Heil Heidegger

J.P. Stern

  • Martin Heidegger: Unterwegs zu seiner Biographie by Hugo Ott
    Campus Verlag, 355 pp, DM 48.00, December 1988, ISBN 3 593 34035 6

Of the numerous biographical publications on the most problematic of 20th-century philosophers, Hugo Ott’s Martin Heidegger: Toward his Biography stands out as the most detailed and scrupulously accurate. But caveat lector: there is a great deal here that we would not think of as conduct becoming a philosopher or the academic profession in general. It cannot have been an easy book to write, and it is not an easy book to read.

Hugo Ott is a social historian of 19th-century Germany; born in 1931, he teaches at the University of Freiburg, Heidegger’s own university. A conservative German professor of considerable standing, he has spent some twenty years collecting material and publishing articles on Heidegger’s life, and making himself unpopular with some of his colleagues in the process. Heidegger was born in 1889 in Messkirch, a small town in the Black Forest with a strong minority of Old Catholics, the son of a cooper and salaried verger; he died at the age of 87, having lived in four successive German states – the Kaiserreich, the Weimar Republic, Hitler’s Third Reich and, after an interregnum of three blank years, the Federal Republic. Ott is particularly strong on Swabian local and ecclesiastical history, and provides a vivid account of the youth and schooling of a poor Roman Catholic scholarship boy; it becomes clear that, but for an asthmatic heart condition, Heidegger would have taken Holy Orders. Heidegger at all times emphasised his spiritual kinship with fellow Swabians like Hegel, Hölderlin and Johann Peter Hebel (a writer of enchanting Alemannic folk-tales). He saw himself as a contributor to this tribal lineage, and associated his writings with it; his biographer reports on this powerful rural mystique, and is (as far as I know) the first author to do so fairly and soberly.

A professional historian of institutions, Ott works from an abundant array of sources. These include the very full archives of the town and university of Freiburg and several other Southern German cities, as well as the diaries, letters and private papers of most of Heidegger’s clerical patrons, and of his friends and colleagues. He has assembled evidence of Heidegger’s career from the local and national German press from the end of the First World War to the end of the Second; he has used all that survives (and a great deal does survive) of the correspondence of the various National Socialist ministries and party officials with and about Heidegger throughout the Third Reich; he has had access to the Allied archives relating to the French occupation of Swabia; and of course Ott has used, for what they are worth, the few statements that Heidegger himself made after 1945 about his own past. Not available to him were the archives at Marbach, on which an interdict sine die was placed by the philosopher’s family. There are more than twenty huge iron lockers of them, but it does not seem likely that the eventual disclosure of their contents will greatly affect our picture of the man and our reading of his work.

Professor Ott treats his subject with dignity and decorum, offers always the least damaging interpretation of Heidegger’s conduct, speaks of his own reluctance to give credence to the devastating evidence he has assembled, and occasionally falls into the slightly pompous conservative vocabulary of ‘sacrifice’, military heroism, and the like. He does this when writing, not about Heidegger (whose war experience turns out to have been markedly less heroic than he made out), but in praise of some of the colleagues (among them Jews) whom Heidegger calumniated. Thus the reader is left with the unfortunate impression that the dismissal of these men from their university posts after 1933 was particularly ignoble, and the fate of those who were not able to leave Germany particularly unjust: as though the humiliating treatment of Heidegger’s teacher Edmund Husserl at the end of his life were particularly heinous because Husserl, though born in Moravia, was a patriotic German, and it was known that one of his sons was killed and the other gravely wounded in the First World War. Such lapses on Ott’s part are rare, and they point to the difficulty of re-creating a world whose scale of values was very different from ours.

This is in no sense an intimate biography: Hannah Arendt’s name appears only briefly, the behaviour of Heidegger’s wife (who is still alive) is not dwelt on, and Ott has steered clear of what he calls ‘depth psychology’. However, his approach entails a limitation of a different kind. Since he is neither a philosopher nor a historian of philosophy, he offers no comprehensive appraisal of Heidegger’s many writings: Heidegger’s claim to be ‘the philosopher of Being’ is neither confirmed nor challenged in philosophical terms. He has little to say about the content of Being and Time, concentrates mainly on Heidegger’s writings after its publication in 1927, and mentions but does not enlarge on the lectures and essays of the last period, many of which are based on Heidegger’s readings of the poetry of Hölderlin, Rilke and Georg Trakl. All the same, he does quote abundantly from Heidegger’s philosophical writings, and his comments on these quotations are closely related to the biography. The strength of the book lies in the presentation of a life against the background of all those clerical, academic and political institutions which Heidegger succeeded in dominating or failed to put to his use.

The first and most important of these institutions is the Church. Heidegger’s Catholic background remained a determining force in his thinking even after he explicitly and vindictively repudiated it; indeed, of most of his writing it may be said that it is part of a theology without a God. This background accounts for Heidegger’s truly immense learning, but it also remains what Heidegger in a private letter called ‘a thorn in the flesh’ – the challenge against which he was determined to assert himself and his philosophical vision after he left the Church in 1919. Four years later, his Marburg colleague and Germany’s foremost Protestant theologian, Rudolf Bultmann, considered Heidegger to be one of the best Luther scholars in the country.

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