Before Christmas, I blogged about the impending publication of the latest volume of the Gesamtausgabe, the complete works of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976). The revelation that the Schwarzen Hefte (Black Notebooks), due to be published in Germany in March, contained explicitly anti-semitic remarks revived interest in the question of the nature and extent of Heidegger’s flirtation with National Socialism in the 1930s (particularly when he was rector of Freiburg University, under the aegis of the Nazi minister of education). The reaction to this news was especially anguished in France, where, as I pointed out, for complex historical reasons, “the murky subject of Heidegger’s political affiliations convulses the intellectual class roughly once a decade”.
In that earlier blog, I observed that the German editor of the notebooks, Peter Trawny, had written an as yet unpublished essay in which he argued that the manuscripts, assembled between 1931 and 1946, contain ideas that are “clearly antisemitic, even if it is not a question of antisemitism of the kind promoted by Nazi ideology”. Trawny’s essay (“Heidegger: ‘The Black Notebooks’ and Historial Antisemitism”) remains unpublished. But he has recently taken to the pages of the German weekly Die Zeit in order to pronounce on the content of the Black Notebooks. His piece was published in French in Le Monde last week, under the title “Heidegger et l’antisémitisme“. In it, Trawny unpacks the notion of “historial antisemitism” (seinsgeschichtlicher Antisemitismus) and defends the claim that Heidegger’s philosophical antisemitism had little to do with Nazi race theory. Which is not to suggest that Trawny intends to excuse Heidegger. This is not, he writes with good reason, some “absurd exercise in [Heideggerian] apologetics”. One will have to wait for Heidegger’s more fanatical French followers for that.
Trawny begins with an anecdote told by the philosopher Karl Jaspers in his autobiography. Jaspers remembers discussing the “pernicious Protocols of the Elders of Zion” with Heidegger. But far from treating the Tsarist antisemitic hoax with the contempt it deserved, Heidgger expatiated on the threat posed by a “dangerous international alliance of Jews”. Although Trawny says it’s impossible to establish the veracity of this story, the publication of the Black Notebooks suggests that it “contains a kernel of truth”.
There’s at least circumstantial evidence for Trawny’s claim. For instance, nowhere in the notebook from the mid-1930s does Heidegger make any reference to the “persecution of the Jews which had begun in German towns and cities”. Nor does he refer anywhere to the fire that destroyed the synagogue in Freiburg on Kristallnacht. On the contrary, Heidegger rails against “global Jewry”.
Trawny warns against explaining such remarks away as expressions of the ambient antisemitism of the period. First, it’s worth noting that Heidegger stipulated that the Black Notebooks should be the final volume of the complete works; there was no question of his wanting to hide the manuscript. Second, there is, Trawny writes, an authentically philosophical dimension to Heidegger’s remarks about international Jewry. These aren’t mere reflexes, in other words, to be regretted and concealed later.
Trawny explains what he means when he refers to Heidegger’s “historial antisemitism”: “By this I mean that the traits attributed to Judaism in the Black Notebooks are supposed to come from the author; rather they emanate from the history of Being itself. In this sense, the Jews are not, for Heidegger, the inventors of modern technology [the modern “technological” dispensation being an index of the forgetfulness of “Being” in Heidegger’s view]; they are, along with the Nazis, the most powerful embodiment of it.”
Why,Trawny ends by asking, did Heidegger leave these remarks intact? How are to understand his decision to allow them to be published as they were written? One is tempted to suggest that he did so because he continued to believe that they were true. But Trawny can’t accept that. How, if that were the case, could Heidegger have revived his relationship with Hannah Arendt, one of a group of talented Jewish students who studied under him before the war (the others were Karl Löwith, Hans Jonas, Günther Anders, Leo Strauss and Emmanuel Levinas)?
Unfortunately, Trawny’s answer to this puzzle looks to me very much like the kind of apologia he began by rejecting, for he seems to accept uncritically Heidegger’s own notorious attempt at self-exculpation: “He who thinks greatly must err greatly.” That remark is clearly on Trawny’s mind when he writes: “[Heidegger] always regarded ‘errancy’ as inevitable. The decision to publish his notebooks, with their anti-Jewish passages, in order to take the measure of this ‘errancy’ required a remarkable freedom of thought.” One can think of other ways of describing what Heidegger thought he was doing.
UPDATE (29th January 2014)
One of the French Heideggerians I alluded to at the beginning of this post—Hadrien France-Lanord, a translator of Heidegger and former student of François Fédier, the keeper of the Heideggerian flame in France—has entered the fray in Le Monde today. In a piece that runs under the headline “Heidegger: a thought irreducible to its errors“, France-Lanord begins by acknowledging that the discovery, in Heidegger’s Black Notebooks, of a number of antisemitic remarks is “shocking [and] lamentable”. They are, he says, “indefensible”.
Then come the qualifications. First, “philological probity” demands that we pay attention to the “context” in which the remarks were made. True enough, though, to adapt a phrase of Tolstoy’s, to contextualise mustn’t mean to excuse. As Peter Trawny points out—and remember that he, like France-Lanord, starts from a position of considerable sympathy with Heidegger—the context in this case is a philosophical analysis of modern technology, of which “international Jewry” is said to be an embodiment.
There’s the historical context, too. France-Lanord writes: “In public, Heidegger never made the slightest antisemitic gesture,” and, while he was rector of the university of Freiburg, “wrote letters of support to Jewish friends, as well as letters to the minister [of education] defending Jewish colleagues”. There are other bits of the historical context, having to do with the rectorship at Freiburg, that France-Lanord doesn’t mention, however. He says that Heidegger, while rector, “opposed the propaganda of the regime”, though, as I pointed out in my earlier blog post, a condition of his accepting the post was that he join the NSDAP. And he “set about establishing the Führerprinzip at the university, ensuring that the institution would no longer be autonomous but instead directly answerable, through the person of the Führer-rector, to the Nazi minister of education”. Moreover—and this is a point that Trawny also makes—Heidegger’s subsequent criticisms of Nazi racial theory were entirely compatible with, indeed were a corollary of, his “historial” antisemitism.
France-Lanord says what we’re dealing with in the Black Notebooks is a “failure of questioning on the part of a thinker who held questioning to be the essence of thought”. It’s a failure to think, in other words, an instance, France-Lanord writes, of “non-thought”. If one describes things that way, then it becomes much easier to compare Heidegger’s case with others. “Antisemitism,” France-Lanord writes, “is an instance of non-thought that feeds off an ignorance of Jewish thought, and it has affected western philosophy very widely—one thinks of Malebranche, Voltaire, Hegel, Marx, or worse still Gottlob Frege.”
But the cases of Frege (1848-1925) and Heidegger aren’t analogous. Frege’s antisemitism, which is a matter of record, was virulent, conventional and entirely unconnected to his path-breaking work in formal logic and the philosophy of mathematics. What makes Heidegger’s case different is that, however briefly, he put his thought in the service of something like a theory of the power of international Jewry. As I wrote previously, that doesn’t mean we should place all of Heidegger’s work on the philosophical index—his masterpiece, Being and Time, published in 1927, is untouched by the detours he took later; and the same goes for Frege’s Begriffschrift. But it does mean we should be wary of not taking the author of the Black Notebooks at his word.