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Saturday, November 5, 2016

Martin Heidegger: Philosopher of Nazism and Other Collectivist Cults

The idea of authenticity Heidegger promoted has been deployed by anti-libertarian movements.

Philosophy matters. We all “do philosophy” every time we ponder what we should do or whether a statement is true or false and how we know it. To do philosophy, one merely need devote time to thinking about those important questions and others that arise in the course of thinking about them. That makes one a philosopher. I say this consciously and not necessarily systematically, but, generally, people who style themselves philosophers go for being systematic in their thinking, for creating “philosophies” that express their ideas about life, truth, and action, and that serve as a means of legitimating their actions or those of their followers.

Many of the problems we face today are the creations of philosophers.Many of the problems we face today are the creations of philosophers. It turns out that one of the most dangerous things in the world is a philosopher with power. Thinking systematically about things and coming up with the wrong answers can lead to systematically bad ideas: communism, fascism, political Islamism, and many other ideologies have contributed greatly to human suffering, and because they are philosophies, they do so far more systematically than merely random acts of cruelty or stupidity.

All three of these philosophers wrote in German, although the last wrote many of his most important later books in English. The first two are important to me because I believe that we can discern their influence in all of the major organized intellectual and political challenges to libertarian values and principles around the world.

In modern political communitarianism, nationalism, populism, leftist politically correct assaults on freedom of speech, radical Islamism, and resurgent fascism and national socialism in Europe. I’ll talk through what may seem technical issues in philosophy, some in puzzling language, but there will be intrigue, war, and – as this is Planet Hollywood – nefarious Nazis, as well.

Martin Heidegger

The first philosopher is one of the most difficult to read and understand because he wrote in a style that is, in my opinion, deliberately opaque. His name was Martin Heidegger and he is widely considered one of the most influential thinkers of the twentieth century. He made his big splash in philosophy in 1927 with the publication of his book Being and Time, a start on a longer work that was never finished.

In his book, he seemed to be following the program of the man widely believed to be his mentor, but whom we have since learned he despised and quickly dumped as soon as he had used him to secure a strong position as his successor at the university. That man was Edmund Husserl, considered the founder of the phenomenological movement in philosophy, that is, a scientific method whereby objective study of what would otherwise be considered subjective matters, such as consciousness and such conscious acts as perceiving, judging, comparing, and so on.

The Philosophy of Heidegger

Heidegger asks about the meaning of being, which is a term that has been considered either so general or so empty as to defy description. However, seeming to start with a phenomenological method, Heidegger looks into the kind of being that asks about being, which is us, which he terms – in German – Dasein. He claims boldly that we can see the meaning of being by examining our very asking about it.

In the process, he inaugurates what comes to be known as existentialism, for he argues that, whereas we use categorials to name the ways in which we can speak of a thing, such as substance, quantity, quality, relation, place, time, and so on, in contrast, Dasein is structured by existentials. He denies that Dasein has an essence, or a “what,” “because its essence lies rather in the fact that in each case it has its Being to be, and has it as its own.” Dasein, he wrote, “always understands itself in terms of its existence – in terms of a possibility of itself: to be itself or not itself.”

It’s by building on that primordial relationship that we might come to understand things better as rooted in something more basic.That kind of talk seemed very exciting at the time and seemed to allow us to start with human beings as we really are in the world, before we come to study ourselves using scientific methods. Thus, we live in a world in which we are related, not to scientifically described objects, but to things as they are ready to hand for us to use. When I relate to a podium, I don’t relate to it as it might be described in either Newtonian or quantum physics, but as a useful thing on which to rest my arms. It’s by building on that primordial relationship, of being at home in the world, that we might come to understand better things such as the scientific understanding, as itself rooted in something more basic.

In contrast to Immanuel Kant, who started by asserting the truth of Euclidean mathematics and Newtonian physics and then attempted to reveal what must be true metaphysically for those sciences to be correct, Heidegger proposed to start with the structures of human existence, without presuppositions about things as understood scientifically, and then build up a philosophy of human existence.

