The Evil of Banality
Troubling new revelations about Arendt and Heidegger.
Consider this quotation from a delightfully acerbic review essay by Carlin Romano in the Oct. 18 Chronicle of Higher Education,which discusses new revelations about Heidegger's shameless adoption of Nazism.
Next month Yale University Press will issue an English-language translation of Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism Into Philosophy, by Emmanuel Faye, an associate professor at the University of Paris at Nanterre. It's the latest, most comprehensive archival assault on the ostensibly magisterial thinker who informed Freiburg students in his infamous 1933 rectoral address of Nazism's "inner truth and greatness," declaring that "the Führer, and he alone, is the present and future of German reality, and its law."
Faye, whose book stirred France's red and blue Heidegger départements into direct battle a few years back, follows in the investigative footsteps of Chilean-Jewish philosopher Victor Farias (Heidegger et le Nazisme, 1987), historian Hugo Ott (Martin Heidegger: Unterwegs zu Zeiner Biographie, 1988) and others. Aim? To expose the oafish metaphysician's vulgar, often vicious 1930s attempt to become Hitler's chief academic tribune, and his post-World War II contortions to escape proper judgment for his sins. "We now know," reports Faye, "that [Heidegger's] attempt at self-justification of 1945 is nothing but a string of falsehoods."
Romano's Chronicle piece generated an often-furious comments thread, a spectacle of postmodernists in temper tantrum mode.
I can understand the splenetic attacks on Romano for not taking Heidegger seriously, although the angry Heideggerian academics never explained exactly why we should.
In general, I'm in favor of separating the man (or woman) from the work, but it was Heidegger himself,his defenders don't seem to recognize, who claimed Nazism for his own. He didn't make the separation between man and philosophy that they conveniently claim to excuse his personal racism.
The debate about Heidegger reminded me of a conversation I had with philosopher Berel Lang on "the evolution of evil," an exchange I wrote about in Explaining Hitler. We discussed whether Hitler represented a new depth of evil and what the next step down into the abyss might be. Were there degrees of evil—that led to Hitler? And would Hitler lead to degrees of evil beyond his own? I had suggested Holocaust denial was such a next step, in the sense that it added insult to injury, but Lang disagreed, arguing that Heidegger's postwar silence on Nazism exemplified the next step in the evolution of evil. After the war, this purportedly great and comprehensive philosopher never published anything that addressed the fact of the Holocaust that his party perpetrated. It just didn't impinge on his worldview. He had time to write polemics against mechanized agriculture but not industrialized murder. Lang thought Heidegger's indifference was a whole new kind of evil. (He even wrote a book called Heidegger's Silence.)
Which brings us back to Arendt again. As the extent of Heidegger's enthusiastic embrace of Nazism becomes more apparent, and as it becomes ever clearer that the allegiance was not merely opportunistic and careerist but derived from a philosophical affinity with his Fuhrer's effusions, it becomes impossible not to reexamine certain questions. Such as: How much did Arendt know about the depth of Heidegger's allegiance? Did Heidegger lie to her? Did she believe him the way she believed Eichmann? Did she assume his complicity with the genocidaires was something careerist and banal? Or worse, did she know? And did she disingenuously (or self-deceptively) construct her false banal Eichmann from her false banal Heidegger?
Writer Paul Roazen once speculated on this question:
If Eichmann was simply following orders, and his conduct was certifiably normal within the context of Nazi Germany, her own defense of Heidegger can reflect the way a social thinker such as herself might be conditioned by circumstances and advantage to curry favor in the midst of the most vile forms of evil. Having as a Jew escaped from Germany in 1933, Arendt remained for the rest of her life loyal to the whole philosophic tradition that had helped lead to Hitlerism. ...
It may forever remain a mystery, even more so now. Wasserstein believes she internalized anti-Semitic literature; I would perhaps modify this to say she internalized the purported universalism of Germanic high culture with its disdain for parochialism. A parochialism she identified with, in her own case, her Jewishness, something she felt ashamed of on intellectual grounds, so primitive, this tribal allegiance in the presence of intellects who supposedly transcended tribalism (or at least all tribes except the Teutonic).
One can still hear this Arendtian shame about ethnicity these days. So parochial! One can hear the echo of Arendt's fear of being judged as "merely Jewish" in some, not all, of those Jews so eager to dissociate themselves from the parochial concerns of other Jews for Israel. The desire for universalist approval makes them so disdainful of any "ethnic" fellow feeling. After all, to such unfettered spirits, it's so banal.
Ron Rosenbaum is the author of The Shakespeare Wars and Explaining Hitler. His latest book is How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III.