One of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century was a Nazi. There is no disputing this stark fact: Few people would argue Martin Heidegger’s claim to preeminence, and his Nazism, at least at first, was public and enthusiastic. In the spring of 1933, a few months after Hitler took power, Heidegger joined the Nazi Party and was elected rector of Freiburg University, where his expressed goal was Gleichschaltung—the “alignment” of the academy with the new party-state. At his inaugural ceremony, the audience gave the Hitler salute and sang the Horst Wessel Song, the anthem of the Nazi party, before Heidegger spoke about “the glory and greatness of this new beginning.” Just what was involved in the “glory and greatness” of National Socialism was already on full display: Dachau opened in March, Jewish businesses were boycotted in April, and Heidegger was sworn in as rector in May. He lasted only a year before he was outpoliticked by cruder and more aggressive Nazi academics, and for the rest of the Third Reich he made no overt political statements. Yet Heidegger never publicly apologized for his early endorsement and service of Hitler, nor fully reckoned with what his Nazism meant for his legacy as a thinker.
Yet for some reason among philosophers and intellectuals there seems to be perpetual amnesia about this subject. Heidegger’s Nazism was common knowledge to anyone who lived through the 1930s. After World War II, he was banned from teaching by the Allied occupation authorities because of his Nazi allegiances. But when biographers Victor Farias and Hugo Ott wrote about Heidegger’s political involvement in the 1980s, the world of thought, especially in Germany and France, greeted it as an explosive new discovery. The same thing happened in 2005, when Emmanuel Faye unearthed Heidegger’s course lectures from 1933-35 and showed that he had, in Faye’s terms, accomplished “the introduction of Nazism into philosophy.”
And in 2014, the scandal erupted once again, with the publication of Heidegger’s “Black Notebooks” from the 1930s, the private journals in which he sketched his thoughts on philosophy, current events, and the connection between the two. Now the “Black Notebooks”—a sinister-sounding name for what were, in fact, just black notebooks—are beginning to appear in English translation, allowing Americans to join in the latest round of the controversy. The first volume, Ponderings II-VI: Black Notebooks 1931-38 has just been published; a companion volume, Reading Heidegger’s Black Notebooks 1931-41, contains essays on the texts, in which various experts argue about how far they implicate Heidegger in Nazism and anti-Semitism.
Why is this 80-year-old story still able to shock? The reason must be that, no matter how much we find out about Heidegger’s Nazism, it still seems like a contradiction in terms. After all, we think we know what Nazis are like and what philosophers are like, and the two identities simply don’t match. Thinkers are supposed to be idealistic, moral defenders of the highest values of civilization; fascists are brutal, barbaric, appealing to humanity’s lowest instincts. Nazis burn books; philosophers write them. But Heidegger did both. In 1927, he published one of the most influential books in the history of philosophy, Being and Time; six years later, as rector of Freiburg University, he presided over a public bonfire of “un-German” books, proclaiming, “Flame, announce to us, light up for us, show us the path from which there is no turning back.” Like the famous optical illusion in which the same figure is both a duck and a rabbit, then, we keep twisting and turning our image of Heidegger, trying to see in him both the Nazi and the philosopher at the same time.
I am not sure how much I knew about Martin Heidegger’s story when I first read Being and Time, his magnum opus. I’m pretty sure that I knew he had been, at least temporarily, a Nazi; but oddly, as it now seems to me, this had no effect on my enthusiasm for the book. Certainly, it never occurred to me that, as a Jew, I should shun or distrust this great thinker who had given his allegiance to Adolf Hitler. I think my 21-year-old self was right not to be frightened off by this fact. After all, I had just finished four years of studying the classics of English literature, many of which are far more overtly hostile to Jews than anything Heidegger ever wrote. Reading Chaucer’s heart-rending portrait of a child ritually murdered by Jews in The Pardoner’s Tale, or T.S. Eliot’s dark mutterings about the jew (lower case) squatting on a windowsill in “Gerontion,” I was not too offended or dismayed to enjoy the poems. That is because I knew they were not talking about me, an actual Jew, who understood and appreciated them so well. They were addressing Jews of their imagination—malign fictions that no longer seemed to have any power, certainly not in the America where I grew up. Like any Jew in Western civilization, I knew instinctively how to peel apart the ignorance and hatred from the sweetness and the light.
