Book review: Stranger from Abroad: Hannah Arendt, Martin Heidegger, Friendship and Forgiveness
By Daniel Maier-Katki
IT MAY seem surprising that so many books continue to be written debating Martin Heidegger’s Nazi affiliations, since the fact that Heidegger was a Nazi has never been in dispute. How could it be, when the great philosopher took office as rector of Freiburg University in April 1933, specifically to carry out the Gleichschaltung, or “bringing into line”, of the school with Hitler’s new party-state? Didn’t he tell the student body, in a speech that November, that “the Führer and he alone is the present and future German reality and its law”? After the war, didn’t he go out of his way to minimise Nazi crimes, describing the Holocaust, in one notorious essay, as just another manifestation of modern technology, like mechanised agriculture?
Yet by the time of his 80th birthday, in 1969, Heidegger had largely succeeded in detaching his work and reputation from his Nazism. The seal was set on his absolution by Hannah Arendt, in a birthday address broadcast on West German radio. Heidegger’s Nazism, she explained, happened only because the thinker naively “succumbed to the temptation … to ‘intervene’ in the world of human affairs”. The moral to be drawn from the Heidegger case was that “the thinking ‘I’ is entirely different from the self of consciousness,” so that Heidegger’s thought cannot be contaminated by the actions of the mere man.
The history of Heidegger scholarship over the last 20 years has been the gradual demolition of this forgiving consensus. Heidegger’s self-portrait as a misguided idealist turned dissident has been shown to be sheer fabrication. The philosopher, it is now clear, was a committed Nazi, an admirer of Hitler who purged Jewish colleagues, presided over a book-burning (though it seems rain may have prevented any actual damage) and – unlike genuine dissidents – continued to teach, publish and travel throughout the Nazi period. More significantly, the alleged division between the man and the work has been thoroughly undermined, as scholars have examined the deep affinity of Heidegger’s thinking with the irrationalist and chauvinist ideas of the inter-war German Right.
If this judgment were to become generally accepted, it would have serious consequences for the reputation of Hannah Arendt, whose name is so intimately linked with Heidegger’s. Arendt was not just the elderly Heidegger’s defender; as an 18-year-old student, she had been his lover, and he was a formative influence on her thought. It makes sense, then, that in Stranger From Abroad, his readable but unprobing account of their relationship, Daniel Maier-Katkin should minimise Heidegger’s political and philosophical sins. “Heidegger’s embrace of the Nazis stands among innumerable other acts of accommodation by leading citizens,” he writes, for whom “optimism and opportunism formed a basis for entente”.
He is led to this judgment in part by his uncritical admiration for Arendt. For if Heidegger was merely an opportunist on an “escapade” then Arendt was right to vouch for him in 1969. More, she was justified in resuming their friendship in 1950, after not speaking to Heidegger from the Nazi takeover in 1933, when she was forced to flee the country. “This evening,” she wrote her old teacher after their reunion, was “the confirmation of an entire life.” If she had not reached out to him, she said, she would have committed “the only really inexcusable act of infidelity … out of pride, that is, sheer crazy stupidity. Not for reasons.”
This is one of many moments in Maier-Katkin’s book when his subjects deserve to be put under greater pressure than he is willing or able to apply. For the truth is that Heidegger was much more than a “leading citizen” who “accommodated” the Nazi regime; and Arendt had good reasons to apply to him a standard of judgment at least as unforgiving as the one that she notoriously used when finding European Jewish leaders responsible for enabling the Holocaust (in Eichmann in Jerusalem).
Least convincing of all is Maier-Katkin’s suggestion that Heidegger is to be understood as just a brainier Adolf Eichmann, “motivated less by racial ideology than by careerist opportunities, combined with thoughtlessness about others”. Arendt would be appalled by such a characterisation of the man she herself called the “secret king in the empire of thinking”. For what makes Heidegger’s Nazism a challenge – as opposed to merely a scandal – is the fact that he did not drift into evil, but thought his way into it. And once we acknowledge the powerful attraction of his work, we are morally and intellectually bound to explore what part of that attraction is owed to ideas with a potential for evil. Maier-Katkin fails to pose these more difficult questions, which asks us to confront not just Heidegger but ourselves.