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Heidegger Did Nothing Wrong

TrawnyConspiracy1,683 words

Spanish translation here

Peter Trawny
Heidegger and the Myth of a Jewish World Conspiracy
Trans. Andrew J. Mitchell
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015

Peter Trawny
Freedom to Fail: Heidegger’s Anarchy
Trans. Ian Alexander Moore and Christopher Turner
Cambridge: Polity, 2015 

Peter Trawny (b. 1964) is professor of philosophy and the founder and director of the Martin Heidegger Institute at the University of Wuppertal, Germany. He is also the editor of eight volumes and counting of Heidegger’s Complete Edition, including the first four volumes of the Black Notebooks, which began to appear in March of 2014.

For a period of 40 years, Heidegger committed his most personal philosophical reflections to a series of black oilcloth notebooks, which means that Heidegger’s philosophical life is surely the best-documented of any great thinker. Judging from the first four volumes, these notebooks are a philosophical treasure trove that will be read and analyzed for centuries to come.

But all this has been eclipsed because among the 1,700+ pages of the Black Notebooks published so far, there are a few not entirely flattering remarks about Americans. Just kidding. Heidegger’s anti-American remarks would never be controversial, not even in the “American” press. The controversy is over Heidegger’s remarks about Jews. I have translated the most controversial ones from the third volume here. Richard Polt has translated all the remarks from the first four volumes here.

It has never been a secret that Martin Heidegger was a National Socialist who joined the party in 1933 and remained a member until 1945. Heidegger was never an orthodox National Socialist, but he had high hopes for the movement. It was also no secret to Heidegger’s colleagues and students, including the Jewish ones, that he had anti-Semitic convictions. But these somehow did not prevent him from cheating on his German wife with a Jewish student, Hannah Arendt.

Furthermore, after the War, Heidegger had ample opportunity to adopt the victors’ line: to accept Germany’s sole responsibility for the war and to put the suffering of Jews front and center. But he refused. Heidegger did not see the Germans as simple aggressors and the Jews as simple victims, but saw both peoples as caught up in destructive historical forces that they could not control. It is particularly galling to critics that although Heidegger chose to “remain silent about the Holocaust,” he did see fit in 1953 to publish his remarks on “the inner truth and greatness of National Socialism” in his 1935 lecture course Introduction to Metaphysics.

Heidegger’s Nazism and anti-Semitism may not be news, but every few years, as new facts emerge and texts are published, the Heidegger scandal is pumped back up in academia and the press. The motive is fairly transparent. Despite his Right-wing politics, Heidegger is one of the master thinkers of the postmodern academic Left. Heidegger-the-Nazi is a club wielded against postmodernism by partisans of modernity, whether they be orthodox Marxists, liberals, or neoconservatives.

The two books under review were occasioned by the latest scandal regarding the Black Notebooks. And who is better qualified to comment on them than Peter Trawny, who is editing and transcribing them for publication? Although Trawny triangulates against both “orthodox” Heideggerians and Heidegger’s critics, these volumes are transparent attempts at apologetics and damage control. Both volumes, however, strike me as muddled, inept, and unconvincing.

Both books are written in the standard pretentious, obscure, and rhapsodic style that is the bane of Heidegger scholarship. Heidegger and the Myth of a Jewish World Conspiracy is at least divided into short, digestible chapters. But Freedom to Fail is a sprawling essay, full of asides, blind alleys, free association, and leaps of logic and narrative — a labyrinth in which one only occasionally picks up the thread of an argument.

In Heidegger and the Myth of a Jewish World Conspiracy, Trawny makes a completely unwarranted claim that Heidegger was influenced by the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, apparently because some of Heidegger’s remarks resemble views found in the Protocols. But the Protocols simply restate widespread anti-Semitic views which Heidegger could have heard anywhere, so any resemblances prove nothing.

Beyond that, Heidegger’s whole anti-humanist approach to history fundamentally contradicts the conspiratorial view set forth in the Protocols, which are tendentiously called a “forgery” but are merely a literary representation of the guiding principles of a Jewish conspiracy to attain world domination. The authors of the Protocols observed Jewish behavior, deduced the principles that lay behind them, and then represented them as all part of conscious plan that is being put into practice.

Heidegger had no doubt that Jews played prominent roles in Bolshevism and capitalism, both of them calculating and deracinating forms of materialism. Nor did Heidegger deny that there are cabals of “planetary criminals.” But Heidegger did not think that historical trends are ultimately conditioned by human thought. Instead, he thinks that human thought is ultimately conditioned by historical trends. He believed that both capitalism and communism were manifestations of wider historical forces of modernization (which he calls “machination” in the Black Notebooks).

