Heidegger’s Philosophical Notebooks 1939-1941 – a selection

Heidegger’s Philosophical Notebooks 1939-1941– a selection  (Presentation by John Minahane)

What is presented here is a hasty, rough translation of a selection from Martin Heidegger’s recently published philosophical notebooks, written between 1939 and 1941. These are probably the most readable writings he ever produced, and they show his thinking applied from a great many angles to 20th century politics and culture. (I am grateful to Philip O’Connor for advice on several sections. Niall Cusack, above, refers to what may have been Heidegger’s view, that translating him was quixotic. I suppose there could be windmills here.)

Heidegger has sections focusing on England, America, Germany, Russia, the peasantry, technology, the “thinking machine”, the radio, world war, the ideology of race, Christianity, Catholicism, Christian philosophy, Bolshevism and Lenin, National Socialism. Very interesting, from my point of view, is what he has to say about country life and its prospects (XII, 35; XIII, 28).

Judaism is mentioned a few times in passing in connection with other issues. In the recent press campaign featuring Thomas Assheuer, Fintan O’Toole, etc. these statements were torn out of context. I have included all the references I have been able to find in the extracts below, in their contexts (XII 24, 38; XIII 101; XIV 80, 120, 121; XV, 16). In some of these instances he mocks the Nazis as hypocrites or incompetents; in others he expresses clear opposition to Nazi policy and doctrine, for example on race. I think it is true to say that a way of thinking quite incompatible with official Nazism is implied in all of them.

For example, take what he says about Edmund Husserl, the Jewish philosopher who was his professor and to whom he dedicated Being and Time (XII,24). Husserl, he says, by making the move to phenomenological observation, made a contribution of lasting value to philosphy. But Husserl was not able to make the great breakthrough in thinking (well, naturally he wasn’t, that was strictly reserved for his pupil!) When he tried to continue on his own course, Husserl inevitably began to slide back into the metaphysics of the great German (non-Jewish) thinkers Kant and Hegel. – Here Heidegger crashes through all the barriers that Nazism tried to erect in German thought.

There are two other references I had missed, the first of which is as follows:

“One of the most mysterious forms of the Gigantic, and perhaps the oldest, is the persistent facility of calculating and profiteering and mixing things all up together, through which the Worldlessness of Judaism would be established.” (VIII,9)

By a chain of forced reasoning Peter Trawny (Heidegger und der Mythos der jüdischen Weltverschwörung,  pp. 34-5) makes an anti-Semitic statement out of this. The French philosopher François Fédier disagrees and says that it portrays the Jews as the first victims of the Gigantic, which is a characteristic of the modern world (Die Zeit, 20/1/2014). This statement would need to be looked at more closely, but at present I cannot consult the original to see if there is further relevant context.

The other reference is cited by Jürgen Kaube (FAZ 12/3/2014):

“Culture, as a means of making one’s own of things and securing advantage, is basically a Jewish affair. What implications does that have for cultural policy as such?” (X).

This is evidently another gibe at Nazi policy, aimed in the direction of Goebbels.

Heidegger makes or implies negative judgments on Jewish influence and thinking on two levels. The first has to do with that gift for money and trading, mentioned in the first of the extracts above. This is not an anti-Semitic delusion but a historical reality, which used to be referred to matter-of-factly. It was as well known that the Jews were good at finance as that the Portuguese were good at sailing.

This, of course, has its historical background. In what are called the High Middle Ages Christians were forbidden to lend money, but the Jews (who were barred from most other trades) were exempted. Heidegger’s point is that in modern times the Christian west itself became characterised by calculating, valuing, exploiting.

(An illustration may be found in Francis Bacon’s Essay on Usury, published in the 1590s, when the argument over money-lending was still live. Many witty things have been said condemning usury, Bacon remarks. For example, “that usurers should have orange-tawney bonnets, because they do judaize”. His own opinion is given with his typical clarity and cheerful good humour: “Since there must be borrowing and lending, and men’s hearts are so hard as they will not lend freely, usury must be permitted… It is a vanity to conceive, that there would be ordinary borrowing without profit; and it is impossible to conceive the number of inconveniences that will ensue, if borrowing be cramped. Therefore to speak of the abolishing of usury is idle. All states have ever had it in one kind or rate, or other. So as that opinion must be sent to Utopia.” He then proposes a practical two-level system of regulated usury. And of course there is no nonsense about confining it to Jews, who were still not officially allowed to settle in England at that time.)

However, since the Jews had a head start in the business of calculation, they had much to contribute to Europe as it actually developed. This was the basis for “the temporary rise in the power of Judaism” (XII,24). Heidegger looks on this with a cold eye. But he nowhere suggests that the Jews are responsible for the condition of modern Europe, or that Europe’s problems can be solved by anti-Semitic campaigns. To one’s amazement, one finds that even Trawny is prepared to acknowledge this: “It is by no means the case that in the ‘struggle’ between ‘world Jewry’ and the Nazis he would have welcomed a ‘victory’ of the latter. On the contrary – according to Heidegger this ‘struggle’ could produce nothing but ‘utter futility’”(p. 55).

