Heidegger, Fascism, and Evergreen State College
One of the mainstay courses at the recently newsworthy Evergreen State College is an all-year course entitled “The Human Condition.” This 36-credit course has its inspiration from a book of the same name written by Hannah Arendt (1906-75). Arendt was an assimilated German Jewess student in the Weimar Republic before the rise of National Socialism. In the 1930s she was forced to move around Europe before finally leaving for America in 1941 as World War II initially exploded in Germany’s favor. Considered one of the most important social theorists of the 20th century, much of Arendt’s worldview was absorbed from German existentialism that was presaged by Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), but essentially rooted in the writings of Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), and Karl Jaspers (1883-1969).
While Kant himself often blew a gasket when he started to talk about Jews in his lectures, both Schopenhauer and Nietzsche were proto-Nazis of sorts. Schopenhauer and Nietzsche were the Fuhrer’s favorite philosophers. The Nazi cult of the “Triumph of the Will” was extolled in honor of these two philosophers. Heidegger himself was an actual Nazi who never repented of his fascist activities during the 1930s. In fact, Heidegger positioned himself to become the interpreter of Nietzsche for National Socialist consumption that continued until late in the war. More telling, Heidegger was a vehement anti-Semite. Jaspers was initially naïve of the true face of National Socialism in the early 1930s, but soon got educated. He eventually lost his professorship in 1937 due to a fascist gauntlet that enveloped him. He was married to a Jewess.
While there is no small disagreement among scholars over how subjective Kant’s philosophy actually was relative to the question of whether objective truth was humanly attainable this side of the grave, it cannot be denied that many German thinkers after him immersed themselves in subjectivist philosophies of what today are otherwise known as Romanticism and Existentialism. Both Romanticism and Existentialism highlighted a romance with nature together with an emphasis that esteemed earthly existence over the human mind and/or the Judeo-Christian worldview that described a heavenly realm far above the natural world. Both Romanticism and Existentialism valued subjectivity over objectivity, the subject over the object, existence over abstract categories, nature over theology or philosophy, naturalness over the civilized, authenticity over the artificial, spontaneity over mindful preparedness, real life experience over doctrine, matter over mind, activity over contemplation, intuition over reason, willpower over thought, instincts over rationalism, and holism over what was considered divisive rational analysis. What was desirous of Romanticism and Existentialism was the whole of life, not just intellectualism.
With medieval dogmatism, religious legalism, and scientific determinism that viewed both man and nature as a machine, what was needed was a re-enchantment of life itself for people to recover life indeed – romantically and existentially appreciated, and not just rationally analyzed. It was this German-based existentialism that captivated Hannah Arendt during the bloom of her youth. Her 1971 book on The Life of the Mind is a tribute to the legacy of this German escapade that grew up side by side with Kant’s secularist philosophy that dominated continental European thought throughout the 1800’s and early 1900s.
One of the most conspicuous existential truths of the 20th century is how young Hannah Arendt had a torrid affair with her teacher Martin Heidegger in the mid-1920s. The fallout of this adulterous relationship has yet to be sorted out in the postmodern academic Western world that they essentially established together after the war. While the affair came to an end, and Arendt was later shocked by Heidegger’s Nazi passions, like so many lovers’ quarrels that are so existentially rooted in the ups and downs of everyday emotions, she reconciled with him after the war. Arendt even became Heidegger’s apologist by downplaying his earlier Nazi commitments as an aberrant misjudgment of weakness that had nothing to do with his philosophy. In so doing, Arendt managed to rehabilitate Heidegger back into Western academia. According to Dr. Richard Wolin, Arendt essentially became “Heidegger’s de facto American literary agent, diligently overseeing contracts and translations of his books.” This allowed Heidegger’s brand of Nazi existentialism to seep back into western philosophy and leftist political, historical, and literary circles that laid the cornerstone for what today is called Postmodernism.
While Heidegger himself resisted being called an existentialist, he is certainly the father of Postmodernism. What is meant by Postmodernism is very difficult to express. First, Postmodernism is a form of existentialism. This by itself makes it very difficult to define because under existentialism, the application and power of rationalism and reason is greatly diminished. Ready-made designations, classifications, and descriptions are thus very hard to come by.
