I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death
–Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Sonnets from the Portuguese 43
Livingston, MT. In the aftermath of the heady days of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, it became clear to many Christians that a noxious and dangerous element had crept into American politics. While posing as conservatives and even, at times, as advocates for Christian civilization, the so-called Alternative Right or “Alt Right” proved to be a strange movement that, although decrying the label “fascist,” celebrated the traditional marks of fascism such as fetishizing of violence, celebrating eugenics, and advocating for a purely instrumental utilization of Christianity.
In order to combat this movement, which, one must admit, had much more bark on the internet than bite in the real world, many concerned conservative Christians set about identifying and analyzing the intellectual roots of the Alt Right to demonstrate that the movement was antithetical to a sincere Christian politics. Among the most famous pieces was a March 2018 article in First Things titled, “The Anti-Christian Alt Right: The Perverse Thought of Right Wing Identity Politics” by The Berkeley Institute’s Matthew Rose. In his viral piece, Rose points to thinkers such as Oswald Spengler, who, as Rose notes, would be “horrified” by the Alt Right; the mid twentieth century Italian Fascist Julius Evola; and the more contemporary founder of the Nouvelle Droit or French “New Right,” Alain de Benoist, as providing a thoroughly anti-Christian intellectual foundation for the Alt Right, a post-millennial political movement that, in the two years following the 2016 election, drew so much media attention.
One of the thinkers mentioned but not discussed in Rose’s excellent piece is perhaps the most important and influential European continental thinker of the twentieth century: Martin Heidegger, whose concepts influence the discourse of the Alt Right. Heideggerean expressions such as “the they,” “authenticity,” “being-in-the-world,” “thrown-ness,” “dwelling,” and “being-towards-death” punctuate much of the Alt Right’s discourse, which bleeds across social media and YouTube into the realm of online conservative Christian thought and discourse. These concepts (and others), when read as part of Martin Heidegger’s large and complex philosophical oeuvre, have a distinctly non- or even anti-Christian resonance. However, a deeper examination of Heidegger’s life and work reveals that the German philosopher’s writings are, like so much of modern, postmodern, and what has been called “post-millennial” thought, an attempt to reframe Christian ideas for secular purposes. Moreover, in the case of Heidegger himself, the repackaging of these Christian ideas in the service of a budding philosophy of Being—as well as his odd attempt to corral German National Socialism within the strictures of his philosophy—produced a noxious result that has tarnished Heidegger’s legacy and sabotaged much of his writings.
The odd irony of Martin Heidegger is that the brilliant but deeply flawed German thinker began his life and intellectual career as a Christian. Martin Heidegger was born in Messkirch, a part of what is now known as the German state of Baden-Württemberg, a formerly deeply religious region near the border of Switzerland. His two parents, Friedrich, the sexton of their local parish, and Johanna, a member of a long line of German farmers, were devout Catholics, and the ambience in which Heidegger grew up during late 19th post-Kulturkampf Germany was deeply Catholic. In fact, Heidegger’s childhood best friend, his cousin Gustav Klempf, would eventually become a priest.
Like his cousin, Heidegger himself began the road to formation toward the Catholic priesthood, transferring in the midst of his high school studies to the Bertholdgymanisum in the university city of Freiburg where he lodged at a seminary. Heidegger initially entered the Jesuit novitiate in the western Austrian state of Vorarlberg. As Hugo Ott chronicles in his deeply erudite and philosophically rich, Martin Heidegger: A Political Life (New York: Basic Books, 1993), Heidegger was forced to drop out of the Society of Jesus at the immediate end of his two week trial period due to complaints of chest pains. Undeterred, the young German Catholic aspiring to the priesthood applied and was accepted to the diocesan seminary in Freiburg. However, Heidegger continued to experience heart trouble and was eventually advised to drop his pursuit of the priesthood.
Although the young man did go on to earn a Ph.D. in philosophy under Catholic direction and wrote his habilitation thesis on the Medieval Catholic philosopher John Duns Scotus, his twofold rejection from the path to the Catholic priesthood would radically affect Heidegger’s relationship to the Church, leaving the budding philosopher exceptionally bitter. Additionally irked by what he saw as a dogmatic rigidity in the revived Thomism prompted by Pope Leo XIII’s 1879 encyclical Aeterni Patris, Heidegger embraced Edmund Husserl as a mentor during the 1918-1919 academic year. Henceforth, despite voyaging into the waters of German Protestantism, Heidegger would, like so many of his erstwhile disciples, identify as a cultural Catholic for the rest of his life, while presenting a philosophical system that simultaneously mimicked and distanced itself from various aspects of Christian theology.
