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Non-Being and the Instant: Department of Amoral Philosophy

Thomas Sheehan:

Heidegger and the Nazis: Two years earlier, on January 20, 1948, [Martin] Heidegger answered the letter of his former student, Herbert Marcuse, who had inquired why he had not yet spoken out about the Nazi terror and the murder of six million Jews. Heidegger responded by comparing the Holocaust to the Soviet Union's treatment of Germans in Eastern Europe:

I can only add that instead of the word "Jews" [in Marcuse's letter] there should be the word "East Germans," and then exactly the same [terror] holds true of one of the Allies, with the difference that everything that has happened since 1945 is public knowledge world- wide, whereas the bloody terror of the Nazis was in fact kept a secret from the German people.

At least Heidegger's close gives Marcuse his "best greeting" rather than his "German greeting"...

Heidegger to Marcuse: Freiburg, January 20, 1948:

The package that you mentioned in your letter of 28 August has arrived. I thank you for it. I think that it accords with your and your friends' wishes that I have had the entire contents distributed to former students who were neither in the Party nor had any other connections to National Socialism. In their names, too, I thank you for your help.

If I may infer from your letter that you are seriously concerned with [reaching] a correct judgment about my work and person, then your letter shows me precisely how difficult it is to converse with persons who have not been in Germany since 1933 and who judge the beginning of the National Socialist movement from its end. Regarding the main points of your letter, I would like to say the following.

  1. Concerning 1933: I expected from National Socialism a spiritual renewal of life in its entirety, a reconciliation of social antagonisms and a deliverance of western Dasein from the dangers of communism. These convictions were expressed in my Rectoral Address (have you read this in its entirety?), in a lecture on "The Essence of Science" and in two speeches to students of [Freiburg] University. There was also an election appeal of approximately 25-30 lines, published in the [Freiburg] student newspaper. Today I regard a few of the sentences as misleading [Entgleisung].

  2. In 1934 I recognized my political error and resigned my rectorship in protest against the state and party. That no. 1 [i.e., Heidegger's Party activities] was exploited for propaganda purposes both here and abroad, and that no. 2 [his resignation] hushed up for equally propagandistic reasons, failed to come to my attention and cannot be held against me.

  3. You are entirely correct that I failed to provide a public, readily comprehensible counter-declaration; it would have been the end of both me and my family. On this point, Jaspers said: that we remain alive is our guilt.

  4. In my lectures and courses from 1933-44 I incorporated a standpoint that was so unequivocal that among those who were my students, none fell victim to Nazi ideology. My works from this period, if they ever appear, will testify to this fact.

  5. An avowal after 1945 was for me impossible: the Nazi supporters announced their change of allegiance in the most loathsome way; I, however, had nothing in common with them.

  6. To the grave, justified accusations that you express "about a regime that murdered millions of Jews, that made terror into an everyday phenomenon, and that turned everything that pertains to the ideas of spirit, freedom and truth into its bloody opposite," I can merely add that if instead of "Jews" you had written "East Germans" [i.e., Germans of the eastern territories], then the same holds true for one of the allies, with the difference that everything that has occurred since 1945 has become public knowledge, while the bloody terror of the Nazis in point of fact had been kept a secret from the German people.

In conclusion I would like to ask you to consider that today, too, there is false propaganda, for example that rumors are spread that contradict the truth. I have learned about positively nonsensical defamations about me and my work.

I thank you for the open expression of your misgivings about me; I can only hope that you will someday find again in my works the philosopher with whom you studied and worked.

With my best greeting,

M. Heidegger

Marcuse to Heidegger: May 12, 1948

Dear Mr. Heidegger,

For a long time I wasn't sure as to whether I should answer your letter of January 20. You are right: a conversation with persons who have not been in Germany since 1933 is obviously very difficult. But I believe that the reason for this is not to be found in our lack of familiarity with the German situation under Nazism. We were very well aware of this situation - perhaps even better aware than people who were in Germany. The direct contact that I had with many of these people in 1947 convinced me of this. Nor can it be explained by the fact that we "judge the beginning of the National Socialist movement from its end." We knew, and I myself saw it too, that the beginning already contained the end.

The difficulty of the conversation seems to me rather to be explained by the fact that people in Germany were exposed to a total perversion of all concepts and feelings, something which very many accepted only too readily. Otherwise, it would be impossible to explain the fact that a man like yourself, who was capable of understanding western philosophy like no other, were able to see in Nazism "a spiritual renewal of life in its entirety," a "redemption of occidental Dasein from the dangers of communism" (which however is itself an essential component of that Dasein!). This is not a political but instead an intellectual problem - I am tempted to say: a problem of cognition, of truth. You, the philosopher, have confused the liquidation of occidental Dasein with its renewal? Was this liquidation not already evident in every word of its "leaders," in every gesture and deed of the SA, long before 1933?

However, I would like to treat only one portion of your letter, otherwise my silence could be interpreted as complicity.

You write that everything that I say about the extermination of the Jews applies just as much to the allies, if instead of "Jews" one were to insert "East Germans." With this sentence don't you stand outside of the dimension in which a conversation between men is even possible - outside of Logos? For only outside of the dimension of logic is it possible to explain, to relativize [auszugleichen], to "comprehend" a crime by saying that others would have done the same thing. Even further: how is it possible to equate the torture, the maiming and the annihilation of millions of men with the forcible relocation of population groups who suffered none of these outrages (apart perhaps from several exceptional instances)?

From a contemporary perspective, there seems already to be a night and day difference in humanity and inhumanity in the difference between Nazi concentration camps and the deportations and internments of the post-war years. On the basis of your argument, if the allies had reserved Auschwitz and Buchenwald - and everything that transpired there - for the "East Germans" and the Nazis, then the account would be in order! If however the difference between inhumanity and humanity is reduced to this erroneous calculus, then this becomes the world historical guilt of the Nazi system, which has demonstrated to the world what, after more than 2000 years of western Dasein, men can do to their fellow men. It looks as though the seed has fallen upon fertile ground: perhaps we are still experiencing the continuation of what began in 1933. Whether you would still consider it to be a "renewal" I am not sure.

With my best greeting

Herbert Marcuse