This journal has come into being because of something that didn’t happen a few months ago. An invitation was offered, and it was refused: an invitation to think. That is, an invitation to think about our world, its changes, and their implications. And also to ask some questions about modern thinking. How can the most dynamic thinking of the present time be described? In what ways is it changing the world? Where might it be taking us? And is there any possibility of anything except more and more of the future of present trends?
The invitation was offered, posthumously, by Martin Heidegger. Over about 40 years, roughly from 1930 to 1970, this philosopher wrote his most dangerous thoughts in notebooks which were not intended for publication in the foreseeable future. Some of them, composed between 1931 and 1941, were published for the first time in March of this year. These writings give us thought at full gallop. Heidegger expresses himself freely, much more freely than was possible in his lectures and currently published books.
The topics addressed include Nazi racial doctrine, social policy and geopolitical strategy, all of which are treated with contempt in the entries from 1938 on. But there are other big topics besides Nazism: the competing systems of Liberal Democracy and Communism; their “representative nations” England, America and Russia; the relationship of modern man to technology; the history and current state of modern thinking. On all of these topics he thinks with the same ruthless intensity. Finally, with the quality there’s some quantity. In three substantial volumes, the recently published notebooks come to about 1300 pages.
Surely, one might say, the man has given us food for thought? Isn’t this an invitation to think? After all, Heidegger was no ordinary practitioner of the art. There were many respected judges who
considered him the 20th century’s greatest thinker. Even recently Peter Sloterdijk, one of Germany’s two celebrity philosophers, declared that this opinion “is perhaps not wrong” (Zeilen und Tage, 2014 ed., p. 228).
Now, one wouldn’t expect everyone to accept an invitation to think! You have to like doing it, and not everybody does. It is understandable that many of those who noticed the invitation might turn it down. Such people feel they have other things to do besides thinking. Better things. More useful things!
In fact, Heidegger goes so far as to say, “Thinking is – passion for the useless” (Notebooks IX, 15). But this is a very austere definition of thinking, maybe too rigorous. It seems to confine the chances that any thinking will happen to those strange people who are addicted to mental exertions that will never bring them profit (a vice which was widespread in rural Ireland in the 19th century and later, according to improving critics).
One might shrink from this raw statement by the ferocious German thinker. One might water it down a bit. And then one might wonder: is it too much to expect that some of the professional academic community, functionaries in “the culture business” as that philosopher unkindly called it, some few of the many who like to write little things about Michel Foucault; or even exponents of the higher journalism, the journalism that has pretensions, what the Germans call Publizistik– is it too much to expect that some of these people (within their limits, not over-straining themselves) might take up the invitation to think? Or that, supposing they felt compelled to turn the invitation down, they might do so with grace and good humour?
But yes, in actual fact, that was too much to expect! Witness what happened in March and April of this year. – The exceptions were my old acquaintances connected with Athol Books, who are alway on for a challenge. They indicated an interest in taking up the invitation, and the idea of this journal came out of the discussions that followed.
But now let’s take a look at the others.
* * *
In the course of those writings amounting to 1300 printed pages, Heidegger made a few brief mentions of Jews and Judaism. There are about 12 such references, according to Jürgen Kaube of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (12/3/2014), though I have found only 9. None of these 9 passages, which readers will find in this journal, employ a language of hatred. Race terminology is not used – except in one passage which attacks the biological racism of the Nazis. Heidegger even specifically says that “the problem of the role of world Jewry” is not racial, it is metaphysical. What he says about Jews does not even have the high intensity of some of his comments on Christianity. For example, “Christianity is the most extreme humanisation of mankind and takes the godliness from its God” (XIII, 110 – a statement which might be praised in Teheran or Tel Aviv, but which any traditional Christian would surely consider outrageous).
It is true that when Heidegger judges the contribution of Jewish thinking to the Christian west in its phase of modernity, he gives it a negative rating. And ditto international Jewish political influence at the outset of World War 2. When referring to Jews and Judaism he expresses himself as freely as when writing about anyone else, and this leaves him short of the standards of present-day political correctness. From the greatest thinker of the 20th century that simply cannot be tolerated.
