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Did Heidegger Say the Holocaust Was Jewish “Self-Annihilation”?

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The Charge

One of the most sensational charges against Heidegger is that he claimed that the Holocaust was the “self-annihilation” (Selbstvernichtung) of the Jews. This charge was first made by Italian philosophy professor Donatella di Cesare in an article in Corriere Della Sere on February 9, 2015: “Heidegger: ‘Jews Self-Destructed’: New Black Notebooks Reveal Philosopher’s Shocking Take on Shoah.”[1] Di Cesare writes:

The Shoah was an act of self-destruction by the Jews. This is the view that emerges from the new volume of Heidegger’s Black Notebooks, edited by Peter Trawny and soon to be published by Klostermann (Gesamtausgabe 97, Anmerkungen I–V). The 560 pages of new material date from the crucial 1942–1948 period . . . The argument is that the Jews destroyed themselves and no fingers should be pointed at anyone except the Jews themselves.

Di Cesare expanded upon this thesis in her book Heidegger, die Juden, die Shoah, which was published in October of 2015 and translated into English in 2018 as Heidegger and the Jews: The Black Notebooks:[2]

In keeping with his metaphysical anti-Semitism, Heidegger interpreted the extermination of the Jews as a “self-annihilation”: the Jews would annihilate themselves. Agents of modernity, complicit with metaphysics, the Jews followed the destiny of technology . . . For Heidegger, no one but the Jews themselves could be called to account. The blame for their extermination fell onto them . . . (pp. 201–202)

Donatella di Cesare

Di Cesare’s argument is complete hogwash. As an interpretation, it is baseless. First, Heidegger is not referring to the Holocaust. Second, Heidegger writes about the “self-annihilation” of modernity, not the Jews. Third, the question of blame never enters into Heidegger’s discussion. Beyond that, di Cesare formulates her charges in the most sensationalistic possible terms, which smells of malice and cynicism. She is both smearing Heidegger and promoting her book and career.[3]

Let’s look at the original Heidegger quote before we take apart her interpretation.

The Text

The passage in question consists of three connected paragraphs from a notebook dated circa 1942 to 1945. The first paragraph reads:

The anti-Christian [der Anti-christ], like every “anti,” must stem from the same essential ground as that against which it is “anti”—that is, the same essential ground as “the Christian” [“der Christ”]. The Christian stems from Jewry [Judenschaft]. In the timeframe of the Christian West, that is, of metaphysics, Judaism is the principle of destruction. What is destructive in the reversal of the completion of metaphysics—i.e., of Hegel’s metaphysics by Marx. Spirit and culture become the superstructure of “life”—i.e., of economics, i.e., of organization—i.e., of the biological—i.e. of the “people.”[4]

This passage is clearly from a notebook. Heidegger jumps from topic to topic without clear links, perhaps because he has not fully worked out his ideas.

First of all, Heidegger states that all opposition to Christianity somehow secretly affirms Christianity. But is this necessarily the case? Or is it true only of certain forms of opposition, such as liberal secular humanism, that reject Christian religious tenets but affirm and intensify Christian values?

Heidegger then jumps to the topic of Jewry. Christianity is in some sense an offshoot of Jewry, but it is unclear what connection this has to the previous point about anti-Christianity. Is Christian opposition to Jewry futile because Christianity stems from Jewry? Perhaps, but Heidegger’s initial point is about anti-Christianity, not anti-Semitism. Beyond that, Heidegger did not identify as a Christian, so if he is speaking about Christian anti-Semitism, it cannot be identified with his thinking.

Heidegger then makes a particularly pregnant statement: “In the timeframe of the Christian West, that is, of metaphysics, Judaism is the principle of destruction.” What does Heidegger mean by equating metaphysics and the timeframe of the Christian West? Christianity and Greek metaphysics became fused in late antiquity, but Western metaphysics emerged in ancient Greece, centuries before the birth of Christ.