Heidegger evidently thought that Jews, because of their rootlessness and penchant for calculation and manipulation, were ideally suited to rise to the leadership stratum of modernizing societies and forward modernity’s drive to create a homogeneous global materialist order. In a passage dropped from the published version of Heidegger’s History of Beyng (1938-40), Heidegger notes, “One would have to ask in what the peculiar predetermination of Jewry for planetary criminality is grounded.” That question remains valid today as the Muslim world burns and bleeds, and Europe is invaded, due to the machinations of “neoconservatives.”

Heidegger at first thought that National Socialism was an alternative to machination, but he came to believe that it too was caught up in the same spirit.

Heidegger and the Myth of a Jewish World Conspiracy, like most Heidegger secondary literature, is interesting only for quoting passages from Heidegger’s untranslated and sometimes unpublished writings. It is pretty much useless as an analysis, since analysis is not the strong suit of the whole genre, and Trawny’s apologetic project basically consists in suggesting a wide range of different meanings — many of them patently implausible — for each passage, until Heidegger recedes entirely behind a verbal haze. To lull his academic audience into dropping their guard, he speaks of Heidegger’s thought being “contaminated” with anti-Semitism and piously genuflects before the “Shoah.” It is all very tiresome, like reading boilerplate press releases from the Anti-Defamation League.

TrawnyFreedomToFailFreedom to Fail actually has a discernible argument, although it is hidden in a great deal of clutter. If I were Trawny’s editor, I would have cut two-thirds of the text and demanded at least three rewrites. Basically, it would have ended up as a journal article, not a little book. As I read it, Freedom to Fail is a plea against political correctness. It is a plea for absolute freedom of thought. It is a plea for taking risks, for striking down unknown paths, for intellectual adventure — with no fear of the consequences.

Trawny argues that Heidegger’s thought should not be subjected to moral judgment because by its very nature it lies beyond the distinction between good and evil. Heidegger believes that all standards of right and wrong are established by a contingent, inscrutable, and enthralling historical process he calls the “event” (Ereignis). The Ereignis lies beyond good and evil, and Heidegger’s thought, which seeks to understand the event, is beyond good and evil as well. One could also make the same argument about reason: that which sets up our standards of reason is beyond reason.

Trawny also argues that we should not count Heidegger’s “errors” against him, because erring is intrinsic to philosophy as Heidegger understands it. This argument strikes me as an equivocation, since Heidegger makes a distinction between ordinary truth and error (which would apply to statements about Jews, for example) and truth and error in a more fundamental sense. Before we can see whether our beliefs correspond with facts, the world has to be present. But Heidegger believes that the world is not just present to our senses. It is also rendered meaningful by our largely unconscious participation in a culture. This meaningful disclosure of the world is truth in a more fundamental sense. But this disclosure is always finite. It opens up one world of meaning while closing off, concealing, and sheltering other possible worlds of meaning. This is error in a more fundamental sense. Heidegger’s task is to think the Ereignis that both opens up and conceals worlds of meaning. Thus error is as much a part of Heidegger’s ultimate quest as truth. But this would hardly excuse an overdraft at the bank.

It is ironic that Trawny argues for thinking dangerously while treating anti-Semitism and National Socialism as self-evident “errors.” But Trawny and his audience are college professors, who work in the most intellectually repressive sector of our culture. Reading Trawny sometimes brings to mind the unattractive image of a worm squirming on a hook. The hook is political correctness. You can squirm all you want, trying to get comfortable on it. But the only solution is to get off the hook entirely. Still, by the standards of academia today, even squirming is heroic. In its aim, at least, Freedom to Fail has to be counted a work of courage.

Of course Trawny’s argument leaves me completely cold, because on these matters at least, I think Heidegger did nothing wrong. Both Heidegger’s initial hopes and later disappointments regarding National Socialism strike me as reasonable, and so do his views on the Jewish question, which are grounded in fact and do not descend into vulgar paranoia.

My prediction is that this latest contrived Heidegger controversy will die down as scholars dig into the Black Notebooks and begin to appreciate the thousands of pages that don’t mention Jews. Indeed, this controversy might actually work to Heidegger’s advantage, since it has already made the Black Notebooks philosophical bestsellers in Germany, encouraged intensive reading and scholarship, and put translations into several languages on the fast track.

My thesis is that the outline of a post-totalitarian, postmodernist New Right first emerges in these diaries of a dissident National Socialist.


