Martin Heidegger’s Schwarze Hefte (Black Notebooks), the first three of which have recently been published in Germany to great controversy, will eventually comprise the last eight volumes of his mammoth Gesamtausgabe (Collected Works). When complete, the edition will run to a staggering 102 volumes—more than the collected works of Kant, Hegel, or Nietzsche. At the end of his life, Heidegger, who regarded himself as the greatest thinker in the Western tradition since Heraclitus, meticulously mapped out the (non-chronological) sequence in which his Collected Works would be published and chose the Black Notebooks as the edition’s culminating contribution.
For decades, the guardians of Heidegger’s literary estate, his son Hermann and the Freiburg philosopher Friedrich-Wilhelm von Herrmann, kept the existence of these works, which take their name from the notebooks, bound in black wax and leather, in which he wrote them, a carefully guarded secret. It is not hard to see why, for they reveal the extent to which during the 1930s and 1940s Heidegger was wholly obsessed with Bolshevism, National Socialism, and the ignoble actions of “World Jewry” (Weltjudentum), as represented by Western powers such as England and the United States.
Of course, the scandal of Heidegger’s politics is not new. It goes back, at the very least, to his inaugural address as the Nazi-installed rector of University of Freiburg in 1933, in which Heidegger sought to sacrifice the autonomy of the university to the historical destiny of the German people (Volk). The subsequent controversies over the extent of Heidegger’s Nazism (he resigned as rector after a year but retained his membership in the National Socialist Party until 1945) might be said to have begun with the denazification proceedings at Freiburg after the war. In the report, his old friend and colleague Karl Jaspers described Heidegger as a nihilist and an uncritical mystic who nonetheless was “occasionally able in a clandestine and remarkable way, to strike the core of philosophical thought.” However, Jaspers also wrote that:
It is absolutely necessary that those who helped place National Socialism in the saddle be called to account. Heidegger is among the few professors to have done that . . . Heidegger’s manner of thinking, which to me seems in its essence unfree, dictatorial, and incapable of communication, would today be disastrous in its pedagogical effects . . . Heidegger certainly did not see through all the real powers and goals of the National Socialist leaders . . . But his manner of speaking and his actions have a certain affinity with National Socialist characteristics, which makes his error comprehensible.
Heidegger was subsequently dismissed from the university and barred from teaching, though he was reintegrated and allowed to teach again in 1951.
The more recent controversies over the extent and significance of Heidegger’s Nazi sympathies have been provoked by the damning research of Hugo Ott, Victor Farías, Emmanuel Faye, and others. However, each time the response of the Heideggerian faithful has been to detach the philosopher’s thought from his embarrassing political entanglements. This strategy has never been entirely plausible, as Jaspers had already recognized. What the Black Notebooks now provide, in contrast to the lectures and theoretical treatises that have already been published, is access to Heidegger’s innermost philosophical thoughts: the elaboration of an extensive “hidden doctrine” that the philosopher developed in the solitude of his Black Forest ski hut.
Thus, contrary to what has been reported, the Black Notebooks are not merely a compendium of occasional or unpolished thoughts. Instead, in the main they consist of sustained reflections on the essential problems of the contemporary era as viewed from the rarified Heideggerian standpoint of the “history of Being.” From this point hence, it will no longer suffice to trivialize the extent of Heidegger’s racism, as Jonathan Rée recently has, by claiming that the Freiburg sage was merely “the sort of cultural anti-Semite (DH Lawrence, TS Eliot, Ezra Pound) often found in the 1920s and 30s.” As the German journalist Thomas Assheuer has astutely noted:
The hermeneutic trick of acknowledging Heidegger’s anti-Semitism only in order to permanently cordon it off from his philosophy proper is no longer convincing. The anti-Jewish enmity of the Black Notebooks is no afterthought; instead, it forms the basis of [Heidegger’s] philosophical diagnostics.