After the war, Heidegger’s writings became more opaque, which managed to disguise his Nazism. In so doing, Heidegger’s racism and anti-Semitism were replaced with anti-humanism, which should by no means be understood as any kind of progress, but a deepening of all the problems connected to his existentialism. Thanks to Heidegger, much of postmodern Western philosophy is deeply committed to various forms of anti-humanism, particularly with regard to the misanthropy of environmentalism. By overvaluing all of life, whether that be nature itself, or even by overemphasizing the willpower, passions, and instincts of human behavior rather than a thoughtful morality, Romanticism and Existentialism invariably opened the door to amoral anti-humanism where the laws of the jungle ultimately prevail -- as was particularly the case with regard to National Socialism.
Closely related, it was Arendt who gave to the Western world the “banality of evil” thesis concerning the Holocaust while writing on Nazi SS official Adolf Eichmann’s (1906-1962) trial for The New Yorker. Published in February of 1963, Arendt used Raul Hilberg’s detailed historical account, which focused on the German bureaucracy that administratively carried out the destruction of the Jews step by step. However, Arendt added her own existentialist kink to Holocaust interpretation by accentuating the bureaucratic everydayness of Eichmann’s evil. According to Arendt, Eichmann was a “cog” in a vast bureaucratic machine in which monstrous evil become monotonously “banal.” Thus, crimes without conscience became an existential routine during the war.
What somehow escapes Arendt is that such everyday existentialism is precisely what the German academy had been breeding in the hearts and minds of Germans for quite some time before the advent of National Socialism. Arendt herself was steeped in it. As such, she unwittingly gave an existentialist interpretation of the Holocaust -- an existentialism that was just as much of part of the problem with regard to the Holocaust as was Nazi Social Darwinism and ‘scientific’ racial hygiene. Both complemented one another into an explosive holistic synthesis -- the syncretistic mixture of which blew up all of Europe.
In the Deconstruction of Literature: Criticism after Auschwitz, Dr. David Hirsch warns, “It is misleading to disengage contemporary anti-humanism from Nazi dehumanization, for they share (the same) philosophical and cultural origins.” Hirsch has thus strongly argued that postmodernism should best be understood as post-Auschwitz. In short, postmodernism is existentialism after Auschwitz. Much more disturbing, according to Hirsch, the goal of postmodernism is to deconstruct the sober truth that the European academy, particularly in Germany, actually fed the intellectual beast which led to the Holocaust. Neither Europe nor the North American leftist academy have come to grips with the fact that the 20th century was a socialist slaughterhouse of epic proportions. Postmodernism thus moved in to save secular Europe from confronting its own intellectual catastrophe in the face of the apocalyptic abyss of World War.
Thanks to her own existentialism, Arendt never noticed Heidegger’s fascism that he taught her in the 1920s. Neither did Arendt ever acknowledge that her own educational background was deep-rooted in the exact same training that led to the destruction of her own people. Such was one of the “banal” dangers of being an assimilated Jew in Weimar Germany.
Existentialism does not enlighten about real life. It only obfuscates. This is the semi-fascist human condition that besets the postmodern academy in the West these days, particularly now at Evergreen State College, with no small thanks to the adulterous affair between Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger. Much of the dumbing down and mindlessness that is now at the heart of the modern university is rooted in existentialist philosophies of continental Europe, with the lion’s share of it imported particularly from Germany. Indeed, with regard to Jean Paul Sartre’s Existentialism (1905-80), Heidegger once quipped, “When the French want to think they have to think in German.”
Mark Musser is a part-time pastor, author, missionary, and a farmer who lives in Olympia, Washington. He is a contributing writer for the Cornwall Alliance. His book Nazi Oaks provides a sobering history lesson on the philosophical foundations of the early German green movement, which was absorbed by National Socialism in the 1930s that proved to be a powerful undercurrent during the Holocaust. Mark is also the author of Wrath or Rest, which is a commentary on the warning passages found in the epistle to the Hebrews.