So an international campaign was launched in the “quality press” to debate the question, Is Heidegger Contaminated by Nazism? In reality, this question – it’s the title of Joshua Rothman’s New Yorker essay – had been answered beforehand. “Yes” was the answer. The real question, to be discussed by examining those nine or so references to Judaism torn completely out of their context, was this: how badly is Heidegger contaminated by Nazism? On the question of degree there could be differing views.
Participants in the decontamination campaign included Thomas Assheuer in Die Zeit (21/3/2014), Jürgen Kaube in FAZ (12/3/2014), Emmanuel Faye, who got going at the pre-publication stage, in Le Monde (28.1.2014), Joshua Rothman in The New Yorker (28/4/2014), various writers in the English papers, and inevitably, Fintan O’Toole in the Irish Times (5/4/2014). But none of these was the star performer. On centre stage was none other than the director of the Martin Heidegger Institute at the University of Wuppertal, Professor Peter Trawny.
This was the man – a harmless enough official in the culture business, to all appearance – who had edited the notebooks for publication. While going through them he became aware that they included statements about Jews which no respectable person could make in those particular words today. One or two – I rely on Rothman’s vivid account of a public meeting in Greenwich Village featuring Trawny – one or two he might have passed over, but when there were seven or eight…! He confided his worries to colleagues, but their responses only frightened him more. “ ‘You cannot be director of the Adolf Hitler Institute,’ a colleague had warned him.”
Now, the poor devil liked his job! He wanted, if at all possible, to keep it, as he disarmingly told his New York listeners. (“ ‘I’m the director of the Martin Heidegger Institute, and I actually want to be that for a longer time,’ he said, to laughter from the audience.”) So what was he to do? There was nothing for it but to write a book called Heidegger und der Mythos der jüdischen Weltverschwörung (Heidegger and the Myth of the Jewish World Conspiracy).
Heidegger, as a matter of fact, had not used the term “Jewish world conspiracy”. The terms he used were das internationale Judentum and das Weltjudentum, usually translated in English as “international Jewry” and “world Jewry”.
Now, these are the terms which were used by very respectable British politicians in 1916 when they started to speculate about harnessing Jewish influence to help them win their world war (c.f. Jonathan Schneer, The Balfour Declaration, p. 152).
It was on the assumption that a well-organised international Jewish interest existed, which was capable of effectively helping Great Britain in its war, that the Balfour Declaration was issued in November 1917; and Balfour later acknowledged that effective help was in fact given. Now it was as reasonable to assume that such an interest existed in 1939 as it had been in 1916. If Professor Trawny wanted to be fair, he could have written a book about Heidegger and the Myths and Realities of International Jewish Politics. – But, well, the job seemed to need a broad brush…
Trawny duly declared Heidegger contaminated (Heidegger und der Mythos, new edition, p. 12 and after). He then made himself available nationally and internationally for a decontamination campaign. The job was massive: as Fintan O’Toole explained, it would involve nothing less than a disinfection of western culture, because Heidegger’s ideas had gone deep and wide therein. “They can’t be dumped, but they do have to be rethought in the knowledge that the great thinker who expounded them was also a moral idiot.”
Rothman’s account of the meeting in Greenwich Village includes the following:
“(Professor Roger) Berkowitz, who served as moderator, started things off by reading passages from the black notebooks. One began: “The Jews, with their marked gift for calculating, live, already for the longest time, according to the principle of race, which is why they are resisting its consistent application with utmost violence.” When Berkowitz finished, it was quiet enough to hear traffic on the Bowery. Then, slowly, the professors, along with members of the audience, tried to talk about what Heidegger had written. No one knew what to say; the conversation was halting and desultory.”
It appears that none of these professors of philosophy were familiar with the concept of context. No one demanded that the entire passage where this sentence occurred should be read out in English translation. If that had been done, they might possibly have discovered that the passage was an attack on Nazi racism (Notebooks XII, 38, included in this journal). The translated sentence, as printed in The New Yorker, tramples over all the nuances of the original. A better version would be: “The Jews, with their marked gift for calculation, have been “living” longest according to the race principle, and precisely for that reason they are also putting up the strongest resistance against its absolute application.” – The phrase with their marked gift for calculation is italicised in the original, which suggests that someone is being quoted ironically. In any case it refers back to the previous sentence, where he has said that racial breeding is a kind of calculation imposed upon life. The meaning of the present sentence I take to be something like this: the Jews have survived as a group in the Christian west through a sense of racial affinity, but they haven’t had much of a life, and they know that if the whole of Europe took the racial principle to extremes there would be no kind of life at all.
