Time with the Heideggers
Updated: Sep 28, 2020
By Warren Ward
“Which German philosophers are you writing about?”
The colleague across from me was genuinely interested, a rare experience for me living in Brisbane, where most people seemed to prefer talking about sport, schools, house prices, or the latest Game of Thrones episode.
I’d only just met Martin. He was the only other person who had turned up at Brisbane’s inaugural meeting for psychiatrists interested in philosophy.
A few years ago, I had started writing a book about the love lives of seven philosophers: Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Sartre, Foucault and Derrida. I got the idea from reading Simone de Beauvoir’s novel She Came to Stay, in which she described the challenges of her open relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre, especially after a young student, Olga Kosakiewicz, moved in with them. That book was my first introduction to philosophy, and it occurred to me that describing the love lives of its greatest protagonists might be an interesting way to approach an otherwise daunting subject.
I kept my writing project secret, on the advice of a friend who had spent meant many years engaged in creative endeavor. He suggested the less I spoke about my book, the more likely I would be to write it. He was right. As well as comprehensively researching my chosen topic, I’d been churning out a couple of thousand words every morning before heading off to the hospital where I worked every day as a psychiatrist.
So I walked into this meeting determined that I would tell no one about my book. I would just sit and listen.
But the first person I met there was Martin Beckmann, who hailed originally from Freiburg, Germany. As we got chatting, he explained that in his home town everybody learnt about philosophy in high school. Feeling he would be sympathetic, I blurted out my secret.
When I told him my book included the German philosophers Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, and Heidegger, he surprised me by replying:
“My mom knows Heidegger’s son. They live in the same town.”
“What?’ “My mind was reeling. ‘Is…ah… is there any chance we could meet?”
A few weeks later, I was on a flight to Freiburg, on my way to meet Heidegger’s 93-year-old son.
When I arrived, I had a whole week in Freiburg to prepare, as I didn't have permission to conduct the interview until Hermann’s son, Arnulf, could fly in from a nearby city. I booked into a hotel on the outskirts of town, and spent the week researching everything I could about Martin Heidegger and his son.
I read about Heidegger’s involvement with the Nazis, getting rather lost in a web of accusations and counter-accusations about his guilt or otherwise. I read about his affair with Hannah Arendt, the Jewish student who would go on to become one of America's most esteemed philosophers. I learned that Heidegger also had an affair with Jewish academic Elisabeth Blochmann, whom he helped escape to the Netherlands when she was harassed by the Nazis. But Heidegger himself joined the Nazi Party on May 1, 1933, ten days after being elected Rector of the University of Freiburg. Some commentators hold the view that Heidegger’s philosophy is inextricably tainted by his association with Nazism. Others regard his 1927 treatise, Being and Time, as one of the most important works of twentieth century philosophy.
On the morning of the interview, I met my interpreter in the hotel foyer and ordered a taxi to take us to Hermann’s house, located in the countryside a few miles north of Freiburg, on the edge of the Black Forest.
I felt quite apprehensive as the taxi drove us past lush green fields, dotted here and there with rustic farmhouses covered in fog. As a psychiatrist I had interviewed lots of patients, but this was different. I was about to interview a historical figure in a role that was totally new for me: as a writer, a biographer, a journalist of sorts. I had even agonized over what to wear. In the end I decided on a suit, always a good, respectful option in continental Europe.
The taxi stopped outside a small low-set brick house, indistinguishable from other modest cottages on the semi-rural street. A panic suddenly gripped me — perhaps I had the wrong address — but then I saw, coming down the side of the house, a white-haired man and woman, accompanied by another man about my age. The younger man introduced himself as Arnulf, then introduced his father Hermann and his mother Jutta. After warm greetings, they ushered us into armchairs in a small loungeroom.
I pressed the record button on my iPhone and placed it on the coffee table between us. Not sure where to begin, I started the interview in the way I usually started with patients, with an open question.
“So, what would you like me to know about your father?”
My question was followed by a long, awkward silence that seemed to go on forever. The old man looked angry, or afraid, I couldn’t tell which. His face was drawn tight and gone rather pale. Finally, he spoke:
“Do you know who it is that you are speaking to?”
At first, I had no idea what he was talking about, but then, all of a sudden, I remembered something I had read on the Internet the night before. Heidegger’s granddaughter (Hermann’s niece) had recently published correspondence between Heidegger and his wife that had revealed, for the first time, a family secret. Hermann was not the famous philosopher’s son, but the product of an affair between the philosopher’s wife Elfride and her childhood sweetheart, Friedel Caesar. Elfride had this affair while Heidegger was out of town conducting research for his mentor, Edmund Husserl. I had also read that when Heidegger found out about the pregnancy, he was surprisingly forgiving, reassuring his tearful wife that he would not say a word to anyone and would raise the boy as his own.
Drawing on all my years of experience as a psychotherapist, empathizing with patients in the most difficult of circumstances, I said:
‘I understand that Martin Heidegger was not your biological father, but he was your father. He brought you up as his son.’
The color rushed back into the old man’s face. His wife, sitting close to him, also looked relieved.
“So you know. You know,” he said.
“Yes”, I nodded. I suddenly felt a pang of compassion, a connection, with this elderly stranger across from me.
Hermann, at ease now, went on to explain how his mother didn’t tell him about his biological father until he was twelve years old, when she made him promise never to tell a soul, with the exception of his wife if he were ever to marry.
Jutta leaned in with a sympathetic face:
“Can you believe anyone would ask a twelve-year-old boy to keep that a secret? A twelve-year-old boy? How terrible.”
Hermann then proceeded to tell me other recollections of his childhood. When he was ten, his mother took him and his brother Jörg to a rally at the Freiburg football stadium, where Hitler spoke to 50,000 people. Hermann explained to me that his mother was a passionate supporter of the Nazi Party, but his father did not attend the rally — he was not interested in politics, and preferred to spend his time writing philosophy.
Hermann explained that it was his mother who convinced his father to vote for the Nazis. And his father only reluctantly took up the position as Rector of Freiburg University in response to pressure from his colleagues, after the Nazis forced another colleague to stand down. Hermann was keen to correct the historical record, explaining how his father had requested that the authorities let Husserl, a Jew, stay on campus. Hermann insisted that his father had not banned Husserl from the campus as some historians had claimed.
After an hour of talking, we broke for afternoon tea, moving to the dining table where Jutta had prepared an impressive spread of Kuchen, Torte and Brötchen. We talked about lighter topics — our families, the weather, the interpreter’s university studies — before returning to the lounge chairs to continue the interview.
We talked until the first shadows of evening started to darken the room, a signal for the interpreter and I to take our leave and return to Freiburg. That evening we huddled in a bar for a drink and evening snack, both feeling the need to debrief after revisiting the surreal and disturbing past of 1920s and 1930s.n avid
Later, as I wrote about Heidegger and his love life, I was struck by the fact that he was married to a Nazi supporter while having affairs with two Jewish women. In Being and Time, Heidegger asserted that although we are all thrown into a time and place beyond our choosing, we have a responsibility to make the right choices for an authentic and worthwhile life. Although his son would beg to differ, many would say that Heidegger failed to live up to the tenets of his own impassioned philosophy.
Warren Ward is a psychiatrist based in Brisbane, Australia, who writes about philosophy and cultural history. He is a regular contributor to New Philosopher.