With the publication of the Black Notebooks, what has now become indubitably clear is that racial prejudice against non-Germanic peoples—the English, the Russians, the French, the Americans, and, especially, the Jews—lies at the very center of Heidegger’s philosophical project. It is inseparable from the Volk-concept that he had embraced already in Being and Time (1927) and that he continued to exalt throughout his lectures and seminars of the 1930s. Heidegger’s belief in the ontological superiority of the German Volk underwrites his political view that inferior peoples may be justly persecuted in the name of “the history of Being,” a point that has also been forcefully made by the Black Notebooks’ editor, Peter Trawny, in his short book Heidegger und der Mythos der jüdischen Weltverschwörung (Heidegger and the Myth of the Jewish World Conspiracy).
When pressed to define the pivotal notion of “Being” in one of the key texts of his later period, the 1947 “Letter on Humanism,” Heidegger wrote:
Man does not decide whether and how beings appear, whether and how God and the gods or history and nature come forward into the lighting of Being, come to presence and depart. The advent of beings lies in the destiny of Being.
It is impossible to know how one might verify or even evaluate such a statement, which seems to suggest that humanity is ineluctably dependent on nameless and mysterious higher powers. In the passage just cited, Heidegger neglects to tell us who “the gods” are and how they have come into being, not to mention how they influence human affairs. Many of Heidegger’s key assertions concerning “humanity,” “fate,” and the “history of Being” shun demonstrative argument in favor of airy conjecture about the nature of obscure deities and supra-mundane potencies to whom we must passively submit. In this respect Heidegger’s later thought represents, in no uncertain terms, a renunciation of human autonomy.
Since Heidegger regarded the history of philosophy since Plato as a “history of decline,” he was not bound by the central concepts and standards of that tradition. Consequently, he characterizes the nature of Being, on which so much depends, in terms that, to all intents and purposes, fall beneath the threshold of sense: “Yet Being—what is Being? It is It itself. The thinking that is to come must learn to experience that and to say it.” But if Being can only be defined as self-identical—“It is It itself”—how might we humans make sense of its various manifestations? Heidegger claims to possess superior insight concerning Being’s modalities. But these insights remain undemonstrable: They transcend—often, in ways that seem entirely arbitrary—the basic capacities of the human understanding, which Heidegger frequently mocked.
In the anti-philosophical arguments of the Black Notebooks, Heidegger views reason, individualism, and democracy through the prism of modern humanity’s utter and wholesale “abandonment by Being.” His obscure point of departure leads to equally obscurantist forms of criticism. It is not merely Heidegger’s racist reliance on the Volk-ideal that is objectionable. His attempt to ground philosophy in unintelligible concepts and idioms renders his thought, in nearly all of its incarnations, deeply problematic.
It was precisely this style of unfounded, mystagogical assertion to which Jaspers was pointing when he described Heidegger’s thinking as “unfree, dictatorial, and incapable of communication.” In fact, Jaspers’ criticism may have been even more far-sighted than he realized. Not only was such “thinking” pedagogically disastrous for German students immediately after the war, in many respects it remains so today. Heidegger’s philosophical posture is peculiarly conducive to discipleship and adulation. It breeds passive acceptance and fierce loyalty rather than the virtues of individual autonomy and active citizenship.
The Black Notebooks reflect Heidegger’s enthusiasm for Germany’s so-called “National Revolution” of 1933, from which he expected, as he once put it, “a total transformation of our German Dasein,” Dasein being the Heideggerian term of art describing human “being-in-the-world.” Early on, Heidegger openly acknowledged the affinities between his own philosophy of existence and the Nazi world view: “The metaphysics of Dasein must deepen itself in a manner consistent with its inner structures and extend to the Metapolitics ‘of’ the historical Volk.” Even at the zenith of World War II, as European cities lay in ruins and the Slavic peoples had been turned into slaves of the German Reich, Heidegger continued to insist that salvation, should it arrive at all, would come from the Germans, whom he believed, along with the Greeks, were the only truly historical people.