The second area in which Heidegger made or implied negative judgments about Jewish activity or influence concerns the political activities he attributed to “international Jewry” in the first years of World War II. Trawny speculates on how he may have been influenced by Nazi propaganda in this regard. But he fails to mention the single element of Nazi propaganda which is most likely to have influenced such reflections. That is Nazi press coverage of the letter sent by Chaim Weizmann, leader of the Jewish Agency in Palestine and President of the World Zionist Organisation, to Neville Chamberlain, Prime Minister of Great Britain. In this letter, which was sent on August 29, 1939 and printed in the Times on September 6, Weizmann said: “I wish to confirm, in the most explicit manner, the declaration which I and my colleagues have made during the last months, and especially in the last week, that the Jews ‘stand by Great Britain and will fight on the side of the democracies’”. (Cited from Richard Evans, below, p. 364.)

This letter came up in David Irving’s libel case a few years back and was considered in an expert report presented to the court. (Expert Report by Professor Richard Evans (2000). Irving vs (1) Lipstadt and (2) Penguin Books. – Available on the internet.) Evans says that this letter has been much used by Holocaust deniers – that may well be the case, but it has no relevance to the argument here.

He points out that the statement cannot be described (as some have described it) as a declaration of war, because the person issuing it did not have state power; that Chamberlain, responding to it, did not treat it as a declaration of war by an ally; and that it was actually issued before the outbreak of hostilities. He also observes that the World Zionist Organisation only comprised about 6% of Jews living in the world. (But, first of all, 6% was still a considerable number; and secondly it wasn’t mainly about numbers, it was about exerting influence in key places.)

“The idea that Chaim Weizmann was in any way a leader of world Jewry in 1939 belongs solely to the fantasy world of anti-Semitic conspiracy theory,” Evans says (p. 365). I cannot honestly see how that statement can hold up.

Of course, none of this justifies the measures taken in 1939, let alone later, against German Jews – who were overwhelmingly, as Evans points out, non-Zionists. At the same time, the author of the letter can hardly have supposed that it would make the lives of German Jews more comfortable. I would assume (though I have not checked the Nazi press to substantiate this) that shortly after the appearance of that letter in the Times of London on September 6, 1939, Goebbels got to work to exploit its propaganda value in the German media.

Heidegger, I think, would have assumed that the basic contention – a public statement of Jewish support for Britain by the leader of the World Zionist Organisation – was true; he would also have thought that, just as Jewish influence had been used effectively against Germany in the previous war, it would probably also be effective in the latest war. And like the vast majority of Germans, whatever they thought of the people running the state, if Germany was at war he was basically for Germany, and he was basically against whoever was against Germany. (That was the normal attitude in all countries that got involved in World War II.)

Now, Trawny would have been perfectly entitled to try making a case on the lines suggested by Richard Evans: if Heidegger believed Chaim Weizmann was a leader of world Jewry and that his public support for Britain was of the slightest consequence, then he must have been a deluded anti-Semite. But he makes no such argument. Instead, he suggests that Heidegger was influenced by… the Protocols of the Elders of Zion! (p. 46ff.) It was pointed out to Trawny that Heidegger had a low tolerance for sensationalist rubbish and was most unlikely to have given his time to reading that book, but in his new edition he is unrepentant. “I am not claiming that Heidegger read the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. But anyone who heard (of) Hitler’s speeches came under its influence” (p. 120).

This is about the typical level of this wretched book. But there’s one prize exhibit that it would be a pity to ignore. Having built his case against Heidegger as exemplifying various types of anti-Semitism, including Typen des seinsgeschichtlichen Antisemitismus (pp. 31ff.), “types of history-of-being anti-Semitism” (the advantage of this concept is that the philosopher can be guilty without mentioning Jews at all – I should think it has a future in the philosophy business), on page 107 Trawny comes up with the following extract from a notebook that has not yet been published.

“‘Prophecy’ is technology of defense against the Fatality of History. It is an instrument of the Will to Power. That the great prophets were Jews is a fact whose secret has not yet been thought. (Note for a donkey: the observation has nothing to do with ‘anti-semitism’, which is as foolish and reprehensible as the bloody, and above all the bloodless, conduct of Christendom towards ‘the heathen’. That Christendom too has branded anti-semitism as ‘unchristian’ is part of the highly-developed sophistication of its technology of power.”

The inverted commas round ‘prophecy’ suggest that it is not the Jewish prophets who are thought of at the beginning, but somebody else. This is how François Fédier (Die Zeit 20/1/2014) interprets the extract: “There is only one meaning I can get from this passage, if ‘prophecy’ is not equated with the prophecy of the great Jews. What prophecy, then, is in question? I don’t know the date of the citation. But I am certain it comes after January 30, 1939, the day when Hitler gave a speech in which he referred to himself as a prophet. Heidegger is speaking here, then, of prophecy in Hitler’s sense, and hence of Hitler’s technology of ‘defence against the Fatality of History’. This technology seeks itself to determine history unconditionally. So then, it’s about Hitler’s Will to Power. Especially given that the concept of Will to Power, stemming from Nietzsche, becomes meaningful only at the end of the History of Metaphysics and not at the time of the Jewish prophets. Heidegger’s reference to the great prophets of the Jews is therefore to be understood as a covert criticism: that Hitler is no great prophet.”

