Thursday, December 3, 2009

On not judging Heidegger

I have been reading the preface toThe Coming of the Third Reich by Richard J. Evans (2003), and while Evans does not have Heidegger specifically in mind, what he writes on page xx must apply to Heidegger:
“. . . it seems to me inappropriate for a work of history to indulge in the luxury of moral judgment.  For one thing, it is unhistorical; for another, it is arrogant and presumptuous.  I cannot know how I would have behaved if I had lived under the Third Reich, if only because, if I had lived then, I would have been a different person from the one I am now.  Since the early 1990s, the historical study of Nazi Germany, and increasingly that of other subjects too, has been invaded by concepts and approaches derived from morality, religion and the law . . . they do not belong in a work of history.  As Ian Kershaw has remarked: ‘for an outsider, a non-German who never experienced Nazism, it is perhaps too easy to criticise, to expect standards of behavior which it was well-nigh impossible to attain in the circumstances.  At this distance of time, the same principle holds good for the great majority of Germans, too.  So I have tried as far as possible to avoid using language that carries a moral, religious or ethical baggage with it.  The purpose of this book is to understand: it is up to the reader to judge.
“Understanding how and why the Nazis came to power is as important today as it ever was, perhaps, as memory fades, even more so.  We need to get into the minds of the Nazis themselves.  We need to discover why their opponents failed to stop them.  We need to grasp the nature and operation of the Nazi dictatorship once it was established.  We need to figure out the processes through which the Third Reich plunged Europe and the world into a war of unparalleled ferocity that ended in its own cataclysmic collapse.  There were other catastrophes in the first half of the twentieth century, most notably, perhaps, the reign of terror unleashed by Stalin in Russia during the 1930s.  But none has had such a profound or lasting effect.  From its enthronement of racial discrimination and hatred at the centre of its ideology to its launching of a ruthless and destructive war of conquest, the Third Reich has burned itself onto the modern world’s consciousness as no other regime . . .  has ever managed to do. . . .”

COMMENT:   I quibble a bit with Evans in that, though a reader, I don’t wish to judge either.  I will be satisfied (perhaps) with just knowing.  Heidegger’s situation seems unique.  No former Nazi not guilty of war crimes has been held to the high standards he has – and not him personally any longer, since he died in 1976, but his reputation.  To some extent we know the reason for that.  He is considered by many to be the most important philosopher of the 20th century; so anything that impinges upon, especially anything that detracts from his reputation as a philosopher, will be of interest to intellectuals in the West – and perhaps to intellectuals in parts of the rest of the world as well. 
            Also, he is held to a higher standard, because (we think) he ought to have known better.  We excuse ourselves from Evans’ qualification.  Maybe we would have behaved just like any other German, but Heidegger was “better than” we are and ought to have behaved with greater insight.  In looking back over the previous sentence I notice “better than” and grope for some other qualification: “smarter” perhaps or “more intellectual.”  We consider his philosophical oeuvre, and think surely he should have known better.  Some stop there and condemn Heidegger, but some of us keep going.

No comments: