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Ponderings II-VI: Black Notebooks 1931-1938 by Martin Heidegger
Mahon O’Brien asks how far the first English translation of Martin Heidegger’s notebooks show him to be a Nazi.
Martin Heidegger was one of the twentieth century’s most influential philosophers, and his 1927 masterpiece Being and Time is widely regarded as one of the most important philosophical texts of the twentieth century. Yet there has been a longstanding controversy surrounding his decision to become the Nazi Rector of Freiburg University in 1933, and to join the Nazi Party shortly afterwards.
Many of Heidegger’s colleagues, students and friends were initially shocked when he declared his support for National Socialism. Upon assuming the office of Rector, he began to reform the university in line with his conception of it as a Nazi institution. Up to that point Heidegger had appeared anything but political, and certainly kept whatever political views he might have had close to his chest.
Subsequent generations of Heidegger scholars, for the most part, failed to see any trace of the political views Heidegger subscribed to in the 1930s in his work leading up to 1933. This has often led Heidegger scholars to suppose that his association with National Socialism was aberrant, adventitious, and short-lived. Heidegger simply strayed from his true path for a brief period in the early 1930s, quickly recognized his error, and distanced himself from National Socialism thereafter. Following the end of the Second World War, Heidegger himself, somewhat disingenuously, was only too happy to perpetuate that particular myth as part of what has come to be known as the ‘official story’. However, one of the things that becomes painfully clear as one begins to work through his private notebooks, is just how obsessed Heidegger had become with the political situation in Germany (in the period leading up to the Rectorship in particular), and just how keen he was to contribute to a genuine cultural and political ‘awakening’ as the spiritual leader of the Nazi movement.
Heidegger, left, at Nazi meeting
Another hotly contested question in the ‘Heidegger Affair’ is the question as to whether he was in fact an antisemite. Even some of Heidegger’s most aggrieved Jewish colleagues and former students insisted that he never demonstrated antisemitic sympathies. Consequently, in the immediate aftermath of Heidegger’s partial rehabilitation after the Second World War, it was more or less taken as a given that, for all of his failings, Heidegger was not an anti-semite. However, over the years, as details of some of Heidegger’s private correspondence with other Nazi officials were made public, we learned that, on occasion, Heidegger was only too willing to use some of the most despicable antisemitic rhetoric of the day, so it became clear that this early confidence was misguided. Thus, when Peter Trawny, who was editing Heidegger’s Black Notebooks, announced to the world in December 2013, a few months before the first volumes were published in Germany, that these notebooks expressed explicit antisemitic sympathies, Heidegger’s antisemitism became the most hotly debated topic in the reignited controversy.
Critics such as Emmanuel Faye had already tried to demonstrate that Heidegger’s work was a thinly veiled attempt to write Nazi ideology into Western philosophy. Faye had managed to unearth some deeply worrying seminars from the 1930s which had hitherto remained suppressed. One in particular from Heidegger’s period as Rector, ‘Nature, History, State’, contained a handful of obscenely offensive passages, including more-or-less incontrovertible evidence of his antisemitism, and an explicitly ethnically chauvinistic outlook. However, a number of prominent Heidegger scholars dismissed Faye’s work due to its shoddy scholarship and rather unbalanced approach. As a result, the significance of this and other unpublished Heidegger seminars remained largely overlooked. To their credit, Gregory Fried and Richard Polt immediately began work on a translation of ‘Nature, History, State’, and Heidegger’s lecture courses from the 1933/34 academic year, (‘Being and Truth’), into English, and thus afforded readers of English crucial evidence of some of Heidegger’s most problematic views from this period. Nevertheless, this mounting textual evidence concerning the extent and nature of Heidegger’s antisemitism remained largely ignored until Trawny’s first sensational series of revelations.
Problems with the Notebooks
Almost immediately upon the publication of the Black Notebooks in German, one of the most highly regarded translators of Heidegger’s work, Richard Rojcewicz, was commissioned to render the obscure and frequently clipped prose of the first of these volumes into English. Rojcewicz is eminently qualified to translate such texts, having already done impressive work rendering such notoriously unwieldy Heideggerian texts as the Beiträge and Das Ereignis into English.
This English translation of the first volume of Heidegger’s Black Notebooks immediately sparked a degree of unrest as a result of the title, which Rojcewicz elected to render as Ponderings. Why this in particular would prove so disconcerting for certain English-speaking Heidegger scholars is unclear. After all, this is not an academic text Heidegger crafted for publication, and it’s unlikely that he invested much time or energy worrying about the ‘title’ of these daily musings. The German title is Überlegungen, which would typically be rendered Considerations or perhaps Reflections.
Ponderings II-VI, which is Volume 94 of Heidegger’s ever-expanding Gesamtausgabe (collected works), presents the reader with a number of more serious difficulties. One is how exactly one is supposed to read a document such as this. It hardly seems appropriate to read these musings as one might read a published work of philosophy: the notebooks are clearly not supposed to be read as treatises or essays. Indeed, none of Heidegger’s work from the early 1930s onwards is ever really conceived of or written as a treatise. Moreover, these notebooks were not initially written as manuscripts that Heidegger intended for publication. Instead they are a kind of mish-mash of reflections, personal and political rants, the airing of grievances, observations, philosophical experimentation, sketches for ideas, what have you. Rarely is anything fully worked out or developed, and often the writing consists of merely abbreviated half-thoughts. The notebooks make for somewhat frustrating reading at times, insofar as there is often very little coherence or continuity between one fragment and the next, while some of the core philosophical ideas are treated of in a rather repetitive fashion.
