a review essay from Foreign Affairs, November/December 2014


Author: Peter Trawny
Original Title: Heidegger und der Mythos der jüdischen Weltverschwörung
English Edition: Heidegger and the Myth of the Jewish World Conspiracy
Publisher: Klostermann, 2014
ISBN-13: ISBN-13: 978-0226303734
ISBN-10: 022630373X
NOTE: The review references the German edition of 2014.

The German philosopher Martin Heidegger died in 1976, yet scholars are still plowing through his life's work today — some of it for the very first time. Indeed, few modern thinkers have been as productive: once published in their entirety, his complete works will comprise over 100 volumes. Fewer still have rivaled his reach: Heidegger deeply influenced some of the twentieth century's most important philosophers, among them Leo Strauss, Jean-Paul Sartre, Hannah Arendt, and Jacques Derrida. And although Heidegger's work is most firmly entrenched in the Western tradition, his readership is global, with serious followings in Latin America, China, Japan, and even Iran.

But Heidegger's legacy also bears a dark stain, one that his influence has never quite managed to wash out. Heidegger joined the Nazi Party in the spring of 1933, ran the University of Freiburg on behalf of the regime, and gave impassioned speeches in support of Adolf Hitler at key moments, including during the plebiscites in the fall of 1933, which solidified popular support for Nazi policies.

Nevertheless, Heidegger managed to emerge from World War II with his reputation mostly intact. The Allies' denazification program, which aimed to rid German society of Nazi ideology, targeted regime supporters just like him. Freiburg came under French control, and the new authorities there forced Heidegger into retirement and forbade him from teaching. But in 1950, the now-independent university revoked the ban. This resulted in large part from Heidegger's outreach campaign to French intellectuals with anti-Nazi credentials, including Sartre and the resistance fighter Jean Beaufret. In short order, Heidegger won over a wide following in France. Once his international reputation was secure, the university gave him emeritus status and allowed him to resume teaching.

To his new champions, Heidegger portrayed himself as the typical unworldly philosopher, claiming that he had joined the Nazi Party and accepted Freiburg's rectorate primarily to defend higher education from the worst excesses of the regime. He insisted that he had quickly realized his mistake, which led him to resign as rector less than a year into his term and start including veiled critiques of the Nazis in his subsequent lectures and writings.

Among European and American intellectuals friendly to Heidegger, this exculpatory narrative quickly became the conventional wisdom. If the philosopher had betrayed a touch of anti-Semitism, the logic went, it was only of the kind that had been ubiquitous in Germany (and most of Europe) before the war: a conservative, cultural reflex that was nothing like Hitler's viciously ideological racism. Moreover, Heidegger had many Jewish students, one of whom, Arendt, was also his lover. After the war and long after their passions had waned, Arendt resumed contact with Heidegger and helped get his work translated into English. Would an inveterate opponent of the Nazis really have assisted an unrepentant anti-Semite? Not everyone was convinced of Heidegger's innocence, but his defenders worked hard to protect the philosophical work from its author's scandal. And until recently, the strategy largely worked.

The official story began to wear thin in the 1980s, however, when two scholars, Hugo Ott and Victor Farías, using newly uncovered documents, each challenged Heidegger's claim that his brush with Nazism had been a form of reluctant accommodation. More recently, in 2005, the French philosopher Emmanuel Faye drew on newly discovered seminar transcripts from the Nazi period to argue that Heidegger's thinking was inherently fascist even before Hitler's rise to power. Faye accused the French Heideggerians of having orchestrated a cover-up of Heidegger's political extremism and advocated banishing Heidegger's work from the field of philosophy; no one, Faye said, should associate the greatest barbarism of the twentieth century with the West's most exalted tradition of reason and enlightenment. In response, Heidegger's defenders labeled Faye's textual interpretations tendentious and resorted to a variation on Heidegger's old argument: that he had quickly grasped his error and realized that Nazism was nothing more than hubristic nihilism. Still, it was hard to explain away the depth of commitment that Faye had uncovered.

