Martin Heidegger and the Self-Assertion of National Socialism
by Karl Radl
READING THE universally acclaimed German philosopher Martin Heidegger is a pleasure that cannot and should not be underestimated. He was an innovative thinker of the first order and is part of what American ‘conservative’ philosopher James Burnham called the ‘dark’ or ‘irrational’ side of philosophy along with such other philosophic greats as Friedrich Nietzsche and Søren Kierkegaard (1) — both of whom as it happens were acknowledged by Heidegger himself as principal inspirations behind his work.
The reason that we hear more about philosophers like Nietzsche than Heidegger is not because they had more — or even better — things to say about the world that they (and we) live in, but because Nietzsche is — Walter Lippman’s words — ‘redeemable’ from his association with that ‘greatest evil’ of the twentieth century: National Socialism, while Heidegger and other major philosophers like the political and legal thinker Carl Schmitt are not.
Why is that?
Because Heidegger and Schmitt were not only supportive of the Third Reich, but enthusiastic National Socialists and we cannot have major thinkers being National Socialists — and thus possibly rehabilitate it by association — so we must bury them six feet under and try and interpret their works outside of their National Socialist context.
The fact that both Heidegger and Schmitt are both still widely studied and cited in academic and philosophic circles is not just a tribute to how innovative and potent their thought was and is, but also shows us just how intellectually revolutionary National Socialism was and is. After all, if acknowledged philosophic greats were National Socialists and never actively recanted their beliefs, then it requires us to take National Socialism seriously as a political creed and philosophic system.
To do this we need but read Heidegger’s much talked about but little read speech on his assumption of the Rectorship of the University of Freiberg in 1933. This was published in English translation by the Review of Metaphysics in 1985 with the title ‘The Self-Assertion of the German University.’ For the purposes of brevity, I will excerpt what is important in Heidegger’s lecture and provide some commentary.
Heidegger begins ‘The Self-Assertion of the German University’ by stating that: ‘Self-governance means: to set our own task, to determine ourselves the way and manner in which it is to be realized, so that thus we shall be what we ought to be.’ (2)
Heidegger begins by taking the concept of ‘liberty’ — so beloved of armchair philosophers and rhetorical blowhards — and asking what is actually behind it. His answer: self-government. After all, liberty is but another way of asking ‘what can I do?’ which also requires the secondary question ‘should I do it?’ that defines the idea of ‘self-governance.’
In other words, Heidegger — as Schmitt did in ‘The Concept of the Political’ — is making the astute observation that ‘liberty’ is not a matter of ‘can I’ but ‘should I.’
This has found a modern echo in the Jewish writer Alain Finkielkraut who talked about how modernity condemns the ‘militant’ (aka the man who exercises strict self-government) for having a ‘puritan mentality and totalitarian inclination’ and instead wants people to engage with their ‘liberty and libido.’ (3)
Bringing together Heidegger’s point about ‘self-government’ and Finkielkraut’s identification of the counterpoint to the idea of self-control, the Anglo-German Kantian philosopher, political commentator, and conservative — as well as later friend of, and inspiration to, Adolf Hitler — Houston Stewart Chamberlain commented that: ‘Characteristic of German liberty is the conscious assertion of the whole. All individual parts of the empire preserve their independence and submit to be subjected to the whole. Thus, too, every man submits from infancy for the good of the whole. This is the first step to liberty.’ (4)
What Chamberlain identifies here is that ‘self-government’ is indeed the fundamental idea behind ‘liberty’ and that ‘liberty’ is found not in being a slave to your desires — which is actually Nietzsche’s long-misstated concept of ‘Slave Morality’ — but rather in mastering those desires and then actively choosing to put the ‘good of the whole’ before the good of the ‘individual parts.’
But what is the basis for doing this?
Well, it comes down to what Harvard biologist Edward Wilson said of Marxism: ‘Wonderful theory, wrong species.’
The South African surgeon and writer Gerritt Mes put it less succinctly but more clearly than Wilson did when he argued that the problem is that the concept of ‘liberty’ is usually taken as an abstraction rather than being placed in its natural context. (5)
Or put even more bluntly in the year that Heidegger delivered his ‘The Self-Assertion of the German University,’ Italian Fascist leader Benito Mussolini wrote in ‘The Living Age’ that: ‘The principle that society exists solely through the well-being and the personal liberty of all the individuals of which it is composed does not appear to be conformable to the plans of Nature, in whose workings the race alone seems to be taken into consideration, and the individual sacrificed to it.’ (6)
In other words: the ‘liberty’ of the individual conceived of simply as ‘can I’ rather than ‘should I’ does not conform to human nature nor the natural world we find around us. Therefore, because humanity — as Wilson might say — is not a ‘lone hunter’ but a ‘pack animal’; the greatest form of self-assertion an individual can make is to put the ‘good of the whole’ before the good of the ‘individual parts.’
