Whenever the infamous German philosopher Martin Heidegger appears in the headlines, it is worth pausing to ask what current events have put him there. Although a devoted Nazi and anti-Semite who worked energetically to reform the German university according to Nazi principles, Heidegger remains one of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century. In the wake of World War II, academics globally devoted an immense amount of energy to rehabilitating Heidegger even though he was declared a “fellow traveller” by the Denazification Commission — a hasty entity of post-war justice notorious for overlooking forms of complicity both large and small. In the meantime, scholars have produced many different cleansed versions of Heidegger to serve particular political needs. There is Heidegger the mystic, the naïve professor incapable of navigating Nazi party politics, the pseudo-Buddhist thinker of tranquillity and letting-be, the man of the soil and province, etc. As Ramin Jahanbegloo has brought Heidegger back (‘Philosopher of the future’, IE, September 23), it is worth asking which Heidegger might be mobilised to serve the political needs of today’s India. A brief glance at an event last week can help answer this question.
Last week witnessed a curious, yet ominous blip in the German news cycle. An unofficial delegation consisting of 27 members of the European Parliament toured Kashmir and posed for a photo-op in Delhi with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Among the parliamentarians were two members of Germany’s radical right party Alternative for Germany (AfD), a self-declared “party of the people” founded upon a violent anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant platform. Bernhard Zimniok, one of the AfD representatives invited to India, tweeted proudly that “[t]he shift in the political landscape in Germany is being followed with interest.” Days before, the AfD captured its strongest electoral victory yet, gaining 23.4 per cent of the votes in the state elections in Thuringia. Whether or not the AfD deserves to be labelled a neo-Nazi party may be a matter of debate and may even distract from what makes the AfD a useful ally for the BJP. The AfD is a völkisch party – a party that seeks to restore a positive meaning to a term (Volk) that was until very recently a taboo in Germany.
Any resurgence of Heidegger’s thinking in India must be read in the context of the global alliance of ethno-nationalist movements. For far too long, the dominant readings of Heidegger have misunderstood his political commitments by measuring them only in relation to National Socialism and not in relation to the longer continuities in ethno-nationalist, conservative, and anti-Semitic movements in German intellectual history. Many of these strains of thinking predated Nazism and lived beyond the fall of Nazism. Heidegger’s ongoing rehabilitation must be read as part of a continuous history of ethno-nationalist thinking which did not disappear with the end of Nazism.
While I document the ethno-nationalist strains of Heidegger’s thinking in my book Heidegger’s Fascist Affinities: A Politics of Silence, the most effective way to introduce Heidegger’s ethno-nationalist fidelities is found in the German Federal Archives in Berlin, in the files of an organisation bearing the cumbersome title The Cultural-Political Working Community of German University Professors. In March 1933, Heidegger served as a founding member of the group, which consisted primarily of professors from the prestigious universities of Freiburg and Heidelberg. The organisation’s aim was to begin the process of “nazifying” the faculty and curriculum. The organisation limited its membership to “ethnically German university professors,” while its platform called for “German universities to wear a German face,” “for the renewal of an ethnic consciousness,” and for the German university to become a “site of national-political education”. The platform disavowed affiliation with any particular political party, relying instead on a diffuse rhetoric of the “people” and the “ethnic limits of all genuine culture.” The fact that the organisation distinguished itself from Nazism is significant, for it is precisely this distinction which survived the process of denazification. Heidegger became an important symbol for a conservatism that could distance itself from Nazism, while still perpetuating many of the forms of ethno-nationalism that fed into Nazism and still undergirds the AfD.
The rise of the AfD is causing a very serious public debate in Germany as to whether denazification has failed. In his valorisation of the destiny of the Germans as a unique historical people, the German language, and the German landscape, Heidegger has long provided an intellectually palatable version of ethno-nationalism. If denazification failed within the discipline of philosophy, then that is because the larger body of ethno-nationalist thinking was not addressed, while the breadth of what counted as “Nazism” was limited to a very narrow range of thinking.
As the Indian consulate sponsors public events in Germany called “Let’s do it like Gandhi”, promoting Gandhi as a prophet of peace and self-determination, we should also be wary of attempts to rehabilitate Heidegger as a purportedly apolitical and timeless figure. As universities like JNU face the onslaught of ethno-nationalist pressures, we should remember Heidegger’s own ethno-nationalist ambitions for the German university system as a site for political radicalisation. If Heidegger is a thinker of the moment, it is because he is symptomatic of some of the worst elements of this moment.
This article first appeared in the print edition on November 4, 2019 under the title ‘Philosopher of the far right’. Knowles teaches philosophy at Drexel University, Germany and is the author of Heidegger’s Fascist Affinities: A Politics of Silence.