Faith in a Time of Fascism: Heidegger’s Revolutionary Charm

This post is a part of our “Faith in Revolution” series, which explores the ways that religious ideologies and communities shaped the revolutionary era. Check out the entire series.

By Markus Weidler

If nothing else, Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) is a polarizing thinker. His texts tend to meet with strong reactions from advocates and detractors alike. Some have heralded him as one of the greatest thinkers of the twentieth century, while others dismiss him as a philosophical “charlatan.”[1] Early in his career, his lecture style proved so engaging that he became known as the “hidden king” of philosophy among the students at Freiburg University, before the publication of his breakthrough work Being and Time (1927).[2] To this day, one of the most widely discussed segments of Heidegger’s opus magnum is his analysis of death as the key to human existence or Dasein, as he calls it. Death provides the answer to the question about the meaning of life, for it is through death that we may realize what it means to live authentically.[3] This was a timely topic especially in the 1920s, when many of Heidegger’s students were veterans who had served in the First World War. Nearly a hundred years later, the idea that death can serve as a catalyst for viewing the human condition with uncompromising candor still rings true to many readers. Human existence is incurably unstable and incomplete, while those who stay mindful of this sobering fact have at least the dignity of honesty on their side.  Heidegger met the eschatological dread brought on by the Great War by offering a revolutionary reappraisal of life—one often written off as a kind of radical conservatism, in a time of fascism. Contrary to this point, this piece argues that Heidegger’s philosophy encourages a subversive piety whose sacramental basis consists of select poetic texts, which he treats as conveyors of a new sense of the German spirit (Geist), driven by a historical mission that pushes beyond any creedal framework or ready-made political structure.

The revolutionary orientation of Heidegger’s thought becomes more noticeable during the next decade, as Heidegger moves from stressing Dasein’s inevitable incompleteness toward exploring the possible fulfillment of a people (Volk).[4] Keeping in mind that for Heidegger, Dasein is never merely an organism with a biological expiration date—one can still say that the discussion in Being and Time placed the accent mostly on individual existence.[5] Yet, as Judith Wolfe observes, in the concluding pages of this work (which was to remain a torso) “a vague appeal to ‘destiny’ begins to be formulated which Heidegger works out further, in proximity to the Nazi party, in the early 1930s”.[6] For a short period, namely in the years 1933—1934, Heidegger believed that Germany’s authentic corporate existence could be realized in the National Socialist state. This marks the darkest chapter in the development of Heidegger’s thought, and while it is true that he became disillusioned with the Hitler regime soon after, it would be hasty to conclude that his philosophy took a decisive turn toward the apolitical. Even before the publication of Heidegger’s controversial Black Notebooks (his philosophical diary from 1931 to 1941), perceptive commentators like Sean McGrath have discerned elements of “spiritual” fascism in Heidegger’s thought which, for better or worse, put him closer to Benito Mussolini, the leader of fascist Italy at the time, than to Hitler.

For both Mussolini and Heidegger the state is a moral entity, animated by the spiritual destiny of the people, which individuates itself in the form of a single leader, the führer, the corporate man whose mind and heart is identical to the mind and heart of the Volk. A movement of such primordial power could not but wreak havoc on preexisting political structures; much would have to be destroyed before anything new could develop. Individuals would need to display great virtue if they wished to contribute to the historical moment.[7]

One important reason why many scholars, who seriously engage with Heidegger’s texts across the different phases of his intellectual evolution, do not simply write him off as a fascist thinker pertains to another element that becomes prominent in Heidegger’s writings from the mid-1930s onwards: the pivotal role he assigns to art. After giving up on Hitler as the proper embodiment of Germany’s “destiny,” Heidegger adheres to the conviction that social coexistence is a puzzle none of us can solve on our own. Beyond the confines of both traditional politics and organized religion, Heidegger insists, we are in need of a sweeping revelation that will give us a new sense of belonging, based on a new sense of the holy; and the medium for such unorthodox revelation is “great art.”[8] The meaning of this phrase is specified in Heidegger’s most famous commentary on the subject, that is, in his essay on “The Origin of the Work of Art” (1936). There he writes: “Whenever art happens . . . a thrust enters history and history either begins or resumes. History, here, does not mean a sequence of events in time, no matter how important. History is the transporting of a people into its appointed task as the entry into its endowment.”[9]

In terms of art-induced revelation without organized religion, the fundamental truth a work of art can bring forth consists in the dispensational character of ultimate reality or “Being,” in Heidegger’s terminology. Construed as the meaning-sponsoring but not yet interpreted background from which all social domains emerge, the cosmos is not neutral but morally rousing. This is an assumption Heidegger shared with his fellow philosopher Max Scheler, although the two thinkers will draw markedly different conclusions from this initial tenet.[10] For Heidegger, what great art reveals are the moral currents of ultimate reality, which flow and mix differently in each epoch and thus overwhelm formal ethical theorizing. This is because Being’s call cannot be captured within the limits of a historically neutral conceptual framework, nor can it be reduced to a set of timeless propositions (e.g. a list of moral principles or universal value judgments).

