Great Again

Malcolm Bull

From 1930 until the end of his life, Heidegger kept a private philosophical journal in a series of black notebooks. He intended it to be published as the very last of his collected works, but his executors, recognising its importance, have allowed it to appear ahead of schedule. When the first three volumes were published in Germany in 2014, they caused the expected controversy, and prompted Günter Figal, the chair of the Martin Heidegger Society, to resign on the grounds that he could no longer represent the figure that emerged from their pages. Not before time, some might say. Yet in retrospect, he appears to have acted not too late but too soon, for the truly shocking question posed by the Black Notebooks is not: was Heidegger a Nazi? Or: was Heidegger an anti-Semite? But: would Germany’s greatest 20th-century philosopher have endorsed Donald Trump?

The first two questions have, after all, already been answered satisfactorily. Heidegger joined the Nazi Party in 1933, at a time when few other German philosophers had done so, and as rector of the University of Freiburg in 1933-34 actively sought to align the institution with the goals of the new National Socialist government. His initial enthusiasm waned, but he remained a party member until 1945 and after the Second World War was judged to be a Nazi sympathiser and banned from teaching. Although he was partially rehabilitated in 1951, subsequent scholarship has uncovered nothing that puts the basic facts in a more favourable light, and has served chiefly to highlight the evasiveness of Heidegger and his apologists.

As for anti-Semitism, in 1933 Heidegger wrote to Hannah Arendt that he was ‘as much an anti-Semite today as … ten years ago’; nothing personal of course, but given that, as he told Karl Jaspers, there really was ‘a dangerous international band of Jews’, it was obviously necessary to protect the integrity of German universities. Already worried about ‘Jewification’, he implemented Nazi racial policies in the university, and never expressed any concern about the treatment of the country’s Jewish population. After 1945, he barely referred to the Holocaust at all, save to note that the mechanisation of its production methods set a poor example for postwar German agriculture.

The notes written during the war furnish further evidence of Heidegger’s belief in a Jewish world conspiracy (a belief which, curiously, seems to have grown stronger as his faith in Nazism declined) but overall the notebooks add little that is entirely new. Instead, they provide a degree of detail and nuance that has never before been available. Heidegger edited his jottings and wrote them out neatly in longhand, so the sequence isn’t always chronological, but they nonetheless give the sense that we are eavesdropping on his thoughts as, writing for himself with one eye on current events and only Nietzsche as his guide, he tries to articulate an appropriate philosophical response to the unfolding national crisis.

Ponderings II-VI, the first volume to be translated into English, covers the period from 1931 to 1938 (the notebook from 1930 has not been found). It is in 1931 that Heidegger first begins to notice a change, and ‘the political stirring of the young people’. He feels their ‘desire to come again onto a soil’, and it fills him with hope: ‘The world is in reconstruction; mankind is awakening.’ A year later, events have moved on. Following the July election, the Nazi Party is now the largest in the Reichstag and Heidegger welcomes the new dawn: ‘A marvellously awakening communal will is penetrating the great darkness of the world’; ‘The Führer has awakened a new actuality, giving our thinking the correct course and impetus.’ And he senses an opening: ‘The incomparability of the world’s current hour, [is] a chamber in which German philosophy should strike up and resound.’

Heidegger is preoccupied with political questions throughout the third notebook. During his rectorship, he is a man with a mission: ‘The new university will arrive only if we sacrifice ourselves for it’; ‘Assume the leadership … stepping into the crowd and reconfiguring it in struggle.’ He tries to keep himself up to the mark with bracing little notes: ‘Relentless in the hard goal, supple and changing in the ways and weapons’; ‘Ever increasing hardness in the attack … No flight, no weariness, always on the attack. Not to have full powers, but to be the power.’ Even then he is always conscious that if all this tedious admin is going to be worth it, it has to lead to something beyond the outward forms provided by the party and the university: Nazism is ‘a genuine nascent power only if it still has something to withhold behind all its activity and talk’ and ‘the new truth is precisely the concealedness of the new truths.’

By the end of February 1934, Hitler has been chancellor for a year, and Heidegger is beginning to take stock. There is no self-doubt here: ‘For years I have known myself to be on the right path.’ But there is a nagging sense that the Nazis may not have fully appreciated the importance of his thinking. Stuck in the positivistic biologism of the 19th century, they have not grasped that ‘for the last 15 years this change of the whole of being has been prepared, a change in which the movement must once be rooted if indeed it is to be able to bring about an appropriate creatively spiritual world on the planet.’ Nazism can be the vehicle of the coming transformation, but only if it accepts that it ‘can never be the principle of a philosophy but must always be placed under philosophy as the principle’. National Socialism is not a philosophy, it is ‘a barbaric principle. That is its essential character and its possible greatness.’ The danger is not National Socialism itself, but rather its ‘trivialisation’. What is required is something deeper, a ‘spiritual National Socialism’, which rather than degrading thinking elevates it to ‘an extraordinary greatness and certitude’.

The problem that Heidegger hopes Nazism will address is the plight of the German people. This is multifaceted. Some aspects are material: ‘We have undergone a global economic plight and still stand within it (unemployment), we are held in a plight relative to history and the state (Versailles), [and] we have long experienced the concatenation of these plights.’ But there is also ‘the spiritual plight of Dasein’, which is the plight of ‘abandonment by being’, a plight that paradoxically manifests itself as a ‘lack of a sense of plight’.

The antithesis of plight is greatness, and greatness comes from ‘meditation on the actual plight of the abandonment by being’. Heidegger sees in Nazism the potential to guide Germany ‘to its greatness’, towards the final goal of ‘the historical greatness of the people in the effectuation and configuration of the powers of being’. How can a barbaric principle like Nazism achieve this? Not directly, but the ultimate goal can only be approached by a series of stages. The greatness of the people assumes ‘the coming to themselves of the people … through the state’, and that presupposes the ‘creation of the community of the people’, which in turn relies on their capacity for work, and a ‘new will for work’.

The value of work was something the Nazis understood very well. As Heidegger emphasised in his address as rector at Freiburg in 1933, labour service (which the Nazis had adopted as a means of combating unemployment and building a sense of community), military service (which they made compulsory in 1935) and training for the professions were the means through which not only the material plight of Germany (unemployment, Versailles) might be addressed but the spiritual as well. The ‘inner truth and greatness of National Socialism’ lay in its capacity to initiate this transition from the material to the spiritual. So although he concedes that ‘this epoch is nowhere great,’ Heidegger is confident that if the new dawn in Germany is great ‘then it bears millennia before itself’. All that’s required is ‘the constant decision between the will to greatness and the acceptance of decline’.

This might sound uncomfortably familiar. Analogies with Weimar have become one of the commonplaces of commentary in this year’s American election. But Donald Trump is not so much America’s Hitler as an American Heidegger, a self-appointed expert on greatness, who in Crippled America: How to Make America Great Again insists both that ‘the idea of American greatness … has vanished’ and that ‘our best days lie ahead. There is so much untapped greatness in our country.’ To make the transition between the two, ‘We need someone … who understands greatness.’ And his recipe for greatness is much the same as Heidegger’s. As Trump explains in his classic post ‘Find the Greatness within Yourself’:

When people ask me how to achieve great success, I usually explain that the most important first step is to get out of their comfort zone, which is a bad place to be. If you are happy in your comfort zone, you need to move out of it. How else can you find the greatness that lies within you?

In his rectoral address, Heidegger concurs: greatness is standing in the storm, but to do that you first have to go out into the storm. Or as Trump puts it, you will never discover the greatness within if ‘you plan to spend your time in a café, sipping cappuccino and watching life go by’.


It may be tempting to dismiss these parallels as an example of the way in which vacuities converge under the pressure of megalomania. But there is a little more to it than that. The spectre of a Heideggerian Trump has already been raised by the endorsement Trump received from Alexander Dugin, the Russian occultist and political theorist sometimes referred to as ‘Putin’s Rasputin’. Dugin, unlike conventional Heidegger scholars, recognises Heidegger’s work from the mid to late 1930s (represented by such works as Introduction to Metaphysics, Contributions to Philosophy, History of Beyng and now Ponderings) as a bold attempt to construct an original political philosophy of enduring relevance.

Although it was conceived within the context of National Socialism, Dugin sees Heidegger’s philosophy as a template for a ‘Fourth Political Theory’: an alternative not just to the failed politics of liberalism and Marxism, but of fascism as well. In appropriating Heidegger for the present, Dugin takes Heidegger’s claim that the consummation of the essence of power can be seen in ‘planetarism’ as a reference to contemporary globalisation – a moment when, as Heidegger prophetically described it, ‘the furthest corner of the globe has been conquered technologically and can be exploited economically.’ In this context, the Fourth Political Theory offers the only viable alternative for all those who, like the Russians, ‘suffer their integration into global society as a loss of their own identity’.

