Heidegger’s “Black Notebooks” Suggest He Was a Serious Anti-Semite, Not Just a Naive Nazi

heidegger black notebooks

Ger­man philoso­pher Mar­tin Hei­deg­ger, wide­ly con­sid­ered one of the most influ­en­tial philoso­phers of the 20th cen­tu­ry, was a Nazi, a fact known to most any­one with more than a pass­ing knowl­edge of the sub­ject. In a New York Review of Books essay, Har­vard intel­lec­tu­al his­to­ri­an Peter E. Gor­don points out that “the philosopher’s com­plic­i­ty with the Nazis first became a top­ic of con­tro­ver­sy in the pages of Les Temps mod­ernes short­ly after the war.” The issue arose again when a for­mer stu­dent of Hei­deg­ger pub­lished “a vig­or­ous denun­ci­a­tion” in 1987. In these cas­es, and others—like his pro­tégé and one­time lover Han­nah Arendt’s defense of her for­mer teacher—the scan­dal tends to “always end with the same unsur­pris­ing dis­cov­ery that Hei­deg­ger was a Nazi.”

What stirs up con­tro­ver­sy isn’t Heidegger’s mem­ber­ship in the par­ty, but his moti­va­tions. Was he sim­ply a shrewd, if craven, careerist, or a gen­uine­ly hate­ful anti-Semi­te, or a lit­tle from each col­umn? What­ev­er the expla­na­tion, Hei­deg­ge­ri­ans have been able to wall off the phi­los­o­phy from sup­posed moral or polit­i­cal laps­es in judg­ment. Arendt did so by claim­ing that Hei­deg­ger, and all of phi­los­o­phy, was polit­i­cal­ly naïve. Recalls Adam Kirsch in the Times:

The seal was set on his abso­lu­tion by Han­nah Arendt, in a birth­day address broad­cast on West Ger­man radio. Heideg­ger’s Nazism, she explained, was an “escapade,” a mis­take, which hap­pened only because the thinker naïve­ly “suc­cumbed to the temp­ta­tion … to ‘inter­vene’ in the world of human affairs.” The moral to be drawn from the Hei­deg­ger case was that “the think­ing ‘I’ is entire­ly dif­fer­ent from the self of con­scious­ness,” so that Heideg­ger’s thought can­not be con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed by the actions of the mere man.

The pub­li­ca­tion of Heidegger’s so-called “black note­books,” jour­nals that he kept assid­u­ous­ly from 1931–1941, may change all that. They show Hei­deg­ger for­mu­lat­ing a phi­los­o­phy of anti-Semitism—using the cen­tral cat­e­gories of his thought—one that oper­ates, as Michel Fou­cault might say, along “the rules of exclu­sion.”

In pub­lished excerpts of a trans­la­tion by Richard Polt, an exec­u­tive mem­ber of the Hei­deg­ger Cir­cle, Crit­i­cal The­o­ry shows how much Hei­deg­ger turned his own con­cep­tu­al appa­ra­tus against Jews. At one point, he writes:

One of the most secret forms of the gigan­tic, and per­haps the old­est, is the tena­cious skill­ful­ness in cal­cu­lat­ing, hus­tling, and inter­min­gling through which the world­less­ness of Jew­ry is ground­ed.

In this short pas­sage alone, Hei­deg­ger invokes lazy stereo­types of Jews as “cal­cu­lat­ing” and “hus­tling.” He also, more impor­tant­ly, describes the Jew­ish peo­ple as “world­less.” As Crit­i­cal The­o­ry writes, “Being-in-the-world (In-der-Welt-sein) is the basic activ­i­ty of human exist­ing. To say that the Jews are ‘world­less’… is more than a con­fused stereo­type.” It is Heidegger’s way of cast­ing Jews out of Dasein, his most impor­tant cat­e­go­ry, a word that means some­thing like “being-there” or “pres­ence.” Jews, he writes, are “his­to­ry­less” and “are not being, but mere­ly ‘cal­cu­late with being.’”

