The literary and intellectual world was up in arms last week with the publication in Germany of Martin Heidegger’s private philosophical notebooks. The first three volumes of the diaries, from the years 1931-1941, bring conclusive evidence that the man who is arguably the greatest philosopher of the 20th century was an anti-Semite.
“World Jewry,” Heidegger wrote in one 1941 entry while Hitler’s armies were well on their way to overrunning Europe, “is ungraspable everywhere and doesn’t need to get involved in military action while continuing to unfurl its influence, whereas we are left to sacrifice the best blood of the best of our people.” In another passage, Heidegger wrote that the Jews, with their “talent for calculation,” were opposed to the Nazis’ racial theories because “they themselves have lived according to the race principle for longest.”
In spite of all the media attention—not only in Europe, where Heidegger’s influence is still felt strongly in philosophy departments, but also in the United States and Israel—the publication of the “black books,” so-called because of the color of the oil-cloth covers of the diaries, hardly amounts to a revelation. Heidegger’s pro-Nazi, pro-Hitler positions have been known for more than 80 years to anyone who cared to pay attention. He joined the Nazi party in 1933, and in a 1935 lecture notoriously spoke of the “inner truth and greatness” of national socialism, a passage he saw fit to include in a collection of his work published in 1953. Heidegger never resigned his party membership during the war, and after it never publicly repudiated his pro-Nazi statements.
The question then is not whether Heidegger was a Nazi sympathizer, or an anti-Semite, for he was clearly both. As the public response to the publication of the “black books” makes clear, the question is how Heidegger’s ethical and political positions should affect, if at all, our understanding of him as one of modernity’s great thinkers.
This isn’t the first time that Heidegger disciples and defenders have struggled with critics over the philosopher’s vicious political history. In 1987, the French scholar Victor Farías published Heidegger et le nazisme, which split the intellectual world on both sides of the Atlantic between those who believed that
his Nazism could not help but color his work and those, like Jacques Derrida, who drew a clear distinction between the philosophy and the politics.
At the time, another French philosopher, Vincent Descombes, cautioned against making too quick a judgment in either direction. Descombes, who was sharply critical of the German thinker’s philosophy, observed that “it may well be that those readers who claim to have no difficulty making the transition from Heideggerian metaphysics to politics are really only too happy to find themselves on more familiar ground.” In other words, Descombes was warning against the easy moves afforded by what Hoover Institution scholar and Weekly Standard contributor Peter Berkowitz has called “tabloid scholarship.”
Berkowitz coined the phrase in 2004 while reviewing a sensationalist and mendacious book by Anne Norton, Leo Strauss and the Politics of American Empire. It may be difficult now, a decade later, to recall some of the outrageous claims being made back then regarding Strauss’s sinister hold on figures working in the George W. Bush administration, or for instance, that journalists from prestige publications, like the New Yorker’s Seymour Hersh, thought the seeds of the Iraq war had been planted decades before in Strauss’s seminars on the history of political philosophy at the University of Chicago. And the fact that Bush had taken the country to war to rid Saddam Hussein of his weapons of mass destruction, weapons that would never be found—well, this was a calculated executive branch deception plotted precisely along the lines of Plato’s concept (supposedly endorsed by Strauss for use in practical politics) of the “noble lie.”
The problem was that this was a fanciful, indeed fallacious, reading of Strauss. Far from being, as many of his critics claimed, an antiliberal, Strauss, as Berkowitz wrote elsewhere, “found liberal democracy superior to all its realistic rivals.” His complicated philosophical judgments were consistent with and even supported a practical preference for liberal, constitutional democracy.