, it reveals nature as raw material for human use; as what Heidegger calls der Bestand, a term that has been translated “the standing reserve.” But what is it that is involved in our propensity to take the earth as standing reserve? Heidegger answers this question through his famous characterization of modernity as das Gestell, which is often translated “the enframing.” What characterizes modern people is a tendency not just to want to order or re-order nature, to impose some system upon it, but also to delve into nature with theories and assumptions, always expecting nature in a sense to order itself according to our “rational” ideas.
Technology thus facilitates the “oblivion of Being.” Through technology, we preoccupy ourselves with beings alone, and they are disclosed to us simply as objects for our manipulation. One can easily see that this is the ultimate consequence of the Judeo-Christian view of the world as created by God. Everything, in other words, is understood as an artifact. We speak of how natural objects, like the human body, are “built” or “constructed.” With God out of the picture, this world of artifacts is ours to manipulate, through the creation of new technological artifacts. The consequence of this is the self-withdrawal of Being; “the flight of the gods.”
But Heidegger recognized that there was no going back; no rolling back of modern technological progress. Thus, the only thing that could be hoped for was some way to integrate technology into our lives without selling our souls to it. The National Socialists were not anti-technology, but they were nationalists who opposed what would be called today “globalism,” and the homogenization of modern life. They celebrated Blut und Boden (blood and soil): connectedness to ancestral heritage, and to the land. And they seemed to agree with Heidegger that Germany had a unique cultural mission. Thus, Heidegger apparently felt that within National Socialism there was some sort of potential to integrate technology into life without sacrificing national and local character.
Heidegger saw National Socialism as a “third force” in politics, offering a middle course between the Scylla and Charybdis of American capitalism and Soviet communism. It was socialism, Heidegger (and others) thought, but without the rootless and soulless internationalism of the Soviets; socialism with national culture and heritage celebrated and protected.
Thomas Sheehan links Heidegger’s hopes for National Socialism to the ideas of the German politician and pastor Friedrich Naumann. According to Sheehan, Naumann had the “vision of a strong nationalism and a militantly anticommunist socialism, combined under a charismatic leader who would fashion a middle-European empire that preserved the spirit and tradition of pre-industrial Germany even as it appropriated, in moderation, the gains of modern technology.”
Of course, Heidegger’s cares went beyond preserving the spirit and tradition of pre-industrial Germany: he was concerned to bring about a new, authentic encounter with Being. How he thought that National Socialism might do this is a bit of a mystery. In any case, Heidegger had already become disenchanted with the NSDAP when, in 1935, he delivered Introduction to Metaphysics as a lecture series. It has been suggested that the decisive event in Heidegger’s loss of enthusiasm over the regime was the “Night of the Long Knives” in June of 1934, when Ernst Röhm and many of his SA comrades were assassinated. Heidegger may have felt some sympathy for Röhm’s “socialist” wing of the NSDAP, who were strong critics of capitalism and felt that Hitler had made too many compromises with big business on coming to power.
If one reads between the lines, Heidegger is clearly expressing criticism of Hitler and the NSDAP in Introduction to Metaphysics. To begin with, his famous “inner truth and greatness” line is uttered in the context of essentially saying that what has been put forth so far as the ideology of National Socialism is mostly empty talk. Recall further that when he offers his account of modern decline, he writes “when the tallies of millions at mass meetings are a triumph; then, yes then, there still looms like a specter over all this uproar the question: what for? – where to? – and what then?” This must inevitably call to mind Hitler’s mass rallies. Heidegger is aware that Hitler’s regime buys into the “reign of quantity.”
In a 1949 lecture Heidegger stated, “Agriculture is now a motorized food industry, the same thing in its essence as the production of corpses in the gas chambers and the extermination camps, the same thing as blockades and the reduction of countries to famine, the same thing as the manufacture of hydrogen bombs.” Clearly by this point he had come to see the National Socialist regime as having been thoroughly invested in the modern enframing spoken of earlier.