Scholars quibble about the exact number, but there is little doubt there are at least three fundamental stages in Martin Heidegger’s thought.
The first, conducted under the shadow but ultimately departing from the work of his brilliant mentor, Edmund Husserl, is Heidegger’s phenomenological-analytical phase, which is manifested in Heidegger’s best known work, the brilliant and epoch-forming 1927 Being and Time (Sein und Zeit). In this early work, one of the most influential and important books in the history of philosophy,
Heidegger’s quest is primarily in search of true meaning or what the German philosopher calls “authenticity.” The way to achieve this authenticity is to realize the nature of “Das Man” or the “They,” which is the opinion of the crowd, itself shaped by newspapers, political slogans, and other forms of mass media. People thus spend much of their lives caught up in the “everydayness” of mundane activity unaware or at least afraid to embrace their finitude and to live a truly authentic life.
Man, for Heidegger, is fundamentally Dasein or being-in-the-world. This means that one is “thrown” into a world that he or she did not create. One receives ideas, language, culture, and religion from a preexisting culture which that person did not create. As part of one’s path to authenticity, one realizes that he or she is in a state of angst, and this angst is primarily the result of one’s unrecognized fear or death. However, in order to overcome this fear, one must undergo an existential epiphany in which one realizes that he or she is “being-toward-death.” Once one grasps his or her finitude, he or she can be liberated from the fear of death and live an authentic life as part of the community in which he or she is thrown.
This narrative should sound remarkably familiar to Christians—especially Christians tutored in the work of the Danish existentialist and Lutheran theologian Søren Kierkegaard. In his 1846 Concluding Unscientific Postscript Kierkegaard had described “the aesthetic stage of life,” which like Heidegger’s conception of everydayness (and resembling Plato’s ancient “Allegory of the Cave”) was a life in which one was lulled to sleep with blind pleasure and day to day worries. However, similar to St. Augustine’s conversion narrative as well as the medieval concept of momento mori, Kierkegaard held that the goal of awakening from the aesthetic life was not to achieve an authentic place in one’s community, but rather to recognize one’s need for salvation.
Heidegger’s existentialism, however, was hamstrung by his stubborn secularism, which prevented him from seeing the transcendent and the gift of salvation. There is little doubt Heidegger’s existentialism, later taking a decidedly nihilistic cast in the hands of French philosophers such as Jean-Paul Sartre, has caused moral and spiritual damage to the West. On the other hand, there is another decidedly damaging thread of Heideggerian thought stemming from his second political stage that, in its appropriation of Christian theological concepts for secular uses, has damaged the Christian West much worse.
Being and Time was a bestseller in Weimar Germany, but so was another book written by a man who was also tragically raised Catholic in Mittleeuropa. Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf was published in 1925 just two years before Heidegger’s Being and Time. Like Being and Time, Mein Kampf diagnosed a severe malaise in Germany society. However, unlike the phenomenological and existential approach of Heidegger’s great tome, Hitler presented a fundamentally materialistic world view in which humans, corralled into ethnic herds, battled for power and control. More crucially, while Heidegger depicted an intellectual transformation that would bring about a more authentic life, Hitler perceived Germany’s problems in principally political terms, and the true liberation of Deutschland could only be complete when Germany’s alleged racial enemies, principally the Jews, as well as political enemies, principally the Communists, were expelled or eliminated.
It must be stated from the outset that nothing in Martin Heidegger’s life and work reflect the baseness and crudity of biological race science, nor is there anything in the great German philosopher’s work that smacks of the violent genocidal verbiage of Adolph Hitler or other members of the NSDAP. Nonetheless, as an entire industry of philosophical and historical publishing testifies, Martin Heidegger’s undeniable support for National Socialist politics as well as his brief membership in the NSDAP have created what is commonly known among scholars as “the Heidegger Controversy.” The question still debated by scholars is how much of Heidegger’s writings reflect the political ideas of German National Socialism. However, whatever the ultimate verdict (if such a verdict can indeed be reached), there is little question that in crafting the political philosophy of his middle period, Heidegger attempted to transmute Christian theological concepts into the realm of a dangerous politics.
As Christopher Rickey documents in a neglected but important 2004 work, Revolutionary Saints: Heidegger, National Socialism, and Antinomian Politics, Heidegger attempted to shift the Christian conception of “the people of God” and the “communion of saints” to a secular vision of the destiny of the German people living wedged between Western liberal capitalism and Soviet Communism. Attempting to bridge the sacred and profane, Heidegger—following a nineteenth and early twentieth century tradition, which in turn has its roots in certain branches of Lutheran theo-politics—crafts a notion of a volk or people with a specific destiny. Heidegger’s attempt to link a concept of a German volk with a destiny was matched by his own embrace of German National Socialism.
