Heidegger in Black

In the autumn of 1931, the philosopher Martin Heidegger began to record his thoughts in small diaries that he called the schwarze Hefte, or “black notebooks.” By the early 1970s he had filled no fewer than thirty-four volumes with his handwritten reflections. Several of these notebooks, composed over a ten-year span from 1931 to 1941, have now appeared in three successive volumes of the official German-language series of Heidegger’s collected works. Their name describes their black oilcloth covering, but one could be forgiven for thinking it described their content. They will cast a dark shadow over Heidegger’s legacy.
Heidegger was one of the most influential thinkers of the modern era. He was also a convinced Nazi. During his brief term as rector at the University of Freiburg (1933–1934) he worked to advance the process of Gleichschaltung, or coordination, that brought the university into alignment with the official policies of the Third Reich. Apologists for Heidegger have occasionally sought to underplay the gravity of this political record. They note that he stepped down from his post after less than a year, and they add that many of his academic contemporaries, such as Ernst Krieck and Alfred Baeumler, were both more zealous and more effective in their collaboration. The difference, however, is that few today take those other men seriously as scholars. Heidegger, meanwhile, continues to be read, and his permanent place in the pantheon of Continental philosophy seems more or less secure.
How, then, can one study his philosophy without taking some cognizance of his ignominious past? One strategy for resolving the dilemma has been to insist on a neat distinction: Heidegger was good at philosophy but bad at politics. An elegant defense along these lines was developed by Hannah Arendt, his erstwhile student, whose essay “Martin Heidegger at Eighty” (published in these pages in 1971) compared Heidegger to Thales, the ancient philosopher who grew so absorbed in contemplating the heavens that he stumbled into the well at his feet.1
For those who value Heidegger’s philosophy, this interpretation holds an obvious appeal, since it casts the whole business of Heidegger and Nazism in the ennobling light of tragic error. Some called Arendt an apologist, though her criticism reached well beyond Heidegger and faulted the whole of the philosophical profession for its unworldliness.2 Nor should we forget that German academics in more practical fields (medicine, physics, and engineering, to take only three examples) debased their disciplines with far more lethal effects.
For Heidegger the “inner truth and greatness” of the Nazi movement lay in “the encounter between global technology and modern humanity” (a specification he secretly added to a 1935 lecture when it was published in 1953). These are not the words of a brutal realist; they belong to a philosopher whose “private National Socialism” proved ill-suited to the needs of the regime. But what is most disturbing in Heidegger’s case is not primarily what he did; it is what he thought about what he did. Hence the challenge of the black notebooks: even after the “error” of the rectorship it turns out that Heidegger did not awaken from his philosophical-political fantasies. They only grew more extreme.
When rumor began to spread across Europe last winter that the black notebooks would soon appear, it caused a minor scandal in faculties of philosophy. The outcry was especially notable in France, where a passionate if ever-shrinking coterie still regards Heidegger as a maître-penseur. Defenders announced that the publication of the notebooks was unremarkable and would change nothing in their philosophical esteem for the author. Detractors, many of whom had never much admired Heidegger in the first place, rushed to say they had known it all along. Reading the pages of Le Nouvel Observateur or Die Zeit last winter, you might have thought that Heidegger’s reputation was forever shattered.3
Such gestures of outrage have a manufactured quality. After all, this was hardly the first “Heidegger affair.” The philosopher’s complicity with the Nazis first became a topic of controversy in the pages of the Les Temps modernes shortly after the war, and then, in 1987, the storm clouds gathered once again when Victor Farias, a former student of Heidegger’s from Chile, published a vigorous denunciation, Heidegger et le nazisme. This second Heidegger affair drew volleys and counterattacks from a great many of the leading thinkers of the day. Such cycles of revelation and scandal are rarely edifying, and they seem always to end with the same unsurprising discovery that Heidegger was a Nazi.
Some believe that the damning evidence in the black notebooks will leave Heidegger’s philosophical reputation in ruins. But even before their publication, new evidence of his ideological commitment had come to light, especially the transcripts from a 1933–1934 seminar, “On the Essence and Concept of Nature, History, and State.”4 One intemperate critic was even moved to announce that Heidegger’s works no longer deserved the title of philosophy at all and should instead be shelved in the libraries among other books on the history of the Third Reich. Such a verdict is surely rash. But the notebooks no doubt will, and should, transform the way Heidegger’s philosophy is read. In them—more than 1,200 pages have been published so far—he is revealed as a man who refused to abandon his political delusions.
To be sure, after 1934 Heidegger grew disenchanted with the Nazi movement, and devoted himself with greater energy to new philosophical concerns. But this was only because he felt that Nazism had betrayed its own promise, and had succumbed to the technological fate that afflicted the modern age overall. Meanwhile, his anti-Semitism turns out to have been far more pronounced than one might have imagined. None of this would necessarily modify our political judgments of the author, since we knew the basic contours of the story even before the black notebooks appeared. But the urgent question remains: What has all of this to do with Heidegger’s actual philosophy?
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