Heidegger’s Notebooks Renew Focus on Anti-Semitism

First Published      Last Updated Mar 30 2014 06:21 pm

It has long been one of the most contentious questions in 20th-century intellectual history: Just how much, and what kind, of a Nazi was German philosopher Martin Heidegger?

To his strongest detractors, Heidegger was a committed National Socialist whose hugely influential ideas about the nature of being and the dehumanizing effects of modern technology and much of the modern philosophical tradition itself were fatally compromised by his membership in Hitler's party from 1933 to 1945. To his staunchest defenders, however, he was a Nazi of convenience - a sometime personal anti-Semite, perhaps, but a philosopher whose towering intellectual achievements are undiminished by temporary political dalliances or everyday bias.

Now, the recent publication in Germany of the first three volumes of Heidegger's private philosophical notebooks has brought the controversy roaring back, revealing what some say is an unmistakable smoking gun: overtly anti-Semitic statements, written in Heidegger's own hand, in the context of his philosophical thinking.

The so-called black notebooks, written between 1931 and 1941 and named for the color of their oilcloth covers, show Heidegger denouncing the rootlessness and spirit of "empty rationality and calculability" of the Jews, as he works out revisions to his deepest metaphysical ideas in relation to political events of the day.

"World Jewry," he wrote in 1941, "is ungraspable everywhere and doesn't need to get involved in military action while continuing to unfurl its influence, whereas we are left to sacrifice the best blood of the best of our people."

The anti-Semitic passages total only about 2 1/2 of the notebooks' roughly 1,200 pages. Still, some scholars say, they put the lie to any claim that Heidegger's Nazism can be kept separate from his philosophy, or confined only to the brief period in the early 1930s when he was the rector of the newly Nazified University of Freiburg.

"The evidence now isn't just undeniable, it's over the top," Richard Wolin, an intellectual historian at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and the author of several books on Heidegger, said in an interview. "Heidegger was engaged with these issues philosophically and intellectually through the course of the whole regime."

The black notebooks, released by the Frankfurt-based publishing house Vittorio Klostermann, are appearing as Volumes 94 through 96 of Heidegger's complete works, according to a schedule laid out by the philosopher himself before his death in 1976. Though long whispered about among some Heideggerians, virtually no one outside the family had seen the notebooks, which are kept in the tightly restricted Heidegger archive in Marbach, Germany.

Even before the release of the first volume in late February, however, word of the anti-Semitic passages leaked into the press in France, where Heidegger's philosophy has exerted its strongest influence, through thinkers like Jean-Paul Sartre and Jacques Derrida. One Heidegger translator, during an hourlong radio program dedicated to the controversy in December, called the anti-Semitic statements shocking evidence of "intellectual bankruptcy."

But some orthodox Heideggerians went on the attack, charging the editor of the notebooks, Peter Trawny, whose monograph on Heidegger's anti-Semitism, then unpublished, was also circulating, with self-serving careerism and reckless misinterpretations.

Trawny, the director of the Martin Heidegger Institute at the University of Wuppertal in Germany, said in a recent interview that there had been pressure from some in France to stop the release of his monograph, "Heidegger and the Myth of Jewish World Conspiracy," and remove him as editor of future volumes of the notebooks, but that the Heidegger family had been supportive of full publication.

"When I read them, I was quite astonished," Trawny said of the notebooks. "But there was never any question of modifying the manuscripts."


To some people, such astonishment has a whiff of Claude Rains' shock about gambling in the movie "Casablanca." Books like Victor Farias' "Heidegger and Nazism" (1987) and French scholar Emmanuel Faye's "Heidegger: The Injection of Nazism Into Philosophy" (2005) established both Heidegger's activities in the 1930s and his postwar efforts to minimize his belief in the "inner truth and greatness" of National Socialism, as he put it in 1935.

Both those books caused intellectual convulsions and even suggestions that Heidegger's work, including his 1927 masterpiece "Being and Time," should be banished from philosophy to the realm of Nazi ideology.

But even those who defend Heidegger's philosophy more broadly say the black notebooks are hardly the first sign of a specifically anti-Semitic cast to his thought.


Richard Polt, a professor of philosophy at Xavier University in Cincinnati, pointed to student notes from a seminar given in 1933 or 1934 (published in Germany in 2009 and released in English in December), which showed Heidegger speaking of "Semitic nomads" who will never understand the nature of "our German space."

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