This doesn’t make us all drab automatons with no individuality or defining characteristics — as St. Thomas More famously imagined in his 1516 political satire Utopia — and which has been used as an argument in and of itself by Christian philosophers against Fascism, Marxism, and National Socialism ever since (7) — but rather individuals who consciously choose to put the ‘good of the whole’ before the good of ourselves as an individual — in much the same way that a soldier willingly puts his life on the line to take out a machine gun nest or a tank so that the rest of his squad-mates might live.
After all, if we are all individuals and our personal ‘liberty and libido’ is all that really matters — which is the end result of both libertarian and liberal thought — then why would anyone put his life on the line to take out that machine gun nest or tank? What do they get out of it?
What do they stand to lose?
Their very lives.
By talking of the importance of ‘self-governance’ and identifying that as the key to ‘self-assertion’ Heidegger is pointing out the simple reality that what ‘liberty’ is really talking about is not ‘can I do this’ but ‘should I do this,’ which then requires us to re-evaluate everything we previously took for granted, because the individual alone is no longer a rational subject for inquiry. Rather we have to look at the individual within Nature.
It is the individual within Nature that Heidegger speaks of next in ‘The Self-Assertion of the German University’ when he discusses science, the arbiter of what an individual within Nature is.
He writes that:
Our ownmost being itself stands before a great transformation, if what that passionate seeker of God and the last German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, said is true: “God is dead” — and if we have to face up to the forsakenness of modern man in the midst of what is, what then is the situation of science?
What was in the beginning the awed perseverance of the Greeks in the face of what is, transforms itself then into the completely unguarded exposure to the hidden and uncertain, i.e. , the questionable. Questioning is then no longer a preliminary step, to give way to the answer and thus to knowledge, but questioning becomes itself the highest form of knowing. Questioning then unfolds its own ownmost strength to unlock in all things what is essential. Questioning then forces our vision into the most simple focus on the inescapable.
Such questioning shatters the division of the sciences into rigidly separated specialities, carries them back from their endless and aimless dispersal into isolated fields and corners, and exposes science once again to the fertility and the blessing bestowed by all the world-shaping powers of human-historical being, such as: nature, history, language; people, custom, state; poetry, thought, faith; disease, madness; death, law, economy, technology.
If we will the essence understood as the questioning, unguarded holding of one’s ground in the midst of the totality of what-is, this will to essence will create for our people its world, a world of the innermost and most extreme danger, i.e., its truly spiritual world. For “spirit” is neither empty cleverness, nor the noncommittal play of wit, nor the endless drift of rational distinctions, and especially not world reason; spirit is primordially attuned, knowing resoluteness towards the essence of Being. And the spiritual world of a people is not the superstructure of a culture, no more than it is an armoury stuffed with useful facts and values; it is the power that most deeply preserves the people’s strengths, which are tied to earth and blood; as such it is the power that most deeply moves and most profoundly shakes its being. Only a spiritual world gives the people the assurance of greatness. For it necessitates that the constant decision between the will to greatness and a letting things happen that means decline, will be the law presiding over the march that our people has begun into its future history. (8)
What Heidegger is telling us here is that if we take as our assumption that ‘God is dead’ as Nietzsche said — and this doesn’t literally mean that ‘God is dead’ but rather ‘God will not save us from ourselves’ thus only we ourselves can do that — then it forces us to re-evaluate and question everything about us afresh.
If we cannot appeal to a personal God — or Goddess for that matter — for assistance and be reasonably assured that our appeals and prayers will be answered in a timely manner or at all, then we have to re-evaluate and question everything that came before us, keep what stands up to our probing re-evaluation and questioning, and discard the rest in totality, both practice and theory.
We have to revolutionize both our thinking and the application of that thought, because one without the other simply makes your thought so much “piss and wind” as Burnham was rightly at pains to emphasize. (9)
This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t study the past and learn from it, but the spirit of our age must not and cannot be one of nostalgia for ideas that simply cannot stand against probing re-evaluation and questioning, since just because something is ‘traditional’ or ‘innovative’ doesn’t mean that is actually right or wrong. (10)
Heidegger’s statement that we need to re-evaluate and question everything as well as be comfortable in doing that regularly and ruthlessly is derived from Nietzsche’s argument that we need a ‘transvaluation of all values’ in order to make ourselves as individuals anew in this world of diffuse self-interest and unbridled hedonism.