Heidegger referred to his project as ‘the other beginning’. He was recapitulating the first beginning realised by pre-Socratic Greek philosophy in its encounter with being. Someone at the foot of a mountain cannot see the summit. The only way to reach it is to ‘leap from another mountain’. So in order to experience greatness, we must ‘place ourselves back into the beginning’ and ‘bring before ourselves once again the most alien, simplest and greatest of Greek thinking’. If we acknowledge that making something great again is easier than achieving greatness from scratch, this fundamentally changes our relationship to time. Rather than thinking in terms of unidirectional, linear progress, we have to think of time as in some sense reversible: ‘This greatness must come again, so that things can go to the “end” – an end – which indeed can become a new great beginning.’

The other beginning is called for because of the decline from the first beginning, and ‘the plight of the abandonment by being’. This decline has two related aspects – one temporal, the other geographical. It is a decline from the past, but also compared to other civilisations in the present. In ‘Europe and German Philosophy’ (1936) Heidegger presents the conjunction starkly:

Our historical Dasein experiences with increasing distress and clarity that its future is equivalent to the naked either/or of saving Europe or its destruction. The possibility of saving, however, demands something double: (1) the protection of the European Völker from the Asiatic; (2) the overcoming of their own uprootedness and splintering.

Heidegger maintained that Oswald Spengler’s thesis The Decline of the West was mistaken not because there was any ground for optimism about the future of the West, but because true decline or ‘downgoing’ is the precondition of the other beginning, the experience of the abandonment of being, and the West as a whole lacks the strength for it. For the Germans, however, it is a possibility: ‘This people, as a historical people, must transpose itself … into the originary realm of the powers of Being,’ because the acceptance of ‘the distant injunction of the beginning awaits them alone.’ The greatness of the other beginning can only be realised by ‘a seizing of, and persevering in, the innermost and outermost mission of what is German’.

Seizing Germanness means becoming indigenous, becoming ‘the one who derives from native soil, is nourished by it, stands on it’. And that, as Heidegger confesses in an unusually lyrical passage, ‘is what often vibrates in me … as if I went over fields guiding a plough, or over lonely field-paths amid ripening grain … paths which kept mother’s blood and that of her ancestors circulating and pulsing’. This may sound like the Nazi idyll of blood and soil, but for Heidegger race is a necessary but not a sufficient condition: the Germans may have a historical essence, but they may still ‘abandon it – organise it away’. He is therefore at pains to distance himself from those who preach race and indigenousness, while being themselves conspicuously ill-bred and deracinated. Indigenousness is something that has to be nurtured ‘from its own resources in poetry and thinking’.

Scientific racism proved to be the issue that forced Heidegger to distance himself from the Nazis – not because it was racist, but because it was scientific. By 1938 he was able to see where he had gone wrong and privately acknowledge the mistake. Between 1930 and 1934 he had thought National Socialism might effect the transition to another beginning, but now he realised that he had misjudged ‘the type and magnitude of the greatness that belonged to it’. Nazism actually represented the culmination of modernity rather than a move beyond it. The technologism of modernity (scientific racism was only one manifestation) which he sometimes referred to as ‘machination’ or ‘gigantism’, was not the way to greatness but rather ‘the genuine antigod of what is great’.

Nazism, with its rigid scientific racism and unbridled appetite for technological development, may have proved a disappointment to Heidegger, but the more modest, ostensibly post-racial nationalisms of the early 21st century would have seemed to him far more promising. The key element of Heidegger’s thinking in the 1930s – that the overall decline of the West could be unilaterally counteracted at a local level by putting the clock back and beginning again – has never seemed more relevant. There are several regional variants. Dugin’s version, which combines Heidegger’s other beginning with Carl Schmitt’s view that the fundamental geopolitical opposition is between land and sea, is called Eurasianism and seeks to create a regional power based in the landmass of central Asia to counteract the globalising maritime powers of the Atlantic. But most are more traditional nationalisms of one sort or another (‘Retake control of our borders’, ‘Put the great back into Great Britain’). What they share is the assumption that technological modernisation in the form of globalisation is responsible for the decline of the West, along with a belief that it may nevertheless be possible to arrest that decline through the self-assertion of indigenous communities.

