Heidegger's Fascist Affinities
A Politics of Silence
Adam Knowles



Hidden in Plain Sight

In order to keep silent, one must first have something to say. “Silence,” Martin Heidegger writes, “is a manner of not speaking, but not every instance of not speaking is silence” (GA 36–37, 109/86). On this account, silence is made possible because one does have something to say, a situation that is impossible for an entity such as a stone or—Heidegger’s own example—a window. The stone does not have the power to keep silent, because it does not have the power to speak. Yet in Freiburg im Breisgau, a city in the German state of Baden-Württemberg ineluctably attached to Heidegger, the stones do in fact speak; they do have something to say. They speak from their dull glistening, from their concealment in their inconspicuous everyday settings in the old city’s bustling commercial district surrounding Freiburg University. They speak from the spaces dispersed among the houses, shops, classrooms, academic departments, and administrative buildings of the university. They speak from the very spaces where Heidegger taught, wrote, and served as rector of the university while National Socialism solidified its power in the era of Gleichschaltung (ideological coordination, compulsory conformity), a violent process of ideological assimilation imposed upon German society and institutions.1 “The world of our people and Reich is being rebuilt,” Heidegger writes in April 1933, on the cusp of assuming his own position of power in the burgeoning Nazi state. It is the duty of “everyone who still has eyes to see and ears to hear and a head to act . . . to bear this reality into the spiritual world of the Reich and into the secret mission of the German essence.”2 In contrast to the philosopher Heidegger, who flourished under National Socialism and went on to produce a Complete Works of more than one hundred volumes, these stones tell stories that are terse, abbreviated, and concealed beyond the few words that are stamped into their surface line by line. Often they tell very little, because only little is known, yet in their brevity, they also speak volumes.

In German, these stones are called Stolpersteine—“stumbling stones,” figuratively in English, “stumbling blocks.”3 Conceptualized by the artist Günter Demnig and mimicked by many others from Holland to Hungary, these stumbling stones are brass plaques the size of a cobblestone that are set into the street to commemorate the stories of Holocaust victims, integrating the memory of the Holocaust into the everyday lives of the inhabitants of European cities. Placed in front of sites of deportation or a victim’s last verifiable residence, they tell what is known about individuals deported: name, birth year, and, if possible, the date, manner, and place of death. In their inconspicuousness, the stumbling blocks serve to remind us that the Holocaust involved, not only mass death, but also mass complicity, with recent research estimating the involvement of some two hundred thousand perpetrators (Bajohr and Pohl 2008, 10). The stumbling these blocks cause is metaphorical, for despite their surface joining flush with the surrounding sidewalk, they bring us to a halt and confront us with the unspeakable by embedding it in the physical terrain of the city.

At one corner in Freiburg, three stones are set inartistically, almost haphazardly, in the asphalt of a busy commercial street. This cluster tells the story of the Kaufmann family: Louis born in 1899, Yvonne born in 1894, and Manfred, presumably their son, born in 1923. Having fled to France in 1935, as the stones inform us, Louis and Yvonne survived the Holocaust, while Manfred was first interned at the Drancy detention camp in suburban Paris and later deported to the Majdanek concentration camp in German-occupied Poland. He was murdered at Majdanek in 1943. Heidegger—whose only public remarks about the Holocaust were brief and cryptic—would have said that he did not die there for according to Heidegger, there was perishing and liquidation in the death camps, but no death, since, for him, to die “means to carry out death in its essence” (GA 79, 56/53).4

Around the corner, a set of six stones, tapered at the edges from the wear of countless feet making their way to and from Freiburg’s main train station, are set crookedly in asphalt among the cobblestones. They speak of the twin fates of the Abraham and Grumbacher families. Albert and Lina Abraham fled Freiburg in 1932 and were murdered in Auschwitz in 1942. Let us have the generosity to say they died there. The remaining stones speak voluminously of the Grumbachers. Benjamin, Kiara, Rita, and Sedy Grumbacher fled Freiburg in 1934. Benjamin returned in 1935 but was dead, the stone reports, without mentioning a cause, by 1938. Kiara, Rita, and Sedy, along with Fanny Grumbacher were murdered in Auschwitz in 1942. The stones tell us this. They have little difficulty telling their abbreviated stories, which narrate themselves to the attentive listener who walks the streets of Freiburg, and so many other parts of Europe, with an eye trained on such stumbling blocks.

Elsewhere in the old city of Freiburg, one encounters two haunting talking stones placed side by side, hinting at a story all the more powerful for its prosaic brevity:

02/24/1936 02/24/1936
Stumbling block in Freiburg, Germany. Photo by the author.

