Invitations to a ‘Marxist’ re-reading of Heidegger are repeated today with ever increasing frequency. Since the suit is pressed with such urgency, and we are recommended so reasonably to avoid adopting an a priori stance, we should at least entertain the suggestion. We therefore propose to devote a few hours of unprejudiced reflection to the question. It is fair, however, and only honest to our reader, to recall at the outset a fact of the matter which our petitioners for a Marxisant Heidegger prefer to pass over in silence: namely, Heidegger’s adherence to Nazism at the now distant date of 1933. Though one can dispute both whether and to what extent this support has any connection with the substance of Heidegger’s thought, one cannot ignore it. Nor can one dismiss it out of hand as an insignificant episode. For that indeed would demonstrate a blind apriorism, in favour of a conception of ‘high bourgeois culture’ extended beyond all belief. On the subject of Heidegger’s relations with Nazism, two documents of particular interest, not least because they are to some extent mutually illuminating, have recently been made public (they have been published in Italy in L’Espresso). One is the text of an interview given by Heidegger in 1966 to the weekly, Der Spiegel, on condition that it would be published only after his death. The other is a few pages of Karl Jaspers’s Autobiography which the editor of that work had again undertaken not to make public until Heidegger died.

Jaspers and Heidegger, the former at the University of Heidelberg, the latter at the University of Freiburg, figured as twin centres for the diffusion of German existentialism into European culture between the wars. In 1933, Heidegger’s sudden alignment with Nazism created a breach between the two that was never to be healed. When Jaspers—who politically was a moderate—comes to recall this event, it is with some effort at self-criticism. He recognizes, for example, that he for too long underestimated the dangers of Nazism. He also acknowledges, and it is a cause of self-reproach, that he did nothing to dissuade his friend from the adoption of such an aberrant position; but ultimately one is left with the impression that relations between the two were of too superficial a nature to have rendered any dialogue productive. In March of 1933, after the triumph of Nazism, Heidegger was the guest of Jaspers at Heidelberg. Once again, the two fell to their habitual philosophical discussions and together listened to records of Gregorian music. Only when he was on the point of saying goodbye did the departing guest decide to speak of ‘the rapid development of the Nazi reality’, declaring that ‘one has to become involved’. ‘I was amazed’, comments Jaspers, ‘and did not pursue the question’. But the ingenuous Professor Jaspers must have been left even more astonished when, a few months later, his friend returned clad in his new official robes as Rector of Freiburg University (‘addressed as Comrade Heidegger’), to repeat in front of the students and teachers of Heidelberg his investiture speech on ‘The Self-Affirmation of the German University’. As Jaspers testifies: ‘In form it was the typical academic speech; but in its content it represented neither more nor less than a Nazi programme for university reform.’

In his 1966 Der Spiegel interview, Heidegger himself denies that his Rectoral speech of 1933 constituted a Nazi programme; it should really have been understood, on the contrary, as a statement of opposition to the Nazi claim to ‘politicize science’. He does indeed acknowledge that, in his address he presented his own proposals for reform of the university as an element of ‘our great and magnificent awakening’ (Hitler had been nominated Chancellor of the Reich four months previously); but his words had been uttered in full conviction of their truth, and he thus had no cause for self-criticism. In substance, Heidegger’s idea appears to have been that of an autonomous ‘scientific service’, that would complete the National Socialist programme of ‘labour service’ and ‘military service’, which in Hitler’s demented conception was supposed to provide the basis for regeneration of the German nation. Only those well-dosed with fanaticism are drawn towards projects of this kind, and Heidegger can hardly have been immune in that period, if Jaspers was sufficiently struck to fear he might compromise himself if he told Heidegger his true opinion of the Nazi programme. Moreover, without some fanaticism Heidegger could scarcely have addressed himself to the students of Germany in 1933 in the following terms: ‘You should not allow axioms and ideas to regulate your lives. The Führer, and he alone, is the present and future reality and law of Germany.’ To the Der Spiegel interviewer, who reminds him of these words in 1966, Heidegger replies with evident embarrassment that he had realized on accepting the Rectorship that it would be impossible for him to proceed without compromise. But in thus suggesting that what is only explicable in terms of total intellectual disintegration was in fact a calculated compromise, the philosopher perhaps does himself an injustice.

