Heideggers “Black Notebooks” Crude Conspiracy Theories

Martin Heidegger
Martin Heidegger | Photo (detail): © Keystone Schweiz/Laif

Can the reputation of Martin Heidegger’s philosophy remain unaffected by his political views? The publication of the “Black Notebooks” makes this assumption untenable.

Martin Heidegger is one of the most important German philosophers of the twentieth century. He remains that even after the publication the Schwarze Hefte (i.e., Black Notebooks), in which he wrote down his thoughts from 1931 to 1941. But they alter fundamentally the view of his philosophy, because they make it plain that this philosophy is inseparable from Heidegger’s “intellectual National Socialism”. Heidegger expressly desired the publication of these volumes, and he knew what he was thereby doing. As late as 1970, he looked through them again, apparently because he saw in them his philosophical legacy, the foundation of his thinking.

We have known questionable, if not even reprehensible, things about Heidegger for some time. He not only joined the National Socialist German Workers’ Party on 1 May 1933; only a few months later he said in a speech at the University of Freiburg that the “first guarantee” of a people’s “authenticity and greatness” can be found “in its blood, its soil and its physical growth”. At the beginning of that year he wrote to his Jewish student and lover Hannah Arendt that “in university questions”, he was “as much an anti-Semite today” as he was “ten years ago in Marburg”. But this was an ambiguous testimony, for he added that this “does not affect the relationship with you”. In general, the ambivalent stance Heidegger took towards his many Jewish students is striking. Karl Jaspers said that Heidegger had no “anti-Semitic instincts”, but that at the same time he spoke of the “danger of international Jewry”.

Statements such as these, however, were not sufficient to shake the assumption of the majority of Heidegger’s readers that, although Heidegger was committed to National Socialism and harboured anti-Semitic resentment, he was not an anti-Semite. Moreover, they liked to appeal to the basic methodological assumption that an author’s thought should not be equated with the views and opinions he expressed in his life. The majority opinion therefore was that Heidegger’s philosophy was unaffected by his political views.

An “other beginning”

It is exactly this assumption, however, that the Black Notebooks make untenable. For Heidegger believed that, with the coming to power of the National Socialists, the “German people was again finding its own essence and making itself worthy of its great destiny”. And this destiny he saw not as political, but as philosophical. Since Sein und Zeit (Being and Time) (1927), Heidegger had pursued the fundamental idea that the history of mankind is an aberration in the direction of technical “machinations” (Machenschaft), a sheer “Sein” (Being) that must be overcome in the name of “Seyn” (Being, in the older German spelling, meaning that dynamic, processual structure which is to be understood as the origin of all beings). For this an “other beginning” was needed, whose advent he saw in National Socialism. “The Germans alone”, he wrote in his intellectual diary, “can say Being originally and make poetry of it again”. We therefore read here of “the great experience and happiness that the Führer has awakened a reality which sets our thought on the right path and gives it the right momentum”, of the “gloriously awakening will of the people”, of the concept of “race” as a “necessary condition” of historical being.

He also represents his own “intellectual” National Socialism. He accuses the Nazis in power of “vulgar National Socialism”, while yet sharing with them the urge “to a decision about the essence and destiny of the Germans and so about the fate of the West”. And this “decision” is decidedly one against “world Jewry”. In the two volumes of the Complete Works published shortly before the Black Notebooks, Zum Ereignis-Denken (i.e., On Thinking the Event), we could read that it is necessary to guard the “essence and fate of the Germans” and to free “our own” from “foreign dominations”. The Black Notebooks make clear what Heidegger meant when he said the path to “Seyn” requires an other beginning: one without “world Jewry”.

Anti-Semitic stereotypes

Beginning in 1938, Heidegger speaks accordingly in an anti-Semitic vein of the “calculative thinking” of the Jews, of “technology” and “machinations”, and sees in “the Jews” a group that has perfectly mastered the “machinational” (Machenschaftliche). Peter Trawny, editor of the Black Notebooks published by the Verlag Vittorio Klostermann, points out in his simultaneously published book Heidegger und der Mythos der jüdischen Weltverschwörung (i.e., Heidegger and the Myth of the Jewish World Conspiracy) that, although Heidegger included “vulgar National Socialism” in the epoch of machinations that must be overcome in the history of Being, he promoted himself the crude conspiracy theory that history was controlled in the dark by “world Jewry”, and so helped himself to anti-Semitic stereotypes out of the fictitious Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Heidegger thus sketched, says Trawney aptly, an “anti-Semitic history of Being”. For the new “Seyn” that Heidegger wanted to philosophically usher in, there was a “lack of people”, while evidently, according to him, other people stood in its way. He accused vulgar National Socialists of a “mindless appeal” to Hitler’s Mein Kampf, but for him there was apparently also a mindful one: his own.