This is a model of intelligent, clear and historically informed reasoning, though it might not be the last word. And now let us turn to Trawny.

“For the thinker prophetic speech is a ‘technology’, an ‘instrument of the Will to Power’. And he stows away an unthought ‘secret’ about that. What is he trying to indicate? Have the Jews with their ‘prophecy’ managed ‘in the last 12 years’ to achieve the ‘co-organised’ downfall of the Germans? Again we come up against this assertion. Can a philosopher insinuate something like that? Doesn’t one irresistibly have the impression here that the thinker is blundering in an occultism, to describe which we are lost for words? Or must we diagnose an anti-Semitic paranoia?” (p. 109).

What is one to say? – I think we may say that Professor Trawny has no need to be quite so restrained. Surely, it is possible that the  “Manichean“ historian of Being had looked at the first chapter of Isaiah and reflected how those tremendous thoughts echoed down the ages in Europe. So then, the ruination of Germany between 1933 and 1945 by Isaiah, Moses, Ezekiel etc. might be far from the only evil that could be laid to their account.

Incidentally, Trawny isn’t sure who the donkey is – “‘for a donkey’, (i.e. for the public?)” (p. 108). – No, no, the donkey is not the public precisely…! What on earth made Heidegger suppose that by writing notes for donkeys he could protect himself against long-eared commentary?

* * *

When reading the following selection the reader ought to keep one thing in mind: in wartime Germany it wasn’t easy to be a philosopher, intensely interested in society, politics and culture, who would not be Hitler’s man, but equally wouldn’t be Stalin’s or Churchill/Roosevelt’s. This thinker isn’t companionable and cheerful like Bacon, or infectiously witty like Nietzsche. The attitude mostly is what used to be called Olympian.

The thinker takes his position high above the world, like Zeus on Mount Olympus. One cannot but notice that the air is chilly, and the sight of what’s going on down below is far from being inspiring. Heidegger sees people pursuing their goals, and he also sees something else that they do not see: an all-enveloping and all-penetrating presence element which is called Being.

I should say that, despite any impression these pages may have created, I would not call myself a Heideggerian. I am an Irish lover of poetry who cannot relate to Hölderlin, the great poet of Being, as Heidegger does. To my mind Hölderlin is magnificent, but freezing, Arctic-icy. But he is magnificent – Rilke, whose Duino Elegies were translated into Irish some time back (I don’t know how that could have been done) I just find baffling. My poets are older and friendlier. However, sometimes I have to leave my favourite centuries and think about those two into which I’ve been hurled. If there’s a philosopher who’s a better guide to them than Heidegger, I haven’t found him.

Sometimes, even in this present selection, the thinker comes down from Olympus. An example is the analysis of the geopolitical state of Germany in XV, 16-17. This begins with the Olympian Heidegger saying condescendingly that the Common Understanding cannot bear not to have a picture of the current  “facts” of the war. But I think we should not be deceived by this: he himself is the one who needs to make himself a picture of “how we’re doing”. Because he wasn’t just the great mind on Olympus. He was also an ordinary patriotic German “on our side”. And he was the father of two young men of military age, who served in Russia.

The ten-point picture of the position of Germany is most certainly not drawn as Goebbels would have drawn it. It’s a picture drawn by a ruthlessly clear-sighted, impartial “fact-seer”. The first conclusion to be drawn from it is that Nazi politico-military strategy is a disaster.

The enigmatic sentences at the end, which with Philip O’Connor’s help I have tried to render, seem to be saying something like this: Goebbels is great at his job – I just wish he could convince ME, so that worry about the mess we’re in didn’t keep bringing me down from Olympus! Now, if his propaganda department was to produce really effective counter-arguments, which would prevent those ten points ever forming in anyone’s mind… they would first need to be aware that those ten points are PERFECTLY TRUE.

* * *

Words that come up very often in Heidegger are Sein, das Seiende and die Seiendheit. Sein I translate as Being, Seiende as What’s-in-being, Seiendheit as Being-in-being, Wesen as Essence. The most important part of What’s-in-being is ourselves, the humans. We’re special because we need to relate to Being, although currently we’re getting more and more bogged down in Being-in-being, as exemplified in the monstrous growth of Contriving-things (die Machenschaft).

It’s a question of somehow making a new human start. Addressing the question of “What is to be Done?”, Heidegger later on – about 1950, in What Is Thinking? – made the possibly unhelpful comment: It might have better if during the last few centuries Europe had done less and thought more.

My use of capital letters for nouns is arbitrary. While translating I felt increasingly that it was a nuisance that English doesn’t have this practice, as it helps to focus the thought. The best translator of Heidegger might write English the way William Blake did. However, I didn’t want to push this too far.

If readers find anything here heavy going, either Heidegger or myself is to blame.

The original is Gesamtausgabe Band 96.

John Minahane

Philosophical Notebook XII


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