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Heidegger, the homesick philosopher

Once discredited by his association with Nazism, Martin Heidegger is enjoying a posthumous revival. So what is it about his ideas that resonate with so many?

If every philosopher has a home that is not a house – the mountains, the sea, the city streets – for Martin Heidegger, it was the Black Forest. This sprawling woodland, situated by the French border in south-west Germany, imbued Heidegger’s language – his writings are filled with references to “forest paths”, “waymarks” and “clearings” – and shaped his thought. There, in the solitude of his small wood cabin, he wrote his great work, Being and Time.

The forest even infused Heidegger’s love life. During his affair with Hannah Arendt, which began in 1924 while she was his student, Heidegger referred to her as his “wood nymph”. Following Hitler’s ascent to power in 1933, Arendt, who was Jewish, was forced to flee. But their relationship resonated long after, in what the late scholar of comparative literature Svetlana Boym called a “lover’s discourse”. In language, if not in life, “the poetic landmarks of their interaction” – an exchange of concepts such as home, world and freedom; a shared aching for ancient Greece; and a small chest of classical quotes to call upon – stood until the end.

But today it’s another of Heidegger’s relationships that overshadows his life and legacy: his affiliation with the Nazi Party, which he joined in 1933 and never truly renounced. Heidegger and Hitler also shared a lover’s discourse of sorts: terms such as Heimat (homeland), Volk (people) and “historical destiny”, a fondness for the German forest, and contempt for cosmopolitanism and “humanism”. Since the posthumous publication of Heidegger’s private notebooks, their common foe is also beyond doubt, despite his feelings for Arendt: “World Jewry”.

And yet, Heidegger still stands as one of the commanding figures of 20th-century philosophy. His heirs include Arendt and Emmanuel Levinas, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone De Beauvoir and Jacques Derrida. His denial of mind-body dualism – his belief that we are rooted beings, inextricable from time and place – continues to influence fields as diverse as architecture, ecology and art history. Readers are left to discern whether the essence of his ideas leads inexorably to fascistic thinking or whether, in that aged refrain, the life can be separated from the work, so that we are free to forage as we please.

Perhaps the most worrying sign of Heidegger’s relevance today lies in politics – where all manner of dangerous reactionaries delight in declaring their indebtedness to him. Martin Sellner, leader of the Austrian branch of the neo-fascist network Generation Identity – which allegedly has ties to Brenton Tarrant, who murdered 51 people in attacks on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand this year – attributes his “path of thinking to Heidegger”. For the ultra-conservative thinker and adviser to Vladimir Putin Aleksandr Dugin, mastering Heidegger “is the main strategic task of the Russian people”. When Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s former chief strategist, was interviewed by Der Spiegel last year, he held up a biography of Heidegger. “That’s my guy,” he said.

Heidegger’s thought cannot be confined to a single idea or interpretation. He pined for a lost harmony and simplicity, but left one of the most divisive and complex oeuvres in the history of philosophy. He was a nature lover and a Nazi philosopher; an anti-Semite and an almost rabbinical thinker (some Nazis were suspicious of his avid Jewish readers and wanted to ban his work because of a perceived “Talmudic-Kabbalist” quality). He was obsessed with the West and is adored by its self-appointed defenders. But he was also influenced by Eastern philosophy and, convinced that the West had lost its way, he became central to anti-Western thought, inspiring the 1979 Iranian Revolution’s idea of “Westoxification”. Meanwhile, his more spiritual musings circulate innocently on social media, as life advice for the lost at heart.

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There is no clear political philosophy in Heidegger. Born in 1889, in the small village of Messkirch, he was a philosopher whose style was often willingly – some say comically – opaque. Many of his key terms are so difficult to define that translators simply opt to keep the original German. At the time of writing, “Martin Heidegger” is one of only 174 English Wikipedia pages –out of a total 29 million – officially flagged as “incomprehensible” by the site.

This is also one of the reasons why Heidegger’s standing is so fraught, even when his Nazism and anti-Semitism are set aside. The way he wrote has especially irked Anglophile readers, who suspect a man without substance. So whereas for Arendt he was “the secret king of thought” and for Levinas “the greatest philosopher of the century”, Bertrand Russell, by contrast, thought Heidegger did not even warrant a place in his History of Western Philosophy (1945). “Heidegger is the only world-famous philosopher of the 20th century about whom it can seriously be argued that he was a charlatan,” Bernard Williams wrote in 1981.

