First posted June 19, 2014
Martin Heidegger’s Schwarze Hefte; Black Notebooks – 1931-1941 – first published March 2014
Reviewed by Richard Wolin
In the anti-philosophical arguments of the Black Notebooks, Heidegger views reason, individualism, and democracy through the prism of modern humanity’s utter and wholesale “abandonment by Being.” His obscure point of departure leads to equally obscurantist forms of criticism. It is not merely Heidegger’s racist reliance on the Volk-ideal that is objectionable. His attempt to ground philosophy in unintelligible concepts and idioms renders his thought, in nearly all of its incarnations, deeply problematic…
It was precisely this style of unfounded, mystagogical assertion to which Jaspers was pointing when he described Heidegger’s thinking as “unfree, dictatorial, and incapable of communication.” In fact, Jaspers’ criticism may have been even more far-sighted than he realized. Not only was such “thinking” pedagogically disastrous for German students immediately after the war, in many respects it remains so today. Heidegger’s philosophical posture is peculiarly conducive to discipleship and adulation. It breeds passive acceptance and fierce loyalty rather than the virtues of individual autonomy and active citizenship.
The Black Notebooks reflect Heidegger’s enthusiasm for Germany’s so-called “National Revolution” of 1933, from which he expected, as he once put it, “a total transformation of our German Dasein,” Dasein being the Heideggerian term of art describing human “being-in-the-world.” Early on, Heidegger openly acknowledged the affinities between his own philosophy of existence and the Nazi world view: “The metaphysics of Dasein must deepen itself in a manner consistent with its inner structures and extend to the Metapolitics ‘of’ the historical Volk.” Even at the zenith of World War II, as European cities lay in ruins and the Slavic peoples had been turned into slaves of the German Reich, Heidegger continued to insist that salvation, should it arrive at all, would come from the Germans, whom he believed, along with the Greeks, were the only truly historical people…
Martin Heidegger’s Schwarze Hefte (Black Notebooks), the first three of which have recently been published in Germany to great controversy, will eventually comprise the last eight volumes of his mammoth Gesamtausgabe (Collected Works). When complete, the edition will run to a staggering 102 volumes – more than the collected works of Kant, Hegel, or Nietzsche. At the end of his life, Heidegger, who regarded himself as the greatest thinker in the Western tradition since Heraclitus, meticulously mapped out the (non-chronological) sequence in which his Collected Works would be published and chose the Black Notebooks as the edition’s culminating contribution.
For decades, the guardians of Heidegger’s literary estate, his son Hermann and the Freiburg philosopher Friedrich-Wilhelm von Herrmann, kept the existence of these works, which take their name from the notebooks, bound in black wax and leather, in which he wrote them, a carefully guarded secret. It is not hard to see why, for they reveal the extent to which during the 1930s and 1940s Heidegger was wholly obsessed with Bolshevism, National Socialism, and the ignoble actions of “World Jewry” (Weltjudentum), as represented by Western powers such as England and the United States.
Of course, the scandal of Heidegger’s politics is not new. It goes back, at the very least, to his inaugural address as the Nazi-installed rector of University of Freiburg in 1933, in which Heidegger sought to sacrifice the autonomy of the university to the historical destiny of the German people (Volk). The subsequent controversies over the extent of Heidegger’s Nazism (he resigned as rector after a year but retained his membership in the National Socialist Party until 1945) might be said to have begun with the denazification proceedings at Freiburg after the war. In the report, his old friend and colleague Karl Jaspers described Heidegger as a nihilist and an uncritical mystic who nonetheless was “occasionally able in a clandestine and remarkable way, to strike the core of philosophical thought.” However, Jaspers also wrote that:
It is absolutely necessary that those who helped place National Socialism in the saddle be called to account. Heidegger is among the few professors to have done that . . . Heidegger’s manner of thinking, which to me seems in its essence unfree, dictatorial, and incapable of communication, would today be disastrous in its pedagogical effects . . . Heidegger certainly did not see through all the real powers and goals of the National Socialist leaders . . . But his manner of speaking and his actions have a certain affinity with National Socialist characteristics, which makes his error comprehensible.
Heidegger was subsequently dismissed from the university and barred from teaching, though he was reintegrated and allowed to teach again in 1951.
The more recent controversies over the extent and significance of Heidegger’s Nazi sympathies have been provoked by the damning research of Hugo Ott, Victor Farías, Emmanuel Faye, and others. However, each time the response of the Heideggerian faithful has been to detach the philosopher’s thought from his embarrassing political entanglements. This strategy has never been entirely plausible, as Jaspers had already recognized. What the Black Notebooks now provide, in contrast to the lectures and theoretical treatises that have already been published, is access to Heidegger’s innermost philosophical thoughts: the elaboration of an extensive “hidden doctrine” that the philosopher developed in the solitude of his Black Forest ski hut.
Thus, contrary to what has been reported, the Black Notebooks are not merely a compendium of occasional or unpolished thoughts. Instead, in the main they consist of sustained reflections on the essential problems of the contemporary era as viewed from the rarified Heideggerian standpoint of the “history of Being.” From this point hence, it will no longer suffice to trivialize the extent of Heidegger’s racism, as Jonathan Rée recently has, by claiming that the Freiburg sage was merely “the sort of cultural anti-Semite (DH Lawrence, TS Eliot, Ezra Pound) often found in the 1920s and 30s.” As the German journalist Thomas Assheuer has astutely noted:
The hermeneutic trick of acknowledging Heidegger’s anti-Semitism only in order to permanently cordon it off from his philosophy proper is no longer convincing. The anti-Jewish enmity of the Black Notebooks is no afterthought; instead, it forms the basis of [Heidegger’s] philosophical diagnostics.
With the publication of the Black Notebooks, what has now become indubitably clear is that racial prejudice against non-Germanic peoples – the English, the Russians, the French, the Americans, and, especially, the Jews – lies at the very center of Heidegger’s philosophical project. It is inseparable from the Volk-concept that he had embraced already in Being and Time (1927) and that he continued to exalt throughout his lectures and seminars of the 1930s. Heidegger’s belief in the ontological superiority of the German Volk underwrites his political view that inferior peoples may be justly persecuted in the name of “the history of Being,” a point that has also been forcefully made by the Black Notebooks’ editor, Peter Trawny, in his short book Heidegger und der Mythos der jüdischen Weltverschwörung (Heidegger and the Myth of the Jewish World Conspiracy)…