In his inaugural address as rector of the University of Freiburg, Heidegger had justified his support for the regime in the existentialist idiom that he had developed in his 1927 classic Being and Time and related works. Heidegger held that the superiority of his Existenzphilosophie (existential philosophy) derived from its claim to being rooted in life or Being. Significantly, the völkisch ideology on which Nazism was predicated was based on the virtues of Bodenständigkeit, or “rootedness in soil,” and, in Heidegger’s view, this was the source of the deep-seated affinity between National Socialism and his own “fundamental ontology.” In his inaugural address Heidegger celebrated National Socialism for having reawakened the primordial “forces of earth and blood” (erd- und bluthäftige Kräfte).
The same preoccupation with the values of ontological rootedness that attracted Heidegger to the Nazis explains his philosophical aversion to Jews. As “cosmopolitans,” Jews constitutionally lacked what Heidegger valued most: Bodenständigkeit, a capacity for völkisch belonging predicated on rootedness in Being. In a 1934 seminar, Heidegger condemned “Semitic peoples,” who, because they were “rootless,” were unable to appreciate the existential qualities of German “space” (Raum). In the Black Notebooks, he confidently claims that rootedness-in-soil provides us with structures that link us existentially to our “mother’s blood” as well as our “ancestors.”
As the progenitors of biblical monotheism, the Jews had also invented religious universalism, a standpoint that was anathema to Heidegger. The positing of a single Lord of all creation precluded the concrete structures of existential belonging: Dasein, mood, and everydayness, as well as those of Volk, race, and rootedness-in-soil. In Heidegger’s view, universalism of any sort was a vestige of “idealism” or the “philosophy of subject” that Heidegger sought to “annihilate”—he was fond of violent and martial metaphors—by virtue of his turn toward the question of Being.
Heidegger’s antipathy to Jews, of course, has a context as well as a history. In German anti-Semitic circles, it was a widely shared truism that Jews were the chief carriers of the corrosive spirit of modernity, which was associated with excesses of abstract thought. It followed that Jews must be held directly responsible for modernity’s manifold degenerative tendencies: above all, the dislocations associated with the momentous transition from organic communities (Gemeinschaft) to modern mass society (Gesellschaft). Although such anti-Jewish prejudices had long been common currency, they rose to fever pitch following the defeat of the Central Powers in World War I. It was at this point that the “stab-in-the-back” legend originated, alleging that Jewish shirkers had been responsible for the German defeat.
One of the best-sellers of the Weimar era, when Heidegger’s mature world view was formed, was Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West. Spengler’s frenzied account of European decrepitude harmonized perfectly with Germany’s postwar mood of cultural despondency. His impassioned jeremiad identified a litany of by now familiar culprits: racial mixing, the deracinating character of modern urban life, the concomitant loss of community and belief, and, finally, the triumph of arid intellectualism at the expense of healthy and robust human instinctual life. Heidegger was a connoisseur of Spengler’s work. In the Black Notebooks, he writes: “I have seen nothing that would prove that Spengler was incorrect.” Man is free to experience the truth of Being (Sein), Heidegger claims, channeling Spengler, only in “downfall” or “perishing” (Untergang). “Downfall is not something that should be feared,” Heidegger continues, “insofar as the essential precondition for historical downfall is Greatness.”
In interwar Germany, the Spenglerian critique of civilization, known as Zivilisationskritik, went hand in hand with the radical critique of reason (Vernunftkritik), and the pejorative conception of “World Jewry” in which they were both enmeshed. “Thinking,” Heidegger once wrote, “begins only when we have come to know that reason, glorified for centuries, is the most stiff-necked adversary of thought.” In the Black Notebooks, Heidegger’s anti-Judaism becomes obsessional, as his repeated excoriations of the Jewish mentality of “calculation” and “reckoning” demonstrate. In The Decline of the West, Spengler, for his part, had asserted that, “What has mattered in the West more than any other distinction is the difference between the race-ideal of the Gothic springtime . . . and that of the Sephardic Jew.”
