‘Heidegger’s Children: Hannah Arendt, Karl Löwith, Hans Jonas, and Herbert Marcuse’ reviewed by Sheldon Richmond

Heidegger’s Children: Hannah Arendt, Karl Löwith, Hans Jonas, and Herbert Marcuse

Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ and Woodstock, Oxon, new edition 2015. 320 pp., $24.95 / £21.95 pb
ISBN 9780691114798

Reviewed by Sheldon Richmond

About the reviewer

Sheldon Richmond is an Independent Scholar and author of reviews, essays and of the books Aesthetic …


“The best traditions had been cultivated by Jewish emigres in exile. And those who returned had Heine in their luggage”. (Jürgen Habermas)

The disciples or intellectual Jewish children of Adorno may have had Heine, an Enlightenment critic and poet, and a Jewish apostate, in their baggage as they fled Nazi Germany and returned to Germany after the War. However, the intellectual Jewish children of Heidegger were not fans of Enlightenment German thinkers, and those who returned to Germany to query Heidegger about his Nazi turn, might have had Being and Time in their baggage. They had a love-hate relationship with Heidegger, literally in the case of Hannah Arendt, who visited Heidegger some years after the War and again commenced to assist him with promoting his books, even though Heidegger did not admit to any wrongdoing in his wholehearted service to his Teutonic deity, Hitler. At least Herbert Marcuse who also trekked through the Black Forest to chat with Heidegger in his hermitage, severed all relations with him after he refused to seek forgiveness for his eyes wide open adoption of Nazism. “He [Marcuse] implored Heidegger … to express a public word of contrition …Yet Heidegger proved unrepentant.” (166-7)

A thumbnail version of Richard Wolin’s book is that the Jewish intellectuals who were intellectually seduced by Heidegger, committed intellectual patricide on Heidegger after he betrayed their naive trust in him to protect them from the onslaught of Nazi terror. Though they attempted to exorcise Heidegger’s worldview from their intellectual outlook, they all failed and were intellectually dominated by a Heideggerian dybbuk that structured the deepest core of their philosophies.

The subtext of Wolin’s book is less the Greek Oedipal tragedy, more the biblical taboo against illicit relations among the father and his children: the Lot story where the daughters sleep with their father to propagate the seed of the father because they thought that the fire and brimstone that demolished the wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah, also demolished all civilization and all other humans; the Noah story where Ham the son of Noah looked upon him naked in his drunken sleep after the flood where human civilization in its sinfulness was washed away. These themes of how corruption and wickedness require radical destruction of western civilization in order to make humanity anew and free of the wicked West’s hegemony were themes that Heidegger’s children inherited from him and which they propagated through their own scholarly productions, even though they no longer felt comfortable in their Heideggerian intellectual cradle. Though Heidegger’s children thought they saw him in his terrible nakedness, and saw the emptiness of his prolix verbosity after he hailed Hitler, they unwittingly let loose a flood of his thinking and unwittingly cast a Heideggerian spell over those who admired their work.

A soulful letter from Marcuse in 1947 to Heidegger quoted by Wolin goes to the heart not only of Marcuse’s disappointment with his former teacher, but also of the disappointment of the other former Jewish students of Heidegger. Despite their disappointment with him, some became eminent refugee academics: Karl Löwith, for one, and Emmanuel Levinas (discussed in Wolin’s New Preface) and some also became eminent public intellectuals, such as Arendt, Marcuse, Hans Jonas and Leo Strauss (also discussed in the New Preface). Marcuse’s letter to Heidegger attempts to show his teacher, his grievous treachery to philosophy let alone to his own thinking: “we cannot make the separation between Heidegger the philosopher and Heidegger the man, for it contradicts your own philosophy. A philosopher can be deceived regarding political matters; in which case he will openly acknowledge his error. But he cannot be deceived about a regime that has killed millions of Jews—merely because they were Jews—that made terror into an everyday phenomenon, and that turned everything that pertains to the ideas of spirit, freedom, and truth into its bloody opposite.” (167) Marcuse and the other former disciples of Heidegger the teacher, but not Heidegger the man, saw him as he was in his naked self: a thinker whose apparently sophisticated, apparently complex, apparently deep thought led him to justify to himself the murder of millions. Like the children of Noah, they saw Heidegger as a person intoxicated with his own ego who turned his thought into a totem for the Nazis.