6. Conclusion: Some Critical Reflections
The above account has probably made it quite clear to readers of this journal why it is correct to classify Heidegger as an “anti-modern thinker.” Heidegger certainly seems like he belongs in the same company as figures like Oswald Spengler, René Guénon, T. S. Eliot, D. H. Lawrence, and others. His description of modernity’s reign of quantity, the “flight of the gods,” the reduction of human beings to a mass – these all ring profoundly true. And, as noted earlier, in many ways Heidegger now seems like a prophet. Further, his understanding of technology and of the modern mind-set, das Gestell, give us powerful tools for comprehending the decadence of the present.
Nevertheless, there are problems with Heidegger’s “anti-modernism,” and they have to do principally with how he proposes to address or cure modern ills. To begin with, Heidegger’s attempt at a recovery of the “originary sense” of Being is interesting and profound. But why does he look exclusively to the ancient Greeks? Hans Sluga notes that “The limit of Heidegger’s insight lies in his inability to find historical paradigms anywhere but in early Greece. And that limitation is due, in turn, to his peculiar and never-reasoned belief that only the beginning is great and that only ancient Greece can be such a beginning for Western man.”
Like many European intellectuals educated in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Heidegger studied Greek and Latin as a boy and was steeped in the history and literature of classical antiquity. When he thought of “the ancients” it was to Greece and Rome that he looked. Part of what is going on here, of course, also has to do with his background in philosophy. Professional philosophers in the West usually have the tendency to think of thought itself as beginning in Greece, while everywhere else was darkness.
However, Heidegger was also very much attuned to how Being discloses itself in different ways to different peoples in different times. Why then, when he considered how “we” once oriented ourselves toward Being, did he not explore the ancient myths and texts of Northern Europe? I am thinking, of course, of the Eddas and Sagas, and other sources. Why did he not delve into the researches of the Brothers Grimm, and others, into Germanic myth and the sources of Germanic language? It is a pity that he didn’t.
However, Heidegger’s philosophical approach to etymology has given us a powerful tool for approaching those Northern European sources. It is just left to someone else to do the philosophical work Heidegger didn’t do: the work of revealing how Being disclosed itself to the ancient Northern European peoples.
Setting this issue aside, perhaps a more serious problem has to do with how Heidegger proposes to address modern rootlessness and spiritual bankruptcy. He speaks, as we have seen, of Being’s self-withdrawal, and of the need to recover an authentic encounter with Being. It is not at all clear how he proposes to do this. Some have seen connections between Heidegger’s thought and Zen (as well as other Eastern philosophies), and actually quite a lot has been written about this. Zen also seems to have as its goal lifting us out of preoccupation with mundane beings and giving us an experience of Being itself (which is what, so far as I can understand, satori is all about). But Zen accomplishes this not through theory (in fact, it tends to dismiss theorizing) but through a spiritual practice. Like most Western philosophers, however, Heidegger recommends no practice to us. Just theory — and reams and reams of often numbingly obscure commentary on dead philosophers. Are we to encounter Being through reading?
To be fair, Heidegger himself seems to have had a practice, which consisted in removing himself to the seclusion of a hut in the Black Forrest and connecting himself to the land and the rhythms of life through such tasks as drawing water from the well and chopping wood. The closest he comes to a “practice” that he recommends to us, though, is what he calls Gelassenheit, which is often translated “letting beings be.” It’s an obscure, quasi-quietistic idea that seems to mean allowing beings to display their Being to us, rather than charging in like modern Prometheans and imposing our conceptions upon them (“enframing” them, as it were).
One of the problems with Gelassenheit is that it seems to presuppose that beings have some sort of objective and intrinsic Being which will display itself to us if we (to speak Zen) silence our minds. But my readers may be disappointed to hear that the question of whether there is some sort of objective Being is a problematic one in Heidegger’s oeuvre. The foregoing account of Introduction to Metaphysics would certainly seem to suggest that Heidegger believed that there was some sort of “correct” understanding of Being, and an authentic (i.e., Greek) way of encountering it.
