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In that sleep of reason, what dreams may come? How not to defend a philosophical legacy

Martin Heidegger in 1960. Wikimedia/Willy Pragher, CC BY-SA

For anyone who follows the contemporary philosophical scene – and has not decided they know enough to not want to know any more – the debates concerning Martin Heidegger’s Nazism are pretty unhappy fare.

Yet the decision to publish Heidegger’s notebooks, the so-called Black Books in 2014, the 100th anniversary of the first world war, means that conferences are still to be held, and that the debate will continue.

Whether people like it or not – and many amongst Heidegger’s supporters do not like it one bit – “the master” decided to publish these notebooks in his “Complete Works”. And in them, as the world now knows, Heidegger reveals the depth of his anti-semitism, and his attempt to assign this prejudice a philosophical status in terms of “the history of Being”. They as such provide ample occasion for “thought” and debate, to use one of his own favoured terms.

The Heidegger story, as we now know it, reads every bit like an airport page turner, except that few authors could imagine its comparison.

A leading National Socialist intellectual, who took Party membership and public office amidst pomp and international media coverage in the May flowering of 1933 and then sat (as we now know) on Hans Frank’s Commission of Professors drafting the 1935 Nuremburg race laws, survives the war.

He makes sure to quarantine the archives of his work from during the Nazi years when all is lost in 1945. After this date, judiciously edited and politically-corrected editions of his work, all issued by himself and his family estate, begin slowly to be published in the lands of the Allies, beginning with France.

Heidegger never apologises or expresses remorse. He tells a disciple that he will not crawl to Canossa, like the German Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV (Heidegger’s virtues did not include modesty) made to ask penance before a Christian Pope.

He ambiguously compares the Shoah in Bremen in 1949 to mechanised agriculture or the blockade of East Berlin in which it is the Germans who are the victims.

After his death in 1976, the family has his highly-charged “Rectorship speech” of 1933 published in 1983 to mark the 50th anniversary of Hitler’s ascent to power.

In 1998, over two decades post-mortem, all of the Nazi-era speeches are finally published.

In 2000, the lectures the philosopher gave from his most militant 1933-‘35 period begin to appear in his native German.

In 2009 and 2011, following archival research by the French scholar Emmanuel Faye (vilified by Heidegger supporters as, amongst other things, a “fraud”, in a recurrent pattern), Heidegger’s deeply Hitlerian seminars from 1933 to ’35 finally appear, without crediting Faye. For some reason, these texts still have not found a place in the by-now-nearly 100 volumes of the official “Complete Works”.

To this day, and until at least 2026, no scholar unauthorised by the family estate has access to the archives at Marbach, so no independent critical editions of any Heidegger texts can appear.

The post-1998 publications, with (seemingly) the full manuscripts of Heidegger’s classes finally printed, reveal a consistent record of suppression of Heidegger’s most openly National Socialist statements in the editions of his works published during his post-war “comeback”.

Amongst the coincidentally-omitted texts are statements hailing Hitler as leading a countermovement against “nihilism”, stipulating that “blacks” and “kaffirs” do not have any “history”, assigning philosophical significance to Germany’s 1940 Blitzkreig of France in terms of the unfolding of “Western metaphysics”, calling democracy the death knell of Europe, and more.

Then, in 2014, after decades of supporters denying the great philosopher’s anti-semitism—one could be a Nazi without being an anti-semite, according to this Hindenberg line, the Black Books have effectively stabbed this last line of apologetics also in the back, to sound a historical echo not far from the tree here.

They also place many thinkers of left-liberal upbringing and disposition who have been educated on a Heidegger about whom next to nothing of this was known in an even more compromising position than the steady drip of information since the 1980s (we have not even mentioned the letters here, due to space) had already placed us.

And so here we are today. In a situation in which a thinker whom many had looked to in order to base forms of Left-wing intellectual politics after the discrediting of Marxism has been shown to have been not only an unapologetic Nazi, or someone who never denied the connection of his thought and his politics, but also someone who assigned to “world Jewry” principal historical responsibility for “uprooting” Western humanity, led ideally by the Germans, from the traditional, particularist ground or soil from which “everything truly great” has allegedly hailed.

That is all well enough, and amply dark enough. The issue is what new generations of students and scholars are going to learn and be taught, given everything that is now on public record, as against what scholars outside the Heidegger family circles knew before 1980, 1990, and even before 2005 or 2014.

Understandably, there is a concerted effort by scholars who have built their positions around Heidegger’s work to continue suppressing or ignoring the most compromising information, and – as at each previous stage of the disclosures – to present bad arguments to deny its significance. Meanwhile, critics are denigrated as “politically correct” (Trawny), “inquisitorial” (Badiou), “frauds” (Sheehan), etc.

One nevertheless wonders if scholars interested in defending a philosopher should perpetuate the amply-documented record of the Heidegger estate in censoring relevant information and misrepresenting what is now on the public record.

To illustrate the kinds of fallacious and misleading argumentation that is continuing to do the rounds, we choose here just one example. It come from Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, widely celebrated as a progressive thinker, albeit one whose debts to both Heidegger and fellow National Socialist legal theorist Carl Schmitt have never been contested.

“The controversy over these famous books (the Black Books) is based on an ambiguity that it is important to clarify: the use and meaning of the word ‘anti-Semitism’”, Agamben tells us.

