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the Complete Review
the complete review - history / biography

Martin Heidegger's
Changing Destinies

Guillaume Payen

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To purchase Martin Heidegger's Changing Destinies

Title: Martin Heidegger's Changing Destinies
Author: Guillaume Payen
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2016 (Eng. 2023)
Length: 567 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Martin Heidegger's Changing Destinies - US
Martin Heidegger's Changing Destinies - UK
Martin Heidegger's Changing Destinies - Canada
Martin Heidegger - Canada
Martin Heidegger - France
Heidegger: Die Biographie - Deutschland
from: Bookshop.org (US)
directly from: Yale University Press
  • Catholicism, Revolution, Nazism
  • French title: Martin Heidegger: Catholicisme, révolution, nazisme
  • Translated by Jane Marie Todd and Steven Rendall

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Our Assessment:

A- : very good interweaving of history, biography, and philosophy

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Histoire, Écon. et Société . (36:2) 6/2017 David Gallo
Le Monde . 16/2/2016 Nicolas Weill

  From the Reviews:
  • "L'ouvrage se distingue par trois princi pales qualités. C'est l'ampleur du travail documentaire réalisé qui frappe sans doute en premier lieu. (...) En second lieu, il faut souligner la rigueur d'historien de Payen -- d'autant plus appréciable qu'il s'affronte à un sujet hautement polémique. (...) Troisièmement et enfin, l'on doit souligner la clarté de la plume du biographe, qui sait rendre accessibles la pensée et la langue heidéggeriennes et montrer, au fil d'un récit dynamique, les nombreuses indications entre la trajectoire individuelle du philosophe, les grandes évolutions de son époque, et le développement de sa réflexion philosophique. (...) Le travail de Guillaume Payen n'est naturellement pas exempt de critiques. L'effort d'historicisation et de contextualisation de la trajectoire de Heidegger auquel il se livre eût parfois gagné à être poussé plus avant." - David Gallo, Histoire, Économie et Société

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) is both one of the most highly regarded philosophers of the twentieth century as well as one of the most notorious, his significance as thinker and teacher tainted by his embrace and support of Nazism. Guillaume Payen's historical-biographical study follows Heidegger's path, specifically through three stages -- of, as the subtitle has it: Catholicism, Revolution, Nazism (with Heidegger's posthumous destiny then thrown in for good measure). Unsurprisingly, it is that particularly problematic third stage and destiny to which Payen devotes the closest and most attention.
       Heidegger's beginnings, in Meßkirch in what was then still the Grand Duchy of Baden (now Baden-Württemberg), were in a very religious environment:

