Richard Wolin’s Heidegger in Ruins: Between Philosophy and Ideology

Standing as one of the most powerful works of twentieth-century philosophy, Heidegger’s 1927 Being and Time is a text that fundamentally shatters the metaphysical tradition since Plato by reposing the question of Being itself, a question that, Heidegger claims, has been forgotten by philosophy since the pre-Socratics. Moving from an interpretation of Dasein in its temporality to ask after the meaning of Being in general, the text unfolds in terms of “possibility.” In the immediate aftermath of its publication, however, the task of eliciting a fundamental ontology of Being from the hermeneutic of Dasein was becoming, in Heidegger’s view, increasingly impossible. It was in this period, a still illusory and mysterious episode in Heidegger’s thought known as the Kehre, or the “turn,” that Heidegger became Rector of the University of Freiburg on 21 April 1933 and on 1 May of that same year joined the Nazis.

Logos Journal - Heidegger in Ruins

Despite distancing himself from the regime not a year later, Heidegger never resigned his party membership, nor did he make any apology after the war. All of this is well known, as are Heidegger’s poetically dubious reflections on his decision making, one of the most notable of which cites the “inner truth and greatness” of a politics that, in Heidegger’s view, might not have been radical enough. Due in large part to his famous Letter on Humanism and the efforts of the French philosopher and Germanist Jean Beaufret, Heidegger nonetheless found an audience in post-war Paris among the existentialists, in particular Jean-Paul Sartre, Jacques Derrida, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, to name only a few. More broadly, Heidegger’s thinking has gone on to shape fields from hermeneutics, with Hans Georg Gadamer and Paul Ricoeur, to political theory, with Herbert Marcuse and Hannah Arendt, as well as theology, sociology, literary theory, and the visual arts. With all of the above already common knowledge to readers, Heidegger’s place on syllabi has been both necessary and fraught.

In 1990 Richard Wolin brought out his well-known The Politics of Being, which details the Faustian bargain Heidegger made with National Socialism by applying the phenomenology of Heidegger’s Being and Time to the Nazi worldview. In my own early years of reading Heidegger, Wolin’s text rode around with me in my bag as a near constant companion and sat, maybe a bit uncomfortably, next to my copies of Being and Time and Heidegger’s Basic Writings. Already in 1990 Wolin was firm in his indictment of Heidegger’s thought beginning with Being and Time. In 2014, as I was hurriedly scribbling away at my undergraduate thesis on Heidegger, Heidegger’s Überlegungen or Ponderings, what are colloquially known as the first set of his Black Notebooks, were published. The first 15 pieces of what would eventually be a 34-piece set, the Black Notebooks (or, Schwarze Hefte), contain Heidegger’s reflections, in no particular order, on Being and Time, the Nazis, cybernetics, the flight of the gods, industrial society, and “world Judaism,” to name only a select few. Brought out in full between 2014 and 2022 and composed mainly of aphorisms, short essays, and lecture notes, the Black Notebooks now comprise volumes 94 to 102 of Heidegger’s Gesamtausgabe. With their publication, the question concerning Heidegger was back to the table and more troubling than before. In Freiburg, where Heidegger had once been Rector and given his, “Self-Assertion of the German University” speech in 1933, the then chair of the philosophy department Günter Figal resigned his post and the chair of phenomenology and hermeneutics was shortly thereafter replaced by an assistant professorship in logic and analytic philosophy of language. I had received my affiliation with the university to go to Freiburg and study Heidegger scarcely weeks before. Everything shifted and as I reconsidered the course of my studies, I ordered a copy of Ponderings.

Richard Wolin’s most recent book, Heidegger in Ruins: Between Philosophy and Ideology, published in January 2023, is Wolin’s long in the works response not only to the publication of the initial 15 Black Notebooks nor the subsequent volumes brought out but to what he demonstrates in the text is an even more dubious story of redacted quotations and withheld manuscripts. Focused now much less on what Wolin once saw as the philosophical harmony of Being and Time with Nazism’s “romanticism of steel,” Heidegger in Ruins turns squarely to the Heidegger of the Kehre,this time with irreproachable evidence of Heidegger’s philosophical antisemitism. Framed now much less by Being and Time and much more so by his works from the early 1930s onward, Wolin’s newest book essentially brings Heidegger’s entire philosophical output and later reception into question. The book opens with an introduction that returns to what Wolin calls the “ontological privilege of German Dasein” and an analysis of the 2014 publication of the first wave of notebooks, which as he rightly mentions, caused an “earthquake” in the field. From here the text unfolds in six chapters beginning with what Wolin names in chapter one as, “The Heidegger Hoax.”