One of Heidegger’s chief philosophical targets was neo-Kantianism, which had become the semi-official philosophy of the Second Empire (1871–1918). Its leading representative was Hermann Cohen, whose final book, Religion of Reason: Out of the Sources of Judaism, appeared in 1919. Cohen’s treatise, as its title implied, was a justification of Jewish monotheism as the fountainhead of Western rationalism. To Heidegger’s way of thinking, however, neo-Kantianism was the consummate incarnation of philosophy divorced from life: a barren and sterile intellectualism. On these grounds, Heidegger emphatically sided with the rising tide of Lebensphilosophie (philosophy of life) against the outmoded and anti-vital “religion of reason.”
Heidegger’s critique of theories of knowledge that abstract from the actual conditions of human existence in Being and Time and other early works is deeply original and remains important. As Emmanuel Levinas perspicaciously recognized early on, by taking “Being-in-the-world,” rather than Descartes’ cogito ergo sum, as its point of departure, Heidegger’s philosophy of existence was able to revolutionize the enterprise of transcendental philosophy. But it is also not hard to see how, in the philosopher’s own mind, many of the aforementioned, overlapping philosophical and cultural themes became confusedly intertwined. Thus if modernity was a “fall” from the grace of origins and if the main culprit was the implacable triumph of Western rationalism, it seemed to follow that the Jews were behind it. Hence from the very beginning, Heidegger’s fundamental ontology was profoundly and irredeemably ideological.
Heidegger’s champions have long claimed that his anti-Semitism is a later and somewhat equivocal development, a regrettable lapse that the Master himself quickly corrected, with no intrinsic or essential connection to the majesty of his thought. Now that these anti-Semitic transgressions have been acknowledged, we are repeatedly told, we can safely go back to imbibing his portentous pronouncements concerning the ill effects of technology and the forlorn condition of modern man. But the critical point to keep in mind is that Heidegger’s radical critique of reason, of subjectivity, of modern technology, and of Western civilization’s downfall are all part of a world view—whose individual components are historically and thematically inseparable—that rejected reason, democracy, and individualism. As Heidegger avows in the Black Notebooks, in a passage that is replete with anti-Semitic stereotypes:
Contemporary Jewry’s . . . increase in power finds its basis in the fact that Western metaphysics—above all, in its modern incarnation—offers fertile ground for the dissemination of an empty rationality and calculability, which in this way gains a foothold in “spirit,” without ever being able to grasp from within the hidden realms of decision.
Heidegger concludes this litany of invective by declaring that, “The more original and primordial that future decisions and questioning become, the more they will remain inaccessible to this ‘race’”—that is, the Jews. He wrote these words circa 1939.
In his time as Rektor-Führer of the University of Freiburg, Heidegger had proposed a series of political changes that would bring German higher education in line with the values of “existential rootedness” (Bodenständigkeit). He emphasized and celebrated the idea of “service”: military service, labor service, and service in knowledge. Labor, in particular, would help cure German students of excessive intellectualism and re-channel their energies toward the values of the “national community” (Volksgemeinschaft). In all of these respects, Heidegger saw crucial existential affinities between his philosophy and the Nazi ideology of Volk, Gemeinschaft, Führertum (leadership), hierarchy, destiny, and Kampf, or struggle. As he would later declare in the Black Notebooks, “The higher compulsion [Zwang] of the earth” is only realized “in the world-shaping power [Macht] of a Volk.” It is worth noting that many of these Nazi or proto-Nazi ideals had previously surfaced in Being and Time in connection with Heidegger’s discussion of “historicity.” Thus already during the late 1920s, among Heidegger’s criteria for authentic historical existence were fidelity to the Volk, allegiance to one’s “generation,” loyalty to a historical “community” (Gemeinschaft), the capacity to “choose one’s hero,” and an ability to heed the summons of destiny.
In this regard, one of the main obstacles to accepting Heidegger’s philosophy of existence is that, historicity, as Heidegger defines it, is inextricably tied to his idea of the Volk, and to the entire array of racist and anti-democratic prejudices that accompany it. Only Völker (peoples) can be “historical,” in Heidegger’s sense, since they alone are rooted in soil and place and possess a common bloodline. As Heidegger observes at one point: “The voice of blood derives from the fundamental mood of man, and the shaping of our Dasein through labor is integrally related to this process.” Moral and legal conceptions that are opposed to the Volk-idea, including democracy and human rights, are mere disembodied abstractions. In the Black Notebooks, these concerns become obsessional.