But the truth about Heidegger’s views is more complicated than this. As his ideas developed, Heidegger became more and more of a historicist, speaking of “epochs of Being” – of how Being has changed throughout history, as Dasein has changed. The influence of Nietzsche is strong here, and one finds a parallel difficulty in Nietzsche’s thought. In works like The Genealogy of Morals Nietzsche certainly speaks is if there is a true, healthy, original morality (“master morality”). But his “perspectivism” insists that there can be no “true” moral viewpoint – or any sort of objective truth at all.
And even though Heidegger offers reflections from time to time on the origins of our modern decay, in the end he declares that ultimately what has caused modernity and das Gestell cannot be declared. Why? Because to think that they are knowable and discoverable is to buy into modernity’s insistence that everything can be explained and made explicit. The ultimate rejection of modernity, therefore, is to reject the attempt to explain it. There is something clever and profound about this point, but it leaves us very unsatisfied. And the perennial question arises: what, then, is to be done? What can we do? Heidegger’s answer: nothing.
In 1966 Heidegger gave an interview to the German magazine Der Spiegel, which (at his request) was not published until after his death in 1976. In this interview the following exchange occurs:
Spiegel: You do not count yourself among those who, if they would only be heard, could point out a path?
Heidegger: No! I know of no path toward a direct change of the present state of the world, assuming that such a change is at all humanly possible. But it seems to me that the attempted thinking could awaken, clarify, and fortify the readiness we have already mentioned.
Spiegel: A clear answer – but can and may a thinker say: Just wait, something will occur to us in the next three hundred years?
We can continue thinking about Being and Dasein. But we can do nothing. Ultimately, Heidegger tells us that we must wait for a new epoch of Being to arise.
I cannot accept this. When Heidegger said these words in 1966 he was unaware of the tremendous cultural and demographic changes that were yet to occur in the West. He was unaware (I believe) of the possibility that now faces us, more than thirty years after his death: the possibility of losing everything that Heidegger valued, Western culture itself. Even if Heidegger is right that nothing can be done, doing nothing is not an option that I – and most my readers – can make peace with. I am even willing to admit that my stubborn insistence that something can be done and that we must do it is part and parcel of the modern mindset that everything is fixable and manipulable. But, as Julius Evola saw, the modern age – the Kali Yuga – provides us with tools that may be used to resist it.
Heidegger’s 1966 Spiegel interview was titled “Nur noch ein Gott kann uns retten”: “Only a God Can Still Save Us.” The line comes from the following, dramatic segment of the interview:
If I may answer quickly and perhaps somewhat vehemently, but from long reflection: Philosophy will not be able to bring about a direct change of the present state of the world. This is true not only of philosophy but of all merely human meditations and endeavors. Only a god can still save us. I think the only possibility of salvation left to us is to prepare readiness, through thinking and poetry, for the appearance of the god or for the absence of the god during the decline; so that we do not, simply put, die meaningless deaths, but that when we decline, we decline in the face of the absent god.
This god that can save us, however, will not be a new god but the return of an old one – of one of the gods that has “flown.” But Heidegger is right that the flight of the gods happens as a result of a change within Dasein. In the terms of our ancestors, we broke our troth with the gods. And you may interpret “gods” here to mean literally the gods of our ancestors – or figuratively, to mean their ideals. We broke our troth with the gods, and eventually we broke our troth with the land and even with our own kith and kin. And now it is as if we live under a curse, in the midst of a wasteland. The task we face is to renew that troth. We cannot wait for a god to save us. We must change – and save ourselves. Then, and only then, will the gods return. But just how to do that would take us beyond the scope of this essay – and beyond what Heidegger, for all his greatness, has to offer us.
1. Introduction to Metaphysics, 213.
2. Thomas Sheehan, “Heidegger and the Nazis,” a review of Victor Farias’ Heidegger et le nazisme, in The New York Review of Books, vol. 35, no. 10, June 16, 1988, pp. 38–47.
3. The best book on this subject, incidentally, is Michael E. Zimmerman’s Heidegger’s Confrontation with Modernity: Technology, Politics, Art (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1990).
4. Hans Sluga, “‘Conflict is the Father of All Things’: Heidegger’s Polemical Conception of Politics,” in A Companion to Heidegger’s Introduction to Metaphysics, 224.
5. See my essay “Summoning the Gods” in Summoning the Gods.