I focus on Marcuse and on Arendt. First Marcuse: like Arendt, Marcuse attempted to confront Heidegger the man and seek some recognition, some glimmer of awareness, from him of his culpability. But unlike Arendt, Marcuse had the wit and spiritual independence to part from Heidegger the man, who similar to the Eichmannn of the famous book by Arendt, refused to acknowledge guilt, refused to admit any regret. Also, unlike the other Jewish disciples of Heidegger, Marcuse had other major intellectual influences. Marcuse adopted two secular anti-religious Jews as intellectual foster fathers, or at least as intellectual foster big brothers: Marx and Freud. All the other Jewish thinkers discussed by Wolin seemed to fixate on Heidegger and fixate on Heidegger’s own fixation with Greek philosophy. However, in the New Preface, Wolin also discusses very briefly the indirect off-spring of Heidegger’s influential effluence. These include Franz Rosenzweig, who was a Hegel scholar as well as a Biblical scholar and ally of Martin Buber, and Emmanuel Levinas, an icon of post-modernism, who was a scholar of the Talmud. Wolin also discusses Leo Strauss’s emulation of the elitist, authoritarian, and anti-democratic elements in Heidegger’s philosophy and his emulation of Heidegger’s reverence of Greek philosophy. However, to be fair, Strauss also revered thinkers whom Heidegger would have seen as an anathema such as Maimonides and other historical Jewish thinkers.

In his early days Marcuse attempted to create a synthesis of Marx and Heidegger, and later moved to a synthesis of Marx and Freud. But, according to Wolin, Marcuse, though he renounced Heidegger the man was unable to renounce Heidegger the philosopher because Heidegger the philosopher infiltrated the fundamentals of Marcuse’s thought. Marcuse’s famous thesis of the one-dimensional nature of current society where all thought and desire becomes instrumental to the functioning of a production-consumption society, where the only possibility of escape from this one-dimensional world is through its radical destruction and replacement by a new world created by a counter-cultural intellectual vanguard, is a Heideggerian thesis. Though Marcuse thought that he had cast off Heidegger’s nihilistic ontology of Being, according to Wolin, the thesis of the one-dimensional nature of modern society with its refashioning of thought into instrumental rationality, and Marcuse’s elitism amounts to a sublimation of Heidegger’s own adaptation of Nietzsche’s trans-valuation of society by a new elite of those above ordinary humanity.

Second Arendt. Unlike Marcuse, Arendt witnessed Nazism and its attempt to erase Jews and Judaism from humanity on trial as represented by Eichmann in a Jewish court in Jerusalem. Nothing could seem further from the philosophy of Heidegger than Arendt’s theory of how Eichmann could uncritically function with total self-unawareness in the Nazi civil service with his blind dedication to the Nazi public project of ridding humanity of its Jews. Arendt’s theory of the banality of evil has become the fulcrum for contemporary non-theological discussion of evil in academic philosophy. Susan Neiman’s (2002) ground-breaking attempt to provide a secular philosophical account of evil, in her re-interpretation of the history of modern philosophy in Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy, rides on Arendt’s theory of evil. Despite Arendt’s own personal trauma with Heidegger’s adoption of Nazism and her own eye-witness account of one of the most important trials of institutionalized evil in the history of jurisprudence, Arendt’s account of the banality of evil, according to Wolin, does not escape the ontologization of nihilism produced by Heidegger’s voluminous texts. According to Wolin, Heidegger laments how ordinary people are prisoners of their situation. More damaging to Heidegger, according to Wolin, is his anti-democratic view that only the elite can escape the prison of their situation through the decisive use of force to create a new situation for the people. Evil is unwittingly produced by functionaries merely trying to do their jobs and to advance in their careers, following the categorical commands, not of reason but of their managers, commanders, and chiefs, in specific times and places on specific occasions. The theory of the banality of evil is a logical corollary of Heidegger’s thought that structured Arendt’s outlook on life.