Hinted by the previously cited remark on art as a “thrust”-like event with the power to reboot history for a particular people, Heidegger’s Being addresses itself differently to different collectives over time. Moreover, even within a given community, Being’s revelatory summons is not meant for everybody in the same way. In his Introduction to Metaphysics (1935), which was delivered around the same time he finished his artwork essay, Heidegger writes in overtly inegalitarian and anti-democratic terms: “[R]ank and dominance belong to Being. If Being is to open itself up, it itself must have rank and maintain it. . . . What is higher in rank is what is stronger. . . . The true is not for everyone, but only for the strong.”[11] Couched in such unabashed strong-man rhetoric, the present elevation of hierarchy to a metaphysical principle may seem disconcerting to many due to its apparent potential for discrimination. Also, if Being does not “speak” in ordinary sentences but communicates with humans through art, how exactly does such art-mediated meaning take shape?

Heidegger’s prime example of a great artwork with the revelatory power to infuse a particular people with a new sense of historical mission is Friedrich Hölderlin’s poetry. To be clear, it is not Hölderlin, the individual living from 1770 to 1843, who serves as Being’s mouthpiece. Instead, it is the body of his works that is considered a conduit for the release of sacred meanings. Even though he repeatedly ascribes communicative powers to it, Heidegger is adamant that Being must not hastily be equated with the figure of a personal creator god.[12] Thus, we must not mistake Hölderlin for an Old Testament prophet: “When they are in their essence, poets are prophetic. Yet they are not ‘prophets,’ according to the Judeo-Christian meaning of this title.”[13] Similarly, Heidegger does not claim any prophetic authority for himself. His interpretive commentaries serve as signposts for Hölderlin’s texts which, in turn, are viewed as signposts for Being’s directives.

This layered disclaimer notwithstanding, Heidegger’s decisive move against traditional religious settings remains problematic, as he replaces the communicative body of the church with the textual body of a particular poetic oeuvre. For one thing, we noted that in Heidegger’s account, Being sends different impulses to (re)orient different national communities. In the present case, Hölderlin’s poetry is reserved for “the Germans,” not the French, the British, or the Americans. In other words, Hölderlin’s poetry is presented as a cultural treasure to be guarded against usurpation by other peoples who “think” in other languages.[14] This defensive attitude is symptomatic of Heidegger’s abiding cultural nationalism. For another thing, the aforementioned dictum that “the true is not for everyone, but only for the strong” enunciates an ethos of the chosen few, symptomatic of Heidegger’s cultural elitism.[15]

In terms of this in-crowd mentality, he urges his readers to muster the spiritual discipline necessary for steering clear of two pitfalls. The challenge is to avoid mistaking Hölderlin’s poetic voice either for traditional prophecy (which would render it open to theological exegesis) or for ordinary poetry (which would turn it into a matter of mere literary studies). Signaled by this two-front gesture at distancing his own philosophical endeavor from other scholarly fields of interpretation, Heidegger is usually more forthcoming in stating how Hölderlin must not be shared than in telling us how his poetic works might yield anything like a concrete program for social reform. On a somber note, he concludes: “We come too late for the gods and too early for Being.”[16]

While this may sound elusive, it should not distract us from the rhetorical finesse, as well as the political charisma exerted by Heidegger’s self-staging as a philosophical guide through the textual labyrinth of Hölderlin’s poetic prophecy, which may kindle a novel sense of the holy in those who prove themselves worthy of receiving Being’s call. In this sense, the revolutionary charm of Heidegger’s writing style appeals to our vanity, because the tantalizing question in between the lines of essays like “Why Poets?” is the following: Are you willing and able to pay tribute to, or perhaps become, one of the “daring” ones, who “risk language” on their path toward re-sacralizing our godforsaken world?[17]

At the same time, Heidegger’s textual persona seeks to engage our apocalyptic sensibilities. Already in 1918/19, Heidegger had authored a review of Rudolf Otto’s immensely influential study on The Holy (1917). In fact, Heidegger radicalizes Otto’s conception of the holy as a history-shattering power. In its true sense of fascinans et tremendum (something that is fascinating and makes us shudder with awe), the holy emanates from Being like a flash that strikes into social life and overrides all accustomed notions of what it means to be a person or to be in love. No human self-image can withstand this apocalyptic effacement. In this sense, the creative-destructive power of the holy is so radically transformative that it exceeds any utopian (or dystopian) forecast. Yet, with the right kind of spiritual tenacity, Heidegger intimates, some of us may be able to perceive early tremors in great art, prior to the holy’s full cataclysmic impact, the hour of which (like that of Judgment Day) is not for us to know.[18]

