In a conversation with Laureano Ralon and Roman Onufrijchuk, I recall the great gift bestowed on me by the opportunity to study with great teachers, in particular the historian Herbert Gutman and the philosopher Herbert Marcuse. Questions about the eight years of apprenticeship I spent with Marcuse during the 1960s, both at Brandeis and UC San Diego, naturally lead to my own thoughts about his period of study with Martin Heidegger. Basing my discussion on the brilliant and pathbreaking book by the contemporary French philosopher Emmanuel Faye, Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism into Philosophy [original in French, 2005; English translation, Yale University Press, 2009], I argue that Heidegger’s thought will always be morally compromised by his enthusiastic and unapologetic support of Hitler’s regime and by his own effort to synthesize his philosophical thought with Nazi ideology. A passage in Heidegger’s postwar work, cited by Faye, describes the fate of extermination-camp victims as, in effect, a “death unworthy of death,” bringing to mind the notorious phrase, “life unworthy of life,” which was used during the Nazi period to justify the murder of groups singled out for extermination. I undertake these reflections in the context of my own continuing struggle, as a person of German descent, with the legacy of barbarism and savagery bestowed on us by the Nazi regime, a legacy that must never be forgotten and that can never be forgiven.
William Leiss was Senior Scholar in Residence at Cornell University’s Society for the Humanities in the Fall Semester of 2012.
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