Heidegger & the Jewish Question, Part 1Greg Johnson
Part 2 here. Part 3 here. Part 4 here.
An abridged version of this essay was presented as a lecture at the inaugural meeting of the Scandza Forum in Stockholm on May 20, 2017. I want to thank the Scandza Forum and all who attended.
Martin Heidegger is one of the most influential philosophers of the 20th and now 21st centuries. Thus it is a problem that Heidegger was both a National Socialist and an anti-Semite, which are thought-crimes under the post-War intellectual dispensation.
The world has known that Heidegger was a National Socialist since 1933, but until recently, his precise attitude towards Jews was somewhat mysterious. Toni Cassirer, the wife of Jewish philosopher Ernst Cassirer, claimed in her autobiography that the Cassirers were aware that Heidegger was anti-Semitic in the late 1920s.
However, whatever Heidegger’s attitudes toward Jews were at the time, they were not impediments to carrying on extramarital affairs with Hannah Arendt, who was Jewish, and Elisabeth Blochmann, who was half-Jewish, or having cordial and mentoring relationships with Jewish teachers, students, and colleagues.
During the Third Reich, Heidegger became Rector of the University of Freiburg, helping to purge the institution of Jewish students and faculty, although he protested against more vulgar manifestations of anti-Semitism and protested the sacking of certain Jewish faculty because it would make Germany look bad on the international stage.
On June 30, 1933, after he had become Rector, Heidegger visited Karl Jaspers and his Jewish wife in Heidelberg. According to Jaspers, when he dismissed the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion as a forgery, Heidegger replied, “Nonetheless, there is a dangerous international alliance of Jews.” Heidegger was right of course to dismiss the “forgery” canard. The Protocols, like the dialogues of Plato, are a literary presentation of ideas whose truth depends on their correspondence with reality. Thus it is thus simply irrelevant to protest that they are not really verbatim transcripts of actual conversations.
After the war, Heidegger was forced to undergo de-Nazification. He was characterized as Nazi fellow-traveler and banned from teaching until 1951. Heidegger enraged Jews by refusing to treat the holocaust as a morally and metaphysically unique event. Instead he compared it to other wartime atrocities and claimed that it had to be understood as a manifestation of the modern mindset that sees all of reality as material for human manipulation and control. Also controversial was his decision in 1953 to publish a 1935 lecture course, Introduction to Metaphysics, in which he characterized “the inner truth and greatness” of the National Socialist movement as “the encounter between global technology and modern humanity.”
New light was thrown on Heidegger’s attitudes toward Jews beginning in 1989, when a 1929 letter from Heidegger to Victor Schwoerer, the vice-president of the Notgemeinschaft der Deutschen Wissenschaft, was discovered. In the letter, Heidegger spoke of the necessity of promoting talented German scholars in order to combat the “Jewification” (Verjudung) of German intellectual life. In 2005 a line from a letter from Heidegger to his wife Elfride, dated October 18, 1918, came to light. Heidegger writes, “The Jewification of our culture and universities is certainly horrifying, and I think that the German race really should summon up the inner strength to find its feet again.”
These two letters clearly indicate that Heidegger opposed increasing Jewish influence on German cultural life almost fifteen years before Hitler’s rise to power, and more than a decade later not only did his attitude remain unchanged, he was taking active steps to combat Jewish power. His desire to see the “German race” fight back against Jewish influence and his willingness to actually cultivate and promote German scholars to counter Jewish influence explains his enthusiasm for National Socialism and his willingness to help implement National Socialist policies at the University of Freiburg.
However, in the Winter Semester of 1932–1933, before Heidegger openly embraced the party and became Rector at Freiburg, he wrote a letter to Hannah Arendt about rumors that he was an anti-Semite. After detailing all the favors he was doing for Jews during his sabbatical, he writes:
Whoever wants to call that “raging anti-Semitism” is welcome to do so. Beyond that, I am now just as much an anti-Semite in university issues as I was ten years ago in Marburg, where, because of this anti-Semitism, I even earned Jacobsthal’s and Friedländer’s support. To say absolutely nothing about my personal relationships with Jews (e.g., Husserl, Misch, Cassirer, and others). And above all, it cannot touch my relationship to you.