Upon his election as rector of Freiburg University in April of 1933, Martin Heidegger officially joined the German National Socialist Party. Heidegger would resign from his rectorship a year later, would quietly disassociate himself from the NSDAP, and would, in fact, come under Gestapo surveillance due to his perceived dissatisfaction with Adolf Hitler and National Socialism. Throughout this time, Heidegger held to what has been called a “personal National Socialism,” largely fashioned in the thinker’s mind from own musings on German Romanticism and Idealism as well as his ultimately futile and what could even be called disastrous attempts to secularize Christian theological concepts. This personal National Socialism is, in essence, what Heidegger meant when he, skirting dangerously close to racialism, praised the “inner truth and greatness” of National Socialism in Introduction to Metaphysics. Heidegger foolishly and dangerously thought he could remold German National socialism to be an aesthetic and philosophical movement that would act as a sort of post-Romantic (and ultimately what could be called diabolical) ark of European Civilization, replacing the Church as the ancient custodian of Western culture.
In Heidegger’s framing of this alleged struggle between a Romantic and ultimately pagan German National Socialism as new monstrous replacement for the Church, it was necessary for Heidegger to great an adversary for the apocalyptic struggle. Although having Jewish friends—mentors like Edmund Husserl, and Jewish disciples like Karl Löwith and Hannah Arendt—Heidegger firmly believed that there was an international movement of powerful Jews who were trying to destroy not only Germany, but the entirety of Western civilization. His diaries first published in 2014 and since referred to as the thinker’s “black notebooks” have recently shed light on Heidegger’s thinking on this matter. Although eschewing racism (something Heidegger’s strongest critics readily admit), the German father of postmodernism, nonetheless posited what he perceived to be an intellectual or “spiritual movement,” to which he referred to as “World Judaism” (Weltjudentumor), a term that indicated a cosmopolitan sense of rootlessness, and which “is ungraspable everywhere and doesn’t need to get involved in military action while continuing to unfurl its influence.”
However, “World Judaism” was not the only perceived enemy for Heidegger. In his 1933 commentary on his assumption of the rectorship, “The Self-Assertion of the German University,” Heidegger speaks of the “spiritual mission” and “fate” of the “German Volk.” However, for Heidegger, this spiritual mission is not something given to the German people by God (as it was for Luther); rather it is due to the historicity or historical circumstances of the German people. As Heidegger writes in his Introduction to Metaphysics, Germany, due to its preservation of European “spirit,” is tasked with the cultural and metaphysical redemption of Europe, for “Europe lies in the pincers between Russia and America, which are metaphysically the same in regard to their world-character and their relation to the spirit.” Ignoring the deeply Christian character of the United States as well as the lingering elements of Christianity under Russian Communist rule, Heidegger lumps American liberal capitalism and Soviet totalitarian Communism together as both being leveling materialistic world views, which produce a “darkening of the world” in which man encounters “the flight of the gods, the destruction of the earth, the reduction of human beings to a mass, the preeminence of the mediocre.” This notion, ultimately drawn from the post-Hegelian German Idealist concept of Volksgeist or “spirit of the people,” argued that there was a spiritual character to a people manifested in that people’s art, culture, and way of life. Hegel himself had argued that the state is “the Divine idea as it exists on earth” and these ideas would help to shape the National Socialist concepts of the Volkstaat or true state that is a natural outgrowth of a particular people with a specific racial character.
Heidegger, taking a note from German Romanticism, which the troubled thinker will pose as a (ultimately what could be understood by Christians as dangerously and brutally inadequate) substitute for Christianity, saw Germany’s role as protecting the West from “the darkening of the world,” which “contains within itself a disempowering of the spirit.” Heidegger explicitly argues for making “the arts” the religion of the German people; “artwork,” according to Heidegger, should be “a celebration of the Volksgemeinshaft: it should be the religion.” Christianity, as Heidegger explains in a June 30, 1933 speech titled, “The University in the New Reich,” was a dangerous, all too humanistic rival to the National Socialism Heidegger briefly championed. Rejecting the religion of his ancestors and his own youth, Heidegger stated, “A fierce battle must be fought … in the National Socialist spirit, and this spirit cannot be allowed to be suffocated by humanizing, Christian ideas that suppress its unconditionality.” Like Nietzsche before him as well as Adolf Hitler himself, Heidegger attempted to dismiss Christianity as a moralizing strait jacket on the (deadly) ferocity of National Socialism.