The attempt by Heidegger’s defenders to separate his philosophy from his political views (or even to delineate between his early and late philosophy) necessarily comes to grief. It founders owing to the nature of Heidegger’s philosophy itself, which takes its bearings and inspiration from the historical situatedness of Dasein. Even before he joined the Nazi Party, Heidegger’s thought was saturated with völkisch ideological themes. Parts of Being and Time express the same anti-liberal, proto-fascist perspective as Oswald Spengler and other contemporary German thinkers, including Carl Schmitt and Ernst Jünger. The major difference is that Heidegger’s anti-democratic sentiments are masked in the discourse of fundamental ontology.
In the Black Notebooks the question of Being becomes a springboard for Heidegger’s intemperate judgments concerning the politics of the 1930s. No matter where Heidegger trains his gaze, he perceives the same manifestations of historico-ontological degeneracy, the same fateful hypostatization and disqualification of Being. His preferred term to describe this condition of cultural decline is Machenschaft, which can be approximately rendered as “machination,” while also suggesting both “fabrication” and “manufacture.” Heidegger’s lamentation against such machination pervaded his work in the 1930s.
Russia and America are the same, with the same dreary technological frenzy and the same unrestricted organization of the average man. The lives of men . . . slide into a world which lacked the depth from out of which the essential always comes . . . The prevailing dimension became that of extension and number. Intelligence no longer meant a wealth of talent, lavishly spent, but only what could be learned by everyone . . . This is the onslaught of what we call the demonic (in the sense of destructive evil).
Here, as in many other instances, Heidegger’s history of Being threatens to lapse into inverted theology, with an apocalyptic punchline. He really has nothing to tell us about Russia under Stalin or America at the time of the New Deal (though he may tell us more than he realizes about Germany under Hitler). It seems that everything “essential” has been determined in advance by the inchoate and mysterious “sendings of Being.” Here it is worth recalling Heidegger’s declaration in the “Letter on Humanism” that, from the standpoint of fundamental ontology, human will counts for naught. As Jürgen Habermas has written:
The propositionally contentless speech about Being [demands] resignation to fate. Its practical-political side consists in . . . a diffuse readiness to obey . . . an auratic but indeterminate authority. The rhetoric of the later Heidegger compensates for the propositional content that the text itself refuses: It attunes and trains its addressees in their dealings with pseudo-sacral powers.
In the Black Notebooks Heidegger’s misplaced reverence for Being qua “destiny” occasionally reaches absurd proportions. For instance he attributes numinous power to names that begin with the letter H: Heraclitus, Hölderlin, and Hegel. But Hitler would also seem to belong to the list, as would, of course, Heidegger. Heidegger also indulges in baseless numerological prophesizing, conjecturing that a final “decision” (Entscheidung) on the planetary reign of “Americanism” will come to pass in 2300. He also predicts that in the year 2327 his own name will re-emerge from the oblivion of forgetting, that is, on the 400th anniversary of the publication of Being and Time.
Heidegger believed that the Soviet Union, America, and England, as embodiments of Machenschaft, were expressions of the spirit of “World Jewry”—“a human type whose world historical goal is the uprooting of all beings from Being.” According to Heidegger, the problem with Machenschaft “is that it leads to total deracination, resulting in the self-alienation of peoples.” He continues: Whereas “World Jewry which is everywhere ungraspable, does not need to resort to arms”—since, presumably, it has stealthily infiltrated all global centers of power— “conversely, we Germans sacrifice the most racially gifted representatives of our Volk.” In other words, according to Heidegger, “World Jewry” had everything to gain from World War II without having wagered a thing.
