Why did Heidegger emerge as the central philosopher of the far right?
Heidegger’s philosophy has legitimised the far right’s regional environmentalism, populism and cultural racism.
On 28 May 2020, Björn Höcke, the leader of Germany’s far-right party Alternative für Deutschland in the state of Thuringia published a glossy picture of himself on his Facebook profile. On the photo, one can see him sitting on a park bench reading a magazine called Die Kehre (Magazine for the Protection of Nature) a new far-right magazine whose first issue was published in spring 2020. Its title and content is, as the magazine’s self-description says, “inspired by” Heidegger’s 'Die Technik und die Kehre', one of the philosopher’s post-World War Two works, “in which he sees in technology the emergence of the highest danger” for “our human being.” The magazine, edited by a member of the so-called Identitarian Movement, aims to establish an understanding of environmental protection that overcomes a “narrow focus of ecology on climate change” and that includes the “teaching of the environment as a whole, including cultural landscapes, rituals and customs.”
Contributors include former anti-socialist GDR dissidents who, in recent years, have claimed a new dissidence to a contemporary totalitarian German political regime. In his comment to the post, Höcke argues that Heidegger’s thought and the Magazine show how the protection of nature can be reclaimed by the far right from the “homeland-hating Green party”.
Höcke’s celebration of Heidegger and the magazine is one among many examples showing how the far right, in Germany and beyond, has been celebrating the infamous philosopher. From Steve Bannon calling Heidegger “my guy” in an interview with Der Spiegel to Aleksander Dugin’s vision of a fourth political theory, Heidegger has emerged as the central philosopher of a globalising far right.
Yet, only recently have researchers begun to analyse and understand the role Heidegger plays in the contemporary far right and its ideology. In the past, many have looked at how figures of the so-called Conservative Revolution like Oswald Spengler or Carl Schmitt have informed the ideology of the far right. While many have noted Heidegger’s central role, it was only in 2008 that the first comprehensive study of Heidegger’s thought in the contemporary far right was published in Italy – with no translation in English. In the past years new publications have contributed to the understanding of the role of Heideggerian thought for contemporary politics and especially in the US alt right and Russian white nationalism.
The far right portrays itself as the defender not of the environment, but nature as a meaningful part of local traditions, heritage and an essential part of a white national identity
In Germany, Heidegger’s popularity in the far right is linked to the ways his philosophy legitimises the far right’s regional environmentalism, populism and cultural racism. His vision of a national Dasein, a particular collective being based on a shared spirit, tradition and local embeddedness, provides the contemporary German far right with the vision for a white identity uniting ‘the people’ and ‘the elites’ on the basis of an attachment to the local, the ‘common folk’ and its glorification via the racialisation of an inferior cultural and religious ‘Other’.
First, drawing on Heidegger allows the movement to intellectually embed its vision of a meaningful environmental protection movement as part of defending the homeland, or Heimat, as a union of local nature, culture and heritage against globalisation. This is shown by the above-mentioned magazine Die Kehre. Here, Heidegger’s spiritually founded opposition against rationalism and technocracy as well as his notion of a locally rooted thinking underpins the far right’s attempt to claim environmentalism.
A central part of this strategy is to label the Green party and leftist environmental protection movements as technocrats driven by a narrow scientific rationalism that focusses on climate change. Drawing on a long tradition of Heimat protection, the far right aims to counter this by portraying itself as the defender not of the environment, but nature as a meaningful part of local traditions, heritage and essential part of a white national identity. Global environmental protection movements are here portrayed as the expression of what Heidegger called the Gestell – a purely rationalistic reading of nature and the world as something transformable by humans.
Secondly, drawing on Heidegger allows far right intellectuals to embrace populism and develop the ideal of a populist intellectual: an ideal type of an intellectual who is rooted in ‘the people’ and, by being in touch with ‘the common folk’, closer to an authentic philosophy of being that Heidegger sees necessary to overcome modernity’s nihilistic rationalism. Heidegger here provides a philosophy of populism that attempts to overcome the antagonism between ‘the people’ and ‘the elites’ and that reflects how, against much of what the literature on far right populism suggests, educated bourgeois intellectualism and populism in the far right are deeply intertwined.
Like racism in general - Nazism has, of course, never been only about biologism
Finally, and most importantly, in a context where racism in Germany is still largely equated with Nazism and biological racism, Heidegger’s philosophy of an essentialised collective being ‘rooted’ in history provides the movement with a philosophy of cultural racism that claims to have overcome biological racism. Thus, Heidegger’s notion of Dasein is used to reformulate an exclusive, essentialised idea of white nationhood in the context of a liberal democratic political language in which closeness to national socialism, racist nationalism and anti-Semitism is socially questionable and legally banned.
Here the far right can draw on a still divided scholarship on Heidegger. Much of the academic debate is still focussed on the question of whether Heidegger was a central part of Nazism or an early sympathiser who later distanced himself from it. Much of the argument purported by those who support the latter view is based on Heidegger’s alleged rejection of the Nazis’ biological racism as yet another expression of modern rationalism and a technocratic threat to human beings. It is a view that, as is argued, also underpinned Heidegger’s controversial post-war reading of the Holocaust and concentration camps as the expression of modernity.
As a thinker who is often attributed to the so-called Conservative Revolution, Heidegger, just like the so-called German New Right, have sought to distance themselves from Nazism and to put themselves into a tradition of a pre-Nazi conservatism that has to be seen as essentially distinct from Nazism.
Heidegger’s philosophy offers a rich repertoire for the contemporary far right
This self-legitimising myth used by Heidegger and the so-called New Right, reveals that - like racism in general - Nazism has, of course, never been only about biologism. Being deeply embedded in the völkisch thought that characterised the Conservative Revolution, Nazism has equally been characterised by cultural racism – the racialisation of religious and cultural differences that can today equally be observed in the far right’s racialisation of Islam.
Heidegger’s philosophy epitomizes a “race talk” that was central to Nazism, its populist politics and the legitimisation of Nazi policies on the Jewish question through the claiming to essential cultural differences. Merging race and religion in vague notions of spirit and/or cultural essence resonated with large parts of the educated bourgeoisie and turned crude biological racism into questions of cultural aestheticism that attributed to the German Volk a mission in the leadership of European white superiority.
Through its linking of notions of local identity, heritage and environmentalism to a critique of technological globalisation, popular and populist discourses to claims of intellectual authenticity and by racialising culture and religion, Heidegger’s philosophy offers a rich repertoire for the contemporary far right. It provides the academic ‘sustainment’ to claims for the protection of ‘ordinary white people’, the homeland and a white national culture against global technocratic left-liberal elites as well as a racialised non-white and Muslim ‘Other’.
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