In what sense is Judaism the principle of destruction within the age of metaphysics and the Christian West? This view seems to echo the anti-Semitic trope formulated by Theodor Mommsen that Jews are the “ferment of cosmopolitanism and national decomposition” in non-Jewish societies.[5] But it would make more sense and be more consistent with Heidegger’s other statements about Jews in the Black Notebooks if he spoke of Jews as a people rather than Judaism as a religion. (See my “Heidegger and the Jewish Question.”)

Judaism is present in Christianity at the beginning, but the principle of destruction manifests itself near the end of Christianity and metaphysics, i.e., in the emergence of modernity, i.e., the age of rootlessness and unbounded technological nihilism.

This age is “Jewish” insofar as Jews, being a mercantile diaspora people, are well-adapted to flourish in it. Thus Jews become unusually powerful in modernity and help drive it to its completion. This reading coheres with Heidegger’s other statements about Jews. (See my “Heidegger and the Jewish Question.”)

Heidegger’s next remark seems to be an illustration of this principle: Marx’s inversion of Hegel’s metaphysics, transforming the realm of spirit and culture into a superstructure upon an economic basis. Marx, of course, was Jewish. But then Heidegger equates Marxist materialism with non-Jewish philosophies that treat spirit and culture as manifestations of more basic material forces. The first material force is “life,” which Heidegger himself puts in quotes. This is an allusion to Nietzsche and the tradition of “life philosophy” (Lebensphilosophie) he inspired. Then Heidegger cites two more materialist principles: “economics” and “organization.” The first clearly refers back to Marxism, perhaps the second as well. (I am not sure what else it might refer to). Then Heidegger cites the “biological” and the “people” (Volk), the latter term in quotes as well. These are references to National Socialism, which leans heavily on both biological race and the concept of the people. Thus Heidegger is equating Marxism, Nietzscheanism, and National Socialism.

What do Marxism, Nietzscheanism, and National Socialism have in common? Their modernist materialism, their reduction of the cultural and spiritual to a material base reality. What they don’t have in common is Jewishness.

Thus, on Heidegger’s premises, it is superficial to identify Judaism or Jewishness as the “principle of destruction.” Jews are certainly prominent exponents of modernist materialism. But so are Americans, Russians . . . and Germans. Thus Jews are only part of the problem. Thus when Germans identify the flaws of modernity with the Jews, they are overlooking the same flaws in themselves. (When a part stands for the whole, it is a literary trope called synecdoche. In deductive logic, when one attributes the characteristic of a part to the whole of which it is a part, it is called the fallacy of composition. In inductive logic, falsely attributing the traits of one member of a group to the whole group is called hasty generalization.)

At this point, Heidegger has laid the groundwork for his shocking conclusion:

When what is “Jewish” in the metaphysical sense [the National Socialists] combats what is Jewish [namely actual Jews], the high point of self-annihilation in history has been attained—supposing that the “Jewish” has everywhere completely seized mastery, so that even the fight against “the Jewish,” and it above all, becomes subject to it.

First, Heidegger’s premise, that “the ‘Jewish’ has everywhere seized mastery” is the assertion that modernity has everywhere seized mastery, including in Germany. But the Germans simply call whatever they don’t like about modernity “Jewish.” By putting “Jewish” in scare quotes, Heidegger distances himself from that usage. Heidegger’s point is that National Socialism itself turns out to be “Jewish” in that sense of the word.

Thus if both National Socialists and the Jews—both the Axis and the Allies—are “Jewish” in the sense of modernist, then the Second World War is “the high point of self-annihilation in history.” It was modernity’s war against itself, modernity’s self-annihilation.

Heidegger is not saying that Jews in the factual sense annihilated themselves in World War Two. The “self” that is engaged in annihilation here is not Jewry but modernity. The confusion arises because the National Socialists superficially identified modernity with the Jews, not realizing that by that standard they themselves were somehow Jewish.

Heidegger had hoped that National Socialism was an alternative to modernity not just another form of it. Does this mean that resistance to modernity, like resistance to Christianity, is futile? Or is it only futile on modern grounds? Heidegger clearly holds the latter view. He believed that a genuine alternative to modernity is possible. This possibility is hinted at in the final paragraph:

On this basis one must assess what it means, for thinking that enters the concealed, inceptive essence of the history of the Occident, to meditate on the first inception among the Greeks, which remained outside Judaism and thus outside Christianity.

