The literary and intellectual world was up in arms last week with the publication in Germany of Martin Heidegger’s private philosophical notebooks. The first three volumes of the diaries, from the years 1931-1941, bring conclusive evidence that the man who is arguably the greatest philosopher of the 20th century was an anti-Semite.
“World Jewry,” Heidegger wrote in one 1941 entry while Hitler’s armies were well on their way to overrunning Europe, “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.” In another passage, Heidegger wrote that the Jews, with their “talent for calculation,” were opposed to the Nazis’ racial theories because “they themselves have lived according to the race principle for longest.”
In spite of all the media attention—not only in Europe, where Heidegger’s influence is still felt strongly in philosophy departments, but also in the United States and Israel—the publication of the “black books,” so-called because of the color of the oil-cloth covers of the diaries, hardly amounts to a revelation. Heidegger’s pro-Nazi, pro-Hitler positions have been known for more than 80 years to anyone who cared to pay attention. He joined the Nazi party in 1933, and in a 1935 lecture notoriously spoke of the “inner truth and greatness” of national socialism, a passage he saw fit to include in a collection of his work published in 1953. Heidegger never resigned his party membership during the war, and after it never publicly repudiated his pro-Nazi statements.
The question then is not whether Heidegger was a Nazi sympathizer, or an anti-Semite, for he was clearly both. As the public response to the publication of the “black books” makes clear, the question is how Heidegger’s ethical and political positions should affect, if at all, our understanding of him as one of modernity’s great thinkers.
This isn’t the first time that Heidegger disciples and defenders have struggled with critics over the philosopher’s vicious political history. In 1987, the French scholar Victor Farías published Heidegger et le nazisme, which split the intellectual world on both sides of the Atlantic between those who believed that his Nazism could not help but color his work and those, like Jacques Derrida, who drew a clear distinction between the philosophy and the politics.
At the time, another French philosopher, Vincent Descombes, cautioned against making too quick a judgment in either direction. Descombes, who was sharply critical of the German thinker’s philosophy, observed that “it may well be that those readers who claim to have no difficulty making the transition from Heideggerian metaphysics to politics are really only too happy to find themselves on more familiar ground.” In other words, Descombes was warning against the easy moves afforded by what Hoover Institution scholar and Weekly Standard contributor Peter Berkowitz has called “tabloid scholarship.”
Berkowitz coined the phrase in 2004 while reviewing a sensationalist and mendacious book by Anne Norton, Leo Strauss and the Politics of American Empire. It may be difficult now, a decade later, to recall some of the outrageous claims being made back then regarding Strauss’s sinister hold on figures working in the George W. Bush administration, or for instance, that journalists from prestige publications, like the New Yorker‘s Seymour Hersh, thought the seeds of the Iraq war had been planted decades before in Strauss’s seminars on the history of political philosophy at the University of Chicago. And the fact that Bush had taken the country to war to rid Saddam Hussein of his weapons of mass destruction, weapons that would never be found—well, this was a calculated executive branch deception plotted precisely along the lines of Plato’s concept (supposedly endorsed by Strauss for use in practical politics) of the “noble lie.”
The problem was that this was a fanciful, indeed fallacious, reading of Strauss. Far from being, as many of his critics claimed, an antiliberal, Strauss, as Berkowitz wrote elsewhere, “found liberal democracy superior to all its realistic rivals.” His complicated philosophical judgments were consistent with and even supported a practical preference for liberal, constitutional democracy.
Consider, in contrast, one of Heidegger’s notorious statements, in which he compared industrialized agriculture to the Holocaust. “Agriculture is now a motorized food industry,” Heidegger said in 1949, “the same thing in its essence as the production of corpses in the gas chambers and the extermination camps, the same thing as blockades and the reduction of countries to famine, the same thing as the manufacture of hydrogen bombs.” Heidegger’s philosophy apparently led to an incapacity or unwillingness to distinguish the mechanized slaughter of six million Jews from the mechanized harvesting of industrial amounts of food. Heidegger’s philosophy seems to provide no sound basis for distinguishing, as Strauss does, between good regimes and bad ones. And indeed Heidegger saw no difference between Nazism, communism, and what he called Americanism—all of them, from his point of view, were virtually identical forms of nihilism.
Still, Strauss himself thought that Heidegger was perhaps the most important philosopher of the 20th century and a great reader and teacher of philosophical texts—texts that Heidegger taught his students to read as living sources of wisdom.
For Heidegger, to do philosophy is to ask the question, what is Being? Or, why is there something rather than nothing? From his point of view, philosophy took a wrong turn with Plato, who was not merely content to ask the question but attempted an answer, too. For Plato, according to Heidegger’s interpretation, Being is the immutable and eternal presence. This, argues Heidegger, is where metaphysics goes astray, leading Western civilization down a rabbit hole and away from Being, from authenticity. That there is no ground for Plato’s answer, no way to discern such a presence and thus the immutable truth, leads finally to nihilism, or the view, in Nietzsche’s words, that nothing is true and everything is permitted. But Heidegger seems to have thought that nihilism opened up a new horizon, once again offering man the opportunity to ask again authentically, what is Being? Heidegger’s attack on the Socratic philosophical tradition that led man down the wrong path seemed to open the possibility of a necessary and radical restructuring of Western civilization.
Here Heidegger was little different from many of his 20th-century peers in literature and the arts, like the poet Ezra Pound, a supporter of Mussolini who wrote that Western civilization was “an old bitch gone in the teeth.” The problem with modernity as they saw it was that it was nothing but a great leveling. The lawmakers, poets, and artists that any sane society would beg to rule over it were pushed aside in favor of the mobs. To the aristocrats of spirit like Heidegger, liberal democracy was aesthetically offensive and fundamentally corrupt. The only solution was to bring it down and start again, with the philosophers and poets in charge. Thus, for close to a century now, some of the West’s greatest minds have taught that the privilege, and duty, of the Western intellectual is to unmask and unmake the West, even—or especially—through violence.
For Heidegger the necessary agent of apocalypse and rebirth was the Nazis. For one of his French apostles it was Iran’s Islamic Revolution. “Industrial capitalism,” said Michel Foucault, had emerged as “the harshest, most savage, most selfish, most dishonest, oppressive society one could possibly imagine.” It leveled the playing field with the result that everyone was mediocre. It stripped the world of its primordial magic. The authentic life was to be found in the charisma of the great leader and his stark displays of power, the superman who transcended liberal democratic values.
In 1978 Foucault went to Tehran to cover the revolution for an Italian newspaper. “It is perhaps the first great insurrection against global systems,” wrote Foucault, who was later disappointed by the Iranian Revolution—as Heidegger eventually was disenchanted with Nazism. But what he found in the bright blood spilled in the streets of Tehran was a fulfillment of the orgiastic violence his work seemed to anticipate and celebrate.
The Heidegger debate matters because even 80 years after the German philosopher announced his political affiliation, and 70 years after the concentration camps were liberated, generations of Western Europeans and Americans, much of our cultural elite, have been shaped by an intellectual current that despises liberalism and dismisses as mediocre a politics based on individual freedom and committed to equality before the law. Instead, the Heideggerian spirit welcomes the return of magic, of blood and power, the violence of the strongman. In the end, the Heidegger debate is not about his thought as a philosopher but about his message as a false prophet, one who heralded the end of the liberal democratic order and the birth of something new, something terrible, something unknown.