But with Heidegger, sweetness and light were never part of the package, and that was the key to his power. Being and Time was the first book of philosophy I had read that seemed to understand the human condition in the same way that literature did—less through abstract intellectual concepts than through the lived experience of mood. For Heidegger, existence—in German, Dasein—is grasped first and foremost not by the rational mind, but by the emotions that determine the very shape and texture of the world in which we live. The affects he dwells on are primarily “negative” ones—fear, alienation, anxiety, rather than love or joy—but he argues that these dark and disorienting moods are precisely what disclose the world to us most primally. As he writes in Being and Time (as translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson):
A state-of-mind not only discloses Dasein in its thrownness and its submission to that world which is already disclosed within its own Being; it is itself the existential kind of Being in which Dasein constantly surrenders itself to the “world” and lets the “world” “matter” to it in such a way that somehow Dasein evades its very self.
The highly specialized terminology here might function as an obstacle to understanding at first, but it is an integral part of Heidegger’s literary effect. By coining new, technical terms like “thrownness” (Geworfenheit), and by referring to the human being not as a person or even a “subject” but as Dasein—literally, in German, “being-there”—Heidegger refreshes the reader’s perception of existence in the same way that poetry does. For a human being, he emphasizes, existence means being “thrown” into a world not of our making, a world whose basic facts are care and death. Most of the time, we soothe ourselves by avoiding these facts, “surrendering … to the world” rather than confronting it. We see ourselves from the outside rather than owning our fate, allowing the chatter of “the They” (das Man) to fill our minds. It is only when we are anxious that our customary thoughtlessness recedes and we are able to see that world in its true alienness.
In this way, Heidegger’s existentialism, his method of understanding the world not through concepts but through the lived experience of existence, leads to a particular ethical stance. Being and Time is not an overtly ethical book—it has nothing to say in the traditional vocabulary of Western philosophical moralism, no use for ideas like Plato’s “the Good” or Kant’s categorical imperative. That is largely because Heidegger is not very interested in the central problem of ethics (and of politics), which is how to live with other people. For him, the key experiences and challenges of existence are individual: Alone we suffer, alone we die, and alone we must make meaning out of our fate. The highest value, then, is not goodness but authenticity; above all, authenticity in the face of death. To accept one’s actual condition of mortality and thrownness, not to flee from these difficult facts into consoling illusions and abstractions, is for Heidegger the ultimate moral achievement. As he writes, “Authentic Being-towards-death can not evade its ownmost non-relational possibility, or cover up this possibility by fleeing from it, or give a new explanation for it to accord with the common sense of ‘the they.’ ”
What Heidegger does here is to pluck a kind of meaning from the midst of nihilism. It is precisely because life is meaningless, because it has no value or purpose imposed on it from above or outside, that the individual human being must endow it with meaning by deciding on an authentic existence. But authenticity and decision are fundamentally anti-ethical concepts, because they deny the existence of any established values, such as justice, equality, or sympathy. Why be a “good” person rather than a “bad” person, if terms like good and bad are mere conventions? If life has the meaning we decide to give it, what’s to stop us from finding that meaning in arbitrary violence, domination, or irrationality? What if we choose to find meaning in serving a Volk or a Führer?
Of course, Heidegger’s thought does not lead directly to fascism. On the contrary, his most important readers were French existentialists like Sartre and Camus, who believed the ideal of freedom called for commitment to the anti-Nazi resistance. But in an important sense, Heidegger leaves the door open for fascism, because he values the intensity and authenticity of a belief over its goodness or truthfulness. In a world defined by nihilism, any source of strong new beliefs and convictions is potentially redemptive. That is why, in the early days of the Hitler dictatorship, Heidegger could take the new Nazi regime as a potential source of new values—an assertion of will that would create an entirely new spiritual and philosophical world.
This hope is expressed again and again in the “Black Notebooks” for 1933, the year Hitler took power and Heidegger became rector of his university. “A marvelously awakening communal will is penetrating the great darkness of the world,” Heidegger writes. Nazism, with its rhetoric of destiny and rebirth, was going to define new coordinates for human life, simply by the authenticity and confidence of its self-assertion. These coordinates might be upside-down, from the perspective of conventional morality; Nazism might call murder, conquest, racism and dictatorship good, where the old Judeo-Christian morality thought them bad. But because values are determined by conviction, not vice versa, the Nazis could succeed in bringing into being a new world in which evil actually was good. “The mission—if precisely this were the mission: the full imposing and first proposing of the new essence of truth?” Heidegger asks, thrilled at the prospect that truth itself can be transformed.