But when, in 1927, the professor of philosophy – already known as “the magician of Messkirch” among his students – published Being and Time, the response was extraordinary. Heidegger acquired international renown, an even more fervent following and the coveted chair of phenomenology at Freiburg University, ideally located within the Black Forest.

The book was a refutation of the distinction between mind and body, and all the fallacies that follow. “I think, therefore I am” was, in Heidegger’s reckoning, a “naive supposition”, an anthropocentric conceit that went all the way back to Plato. Humans cannot be imagined either outside or prior to the world into which they are “thrown” – a bed of land, language, tradition, history and more. Heidegger believed that only once this embeddedness, this “Being-there” (Dasein) in the world, is recognised can it be restored to its fullest, most authentic form, and the “forgetfulness of Being”, “the homelessness of man” and “the Fallenness of the world” overcome.

For Heidegger, the rise of Nazism seemed serendipitous. Here was a movement heaving with his ideas, affirming the sacred soil on which Germans stood, exalting an existential enemy and deriding the empty equality of liberalism. As the Nazis promised to fulfil the “historical destiny” of the German Volk, Heidegger saw an end to the spiritual void at the heart of modern existence. Every day, he witnessed rationalism and science rid the world of wonder, and the logic of the market subsume both society and mind, while machines, rather than liberating humans, simply made them more machine-like. All this sprang, in Heidegger’s eyes, from the mind-body dualism that first separated life from landscape thousands of years ago, and was then embodied by both Jews and cosmopolitan liberals. Heidegger thought that Nazism represented – at least initially – a reunion with nature, history and the sacred power of things. When the Nazis planned the autobahns, they wanted them to wind through Heidegger’s beloved forest as much as possible, similarly sensing that it would arouse a primordial, patriotic spirit.

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The recognition of a spiritual homeland is at the heart of Heidegger’s appeal today. When large numbers of citizens describe no longer feeling at home in their country, or say they would rather live elsewhere, Heidegger’s belief that “homelessness is becoming the destiny of the world” seems to have been borne out. Amid our global crisis of unbelonging, Heidegger’s homesickness resonates with those who see themselves as strangers in their own land.

Inadvertently or not, most of today’s far right speak in Heideggerian terms: lamenting the rootlessness of modern life and the ravishing of national character by the liberal world order; longing for a lost social harmony between land and people. So while, say, Nietzsche – another favourite philosopher among the far right – fulminates on the fate of man, Heidegger’s emphasis on home has made a compelling political philosophy easier to find. On this basis, Aleksandr Dugin – who has been described as “Putin’s brain” – finds in his thought a “Fourth Political Theory”, against fascism (ostensibly), Marxism and – above all – liberalism.

Just as Heidegger argued that a Volk is not simply “placed in an arbitrary unrelated strip of land”, so does Dugin declare that a homeland is not one of those “artificial societies that have broken ties with their ethnic base”. Rather, Dugin says a true home is “a community of language, religious belief, daily life, and shared resources and goals” – a Heimat, filled with a feeling of belonging. “All philosophy is a form of homesickness,” Heidegger liked to say, quoting the 18th-century poet, Novalis.

For Heidegger and his politically minded pupils, the cause behind our unsettled condition is clear: liberalism. His understanding of liberalism was expansive, encompassing all notions of abstract equality (including Marxism) and stemming from the misguided “metaphysics” of mind-body dualism.

Any notion of a “universal” human must deny the embeddedness of Being, he argued, leaving individuals to languish in a lifeless state. Long before our “age of globalisation”, Heidegger warned that by wanting to treat everyone the same, liberalism would make the entire world the same – robbing it of all the particularities that made life meaningful. Stripping humans of their differences in the name of equality led not to individual empowerment, but to collective impoverishment – a spiritual death.