Heidegger’s proposal for engaging great art to unleash the disruptive potential of the holy continues to attract those who are eager to explore alternative forms of unchurched faith. In this vein, Heidegger invites his readers to follow his texts like a seismographic script indicative of spiritual earthquakes that will unravel our social fabric, and spawn unheard-of modes of reverence in specific peoples, according to Being’s inscrutable dictates. In today’s heady public climate, reading Heidegger remains a worthwhile challenge, if we approach his religiously inflected populism as a symptom of subversive desire, but never as a guide to political (re)construction.


Markus Weidler is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Columbus State University in Columbus, Georgia. His book, Heidegger’s Style: On Philosophical Anthropology and Aesthetics (2018), was published by Bloomsbury Academic. In philosophy of religion, he has written on issues related to divine hiddenness. Aside from his work on Heidegger, he has published articles that engage thinkers like Walter Benjamin and Julia Kristeva, including a recent essay on “Profane Visual Piety: Warhol, Benjamin, and the Dark Side of Masculine Christianity” (2018) in The International Journal of Religion and Spirituality in Society.

Endnotes:

[1] See the preface in Sean J. McGrath, The Early Heidegger and Medieval Philosophy: Phenomenology for the Godforsaken (2006), x.

[2] The reference to a “hidden king” can be found in Hannah Arendt, “Martin Heidegger at Eighty,” in Heidegger and Modern Philosophy: Critical Essays, ed. Michael Murray, (1978), 295. It was also incorporated in the title of John van Buren, The Young Heidegger: Rumor of the Hidden King (1994).

[3] For an insightful discussion of Being and Time regarding Heidegger’s understated debt to the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), see Clare Carlisle, “A Tale of Two Footnotes: Heidegger and the Question of Kierkegaard,” in Heidegger, Authenticity and the Self: Themes from Division Two of Being and Time, ed. Denis McManus (2015).

[4] See James Phillips, Heidegger’s Volk: Between National Socialism and Poetry (2005).

[5] Heidegger, Being and Time, 68, 150-153, 322-323.

[6] Judith Wolfe, “Religion in the Black Notebooks: Overview and Analysis,” in Heidegger’s Black Notebooks and the Future of Theology, ed. Mårten Björk and Jayne Svenungsson (2017), 25.

[7]  Sean J. McGrath, Heidegger: A (Very) Critical Introduction (2008), 98.

[8] “The Origin of the Work of Art” in Off the Beaten Track, trans. Julian Young and Kenneth Haynes (2002), 19.

[9] Off the Beaten Track, 49.

[10] See Daniel Dahlstrom’s essay “Scheler’s Critique of Heidegger’s Fundamental Ontology” in Max Scheler’s Acting Persons: New Perspectives, ed. Stephen Schneck (2002), 67-92.

[11] Introduction to Metaphysics, trans. Gregory Fried and Richard Polt (2000), 141-42.

[12] For more on this central detail, see Judith Wolfe, Heidegger and Theology (2014), 142.

[13] Heidegger, Erläuterungen zu Hölderlins Dichtung (2012), 114 [my translation].

[14] See Heidegger’s “Letter on ‘Humanism’,” trans. Frank A. Capuzzi, in Pathmarks, ed. William McNeill (1998), 239-76.

[15] For instructive elaborations on these two strands in Heidegger’s thought (cultural nationalism and cultural elitism) see Gregory Fried, Heidegger’s Polemos (2000). Christopher Rickey, Revolutionary Saints (2002). Judith Wolfe, “Caught in the Trap of His Own Metaphysics,” Standpoint, (2014). https://standpointmag.co.uk/issues/june-2014/features-june-14-caught-in-trap-own-metaphysics-judith-wolfe-martin-heidegger/

[16] Aus der Erfahrung des Denkens (1954), 7. Here, I have adopted the wording of Walter Kaufmann’s translation in “Heidegger’s Castle,” in From Shakespeare to Existentialism (1980), 344.

[17] For a full-fledged discussion of this theme (daring poets risking language), see chapter 6 in my study Heidegger’s Style: On Philosophical Anthropology and Aesthetics (2018), esp. 148-53. https://bloomsburycp3.codemantra.com/viewer/5c5bfa46713c090001cc13cc

[18] See Judith Wolfe, “The Eschatological Turn in German Philosophy”, in Modern Theology 35:1, (2019), esp. pp. 67-69. Cf. also chapter 5 and the postscript in Sean J. McGrath, Heidegger: A (Very) Critical Introduction, (2008).

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