A central part of the new Nazi “essence of truth,” of course, was anti-Semitism. When the accounts of Heidegger’s Nazism are drawn up, it has usually been counted in his favor that he was not a racist anti-Semite, as though this demonstrated the refinement of his own version of Nazism. In the 1994 biography Martin Heiddegger by Rudiger Safranski, one chapter is titled “Is Heidegger Anti-Semitic?” and the answer is a reassuring no: “Certainly not in the sense of the ideological lunacy of Nazism. It is significant that neither in his lectures and philosophical writings, nor in his political speeches and pamphlets are there any anti-Semitic or racist remarks.” Indeed, Heidegger was very close to Jews in the first part of his life, including his most important teacher, Edmund Husserl, and his greatest student, Hannah Arendt.
Yet the attempt to construct firewalls around Heidegger’s Nazism, to save areas of his reputation from its taint, has suffered one failure after another, and this one too must fall. It used to be argued that Heidegger was an unworldly man who briefly blundered into Nazism; this was the exculpatory argument made by Arendt in a radio address broadcast in Germany on his 8oth birthday. This account became unsustainable after the research of Farias and Ott demonstrated the depths of Heidegger’s involvement with Nazism, including his carrying out of the law that purged Jews from university teaching. Then Heidegger’s defenders tried to distinguish between his political activity, which may have been culpable, and his thought, which remained untainted. But Faye proved beyond a doubt that, in the first years of Hitler’s rule, Heidegger taught seminars in which he gave his most famous philosophical concepts and terms an explicitly Nazi resonance.
Now the publication of the “Black Notebooks” has given the lie to the idea that Heidegger was not really anti-Semitic. It is true that his anti-Semitism was not biological, in the classic Nazi fashion. This was one of the crude aspects of National Socialism from which he kept a deliberate distance. “The question of the role of World Jewry is not racial; it is, rather, the metaphysical question of the nature of a type of humanity, the absolutely unbound, that can assume the world-historical ‘task’ of uprooting all beings from Being,” runs one of Heidegger’s dozen or so remarks about Jews.
But this is hardly exculpatory. On the contrary, it is especially damning because it brings anti-Semitism into the central precincts of his thought. For Heidegger, the “uprooting of beings from Being” was the metaphysical curse of the modern world, the source of the nihilism that afflicted humanity. Where the ancient Greeks enjoyed a holistic and organic relationship with Being—which for Heidegger is close to, but not quite identical with, what earlier Romantic thinkers meant by Nature—modern philosophy and technology set the individual at odds with Being. Instead of the miraculous background of human existence, Being is reduced to a series of objects that can be mathematically calculated and industrially exploited. These themes dominate Heidegger’s later thought, where he condemns the way of thinking he calls “enframing” (Gestell) and calls humanity to its true role as the “shepherd of Being.”
And who is responsible for this modern curse? In his published work, Heidegger traces it all the way back to Plato and Aristotle, suggesting that it was the fate of Western civilization to turn against itself in this way. But in the “Black Notebooks,” he finds a much simpler and more familiar scapegoat: the Jews. “World Jewry,” Weltjudentum, with its overtones of hostile conspiracy, was a common Nazi phrase that the philosopher had no qualms about embracing, using it several times in the privacy of the notebooks. Thus in 1941 Heidegger writes: “World Jewry, spurred on by the emigrant that Germany let out, remains elusive everywhere. Despite its increased display of power, it never has to take part in the practice of war, whereas we are reduced to sacrificing the best blood of the best of our own people.” This is a breathtaking example of how Nazi anti-Semitism precisely inverted reality: At just the moment when the Holocaust was killing millions of helpless Jews, Heidegger suggests that it was “elusive” World Jewry that was killing Germans.
Several of the contributors to Reading Heidegger’s Black Notebooks are not deterred even by the latest revelations of Heidegger’s deep involvement with Nazism and anti-Semitism. “That Heidegger was a Nazi and that he also held anti-Semitic views are simple facts—but they are just that, and as facts, they are all too simple,” writes Jeff Malpas. Heidegger is a writer who cultivates a mystique of complexity; this is part of what attracted me to him because it makes reading him feel like an arduous quest that promises high rewards. And it is quite true that with such a subtle and profound thinker, Nazism and anti-Semitism will take subtle and “profound” forms. But this does not mean that our judgment on them is not, in the end, simple. The most important thing we have to learn from Heidegger today is how the allure of profundity and authenticity can lead to the destruction of ethics and of thought itself. Heidegger’s Nazism does not mean that we should stop thinking about him; on the contrary, it is all the more urgent to think about him, so that we can learn how to think against him.
Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.