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  1. Vick
    Posted January 8, 2016 at 1:19 am | Permalink

    Very insightful and lucid review of this book. Thanks! I continue to be impressed by your understanding and ability to explain difficult Heideggerian terms like Ereignis and so on. You’ve always struck me as more of an expert on the Anglo/American philosophical tradition (the Greeks as well), but you do get Heidegger in a way that any Continental phil guy would have to respect.

    Just a thought, but I would happily pay to take an online course on Heidegger taught by you. Who knows, maybe there’d be some other takers?

    • Greg Johnson
      Posted January 15, 2016 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

      I find Anglo-American philosophy pretty empty stuff. I have always been more interested in Continental philosophy, German Idealism, and the classical tradition.

      The idea of an online course is interesting, but I just don’t have time for that. It is a pity that recordings of the Heidegger classes I taught in the past have been mostly lost.

  2. eric d. meyer
    Posted January 7, 2016 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

    I think you’re correct to point out that Heidegger’s anti-Semitism is an effect of his thinking of “the history of Being” (called onto-historical thought), which tries to look at world history from an anti-humanist, metaphysical position, whereby tribes, peoples, and nations (Germans, Russians, Americans, Jews etc.) are collective agents (“subjects of history”), and therefore specific individuals are not to blame for crimes committed by whole nations, companies, or agencies (the Stalinist State, the Nazi Party, the State of Israel etc.). From this perspective, Heidegger’s anti-Semitic remarks (and there are, arguably, a few…) are not directed at specific Jews, like his many Jewish students and his Jewish lover, Hannah Arendt, but are directed against what he calls “world jewry” (Weltjudentum), which he identifies, somewhat implausibly, with both Bolshevik Communism and Capitalism as the cause of Germany’s post-WWI ruin. (…Who was really to blame? Not just the Jews, obviously…)

    This is probably not enough to absolve Heidegger of charges of anti-Semitism, although you’re correct that Trawny’s attempt to link Heidegger to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion fails, as Trawny almost admits in a footnote to Freedom to Fail. But your own anti-Semitic remarks, based upon stereotypes of Jewish “behavior,” don’t really help the case, and it’s against Heidegger’s own position to try to blame specific “Jews” (Germans, Russians, Americans etc.) for the crimes of their tribes, peoples, nations, or corporations etc..

    The real culprit, in Heidegger’s mind, was the international military-industrial technological complex (which Heidegger calls, in different contexts, “die Technik” or “das Gestell”), which drove both Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia into the colossal tragedy of WWII, and which made the systematic extermination of Jews in the Shoah possible. (…And yes, of course, it happened, even if Heidegger wasn’t personally to blame for it…) You could look at Heidegger’s remarks about “the fabrication of corpses in the gas chambers” in Bremen and Freiburg Lectures, and his critique of “the reduction of human beings to laboring animals” in the camps in “Overcoming Metaphysics,” for examples of Heidegger’s critique of what he called his “great stupidity”: his support for German national Socialism and Adolf Hitler for a brief time in the eraly 1930s, during his Rektorate at Freiburg University (1933-1934).

    But, finally, I really do think Trawny’s trying to arrive at a balanced position on Heidegger’s Nazism, which gets beyond the reactionary attempt to blame him for the Holocaust or Shoah, but still admits the black holes and blind spots in his thought, especially his failure to speak out against the extermination of the Jews, Gypsies, Slaves, and Communists in the SS death camps; and it might be worthwhile giving Trawny some credit for that, even if he does, as you say, sometimes genuflect toward political correctness, or toward his privileged position as an avant-garde literary critic, which sometimes gets in the way of his critical readings….

    • c
      Posted January 8, 2016 at 7:59 pm | Permalink

      I have not read Trawny’s book. Whether or not there can be a ‘balanced position’ on Heidegger’s Nazism really seems to depend on whether there can be a balanced position on National Socialism in general.

      As for technology, it seems that Heidegger thought National Socialism was the best political response to modern problems and, to the dismay of those who knew him after the war, he wasn’t apologetic about it.