Repeatedly throughout the book, Wolin answers the questions of how Heidegger’s Jewish students could imbibe Heidegger’s thought and why those disciples could not free themselves from it. Simply put: these students thought of themselves as educated Germans, part of high German culture, and saw Heidegger as the pinnacle of German culture. They saw Heidegger as not merely the successor of Goethe, Kant, Hegel, and Heine, but as superseding them. His Jewish students saw Heidegger as the actualization of the German spirit. So, by becoming part of Heidegger’s clique they thought they could become more German than ordinary Germans. They subconsciously realized they were wrong when Heidegger made his Nazi turn. Most of Heidegger’s Jewish students rejected Heidegger the man and thought they rejected Heidegger’s philosophy. However, they had internalized Heidegger’s philosophy to the degree that their post-Heideggerian work was still implicitly structured by Heidegger’s mind-set.

We learn from Wolin’s book to become an aware intellectual consumer. Be aware of buying into appealing but dangerous ideas. Implicitly, however, Wolin’s book also raises a very troubling question. The eminent philosophers that Heidegger’s children became consciously attempted to reject Heidegger’s philosophy but failed. All of Heidegger’s children, even the independently minded Marcuse, unconsciously incorporated his philosophy into their works, and thereby unintentionally propagating his philosophy among their own students and readers. How then can unsuspecting readers of the works of Heidegger’s children not become unconsciously induced into incorporating some of Heidegger’s dangerous ideas into their own thought? This is a question troubling for open-minded readers who want to study alternative ideas, even those they think are wildly wrong and anti-liberal. What if the critical and open-minded reader can be unwittingly seduced to adopt ideas that turn “spirit, freedom and truth” into their “bloody opposite”?

31 December 2015


  • Neiman, Susan 2002 Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy (Princeton: Princeton University Press).


  1. That was a well-written article, thank you. However, I think the ethical question is not very accurately framed. The author seem concerned about Heidegger’s ideas spreading through the philosophy of his Jewish students. Ideas “dangerous”, “wildly wrong” and “anti-liberal”. But today we live in a world where Mein Kampf is being published in Germany, and about to become public domain. So what exactly is dangerous? To be exposed to nazi ideas without being aware of it? To wrongly believe Jewish authors offer a safe heaven from nazism?

  2. The whole idea that Heidegger’s philosophy is completely “contaminated” with Nazism, and therefore spreads like some epidemic disease—an idea espoused by Richard Wolin and Emmanuel Faye, but given less extreme statement by Peter Trawny in “Heidegger and the Myth of a Jewish World Conspiracy”—is problematic, and actually resembles the Nazi ideas of Jewish “contamination” of German culture it supposedly challenges. There’s no doubt Heidegger was himself briefly “contaminated,” especially during the much-ballyhooed “Rektorate” (1933-1934). The question is, for how long he was infected and how far that contamination infects his philosophy—and whether Heidegger himself didn’t take important steps to fight it.

    The “Black Notebooks” show that Heidegger vehemently opposed Nazi biological racism and regarded Nazi Party policy as equally pernicious as Bolshevism, Americanism, and what he called, parodying the Nazis, “world jewry,” all of which, by his thinking, contributed to the catastrophe of World War II. And while there are a few passages that are admittedly “anti-Semitic,” in the sense defined by Trawny, they amount to only a few pages in the 1200 page notebooks, which are otherwise overwhelmingly opposed to Nazi race policy and the Nazi war machinery. Heidegger was always regarded as a suspicious outsider and an annoying dissident in the Nazi Party; and George Picht, also a Heidegger student, describes how a Nazi student once told him that he was in danger of his life merely for associating with Heidegger, who was too famous for the Nazis to just kill. Heidegger criticized the Nazis in his Nietzsche seminars, and after the war published “Overcoming Metaphysics,” to my mind the best analysis of Nazism from inside Nazism available, up there with Adorno’s “Minima Moralia.”