Heidegger’s claim that he is “just as much an anti-Semite in university issues as I was ten years ago” was meant to be taken as sarcasm by Arendt, implying that he was not an anti-Semite then or now. Why else would he cite the support of two Jewish colleagues, archaeologist Paul Jacobsthal and classicist Paul Friedländer?
But another reading is possible: The statement could also be taken at face value. Heidegger really was anti-Semitic with regard to university issues in Marburg and in Freiburg, as would soon become clear. Heidegger had merely concealed his anti-Semitism from his colleagues—as he was concealing it from Arendt herself in this very letter. But when Hitler came to power, dissimulation was no longer necessary. Arendt herself certainly felt deceived. In later years, she declared that “Heidegger was notorious for lying about everything.”
Beginning in 2014, a flood of new light on Heidegger and the Jews was cast by the publication of the first three volumes of Heidegger’s Black Notebooks. A fourth volume appeared in 2015. These volumes encompass writings from 1931 to 1948. Jews and Judaism are mentioned in only 25 places in the 1,753 pages of the Black Notebooks published so far—fewer than ten pages, if we are generous in providing context—beginning in 1938 and ending circa 1948.
But in Heidegger scholarship—as in politics, culture, and academia at large—the Jewish tail wags the dog. Thus the question of Heidegger and the Jews has become the topic of a flurry academic conferences, articles, and books, as well as articles in the middlebrow press. These discussions are filled with the language of contamination and contagion. Anti-Semitism is treated as an intellectual form of lice or typhus, and scholars earnestly debate whether they or their students can catch cooties from reading Heidegger. When the hubbub about anti-Semitism dies down, however, I think the world of letters will eventually conclude that the Black Notebooks is one of Heidegger’s richest and most compelling works.
Indeed, I suspect that Heidegger, his family, and his publishing house Vittorio Klostermann handled the publication and promotion of the Black Notebooks in a quite cunning manner. Heidegger surely knew that these volumes would be highly controversial, so he specified that they be published last in his collected works—like an unexpected verb at the end of a long, meandering German sentence that suddenly charges everything that came before with new meaning and life. If there was going to be a controversy about Heidegger and anti-Semitism, best to wait until Heidegger scholars were maximally invested in his work. Moreover, the decision to leak the most inflammatory passages on Jews before the publication of the Black Notebooks was a masterstroke of marketing, for the predictable controversy in the press made the Black Notebooks philosophical best-sellers.
In 2016, excerpts from Heidegger’s correspondence with his brother Fritz dealing with National Socialism, the Second World War, and related topics were published. A similar wag-the-dog phenomenon can be observed in this publication. Although the letters make only passing and anodyne references to Jews, they were published as Martin Heidegger und der Antisemitismus. The volume is co-edited by Rabbi Walter Homolka and Arnulf Heidegger, one of Martin Heidegger’s grandsons. The book contains 127 pages of letters and 262 pages of scholarly essays on Heidegger and anti-Semitism.
So what do the Black Notebooks say about Jews? Heidegger’s remarks fall into four broad categories. Sixteen of the 25 references refer to Jewish intellectuals and movements, certain Jewish individuals, and Judaism as a religion. The remaining nine refer to Jews as a nation.
Jewish Intellectuals & Movements
In discussing doctrines of human nature, Heidegger refers to the “Christian-Jewish doctrine . . . that define[s] man immediately on the basis of his relation to a ‘God’ . . .” (1938; GA 94: 475-76; trans. Polt). Elsewhere, Heidegger speaks of rejecting the “anthropological determination of man, and with it, all previous anthropology—Christian Hellenistic-Jewish and Socratic-Platonic” (1938–1939; GA 95: 322; trans. Polt). Heidegger also wonders if thinking of human beings as a people (Volk) tacitly accepts the “Hellenistic-Jewish ‘world,’” i.e., worldview, that he wishes to question and transcend (1938–1939; GA 95: 339; trans. Polt).
