Cross-posted to Crooked Timber.

During this week’s guest stint I’ve managed to touch on Palestine-Israel, the New Deal, and Michel Foucault. Steering clear of the real killer tripwires—i.e., sex roles, the Democratic primaries, or emacs/vi—that leaves a final frontier of Internet mischief….

On this day in 1945, only three days after the occupation of their city by French troops, the remaining full professors of the University of Freiburg assembled to elect new officers and to restore the customs under which they had operated before 1933, when their faculty, racially purged by the Nazis, elected as rector the philosopher Martin Heidegger. (All details here come from Hugo Ott; see more at the footnote.)1

This is not a parable or an analogy. It is a story of one episode in which civil authorities and academic governing bodies reckoned with a disastrous crossover between scholarship and politics.

One of the first orders of business for the reassembled professors was the question of what to do about Nazis among their colleagues. They chartered an internal review committee for the purpose, and tried to keep jurisdiction over this process, without success. City authorities were conducting their own reviews, and they designated Heidegger’s house, among others, as a “Party residence” to be requisitioned for use. The university protested, based on the opinion of legal scholar Franz Böhm (an anti-Nazi dismissed from his post during Hitler’s regime) that for “establishing political guilt” one needed “a proper court of law.”

The French occupation authorities had actual jurisdiction over such cases, and they appointed a trio of professors who had been imprisoned under the Nazis to act and speak for the university. These three became the nucleus of the university’s denazification commission, which in due course all but let Heidegger off. Their report in September 1945 acknowledged that he had stirred up the students against “reactionary” professors, that he

played an active part in transforming the university constitution in line with the “leadership principle” and in introducing the outward forms of Hitlerism (e.g. the Hitler salute…) into academic life … he penalized or sacrificed persons who were opposed to the Nazis, and even contributed directly to National Socialist election propaganda….

But he had been rector only a year before falling out with the party; as his onetime friend Karl Jaspers would later write, “the special brand of National Socialism he concocted for himself had precious little to do with the real thing.”

The report concluded that as “[i]t would be a serious and lamentable loss” for someone as famous as Heidegger to go. He should do a limited amount of teaching, and no administration or examination. The French military government declared Heidegger “disponible,” which was all but harmless.

One professor and member of the commission, Adolf Lampe, dissented. Along with Böhm and another anti-Nazi, Walter Eucken, Lampe began protesting formally. Böhm, the lawyer who had from the start urged a regard for procedure, noted that other academics had already suffered harsher punishments for their connection with the Nazis, and Heidegger should not therefore get off lightly; justice, as Böhm saw it, would have failed if it reached this inequitable conclusion. He wrote in October,

it makes me very bitter to think that one of the principal intellectual architects of the political betrayal of Germany’s universities … should merely have been subjected to the stricture of “disponibilité”, and clearly feels no need at all to answer for the consequences of his actions.

Observing Heidegger going about his business, agreeing to give lectures and generally enjoying the privileges of academic life again, Lampe concurred: “It must therefore be concluded that Herr Heidegger—contrary to what is assumed in the report placed before us by our denazification commission—has not undergone that radical change in his political thinking…. In the absence of such a change we had no business to exonerate Herr Heidegger….”

The French occupation authorities tried to defuse the growing crisis by offering to move Heidegger to the university at Tübingen. But Tübingen would not have him. So with the government unwilling to do much, the case against Heidegger became, Hugo Ott writes, “a purely internal affair” to the University of Freiburg.

Heidegger asked that the faculty consult the philosopher Karl Jaspers for his opinion. Jaspers had fallen out with Heidegger in the 1930s as Heidegger became more evidently enamored of Hitler and Nazism. Jaspers wrote reluctantly but damningly, arguing

In our present situation the education of the younger generation needs to be handled with the utmost responsibility and care. Total academic freedom should be our ultimate goal, but this cannot be achieved overnight. Heidegger’s mode of thinking, which seems to me to be fundamentally unfree, dictatorial and uncommunicative, would have a very damaging effect on students at the present time…. He should be suspended from teaching duties for several years, after which there should be a review of the situation based on his subsequent published work and in the light of changing academic circumstances. The question that must then be asked is whether the restoration of full academic freedom is a justifiable risk, bearing in mind that views hostile to the idea of the university, and potentially damaging to it when propounded with intellectual distinction, may well be promoted in the lecture room. Whether or not such a situation arises will depend on the course of political events and the evolution of our civic spirit.

In sum Jaspers recommended Heidegger be pensioned off and permitted to publish, but not to teach. Full academic freedom required a marked recovery of the body politic, a restored civic spirit, and confidence in the resilience of the young.

In the middle of January, 1946—nine months after reconstituting itself—the University Senate largely adopted Jaspers’s views, denying Heidegger permission to teach, and saying he would be “expected to maintain a low profile at public functions and gatherings of the University.”

In December, 1946, the French military government went a bit further, denying Heidegger his pension, but changed its mind about that in May 1947. So the ban on Heidegger’s teaching stayed firm until 1949, when the Faculty of Philosophy persuaded the university Senate to lift it, though not by an overwhelming or unbitter vote, and Heidegger was clear to lecture in 1950-51.

From Ott’s account it appears that throughout the nine months it took to come to a resolution in the Heidegger case, university and government authorities influenced each other and that the opinions of academic experts within the academy—particularly Jaspers—carried a great deal of weight outside it. Heidegger’s critics within the university wanted him to pay a price as determined by a set of legitimate procedures. And they—especially Jaspers—weighed academic freedom in the balance, carefully enough to believe it merited support for Heidegger’s continued publishing career, but not for his teaching career until society had recovered to the point where it could sustain the onslaught of his dictatorial mode of thought.

1Hugo Ott, Martin Heidegger: A Political Life, trans. Allan Blunden (London: HarperCollins, 1993); I’m drawing also on Mark Lilla, The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics (New York: New York Review Books, 2003) and Hans Otto Lenel, “The Life and Work of Franz Böhm,” European Journal of Law and Economics 3 (1996):301-307. Also, previously on CT.