As Heidegger’s letters on resisting the “Jewification” of German life indicate, he was not merely interested in understanding Jewish power, he also wished to combat it. Heidegger wished, however, to counter Jewish power on the most fundamental level, namely by fighting against the rootless, nihilistic modern world in which Jewish power flourished and for a new beginning, a rooted, meaningful world in which Jewish power would wither. He wanted to drain the swamp in which the mosquitoes flourish. Thus Heidegger constantly emphasizes the futility of fighting modern nihilism by means of modern nihilism.
To appropriate “culture” as a means of power and thus to assert oneself and affect a superiority is at bottom Jewish behavior. What follows from this for cultural politics as such? (1938–1939; GA 95: 326; trans. Polt)
Heidegger is referring here to at least three well-known Jewish phenomena.
First, there is the appropriation of European culture by Jewish collectors, connoisseurs, performers, and scholars, which—regardless of any genuine appreciation—is regarded as a “means of power,” i.e., a pathway of Jewish upward mobility, of self-assertion and a desire for superiority within the status system of gentile society.
Second, there is the Jewish deconstruction of gentile culture. Jews have played a leading role in producing and promoting the deconstruction of European painting, sculpture, music, and literature, as well as religion, social structures, and sexual mores.
Third, Jews have played a leading role in producing and promoting a shallow, synthetic mass popular culture—films, popular music, comics, and the like—which has been weaponized with propaganda promoting rootless cosmopolitanism and nihilism.
Jewish cultural appropriation, deconstruction, and weaponization are all deeply inauthentic and manipulative relationships to culture. But, then again, it is not their culture.
For Heidegger, we do not so much “have” a culture as culture “has” us. This is the meaning of Heidegger’s concept of “Ereignis,” which is often translated as “appropriation.” We are appropriated or enthralled by culture. An authentic relationship to culture is a form of identification and belonging—in essence, rootedness—that does not allow us to objectify, manipulate, construct, or deconstruct it. A synthetic, weaponized culture is no culture at all. It is simply propaganda, a specific form of machinational history-making. But Heidegger’s remark can also be read as caution against National Socialist cultural politics falling into the same machinational and nihilistic Jewish pattern.
. . . maybe in this “struggle”—which struggles over goallessness itself and which hence can be only the caricature of “struggle”—the greater groundlessness will “triumph,” which is bound to nothing and makes everything serviceable to itself (Jewry). (1938–1939; GA 95: 96-97; trans. Polt)
The “struggle” (Kampf) that Heidegger mentions here is the political, economic, cultural, and ideological battle between Germany and her opponents—primarily the British and international Jewry—that eventually led to the outbreak of the Second World War. Heidegger places this “struggle” in quotation marks to indicate that he thinks that it is only a superficial “caricature of ‘struggle.’”
Heidegger states that the present “struggle” is a caricature of real struggle because it is merely “over goallessness itself,” i.e., nihilism without bounds. For Heidegger, the true struggle is between modernity and the new beginning for European man that he hoped National Socialism heralded. The fake struggles of his time, however, all take place on the plane of modernity. They are over alternatives within modernity, not alternatives to modernity. For Heidegger, the true struggle is against nihilism, not between different versions of it.
If this is the case, however, then Heidegger raises a chilling question: if the fake “struggle” of our time is between different forms of nihilism, wouldn’t the most nihilistic party have a systematic advantage? Other things being equal, wouldn’t the purer nihilists “triumph”? (Heidegger also puts “triumph” in scare quotes to indicate that victory on the plane of nihilism is just as superficial as the struggle for it.)
Heidegger calls the most nihilistic party the “greater groundlessness,” meaning the least rooted and thus the most lacking in meaning and measure. The greater groundlessness is “bound to nothing,” meaning that it has no limits on its possible actions, which means that it can “make everything serviceable to itself.” The more grounded a nation, the more it is bound to a specific identity, and the fewer things it can make serviceable to itself. Pure nihilists have no scruples, so they are willing to do anything to win. Impure nihilists are hampered by their residual scruples. Therefore, other things being equal, the purer nihilists will win. Heidegger indicates parenthetically that Jewry is the most nihilistic party in the current “struggle,” thus the Germans are at a disadvantage.
The third and final passage is very clearly from a notebook. Heidegger’s remarks are unusually cryptic, his thoughts jump from topic to topic without making the connections clear, and he entertains ideas that are not entirely consistent with his published views.
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.”
When what is “Jewish” in the metaphysical sense combats what is Jewish, 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.