There is nothing specifically anti-Semitic about these references to intellectual traditions. Heidegger rejects Jewish thinking, but he does not single it out. He hyphenates Jewish ideas with Christianity and Hellenistic thought and places these hyphenated constructs on a par with Socratic-Platonic thinking, which he also rejects. Moreover, it is not really anti-Semitic to reject Jewish ideas if one thinks they are false. It would only be anti-Semitic if one rejected them simply because they are Jewish, and obviously that is not what Heidegger is doing here.
In a remark on the völkisch outlook, Heidegger asks, “Is it an accident that National Socialism has stamped out ‘sociology’ as a term? Why was sociology gladly pursued by Jews and Catholics?” (1938–1939; GA 95: 161; trans. Polt). There is nothing specifically anti-Semitic about this remark either. Heidegger is not singling out Jews but placing them alongside Catholics. Heidegger’s likely answer to the question he raises is that both Jews and the Catholic church are international rather than national communities, thus they are attracted to sociology as a universal science.
In a remark on his critique of Cartesianism in Being and Time, Heidegger mentions that “it has been exploited just as strongly by Jews as by National Socialists, without being grasped in its essential core . . .” (1938–1939; GA 95: 168-69; trans. Polt). Again, there is nothing anti-Semitic about this remark. Heidegger is putting some Jews and some National Socialists on the same plane, as having a superficial understanding of his critique of Cartesianism.
In a remark on self-knowledge, Heidegger argues that the very idea of self-reflection is superficial, “even after one has pushed Jewish ‘psychoanalysis’ aside” (1938–1939; GA 95: 258; trans. Polt). Again, there is nothing specifically anti-Semitic about this remark. Heidegger’s point is that National Socialist critics of “Jewish ‘psychoanalysis’” fail to question the idea of self-reflection and thus end up on the same plane.
Heidegger makes a similar point elsewhere, mentioning Freud by name:
One should not get all too loudly indignant about the psychoanalysis of the Jew “Freud” if, and as long as, one cannot at all “think” about each and every thing other than by “tracing” everything as an “expression” of “life” back to “instincts” and “the atrophy of instinct.” This way of “thinking,” which in advance excludes all “being” whatsoever, is pure nihilism. (circa 1941; GA 96: 218; trans. Polt)
Here Heidegger is again criticizing National Socialist thinkers who indignantly condemn “the Jew ‘Freud’” yet themselves reduce psychology to instincts.
I think it is reasonable to read Heidegger’s very Nazi-sounding use of the phrase “the Jew ‘Freud’” as sarcastic echoing of Nazi cant. This is reinforced by putting Freud’s name in scare quotes, which may mean that Heidegger believes the unnamed National Socialist writers are attacking a straw man, not Freud’s actual teachings.
In a reflection on “dogmatism, be it ecclesiastical-political or state-political,” Heidegger observes the tendency of the authorities to attribute any dissent from dogma as the work of “the enemy for it (for the dogmatism)—be it the heathens and godless ones, or the Jews and communists.” Given that “the Jews and communists” are the enemies, the dogma in question is clearly National Socialism. What’s more, Heidegger identifies himself with the dissidents, not the dogmatists.
Mentions of Jewish Individuals
In addition to Freud, Heidegger mentions several other Jewish individuals in the Black Notebooks.
In one passage Heidegger mentions two Jewish swindlers, Iwan Baruch Kutisker and Julius Barmat, who, according to the Nazis, epitomized the Weimar Republic:
What is the difference between the following occurrences? Barmat and Kutisker make good business for themselves out of the postwar democracy; with the help of the National Socialist world view, primary school teachers turn into “philosophers” with whom a serious person would never bother. There is no difference; for in the latter case the historical essence of National Socialism is grasped as little as is, in the former case, the historical essence of parliamentary democracy. (1941; GA 96: 234; trans. Polt)
Here Heidegger is saying that two Jewish swindlers no more reveal the essence of parliamentary democracy than unnamed German academic frauds reveal the essence of National Socialism. This is actually a critique of National Socialist propaganda and a refutation of an argument against liberal democracy, although it also amounts to an analogous defense of National Socialism.