Now, Peter Trawny, the director of the Martin Heidegger Institute at the University of Wuppertal, in Germany, has waded into this long-running controversy with a short but incisive new book, recently published in German. Trawny's meticulous and sober work introduces an entirely new set of sources: a collection of black notebooks in which Heidegger regularly jotted down his thoughts, a practice he began in the early 1930s and continued into the 1970s. Trawny, who is also the editor of the published notebooks, calls them "fully developed philosophical writings." That's a bit strong for a collection of notes, but Heidegger clearly intended them to serve as the capstone to his published works, and they contain his unexpurgated reflections on this key period. Shortly before his death, Heidegger wrote up a schedule stipulating that the notebooks be published only after all his other writings were. That condition having been met, Trawny has so far released three volumes (totaling roughly 1,200 pages), with five more planned.

Trawny's new book caused a sensation among Heidegger scholars even before it appeared in print, in large part because several inflammatory passages quoted from the notebooks, previously unpublished and containing clearly anti-Semitic content, were leaked from the page proofs. But with the book now released, Trawny's novel line of analysis is creating its own stir. Drawing on the new material, Trawny makes two related arguments: first, that Heidegger's anti-Semitism was deeply entwined with his philosophical ideas and, second, that it was distinct from that of the Nazis. Trawny deals with the notebooks that Heidegger composed in 1931—41, which include the years after he resigned as rector of the University of Freiburg, in 1934. As the notebooks make clear, Heidegger was far from an unthinking Nazi sympathizer. Rather, he was deeply committed to his own philosophical form of anti-Semitism — one he felt the Nazis failed to live up to.


It is hard to exaggerate just how ambitious Heidegger was in publishing his breakout work, Being and Time, in 1927. In that book, he sought nothing less than a redefinition of what it meant to be human, which amounted to declaring war on the entire philosophical tradition that preceded him. Western thought, Heidegger argued, had taken a wrong turn beginning with Plato, who had located the meaning of being in the timeless, unchanging realm of ideas. In Plato's view, the world as humans knew it was like a cave; its human inhabitants could perceive only the shadows of true ideals that lay beyond. Plato was thus responsible for liberalism in the broadest sense: the notion that transcendent, eternal norms gave meaning to the mutable realm of human affairs. Today, modern liberals call those rules universal values, natural laws, or human rights.

But for Heidegger, there was no transcendence and no Platonic God —s no escape, in effect, from the cave. Meaning lay not in serving abstract ideals but in confronting one's place within the cave itself: in how individuals and peoples inhabited their finite existence through time. Heidegger's conception of human being required belonging to a specific, shared historical context or national identity. Platonic universalism undermined such collective forms of contingent, historical identity. In the eyes of a transcendent God or natural law, all people — whether Germans, Russians, or Jews — were essentially the same. As Heidegger put it in a 1933 lecture at Freiburg: "If one interprets [Plato's] ideas as representations and thoughts that contain a value, a norm, a law, a rule, such that ideas then become conceived of as norms, then the one subject to these norms is the human being — not the historical human being, but rather the human being in general." It was against this rootless, "general" conception of humanity, Heidegger told his students, that "we must struggle."

By "we," Heidegger meant Germany under Hitler's National Socialist regime, which he hoped would play a central role in such an effort. Heidegger followed in a long line of German intellectuals, going as far back as the eighteenth century, who believed that the country was destined to play a transformative role in human history — a kind of modern rejoinder to the creative glory of ancient Greece. For Heidegger, this meant replacing the old, Platonic order with one grounded in his vision of historical being. In the early 1930s, he came to see Hitler's National Socialist movement, with its emphasis on German identity, as the best chance of bringing about such a revolutionary change. And in the Jews, he saw a shared enemy.


As Trawny's title suggests, both Hitler's and Heidegger's view of the Jews grew out of a particular form of German anti-Semitism that was rampant after World War I. This strain of thinking, which saw Jews as part of a monolithic, transnational conspiracy, was crystallized in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a forged document that first appeared in Russia in 1903 and made its way to Germany in 1920. Originally published by Russian monarchists to scapegoat the Jews for the tsar's military defeats and the subsequent upheaval, the protocols purported to be minutes from a series of meetings held by Jewish leaders bent on world domination. According to the alleged transcript, the plotters sought to manipulate international finance, culture, and media; promote extreme ideas and radical political movements; and foment war to destabilize existing powers. Hitler devoured the tract, which he swiftly employed as Nazi propaganda. It hit a nerve in Germany, still traumatized by World War I, beset by economic chaos, and subject to extreme political instability — all of which could now be attributed to the Jews.