This reflects one of the key paradoxes of the far right today. What seems like an attack on difference – a desire for ethnically homogeneous peoples – is actually experienced as a desire for difference: for a unique national character not to be subsumed within a globalised whole. Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s Rassemblement National, calls globalisation la mondialisation sauvage: it “was supposed to bring us prosperity and happiness”, she said recently, “and in reality it brought us social and environmental devastation”. Even small symbols such as blue passports or measuring with feet and pounds (as opposed to what Fox News host Tucker Carlson calls “the tyranny of the metric system”) become the signs of an authentic existence, totemic traditions that tie a “people” – an ethnos, a Volk – to the past.

As the West’s reactionaries take an environmental turn – seeing the potential for planetary fears to combine with patriotic pride – Heidegger becomes even more attractive. His beloved forest, with all its trees rooted firmly in the soil, is finding new defenders. In Germany, the Alternative für Deutschland declares that society is not “some abstract environment standing in opposite to Man, but concretely the forests, meadows, fields, animals and plants of our homeland”. In France, Jordan Bardella, the new face of France’s far right and Le Pen’s protégé, eulogises the forests of Brittany. “The only forest I knew for a long time was a dreary row of skyscrapers,” he said in the run-up to the European Parliament elections, referring to his upbringing in a Parisian banlieue. “But I have an image of Brittany carnally French, proud of its identity and the cycles of history.”


Great minds: Albert Einstein and, to his left, Martin Heidegger, in Switzerland, 1928. Credit: akg images​

Heidegger’s hopes in Nazism didn’t last long. He soon saw how Hitler’s regime idolised efficiency and mythologised machines as much as nature. In the madness of crowds, he identified a dismal inversion of Descartes’s dictum: “I do not think, therefore I am.” He rued the way pseudo-scientific racism and anti-Semitism – as opposed to Heidegger’s more philosophical versions – reigned supreme. “The question of the role of world Jewry is not a racial question,” Heidegger wrote privately, “but the metaphysical question about the kind of humanity that, without any restraints, can take over the uprooting of all beings from Being as its world-historical ‘task.’” The problem wasn’t that Nazism was anti-Semitic – it’s that it was anti-Semitic in the wrong way. Disappointed with the Führer, Heidegger retreated to his hut in the forest, vowing to “remain at the invisible front of the secret spiritual Germany”.

But despite his disillusionment, Heidegger was unrepentant to the end. The Holocaust forced many thinkers to reconsider the nature and purpose of philosophy. Yet for Heidegger, rather than lead him to reckon with his mistakes, it somehow showed him he was right all along. Nazism was recast as just another morbid symptom of liberal modernity.

“Agriculture is now a motorised food industry,” Heidegger said in 1949, “in essence, the same as the manufacturing of corpses in the gas chambers and the extermination camps.” He seemed betrayed by the Nazis, even quipping to a colleague that, rather than apologise for his Nazi past, he wished Hitler could be brought back to apologise to him.

In 1949, Hannah Arendt returned to Germany on an official visit and arranged to see Heidegger. She was unimpressed with who she found, dismayed by his “childish dishonesty” and desire to “do nothing but philosophise”. Now it was Arendt looking down on Heidegger, “the secret king of thought” who had compromised his crown. In a letter to their friend, the philosopher Karl Jaspers, she lamented his retreat into the woods, where “the only people he’ll have to see are the pilgrims who come full of admiration for him. Nobody is likely to climb 1,200 metres to make a scene.”

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Today, Heidegger’s hut still stands among the Black Forest hills. On a recent June afternoon, I took a train and a bus from Freiburg and walked up the 1,200 metres. It’s understated: barely bigger than a bedroom, very much a hut, with no more than a small wooden sign to identify it. Despite Heidegger’s busy afterlife, it remains oddly silent, apparently immune to the cycles of history. Since Heidegger’s death in 1976, it has become a minor pilgrimage site, with leaflets in local tourist information offices – each exonerating his Nazism – and a sparse number of visitors seeking insight into the philosopher’s “work-world”.

The irony of all this attention – especially of Steve Bannon holding his biography in his hands – is that Heidegger had such little time for biography.

“As for the personality of a philosopher,” he said during a lecture on Aristotle in 1924, “our only interest is that he was born at a certain time, that he worked and that he died.” For a philosopher whose main idea was that we are rooted beings, forever tied to a particular place and time, living within and through a land and language, it was always a strange stance. Now it’s as if Martin Heidegger simply knew how damning his own biography would be. 

This article appears in the 11 September 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron’s legacy of chaos