Being There

Berlin offers hints on how to reconcile Heidegger and his politics.


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Berlin in the 21st century is something of an experiment with
aftermath. How does a city that has been through so much and caused so
much pain carry on and heal its wounds? You can’t just get Old
Testament on the place, burn it to the ground and salt the earth. If we
Sodom and Gomorrhaed the location of every atrocity, we’d have no place
left to live. And so post-World War II and post-Berlin Wall, various
techniques are explored. There was a taboo phase, and the bad things
were never discussed. Then there was an “educate the children” phase. A
writer told me that the children used to be forced into six-week-long
courses on the Final Solution. They were told that their parents were
responsible or at the very least participants, and if they were told
any differently, they were being lied to.

  • Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism into Philosophy in Light of the Unpublished Seminars of 1933-1935 by Emmanuel Faye. 464 pages. Yale University Press. $40.
  • Stranger from Abroad: Hannah Arendt, Martin Heidegger, Friendship and Forgiveness by Daniel Maier-Katkin. 304 pages. W.W. Norton & Company. $26.95.

Now we are in the documentation phase. There are memorials all over the city, and every time a new one goes up, another group decides they need one as well. The Holocaust memorial is too Jew-focused, so the Gypsies need their own. This year is the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and there are archival photographs in the Wall’s path, including one of an East German soldier peeping over the Wall with binoculars, which has given me nightmares. To get to the Martin-Gropius-Bau art museum from my apartment, you have to walk past either the section of the Berlin Wall that they put back up, or Topographie des Terrors. Topographie des Terrors is a seemingly never-ending display of photographs from the SS archive, blown up to six feet and displayed outdoors. There is a photograph of men tied to a wall with a German soldier nearby holding a gun; a caption informs us that all of these people were executed soon after the photo was taken. It’s hard to argue that it would be better for these things to stay hidden, but sometimes you just want to go look at pretty pictures in the museum. Occasionally, this documentation phase begins to feel like a sadistic version Berlin leering at you. “I’ve done some bad, bad things. Wanna see?”

As we’ve been told, sunlight is the best disinfectant. Americans heard it from the Obama administration, up until they decided not to release new photographs from Abu Ghraib. The problem is, sunlight also creates its own shadows. Locations where the Final Solution was plotted have been opened up in the name of transparency, only to become tourist attractions for nationalists. A controversy erupted six years ago when it was discovered that the company that created the anti-graffiti coating used to protect the Holocaust memorial also developed Zyklon B, used by the Nazis in its concentration camps. Do they remove the coating in the name of purity and risk the possibility of some idiot spraypainting a swastika on the front? Dig deeply, and you’ll find that no one is untainted.

It’s long been known that Martin Heidegger was involved with the Nazi regime, and we are still wrestling with the questions this brings up. Was Heidegger really a true believer, or was he just a careerist? Does this affect the way we view his work, particularly Being and Time? Should it? What does it say about Hannah Arendt that she loved such a man? What does it say about her work examining totalitarianism and power? What does it say about the other intellectuals who defended him when the Allies won and the “denazification” (what a word) hearings began? Within the next year, there will be multiple books published, including Emmanuel Faye’s Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism into Philosophy and Daniel Maier-Katkin’s Stranger from Abroad: Hannah Arendt, Martin Heidegger, Friendship and Forgiveness, trying to find answers to these questions. You can pick apart his work, trying to find alignments between his philosophy and the Nazi philosophy. (I won’t be doing that. William James once wrote that he only felt like he truly understood Hegel when he was high on nitrous oxide. I feel the same way about Heidegger.)

Heidegger’s most famous work, Being and Time, was published in 1927. He didn’t join the party until 1933 when he became the rector of the University of Freiburg and used his new enthusiasm to reorganize the school. Many of his critics say they have problems with his work because he never issued an apology for his time in the Nazi party. I’m guessing this is not what they actually want. How does one apologize, exactly, for 12 years spent supporting a political regime, and during the height of his career and intellectual prowess? An apology would be an insult. He did give one interview, printed posthumously, wherein he tried to justify his actions, saying he was trying to save his job. It’s an obvious dodge. It doesn’t explain why he informed on colleagues, or some of the work Faye cites in Heidegger justifying racism. Heidegger died without giving a real explanation to anyone, including his former lover Arendt, even after she passionately defended him and his work. But even if we had a full confessional from a repentant Heidegger, would that clear things up for us?

The problem is not whether this information is available. It’s that we don’t know what to do with it. We are not a people comfortable with ambiguity. There is still a part of us that reacts to these things with horror, disgust, and a hefty dose of superiority. There is a photograph by Serge de Sazo in Edmonde Charles-Roux’s Chanel and Her World that I cannot get over. A French woman who slept with a German soldier is being paraded naked through the post-war streets, spat upon and yelled at by the crowds of men. That instinct is in all of us. When it was revealed that Günter Grass was a member of the Waffen-SS, there was a cry for his head. People declared that The Tin Drum should be removed from reading lists. He had betrayed us by hiding this his entire career. But there were probably reasons why a man with such a secret would be compelled to spend his life seeking out the shadow side of his own country. It’s not that context is unimportant when we are judging a person’s political or philosophical statements. Grass is still brutally unforgiving about Germany’s history. Ten years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, he was still telling The New York Times that reunification was a mistake, that a strong, unified Germany was too big a threat. Grass’s shame was probably influencing his position, and that should be taken into consideration when weighing his opinions.

You can’t pluck out Heidegger from Western thought, just as you can’t obliterate Berlin. People live there. Existentialism and postmodernism live there. Other philosophers like Sartre and Arendt and Foucault live there. And you also can’t ignore it. Taylor Carman’s introduction to the most recent edition of Being and Time, published by Harper Perennial, does not once use the word “Nazi,” and as an intellectual exercise it suffers from not having the courage to get into the mud of the issue. Sometimes we think that if we just have “all of the information,” things will become clear. But the more we learn, the larger the task of understanding becomes. It’s the wrestling that is the important task, not the revelation. Germany seemed to think that if it was starkly obvious about its wicked past, things would be all right. But the presence of skinheads on my street corner contradicts that, as does the recent murder in Dresden of a Muslim woman by a man yelling at her to get out of his country. (He, by the way, was a Russian immigrant, who just happened to identify very strongly with German nationalism.)

I went to Thanksgiving dinner at an American’s apartment in the northern Berlin neighborhood Pankow. The Berlin Wall used to run through her back yard. All of the windows on the back side of the building are different than the front, as the back windows had been boarded up so that the people on the top floors could not look out into the West. They had to be replaced after reunification. The newspaper lying on the couch announced that Roman Polanski was being released on bail, to be placed under house arrest in his Swiss chalet. We had already switched from wine to scotch at this point, and when one of the men said, “Ah, they should let him go, he made some really good movies,” I raised my voice. I may have pounded my fists on the table. “He raped (pound) a girl (pound).” He also made good films. Those are two separate sentences. The sentence that we need to deal with now has to do with his rape of a young girl. The combination of those two sentences will be dealt with for decades to come, just as they have been with Ezra Pound, Knut Hamsun, and Martin Heidegger. Just like it’s still being done here in Berlin. • 2 December 2009