“All Too Human: Heidegger” a BBC documentary:


This film is interesting for its portrayal of Heidegger as platonic “philosopher-king” of the Nazi regime — definitely a grisly picture of one of the most influential 20th Century philosophers. Even with the admission of new evidence at the time of the film’s creation, however, a final verdict on the Nazism of Heidegger is most likely impossible.

Winter in Schauinsland (literally "a look into the country") and the famous "Windbuchen" (Beeches bent by the wind)

The Black Forest where Heidegger wrote his most important works is a mystical, patchy collection of paths and cottages. Today the main industry is tourism. Small family farms still make cheese, schnapps, and harvest pine and fir trees. The Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg near the Schwarzwald is where Heidegger gained prestige after publishing Being and Time but then subsequently changed his way of doing philosophy (“the turn” period, die Kehre, in Heidegger’s philosophy) and became a prominent Nazi party member, who helped secure the National Socialists from intellectual reservations of the German academic community. It was also where Heidegger became rector of Freiburg university and began an academic purification campaign to scourge academia of the party’s enemies. In a famous rhetorical address, The Self-Assertion of the German University, Heidegger proposed many changes to the demographics of the faculty to exclude “Jewish and modernist influences.”

The BBC documentary focuses for a brief moment on the most prominent victim of Heidegger’s academic denunciatory campaign, Hermann Staudinger, a Professor of Chemistry at Freiburg, who in 1953 was awarded the Nobel Prize, and was hounded by the Gestapo “purely as a result of malicious gossip passed on by Heidegger,” as the film argues.

Hermann Staudinger

Documents in the Freiburg archives reveal that on the 29th of September, 1933, Heidegger requested a meeting with a senior Nazi official to communicate rumors that Staudinger was a “pacifist” and (somehow simultaneously) a “spy”  for hostile foreign powers during WWI. The BBC documentary narrator:

“…As a result of these claims, which eventually proved to be groundless, the future Nobel Prize winner was subjected to several months of surveillance and hostile interrogation. To ensure there would be no let-up in the investigation, Heidegger helpfully wrote to the Gestapo’s regional commander, informing him how he thought the case should now be handled.”

Aside from the problematic view that Nobel Prize winners are automatic intellectual saints, there is no doubt Heidegger spoiled his own reputation during this period. Professor Hugo Art, who, years after Heidegger’s death uncovered malicious letters in the Freiburg archive written by Heidegger to the Gestapo, says in the BBC documentary:

“Heidegger lists the main points of the Gestapo investigation, and at the end of his letter he comes to his recommendation as rector that Staudinger, because of his political past, which, he says, is unacceptable in the New Germany, should no longer be allowed to teach at Freiburg University. And that he should also be suspended from government service without any pension. And then he signs himself: ‘Heil Hitler, Heidegger!’ … A terrible letter. If it had been known about after the War, Heidegger would never have taught at a university again.”

After the War, and after hiding from the Allies, Heidegger was eventually spared from the condemnation of history through his existential connections to Sartre and his old pupil Hannah Arendt both of whom felt indebted to his work Being and Time. French intellectuals were the first to explore the issue of Heidegger’s Nazism. Sartre praised his work and saved him the intellectual and political embarrassment of being connected to the Nazi movement. This allowed Heidegger to continue writing essays and books, now mostly on language, poetry and art from his lodge in the Black Forest.

Heidegger at his desk.

Though he resigned as rector at Freiburg within a year of his appointment, Heidegger never left the Nazi Party, and never renounced his affiliation publicly even long into the German reconstruction period. Some of his most ardent critics, like Tom Rockmore, are featured prominently in the BBC film and argue strongly Heidegger remained a loyal Nazi to his grave. Some sympathetic academics say he became disillusioned with the Nazis during their power and resigned his chair as rector as an act of protest against Nazi excesses. After all, his resignation coincided with the “Night of Long Knives” in 1934 where forces loyal to Hitler staged a three-day assault on political enemies, famously assassinating Ernst Röhm.

Others such as Arthur Kroker say Heidegger resigned because the Nazis were not sufficiently “metaphysical enough,” too “trapped in the particulars of politics,” and that the National Socialist Party could not really effect the metaphysical possibility of a national community.

A year after he resigned as rector, Heidegger praised the Nazis in this lecture on metaphysics titled Einführung in die Metaphysik:

“The stuff which is now being bandied about 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 man)—is casting its net in these troubled waters of ‘values’ and ‘totalities’.”

If Heidegger thought National Socialism was not metaphysical enough, but still believed in the “inner truth and greatness of this movement,” then did Heidegger think would achieve his kind of metaphysical community? After becoming disillusioned with politics and public affairs, what was left for Heidegger? Certainly not religion, since he denounced his Catholic faith as a young man. Heidegger never seemed to show any sympathies with communist or socialist ideology, and in the years after he was placed in a sanatorium he removed himself from the world and retreated back to the forest, where he could live a “life of the mind.”

Heidegger dressed as a Tyrolean peasant

Perhaps retreating to the life of the mind in the woods was how, at that point in his life, Heidegger believed one should effect that kind of community — for many intelligent people retreating into the woods is their path, and how they want to live in their later years. But away from the city and away from the townsfolk, what community of people existed in the forest with Heidegger? — None.  Thus the hermit Heidegger seems defeatist, and not a plausible solution to the question of Heidegger but rather a predictable result of his disillusionment and deep disappointment with his place in post-Nazi history, and especially after the complete destruction of the town of Freiburg by Allied air raid forces, much like Dresden.

The only building in Freiburg left unscathed during WWII was the church in the center of town.

Readers of Heidegger notice there is a mysterious salvific allusion forking through his thought, that “where danger is, grows the saving power also,” as he wrote in The Question Concerning Technology. Perhaps, then, the world must become very, very dangerous before the saving powers emerge to rescue us from dangerous destinies. Only this time, the danger is not the Nazi party (which was mistaken for “the saving power”) but something else. — Capitalism? Global Warming? The question is who is Heidegger in the 21st Century?

The BBC documentary insists that in the years following Heidegger’s death in 1976, new documentary evidence linking Heidegger to the Nazi movement more than ever before should demand new assessments of his life and work and a “final verdict” on the question of Heidegger.

But can there be a final verdict? —  The question of Heidegger’s connection to the Nazi party is disconnected from his metaphysics and the rest of his philosophy. That Heidegger was a profound philosopher seems to be a separate question than whether his political affiliation during die Kehre affects his philosophical reputation. Today Heidegger is seriously discussed in any course on existentialism, phenomenology, and technological studies. His influence on Continental philosophy remains unaffected by his Nazi past. Heidegger Studies is an academic journal devoted entirely to the ongoing discussion of Heidegger’s works in English, German and French. The conclusion many have drawn is that Heidegger’s thought is not necessarily Nazi thought. In the same way that Walter Kaufmann’s research saved Nietzsche’s work from being dismissed as proto-Nazi propaganda, Sartre and more contemporary research prevented Heidegger from this fate too.

If there has been a final verdict it does not, as the film portends, appear to be against Heidegger’s favor.