If one remains entirely on the plane of modern nihilism, it is futile to resist one form of nihilism with another. In the final paragraph, however, Heidegger’s discourse shifts to another plane. This shift is signaled by his reference to the “thinking that enters the concealed, inceptive essence of the history of the Occident,” the realm from which modernity emerged—and from which a genuine alternative to modernity might emerge.

How can such thinking contribute to a new beginning? Heidegger’s only suggestion here is to “meditate on the first inception among the Greeks, which remained outside Judaism and thus outside Christianity.” We can free ourselves from the Judeo-Christian cultural legacy by reconnecting with the other origin of the Western civilization, namely pagan Greece.

But this is not the whole story for Heidegger, because the ancient Greeks are also the source of the metaphysical tradition that gives rise to modern nihilism. Thus, we must attune ourselves specifically to the pre-Socratic, pre-metaphysical Greeks like Heraclitus.

Who Said Anything About the Holocaust?

The first problem with di Cesare’s argument is that Heidegger is not talking about the Holocaust. After the Second World War, it is quite natural to think of the Holocaust when reading a National Socialist writing about Jews and annihilation. But the timing is wrong. The passage in question is from circa 1942 to 1945, probably closer to 1942.

Heidegger, like most Germans, was probably simply unaware of mass killings of Jews in the East. The Holocaust was simply not a “thing” for most Germans until after the war. Thus when Heidegger talks about “annihilation,” he is referring to something else. Actually, he is referring to something much bigger and much worse than the Holocaust. He is referring to the entire Second World War.

Who is “Self-Annihilating”?

Heidegger is clearly not saying that the Jews are annihilating themselves. The annihilation is the Second World War. The parties are the Axis and the Allies. Both parties are modernist. Therefore, the Second World War is modernity’s self-annihilation.

This is consistent with Heidegger’s other usages of “self-annihilation” in the Black Notebooks. For instance, in a comment from 1941, Heidegger argues that the Soviet assault on Western civilization is essentially the West’s self-annihilation, because Marxism and Soviet technology are both Western: “Insofar as technology and communism assault the West out of the East, in truth the West is assaulting the West in an uncanny self-annihilation of its own powers and intentions.”[6] He also claims that the American onslaught against Europe is essentially Europe’s self-destruction, since Americans are Europeans.[7]

Then why even mention the Jews? Because the National Socialists identified everything they disliked about modernity with Jews. They also identified the Allies with Jews. Heidegger claims, however, that the National Socialists were in fact just as modernist as their enemies, which on National Socialist terms made them just as “Jewish.” For a National Socialist, surely the worst possible insult is to be accused of acting like a Jew. This is precisely what Heidegger is doing. Indeed, as I have argued in “Heidegger and the Jewish Question,” about half of Heidegger’s remarks on Jews have the same pattern:

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.

The Blame Game

Finally, if Heidegger is not talking about the Holocaust and not claiming that the Jews annihilated themselves, then he obviously can’t be blaming the Holocaust on the Jews.

Heidegger’s claim that the Second World War was modernity’s self-annihilation is consistent with holding individuals responsible for their actions. In the war, Germans killed many Jews, both combatants and civilians. More broadly, Axis soldiers killed many Allied soldiers and civilians, just as Allied soldiers killed many Axis soldiers and civilians. Heidegger did not deny that.

However, the whole thrust of Heidegger’s later philosophy is “anti-humanist,” meaning that behind grand historical trends—like the emergence of the modernity that enthralls us all—there’s no subjectivity, no agency, nobody to blame.

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Notes

[1] Donatella di Cesare, “Heidegger: ‘Jews Self-Destructed’: New Black Notebooks Reveal Philosopher’s Shocking Take on Shoah,” trans. Giles Watson, Corriere Della Sera, February 9, 2015, https://www.corriere.it/english/15_febbraio_09/heidegger-jews-self-destructed-47cd3930-b03b-11e4-8615-d0fd07eabd28.shtml

[2] Donatella di Cesare, Heidegger, die Juden, die Shoah (Frankfurt: Klostermann, 2015); Heidegger and the Jews: The Black Notebooks, trans. Murtha Baca (Cambridge: Polity, 2018).