Were Thekla and Selma Lion a mother and daughter incapable of fleeing, or unwilling to flee? Why? History tells us that in response to threats and extortion, they stepped into the Rhine and drowned themselves on February 24, 1936 (Meckel 2006, 153). The stones use the euphemism Freitod to describe their suicide instead of the more common German terms Selbstmord and Suizid. While Freitod seems to imply a peculiar form of freedom, Selbstmord is far more metaphysical in its self-referentiality, translating literally as “self-murder.” “Sui caedere: to kill oneself,” as Jean Améry writes in his analysis of suicide. “Remarkable how the Latinized forms always suck the reality out of something” (Améry 1999, 2). But regardless of the word chosen, it would seem inappropriate to assign Thekla and Selma responsibility for their own murders. Neither word captures what they endured at the hands of the Nazis and neighbors who exploited their vulnerable situation, provoking them to end their own lives.

In “We Refugees,” a short personal account of the experience of exile, Hannah Arendt, who fled Nazi persecution by way of the French camp of Gurs, sums up this experience in a tone of disarming insouciance. Discussing the rash of suicides by Austrian Jews following the German annexation of Austria, she writes: “Unlike other suicides, our friends leave no explanation of their deed, no indictment, no charge against a world that forced a desperate man to talk and to behave cheerfully to his very last day. Letters left by them are conventional, meaningless documents. . . . Nobody cares about motives, they seem clear to all of us” (Arendt 1994, 112).5

What mask of cheerfulness did Thekla and Selma Lion wear? What was their “quiet and modest way of vanishing” (ibid., 114)? What was it that they did not explain, in a silence chosen for them before a death chosen for them (fabricated for them, Heidegger would say)? What words can capture the monstrous truth hinted at by Thekla and Selma Lion’s stone?

The stones of Freiburg speak. They speak against Heidegger, who despite—or perhaps because of—his immense philosophical talent, also served as a ruthless Nazi administrator who coldly and efficiently implemented the Aryanization laws as rector of Freiburg University, a law euphemistically deemed “The Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service.” He enthusiastically declared his allegiance to the Führer in 1933, only months into the reign of National Socialism. “The greatness Hitler is growing into as a statesman reveals itself from day to day,” he writes in April 1933.6 At approximately the same time, he makes the following note in his philosophical diaries known as the Black Notebooks: “The great experience and fortune that the Führer has awakened a new actuality, giving our thinking the correct course and impetus. Otherwise, despite all thoroughness, it would have remained lost in itself and would only with difficulty have found its way to effectiveness. The literary existence is at its end” (GA 94, 111/81).

Hitler shows Heidegger the way, gives his thinking a direction. Finally, Heidegger’s philosophy will have an impact. Yet while Heidegger seeks to take on his own stature of greatness as a statesmanlike philosopher by distancing himself from his literary existence, the Abrahams, Grumbachers, and Kaufmanns of Germany had fled or were preparing to flee. These stones thus speak against the Rektor-Führer, as he was officially designated in the bureaucratic terminology of the Nazis. As rector, Heidegger Aryanized Freiburg University in a manner considered exemplary by the Ministry of Culture in Berlin (Grün 2010; Seier 1964). As a bureaucrat, thinker, and public figure, Heidegger contributed both directly and indirectly to the deportations and murders recounted in the terse messages of the stumbling blocks. It is thus perhaps all too convenient for him to wish that stones could not speak. As an early devotee lending intellectual credibility to the Nazi “revolution” (GA 16, 151/286),7 as—in his own brother’s words—a “celebrity” and a “hot stock on the world market of public opinion,” Martin Heidegger, the thinker and the man, is woven into the fabric of the crimes of Nazi Germany.8 The local Nazi party propaganda organ Der Alemane announced Heidegger’s entry into the Nazi party in May 1933 with great fanfare: “It strikes our consciousness with infinite satisfaction that this great man stands in our ranks, the ranks of Adolf Hitler.”9


1. On Gleichschaltung, see Fritzsche 1998.

2. Martin Heidegger to Fritz Heidegger, April 13, 1933, in HA, 35.

3. For an introduction to the stumbling-stone project, see Dörte Franke’s 2008 documentary Stolperstein on the artist Günter Demnig; historical information on the victims memorialized by stumbling blocks in Freiburg can be found in Meckel 2006.

4. For a defense of Heidegger’s statement and elucidation of this concept of perishing, see Agamben 1999, 73–86; for a discussion of the “absolute insanity of these words,” see Faye 2009, 304–5.

5. Arendt reports on a protest action in the form of collective suicide at the French internment camp in Gurs, to which many of Freiburg’s Jews who had fled to France were deported.

6. Martin Heidegger to Fritz Heidegger, April 13, 1933, in HA, 35.

7. Holocaust histories often mention Heidegger as exemplifying early academic enthusiasm for the Nazi revolution. See Koonz 2003, esp. 50–54; Friedländer 1998, 41–72; Ericksen 2012, 92.

8. Fritz Heidegger to Martin Heidegger, March 30, 1930, in HA, 16.

9. “Der Philosoph Heidegger in die NSDAP eingetreten [The Philosopher Heidegger Joins the NSDAP],” in Der Alemanne: Kampfblatt der Nationalsozialisten Oberbadens 121, 3 (May 3, 1933), reprinted in Schneeberger 1962, 23.