In Heidegger’s view, another hypocritical aspect of World Jewry is that, whereas “since time immemorial, the Jews, relying on their express talents for calculation, have ‘lived’ according to the principle of race, they now seek to defend themselves against that same principle’s unrestricted application”—a reference to the Nazis’ draconian and persecutory racial legislation. Time and again, Heidegger asserts that an international Jewish conspiracy is responsible for secretly orchestrating a world-historical process of deracination—the alienation of the world’s peoples from their rootedness in soil. For this reason, Heidegger believed that National Socialism’s racial persecution of the Jews was essentially a case of self-defense. In his treatise on the “history of Being” he contends that, “It would be important to enquire about the basis of [World] Jewry’s unique predisposition toward planetary criminality [planetärisches Verbrechertum].”
The Black Notebooks confirm the extent to which, during the 1930s, Heidegger’s philosophical language had imbibed the National Socialist rhetoric of “struggle” and “annihilation” (Kampf und Vernichtung). “Everything,” he writes, “must be [exposed to] total devastation, preceded by the annihilation . . . of ‘Culture.’” On another occasion, he says that, “Truth is not for everyone, but only for the strong.” By way of illustration, Heidegger praises the “violent ones [die Gewalttätige] . . . who use force to become preeminent in historical Being.” In the Black Notebooks he endorses the practice of a kind of philosophical “breeding” (Züchtung), claiming, “The breeding of higher and of the highest modalities of thought is of primary importance—more so than the mere communication of knowledge (Kenntnismitteilung).” Expressing contempt for the German university, Heidegger declares that, “Two years of military service is better preparation for the sciences than four semesters of ‘study.’”
The Black Notebooks are meant to stake out, he writes, “stealthy advance and rearguard positions” (unscheinbare Vorposten—und Nachhutstellungen) in the struggle to achieve a mode of “original questioning” (anfängliche Fragen). “Every [authentic] philosophy is in-human,” Heidegger proclaims—“a consuming fire.”
During the late 1930s, as Nazi aggression precipitated a series of crises pushing Europe toward the precipice of war, the ideological fervor of Heidegger’s political judgments escalated accordingly. By propagating the debased, technical-instrumental values of “welfare,” “reason,” and “culture,” the “Western Revolutions” gave rise to the impersonal “despotism of No One—the unadulterated . . . empowerment of limitless planning and calculation” that holds sway in the contemporary world. Implausibly, Heidegger describes Bolshevism as the culmination of the English Revolution: “The character of modernity is the total and unrelenting fabrication (Machenschaft) of all Being.” Once one abstracts from their “political, social, and religious forms,” the English state and the “state of the united Soviet republics” are, Heidegger affirms, “the same,” insofar as both subscribe to the same ruthless logic of technological world mastery. “The bourgeois-Christian form of English Bolshevism,” Heidegger asserts, must be “annihilated.” In such confused delusional ramblings, Heidegger’s utter incapacity for real political judgment stands fully exposed.
Whereas Heidegger excelled at finding fault with non-Germanic cultures, he was strangely impervious to Nazi Germany’s predatory and genocidal practices, despite living in the midst of them. In the early 1940s, he observes that reports of Soviet atrocities have been especially gruesome, but concerning the depredations of the Wehrmacht and the Einsatzgruppen in the East, he is entirely silent. He justifies Germany’s inhumane treatment of Czechoslovakia and Poland by claiming that were France and England to triumph they would do the same to Germany. Yet, from the standpoint of the history of Being, a French and English victory would be much worse: France would undoubtedly inflict its “ahistoricality” on Germany. England would presumably do the same, turning all that it touched into a “giant business concern.” Thus, a German triumph is the only way to ensure what he goes on to describe as a “transition toward reflection” as the initial step toward an “other Beginning.”
Heidegger’s fears about the planetary spread of “Americanism,” coming from a land that he characterizes simply as the “site of catastrophe” (das Katastrophenhaft), are never far from view in this period. “With Americanism” he says, “nihilism attains its zenith.” The Americans embrace “the condition of nothingness [Nichtigkeit]” as “their future, since with the appearance of ‘happiness’ for everyone, they destroy everything.” Of course, Heidegger never made the slightest effort to investigate America—its politics, its culture, and its intellectual dispositions—since the standpoint of “history of Being” already tells him all that he needs to know.