The realization of this ‘transvaluation of all values’ lies not in trying to recreate and sustain a nostalgic past or trying to desperately rehabilitate what is dead or decaying, but rather forging a new synthesis that will preserve what is worth preserving and supersede that which is dead or decaying.
This the spirit that is embodied within National Socialism, which demands a return to viewing the individual within Nature rather than looking at the individual without any context and thus ascribing to him ‘natural rights’ that don’t exist within Nature itself.
One of the founders of modern psychology, Carl Gustav Jung, famously identified this within National Socialism when he stated in his widely-cited 1936 essay ‘Wotan’:
But what is more than curious — indeed, piquant to a degree — is that an ancient god of storm and frenzy, the long quiescent Wotan, should awake, like an extinct volcano, to new activity, in a civilized country that had long been supposed to have outgrown the Middle Ages. We have seen him come to life in the German Youth Movement, and right at the beginning the blood of several sheep was shed in honour of his resurrection. Armed with rucksack and lute, blond youths, and sometimes girls as well, were to be seen as restless wanderers on every road from the North Cape to Sicily, faithful votaries of the roving god. Later, towards the end of the Weimar Republic, the wandering role was taken over by thousands of unemployed, who were to be met with everywhere on their aimless journeys. By 1933 they wandered no longer but marched in their hundreds of thousands. The Hitler movement literally brought the whole of Germany to its feet, from five-year-olds to veterans, and produced a spectacle of a nation migrating from one place to another. Wotan the wanderer was on the move. (11)
Key within what Jung identifies as a nation waking “like an extinct volcano to new activity’ is the break with the idea of the ‘civilized country’ ‘that is supposed to have outgrown’ its medieval beliefs.
This both alarmed and pleased Jung — since despite his attempts to distance himself from National Socialism during and after the Second World War, he was an ardent supporter of the Third Reich throughout the 1930s (12) — as it was a complete re-evaluation and questioning of the past — especially as Jung’s famous Jewish rival Sigmund Freud’s disciples and fellow Jews were booted out of German universities while Jung’s German disciples were promoted — but it concerned him as Jung was afraid, as many were, of the beat of the drum of a new worldview that was not only militant but truly revolutionary in every sense of the word.
Heidegger, by contrast, was extremely enthusiastic about the prospects for a complete ‘transvaluation of all values’ heralding a complete break with the dominant, sentimental, and smugly bourgeois Victorian values of his day, bringing in a new epoch of world history and witnessing the creation of a world-conquering civilization the like of which hadn’t been seen since the legions of ancient Rome spread their new civilization and culture with their swords, scrolls, and sestertii.
He eulogizes this new type of civilization he envisions being created in Germany by National Socialism in ‘The Self-Assertion of the German University,’ writing that:
The first bond binds into the community of the people. It obligates to help carry the burden and to participate actively in the troubles, endeavours, and skills of all its estates and members. From now on this bond will be fixed and rooted in the being of the German student by means of the Labour Service.
The second bond binds to the honour and destiny of the nation in the midst of other peoples. It demands readiness, secured by knowledge and skill, and tightened by discipline, to give all. In the future this bond will encompass and penetrate the entire being of the student as Armed Service.
The third bond of the student body binds it to the spiritual mission of the German people. This people shapes its fate by placing its history into the openness of the overwhelming power of all the world-shaping powers of human life and by every battle for its spiritual world. Thus exposed to the more extreme questionableness of its own being, this people wills itself to be a spiritual people. It demands of itself and for itself that its leaders and guardians possess the strictest clarity of the highest, widest, and richest knowledge. Still youthful students, who at an early age have dared to act as men and who extend their will to the future destiny of the nation, force themselves, from the very ground of their being, to serve this knowledge. They will no longer permit Knowledge Service to be the dull and quick training for a “distinguished” profession. Because the statesman and the teacher, the doctor, and the judge, the minister and the architect, lead the being of people and state, because they watch over it and keep it honed in its fundamental relations to the world-shaping powers of human life, these professions and the training for them have been entrusted to the Knowledge Service. Knowledge does not serve the professions, quite the reverse: the professions effect and administer that highest and essential knowledge of the people concerning its entire being. But for us this knowledge is not the settled ‘taking note of’ essences and values in themselves; it is the most severe endangerment of human life in the midst of the overwhelming power of what is. The very questionableness of Being, indeed, compels the people to work and fight and forces it into its state, to which the professions belong.