More­over, Hei­deg­ger took up the Nazi char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of Jews as cor­rupt under­min­ers of soci­ety. As rep­re­sen­ta­tives of moder­ni­ty, and its tech­no­crat­ic dom­i­na­tion of human­i­ty, the Jews threat­ened “being” in anoth­er way:

What is hap­pen­ing now is the end of the his­to­ry of the great incep­tion of Occi­den­tal human­i­ty, in which incep­tion human­i­ty was called to the guardian­ship of be-ing, only to trans­form this call­ing right away into the pre­ten­sion to re-present beings in their machi­na­tion­al unessence…

The except goes on at length in this vein, with Jew­ish “tech­no­log­i­cal machin­ery” pos­ing a threat to civ­i­liza­tion. Per­haps most shock­ing­ly, Hei­deg­ger attrib­uted Nazi con­cen­tra­tion camps to “self-destruc­tion,” com­plete­ly absolv­ing by omis­sion, and min­i­miz­ing and excus­ing, the crimes of his par­ty. An arti­cle in Ital­ian news­pa­per Cor­riere Del­la Sera doc­u­ments Heidegger’s defense of Nazism and his claim in 1942 that “the com­mu­ni­ty of Jews” is “the prin­ci­ple of destruc­tion” and that the camps were only a log­i­cal out­come of this prin­ci­ple, the “supreme ful­fill­ment of tech­nol­o­gy,” “corpse fac­to­ries.” The real vic­tims, of course, are the Ger­mans, and the Allies are guilty of ”repress­ing our will for the world.”

Hei­deg­ger intend­ed the “black note­books,” so damn­ing that sev­er­al schol­ars of Hei­deg­ger fought their pub­li­ca­tion, to be released after all of his work was pub­lished. As with all of the philosopher’s dif­fi­cult work, the note­books are often obscure; it is not always clear what he means to say. But major Hei­deg­ger schol­ars have respond­ed in a vari­ety of ways—including resign­ing a chair­ship of the Mar­tin Hei­deg­ger Soci­ety—that sug­gest the worst. Accord­ing to Dai­ly Nous, a web­site about the phi­los­o­phy pro­fes­sion, when Gün­ter Figal resigned his posi­tion in Jan­u­ary as chair of the Mar­tin Hei­deg­ger Soci­ety, he said:

As chair­man of a soci­ety, which is named after a per­son, one is in cer­tain way a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of that per­son. After read­ing the Schwarze Hefte [Black Note­books], espe­cial­ly the anti­se­mit­ic pas­sages, I do not wish to be such a rep­re­sen­ta­tive any longer. These state­ments have not only shocked me, but have turned me around to such an extent that it has become dif­fi­cult to be a co-rep­re­sen­ta­tive of this.

Whether or not this new evi­dence will cause more of his adher­ents to renounce his work remains to be seen, but the note­books, writes Peter Gor­don, will sure­ly “cast a dark shad­ow over Hei­deg­ger’s lega­cy.” A very dark shad­ow.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Mar­tin Hei­deg­ger Talks About Lan­guage, Being, Marx & Reli­gion in Vin­tage 1960s Inter­views

Mar­tin Hei­deg­ger Talks Phi­los­o­phy with a Bud­dhist Monk on Ger­man Tele­vi­sion (1963)

Human, All Too Human: 3‑Part Doc­u­men­tary Pro­files Niet­zsche, Hei­deg­ger & Sartre

Find cours­es on Hei­deg­ger in our col­lec­tion, 1,700 Free Online Cours­es from Top Uni­ver­si­ties

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Simon Benarroch says:

    Pret­ty irre­spon­si­ble head­lin­ing, to place anti anti­semitism at the “heart” of hei­deg­ger’s phi­los­o­phy when in the arti­cle itself, exam­ples of his anti­semitism all con­sti­tute effec­tive­ly exclud­ing Jews from the core of his phi­los­o­phy. This isn’t to say these new notes aren’t evi­dence he was an anti­semite; it sounds like he real­ly was. But they’re also just as far from demon­strat­ing how his phi­los­o­phy itself is rife with Nazi sen­si­bil­i­ties as pre­vi­ous pub­li­ca­tions to that effect have been. If you want to argue that a phi­los­o­phy is anti­se­mit­ic, then make it a philo­soph­i­cal argu­ment. The defense I’d give is prob­a­bly the exact same defense any Hei­deg­ger ‘apol­o­gist’ might have giv­en were these note­books nev­er pub­lished: If Hei­deg­ger meant what he said about the Jews, then he real­ly must not have had them in mind when form­ing his phi­los­o­phy of human beings. So it does­n’t obvi­ous­ly fol­low that his phi­los­o­phy of human beings is itself anti­se­mit­ic.
    Go ahead and be sus­pi­cious of a for­mu­la­tion of humankind draft­ed up by the kind of per­son who was will­ing to cast cer­tain groups of peo­ple aside. I know I am. But no self respect­ing Hei­deg­ger fan is going to sud­den­ly think they’ve been suck­ered into a Nazi phi­los­o­phy; that’s just ridicu­lous.