the Heideggers were fervent Catholics; the father was the sexton, Martin and his brother were choirboys, and his mother and sister were also active in the Church.
       Academically gifted, Heidegger went on to secondary school in Konstanz and then Freiburg, the expectation being that he would become a priest. He did well, setting the stage for him to pursue higher education. A first attempt, among the Jesuits -- for which he had to go to Austria, the Jesuits having been expelled from Germany -- was short-lived: he was: "deemed unsuited", apparently because of (physical) issues with his heart. (Payen suggests: "the problem seems to have been psychosomatic", here and later, but doesn't give much supporting evidence of that -- though, yes, given that Heidegger made it to a very ripe old age, his ticker can't have been in the worst of shape; when he did have a heart attack, it was when he was eighty-one ("during another tryst").) Tending more to the academic than the religious, Heidegger increasingly drifted away from Catholicism -- not least because he married a Protestant, Elfride Petri. itself shocking to his parents. Eventually, Heidegger's attitude became one of outright anti-Catholicism, as the Church represented a competing power to that of nation and Volk, demanding a loyalty irreconcilable with what Heidegger believed to be more important.
       Dutifully or eagerly, Heidegger volunteered as soon as war broke out in 1914, but was deemed (physically) unfit; he only got to join in in 1918, and even then was able to stay basically out of harm's way, assigned to a meteorological station. His military service did, however, expand his horizons -- specifically, in bringing him to Berlin and elsewhere beyond his provincial roots. And, Payen argues: "The time he spent at the front made him a revolutionary" - though not of the kind that came to the fore in the struggles for political power in the immediate aftermath of the war, as, as Payen notes: "Apolitical because he lacked knowledge of and esteem for concrete politics, Heidegger accorded much less attention to current events and to his contemporaries than to philosophy and to authors of the past".
       Indeed, Heidegger was more ivory tower idealist than politically-involved activist -- beyond institutional university politics, that is -- throughout his life. As Payen notes, Heidegger wasn't so much disappointed by Germany's defeat, but rather saw it as a wonderful opportunity, a chance to finally remedy Germany's 'spiritual poverty'; he entertained delusions of: "the creative reawakening of our entire existence". Already here, one can see what would then also appeal to him in Hitler and Nazism, a razing of all that had gone wrong to allow for the German ideal to rise anew, the glorious German spirit finally allowed to properly flourish. He was fine, then and later, with essentially burning it all down to the ground, making for conditions to start fresh -- where those old German (and classical Greek) ideals would be embraced and lead to forging a great nation. So too, then, he felt the German defeat in the Second World War was also a case of it not having gone far enough .....
       Heidegger proved quite adept at positioning himself for advancement in the academic world -- most notably as student of Ernst Cassirer, only to then to quickly distance himself from his former teacher, once he had gotten the position he wanted. Payen dates Heidegger's embrace of Nazism itself to the summer of 1930, noting that, not least, Heidegger was impressed by Hitler -- to the extent of both reading Mein Kampf and giving a copy of it to his brother as a gift; Heidegger was big on the concept of (spiritual and other) Führung, and found that Hitler fit the bill. The influence of Heidegger's wife was also not to be underestimated, Elfride having already earlier begun to sympathize with the party. (Elfride was also consistently a through-and-through anti-Semite.)
       Most notoriously, Heidegger became rector of the University of Freiburg in 1933 ("swept into office by the nazification of the whole of German society", Payen notes), and officially joined the Nazi Party some two weeks later. (For all his later protestations about not being at all involved in anything to do with the Party in later years, he never quit, either.) While only in the position for a year, he was a very active leader -- and, as Payen notes: "By virtue of his position, his prestige, and his discourse, he became a zealous promoter of the new regime". Certainly, it is clear from his actions during that time, when he was in a position to affect change, that he was more concerned with shaping the university to his ideals than to upholding the highest academic standards. Among the shocking examples Payen gives is when:
     On 22 December 1933 Heidegger wrote to the ministry about filling the vacant chair in ecclesiastical history, an opportunity to give his opinion on the place of the Church in the new state. "As in all future proposed appointments, the first question is which candidate -- assuming that he possesses the scientific and psychological aptitudes -- offers the greatest guarantee of imposing the National Socialist educational will."
       Certainly, he was toadying-up to the powers that be with such statements, but obviously an academic institution that appoints its professors using such criteria has rather questionable priorities -- but one's Heidegger appears, then as always, to have been fully on board with.
       Heidegger also was perfectly fine with limiting the number of 'non-Aryan' students at the university -- i.e. keeping especially Jews mostly out. (As Payen notes, Heidegger's anti-Semitism was -- as anti-Semitism so often is -- hardly consistent: "Although averse to the uprootedness of Jewish thought, Heidegger had friendly feelings for Jewish people and consideration for them or for their writings, when he found them to be of high quality"; and he directed the dissertations of numerous Jewish students.)
       After resigning as rector, Heidegger was more limited in his direct influence, but he sure still seemed to be on board with the program, being part of the Academy for German Law, for example, the actions of which: "were essential in the drafting of the anti-Semitic Nuremburg [sic] Laws of September 1935", with Payen suggesting: "Heidegger's participation in the academy tended to increase his anti-Semitism, to imbue him further with Nazi intellectual framework".
       Among the titbits of interest here is also his concern about his legacy in the form of his voluminous writing, nearly lost when Meßkirch was bombed in February, 1945, and the bank in whose safe he had stored them was destroyed:
Fortunately, the texts were buried under the rubble without being ruined. The decision was made, ultimately, to seal them up in a cave above the Danube, alongside manuscripts by Hölderlin.
       Heidegger was also briefly called up and put to work digging trenches in Alsace, though as desperate as the Germans were they didn't keep him on long and he was discharged in December, 1944.
       Payen then also follows Heidegger's path after the end of the war, beginning with the proceedings of the denazification commission, whose initial report was, as Payen puts it: "extremely lenient". In late 1946 they took a harder line and he was pensioned off and barred from teaching or holding any university position -- but that result, too, did not take, and in 1949 he got permission to teach again, and was guaranteed emeritus status when he reached retirement age.
       Among the interesting changes in Heidegger's work after the war that Payen notes are the embrace of the practice of translation (Paul Valéry; Lao Tzu), as well as the fact that: "he abandoned German (Gothic) cursive script, understood to be national, and adopted Latin characters" in his handwriting.