For the severely lapsed Catholic Heidegger, the spiritual struggle was no longer between Christ and the world, the flesh, and the devil or between the City of God and the City of Man. Rather, it was a cultural and philosophical struggle between liberalism and Marxism, themselves, in Heidegger’s conspiratorial outlook, both products as well as accomplices of “World Judaism.” This struggle waged by the German state, however, would result in the death of 70 million people, including approximately 50 million civilians during World War II, and it effectively forwarded (rather than thwarting) the civilization Heidegger had blindly hoped to be saved by a German National Socialism crafted in his image and likeness.
Heidegger foolishly and tragically hoped that Adolf Hitler and the NDSAP, which framed so much of its presentation in the trappings of German Romanticism, would provide a spiritual renewal of Europe and serve as bulwark against materialism. However, in the end, Heidegger himself realized that German National Socialism was itself a petty and spiritually suffocating form of materialism drawn from a racial science that cast a cold shadow over the richness and dynamism of the human soul. This realization, however, did not cause the “Sage of the Black Forrest” to repent, but rather to make repeated attempts at self-exoneration as well as evasion during the post-World War II era.
Heidegger’s philosophy, like much of Romantic thought, lacked an ethical foundation, and thus it is in Heidegger’s attempt to refit Christian theology to secular political ends that we see how dangerous such an effort can be. Even after World War II, Heidegger seemed callously unaware of the catastrophic effects that some elements of his thought supported. There is, for example, the troubling reference in Heidegger’s now infamous 1949 “Das Ge-stell” lecture in Bremen in which Heidegger callously compared the mechanized execution of civilians by Germans during the Second World War to the mechanization of agriculture, stating, “farming is now a motorized food industry, in essence the same as the fabrication of corpses in gas chambers and extermination camps, the same as the blockade and starving of the peasantry, the same as the fabrication of the hydrogen bomb.”
It is precisely because Heidegger’s philosophy lacked a sense of divine transcendence and a moral foundation in God that it is, at least in a certain sense, a failure. Heidegger’s earlier existential writings had a tremendous appeal to mid twentieth century young people such as Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre, who came of age during the Second World War, found much of late and postindustrial bourgeois Western life, itself often devoid of an authentic expression of Christianity, so boring and empty. Heidegger’s middle work was so aligned with the writings of Adolf Hitler and the violent, pagan, (perhaps pseudo-) Darwinist worldview of German Nationalism as to make it difficult it extract value from them.
On the other hand, his late work is a fascinating exploration of how language and poetry shape human thought and ways of Being. Utilizing the phrase “poetically man dwells” from one of Friedrich Hölderlin’s late poems, Heidegger, in a series of essays (often reworked from much earlier drafts) such as “The Origin of the Work of Art,” “Poetically Man Dwells,” and “The Question Concerning Technology,” reflects on the inadequacy of scientific language and scientific thought in framing human Being and the broader world of human experience. Poetry, poetic language, and poetic thought reveal Dasein to him or herself and make the world a dwelling for humans, both revealing the world and concealing it in mystery. It is in this poetic way of dwelling that, in a certain sense, Heidegger returns to the Black Forest of his youth. Indeed, he even approaches the Christianity of his youth, a faith that had taught him the path to humble dwelling in a world attuned to the mysteries of Being, as well as, one might add, grace.
Ultimately, Martin Heidegger’s life remains a tragedy in the truest and deepest sense. Possessing the two-fold gift of a brilliant intellect and having been born into one of the most fecund intellectual milieus in the history of the world, Martin Heidegger’s philosophical thought, often reflecting a strongly conservative and traditionalist bent, has proven to be the platform for a host of the most critical philosophies of the twentieth century. Simultaneously, it was precisely because of the historical milieu in which he was born that Heidegger, at least temporarily, cast his lot with German National Socialism, betraying friends and colleagues alike to advance his own career and exercise his petty power. However, the greatest tragedy of Martin Heidegger’s life and work was his attempt to take his largely Catholic education and his deep reading of Christian theology and retool it in the service of secular ideologies. By eliminating the transcendent and moral character of Christian thought, Heidegger clipped the wings of his own philosophy and grounded what could have been among the most fertile Christian philosophies of the modern era.
Heidegger’s life and work are a lesson to so many confused, angry, and lonely young Western people today who feel out of place in a toxic post-millennial world torn by ethnic and religious strife and who are attracted to various strains of noxious neo-pagan and hate-filled thought. The answer to the salvation of the West is the answer to the salvation of the entire world, and this answer is not, ultimately, to be found in politics, philosophy, or poetry. As Heidegger himself put it in one of his last public statements in his now (in)famous 1966 Der Speigel published five days after his death in May of 1976, “Only a god can save us now.”