[3] Robert Bernasconi has essentially the same interpretation of Heidegger’s text: “Heidegger’s appropriation of the term self-annihilation in the context of the Holocaust is unconscionable.” He does not, however, cite di Cesare, so he may have simply made the same mistake. See Robert Bernasconi, “Another Eisenmenger? On the Alleged Originality of Heidegger’s Antisemitism” in Heidegger’s Black Notebooks: Responses to Anti-Semitism, ed. Andrew J. Mitchell and Peter Trawny (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017), p. 178.

Peter Trawny also offers essentially the same reading of the “self-annihilation” passage without citing di Cesare in his Heidegger: A Critical Introduction, trans. Rodrigo Therezo (Cambridge: Polity, 2019), pp. 81–82.

[4] Martin Heidegger, Gesamtausgabe, vol. 97, Anmerkungen I–V (Schwartze Hefte 1942 –1948), ed. Peter Trawny (Frankfurt: Klostermann, 2015), p. 20. Translated by Richard Polt in “References to Jews and Judaism in Martin Heidegger’s Black Notebooks, 1938–1948,” https://www.academia.edu/11943010/References_to_Jews_and_Judaism_in_Martin_Heidegger_s_Black_Notebooks_1938-1948

[5] Theodor Mommsen, History of Rome, vol. 4 (New York: Scribner, 1871), p. 643. Cited in Trawny, p. 165, n82.

[6] Martin Heidegger, Ponderings XII – XV: Black Notebooks 1939–1941, trans. Richard Rojcewicz (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2017), p. 219

[7] Gesamtausgabe 97, p. 230.

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18 Comments

  1. Denim Wearer
    Posted September 25, 2020 at 7:26 am | Permalink

    Heidegger looks Jewish to me.

    I think I agree with Heidegger but I would couch it more in a biological materialist form, for that’s my worldview. Jewishness (in the modern reform sense, not orthodoxy) is a biological sectarianism. One method of confronting that is to play the same game, but once you have engaged by those rules, you simply become that yourself. Not all Jewish tenets are materialist and modernist after all, there is much that is spiritual or at least romanticly esoteric in modern Judaism.

    I suspect at times that German national socialists were attempting to imitate Jewish tribalism. Look how eerily similar the Nuremberg protocols are to Jewish law. A person could be “german” if one of his parents was, much like Jewish law says someone born of a Jewish mother can be considered Jewish, and now pretty much all half Jews are accepted, are they not? This is a keen sociobiological perception of when genetic loyalty falls off. I think many elite gentile behaviors, eg free masonry, rosicrucianism, and various things I’ve experienced in my own life, are simply attempts by elite gentiles to imitate Jewish behavior. Most human behavior is imitative, and we imitate the cool people. The tribal nationalism of the national socialists may have a similar root, although i admit I am far from an expert on this.

    • Ovidiu
      Posted September 25, 2020 at 11:39 pm | Permalink

      “I suspect at times that German national socialists were attempting to imitate Jewish tribalism.”

      That’s also Kevin MacDonald’s view, see “National Socialism and Judaism as Mirror-Image Group Strategies ” at :

      http://www.kevinmacdonald.net/SAIDCHAP5.pdf

      • Denim Wearer
        Posted September 26, 2020 at 9:57 am | Permalink

        It is, I guess so. I never really completed separation and it’s discontents, to be honest, although I’ve absorbed the basic thesis from immersion in these sites. However, I didn’t really mean as a provoked defensive response, so much as an imitation for fun and to feel cool. It’s an imitation of a higher iq group, much as a child imitates his big brother, for example.

        • Beau Sauvage
          Posted September 29, 2020 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

          cf. Girard’s theory of mimetic rivalry. He must touch on the Nazi-Semite agon somewhere.

