Saturday, November 7, 2009

Is Heidegger's philosophy fascistic?

I don’t concede from having read Ott and a few others that Heidegger would call his beliefs “Fascism.” He was no admirer of Liberal Democracy. He thought a great leader could do a better job running a country than a democratic government could, but that’s pretty general. Modern day Russians think the same thing. Even if we concede that his initial view may not have been inconsistent with accepting Hitler as that great leader, that is not the same as accepting what Hitler eventually became. Many in Germany became disillusioned with Hitler and Fascism, but once Hitler was in power it was too late to do anything about it. .

Robert Paxton on page 16 of The Anatomy of Fascism writes “Fascism does not rest explicitly upon an elaborated philosophical system, but rather upon popular feelings about master races, their unjust lot, and their rightful predominance over inferior peoples. It has not been given intellectual underpinnings by any system builder, like Marx, or by any major critical intelligence, like Mill, Burke or Tocqueville.

“In a way utterly unlike the classical ‘isms,’ the rightness of fascism does not depend on the truth of any of the propositions advanced in its name. Fascism is ‘true’ insofar as it helps fulfill the destiny of a chosen race or people or blood, locked with other peoples in a Darwinian struggle, and not in the light of some abstract and universal reason. . . .”

“The truth was whatever permitted the new fascist man (and woman) to dominate others, and whatever made the chosen people triumph.

“Fascism rested not upon the truth of its doctrine but upon the leader’s mystical union with the historic destiny of his people, a notion related to romanticist ideas of national historic flowering and of individual artistic or spiritual genius, though fascism otherwise denied romanticism’s exaltation of unfettered personal creativity. The fascist leader wanted to bring his people into a higher realm of politics that they would experience sensually: the warmth of belonging to a race now fully aware of its identity, historic destiny, and power; the excitement of participating in a vast collective enterprise; the gratification of submerging oneself in a wave of shared feelings, and of sacrificing one’s petty concerns for the group’s good; and the thrill of domination. Fascism’s deliberate replacement of reasoned debate with immediate sensual experience transformed politics, as the exiled German cultural critic Walter Benjamin was the first to point out, into aesthetics. And the ultimate fascist aesthetic experience, Benjamin warned in 1936, was war.”

Assuming that Heidegger’s early political ideas favored a “great leader” accompanied by certain of Heidegger’s ideas of what that “great leader” must per force do, even if he thought, early on, that great leader might be Hitler, he soon learned that Hitler wasn’t going to take any philosophical advice about what he must do. If Heidegger’s philosophy was consistent with his political views, they didn’t give rise to German Fascism. And it doesn’t seem logical to foist subsequent German Fascism back onto Heidegger, who, after his rejection by Nazi leaders, spent the rest of the time keeping as low a profile as possible.

If Heidegger’s sin is believing that a nation can best be led by a great leader, it might be useful to compare him to Thomas Carlyle. Here is a quote from Wikipedia on Carlyle: “The reputation of Carlyle's early work remained high during the 19th century, but declined in the 20th century. His reputation in Germany was always high, because of his promotion of German thought and his biography of Frederick the Great . . . Carlyle's distaste for democracy and his belief in charismatic leadership was unsurprisingly appealing to Adolf Hitler, who was reading Carlyle's biography of Frederick during his last days in 1945.” I seriously doubt that Hitler ever read Heidegger.

So if Heidegger’s sin was neither creating a philosophy that supported Fascism nor in accepting Fascism as it came to be under the Nazis, what was Heidegger’s sin? Here I think of some of the writings of Tony Judt. The French did execute their notorious collaborators, but they fairly quickly wanted to quit talking about what it was like during the war in Vichy France because everyone collaborated in some sense. People lied about being in the Resistance. In actuality, the Resistance didn’t start until late in the war and the number that actively fought the Germans was very small.

And what was true in France was even truer in Germany. They all collaborated. But the Germans as well as the French were able to differentiate between those who loved Fascism, or who engaged in the most egregious behavior, and those who pretended to support Fascism in order to survive. The latter people were cowardly, dishonest, hypocritical, etc., but all the Vichy French and all the Germans deserved some or all of those attributes. “So let’s just put it behind us.”

Heidegger argued that since he was head of a University and trying to protect its survival (not his own personal survival), he seemed to be more supportive of the Nazi regime than he actually was and some people came to his defense in support of that view after the war. The sorts of questions that could be aimed at his behavior could be aimed at virtually every prominent German or Vichy Frenchman who kept his position throughout the war.

I should add that apart from feeling ambivalent over the Christian theologians who were influenced by Heidegger, I am no fan of his. But my objection to Heidegger isn’t that his philosophy was supportive of Fascism. It is that his philosophy was antihumanistic.

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