       Heidegger continued to be active academically; he also continued to complicate his personal life with his affairs with other women, notably, again, Hannah Arendt. Payen doesn't devote that much space to Heidegger's domestic life, despite the obviously significant influence of his wife, who stuck it out with him until the end, but he does go into the affairs a bit more in the postwar period; still, there's a lot more here which likely could have been mined -- so also the fact that one of the two Heidegger-sons, Hermann, was not biologically his (though Heidegger doesn't seem to have had much of a problem with that). (A bit more space on Heidegger's relationships with women would certainly have been warranted -- beginning with Marguerite Weninger, to whom he was secretly engaged for almost two years, until 1915.)
       Payen does go into more depth about some of Heidegger's relationships, especially with mentors and students, notably also Karl Jaspers, but there's a lot more to say about these complex relationships as well. Family is covered fairly cursorily, though brother Fritz clearly always remained a close and significant figure. As to other friendships, there's limited discussion -- though Payen does dryly point out that after the war: "Heidegger's propensity for Holocaust denial was not conducive to reunions with friends who had been victims of the Nazi regime".
       Only some of Heidegger's written work is considered closely. Admittedly, the amount is overwhelming -- the Gesamtausgabe (from Vittorio Klostermann) is set at 102 volumes --, and Payen does consider some of the most significant works, including, in particular, Being and Time and Heidegger's inaugural speech when he became rector; Payen does also mention and quote from numerous relevant shorter pieces. Readers do get a very general sense of Heidegger's philosophy -- specifically those aspects most relevant to the focus here, with Heidegger's suspicion of modern society and technology and harking back to a world and thought with firm roots -- but it remains a limited sense of it all. But, as Payen points out:
It is all the more difficult to interpret Heidegger in that his language is obscure, his texts innumerable, in some cases still unpublished and in others perhaps still poorly edited, if we are to believe the recent history of the critique of the texts. Their literal comprehension is an arduous task, and an overall synthesis, though not impossible, is particularly beholden to the philosophical choices of the interpreters.
       Payen does trace some of the influences and differences Heidegger had on and with the work of students and others. The spread of Heidegger's influence is particularly well covered in the postwar years and in the French embrace of the thinker then, but especially early on it would have been interesting to learn more about how it spread. Even Payen notes that: "The global reception of Being and Time was all the more extraordinary in view of how belatedly the translations appeared", with the Spanish translation of the 1927 work coming out in 1951, the Italian translation in 1953, the first English translation only in 1962 (!), and the first complete French translations in the 1980s.
       Most of Martin Heidegger's Changing Destinies is devoted to Heidegger's lifetime, but perhaps the most interesting of the twelve chapters is the final one, which looks at one more of Heidegger's 'destinies', his posthumous one, in considering 'The Heidegger Affair after Heidegger'.
       As Payen notes:
     As a long-term global phenomenon, the Heidegger affair after Heidegger's death, a vast and complex subject, would deserve a book all its own.
       Payen's 'abbreviated version' is a very good start, however.
       As Payen notes, at his death in 1976, Heidegger was: "an indisputable authority on the European continent and a major figure of contemporary thought everywhere else, his Nazism forgotten by the vast majority of readers in favor of his philosophy of human existence and the concealment of being in the era of global technology". The 1987 publication of Victor Farías' Heidegger and Nazism -- itself with a fascinating publishing history (written in Spanish and German, it was originally published in French translation) -- got the ball rolling, and Payen does an excellent job of considering this and the responses and books that followed attacking and defending Heidegger -- down to tracking the number of corrections made on the relevant Wikipedia pages in four different languages.
       With the content of some of the Black Notebooks then becoming public, Heidegger's true colors became impossible to deny. And, as Payen notes:
     Despite the variety of interpretations given to this fourth volume of black notebooks, their publication sank Heidegger. Through them and without being aware of doing so, he seems to have self-destructed for posterity.
       That may be a somewhat premature judgment, as Heidegger and his thought have proven rather (and somewhat worryingly) resilient in the years since the original publication of this study.
       Payen does note that: "Every year confirms somewhat more the philosopher's Nazism, clarifies it, shows its considerable scope"; he also sensibly suggests that things might and should settle down, moving away from the sensationalistic journalistic coverage, and that: "It is time for a return to pure academic debate". (That may be expecting a bit much ....)
       Payen is an historian, and Martin Heidegger's Changing Destinies a historical study rather than biography. (There is a good deal of biographical detail but also a variety of lacunae, making for a good but limited picture of Heidegger-the-man.) Payen's strength is very much in presenting Heidegger in historical context, from his childhood environment to the Nazi-era all the way to the posthumous handling and very mixed legacy of man and work.
       Payen himself mostly remains in the background -- though he does venture to the fore on a handful of occasions, as in making clear: "Attentive reader, you will have understood that I do not share Di Cesare's interpretations". One of the difficulties of writing about Heidegger is that not all the material is freely available, and Payen does also once insert himself in the narrative to make that point, in noting that: "I wrote to Hermann's son, Arnulf Heidegger, asking permission to consult the manuscripts held in Marbach" and then commenting on being turned down.
       Thorough and well-documented, Martin Heidegger's Changing Destinies is also very readable, Payen doing a very good job of presenting the material in engaging style.. Occasionally, there are some unnecessarily colorful prose-flourishes, but he only truly goes off the rails once, carried so far away that it's worth quoting:
     Rumor, an amorous specter throwing her loose-fitting, shape-shifting, filmy veil over everything and peddling by word of mouth the most diverse gossip, transmitting it faithfully or treacherously, fell in love with Heidegger in 1932 and wended her way far beyond the halls of the University of Freiburg.
       (Thankfully, this passage is not representative of the rest of the text.)
       Martin Heidegger's Changing Destinies is both an impressive work of scholarship and a good read about a still fascinating subject.

- M.A.Orthofer, 21 May 2023

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Martin Heidegger's Changing Destinies: Reviews: Martin Heidegger: Guillaume Payen: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Guillaume Payen teaches history at the Sorbonne.

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© 2023 the complete review

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