In another passage, Heidegger writes, “At the same time, the ‘cunning’ of Bolshevist politics comes to light. The Jew Litvinov surfaces again. . . .” (June, 1941; GA 96: 242; trans. Polt). This may well be an unironic use of the Nazi trope.
Judaism as a Religion
In a remark on Karl Barth, Heidegger writes, “The Phariseeism of Karl Barth and his associates exceeds even the ancient Jewish Phariseeism, by the degree that is necessarily posited by the modern history of being” (GA 95: 395-96; 1938–1939; trans. Polt). Here again, no anti-Semitic judgment is intended. Indeed, Heidegger puts the Jewish Pharisees on a higher rung than a German Christian theologian.
Heidegger mentions Judaism in a number of post-war reflections from 1946 to 1948. Around 1946 he writes:
“Prophecy” is the technique for fending off what is destinal in history. It is an instrument of the will to power. That the great prophets are Jews is a fact whose secret has not yet been thought through. (Note for jackasses: this comment has nothing to do with “anti-Semitism,” which is as foolish and abominable as Christianity’s bloody and, above all, non-bloody attacks on “heathens.” The fact that Christianity even brands anti-Semitism as “un-Christian” is part of its highly developed and refined power technique.) (GA 97: 159; trans. Polt)
In this passage, Heidegger himself denies anti-Semitic intent or import. While his comment on the Jews places them in a class by themselves, his comment on anti-Semitism places it in the same company as the Church’s anti-heathenism, which Heidegger clearly rejects. Of course, he is only speaking here of Christian religious anti-Semitism, which leaves open the door to other types.
In 1947 or 1948, Heidegger writes, “God is the God of Abraham, the God of Jesus. But there is no God of be-ing” (GA 97: 357; trans. Polt). A few pages later we read, “On the doctrine of gods.—Jehovah is the god who presumed to make himself the chosen god, and not to tolerate any other gods beside himself. . . .” (GA 97: 369; trans. Polt). And a few pages after that, we find:
What if the god of the philosophers were still more divine than the god of Abraham, who tolerated no others of his kind aside from himself, and whose son Jesus sent all who did not love him to Hell and let them roast there? What sort of god is it who denies divinity, and who has none of the generosity of pure joy at his kind and at their inexhaustible richness? (A note on Pascal.) (GA 97: 409; trans. Polt)
Finally, in a note from around 1948, Heidegger simply states, “The modern systems of total dictatorship stem from Judeo-Christian monotheism” (GA 97: 438; trans. Polt).
None of these passages are specifically anti-Semitic. Indeed, they apply to Christianity as much as Judaism. The first alludes to Pascal, and the third mentions him by name. Heidegger is clearly critical of the biblical God, but his remarks are no more anti-Jewish than anti-Christian. And the last remark is also as anti-Nazi as it is anti-Judeo-Christian.
Some Preliminary Conclusions
Of the sixteen references to Jews and Judaism that we have examined so far, only one might be anti-Semitic, namely “the Jew Litvinov.”
There are six references to the Jewish or Judeo-Christian religion, one of which is explicitly anti-anti-Semitic, one of which places Jews above a German Christian, three of which are as much about Christianity as Judaism, and one of which is as anti-Nazi as it is anti-Judeo-Christian.
Jews are mentioned alongside communists as enemies of the National Socialist state, which Heidegger is taking to task for state-political “dogmatism.”
There are references to “Christian-Jewish,” “Christian Hellenistic-Jewish,” and “Hellenistic-Jewish” conceptions of human nature, the latter two of which Heidegger places on the same rung as the “Socratic-Platonic” conception.
Some Jews are placed on the same rung as some National Socialists in misunderstanding Heidegger’s critique of Cartesianism. Other Jews are placed on the same rung as some Catholics in advocating the science of sociology. National Socialist psychologists are placed on the same rung as Freud because they too embrace self-reflection as a model of knowledge and instincts as an explanation of psychological states. Even the Jewish swindlers Barmat and Kutisker are placed on the same level as unnamed National Socialist educational careerists.
