Brow Beat

Heidegger’s Hitler Problem Is Worse Than We Thought

The upcoming publication of the Black Notebooks—three never-before-seen volumes by the legendary German philosopher Martin Heidegger—may reveal a direct link between Heidegger’s lengthy dalliance with Nazism and his landmark treatise Being and Time. With the controversial new publication also arises an important question: When it comes to separating an author from his or her ideology and continuing to study him or her, how reprehensible is too reprehensible?

Many English teachers preface units on Flannery O’Connor or H.P. Lovecraft with critical examinations of these authors’ racism. But every famous creative-type with an odious personal or political life also has plenty of apologists. In grad school, I once had a guy mansplain to me that T.S. Eliot wasn’t anti-Semitic, he was just “anti-usury.” So not anti-Jewish per se, just anti-an-odious-stereotype-he-casually-attributed-to-Jews. Much better.

That was the same year I took a seminar on the German Novelle and the Heideggerian notion of Ereignis, or “event,” an apt pairing because the patron saint of German letters, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, characterized a Novelle as narrating “an unprecedented event that has occurred.” Amid discussions of affectedly hyphenated Be-ing and the substantive Nothing, our professor brought up, briefly, Heidegger’s association with the Nazis, characterizing it as a brief dabbling. (I mean, come on, the man schtupped Hannah Arendt—what more do you want?)

Now, however, an unprecedented event really has occurred in Heidegger studies, one with the potential to—in his parlance—provide a shaking-up, an Erzitterung, to his already-polarizing stance in the field. “There was never a smoking gun in the late German philosopher’s expansive work,” Paul Hockenos writes in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “an explicit pejorative reference to Jews or Judaism as such.” Until now.

Before he died, Heidegger dictated the exact order his unpublished works should appear, and the Black Notebooks, three leather-bound volumes he kept during the 1930s and ’40s, will finally be published in German later this month. Although they are officially embargoed until publication, their editor, University of Wuppertal professor and director of the Heidegger Institute Peter Trawny, has discussed their content with the press. Further, several excerpts, slated to appear in Trawny’s own forthcoming book, have leaked—and, as Hockenos puts it, they “seem to illustrate beyond a doubt that Heidegger harbored anti-Semitic convictions during the Nazi dictatorship.”

It’s not that history lacked all evidence before. Heidegger assumed rectorship of the University of Freiburg after Adolf Hitler came to power; he joined the Nazi party and remained in it throughout the entirety of World War II.* But only the Black Notebooks contain actual references to “world Jewry” or “a collusion of ‘rootless’ Jews in both international capitalism and communism,” references that, Trawny insists, tie Heidegger’s anti-Semitism directly to his philosophy. Unprecedented indeed.

Heidegger’s Francophile acolytes remain, so far, unconvinced. After all, without Heidegger, there would be no Jacques Derrida or Michel Foucault! (Doctoral dissertations in literature written after 1970 might actually be intelligible!) But once the Black Notebooks are released, will their content have a palpable effect on the hordes of Heideggerians haunting the hallowed halls? Will the notebooks, to use their own parlance, cause an Erzitterung, and then a Nothing—a present absence where Heidegger’s work was and in which appears a new “time-play-space”? Which may indeed result in a dramatic “turn”? In Earth language: Will this change anything? And, more importantly, should it?

You’d have to search far and wide to find an actual Nazi sympathizer working in legitimate academia—but soon, teaching Heidegger may have people wondering. So, should academic sources be subject to the “Hitler Test”? And if they fail, does this mean responsible teaching simply includes a thorough critical contextualization—or banishment from the canon altogether?

Me, I’m a Wittgenstein fan, the Shark to Heidegger’s Jet, so it’s not a question I’m particularly fit to answer. But for those who do use his work, it’s an issue whose undeniable Dasein they must address. 

*Correction, March 11, 2014: This post originally quoted Heidegger on the “fabrication” (Fabrikation) of corpses in gas chambers and death camps, and, following the Chronicle, suggested that Heidegger might have believed the corpses were invented, rather than manufactured. Scholars have disputed this interpretation, and the sentence has been removed.