Was Heidegger a Semitic Nomad? – By Michael Inwood

Michael Inwood on Projection and Heidegger’s Black Notebooks

Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) is a controversial figure. He is widely revered, especially in France but now also by many in the English-speaking world, as a great philosopher, perhaps the greatest of the twentieth century. He is also scorned by some as perhaps the greatest charlatan in the world of twentieth-century philosophy. His admirers have been disturbed — and his detractors reassured — by successive revelations about his entanglement with the greatest evil of his era.

We have known for some time that Heidegger was a committed Nazi, rather than simply an opportunistic Nazi. But there were, of course, many features of Nazism that might have attracted him apart from anti-Semitism. The fact that he, or anyone else, was a member of the National Socialist Party does not necessarily entail anti-Semitism on his or her part. Heidegger’s attitude towards Jews is ambiguous. On the one hand, there is no overt anti-Semitism in his published writings, not even in his public address as the new rector of Freiburg University in April 1933. He admired philosophers of Jewish descent, such as Max Scheler and Edmund Husserl, and dedicated Being and Time (apart from, probably perforce, the 1941 edition) to Husserl and Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics to Scheler. He had cordial and sometimes erotic relations with Jewish pupils and friends, such as Hannah Arendt and Elisabeth Blochmann.

On the other hand, Heidegger’s position as rector naturally required him to remove Jews and anti-Nazis from their posts. He did something to shield the university from the rigours of Gleichschaltung (coordination, or bringing into line); no doubt he could have done more, but equally he could have done less. More relevantly, inspection of Heidegger’s life and letters — a closer inspection than that to which most lives are submitted — has turned up occasional expressions of anti-Semitism in contexts where officialdom did not require them, albeit the conspiratorial rather than the biological version.

The most incriminating evidence appears in a student’s transcript of a seminar he gave in the winter of 1934. He is reported to have said: “From the specific knowledge of a people about the nature of its space, we first experience how nature is revealed in this people. For a Slavic people, the nature of our German space would definitely be revealed differently from the way it is revealed to us; to Semitic nomads it will perhaps never be revealed at all.” In a letter of October 1929 he wrote: “We are faced with a choice, either to provide our German intellectual life once more with real talents and educators rooted in our own soil (bodenständige), or to hand over that intellectual life once and for all to the growing judaization (Verjudung) in the broad and the narrow sense.”

For a Slavic people, the nature of our German space would definitely be revealed differently from the way it is revealed to us; to Semitic nomads it will perhaps never be revealed at all.”

The recently published volumes of Heidegger’s Black Notebooks, containing reflections written down between 1931 and 1941, seem to confirm his anti-Semitism. He charges Jews with a variety of supposed offences. They are regarded as having a special “talent for calculation” — a degenerate form of thinking, in Heidegger’s view, which includes such disparate practices as formal logic, statistics, cost-benefit analysis and double-entry bookkeeping. Jews suffer from Bodenlosigkeit or Weltlosigkeit, the lack of a native soil and a world in which they are at home. They are therefore deeply involved in the growing subjection of the world to “technology” and the “rootlessness” it engenders — though Heidegger also says that Americanism, Bolshevism, and even fascism itself are complicit in this.

One of Heidegger’s complaints perhaps offers a clue to a factor driving his animus against Jews: “With their emphatically calculative talent, the Jews have already ‘lived’ the longest according to  the race principle, which is why [weshalb] they also resist most vehemently its unrestricted application.” We might have expected Heidegger to say that Jews opposed the Nazi race laws — which prohibited marriages and sexual relations between Jews and gentiles — despite their own endogamy. But instead he says that they opposed them because of their own endogamy. Unless this is simply a slip of the pen, what he has in mind is that Jews were projecting their own faults onto others, noticing and condemning in others the characteristics that they had themselves.

It is of course absurd to suggest that psychological projection was the primary motivation of opposition to the race laws or that Jews are especially prone to such projection. Nevertheless, projection can be a useful psychoanalytic tool, whether the explanation of it is (as Freud supposed) that we cope with our own undesirable features by casting them off into the outside world and attributing them to others or, alternatively, that the effort to suppress our own faults makes them especially conspicuous to us so that we tend to see others in terms of them, or something else again.

Indeed, some of Heidegger’s charges against the Jews seem to involve psychological projection. One such case is a note written in 1941: “World Judaism, incited by the émigrés let go [herausgelassenen] from Germany, is everywhere elusive and in the unfolding of its power it does not need to get involved in military action anywhere, whereas we are left to sacrifice the best blood of the best of our people.” Jews do not fight, Heidegger implies. This is false. Many of the Jews “let go” did fight and others played a significant part in the intelligence operations that Heidegger, with his gung-ho romantic view of warfare, tends to overlook.