So categories structure our perceptions of things, but existentials structure our own existence. What is remarkable, however, is how so many of the alleged existentials and their substructures are drawn from the literature that grew out of World War I and the experience of combat and death, such as authenticity, resoluteness, steadfastness, and being toward death. Heidegger offered a metaphysical dressing up of the cultural themes of violence, brutality, and domination that had emerged out of the war, especially as glorified by the novelist and essayist Ernst Jünger, who had a major influence on Heidegger.

Heidegger’s History

Heidegger famously publicly joined the National Socialist German Workers Party in 1933 after the takeover of power by Hitler. He organized and supervised militaristic organizations of students and faculty, insisted on public allegiance to the Leadership Principle, or the Führerprinzip, and much more. After the war, he denied that he was a Nazi, presented himself as a naïve and bewildered philosopher who grew disillusioned with the party after just one year, who retreated into a kind of private opposition, etc., etc. His ideas were not at all implicated in National Socialism and should be judged independently, and so on. It was all lies. All of it.

After the war, when his whole career was at stake, Heidegger denied that he had been a Nazi or even a sympathizer, saying that he had not read Mein Kampf, due to how repulsive he found the ideas in it, which was clearly a lie. As the Freiburg University historian Hugo Ott discovered when examining newspaper articles from the time, private diaries, party archives, personal correspondence, and much more, virtually everything Heidegger publicly said after the war was a lie. In fact, Heidegger was not merely a naïve professor who was tapped by the ministry of education to come in and take over the burden of administration after his predecessors were removed by the authorities. The party archives revealed that he was an active collaborator and agent of the National Socialist Party before he was named Rektor of the university, and had actively conspired with them to take over the university. A National Socialist professor reported on 9 April 1933 to his party handler in a written memo that:

To take the first point raised at our recent discussion, concerning the alliance of National Socialist university teachers, we have ascertained that Professor Heidegger has already entered into negotiations with the Prussian Ministry of Education. He enjoys our full confidence, and we would therefore ask you to regard him for the present as our spokesman here at the University of Freiburg. Professor Heidegger is not a Party member, and he thinks it would be more practical to remain so for the time being in order to preserve a freer hand vis-à-vis his other colleagues whose position is either unclear still or openly hostile. He is quite prepared, however, to join the Party when and if this should be deemed expedient on other grounds. But I would particularly welcome it if you were able to establish direct contact with Professor Heidegger, who is fully apprised of all the points that concern us. He is at your disposal in the coming days, but I should say that there is a meeting in Frankfurt on the 25th which he could usefully attend as the spokesman for our university. (Ott, p. 144)

The lies that Heidegger told to save his miserable life were promulgated by a large movement of anti-liberty intellectuals who rallied to rescue him in the final days of the war and for decades until and after his death in 1976. His defenders, notable among them the French deconstructionist Jacques Derrida, who staunchly defended Heidegger until his own death in 2004.

Martin Heidegger was one of the least understood of philosophers because he was, on the one hand, so efficient at concealing his ideas behind clouds of impenetrable prose, and, on the other, able to falsify his record during the Nazi era.1 He was at the same time one of the most influential of all such philosophers; his anti-individualist ideas have infused and motivated the far right, the far left, radical and violent “Islamism,”2 the radical environmental movement – which was given power by his influential essay “The Question Concerning Technology,” the “Social Justice Warriors” who censor and silence others in the name of “political correctness” – and other collectivist movements.