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. (circa. 1942–1945; GA 97: 20; trans. Polt)
Here Heidegger at least seems to ponder the possibility that all forms of opposition are futile, if indeed all opposition “must stem from the same essential ground as that against which it is ‘anti.’” But perhaps Heidegger is overstating his case here. For is it really true that all opposition to Christianity somehow secretly affirms Christianity? Or is this true of only certain forms of opposition, such as secular liberal critiques which affirm and intensify Christian values?
Heidegger’s thought process then jumps to the topic of Jewry. Christianity is a product 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.
Heidegger then jumps to a particularly pregnant statement: “In the timeframe of the Christian West, that is, of metaphysics, Judaism is the principle of destruction.”
First, what does Heidegger mean by equating metaphysics and the timeframe of the Christian West? This is only a rough equation, since Western metaphysics emerged in ancient Greece, centuries before the emergence of Christianity, but Christianity and Greek metaphysics became fused in late antiquity.
Second, in what sense is Judaism the principle of destruction within the age of metaphysics and the Christian West? It would make more sense and be more consistent with Heidegger’s other statements if he spoke of Jewry as a people rather than Judaism as a religion. 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, the metaphysically “Jewish” age in which Jewry rises to power and drives modernity to its completion.
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. But Heidegger then equates Marxist materialism with other 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) that took its bearings from Nietzsche. Then Heidegger cites two more materialist principles: the “biological” and the “people” (Volk), the latter term in quotes as well. This is an obvious reference to National Socialism.
Thus Heidegger is equating Marxism, Nietzscheanism, and National Socialism insofar as they are all forms of cultural materialism. Beyond that, Heidegger is equating materialism—and thus Nietzscheanism and National Socialism—with Judaism, the “principle of destruction” within the “timeframe of the Christian West.”
In the next paragraph, Heidegger paints National Socialist anti-Semitism as a combat between “what is ‘Jewish’ in the metaphysical sense,” i.e., National Socialism, and “what is Jewish” in the factual sense, namely world Jewry itself. By putting “Jewish” in scare quotes, Heidegger distances himself from the usage of the word. He is using the word as National Socialists use it. But he is saying that they don’t really know what they are talking about. What National Socialists call “Jewish” is simply modernity: rootlessness, globalization, and technological machination. But Heidegger’s point is that National Socialism itself is “Jewish” in that sense of the word. The National Socialists thought they were fighting for rootedness and nationalism, but they unwittingly adopted the very ideas they rejected.
Thus National Socialist anti-Semitism, and the war in general, is “the high point of self-annihilation in history.” It is “self-annihilation” because the opposed forces are the same insofar as they are both modernist, that is to say “Jewish,” one in the metaphysical sense, the other in the factual sense.
To be clear, Heidegger is not saying that Jews in the factual sense are annihilating themselves, but that National Socialists and Jews are metaphysically the same (modern), so that in annihilating Jews, National Socialists are annihilating themselves. At first, Heidegger hoped that National Socialism would annihilate modernity. Later, he came to see the Second World War as modernity’s annihilation of itself.
If in modernity, everything is what National Socialists call “Jewish”—rootless and nihilistic—then all resistance to what is Jewish (in a metaphysical or a factual sense) will be “Jewish” as well. Which means that resistance is futile. But again, Heidegger is overstating his case, for here he is leaving out the possibility of a genuine alternative to modernity, and we know that he believed that such an alternative—a new beginning—was possible.
This possibility is hinted at in the final paragraph. The argument of the previous paragraph takes place entirely on the plane of modern nihilism, and on that plane, it 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 metaphysics, modernity, and a new beginning 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.
Heidegger’s reflections on the apparent futility of fighting against modern nihilism within the framework of modern nihilism, against Jewry within the framework of “metaphysical” Jewishness—as well as his suggestion that a genuine form of resistance is possible by drawing upon hidden resources outside the frameworks of metaphysics and the Christian West—raise two questions.
First, although Heidegger eventually came to see National Socialism as a form of modern nihilism rather than an alternative to it, does this mean that he believed that National Socialism and the Second World War were entirely illegitimate and futile exercises, compared to the other options available on the political plane? Heidegger correctly believed that the Second World War was set in motion by the organized Jewish community, which created a coalition of Soviet Communists and Anglo-Saxon capitalists. From the start, the war was a clash between technological titans, and although spiritual and ideological factors played a role, its outcome ultimately depended on the technical-instrumental capacity to muster and deploy human and natural resources in the most destructive way possible. Clearly, such a war could only advance rather than overthrow the modern world.