In these writings, Heidegger’s notion of our “abandonment by Being”—in essence, a restatement of Spengler’s notion of “decline” retrofitted with the language of fundamental ontology—congeals into an obsession that implacably subsumes everything with which it comes into contact. Although Heidegger was fond of referring to his later philosophy as “thinking” (Denken), in truth, there is little evidence of real thought. Instead, time and again, we merely encounter the incantatory and ethically obtuse restatement of idiosyncratic dogma and ideological prejudice.
In light of the unrelenting cultural disparagement of non-Germanic peoples that accompanies Heidegger’s embrace of the Volk-idea, the visceral anti-Semitism that suffuses the Black Notebooks should come as little surprise. The derogatory characterizations of “World Jewry” are not incidental; they are of a piece with the feverish critique of Machenschaft, calculation, “Americanism,” and technological frenzy that, in Heidegger’s view, have come to define the modern condition.
In his Philosophische Autobiographie (Philosophical Autobiography) Karl Jaspers recounts a conversation with Heidegger in which the topic of the “Jewish Question” arose. When Jaspers belittled The Protocols of the Elders of Zion as anti-Semitic drivel, Heidegger replied that, “There really is a dangerous international alliance of Jews.” Given Heidegger’s delirious, prejudice-laden critique of modernity, who else could be primarily responsible for these multifarious and omnipresent manifestations of decline if not the Jews?
It is curious that Heidegger’s supporters could doubt the depth of his commitment to anti-Semitism in view of the fact that, as the Black Notebooks reaffirm unequivocally, he was such an enthusiastic supporter of a regime whose alpha and omega was, in the words of historian Saul Friedländer, “redemptive anti-Semitism.” Moreover, during the 12 years of Nazi rule, Heidegger was hardly an innocent bystander. Nor did he opt for the solitude of inner emigration. Instead, he was a Nazi Party member who paid his dues in full until the very end. During his tenure as rector, Heidegger felt little compunction about serving as one of the regime’s most zealous intellectual spokespersons, in one speech going so far as to praise Hitler as “the present and future German reality and its law.” In the Black Notebooks, he rarely wavers in his support for Hitler, insisting that it is a “stroke of good fortune” that “the Führer has awakened a new reality that has rechanneled our [German] thinking along the right path and infused it with new energy.” Heidegger also apparently set great store by the fact that both he and Hitler were born in the same year, 1889—a fact that he interpreted as indicating that their “destinies” were entwined—which turned out to be true, though not as he had imagined.
Equally disturbing is the fact that, on numerous occasions, Heidegger expressed his solidarity with the regime’s unmatched ethos of cruelty and brutality. As he opines in the Black Notebooks:
National Socialism is a barbaric principle. Therein lie its essence and its capacity for greatness. The danger is not [Nazism] itself, but instead that it will be rendered innocuous via homilies about the True, the Good, and the Beautiful.
This echoes Nietzsche’s prophetic summons in The Will to Power of the advent of the “barbarians of the twentieth century”: “A dominating race can grow up only out of terrible and violent beginnings. Where are the barbarians of the twentieth century?” Just as the Vandals and the Visigoths of 5th-century Europe delivered the caput mortem to Roman decadence, Heidegger hopes that the Nazis will not be derailed by talk of “the True, the Good, and the Beautiful” in fulfilling their destiny.
In his capacity as rector, Heidegger had few reservations about proscribing Jewish faculty members or denouncing scholars he viewed as politically unreliable. From the very outset, he was an eyewitness to the regime’s abhorrent anti-Semitic measures and policies: from the anti-Jewish boycott of April 1933 to the draconian professional proscriptions later that fall, to the Nuremburg racial laws of 1935, which codified German Jewry’s de-emancipation as citizens, to the persecutions and brigandage of Kristallnacht, to the Jewish deportations of 1940–1941, which succeeded, at long last, in making Germany free of Jews, or Judenrein. Neither in his lectures, nor in his treatises, nor in his correspondence did Heidegger express any objections to these policies.