  • A.E.M. Baumann says:

    Spot on. I was about to make com­ment to the exact point. The head­line here is nowhere to be found in the arti­cle. As well the arti­cle itself is entire­ly mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tive, if not crude yel­low jour­nal­ism

  • sorin says:

    Hei­deg­ger’s notes on Jews may not be “polit­i­cal­ly cor­rect” but they are far from show­ing that Hei­deg­ger was a ruth­less Nazi thug, that would enjoy erad­i­cat­ing all Jews. He maybe did­n’t like Jews, that does­n’t mean he would pre­fer them dead. On the con­trary, he referred to Nazis as “mur­der­ers” in pri­vate con­ver­sa­tions. His notes are “obscure” because every­body accus­ing Hei­deg­ger of being a Nazi has no com­pre­hen­sion of his phi­los­o­phy. He was in the Nazi par­ty from 1933 to 1934, when its lead­er’s inten­tions were not as clear, and I’m sure he would have nev­er accept­ed to exter­mi­nate an entire human race. Crit­i­ciz­ing Jews does not make you an anti-Semi­te, inas­much as crit­i­ciz­ing French or Ger­man peo­ple does not imply that you wish to exter­mi­nate them.

  • BubVeb says:

    As long as he did­n’t call for, or par­tic­i­pate in, total mur­der, who cares? Why goy­im bow to their “mas­ters” is beyond me. No reli­gion or reli­gious group deserves the kind of pro­tec­tion giv­en to Jews. Can’t say a sin­gle thing in crit­i­cism of Jews for fear of being labelled a … ? No way. My ques­tion is this: what is it called when Jews open­ly spout hatred for, say, Mus­lims?

  • Paolo Leoncini says:

    Nowa­days we trend to judge artist, philoso­phers, writes, sci­en­tists like they were politi­cians.
    This is wrong.
    You can ask politi­cians for self-con­sis­ten­cy between their ideas and their actions, you can’t do the same for oth­er cat­e­gories of peo­ple, includ­ing philoso­phers.
    Philoso­phers as well as scientists,artists, musi­cians, writ­ers, should nev­er been judged based on their actions, they are not politi­cians. You have to look at the val­ue of their work and how much is their influ­ence to the mat­ter they ded­i­cat­ed their lives to ‚not refer­ring to their actions. They don’t spend their lives to per­suade you, like politi­cians do — they just ded­i­cat­ed their lives to their work, which is a dif­fer­ent sto­ry

  • jk says:

    He based the notion of being on our ways of doing things as they emerge with­in a cul­ture or tra­di­tion. Arguably it includ­ed the ways of doing things in Ger­many in the 1920s and 30s; to be a human was to be a nazi.

  • Simon Benarroch says:

    To be a Nazi was a way of being human, rather. I think it’s a fair­ly com­mon and rea­son­able crit­i­cism of Hei­deg­ger that his phi­los­o­phy isn’t a good jump­ing off point for moral­ly con­demn­ing the Holo­caust. I think Haber­mas said some­thing about this but I may be wrong. As far as I’m con­cerned, this isn’t that inter­est­ing. I could­n’t tell if you were try­ing to twist Hei­deg­ger’s thing into a pro­mo­tion of the Nazi way of life, but if you were I think it’s more accu­rate to say his phi­los­o­phy con­sti­tutes no more than a kind of vac­u­ous defense of it, as sim­ply being one locus of human prac­tices among oth­ers.

  • jk says:

    @Dan: so, obvi­ous­ly his notion of ‘being’ was absurd.
    @Simon: sure, nazism was one of many human prac­tices. The real prob­lem, how­ev­er, is that he based ‘being’ on human prac­tices. But being human, for instance, by virtue of nihi­lat­ing humans, as in geno­cide, is absurd. Like his obfus­ca­to­ry inter­pre­ta­tion of noth­ing as some­thing pos­i­tive. Bit­ter exam­ples of phi­los­o­phy gone very wrong.

  • Matthew Kruger-Ross says:

    I was dis­ap­point­ed to see this head­line and too-sim­plis­tic arti­cle on a web­site that I con­tin­u­al­ly check for updates and infor­ma­tion. For a more even hand­ed reflec­tion, see: http://notphilosophy.com/framing-heidegger-technology-and-the-notebooks/

  • nieznany says:

    reply­ing to Simon Benar­roch:

    “If Hei­deg­ger meant what he said about the Jews, then he real­ly must not have had them in mind when form­ing his phi­los­o­phy of human beings. So it doesn’t obvi­ous­ly fol­low that his phi­los­o­phy of human beings is itself anti­se­mit­ic.”

    A phi­los­o­phy of human beings that excludes Jew­ish peo­ple isn’t obvi­ous­ly anti-Semit­ic? Real­ly?

    I fear I must be mis­un­der­stand­ing you, or whether that is intend­ed to be a seri­ous argu­ment.

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