Martin Heidegger and Catholicism: The Unexpected Enemy in the Black Notebooks

by Judith Wolfe, Professor of Philosophical Theology and the Deputy Head of the School of Divinity, St. Mary’s College

In the autumn of 1931, Martin Heidegger began to record his private thoughts and intellectual struggles in small black oilcloth diaries that he called the schwarze Hefte, or “Black Notebooks.” Even before the first tranche of the Notebooks were finally published in 2014, there were rumours about what they would reveal. It had long been acknowledged that Heidegger – one of the most influential philosophers of the modern era – had been a supporter of Hitler and the Nazi Party in the early 1930s. To what extent, and for how long, has long been one of the hot issues of Heidegger scholarship. One of the most striking lessons of the Notebooks is the extent to which Heidegger’s attraction to Nazism – and his later rejection of it – was animated by a quarrel with the Catholic Church. “Contemporary Catholicism”, Heidegger wrote to a friend in 1929, “must remain to us a horror”. The history of that quarrel is, to a large extent, the history of Heidegger’s philosophical life.

Heidegger was born in 1889 into a devout Catholic family in Messkirch, southwest Germany, the first child of the sexton of the local church. It was the height of the “Modernist crisis”, when a movement to introduce modern critical methods into theology and biblical studies was meeting ferocious opposition in the Vatican. The pugnacious counter-cultural perfectionism of the Vatican line impressed Heidegger. He tried to join the Jesuits, but was quickly dismissed because of an early manifestation of his chronic heart problems. Nevertheless, he remained intent on becoming a priest, and enrolled at Freiburg University to study theology.

In Freiburg, Heidegger came under the influence of Protestant critical scholarship, and when Pope Pius X’s anti-Modernist oath of 1910 forbade Catholic scholars to use such methods of enquiry, Heidegger was deeply conflicted. His health collapsed and he had to break off his studies for almost a year.

When he returned to Freiburg in late 1911, it was as a student of philosophy, not theology. His plan now was to work theologically within the philosophy faculty, developing a Catholic theology through a dialogue of medieval and modern Kantian thought. The anti-modern neo-Scholasticism championed in seminaries and Catholic theology departments now seemed to him a debased and mechanised system, straitjacketing the potential especially of medieval mysticism. Heidegger acerbically wrote to his doctoral supervisor: “The motu proprio about philosophy was really the cherry on the cake. Perhaps you as an ‘academic’ could apply for an even better procedure for gutting the brain of anyone who dares to have an independent thought, and replacing it with ‘Italian salad’.”

In March 1917, Heidegger married Elfride Petri, a Lutheran, in Freiburg’s Catholic cathedral. Elfride had indicated a willingness to convert to Catholicism; instead, by 1919, both had turned away from Catholicism. Many factors contributed to Martin’s estrangement: the break-down of his earlier engagement to a Roman Catholic; the failure of his ambition for the Catholic Chair in Freiburg, towards which he had been steering his career. But above all, it was his growing conviction that what theology needed was not a supposed God’s-eye view on the world as a grand, orderly system, but a theological language capable of expressing lived spiritual experience, particularly the persistent human feeling of inadequacy, affliction, and what he called “beginner-dom”.

At the age of 30, he declared that he had converted to an “undogmatic Protestantism”. He spent some years trying to develop an anti-metaphysical theology inspired by Luther, but, by 1924, he felt he had reached a dead end: a theology of grace and faith, which for Luther held out the solution to human affliction and inadequacy, seemed to Heidegger an intellectual cop-out. Not everyone was capable of experiencing grace and faith, he thought; and because they were completely gratuitous, bestowed by God seemingly out of nowhere, he felt they invalidated, rather than genuinely redeemed or made sense of, human experience. In other words, Heidegger came to reject as unrealistic the Christian idea that what had led to our estrangement from ourselves was sin, and that what was needed to fix it was grace. Estrangement from ourselves, he concluded, was instead an essential part of being human, arising from the stark and inescapable fact of our mortality. We are never fully “there”; we are always still on the way – and the end of that path, he insisted, is not fulfilment but death. We can only live truthfully by accepting, not by trying to overcome, this predicament. To be fully human means bearing the tension between our inalienable wish for fulfilment and our inability ever to reach it, without collapsing into fantasy or apathy.

