‘Martin Heidegger and the First World War: Being and Time as Funeral Oration’ reviewed by Agatha Palintalethos

Reviewed by Agatha Palintalethos

About the reviewer

Agatha Palintalethos is an independent scholar and psychologist from Ithaca in Greece, with a …


“Crisis-fatigue” is the expression that might well be used to describe the situation concerning der Fall Heidegger as of mid-2014. This year has seen the publication of Heidegger’s philosophical diaries, the so-called “black books”, including already-infamous lines on the Jewish “talent for calculation” and “ungraspable” world-conspiracy. Understandably, these revelations of Heidegger’s inner thoughts have sparked a further round of arguments within and outside academe concerning “the man and the thinker”, and whether the latter—and his considerable philosophical influence—can be saved from National Socialism. Amidst this latest round of debates, one recent book on der Fall Heidegger has been almost completely passed over by reviewers and critics. Yet the book in question, William H F Altman’s Martin Heidegger and the First World War: Being and Time as Funeral Oration (MHWW) deserves debate as a work which does the seemingly impossible, by staking out new and provocative ground in this well-trodden (or well-fought) field.

At the heart of Altman’s book—as its title, Heidegger and the First World War, suggests—is the claim that Sein und Zeit (Being and Time, hereafter SZ) needs to be read as what could be called a profoundly inter-war work. Altman wants us to reread SZ as it would have initially been read by Heidegger’s young German audience when the book first appeared and created its sensation: namely, in the tottering Weimar Republic of 1927, still traumatised by a lost War, in which two million of Germany’s best and brightest had been slaughtered, apparently in vain.

The book nevertheless starts and ends, not with SZ, but with a chilling Nazi-period “Reunion address” Heidegger made to schoolmates in May 1934, on the 25th anniversary of their graduation. These remarks, a full five years before the invasion of Poland, point unmistakably towards Heidegger’s desire to re-badge what was then still “the Great War” as a “First” World War, in the context of a thinly-veiled advocacy of the need for Germany to re-arm and fight “the nations” a second time. To cite Altman’s translation:

For the great war comes over us for the first time. Our awakening to the two million dead in all those endless graves—which the borders of the Reich and German Austria [sic] wear like some mysterious crown—only now begins. The Great War becomes for us as Germans—for us first and foremost amongst all peoples—the historical actuality of our existence for the first time … We who belong to this fully mystical community with our dead comrades, our generation is the bridge to spiritual and historical victory in the Great War. (287-8, 290 italics mine)

What we have here, as Altman analyses in Chapter 7, is a princely illustration of the rhetorical genre, and temporal logics, of the funeral oration. We start in a kind of profane or (as per Heidegger) “inauthentic” present, unworthy to commemorate the fallen heroes: “we still are too ready to repeatedly gauge everything around us with traditional concepts and measurements of the long-winded talker …” (Heidegger at 287, cf. 218, 32). But the orator’s entire art is to inspire us to take up (in the future) the cause for which these heroes died (in the past), thereby becoming worthy of them: “It is rather for us here to be dedicated to the great task remaining before us: that from these honoured dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of their freedom” (Abraham Lincoln, at 229). The contrast between the great emancipator’s Gettysburg call for “a new birth of freedom”—to which, in another first, Altman relates Heidegger’s work in this decisive chapter—is almost as far as politically possible from Heidegger’s call to his 1909 classmates to reanimate the “fully mystical community” of the heroes (Helden) of Langemark and Verdun idolised in Nazi mythology. Yet Altman is right that the form and intention of the two addresses is comparable: to encourage a new generation to fight again, and this time to win the war in which their friends, brothers and fathers had perished.

We arrive then at Altman’s central intention in Chapters 5 and 6 of MHWW. It involves “an examination and explanation of how the ontological (and ontic) categories of Being and Time constitute a funeral oration, beginning with Dasein, for the German soldiers of World War One (5). This critic felt that the very fact that Altman begins MHWW with the damning 1934 speech—so transparently a funeral oration for the War dead (Chapter 1), before challenging Gordon’s “unpolitical” reading of Heidegger’s Kampf with Cassirer at Davos in 1929 (Chapter 2), and detailing Heidegger’s own history of not fighting the Great War (Chapter 3)—can draw readers’ attention away from this key central part of the text. Nevertheless, Chapter 4 sets out (and the subsequent chapters continue) to render SZ’s opaque German transparent” by drawing out its historical grounds (113, 190, 197), and the result is arguably worth the wait. Altman homes in upon a pointed rhetorical question Heidegger asks in SZ ¶62 concerning his famous celebration of individual and collective authenticity (Eigentlichkeit), which many critics have argued pointed the Heidegger of SZ towards the Nazi Party of 1933: “But does not a definite ontic interpretation of authentic existence, a factical ideal of dasein, underlie our ontological interpretation of dasein?”

