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 loverHannah 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. 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 Seradocuments 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. 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.