Someone at the dumbstruck meeting in Greenwich Village did finally blurt out a clear response to that sentence.
“After a while, the group paused for wine and crackers—the glummest cocktail hour ever. (Later, an enraged audience member found his words, and responded to the passage by saying, “That sentence strikes me as somehow so deranged, so alien to a sense of the real. . . . Anyone who is capable of that sort of argument cannot be trusted to think.” A few people—by no means everyone—applauded.)”
Heidegger cannot be trusted to think… Words worth pondering!
Peter Trawny put it differently: Heidegger was too stupid to think. But let’s take things in order. Addressing the New York meeting, Trawny insisted upon a renunciation of context. And at the same time he wanted to save Heidegger from himself, not to mention saving his own job from Heidegger.
“‘There’s a point where we have to say, ‘No, no, this is a point we cannot contextualize anymore,’ he said. ‘There is a responsibility to say, ‘It’s impossible—Heidegger, you cannot say that!… Even if you are the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century, this is over the limit.’ ’
At the same time, he saw a way out for Heidegger in one of the philosopher’s own concepts, “errancy”—the idea that human beings are not calculators, but conjecturers, and that being wrong is, therefore, an irreducible part of being a person… Trawny continued, ‘He knew, at the end of his life, what was written in these notebooks. He was aware of the problems. But he couldn’t take the pen and wipe it out. He tries to show us how deeply a philosopher can fail. I don’t know whether this interpretation is strong, but I hope so—that this could be possible.’ (As to the question of ‘contamination,’ Trawny said that he regretted, somewhat, the choice of that metaphor. It may have been ‘too strong.’)”
I think the least one can say is that this interpretation of Heidegger is original. With a paradoxical boldness it speculates on a kind of deathbed conversion of a rake – or to use Fintan O’Toole’s language, the deathbed enlightenment of a moral idiot. Because the fact is, Heidegger was notorious above all for not repenting. He refused to accuse his own thinking of contributing to racial massacre. Not once was he heard to say: I acknowledge my own share of the guilt for the Holocaust. – I don’t know that he ever said in plain language: Those British and American cultures which have cultivated racism, as I did not, and which have promoted and practised genocides, as I did not, might consider making a start on repentance of their own. But he often seemed to imply that.
For consistently failing to apologise he is notorious. But now it is suggested that at the end of his life he wanted his notebooks to be published, specifically so that people could see how bad Martin Heidegger really was. (But not immediately, there was no hurry; his repentance could appear as the last item in his collected works.) – The director of the Martin Heidegger Institute hopes this interpretation could be possible.
“‘The problem is not just that I’m morally shocked—it’s also a problem that he is so dumb,’ Trawny said, as the evening drew to a close. ‘Observe what he is writing there. You see that, like all the others, he was not better. You thought it, actually; for long years, you thought he was very clever, but he is not. This is something that requires a certain distance,’ he concluded. ‘You shouldn’t be too much in love with what you are reading, or you will be disappointed, like always.’”
So we come to the stupid Martin Heidegger. I suppose stupidity is an extenuating circumstance. But the hard cops in the decontamination squad were in no mood for excuses. The notebooks, said Thomas Assheuer (Die Zeit 21/3/2014), “are philosophical madness and in certain sections a thought-crime (ein Gedankenverbrechen).” Fintan O’Toole probably wouldn’t be caught using a phrase like that. But he crisply summed up the dominant view in the decontamination debate: “As the publication for the first time of his philosophical notebooks now reveal, (Heidegger) was a thoroughgoing Nazi”.