          But the agon originates asymmetrically in the stealth mimesis of the parasite–the goal of which is to remain undetected (or unsuspected) until the White cells are consumed with autoimmunity and or misdirection.

          IQ seems merely tangential to this drama of the body politic. And higher IQs may be more susceptible to a suicidal openness.

  2. Denim Wearer
    Posted September 25, 2020 at 7:40 am | Permalink

    Very informative essay, btw. I meant to say that. It’s incredible the thought of these academics is so superficial.

  3. THORGARD
    Posted September 25, 2020 at 9:51 am | Permalink

    Very interesting concept, although in some areas I’m confused and would like more information. Does he mean that by being anti- anything is in and of itself also helping and pushing said thing that you oppose? I always saw the edgy kids at school who were anti-Christianity be Satanists, they “refused” to believe in Christianity yet by being Satanists is in itself still remaning in a Christian frame.

    I would also like to know how to escape modern thinking and being if its possible. Is it just researching Pagan-Greek?

  4. HN
    Posted September 25, 2020 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    I’ve long wanted to understand better Heidegger’s thinking about WWII: What is at stake? What are the possible consequences for the future of the West? What does it mean that the war “decided nothing,” as he says in the 1950s. Does the outcome of the war affect his thinking on it and history as a whole?

    What you write here is helpful for making a start. So thank you.

    This piece also raises the question as to what Heidegger really thought about the holocaust. Did he simply accept the official account promulgated by the allies (as his few remarks about it suggest?)

    • Greg Johnson
      Posted September 25, 2020 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

      These are good questions. The publication of the Black Notebooks throws a lot of light on them.

      1. At the very minimum when Heidegger says the war “decided nothing” he is rejecting the dominant postwar narrative that ethnic nationalism has been refuted and only globalism is the way forward.

      2. Heidegger also came to think that both sides in the war were essentially the same as far as what he really wanted, which was a new beginning for the West, which would reaffirm human finitude and rootedness, as opposed to technological hubris and globalization. So in that sense, the war did not decide anything because what was truly fundamental was not at stake.

      3. I think Heidegger probably believed the conventional Holocaust narrative. There is no evidence to the contrary. But I think that he preferred not to talk about it because he did not want to give any support for the victors’ narrative that the Holocaust somehow invalidated nationalism in general, as well as the Jewish question in particular.

      • HN
        Posted September 26, 2020 at 12:33 am | Permalink

        Thanks. That had not occurred to me, but going back to the passage in Was Heisst Denken (which is around p. 66 in the Gray translation, What is Called Thinking), Heidegger’s first university lecture course after the long period of prohibition by the war’s victors, I find much support for your reading. “What has the second world war actually decided, being silent about its terrible consequences for our fatherland, in particular the rift through its center? This world war has decided nothing, if we here take ‘decision’ in a high and broad sense, so that it concerns only the essential destiny of man on this earth” (p.65; ). Not only has his ethnonationalism not been refuted by the outcome of the war, it is reaffirmed when he addresses – or says that he is going to be silent about! – the “terrible consequences for our fatherland,” especially the post-war division of the country and, one suspects, the Allies’ cleansing of East Prussia (which he deplores in an earlier letter to Marcuse).

        And there’s more, as he in a subtle ways indicates his preference for a future guided by the model Hoelderlin’s authochtonous Greek demigod over Nietzsche’s Roman-cosmopolitan “Caesar with the soul of Christ.” And he also here notes favorably, I believe, the “tremendous Volkskraft” of the Russians and juxtaposes it to the “economic-political system of Soviet Republics.”

  5. British Reader
    Posted September 25, 2020 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

    Why does the author insist on pretending that the Holocaust happened?

    • sordello
      Posted September 26, 2020 at 10:15 am | Permalink

      It is irrelevant to the main point he is making which is to interpret Heidegger’s comments on Jewish self-destruction. This is not an article about the holocaust.

    • Reza
      Posted September 27, 2020 at 10:56 am | Permalink

      My question exactly!