This call to heroic finitude was the bracing centre of the epoch-making book that catapulted Heidegger to fame in 1927, Being and Time. But within the bubbling national crisis of late Weimar, he soon became dissatisfied with its narrowly individual focus. For years, he brooded over the question how to bring not merely philosophers but a whole nation to live authentically.

What excites me about the Black Notebooks is seeing this brooding at work for the first time. But it is disturbing just how much Heidegger found the great enemy of his search for an authentic national life in Christianity. Partly this had to do with university politics. But the substance of his quarrel with Christianity was his old criticism of Catholic theology imposing false structures and meaning on human experience.

Heidegger had by now reached his diagnosis of the contemporary malaise.  Modernity was unable to resist constantly grinding down the rich inner life of the world into a single homogenous mass of “useful” material: power stations, industrial farming, and factory towns were all signs of this trend. And the root of this problem, he concluded, was Christianity. By imagining a God who had created a world of fixed natures that could be defined and therefore utilized, humans had authorized themselves to know, measure, master, and use up that world. This, he thought, was where the mechanical and unreal theology of neo-Scholasticism had led. Heidegger resolved that something radically different was needed: a communal vision which, like his earlier calls to authenticity, would enable Germany to face suffering and struggle in the crucible of national identity.

Heidegger had no natural appetite for politics: he mocked the “fake vivacity of politics, whose intellectual-spiritual paralysis cries to heaven” in the same breath as he scoffed at the “cheap superiority of faith”. But in Autumn 1932, Adolf Hitler’s calls to self-sacrifice and a new history stirred his imagination. Heidegger wrote excitedly to his friend, the influential Protestant biblical scholar Rudolf Bultmann, that National Socialism might be a movement with enough driving force to rouse Germany as a whole to the kind of “conscious life” he envisioned. Heidegger was no outlier. Many leading German philosophers rallied around Hitler in the early 1930s. Philosophers had accepted as theirs the task of re-formulating a vision of Germany after the trauma of World War I, and largely looked to the great nationalists of the nineteenth century – Fichte and Hegel – as models. Those thinkers had seen Germany as a quintessentially spiritual  nation, called to lead the world to enlightenment by education. It was this vision which had fuelled the long German dominance of scholarship. When Hitler swept away the timid and sluggish bureaucrats of Weimar, Heidegger was not the only intellectual who hoped he would renew the spiritual visions of these great German thinkers.

In April 1933, Heidegger took on the rectorship of Freiburg University, and joined the Nazi Party with great public fanfare the following month. He supported a political revolution which, he believed, by teaching the Germans discipline and an “instinct for the ultimate”, would prepare the way for a “deeper … spiritual”  revolution. What this was really about, he insisted, was that “exposed to the most extreme questionableness of its own existence, this people [should] will … to be a spiritual people”. If the Party did not “sacrifice itself as a transitional phenomenon”, he grandly declared, but instead pretended to be “complete, eternal truth dropped from heaven”, it was “an aberration and a folly”.

The Notebooks document Heidegger’s increasingly bitter realization that Hitler and his chief ideologue Rosenberg wanted nothing to do with this idealism: Germanness, to them, was a matter of race and territory, not of spiritual destiny.

He resigned as head of the university in April 1934. Within a few years, he came to see Nazism as merely another totalitarian technopoly, a sort of flip-side of the neo-Scholastic theology that dominated Catholicism. By 1936, Heidegger had turned to a mystical quietism, which he described mysteriously as the anticipation of an unknown “last god’’ who would both end and save us. After the war, he mellowed towards his Catholic past, noting cryptically in 1953 that one’s “origins always remain one’s future”. On his death in May 1976, at the age of 86, Heidegger had a Catholic funeral.

Neo-Scholasticism has been in retreat in Catholic theology since the 1950s, not least due to Heidegger’s influence on luminaries such as Rahner. The Black Notebooks remind us that although he could be a formidable critic whose questions must be taken seriously, his hatred was also myopic. Most importantly, unlike the Confessing Church with its unambiguous truth claims, Heidegger’s spiritual vision was not ultimately strong enough to provide counter-directives to the Nazi regime. When it came to the test, for all his talk of suffering, Heidegger’s religion of questioning did not produce any martyrs.


Publication originally printed by The Tablet in 2017, re-published here with permission.

For more of Professor Wolfe’s work on Heidegger’s Black Notebooks, see “Caught in the Trap of His Own Metaphysics” in Standpoint.


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