Decades of post-World War II readers who puzzled over his writings about “existence” (“Dasein” in German) thought that Heidegger was writing about what it means to “be” an individual human being or for you and me to exist as a human. In fact, as he made clearer during the period of National Socialism (Nazism), when he could speak more openly about his ideas, Dasein is something of which one can speak only in the collective “we,” and specifically, the Dasein of a particular people, the German Volk. As Heidegger declared in his lectures after the National Socialist seizure of power,

The German people is now passing through a moment of historical greatness: the youth of the academy knows this greatness. What is happening, then? The German people as a whole is coming to itself, that is, it is finding its leadership. In this leadership, the people that has come to itself is creating a state.3

That is to say, in “finding its leadership,” the leader (“der Führer”) will decide for all of the people. And, indeed, that collective Dasein, by finding its leadership, will be infused with power: “Only when we are what we are coming to be, from the greatness of the inception of the Dasein of our spirit and people, only then do we remain fit for the power of the goal toward which our history is striving.”4 Rene Descartes, famous for his “Cogito ergo sum” formulation (“I think, therefore I am”) was denounced by Heidegger because, for Descartes, “the I of the thinking human being thus moves into the center of what can truly be humanly known.”5 Heidegger wished to displace the “I” with the “We” of a collective.

As he stated in a very strange lecture course on logic delivered under the National Socialist regime, which had little to do with what is normally understood as logic and much to do with Heidegger’s enthusiastic racism and National Socialism, “we have … the advantage that the question of who we ourselves are is timely, as distinguished from the time of liberalism, the I-time. Now is the We-time.”6 The “We” was not merely this or that “nameless crowd” or “revolting mass,” but the Volk.

As for Marx, for Heidegger, Dasein was not the existence of an “isolated” and “self-forlorn” individual, nor of mere collections of them, but of a self-conscious collective. In Marx’s case this was the class and State, and in Heidegger’s case the Volk and State: “it becomes clear why the character of the self does not consist in the reflexivity of the I, of the subject; for it is precisely the blasting of I-ness and of subjectivity by temporality, which delivers Dasein, as it were, away from itself to being and thus compels it toward self-being.”7 The entire performance is mired in non sequiturs, opaque language, unjustified leaps of inference (often justified by whether words sound similar), and other moves, but Heidegger considered it one of his most important works, although not published until many years after his death, as his explicitly Nazi works started to emerge from the archives.

Founding Political Correctness

Heidegger set the stage for the rejection of individual freedom and responsibility in recent decades by insisting that the center stage should be occupied by the We, in his own case the We of the German People (Volk), which he considered a historical people with a historical mission. Heidegger’s elevation of the concept of “authenticity” as the test of true existence set the stage for a wide range of anti-individualist movements: nationalist, racist, socialist, ethnic, and even the recent surge of “politically correct” identities. Others have merely substituted for the German Volk other collectivities, consistently with Heidegger’s polylogism (the idea that there are different truths for different groups) and rejection of universal truths.8 In each case, it is an authentic existence that is asserted to be collective, as distinguished from the mere “I” in the company of other individuals that characterizes classical liberalism.

Heidegger set the stage for the rejection of individual freedom and responsibility.Metaphysical collectivism, the assertion that existence itself is inherently collective, was eagerly taken up by aggressive anti-individualist extremists of left and right, all of whom assert that their ideological submersion of the individual into the greater whole represents the embrace of “authentic” Dasein, and all of whom are united in their rejection of the idea of individual freedom and responsibility. Of course, such absorption of the individual into the “We” always means the subordination of some individuals, usually the majority, to other individuals, usually a small and well-organized clique of people who have seized power for themselves in the name of the collective.

I should add that, to put him in perspective in an American setting, the wave of political correctness also derives from one of Heidegger’s most famous students, the Marxist theoretician Herbert Marcuse, who saw in Heidegger the metaphysical foundations for Marxist collectivism. As he excitedly wrote in 1928 of Being and Time, “this book seems to represent a turning point in the history of philosophy: the point at which bourgeois philosophy unmakes itself from the inside and clears the way for a new and ‘concrete’ science.”

What excited Marcuse was the way in which formal rules would be dissolved in a concrete life, inevitably a collectivity, and thus the rule-of-law that characterizes liberalism could be swept away. As he noted in his 1928 gushing over Heidegger’s work,

Recognizing the historical thrownness of Dasein and its historical determinateness and rootedness in the ‘destiny’ of the community, Heidegger has driven his radical investigation to the most advanced point that bourgeois philosophy has yet achieved – and can achieve. He has found man’s theoretical modes of behavior to be ‘derivative,’ to be founded in practical ‘making provision, and has thereby shown praxis to be the field of decisions. He has determined the moment of decision – resoluteness – to be a historical situation and resoluteness itself to be a taking-up of historical fate. Against the bourgeois concepts of freedom and determination, he has posed a new definition of being free as the ability to choose necessity, as the genuine ability to grasp the possibilities that have been prescribed and pregiven; moreover, he has established history as the sole authority in relation to this ‘fidelity to one’s own existence.’