“For historical reasons we know, this word refers to something that has to do with the persecution and extermination of Jews. We should not use the same word for opinions on Jews – erroneous or perhaps stupid – which have nothing to do with such phenomena. Now this is precisely what continues to happen. And this is not just about Heidegger. If anything critical or negative about Judaism, even contained in private notes, is condemned as anti-Semitic, this amounts to placing Judaism outside language…”

Heidegger once infamously claimed that “critical reasoning” is “the most stiff-necked adversary of thought” in the modern period. Reading passages like this (and many others could be cited from Heidegger editor Peter Trawny’s Liberty to Err) make you think we should take the teacher at his word on this point.

Nearly every phrase here is wilfully ambiguous, or trades in a fallacy.

First, anti-semitism does not necessarily involve the active persecution or extermination of Jews. History tells us that it can and has. But it need not. The conviction that Jews are somehow culturally or biologically inferior, or prey to deeply undesirable and dangerous traits like cunning, “cleverness”, “calculating”, deceifulness, etc. just by virtue of their race is anti-semitic, even if these remain the pent-up convictions of an isolated loner.

This means that the idea that “we should not use” the term “anti-semitism” for just hating Jews irrationally, for instance, is a false one, even were we convinced that what was at issue was just a “private” conviction in the philosopher, unconnected with his vociferous public support for the most radically and openly anti-semitic regime of modern times.

The sentence “if anyone says anything critical or negative about Judaism, is condemned as antisemitic, this amounts to placing Judaism outside language” is a choice instance of gerrymandering.

On one hand, who said “anyone who says anything critical about Judaism” being condemned as anti-semitic? Agamben exaggerates in order to exonerate. Perhaps there are some hard-core, Right-wing Zionists who argue like this, in order to forestall debate concerning the occupied territories, but then it is the actions of a nation-state at issue, not a race. And not everyone agrees with such figures.

An uncharitable reader would suggest that Agamben wants to suggest here that all critics of Heidegger are as unlikable and unreasonable as such figures. The goal would be to discredit all criticism of his presumptively wholly-innocent teacher whose “private notes” nevertheless assign to Jews a “tenacious skillfulness in calculating, hustling, and intermingling…” and speak at length of “world jewry” and its role in uprooting Western man from “Be-yng”, in the very language of his philosophical thought.

The idea that Heidegger, by arranging to publish the Black Books, wanted them to be treated as in any way “private”, as against an important part of his Collected Works (they form its planned, capstone volumes) is also misleading.

Finally, Agamben here continues the by-now-familiar pattern of misrepresenting Heidegger, in order to continue “representing” his legacy on the world scale, as if the publications of Heidegger’s works since 1998 had not affected anything.

Agamben’s suggestion that Heidegger’s antisemitism, and his opposition of the German people to the “groundlessness” of the Jews, has “nothing to do” with “persecution and extermination” runs up against the “ontic” facts of what Heidegger himself said.

In the Black Books in 1942, the year the Shoah begun to be accomplished on an industrial scale, Heidegger reflects) that the “community of Jews” was “in the age of the Christian West – the age of metaphysics – the principle of destruction”. He adds that “only when what is essentially ‘Jewish,’ in the metaphysical sense [sic .] combats what is Jewish, is the peak of self-destruction in history reached.” The Germans are not the principal culprits here, but the Jewish people themselves, in a thought whose inhumanity and disregard for “ontic” historical reality is hard to plumb.

And here, long before the Black Books, is a passage published after 2000 from the philosopher’s 1933-‘34 lecture course on the seemingly-innocuous title “The Essence of Truth”. At this time, Jewish enrolments have been limited to under 2%, Jewish books have been burnt, and Jewish men and women (including Heidegger’s ill-fated teacher Edmund Husserl) have been prevented from working in the public service.

Heidegger chooses at this time to instruct his philosophy class in these terms, which Agamben has chosen to forget:

The enemy is one who poses an essential threat to the existence of the people and its members. The enemy is not necessarily the outside enemy, and the outside enemy is not necessarily the most dangerous. It may even appear that there is no enemy at all. The root requirement is then to find the enemy, bring him to light or even to create him, so that there may be that standing up to the enemy, and so that existence does not become apathetic. The enemy may have grafted himself onto the innermost root of the existence of a people, and oppose the latter’s ownmost essence, acting contrary to it. All the keener and harsher and more difficult is then the struggle, for only a very small part of the struggle consists in mutual blows; it is often much harder and more exhausting to seek out the enemy as such, and to lead him to reveal himself, to avoid nurturing illusions about him, to remain ready to attack, to cultivate and increase constant preparedness and to initiate the attack on a long-term basis, with the goal of total extermination.

It is an old enlightenment wager, at the heart of Immanuel Kant’s political texts, that deeply illiberal political arguments, in order to win people over, must turn on mystifications, suppressing or misrepresenting relevant information, and vilifying opponents who try then to hold these arguments up to public scrutiny and debate.

So let us by all means let Heidegger be, to turn a phrase, and teach him as he is, since he made his own opinions on Western decline and the alleged need for a radically anti-liberal, anti-modern, Germanist politics very clear, and with the Black Books, the complete dimensions of this eschatological politics.

But if we are going to defend him, like any other philosopher or philosophical position, let us at least muster valid arguments, and take care that we do so by opposing the continuing legacy of misrepresentations of his life and work begun long ago by Heidegger himself and his estate.

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