Trawny does not argue that Heidegger read the protocols or agreed with all their contentions. Rather, he suggests that like so many other Germans, Heidegger accepted their basic premise, which Hitler hammered home in his speeches and in Nazi propaganda. As evidence, Trawny cites the German philosopher and Heidegger colleague Karl Jaspers, who recalled in his memoir a conversation he had with Heidegger in 1933. When Jaspers brought up "the vicious nonsense about the Elders of Zion," Heidegger reportedly expressed his genuine concern: "But there is a dangerous international alliance of the Jews," he replied.

Yet Hitler and Heidegger embraced anti-Semitic conspiracy theories for different reasons. Whereas the former argued that the Jews posed a racial threat (a fear for which the protocols offered evidence), the latter saw them as a philosophical one. The Jews, as uprooted nomads serving a transcendent God — albeit sometimes through their secular activities — embodied the very tradition that Heidegger wanted to overturn. Moreover, as Trawny points out, Heidegger found race deeply problematic. He did not dismiss the concept altogether; if understood as a biological feature of a particular people, race might well inform that people's historical trajectory. But he rejected using race as the primary determinant of identity. For Heidegger, racism was itself a function of misguided metaphysical thinking, because it presumed a biological, rather than historical, interpretation of what it meant to be human. By "fastening" people into "equally divided arrangement," he wrote in the notebooks, racism went "hand in hand with a self-alienation of peoples — the loss of history." Instead of obsessing over racial distinctions, Germans needed to confront their identity as an ongoing philosophical question. Heidegger overtly criticized the Nazis for their fixation on biological identity, but he also lambasted the Jews for the same sin. "The Jews," he wrote in the notebooks, "have already been 'living' for the longest time according to the principle of race."

Heidegger's anti-Semitism differed from that of the typical Nazi in other important ways. To many of Hitler's supporters, for example, the protocols reinforced the view that the Jews were essentially un-German, incapable of properly integrating with Germany's way of life or even understanding its spirit. But Heidegger took this notion further, arguing that the Jews belonged truly nowhere. "For a Slavic people, the nature of our German space would definitely be revealed differently from the way it is revealed to us," Heidegger told his students in a 1934 seminar. "To Semitic nomads, it will perhaps never be revealed at all." Moreover, Heidegger said, history had shown that "nomads have also often left wastelands behind them where they found fruitful and cultivated land." By this logic, the Jews were rootless; lacking a proper home, all they had was allegiance to one another.

Another anxiety reflected in the protocols and in Hitler's propaganda concerned the perceived power of this stateless, conspiratorial Jewry — be it in banking, finance, or academia. But for Heidegger, the success of Europe's Jews was a symptom of a broader philosophical problem. Playing on the tired cliché of Jews as clever with abstractions and calculation, the notebooks make a more general critique of modern society: "The temporary increase in the power of Jewry has its basis in the fact that the metaphysics of the West, especially in its modern development, served as the hub for the spread of an otherwise empty rationality and calculative skill, which in this way lodged itself in the 'spirit.'"

In forgetting what it meant to be finite and historical, in other words, the West had become obsessed with mastering and controlling beings — a tendency Heidegger called "machination," or the will to dominate nature in all its forms, ranging from raw materials to human beings themselves. And with their "calculative skill," the Jews had thrived in this distorted "spirit" of the modern age.

At the same time, the Jews were not, in Heidegger's view, merely passive beneficiaries of Western society's "empty rationality" and liberal ideology; they were active proponents of them. "The role of world Jewry," Heidegger wrote in the notebooks, was a "metaphysical question about the kind of humanity that, without any restraints, can take over the uprooting of all beings from Being as its world-historical 'task.'" Even if the Jews could not be blamed for the introduction of Platonism or for its hold over Western society, they were the chief carriers of its "task." By asserting liberal rights to demand inclusion in such nations as Germany, the Jews were estranging those countries' citizens from their humanity — the shared historical identity that made them distinct from other peoples. This reasoning formed the basis for a truly poisonous hostility toward the Jews, and it was perhaps Heidegger's most damning judgment of them. Now that the notebooks have come into the light, however, such passages constitute the most damning evidence against the philosopher himself.