A clear pattern is developing here. In twelve out of sixteen passages, Heidegger places Jews, Judaism, and Jewish thought on the same level as Christianity, the Greeks, and German National Socialists. In all these cases, Heidegger rejects the Jewish as well as the non-Jewish terms as equally problematic.
In the passages where Heidegger places Jews and National Socialists on the same plane, his primary target is National Socialists, for whom the cruelest barb is to be compared to Jews. But Heidegger’s problem with the Jews is not that they are Jews, but that their ideas are as false and superficial as their National Socialist counterparts.
With this pattern in mind, we will now examine Heidegger’s remarks on Jews as a people.
1. Toni Cassirer, Mein Leben mit Ernst Cassirer (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 2003), p. 187.
2. See Richard Wolin, Heidegger’s Children: Hannah Arendt, Karl Löwith, Hans Jonas, and Herbert Marcuse, 2nd ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015).
3. The best overall account of Heidegger and the Rectorate is still Hugo Ott’s Martin Heidegger: A Political Life (New York: Basic Books, 1993).
4. Quoted in Thomas Sheehan, “‘Everyone Has to Tell the Truth’: Heidegger and the Jews,” Continuum, vol. 1, no. 1 (1990), p. 35, quoting and translating Karl Jaspers, Philosophische Autobiographie, expanded edition (Munich: Piper, 1977), p. 101.
5. Alan Milchman and Alan Rosenberg, Martin Heidegger and the Holocaust (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1997) and Mahon O’Brien, Heidegger, History, and the Holocaust (New York: Bloomsbury, 2017).
6. See part 4 of Collin Cleary, “Heidegger: An Introduction for Anti-Moderns,” https://counter-currents.com/2012/06/heideggeran-introduction-for-anti-modernists-part-4/
7. See Ulrich Sieg, “Die Verjudung des deutschen Geistes. Ein unbekannter Brief Heideggers,” Die Zeit 52 (December 22, 1989).
8. Martin Heidegger, Letters to His Wife, 1915–1970, ed. Gertrud Heidegger, trans. R. D. V. Glasgow (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2008), p. 28.
9. Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger, Letters, 1925–1975, ed. Ursula Ludz, trans. Andrew Shields (New York: Harcourt, 2004), pp. 52–53. This letter was first published in 1998.
10. Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982), p. 247.
11. Martin Heidegger, Gesamtausgabe, vol. 94, Überlegungen [Ponderings] II–VI, ed. Peter Trawny (Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann, 2014), Gesamtausgabe, vol. 95, Überlegungen VII–XI, ed. Peter Trawny (Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann, 2014), and Gesamtausgabe, vol. 96, Überlegungen XII–XV, ed. Peter Trawny (Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann, 2014).
12. Martin Heidegger, Gesamtausgabe, vol. 97 Anmerkungen [Notes] I–V, ed. Peter Trawny (Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann, 2015).
13. In “References to Jews and Judaism in Martin Heidegger’s Black Notebooks, 1938–1948,” Richard Polt translates 25 passages from The Black Notebooks and an additional passage from The History of Beyng, https://www.academia.edu/11943010/References_to_Jews_and_Judaism_in_Martin_Heidegger_s_Black_Notebooks_1938-1948
14. See Andrzej Serafin, “A Reception History of the Black Notebooks,” Gatherings: The Heidegger Circle Annual, vol. 5, Heidegger’s Black Notebooks (2015), http://www.heideggercircle.org/Gatherings2015-06Serafin.pdf
15. Walter Homolka and Arnulf Heidegger, eds., Heidegger und der Antisemitismus: Positionen in Widerstreit. Mit briefen von Martin und Fritz Heidegger (Freiburg im Breisgau: Herder, 2016).
16. Heidegger spoke of “the Jew Fränkel” in a manner that cannot be interpreted as sarcastic in a report written in 1933 to stab Eduard Baumgarten, a former colleague, in the back. The report was ignored because it was so obviously written out of hatred. See Victor Farías, Heidegger and Nazism, ed. Joseph Margolis and Tom Rockmore (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989), p. 210.
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I confess. You have inspired me to finally pick up my copy of Heidegger’s Introduction to Metaphysics. I do hope though we do not have to wait too long for part 2.
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