By far the most memorable experience I have had whilst conducting research for Lovers of Philosophy has been meeting Hermann Heidegger, the 93-year-old son of Martin Heidegger.
Martin Heidegger, one of the seven philosophers whose love life I explore in my book Lovers of Philosophy, was one of the most influential and controversial philosophers of the twentieth century.
My meeting with Heidegger’s elderly son came about totally by accident. I say that, but one thing I have noticed is that ever since I have followed my dreams in researching and writing this book, strange coincidences keep favouring me.
This is how the meeting occurred…
In January 2013, I went to the inaugural meeting of a discussion group in my home town of Brisbane for psychiatrists interested in philosophy. When I arrived, there was only one other person there. I introduced myself and it turned out this gentleman was German. I told him I was writing about the love lives of seven European philosophers, including four Germans – Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche and Heidegger. His response at that point staggered me.
He said, ‘My mother knows Heidegger’s son.’
My jaw dropped. I couldn’t believe it. I had been reading about Heidegger’s life for the last three years – about his philosophy that anticipated existentialism, about his controversial joining of the Nazi Party during the war. And about his extramarital love affair with his Jewish philosophy student Hannah Arendt, who went on to become one of the twentieth century’s most articulate critics of totalitarianism.
‘Did you say your mother knows Heidegger’s son?’ I said, still incredulous.
The psychiatrist explained that he was from Freiburg, where the Heideggers lived. And yes, he thought his mother might be able to arrange an introduction.
Two months later I was on a twenty-seven-hour flight from Brisbane to Frankfurt. From there I caught the train south to Freiburg, where I checked into a quaint but very welcoming hotel. I explained to the very friendly reception staff that I only wanted to speak German for the week I was there. They good-naturedly agreed to grant my request, even though my very limited vocabulary and mangled grammar must have grated on them. I also mentioned that I was in town to visit Heidegger’s son, and they knew immediately of which family I was speaking. The receptionist even knew where the Heideggers lived.
Freiburg turned out to be an incredibly picturesque university town, its cobblestone streets teeming with students, bicycles and bookshops. The towering gothic spire of the town’s central cathedral, known as the Münster, dominated the modest skyline of the town, which itself was nestled at the very edge of the Schwarzwald (Black Forest). Before leaving Brisbane, I had booked a German language teacher to meet with me every day in Freiburg to improve my rudimentary acquaintance with the local language. I had also booked an interpreter for the upcoming interview with the great philosopher’s son.
When the day for the interview came, I put on my suit and caught a taxi to the Heideggers’ home, a small and modest but welcoming cottage on the outskirts of Freiburg. There were quite a few green farm fields scattered here and there around the sparsely developed settlement known as Attental, in which they lived. There was a thick layer of grey fog in the air that day, and everything felt a little surreal as the taxi pulled up outside the address I had been given. But the interpreter Katherina and I were immediately put at ease by the warm reception granted to us by the spritely 93-year-old who greeted us. Hermann Heidegger introduced himself, his wife Jutta and his son Arnulf.
In Hermann Heidegger’s modest lounge-room I got to hear about his childhood memories. Memories of his father insisting on quiet whilst he worked away at his desk. Memories of attending a Hitler rally when he was only twelve years old. This was on the 29th July, 1932, when Hitler addressed a crowd of 50,000 people in Freiburg’s local football stadium. Hermann’s mother, Elfride, had dressed him and his brother Jörg up in their best slacks, white shirt and tie before taking them to the rally. Hermann explained to me that his father, Martin, didn’t attend the rally because, unlike his mother, he wasn’t that interested in politics. He preferred to work on his philosophy.
Hermann also shared with me his memories of how, after the Nazis had taken power, his father got caught up in the stressful to-and-fro of politics regarding the local university’s administration. It was then that Martin Heidegger took an action that would see him come under heavy criticism for decades to come – he joined the Nazi Party.
In that lounge-room I also saw Heidegger’s 93-year-old son going soft in the face, as if he were a child again, as he recalled some of the more tender and personal memories from his childhood days. Memories such as boating down the Rhineland’s famous rivers with his father. And playing in the snow with his brother outside Die Hütte, the forest hut that the family regularly retreated to during their holidays.
I heard about Heidegger’s friendship with the philosopher Edmund Husserl, who was Jewish and therefore excluded from Freiburg University by the Nazis at the time that Heidegger was Rector (or Dean). Hermann showed me a letter that his mother wrote to Husserl’s wife, Malvine, on the 29th April, 1933, expressing sympathy and concern about how the war was affecting them. Despite their political differences, the two families were still on friendly terms, at least according to the account Hermann Heidegger provided to me on that day.
I feel very privileged to have been able to conduct this interview, extracts of which I plan to include in my upcoming book Lovers of Philosophy.