So what did Heidegger think should be done about the Jews? Did he agree with the Nazi policies? The notebooks give readers little to go on; Heidegger seems to have had no taste for detailed policy discussions. Nevertheless, the philosopher spoke through his silence. Despite his criticism of the Nazis and their crude biological racism, he wrote nothing against Hitler's laws targeting the Jews. Although Heidegger resigned as rector of Freiburg before Hitler passed the Nuremberg Laws, which classified German citizens according to race, he had assumed the role in 1933, just after the Nazis enacted their first anti-Jewish codes, which excluded Jews from civil service and university posts (and which Heidegger helped implement). During a lecture in the winter of 1933—34, he warned a hall full of students that "the enemy can have attached itself to the innermost roots" of the people and that they, the German students, must be prepared to attack such an enemy "with the goal of total annihilation." Heidegger did not specify "the enemy," but for the Nazis, they included Germany's communists; its Roma, or Gypsies; and, above all, its Jews. This chilling prefiguration of Hitler's Final Solution is unmistakable, and Heidegger never explained, let alone apologized for, such horrendous statements.


Trawny ends his analysis by arguing that the anti-Semitism of the notebooks will require a thorough reevaluation of Heidegger's thought, and he is right. Even if, as Trawny is at pains to remind his readers, the notebooks show that Heidegger became increasingly critical of the Nazis as early as 1933, they also demonstrate just how firmly his anti-Semitism was rooted in his philosophical ideas.

Scholars now need to answer new questions about Heidegger's motivations. For one thing, how could he have been so hostile to the Jews if he had so many Jewish students and a Jewish mistress? Trawny offers some insight into this puzzle by pointing to the notion of the so-called exceptional Jew, an idea that circulated among even the most virulent anti-Semites, including top Nazis. According to this view, in spite of the baleful impact of the Jewish people as a whole, rare Jewish individuals could stand out. Trawny cites Arendt herself, who reminded readers in Eichmann in Jerusalem that Hitler himself was thought to have lent personal protection to 340 "first-rate Jews" by awarding them German or half-Jewish status. In deeming these Jews exceptions, such practices actually reinforced the general rule by allowing anti-Semites to explain away as anomalies those Jews with whom they felt some personal connection.

Another open question concerns Heidegger's intentions in prescribing, much less allowing, that the notebooks be published. Initially, of course, Heidegger kept them hidden to conceal their critique of the Nazis, and after the war, given his experience with the denazification process, he must have feared they would harm his reputation. So why release the notebooks at all, and as the capstone to his collected works? A charitable answer is that Heidegger wanted to set the record straight, to submit all the facts to public scrutiny. A more sinister explanation is that he remained loyal to his own understanding of the National Socialist revolution, even if he believed that the movement had betrayed him. In either case, he clearly didn't want to be around to deal with the fallout.

Whatever the philosopher's motivations, the notebooks will almost certainly spell the end of Heidegger as an intellectual cult figure, and that is a welcome development. Richard Wolin, an intellectual historian and longtime critic of Heidegger's politics, leaves open the possibility of a qualified philosophical engagement with Heidegger's work but argues that scholars will have to tread carefully. As he wrote in the Jewish Review of Books last summer, "Any discussion of Heidegger's legacy that downplays or diminishes the extent of his political folly stands guilty, by extension, of perpetuating the philosophical betrayal initiated by the Master himself."

But Heidegger might well have wanted the cultish obsession with his persona to die in order for his philosophical questions to live on. He wanted his readers to feel the full force of his questions on their own terms, not to fixate on his or any other particular responses to them. The motto Heidegger chose for his collected writings was therefore fitting: "Ways, not works."

This article was published in Foreign Affairs in the November-December 2014 issue and is archived at It references the original German edition. The photo of the book cover above is of the English edition.

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