Later, in the US, he became a leader of the far left and argued that capitalism and liberalism had so infused all modes of life that the only way to be truly liberated from it, to achieve real freedom, was to abolish toleration. In his 1965 work on Repressive Tolerance, the deepest source of political correctness and the social justice warriors, he argued that to achieve liberation would require,

the withdrawal of toleration of speech and assembly from groups and movements which promote aggressive policies, armament, chauvinism, discrimination on the grounds of race and religion, or which oppose the extension of public services, social security, medical care, etc. Moreover, the restoration of freedom of thought may necessitate new and rigid restrictions on teachings and practices in the educational institutions which, by their very methods and concepts, serve to enclose the mind within the established universe of discourse and behavior – thereby precluding a priori a rational evaluation of the alternatives. And to the degree to which freedom of thought involves the struggle against inhumanity, restoration of such freedom would also imply intolerance toward scientific research in the interest of deadly “deterrents,” of abnormal human endurance under inhuman conditions, etc.

The idea of authenticity that Heidegger promoted is another key idea that has been deployed by anti-libertarian movements, in which an authentic collective self is allegedly liberated from the abstract rules-approach of liberalism. Every modern national fascist movement, every modern populist movement of modern times, has roots that are deeply embedded in the soil prepared by Heidegger, which found authentic existence in a historical collectivity, which may be taken to be a national-linguistic-racial collectivity, such as Germanness, or the Islamic Umma, or community of believers. Heidegger’s thinking is central to the neo-Nazi Jobbik and Golden Dawn movements in Hungary and Greece, the Neo-Eurasianist Nazi movement in Russia, and in the Islamic Republic of Iran and radical Islamism generally. The Islamic Republic is a most interesting case, because the intellectual leaders behind its establishment were very committed Heideggerians.

This is an excerpt from a speech delivered at the 2016 FreedomFest.
Parts 2 and 3 can be found here and here.


[1] See Emmanuel Faye, Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism into Philosophy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009) and Hugo Ott, Martin Heidegger: A Political Life (New York: Basic Books, 1993).

[2] See for Heidegger’s influence on the founding of the Islamic Republic of Iran Ali Mirsepassi, “Religious Intellectuals and Western Critiques of Secular Modernity,” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, Vol. 26, No. 3 (2006), pp. 416-433.

[3] Martin Heidegger, Being and Truth, trans. by Gregory Fried and Richard Polt (Bloomington, In.: Indiana University Press, 2010), p. 3. The lectures in the book were delivered in 1933-34, after Heidegger’s Nazi Party had come to power in Germany.

[4] Ibid., p. 6. As he makes clear, “our western, German Dasein” refers to “our historical being-with-others in the membership of the people.” Whether “the derivative mock culture finally collapses into itself” “depends solely on whether we as a people still will ourselves, or whether we no longer will ourselves.” p. 11.

[5] Ibid., p. 33.

[6] Martin Heidegger, Logic as the Question Concerning the Essence of Language, Wanda Torres Gregory and Yvonne Unna, trans. (Albany: State University Press of New York, 2009), p. 45.

[7] Ibid., p. 139.

[8] Polylogism, in both its superficially distinct Marxist and Nazi versions, was subjected to withering criticism by Ludwig von Mises in such books as Omnipotent Government: The Rise of the Total State and Total War (1944), Theory and History (1957), and Human Action: A Treatise on Economics (1966), all of which can be purchased or accessed online at

  • Dr. Palmer is executive vice president for international programs at the Atlas Network and a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and director of the Institute's educational program, Cato University.