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heidegger and the jews

17 march 2019

I almost hesitate to review Donatella di Cesare's Heidegger and the Jews – not from a lack of expertise, because that has never deterred me in the slightest; plus I think that if a book can't be evaluated by an educated layperson, the book is – well, esoteric. Heidegger and the Jews is not esoteric, but it is shocking and saddening. It will make any but the most determined apologist for Heidegger angry, and the task of a reviewer is to keep that anger (anger at Heidegger, not di Cesare) under control.

But then I think: what if Heidegger was indeed profoundly evil? Does this matter? I am not a philosopher to start with and in the bargain I barely understand Heidegger. I am hardly disillusioned by Heidegger and the Jews because I have no great admiration for Martin Heidegger to lose. If he should turn out to have been the kind of cranky old guy that you might run into on the darker reaches of the Internet these days, does it matter much except to those who have put a lot of effort into constructing an unimpeachable authorial image of him?

I gather that Heidegger's work is important in philosophy because he strove to kick the metaphysical prop out from under the entire discipline. For Heidegger, if my self-assembled nickel version of his thought is close to correct, the world is not guaranteed to make sense: not by God, not by revelation, not by intelligent or even unintelligent design – not even from the "I think, therefore I am" of Descartes, or the faith that existentialists and even some phenomenologists place in the authority of that thinking subject. For Heidegger, you just show up – no, that's wrong, you don't even constitute a "you." Things just are, and that uncomfortable fact is both unsettling and liberating.

Maybe Heidegger succeeded, and maybe he didn't. Thinkers as diverse as Rudolf Carnap and Jacques Derrida thought that he didn't succeed as well as he'd have liked. I'm probably wrong about how I'm expressing this, but Carnap thought that Heidegger's worldview, or lack thereof, was literally nonsense (perhaps poetry at best), and Derrida thought that Heidegger couldn't help letting metaphysics back in the window as soon as he'd seen it out the door. One thing is sure about Heidegger: while he was assembling, or disassembling, his philosophical system, he was also an active and enthusiastic Nazi. And after the Second World War, Heidegger was unapologetic about his politics and unsympathetic toward the victims of the Holocaust. In fact, he considered the Germans to be the real victims of the war.

I sort of knew all this, and yet did not know about it in any detail till I read di Cesare's book. Nobody has known about it in detail till recently, when Heidegger's Schwarze Hefte, his "Black Notebooks," were published and began to be translated. Di Cesare's own book appeared in 2014 in Italian and represents one of the early readings of the massive contents of these notebooks. They were private journals, for sure, not edited for publication; but Heidegger thought of them as authoritative windows into his thought, and wished them eventually to be published as a capstone to his collected works. If di Cesare's rendering of his thought in them is accurate, Heidegger may have regretted that decision. Or he may have regretted it no more than he regretted the Third Reich.

Heidegger has always been a puzzling figure for historians of philosophy because, while his sympathies were clearly with Nazism, he was not afflicted with what Ezra Pound called the "stupid, suburban prejudice of anti-Semitism." Literally, some of Heidegger's best friends were Jews. Di Cesare acquits Heidegger of personal hatred of Jewish people, and quotes him as, at times, impatient with the Nazi fixation on Jewish blood and breeding. But, she maintains, Heidegger substituted for this crass racism a "metaphysical anti-Semitism" that loaded all the errors of Western philosophy onto "the Jews."

Somewhere along the track to a reformed phenomenology, Heidegger's mind seems to have slipped the rails. He came to identify the project of erasing Western metaphysics with the mission of the German people to do that erasing. In this, Heidegger believed, the Jews were their enemy. Not their enemy in the urban-legend sense of drinking the blood of Christian babies, but in their monotheism, their belief in democracy and socialism, their technological cleverness, and their rootless cosmopolitanism. These elements of anti-Semitism, di Cesare explains, took on for Heidegger a sense that was rarefied but not metaphorical. Judaism was a pernicious strain of thought, he believed, and it resided in actual Jewish people. Heidegger was about nothing if he wasn't about things in this world. But he kept that prejudice on a somewhat abstract level.

Heidegger disagreed with his egregious countryman Carl Schmitt when it came to identifying the "enemy" of the German people. Schmitt saw the enemy – and nations can't exist without enemies, according to Schmitt – as racial Jews, defined as anyone with Jewish ancestry. Heidegger thought such racism vulgar, and would have preferred that Schmitt and Schmitt's mentor Adolf Hitler concentrate on fostering the German project of "being in the world" or whatever Heidegger thought Germans were drawn to in National Socialism. One suspects that Germans were drawn to National Socialism primarily by the prospect of getting better apartments when Jews were deported from them. But for Heidegger, such striving was more refined; it was the process of struggling out of metaphysics toward authentic Dasein.

After the war, Herbert Marcuse wrote to Heidegger, expectantly encouraging his old mentor to disavow the Nazi regime. Heidegger wrote back that "if instead of Jews you had written 'East Germans' … then the same holds true for one of the Allies" (185): the contention being that the postwar ethnic cleansing of what is now Poland and the Kaliningrad Region (East Prussia) was morally equivalent to the Holocaust. Marcuse wrote back, saying that's not remotely like the Holocaust. But he elicited no remorse.

Should the Germans have felt collective guilt for the crimes of the war? Perhaps, said Heidegger, but they should have felt incomparably more guilt about "repressing our world-willing" (208) … whatever that means. Oddly for someone who grappled so directly with reality as a philosopher, Heidegger seems to have had virtually no conscience, or even concept, of events going on around him. As di Cesare puts it,

The incommensurable crime was the one that had been committed against the German people. Because this people, who were the "heart" of all peoples, had been prevented from fulfilling their mission in the history of the world … (209)
… a mission, apparently, of astonishingly nebulous proportions.

Di Cesare is a professional Heideggerian and remains enchanted by the master's poetry and by his paradoxically concrete mysticism. She struggles consistently to understand the Heidegger of these notebooks, but it proves a perilous task. And to return to what I said above, it ultimately may not matter much. It no longer seems a great scandal that this great thinker signed onto the Nazi agenda. In signing on, and refusing, ever, to sign off, Heidegger reduced himself to the status of somebody ditto'ing lunatic newsletters in his basement. Despite di Cesare's best efforts, one can no more take the Black Notebooks as a serious contribution to world thought than one can take any random dose of far-right paranoia. It's not that Heidegger himself is reduced to meaninglessness. His early writings, indeed anything he wrote that is truly detachable from his baffling, ignorant political commentary, may well retain their value – much as the early poetry of Ezra Pound is not canceled by his Fascist wartime broadcasts or the anti-Semitism displayed in his Cantos.

Di Cesare, Donatella. Heidegger and the Jews: The Black Notebooks. [Heidegger e gli Ebrei: I "Quaderni neri". 2014.] Translated by Murtha Baca. Medford, MA: Polity, 2018.

UPDATE 11.04.23: I found di Cesare's indictment of Heidegger pretty devastating in 2019. But just a few years later, Richard Wolin, in Heidegger in Ruins (Yale University Press, 2022), assembles a more thorough-going case for Heidegger's anti-Semitism, that places that hatred much closer to the core of Heidegger's work. In the terms that Wolin develops, di Cesare comes to seem an apologist for Heidegger, whose actions and thoughts went far deeper than the abstractions she conveys. Though to be fair to di Cesare and others, it also seems that what Wolin calls a "Heidegger Hoax" has been at work, where Heidegger's own editors (including family members) have been airbrushing his earlier texts to remove how he based his philosophical ideas on Nazism.