      • eric d. meyer
        Posted January 12, 2016 at 9:48 pm | Permalink

        Heidegger distinguished his “geistige nationalsocializmus” from the “vulgar” National Socialism of the Nazi Party, and most critics, I think, agree there is a difference, even if that doesn’t absolve Heidegger from complicity in the Nazi Holocaust. I’d say Heidegger’s “geistige” version is actually a scathing critique of the “vulgar” brand, making Heidegger something of a dissident in the Nazi Party, but still, for some time at least, a card-carrying member. The difficult issue is “anti-Semitism,” and it’s possible to argue that H. was not anti-Semitic, despite his remarks about “worldjewry,” which are to be taken metaphysically and not racially. Heidegger strongly critiqued the Nietzschean biological racism of the NSDAP, but Trawny argues he’s still guilty of an “onto-historical anti-Semitism,” and he might be right, read the book and decide…

        Heidegger also thought, at first, that Nazism opposed the technologization of German peasant life (by die Technik) and the subjectification of human beings by computer technology (das Gestell), and was carrying out “the confrontation between technology and modern man,” but later decided he was wrong: the Nazis were really on the other side, and World War II was simply the Stalinist Soviet Bolshevik technocratic war machine vs. the German National Socialist military industrial complex, in a struggle to see who could carry out the completion of nihilism and the self-destruction of contemporary humanity. By Heidegger’s thinking, the Holocaust or Shoah was simply an effect of that self-destructive holocaust, caused by modern technology, hence the remarks about “the fabrication of corpses in the gas chambers and ovens.” Trawny and others (Lacoue-Labarthe, Lyotard, et al) argue that H.’s position ignores the specific (racist?) attacks against the Jews, and that may be correct. Anyway, Heidegger never really spoke out about the Holocaust or Shoah, even to Paul Celan, after the War, when he could have, and most everybody agrees that’s a black mark against him…

        • c
          Posted January 16, 2016 at 8:56 pm | Permalink

          I understand this argument and agree with most of it. In fact, it reflects my former opinion of Heidegger. I felt that Heidegger’s failure to recant entirely was just due to his personal stubbornness, of which there is plenty of evidence. I have had a ‘change of heart’ about this. You are somewhat mistaken, because you think I am condemning Heidegger by calling him a National Socialist.

          When we discuss the ‘question of technology’ at present, it is clearly as a ‘global’ problem and so it requires an international, global, or even an ‘extra-terrestrial’ solution. When we do admit that technology is originally a Western problem, mostly we do so with a sense of contrition, not with the sense that within our own inheritance lie the antidotes to our poisons.

          Heidegger’s “geistige nationalsocializmus”, which surely incorporated his critique of “Weltjudentum” as a species of ‘internationaliszmus’, was his public response to the ills of modernity. Even if he had recanted entirely, which he really did not, his response had a very different form to the one currently taught by his ‘defenders’. For one thing, what is their response to a people who would both suffer and deceive rather than concede that they are in the same boat as their neighbours? A people who hold firmly that THEIR collective fate is THE fate of humanity and not the opposite? Utter silence. Silence about the silence.

          I am not even getting into Heidegger’s turn to language and poetry, both of which he believed to be inherently untranslatable, and therefore not a ‘globalist’ solution of any sort, i.e. a sort of linguistic nationalism.

          If there were only a ‘black mark’ against Heidegger’s name, this would be tolerable. In fact, there are miles of marginalia and caveats, all trying to qualify and contain Heidegger. It is an ‘industry’ in itself. Like Mr Johnson, I am against it.

  3. Peter J
    Posted January 4, 2016 at 6:25 pm | Permalink

    Excellent review….

  4. Ea
    Posted January 4, 2016 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    I don’t think there’s a global coordinated conspiracy, not at all, just the post French revolutionary world was taken over by the same roots that sparkled it. “Abrahamism”.
    Read Jan Assmann works. It will blow your mind.

    • James O'Meara
      Posted January 4, 2016 at 6:12 pm | Permalink


  5. Ulf Larsen
    Posted January 4, 2016 at 9:36 am | Permalink

    Greg, what are the disappointments with national socialism that you find reasonable?

    I like this review, especially the image of a worm squirming on a hook!

  6. Peter Quint
    Posted January 4, 2016 at 9:27 am | Permalink

    There is a jewish conspiracy! There is too much circumstantial evidence and the jews have made too many damning statements for any rational person to conclude otherwise. All one has to do is google “quotes by the jews on the word conspiracy” to produce a treasure trove of confirming comments.

  7. c
    Posted January 4, 2016 at 7:29 am | Permalink

    Mr Johnson,
    Thank you for your reviews. I have a question concerning your final statement, that
    “the outline of a post-totalitarian, postmodernist New Right first emerges in these diaries”.

    My question is: doesn’t Heidegger privilege the ancient Greek and modern German situations above all? If one’s task is to raise ‘the question of the meaning of Being’, then this is an event with a Greek precedent. (Heidegger once counseled a student: “study Aristotle for 10 years before reading Nietzsche”.) And quite aside from his being a German professor beholden to German culture, didn’t he believe that modern German philosophy was prepared to face contemporary problems in a way that Anglo-American philosophy was not?

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