But did Heidegger believe that Germany could have fought any other way? Did Heidegger think that the Germans should not have fought at all? Did Heidegger think that Germany should have produced fewer bombs and more editions of Heraclitus and Hölderlin? Clearly not. From a Heideggerian point of view, National Socialism was a disappointment only because it did not amount to the radical new beginning Heidegger had hoped for. But given that the battle ultimately took place on the technological plane, the Germans clearly had to take a gun to a gunfight.
In the reflections on the war from around September 1941, from which passage no. 2 is taken, Heidegger seems to accept that there is at least a kind of conditional or provisional legitimacy of viewing the war in realistic terms, on the plane of clashing versions of nihilism. And Heidegger is clearly on Germany’s side. It might be futile to fight against bad metaphysics with guns, but one can still win a war with them. And clearly, if Germany had developed the atomic bomb before the Allies, and used it, she could have won.
The Second World War is over. The interwar fascist movements—which I call the Old Right—were defeated. But the New Right is continuing the battle on the metapolitical plane: creating and propagating new ways of seeing the world and dwelling in it. We are still fighting for nationalism against globalization, for rootedness against cosmopolitanism, for identity against homogeneity, individualism, consumerism, and inauthenticity. We are still fighting for a world in which international capitalism has no place and international Jewry has no power.
But his brings us to a second question: Given Heidegger’s historical anti-humanism, can an individual or a movement do anything at all to produce historical change? Heidegger holds that movements to make and remake history are premised on a false understanding of how history works. Man cannot understand or control history. Thus we cannot engineer a new historical age. Of course, that does not stop people from trying. So isn’t it a danger that people who take Heidegger to heart will simply stop trying to fight, surrendering the world to be trashed by nihilists who have no such scruples?
But, properly understood, Heidegger’s historical anti-humanism does not lead to passivity and quietism.
First, for Heidegger, humanism is a false theory of man’s relationship to history. But historical change and human agency are real. Heidegger wishes to discard the false theory and replace it with a better one. He does not wish to abandon human agency and historical change as such, except insofar as they are influenced by a false self-understanding. Human agency may not be what the humanists say it is, but it still exists, thus it is still possible to fight for a better world.
Second, although Heidegger does believe that man cannot understand and control historical change, he also holds that the relationship of man and historical-cultural meaning is one of mutual dependence: man cannot exist without meaning, and meaning cannot exist without man. Individually and collectively, humanity might be unable to control history, but by the same token, we do sustain cultural and historical meaning. Thus we have some power in the relationship. As I put it in another essay:
The present dispensation may have claimed and shaped us, but it still needs us to sustain it. That means that each individual faces choices that sustain or undermine the present dispensation.
We sustain it whenever we participate in the global technological system, whenever we demand things that are faster, cheaper, easier, and more available. We undermine it whenever we prefer the local to the global, the beautiful over the useful, the earthy over the plastic, distinct peoples over monoculture and miscegenation, the acceptance of reality over the striving for power, the unique over the mass-produced, the ecosystem over the economic system, etc. . . . When enough of us live as if the new dispensation is already here, perhaps it will arrive.
Third, there is a sense in which Heidegger’s anti-humanism is empowering to dissidents. On the humanist account, a dissenting idea is just the beginning of historical change. One must then create a movement and struggle for power just to get into the position to remake society according to one’s blueprint. In this fallen world, that is a daunting and depressing prospect indeed.
On the Heideggerian account, however, your dissenting idea is not just a quirk of an isolated brain but a sign that cultural change is already underway. The humanist thinks that he is a solitary genius who creates ideas separate from humanity and history and must impose his designs upon them. The Heideggerian knows that he is always-already immersed in collective historical meaning. So if he is thinking dissenting thoughts, others probably are as well, and more will follow, for they are all simply responding to changes in the Zeitgeist. For Heidegger, philosophers and poets are not the hidden legislators of mankind, but simply those most sensitive to coming changes. This is why Heidegger occasionally slips into the prophetic voice.
But if the change we desire is already on the way, does this mean that we can simply sit back and let history do our job for us? No, because some of us are not just called to dissent, we are called to fight. But we go forth into battle with the assurance that the change we fight for is already in some sense real, and it is coming to meet us.
1. See Polt’s translation, pp. 8–9, https://www.academia.edu/11943010/References_to_Jews_and_Judaism_in_Martin_Heidegger_s_Black_Notebooks_1938-1948
2. Greg Johnson, “Making Sense of Heidegger” (review essay on Thomas Sheehan’s Making Sense of Heidegger), https://www.counter-currents.com/2014/12/making-sense-of-heidegger/