Jaspers is correct to speak of ‘a Heidegger who like others had succumbed to the Nazi drug’; but he is too hard on himself when he puts some of the blame on his own lack of courage in not having told his friend that ‘he was on a mistaken path’. No one has a duty to speak when it is certain that the words will fall on deaf ears, and there is no cause to think that Heidegger would have been disposed to pay the slightest attention to the political arguments of a Jaspers—who, after all, was no more than another of those philosophy teachers for whom he had such deep disdain. In this connection, it will be instructive to record an edifying little interchange between our two philosophers of German existentialism, which is related by Jaspers: ‘“How can a man so devoid of culture as Hitler hold sway over Germany?”, I asked. To which he replied: “To hell with culture—just look what magnificent hands he has!”.’ Hardly a dialogue worthy of intellectual giants! The ‘provincial’ Gramsci would have defined the little colloquy as ‘Lorian’footnote1 and seen in it a confirmation of his observation that ‘there is a more or less complete and perfect Lorianism for every epoch and for every nation’. He added: ‘It is only now (1935), with the displays of unheard of brutality and shamelessness given in the name of “German culture” under Hitler’s rule, that a few intellectuals are beginning to realize the fragility of modern civilization.’ Today there are once again not a few intellectuals who are inclined to forget this.

However, it would be foolish to suppose that in making these points we have closed the discussion on Heidegger. For if we record the fact of Heidegger’s support of Nazism, and refuse to consider it as a fortuitous or irrelevant incident of his biography, this means only that we take full account of the ‘elasticity’ displayed by a thinker from whom our Marxisant Heideggerians would now extract fresh mileage. It is, moreover, true that as early as 1934 Heidegger discharged himself of his Rectoral duties at the head of a Nazified university and returned to the closeted world of philosophical contemplation. From then on he abstained from any word or deed that would smack either of apology for the régime or (God forbid!) of criticism and condemnation. It is also the case ‘that today Heideggerianism lends no support to any cultural or political position of a Nazi or fascistic complection’.

As a second condition of any re-reading of Heidegger, we must renounce facile attempts to discredit the thinker for his deliberate and programmatic obscurity of language, or to bring him into ridicule for those rarified banalities which alleviate the laborious decipherment of his pages (as, for example, when one reads of the ‘thing’ which ‘things’ or the ‘world’ which ‘worlds’). Karl Löwith answering the question as to ‘why one permits, if it is said by him, that which one would surely never indulge in any other thinker’, has already offered us a convincing explanation: Heidegger’s influence is rooted in the links that his thought establishes with contemporary historical reality. It is for this reason that it is worth engaging with so irksome a philosopher—who himself acknowledges that his thought has the appearance of ‘something disordered and arbitrary’.

This admission is contained in a letter of 1950 addressed to a young student who, having attended a lecture by the philosopher on ‘The Thing’, questioned him explicitly about the concept of Being, which, as we know, is the fundamental Heideggerian category. Heidegger’s reply (which was subsequently published as a ‘Marginal Note’ to the lecture on ‘The Thing’ in his Lectures and Essays) is a perfect model of ambiguity. On the one hand, there is a parade of modest declarations: the route that he signals ‘does not profess to be a high road to salvation, nor does it lead to any new wisdom’; it is at most only a ‘country path’ which has already renounced ‘any pretensions to produce an authentic work of culture or to represent an event in the history of the spirit’. On the other hand, there is the customary oracular tone, to which any reader of Heidegger must become habituated: ‘To think “Being” is to respond to the appeal of its essence. The response arises with the appeal and consigns itself unto it. To respond to the appeal is to surrender before it, thereby entering into its language.’ Any outside intervention in this dialogue, which is conducted in a predominantly cryptic language between the mysterious Being (the Deus absconditus) who summons, and its custodian who responds, would clearly be out of place. So much so in fact that, as Heidegger warns, it can come to pass that the custodian misinterprets the summons however finely attuned his ear has become in the course of persistent attention to its nuances. This will also allow us to explain the error to which the philosopher fell prey when he believed a ‘call of Being’ was to be heard in the language of the Nazi Führer.