The three bonds — by the people, to the destiny of the state, in a spiritual mission — are equally primordial to the German essence. The three services that stem from it — Labour Service, Armed Service, and Knowledge Service — are equally necessary and of equal rank.
Only engaged knowledge about the people, and knowledge about the destiny of the state that keeps itself in readiness — only these create, at one with knowledge about the spiritual mission, the primordial and full essence of science, whose realization is our task — supposing that we submit to the distant command of the beginning of our spiritual-historical being.
This science is meant when the essence of the German university is delimited as the “high” school that, grounded in science, by means of science, educates and disciplines the leaders and guardians of the fate of the German people. (13)
Heidegger here draws heavily on the work of the German soldier turned political theorist Ernst Junger with his 1932 vision in ‘The Worker’ of a completely new kind of activist society of warrior-scholar-workers — obviously mapped by Heidegger as the Armed Service, Knowledge Service, and Labour Service respectively.
He also prefigures Junger’s own categorical rejection of ‘liberty, security and ease’ in the latter’s 1934 ‘On Pain’ (14) when he states that we must live (not just exist) in a state of ‘extreme danger,’ so that we might always be re-evaluating and questioning everything to create what Junger described as an ‘activist state’ — or put another way: In order to have an ‘activist state,’ the participants within that state cannot sink into the intellectual, spiritual, and material miasma of tradition for tradition’s sake or revolution for revolution’s sake, but rather the state and the nation whose will it embodies have to exist in a state of permanent revolution.
This state of permanent revolution is a modified form of the idea that Leon Trotsky was to popularize within Leninist Marxism based on the mistakes of the French Revolution whereby the leaders of the people must be constantly subjected to the will of the people and the revolutionary fervour maintained until an unspecified point in time until true socialism is achieved, and the new man created.
Yet in Heidegger’s mind — as in Junger’s — this Trotskyite ideal of a ‘new society’ created by permanent revolution is fundamentally misguided because it is universalist in nature and asserts there is no bond between ‘the nation and the community of its people’ but claims the only valid bond is found in our ‘common humanity.’ Heidegger rightly identifies that this is not revolutionary thinking but rather more of the same old econocentric philosophizing that had become the mainstay of what passed for political and philosophic thought during and after the Renaissance.
To Heidegger there is no ‘transvaluation of all values’ in Marxism and International Socialism, because there is no fundamental change in the intellectual basis of the system — only a modification of the superstructure. Put another way: You can use make-up to make a monkey look like a human, but it is still fundamentally a monkey whatever else you try to change about it.
Heidegger’s counter to Marxism’s claims to be a ‘new revolutionary synthesis’ has been widely echoed by both conservative (15) and Christian thinkers, (16) but few if any of these thinkers seek to build a new basis for civilization in order to remedy the problems that beset Western civilization both in Heidegger’s day and ours. Instead, they return to the same failed assumptions to which Marxism arose as a counterpoint, and speak of the need for a ‘spiritual revival’ — often envisioned as being created ex nihilo if only ‘enough people would pray’ — without also preaching the need for human activity to build these societies, beyond mere rhetorical appeals to ‘pray more’ and/or ‘return to traditional values.’
This is what Heidegger is speaking of when he spits venom at the bourgeois conservative institutions that had done so much to harm the German people by their self-serving ineptitude during both the Imperial and Weimar periods (as quoted above): “They will no longer permit Knowledge Service to be the dull and quick training for a “distinguished” profession. Because the statesman and the teacher, the doctor and the judge, the minister and the architect, lead the being of people and state, because they watch over it and keep it honed in its fundamental relations to the world-shaping powers of human life….” (17)
What Heidegger is getting at here is that in the new revolutionary state there is no room for self-serving careerism nor for bureaucracy for the sake of bureaucracy, because the ‘Knowledge Service’ (or Junger’s ‘scholars’) are given the important task of ruthlessly researching the world and forming the minds as well as designing the weapons and tools with which the ‘Armed Service’ and ‘Labour Service’ build and spread the revolutionary enlightenment of the new civilization by the book, the brick, and the bullet.
There is no primacy of any one of Heidegger’s ‘Services’ — much as there isn’t in Junger’s ‘warrior-scholar-worker’ triarchy — but rather they act in coordinated cooperation with one another, like a Greek Phalanx or Viking shield wall, forcing the pace of progress and spreading the revolutionary creed and bringing about the physical realization of Nietzsche’s ‘transvaluation of all values,’ rather than having a ‘civilized conversation’ about the idea in some conference room in a university where everyone just nods and then goes home and forgets all about it till the next meeting.