  6. James O'Meara
    Posted September 25, 2020 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

    “Heidegger cites two more materialist principles: “economics” and “organization.” The first clearly refers back to Marxism, perhaps the second as well. (I am not sure what else it might refer to).”

    FWIW, around the same time, Gertrude Stein was lamenting how the pioneer spirit in America had declined at the end of the 19th century, and by the time of FDR it had entirely succumbed to what she called “organization.”

    “the beginning of the eighteenth century went in for freedom and ended with the beginning of the nineteenth century that went in for organization. . . . so there they were and everybody was free and then that went on to Lincoln.”

    This must refer to industrialization, the Union, trusts, national banking, etc. It also affected language, the very words of our language had been reduced to clichés and stereotypes (as with Newspeak or PC codes, or Heidegger’s “chatter”) with the task of the modernist being to liberate them in a process of artistic breakthrough; just as the task of the politician of the Right is to liberate his society from the way its been “organized.” See my “Notre Dame des Fascistes” earlier on Counter-Currents: https://counter-currents.com/2020/08/notre-dame-des-fascistes-1/

  7. Rob Bottom
    Posted September 25, 2020 at 5:51 pm | Permalink

    >Heidegger, like most Germans, was probably simply unaware of mass killings of Jews in the East.

    Curious what you mean by this.

    • Alexandra O.
      Posted September 27, 2020 at 8:31 am | Permalink

      I think most people are unaware of exactly what their government is doing at any given time, but are only thinking of their own everyday problems. During a major war such as WWII in Germany, many people worked in factories to build planes and supply munitions, and carry on their daily tasks and lives as best they could, in the midst of the stories arriving from the war zones.

      In America, we see the same thing today — there are people being interviewed for political polls who say they are voting for one or another of the candidates because ‘he has a better personality’. Good grief! — this makes me wonder about the so-called vaunted intelligence of White people! So truly, I think a large number of Germans were totally unaware of what was happening ‘in the east’ of Germany.

  8. Right_On
    Posted September 25, 2020 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

    Re “Thus, we must attune ourselves specifically to the pre-Socratic, pre-metaphysical Greeks” :

    One of whom was Parmenides. According to him reality is one, change is impossible, and existence is timeless. That sounds like metaphysics to me and suggests to my layman’s ears that nothing has ever actually happened! Is that the ultimate in nihilism? Or does it suggest that reality is Maya – Lila – divine play – so we should just chill out and enjoy the show?

    • sordello
      Posted September 26, 2020 at 10:25 am | Permalink

      There is something in the much repeated observation that ‘philosophy is just a series of footnotes to Plato’, that is, from Plato we see a more speculative and intellectual tradition of philosophy which before had been entwined with mysticism and divinity, with figures like Pythagoras and Zeno.

      I can speak for the Buddhist view that ‘nothing ever happened’, which is in Buddhism is certainly not an injunction to ‘relax and enjoy the show’, because one is still at this point part of the show, which is essentially a form a suffering. So, one engages with the illusion and endeavours to escape the cycle as if it were real. However one is aware in a sense that it is not real, but one has not yet fully realized this, for to do so is to escape the illusion.

  9. Vehmgericht
    Posted September 26, 2020 at 4:13 am | Permalink

    Donatella Ester De Cesare is also an immigration booster. She is a member the Italian Council for Refugees and has a book out, Resident Foreigners, exploring what she terms ius migrandi, the innate human right to migrate.

    This tome compares the rabbinical notion of the ger toshav, the resident alien, who is treated honourably by his Jewish neighbours, to the beastliness meted out to Afro-Islamic migrants by contemporary Europeans.

    De Cesare has also supported the passage of legislation in Italy criminalising Holocaust denial and here in an interview from 2016 she frets over the delegitimisation of Israel — which seems at odds with her later ‘open borders’ advocacy.

    It would of course be improper to speculate whether De Casare’s ethnio-religious affiliation may have moulded her political and philosophical outlook (and doubtless she would favour the proscription of such discourse). But her stated positions on migration and the future of Europe are not yet sacrosanct and we should not hold back in combatting them.

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