In chapter one, Wolin essentially documents a cloak and dagger legacy of editorial deceit that challenges the foundations of scholarly integrity. Following Wolin’s claims, in 2014, Peter Trawny, the editor of Heidegger’s extensive Gesamtausgabe as well as the at the time still forthcoming Black Notebooks, revealed that he had been pressured by Heidegger’s literary executors to excise antisemitic remarks from Heidegger’s texts. The specific lectures Trawny is referencing, which were published in 1998, contain remarks from a 1939 seminar during which Heidegger suggests that it, “would be worthwhile inquiring into world Jewry’s predisposition to planetary criminality.” As Wolin comments: “one would urgently like to know on what editorial grounds Trawny consented to this elision as well as why he waited 16 years before finally revealing the truth.” This quotation is, according to Wolin, only one of the more questionable examples of redactions executed by the editorial team on a slew of texts published between 1945 and the early 1980s. As Wolin moves into the heart of the matter, four succeeding chapters turn to examine the infamous notebooks. Chapter Two, “Heidegger in Ruins,” opens with an account of Heidegger’s spiritual enthusiasm for Nazism as a “barbaric” force, which Wolin contextualizes in the experience of the Fronterlebnis or, as he puts it in the text, the Frontgeist, a reaction to the German experience of World War One that by and large characterized all facets of Heidegger’s historical moment, socially, intellectually, and economically, as well as physically and psychologically. The chapter goes on to detail Heidegger’s engagement with German nationalism, Völkisch ideology, and currents of racism and antisemitism. Chapter Three, “Heidegger and Race,” pushes deeper into claims made in the previous chapter and draws out parallels between Heidegger’s spiritual and philosophical celebration of German Dasein and Nazi biological racism, particularly in terms of the “rootlessness” of Jewish life. Chapter Four, “Arbeit Macht Frei: Heidegger and the German Ideology of Work,” opens by drawing out the parallels between “work” and Heidegger’s thinking on “authenticity” and includes an analysis of Heidegger’s engagement with Ernst Jünger in terms of both “work” and Jünger’s idea of “total mobilization.” In Chapter Five, “Earth and Soil: Heidegger and the National Socialist Politics of Space,” Wolin then turn to offer a lengthy analysis of how both the Heidegger of Being and Time and the Heidegger of the Kehre can be read in keeping with Nazi policies of expansion and relocation in the Second World War.

Since the publication of The Politics of Being in 1990, Wolin has brought out a string of books, titles like Heidegger’s Children and The Seduction of Unreason among them, that have sought to, on the one hand take Heidegger very seriously as a philosopher while on the other place him very firmly, at times prosecutorially, in the context of German fascism. Heidegger in Ruins is then perhaps his latest work in something that is beginning to look like a series. If this is the case and we are encouraged to continue to think with Heidegger while also having, so to speak, all the facts, Wolin’s method is maybe a curious one. Although his intention is to expressly and seriously articulate the elective affinities of Heidegger’s thought with Nazism, the text very nearly works against itself by situating Heidegger in the company of the vanguard of the conservative revolution in such a way that he beings to seem simply like product of his times. Indeed, the pantheon of the conservative revolution is present in the book, from the “cosmopolitan fascist” Ernst Jünger to Carl Schmitt, Oswald Spengler, and several acolytes of the Stefan George Circle among others. This heavy contextualization might not at all be a problem for Wolin if the work is meant to simply give its readers more details, however in this set up Heidegger appears more as one among many in a way that is, unfortunately, unsurprising.

The sixth and final chapter to the book, however, makes the stakes of Wolin’s argument crystal clear. The last chapter, “From Beyond the Grave: Heidegger and the New Right” provides a conclusion for the text that draws history into the present by investigating the contemporary zeal for Heidegger among prominent figures from the Neue Rechte in Germany and Austria alongside Alexander Dugin and his Putinist acolytes in Russia, as well as the Nouvelle Droit in France, the contemporary American alt right, and groups in both Norway and New Zealand. When taken alongside his earlier claim that this is in fact no attempt to cancel Heidegger, the very title of the text, Heidegger in Ruins, becomes slightly confusing. For whom is Heidegger in ruins? Is he in ruins as a source of inspiration for thinking within the academy, for all but a diminishing few? It would seem that outside the academy and particularly on the political right Heidegger isn’t in ruins at all.

In the book Wolin is very clear that his takeaway is “not … that one should abandon Heidegger’s philosophy as irreparably contaminated and hence, irredeemable. Instead,” he argues, “Heidegger’s thought must be patiently and systematically reevaluated in view of the revelations of the Black Notebooks. … Heidegger in Ruins is intended as a modest contribution to a more demanding and long-term process of rethinking and reconsideration.” When trying to work out first of all what exactly Wolin might mean by this, the epigraph he chose for the book offers some help: “The philosopher believes that the value of his philosophy lies in the whole, in the building, but posterity discovers it in the bricks that he used and which others will often make use of again for better building; in fact, that is to say, that the building can be destroyed and nevertheless poses value as material.” Nietzsche, Human, All too Human (1878). It’s an admirable thought. But is this not in some sense simply going the way of deconstruction? A path we’ve already traveled? In addition to the aforementioned series of would-be prosecutorial texts on Heidegger that we’ve seen from Wolin over the years, Wolin has also lent his hand to publishing Heidegger and his disciples and in 1991, one short year after the publication of The Politics of Being, brought out the edited volume, The Heidegger Controversy. A collection of Heidegger’s texts supplemented by commentaries from his contemporaries and early critics, in the book Wolin included a translation of Karl Löwith’s essay, “The Political Implications of Heidegger’s Existentialism.” First published in Les Temps Modernes only a year after the German defeat, I’ll simply end my analysis of Wolin’s new book with these words. In his essay, Löwith, who knew Heidegger the man and Heidegger the thinker very well, wrote:

Given the significant attachment of the philosopher to the climate and intellectual habitus of National Socialism, it would be inappropriate to criticize his political decision [to support the Nazi regime] in isolation from the very principles of Heideggerian philosophy itself. It is not Heidegger, who, opting for Hitler, “misunderstood himself”; instead, those who cannot understand why he acted this way have failed to understand him.


  • Emily Stewart Long

    Emily Stewart Long is an intellectual historian of modern Europe, in particular modern Germany, who works at the intersection of poetry, continental philosophy, music, the history of science, and political theory. Her dissertation focuses on tracing the aesthetic history of the Gestalt concept after Goethe, specifically in the thought of Stefan George, Ernst Jünger, and Martin Heidegger. Alongside her dissertation work, Emily’s research and writing interests range from topics in Nazi culture to poetics, hermeneutics, musicology, literary theory, painting, and law. She is currently teaching a course entitled, “The Poetic History of the Sciences” at NYU Gallatin.

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