Heidegger answers affirmatively: “That is in fact so”. But he gives no explanans as to what “fact” he has in mind (BT 297/SZ 310, at 155). This is where Altman breaks new ground. His argument is that, when we recall that Heidegger’s readership for SZ (1926-7) was made up mostly of German men born between 1885 and 1910, who thus had either fought or lost loved ones at the Front in the Great War, we can see why “the little master from Messkirch” felt no need to elaborate (see esp. 156, 184). To talk in the Germany of 1926 or 1927 of the need for “Dasein to choose its hero [Held]” so as to “hand down a possibility that has been in repeating it” (BT 367/SZ 385, at 186); actualising in this way a “running forward into death” (BT 297/SZ 310, at 180); and becoming “a being … free for death and shattering itself on it [frei für seinum Tod an ihm zerschellend]” (BT 366/SZ 385, at 184-5) undoubtedly resonated quite differently then than it does for generations raised in better times. In the tottering Weimar of 1927, Altman claims, SZ would have sounded as a clarion call to these young German men to take up again the cause of the front-generation, who had forged “in communication and in struggle [im Kampf]” a new Kameradschaft (BT 366/SZ 384, at 182), and ran forward resolutely into death by machine gun and shell-fire between 1914 and 1918.

The effect created by Altman’s returning to Division II of SZ, beginning from the openly fascistic Reunion Speech (wherein liberal culture is, for instance, “to be burnt to cinders,” and more) is undoubtedly disturbing. In the terms of Greek philosophy, it points up to what extent Heidegger’s work, even before 1933, seemingly sanctifies the reduction of all the classical virtues down to a single, one-dimensionally militant resoluteness: “free for the struggle for what is to come”, “available for adversities” and contemptuous of all “comfort, shirking and taking things easy” (BT 365-7/SZ 384-6, at 180). Perhaps it is the gender of the author at issue here, but this reviewer felt increasingly sympathetic as I continued with Georg Picht, who recorded in his memoirs that “when I first attended Heidegger’s lectures as an 18-year old student I experienced what then occurred, almost physically, as an assault against everything that I loved and honoured” (Picht, at 166). Certainly, one thing that pre-1933 Heidegger’s calls to resoluteness, “for someone capable of instilling terror into our Dasein” (at 78) underscores, is the profound connection critics have noted between the appeal of fascism and the hypertrophic reaction of a threatened masculinity, pulverised by war and then vocationally threatened by rapid industrialisation and the wartime mobilisation of women on the home front.

This brings us to what, for this reviewer, is probably the only humane moment, and certainly the only situation involving a woman, in Altman’s otherwise grim tale. This moment comes in Chapter 3, as Altman recounts Heidegger’s war record, including his two-time avoidance of frontline service due to an undiagnosed heart complaint (he served three years in the censorship office reading letters home from the Helden). Zaborowski, in Eine Frage von Irre und Schuld, has suggested that Heidegger’s apparent cowardice between 1914 and 1918 speaks against the idea that the great philosopher could have sympathised with Nazism’s war-mongering before 1933 (xvii). Altman, more psychologically astute, argues just the opposite: that not experiencing the horrors of the front was the guilty secret (about which we know, for instance, that Heidegger lied in 1934 (108)) and psychological precondition for Heidegger’s compensatory idealisation of the Vorlaudende Entschossenheit of the men who actually fought in 1914-1918 (in SZ, and more openly after Hitler ascended). Indeed, at the heart of Altman’s text lies his reading of a remarkable series of letters Heidegger wrote to his wife Elfride while working as a meteorologist safely behind the lines in late 1918. These letters, in almost poetic language, seem to date the genesis of SZ’s “factical ideal” of resolute anticipation of death from Heidegger’s watching the “assault battalions march[ing] through, young rather pale sharp faces—resolute looks in their eyes …—with steel helmets & all loaded up, … all silent, lost in thought, a few kilometres and they’re in Hell” (13 September 1918, at 109-10). As Altman notes, the letters in question attest that Heidegger was, remarkably, aware of the life-changing nature of what he was witnessing in these last months of the War: open now to what he describes to her, in terms which directly anticipate SZ, as a new way of experiencing the “creative present”, attuned to “life’s innermost centre” and “the precious aliveness of past and future life—i.e. truly historical” (110).

So let me end by anticipating some of the critical questions that will be asked about this provocative intervention in the Heidegger wars. Even if Heidegger, biographically, first glimpsed the almost-mystical value of forward running resoluteness in the helmeted, steely faces of the Helden marching towards Hell in 1918 (or at least, saw in them crystallised an ideal of resoluteness he had previously known only academically through Kierkegaard or Nietzsche (182)); and even if this first generation of SZ’s German readers indeed read SZ Division II as an esoteric, recondite appeal to avenge the fallen and wage a Second World War—even if all that is true, the very fact that Heidegger did express these polemical thoughts in such obscure academic language means that SZ has spoken to a host of different readerships, blissfully ignorant of its author’s far-right political proclivities. Authorial intention and historical context are vitally important, if we are to read philosophical texts well. But it seems contentious—if this is what Altman aims at achieving—to hold that everyone who has since read SZ unaware of its bellicose geneses have thereby “misread” the text. Is there not, in short, too much in SZ as an academic philosophical tome that can’t be accounted as either prequel or component of Heidegger’s hymn to the Helden he never fought beside, and which has independent philosophical value (this side of corrupting the youth with Heidegger’s deep-set reactionary modernism)? Altman’s SZ-as-funeral oration claim cannot stand without due qualification, as he seems to register when in Chapter 8 he describes it as an elucidating “metaphor” only (246). That it stands at all, and forms such an overwhelmingly plausible anticipatory bridge between Division II of Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit and his National Socialism, is the considerable achievement of this highly erudite book.

15 July 2014

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