Anti-Semitism Was No Sideshow to Martin Heidegger’s Thought

February 24, 2023 | Jeffrey Herf
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Martin Heidegger was one of the 20th century’s most important philosophers, and his ideas did much to shape existentialism and many other intellectual movements. He also was a member of the Nazi party and for a time an enthusiastic supporter of Hitler—facts that many scholars and thinkers long downplayed or overlooked, treating Heidegger’s political tendencies as separate from his core ideas or as simple cowardice in the face of external pressure. But the publication of his “black notebooks” over the past decade has shown that his commitment to Nazism, and to anti-Semitism, ran deep. Reviewing Richard Wolin’s book Heidegger in Ruins, Jeffrey Herf writes:

The depth of Heidegger’s anti-Semitism was frankly expressed in his many years of correspondence with his brother Fritz. In 1931, two years before Hitler came to power, Wolin tells us Heidegger wrote the following about Mein Kampf: “No one who is insightful will dispute the fact that, whereas often the rest of us remain lost in the dark, this is a man [Hitler] who is possessed of a sure and remarkable political instinct; . . . what is at stake is the redemption or destruction of Europe and Western Culture.” Until 2016, this document was omitted by those overseeing Heidegger’s collected works and correspondence.

As Heidegger scholars have demonstrated for many years, the philosopher placed the conventional political history of the Nazi regime into a grander narrative of “another Beginning” required to overcome a decline of “Being” since the Greeks. For Heidegger, Germany and the Germans occupied the exceptional status in that effort. The Jews, on the other hand, were “rootless” advocates of liberalism. “World Jewry,” a term used only by anti-Semites and made more famous by Nazi propaganda, was bereft of the redeeming depths of the Germans. Or, in Heideggerian terms: “The more primordial and original . . . future decisions and questions become, the more inaccessible they remain for this race [the Jews].”

He expressed these sentiments in the Black Notebooks written between 1939 and 1941—that is, during the years in which Hitler and Goebbels were denouncing “World Jewry” as “the Jewish enemy,” and first threatening then carrying out their extermination.

Heidegger believed that the Jews and their rootless rationalism were responsible for the arrival of modern technology, and he used that formulation to blame them for their own destruction.

Moreover, writes Herf, these ideas did not remain in the Ivory Tower: “A Heideggerian element can be found in Putin’s revanchist dictatorship and in Iran’s anti-Semitic theocracy.”

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