Continental Philosophy

Martin Heidegger

What are some important facts about Martin Heidegger’s life?

Heidegger paid dues as a member of the NSDAP, or Nazi Party, from 1933 to 1945. In his inaugural address in May 1933 as rector of Freiburg University, three months after Hitler came to power, he called for the students and faculty to serve the new regime, referring to “the march our people has begun into its future history” and to “the power to preserve, in the deepest way, the strengths which are rooted in soil and blood.” In June 1933, he told the Heidelberg Student Association that the university “must be integrated into the Volksgemeinshaft (people’s community) and be joined together with the state.” In August 1933, he established the rule that the rector would no longer be elected by the faculty but appointed by the Nazi minister of education, a position to which he was himself appointed in October 1933. In November 1933, he applied the Nazi laws on racial cleansing to the students at Freiberg, awarding financial aid to Aryan students, but not to Jews or Marxists.

Heidegger also secretly denounced to the Nazi government a number of Jewish or politically suspect professors at Freiburg, such as Hermann Staudinger, who won the Nobel prize in chemistry in 1953, and Eduard Baumgarten, the pragmatist philosopher who was teaching at Göttingen. Max Müller, the Catholic intellectual, was fired by Heidegger as student leader and prevented from getting a lectureship. Edmund Husserl (1859–1938), Heidegger’s former teacher, was denied use of the University Library at Freiburg because he was a Jew even though he had converted to Lutheranism. (Heidegger and Husserl’s intellectual relationship is examined in the film The Ister, directed by David Barrison and Daniel Ross in 2004.)

Although Heidegger resigned as rector in 1934, the next year he referred to the “inner truth and greatness of National Socialism.” At least until 1960, Heidegger maintained a friendly acquaintance with Eugen Fisher, the head of the Institute of Racial Hygiene in Berlin that employed the infamous Dr. Joseph Mengele as a researcher. Heidegger never repudiated Nazism after World War II. In his lecture on technology in 1949, he referred to the mechanism of agriculture, saying: “Agriculture is now a motorized food-industry—in essence, the same as the manufacturing of corpses in the gas chambers and the extermination camps, the same as the blockade and starvation of the countryside, the same as the production of the hydrogen bombs.”

Many were offended by this comparison by Heidegger of murdered Jews to agricultural products. In a last interview before his death, Heidegger described the main task of thought as achieving a satisfactory relationship to technology. He said that National Socialism had that goal but that “those people were far too limited in their thinking to acquire an explicit relationship to what is really happening today and has been underway for three centuries.” In other words, his greatest disappointment with the Nazis was their failure in addressing the problem of technology!

Heidegger was born in 1889 in the Black Forest in Messkirch, Germany, an area to which he maintained close ties throughout his life. He attended gymnasium (high school) in Freiberg, beginning in 1906, where he read Franz Brentano’s (1837–1917) On the Manifold Meaning of Being According to Aristotle (1862). He intended to become a Jesuit priest, but he was rejected, so he prepared for the Catholic priesthood at Ludwig University in Freiberg. He read the works of Edmund Husserl (1859–1938) there and, at the urging of his teachers, changed from theology to philosophy and mathematics.

After marrying Elfride Petri in March 1917, he joined the German army, advancing rapidly to corporal, although he was discharged for reasons of health. As Husserl’s assistant and a colleague of Karl Jaspers (1883–1969), Heidegger was successful in philosophy, becoming an associate professor at the University of Marburg, where he wrote Being and Time (1927) in a matter of months to secure that post. After this work, he experienced the well-known Kehre, or turn in thought, which led to his An Introduction to Metaphysics (1953).

Among his students were future philosopher Herbert Marcuse (1898–1979) and political theorist and philosopher Hannah Arendt (1906–1975), who became his lover before she had to leave Germany. (As a Jewish intellectual, it became evident that she was in danger after being questioned by the Gestapo [the German secret police].) During this time, Heidegger was influenced by Lao Tzu’s work on meditation, which led to his own understanding of Being through language.

Heidegger became rector of the University of Freiburg in 1933 and was a member of the National Socialist Party. In 1945, the French Military government removed his professorship, although he was able to gain emeritus status, provided he did not teach again. He had a nervous breakdown in 1946 but wrote his “Letter on Humanism” to make it clear that, regarding his study of Being, his work was not as humanistic as Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980) and other existentialists had mistakenly assumed. In 1950 his professorship was restored, and in 1951 he was allowed to be professor emeritus. To recap, he was first given emeritus or retired status without having been reinstated as a professor. Then he was reinstated as a professor and was given a normal emeritus status after that. He continued his work until he died in 1976.


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