Heidegger in France: Nazism and philosophy

One of the distinctive features of French intellectual life in the post-war period has been the influence of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976). Heidegger’s standing among French philosophers, especially those working in the phenomenological tradition (who are more numerous in France than anywhere else in Europe, let alone the Anglophone world), contrasts dramatically with his reputation in the country of his birth, where his legacy is tainted irredeemably by his political compromises with National Socialism in the 1930s. 

The precise nature and extent of those compromises remain a matter of controversy—not least in France, where the murky subject of Heidegger’s political affiliations convulses the intellectual class roughly once a decade. Last week, Nicolas Weill, a journalist at Le Monde, wrote on his blog that the latest volume of Heidegger’s complete works (the Gesamtausgabe), which will be published in Germany in March next year, promises a definitive answer to the question whether “Heidegger was an intellectual led astray by a temporary will to power or whether his political itinerary reflects a more profound tendency”.

Eric Aeschimann, writing in Le Nouvel Observateur, reports that Heidegger’s Schwarzen Hefte (“Black Notebooks”) will trouble even the most faithful of his acolytes in France. It appears that the German editor of the notebooks, Peter Trawny, has written an essay entitled “Heidegger: ‘The Black Notebooks’ and Historial Antisemitism” (“historial” being one of those neologisms of which Heidegger, and Heideggerians, were and are fond) in which he argues that these manuscripts, written between 1931 and 1946, contain ideas that are “clearly antisemitic, even if it is not a question of antisemitism of the kind promoted by Nazi ideology.” One of Heidegger’s French translators, Hadrien France-Lanord, has read Trawny’s essay and has pronounced himself dismayed by many of the extracts from the notebooks that it contains. We are, Aeschimann writes, on the verge of another “Heidegger affair”.

The last time the question of Heidegger’s politics became a matter of public debate in France was in June 2005, when a number of eminent philosophers and historians wrote an open letter to Le Monde expressing their support for Emmanuel Faye, whose book about Heidegger, Heidegger – L’introduction du nazisme dans la philosophie, had attracted a considerable amount of favourable press coverage. The signatories (including Jacques Bouveresse, Pierre Vidal-Naquet and Serge Klarsfeld) denounced the attempt by those they described as “radical Heideggerians” to discredit Faye’s book “by all means”, including attacks on its author broadcast on a dedicated website set up by the writer Stéphane Zagdanski. “We do not accept these dishonourable procedures,” they wrote, “and believe that critical research into the relationship between Heidegger’s work and Nazism must carry on.”

François Fédier, Heidegger’s principal French translator and an ally of Zagdanski, referred derisively to Faye carrying on the “family business”. In 1966, Fédier wrote an article defending Heidegger against charges made in several German books which generated a number of responses, including one by Faye’s father Jean-Pierre. Twenty years later, an even more intense querelle was set off by the publication of Heidegger et le nazisme, written by a former student of Heidegger’s, the Chilean Victor Farias. The facts that Farias assembled were already well-known, thanks largely to the immense archival labours of the German scholars Hugo Ott and Guido Schneeberger, while his treatment of Heidegger’s philosophy was highly tendentious. Yet the impact his book had in France was enormous, with major figures such as Pierre Bourdieu, Jacques Derrida, and Jean-François Lyotard being drawn into the fray.

To see why disputes of this kind have been a more or less permanent feature of the French intellectual landscape since the war, one needs first to understand how a distinctively gallicised version of Heidegger’s thought came to enjoy a position of pre-eminence in France, especially, and perhaps paradoxically, on the left.

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