This is why Junger argued for the need of an ‘activist society’ not just a ‘new society’ and why Heidegger called for the ‘self-assertion’ of the revolutionary new order from the students and academic faculty of Germany in a formal declaration of total war against the world of the conservative bourgeois and champagne socialist elites by National Socialism.
This revolutionary civilization is not international, however, since as Heidegger points out the bond of the new civilization is between ‘the nation and the community of the people.’ This connection is not merely one of purely ‘spiritual community’ to Heidegger, as the ‘Armed Service’ ‘binds to the honour and destiny of the nation in the midst of other peoples. It demands readiness, secured by knowledge and skill, and tightened by discipline, to give all.’ (18)
In other words, the ‘nation and the community of the people’ exists as a distinct group ‘in the midst of other peoples’ against which it is the manifest destiny of the national community to be ready to go war, in line with the revolutionary synthesis represented by National Socialism. This is Heidegger’s application of what Wilhelm Frick beautifully summarized with the following words: ‘National Socialism is merely applied biology.’
This is what sets National Socialism apart from all other political creeds and philosophical systems and also tells us why Heidegger recognized in National Socialism the beginning of a revolutionary new civilization that didn’t only espouse the ‘transvaluation of all values’ but actually put it into practice.
National Socialism re-evaluated and questioned everything afresh, forcing the pace of progress by incorporating within political and philosophic ideas the discoveries of Charles Darwin and his successors — and completely discarded the econocentric and theocentric ideas that had prevailed before Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.
This is why Jung, as great a thinker as he was, along with so many other great thinkers and writers of the time, such as Gilbert Keith Chesterton, Aldous Huxley, and George Orwell were simultaneously in absolute awe of, and utterly terrified of, National Socialism — because they recognized in it the birth of a primal, aggressive, and revolutionary new civilization that was the physical realization of Nietzsche’s ‘transvaluation of all values.’
(1) James Burnham, 1986, Suicide of the West: An Essay on the Meaning and Destiny of Liberalism, 2nd Edition, Regnery: Chicago, p. 49
(2) Martin Heidegger, 1985, , ‘The Self-Assertion of the German University’, Review of Metaphysics, Vol. 38, p. 470
(3) Alain Finkielkraut, 1994, The Imaginary Jew, 1st Edition, University of Nebraska Press: Lincoln, p. 22
(4) Houston Stewart Chamberlain, Charles Clarke (Trans.), 1915, The Ravings of a Renegade: Being the War Essays of Houston Stewart Chamberlain, 1st Edition, Jarrold and Sons: London, pp. 60-61
(5) Gerritt Mes, 1964, Now Men and Tomorrow Men, 1st Edition, Afrikaanse Pers-Boekhandel: Johannesburg, p. 70
(6) Benito Mussolini, ‘The Doctrine of Fascism’, Living Age, November 1933, p. 239
(7) For example: Fulton Sheen, 1954, Life Is Worth Living, 2nd Edition, Ignatius Press: San Francisco, pp. 179; 277-278; Fulton Sheen, 2014, , Remade for Happiness: Achieving Life’s Purpose Through Spiritual Transformation, 1st Edition, Ignatius Press: San Francisco, p. 33
(8) Heidegger, Op. Cit., pp. 474-475
(9) James Burnham, 1950, The Coming Defeat of Communism, 1st Edition, Jonathan Cape: London, p. 8
(10) Sheen, Life Is Worth Living, Op. Cit., p. 181
(11) C. G. Jung – ‘Essay on Wotan’ [w. Nietzsche] – Peter Sjöstedt-H
(12) Andrew Samuels, ‘Jung and Antisemitism’, The Jewish Quarterly, Spring 1994, pp. 1-4
(13) Heidegger, Op. Cit., pp. 476-477
(14) Heidegger and Jung were in fact friends and shared a lot of ideas with one another; see Günter Figal, 2009, The Heidegger Reader, 1st Edition, Indiana University Press: Indianapolis, p. 23
(15) For example: Patrick Buchanan, 2002, The Death of the West: How Dying Populations and Immigrant Invasions Imperil Our Country and Civilization, 1st Edition, St. Martin’s Press: New York, p. 37
(16) For example: Sheen, Life Is Worth Living, pp. 53; 56
(17) Heidegger, Op. Cit., p. 477
(18) Ibid, p. 476
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