    The problem with Wolin’s position—and I confess I haven’t read this latest book, and probably should—like Emmanuel Faye’s, is that it’s so incredibly one-sided that it resembles Nazi propaganda itself, and refuses to recognize the horrible situation of German intellectuals in Nazi Germany, who, like Heidegger, resisted Nazism from within (what Adorno called “inner emigration”), but faced torture and death for defying the Party. Heidegger’s wife was pro-Nazi, his sons were in the German Wehrmacht, one (Hermann Heidegger) held in a Soviet POW camp; and if Heidegger and publicly espoused the positions of the “Black Notebooks,” the Nazis would not only have arrested him, but gone after his family and friends, too. This is not to say Heidegger and other German intellectuals should not have faced up to Hitler and Nazism at risk of death, and that Heidegger’s silence after the war about the Holocaust is not completely unacceptable, which it is. (Although see Derrida’s “Heidegger’s Schweigen”). It’s simply to say that it’s easy for German expatriate intellectuals (Adorno, Marcuse, Arendt) who spent WWII in New York or Hollywood to criticize Heidegger, and even easier for Wolin and Faye, from their comfortable academic positions, to give a completely one-sided view of “The Heidegger Controversy,” without ever looking at the other side of the case. I’d suggest actually reading the “Black Notebooks,” to get a more nuanced picture, and maybe looking at “Overcoming Metaphysics,” where Heidegger criticizes Nazi bio-eugenic racism, “the fuhrer principle,” the slave labor camps, and the emerging computer surveillance system in scathingly direct terms that still appear relevant to the contemporary situation.

    And, as for this “contamination” business… Do we really think that Arendt’s, Marcuse’s, or Hans Jonas’ works are so “contaminated” by “Heideggerism” that they have to be quarantined, too? (As Faye argues about Heidegger’s works.) Wolin’s position appears dangerously close to “guilt by association” and, as I guess, relies on ad hominem attacks on “Heidegger’s Children,” and for that reason risks throwing out the best critical works on Nazism that we have, including Heidegger’s, on dubious accusations, without actually increasing our knowledge of what Nazism really was, how it worked, and how (and how far…) its “contamination” spread. I’m still waiting for Wolin to say anything as critically important about Nazism as Heidegger does in “Overcoming Metaphysics.” When he does, I’ll read his book…

  3. An interesting article and discussion. I enjoyed and learned from the book too, but here is my take on the problem. Philosophy is an academic discipline, a field of knowledge. It operates at a high level of abstraction and it is possible to make real advances within a given tradition. Being and Time is such an advance in phenomenology. It contains elements that clearly reflect a conservative rejection of the emerging mass society, but these are not the whole of Heidegger’s contribution nor the most important part. In 1933 Heidegger interpreted his work through a Nazi lens. He thought for a while he had discovered its contemporary meaning and application. He was not the only German philosopher in this period to discover a Nazi meaning in abstract philosophical speculation. There were Nietszchean Nazis, Thomist Nazis, Kantian Nazis. Everything could be served up with this metaphysical secret sauce.

    But there was another attempt at political interpretation in the preceding years. Marcuse offered a Marxist version of Heidegger’s Being and Time which is no more nor less authoritative than Heidegger’s Nazi version. Neither of these attempts to bring the abstract theory down to earth are satisfactory. Think of them as inspired by rather than as revealing the meaning of Being and Time as philosophy.

    Rather than condemning any thought influenced by Heidegger as cryto-Nazi, I think we should take his philosophical contribution seriously and discuss it without prejudice. His most important ideas simply cannot be identified with a specific politics.

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