One of the more interesting features of the notebooks is the unique and revealing insight we are afforded into Heidegger’s personality. The image that emerges is less than flattering, to say the least. Heidegger is rarely remembered fondly these days, and he was clearly an unpleasant and deeply flawed human being. However, the sheer scale of his arrogance and hubris in this text is noteworthy. One also begins to notice a growing bitterness, which comes more and more to the fore from around the time that his ill-fated tenure as Rector came to a premature end. No one is spared from Heidegger’s withering vitriol as he vents spleen against philosophy, academia, colleagues, journalism, the university, art, politics, and even – albeit at first in rather qualified ways – National Socialism.
“I am asked again and again why I do not respond to the reproaches of Herr Krieck!
Answer: such ones, who on account of their shallowness and vanity merely rummage around in everything that was ever formed and thought and who deserve only contempt, can never be opponents. In a battle I will face only an opponent, not someone who champions mediocrity.”
As it turns out, Heidegger believes that he never meets a worthy philosophical adversary.
Adolf Hitler and Martin Heidegger
Readers expecting sensational revelations concerning Heidegger’s Nazi views in this first English volume of the Notebooks may be surprised to find that, although there are references to National Socialism, they are few and far between. Furthermore, this particular volume has almost no trace of the antisemitism to which Trawny had alluded before their German publication. Indeed, one finds in this particular volume that Heidegger sporadically expresses some misgivings about Nazism. Notwithstanding, the diehard Heidegger supporters who have foregrounded some of his criticisms of Nazi ideologues in this translation conveniently overlook the depth of Heidegger’s commitment to what he held to be the real possibilities of a new beginning latent within the Nazi movement. His gripe was more with the political and intellectual mediocrities that he felt had infiltrated and corrupted it. However, the movement was led by someone who Heidegger zealously supported well into the 1930s:
“The great experience and fortune [is] that the Führer has awakened a new actuality, giving our thinking the correct course and impetus. Otherwise, despite all the thoroughness, it would have remained lost in itself and would only with difficulty have found its way to effectiveness. Literary existence is at an end.” (Ponderings p.81).
In his famous 1935 lecture course – the first of his courses that he chose to publish (in 1953) – Heidegger notoriously invoked the positive possibilities within National Socialism. Granted, in the published version he qualified his remark and insisted that the qualification had been in the original text. However, this has since been shown to be untrue, and was instead a late attempt by Heidegger to sanitize his remark before publication. The qualification is in italics:
“In 1928 there appeared the first part of a collected bibliography on the concept of value. It cites 661 publications on the concept of value. Probably by now there are a thousand. All this calls itself philosophy. In particular, what is peddled about nowadays as the philosophy of National Socialism, but which has not the least to do with the inner truth and greatness of this movement [namely, the encounter between global technology and modern humanity], is fishing in these troubled waters of ‘values’ and ‘totalities’.”
Despite his reservations about some of the intellectual and political personalities who were rising to prominence within National Socialism, the fact remains that from about a year before his disastrous entry into political life, Heidegger was earnestly trying to weave his own philosophy together with elements of what he took to be a new awakening in Germany. Even privately Heidegger thought that the destiny of the West, in the face of what he saw as a planetary crisis, lay very much in the hands of the German people. Furthermore, in order for them to prevail, they would have to embrace the bizarre cocktail of Heideggerian concepts and National Socialism he was developing throughout this period.
Some have tried to take a measure of comfort from the lack of explicit antisemitism in this particular volume. I’m afraid that their relief will be short-lived, because the worst of Heidegger’s comments on this subject are to be found in subsequent volumes. Notebooks 1931-1938 do certainly contain plenty of Germanic nationalistic chest-puffing, which is unsavoury in its own right. However, it is not here but in Volume 95 of the collected works, that we really see Heidegger’s antisemitism emerge. Richard Polt helpfully identified, translated, and disseminated all of the incriminating passages from Volumes 95 and 96 shortly after those volumes were published in German, and there is no denying the repugnance of some of what one finds therein.
Contrary to what some of Heidegger’s most fanatical supporters maintain, these notebooks are not rich philosophical repositories teeming with crucial insights that enhance our understanding of Heidegger’s published work. There are interesting passages here and there, not least his occasional references to Being and Time, which help to shed light on how he himself reflected on the successes and failures of his early work. Notwithstanding, it has been somewhat bewildering to observe certain commentators boldly proclaiming the virtues of Heidegger’s notebooks, trawling through these disparate series of jottings for fragments and phrases which are then stitched together into rather patchy evidence to support disappointingly heavy-handed, tendentious, yet keenly defended interpretations. These notebooks are adduced as evidence for a whole series of fundamentally incompatible interpretations of Heidegger’s work. What usually is most apparent from these pieces of casuistry, however, are the agendas of those who prosecute their cases with the barest threads of evidence, as part of a long-standing dispute with other Heidegger scholars over the ‘right’ way to read Heidegger’s lifelong inquiry into the meaning of being.
In summary, what we find in this first volume of Heidegger’s Black Notebooks to be translated into English is an angry, disillusioned philosopher who tirelessly laments the cultural, political and spiritual destitution of his day. He sees little hope for the university, for philosophy, for the German people, or for the world in general. We are left with a picture of a spiteful, petty man whose professional and political ambitions had been severely dented, and who felt the slights all the more keenly owing to a rather unrestrained Messianic complex.
© Mahon O’Brien 2017
Mahon O’Brien is Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Sussex. He has published two books on Heidegger, with another due out this year.
• Ponderings II-VI: Black Notebooks 1931-1938, Martin Heidegger, trans Richard Rojcewicz, Indiana U.P., 2016, $30, 400 pp, ISBN: 978-0-253-02067-3