BOOK REVIEW / Working along Reich lines: 'Martin Heidegger: A Political Life' - Hugo Ott, trs Allan Blunden: HarperCollins, 18 pounds

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PEOPLE who read Heidegger either revere him as one of the great philosophers of our century or dismiss him as a fraud and a windbag. But then that has been the fate of many artists and philosophers, from Mallarme and Nietzsche to Beckett and Derrida. What makes the case of Martin Heidegger of interest even to those who would not dream of reading him is the way his life and work were intertwined with Nazism.

Even here he is not unique, however: Ezra Pound, Maurice Blanchot and Paul de Man have all been tainted by their associations with Fascism. The case of Heidegger is more pointed even than theirs, though, not only because he was German but because, in 1933, he found himself in a position of public responsibility as Rector of the University of Freiburg as well as a philosopher of world renown. After the war he was examined by a denazification commission and suspended from the University. Though he was partially reinstated in 1950, he died (in 1976) still protesting that he had done nothing wrong and refusing to apologise or condemn.

Now, in the wake of a number of books and articles which purport to spill the beans on de Man and Blanchot, and of Victor Farias's openly polemical Heidegger et le Nazisme, Hugo Ott, a professor of economics and social history at Heidegger's own university of Freiburg, has set out to examine all the available archival material (much has been lost) and on that basis to reach an impartial verdict.

The essential facts are not in dispute. Heidegger, having arrived at Freiburg University as a full Professor of Philosophy, following in the steps of his own teacher, Husserl, was appointed Rector (or head) of the University in the first days of the Nazi era, gave a public Rectoral address which was openly enthusiastic about the regime, and appeared set to work with it to the full extent of his abilities. But within a year the authorities had realised that, though he was a valuable propaganda catch, he was too much his own man for their liking. He for his part had come to understand that his dream of a renewal of German universities in the light of his ideas was not one that was shared by the regime, and he was dismissed from the Rectorship. He remained a party member and a teacher for the duration of the war, but his active public career as a Nazi was effectively over.

On being suspended from all teaching activities after the war, he spent more and more time in his hut at Todtnauberg in the Black Forest, reading Holderlin and developing his later ideas. These, as the ban on him was relaxed, he was able to make known to the world in the form of lectures and articles. Karl Jaspers tried to effect a rapprochement, but was put off by Heidegger's apparent refusal to admit that he might have been wrong. Paul Celan, too, after he and Heidegger had met and the philosopher had invited the poet to his hut, wrote in the visitors' book of 'looking out at the star over the well, in the hope of a word to come in my heart'. But no word came.

Yet facts, as we all know, are susceptible to many different interpretations. Was Heidegger, as he claimed after the war, appointed Rector almost by chance and did he take on the job in the hope of limiting whatever damage might be done to the university and its staff? Or was he, as Ott suggests, propelled into the job by pro-Nazi elements in the university who knew that in him they would have an active accomplice? And did he, moreover, when in office, deliberately set about subverting the democratic process and, while helping one or two Jewish academics, by and large work with the regime in implementing its progressively more virulent directives against dissidents and Jews?

There is no doubt that Heidegger carried out his fair share of reprehensible acts, and we can gauge the degree of his identification with the Nazis in speeches such as the following, addressed to the student body at the start of the winter semester of 1933/4: 'May you ceaselessly grow in courage to sacrifice yourselves for the salvation of our nation's essential being and the increase of its innermost strength in its polity. Let not your being be ruled by doctrine or 'ideas'. The Fuhrer himself and he alone is the German reality, present and future, and its law . . . Heil Hitler]'

And yet, even on the evidence presented here, the case of Heidegger is a good deal more complex than Ott allows. I do not know - he does not say - what the nature of Ott's religious faith is, but one significant thing that emerges from this book is a deep resentment of the fact that Heidegger, whose father was a village sexton and who trained initially for the priesthood and then, when ill-health blocked that avenue, for a career as a Catholic philosopher, should, in his late twenties, have turned against Catholic philosophy, which he saw as a contradiction in terms and an avoidance of the real issues.

One can disagree with this on both philosophical and religious grounds, but such an attitude is perfectly consistent with Heidegger's mature philosophy, which stems from a contrast between the Christian logos and Heraclitean flux. But Ott is blind to this. He quotes a report by Heidegger on a doctoral dissertation in which the philosopher scrupulously refuses to pass judgement, saying, in effect: this may be an excellent piece of work in its own terms but those are not terms I can accept. Ott comments: 'This is quintessential Heidegger: at odds with himself, contradictory, underhand, simmering with resentment, equivocal in his judgements, refusing to accept responsibility.' Such language from one who wishes to portray himself as a dispassionate historian is unlikely to inspire confidence.

The case of Martin Heidegger is a sad one. Having rejected the dogmatic theology in which he was brought up, he nevertheless felt that the view of man evoked by secular liberalism was grossly limited. He saw Hitler as the embodiment of that transcendental yet imminent force for which he had been waiting, and he seems never properly to have taken in what happened to Germany and Europe in the dreadful years of Nazi domination. But my own feeling is that, while we should be pleasantly surprised when people who are clearly apolitical, such as Beckett, find that they are forced by events to make choices and choose to risk their lives fighting what they see as evil, we should hesitate to condemn those who may have acted reprehensibly - for who is to say what we would have done in their place? Ott's book seeks, despite its author's protests, to deal a death-blow to the reputation of Heidegger as a man and as a thinker. What it does instead is to make us realise the complexity of the issues involved.