Now if we are to take the evidence of the notebooks, which even those whose thoughts O’Toole was copying seem not to have read for themselves, what we find is this: a thoroughgoing Nazi who was not a racist and who contemptuously rejected biological racism again and again. A thoroughgoing Nazi who could write at length about Bolshevism, and repeatedly, without once mentioning Jews! (This dog that did not bark in the night was not noticed not barking by the decontaminators; but then, they were not listening very closely.) A thoroughgoing Nazi who believed that Nazism was not, as it claimed to be, a solution to the modern political crisis, but merely that crisis in a more advanced stage; who thought that the Nazis were doing more damage to the German rural communities than any politicians before them; who regarded the war on Russia as an act of folly and a disaster; who believed that the great event most of all to be desired was a dynamic spiritual interaction between Germany and Russia. – Quite some thoroughgoing Nazi!
As explained elsewhere in this journal, the truth is that Heidegger was a failed Nazi. Or more exactly, the Nazis were failed Heideggerians. They were supposed to come under his spiritual direction, and the Germans were supposed to become the pioneers of a great new human awakening, the children of Being… Who knows what that might actually have meant? It didn’t happen.
(About twenty years ago I heard this view of things expounded by Patrick Healy, the leading philosopher of Bewley’s cafe in Grafton Street in Dublin, before progress ground on and the cafe ceased to facilitate these idle pursuits. I am sure he would disagree with many things in this journal, but I am grateful for his introduction to Heidegger.)
* * *
As a general rule, the decontamination campaign put the spotlight on the Jewish question. But one does find broader issues looming behind.
According to Jürgen Kaube (FAZ 12/3/2014), what Heidegger wrote about Jews proves he was anti-Semitic. Anti-Semitism, though, could not have been central to his thinking, since the mentions of Jews are so few and far between. Kaube then says a certain amount of what has already been said here. Far from being a thoroughgoing Nazi, Heidegger had an essentially private, eccentric notion of Nazism, or what Nazism should be. In his public statements in 1933-4 he ignored the issue of race, even when warned by higher-ups that the racial doctrine was not an optional extra. By 1938 he saw clearly that the Nazis were hostile to his own social vision. Looking back on his famous “Rector’s address” at Freiburg University (1933), he thought: my mistake was to suppose that an institution (i.e. the university) could have Awareness. But he expressed no guilt feelings. Even if the university and the Nazis wouldn’t join him, he would be faithful to his thought.
“Later on he formulates a thought on similar lines: ‘Ruling means being King: out of such Being to act royally.’ Not just administering through bureacratic authorities, which is all there is nowadays. So then, totally free in his opinions, he philosophises together an idea for himself, lives in a receding reality, and withdraws as ruler into his invented kingdom, where for want of fellow-inhabitants he enjoys the dubious privilege of autocratic rule.”
The intense hostility in Kaube’s paragraph is striking. And one has to pinch oneself and remember: this is being said about a philosopher living in Germany in 1938… and 1939, 1940, 1941! A time when the ruling thoughts were the thoughts of Hitler and Goebbels. The philosopher was resolved to be master in his own mind: he would not let Hitler/Goebbels give the orders there. One might perhaps have expected – a little sympathy? But Kaube has none. The clear implication in this piece of writing is that it would have been better if Heidegger had been a conventional Nazi.
Why, then, was Heidegger worse than a Nazi?
Kaube is fighting against something within himself and in such cases, of course, one doesn’t fight fair. He quotes the most desperate passages on the possible destruction of the earth, and how that would be a cleansing of Being, as if they typified the whole. “A Manicheanism of Being”, as Trawny puts it. But the Manichean death-wish is not Heidegger’s typical mood. (To people who don’t themselves know those four-o’clock-in-the-morning thoughts, they’re not easy to explain.)
We’re getting a bit closer when we come to Albion: “There is one enemy above all: the English. They are actually a whole enemy conglomerate: ‘The bourgeois-christian form of English ‘Bolshevism’ is the most dangerous’. After all, they invented the machine, democracy and utilitarianism, which ends up in pragmatism.”
With the English we come to technology and an outrageous Heideggerian aphorism.
“A remark he makes several times is: ‘Technology is the Historiography of Nature’, which means that technology in Nature operates just as destructively as historiography in History and is equally inadequate to its object.”
Now that’s the great obscenity! There it is! Kaube is a devotee of modern demo-technocracy. For that system he is one of the guardians. And at the same time he has some intuition which tells him this frightful thinker might actually be right. (Which is why he ends his polemic by saying: it is hard to know who might read these badly-written writings! We need to talk about Heidegger, but these writings need not be read!)