Officially, such nationalisms reject biological racism, but by placing great emphasis on geographical origin and citizenship, they are both exceptionalist and exclusive. Decline is universal, and only if you were born in the right place can you exempt yourself from it. ‘The day I was born I had already won the greatest lottery on earth,’ Trump writes in Crippled America. ‘I was born in the United States of America. With that came the amazing opportunities that every American has. The right to become the best person that you can be.’ The crucial point here is that the right to become the best you can be is a birthright and not as (Obama and Hillary suppose) a universal human right. That’s both why illegal immigrants must be deported, and why ‘we can restore America and unleash the incredible potential of our great land and people.’ To think otherwise is to deny that there is something ‘special or exceptional about America’.


There are good reasons for the seemingly irrational fixation on where you happen to be born. Geography matters because, as the economist Branko Milanović has shown, the best predictor of your income is not your race or class but your birthplace. Trump was, for once, speaking the truth. Where in the early 19th century only 20 per cent of global inequality was owed to the difference between countries, from the mid-20th century onwards ‘the place where we were born or where we live’ has determined ‘as much as two-thirds of our lifetime income’. However, although location has been the chief determinant of global income differentials for half a century, during the past twenty years, and most especially since 2008, the balance has shifted. There have been substantial increases in real income for the top 1 per cent and also for the middle 50 per cent of the global population, but little or no gains for those in the 75th to 90th percentiles. Given that those percentiles represent most of the population of Western Europe, North America and Japan, the data appears to confirm what many suspected: the top 1 per cent of the global population has enriched itself by organising the transfer of production away from the old industrial nations to middle-income countries on their periphery and in Asia.[*]

These shifts in global inequality explain a lot about the changing nature of political struggle over the past two hundred years: the class politics of the 19th century and the anti-colonial struggles of the 20th, but also the current rise in populist and nationalist movements in Europe and the US. At a time when the long heralded decline of the West is finally becoming an objective reality, the ‘lower middle class of the rich world’ stands in an ambiguous position. Geography still counts for almost everything, and in global terms that class consists of privileged rentiers living well on what Milanović calls ‘citizenship rent’ (the increased income you get from doing the same job in one country rather than another). But if these trends continue, citizenship rents will decline further, and citizenship itself will be devalued as an asset.

This helps to explain why citizenship has suddenly gained more salience than class. Class differences within countries explain very little when it comes to global inequality. So potential gains from intranational class equalisation would be quite modest compared to the possible losses from levelling the playing field between countries. That is why freedom of movement was such an issue in the Brexit referendum, and why Trump’s call to build a wall along the Mexican border is intelligible to so many. It is perhaps only in this context that the otherwise bizarre phenomenon of ‘birtherism’ makes sense. In a world where geographical location is the best predictor of economic outcomes, being indigenous counts for a lot, and the natural-born citizen clause attached to the presidency of the US provides a model. If the presidency is not open to immigrants, why should other jobs be?

Of course, the new nativism feeds off ingrained forms of racial prejudice. But it is conceptually distinct, not least because in terms of global income distribution race is (as would-be migrants are well aware) far less predictive than location. You don’t have to be a racist to be a xenophobe, for as Levinas commented in an essay on Heidegger, ‘attachment to place’ is itself a ‘splitting of humanity into natives and strangers’. What makes the current moment unique is that the ontological decline of the West has fallen into step with the decline in income differentials, and attachment to place isn’t just a matter of becoming indigenous and making yourself at home in the world, but of stubborn attachment to a particular position in the global economic order. For anyone living in the West who is not in the highest 1 per cent of global income, there is an economic incentive to think in Heideggerian terms; to stand firm on native soil and claim citizenship rent.

When Heidegger realised that the Nazis were going to be less receptive to ‘spiritual National Socialism’ than he had hoped, he gradually retreated from the political fray. But he nevertheless vowed to ‘remain in the invisible front of the secret spiritual Germany’, one of ‘the future ones’ who would stand ‘simply, silently, relentlessly and deeply rooted’, preparing the transition to the other beginning. The future he anticipated is now. Whole nations are acknowledging their plight and waiting to see if greatness will be thrust upon them.

[*] The threshold for joining this rapacious global overclass was, in 2008, an aftertax per capita income of $71,000, which in the UK and US would include many people with professional jobs.