Even after the war, despite many entreaties on the part of his students, Heidegger refused to renounce the Nazi regime. Writing to Herbert Marcuse, Heidegger claimed that the atrocities perpetrated by the Allies had been just as terrible; moreover the Nazi atrocities had been concealed from the German people. Heidegger’s claim is, needless to say, specious. As terrible as the firebombings of Dresden and Tokyo were, they pale in comparison with Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Babi Yar. And although the Final Solution may not have been public knowledge, the immense scale of the Nazi persecutions and deportations was apparent to everyone. After all: Where did Heidegger think that Germany’s 500,000 Jews had gone?
To think that one could serve in an official capacity in the highly toxic ideological atmosphere of Nazi Germany, as Heidegger did even after he stepped down as rector, without largely sharing the regime’s persecutory, anti-Semitic world view is, when all is said and done, simply delusional. The Black Notebooks are of paramount importance because they furnish us with Heidegger’s own justification of Nazism—a justification that, far from being occasional or circumstantial, emerges seamlessly from his doctrine of the “history of Being.” As Heidegger affirms:
One of the stealthiest forms of Gigantism and perhaps the most ancient [is] the fastpaced historicity of calculation, pushiness, and intermixing whereby Jewry’s worldlessness is established.
Given the importance of existential rootedness for Heidegger, there was no room for a “worldless” people like the Jews. “Worldlessness,” was, in fact, a word that Heidegger had used on other occasions to characterize “world-poor” (weltarm) beings like animals and inanimate objects.
The hierarchies and exclusions that pervade Heidegger’s philosophy of existence license merciless domination and persecution. This is not merely an occasional political judgment on Heidegger’s part; it follows from his distinctive Seinspolitik, his “politics of Being.” Even after the war, Heidegger continued to insist on what he characterized as National Socialism’s “inner truth and greatness”; that he believed that this greatness was not ultimately achieved because his teachings were ignored hardly exculpates him.
Heidegger’s philosophical partisanship for National Socialism was not a series of contingent errors or odd misjudgments. It was a betrayal of philosophy, of reasoning and thinking, in the most profound sense. As Herbert Marcuse wrote to Heidegger in the late 1940s:
A philosopher can be deceived regarding political matters . . . But he cannot be deceived about a regime that has killed millions of Jews, merely because they were Jews—that made terror into an everyday phenomenon, and that turned everything that pertains to the ideas of spirit, freedom, and truth, into its bloody opposite.
What astonished and disturbed Marcuse was that, even after the war, Heidegger seemed constitutionally incapable of arriving at such conclusions. Instead, in stark denial of all available evidence, including the macabre revelations concerning the Nazi death camps, he continued to insist that National Socialism had been the right course for Germany—the political path that most closely approximated the contours of his own philosophy of existence. The publication of the Black Notebooks in Heidegger’s Collected Works edition are proof of this perverse insistence. Heidegger faulted the Nazi movement merely for having failed to realize the sublimity of its appointed historical destiny, as delineated by his own philosophy of Being. After the war, in other words, Heidegger arrogantly maintained that it was not he who had abandoned Hitler, but Hitler who had failed him! Given the disturbing revelations contained in the Black Notebooks, any discussion of Heidegger’s legacy that downplays or diminishes the extent of his political folly stands guilty, by extension, of perpetuating the philosophical betrayal initiated by the Master himself.
Noah Bickart of The Jewish Theological Seminary teaches Jews who are passionate about “an egalitarian, halakhic, yet non-fundamentalist Judaism,“ even though they may not call themselves Conservative Jews.
Emma Lazarus’s 1882 poem for Rosh Hashanah responded to the crises of her day, foreshadowed “The New Colossus,” and resonates today.
If you visit Ferrara, Italy, you can let Giorgio Bassani be your melancholy guide as you stroll along “the crowded rows of stores, shops and little outlets facing each other” to arrive at the synagogue’s “baked-red facade.”
John Judis book about Truman's Middle East policy isn't a rant, but it's not exactly history either.