But someone did not fight, and that was Heidegger himself. In World War I, he was declared unfit for combat owing to a supposed heart defect and given a safe desk job in the postal and meteorological services. His frequent references in later writings to soldiers, with their supposedly “authentic” and “resolute” “being towards death,”  suggest that this safe haven, while his friends and compatriots were dying on the battlefield, left him with a lifelong burden of guilt.

For Heidegger, the Jews’ destruction is really an act of self-destruction, for which, if anyone, the Jews alone are responsible

Heidegger attempted to relieve Germany, and indirectly himself, of an even greater burden of guilt in the most recently published volume of his Black Notebooks. The Shoah, he argued, is not really the fault of the Germans who perpetrated it, but of “technology,” the impersonal calculative and exploitative mindset that drives people willy-nilly to do such things as gas Jews and factory-farm chickens. And behind technology stands the Jews. So their destruction is really an act of self-destruction, for which, if anyone, the Jews alone are responsible.

Heidegger might have stopped short of this final step and concluded only that no one is to blame for the Shoah. This would have overlooked the old-style, non-technological killings, especially in the East, that preceded the gas-chambers, but to accommodate them he could have appealed to his up-dated version of Augustine’s belief that it is difficult to avoid sin without assistance from the grace of God. But that is not enough for Heidegger. Guilt cannot be left hanging in the air or unloaded onto God. So he takes the further step and projects the guilt onto the victims. That leaves Germany, and Heidegger himself, in the clear.

Martin Heidegger in the Black Forest, via Renaud Camus on Flickr
Martin Heidegger in the Black Forest, via Renaud Camus on Flickr

An even more interesting example of the same phenomenon is Heidegger’s frequent references to “rootlessness,” which is occasionally, though not in his published works, ascribed to Jews in particular and connected with their leading role in technology. German Jews were generally well integrated into German society and not especially rootless. But rootlessness is a characteristic of Heidegger himself. He was born into a conservative Catholic community with deep roots in the soil of the Black Forest and the Catholic Church undertook his education. He became a Jesuit novice, but was allegedly rejected, owing to the same heart defect that exempted him from the battlefield. From then on, he began to pull up his roots. He abandoned the study of theology in favor of philosophy. He married a Protestant, first in a Catholic ceremony, then in a Protestant one. His marriage was an open one and he had many affairs, especially with Arendt and Blochmann. After the birth of his first son he announced his break with “the system of Catholicism.” He worked intensively on the writings of Martin Luther and in effect became a Lutheran.

To compensate for these sharp breaks, he clung obsessively to his roots in the Black Forest. He often wore Bavarian peasant clothes and affected peasant manners. He did much of his writing in his hut at Todtnauberg on the edge of the Black Forest, which he insisted was especially favorable to philosophical thought. He rejected more than one offer of nomination to a chair in Berlin. (Another motive of this may have been his desire to differentiate himself from a previous occupant of the Berlin chair — Hegel.) Spiritually, however, Heidegger wandered as far as the legendary eternal Jew.

The notion of rootlessness, unlike that of military service, plays an important, though ambiguous, part in Heidegger’s thought. He links rootlessness with “technology,” the technological or, if you like, the capitalist mindset, and he associated Jews with capitalism too, as well as with Bolshevism — which in Heidegger’s mind was just another version of technology. Capitalism and communism are both cosmopolitan. Moreover, they promote speed of travel and communication, railways and radio in Heidegger’s day, airplanes, television and the internet in ours. These have the effect of flattening or homogenizing the world and detaching us from our native place, our Heimat.

If Heidegger is as great a philosopher as Heidegger believes himself to be, technology and nomadism are not uncongenial to philosophy, precisely because they wrench us out of our native surroundings

On the other hand, however, a certain detachment from one’s Heimat is a requirement of philosophy. For Heidegger, it was important to appreciate one’s local space, “our German space,” the up-down, right-left, here-there everyday space in which German peasants used to measure time and distance by the number of pipes they smoked on a journey. Newton, Kant, and Einstein neglected this sort of space in favor of the space of science, which is not even space for everyday humans, let alone for Germans. It is, however, an illusion to believe that a deeply rooted German peasant would have a better understanding of everyday space than Newton, Kant, or Einstein could have. He may, in a sense, know what his space is like and, more generally, what it is like to be a German peasant. But since he would not know what it is like not to be a German peasant, he could not make his knowledge explicit or communicate it to anyone else in an articulate manner. As soon as he can do this, he ceases to be an ordinary peasant.

A philosopher may have one foot planted in the soil of the Black Forest, but his other foot has to be planted somewhere else, or perhaps stretched up in the air. Heidegger realized this, of course, but he was discontented with the attempts of his predecessors to achieve such a posture. Descartes famously ascended to an appropriate distance from the everyday world by doubting the existence of everything except his own ego, and Heidegger’s teacher, Husserl, similarly performed an Epoche, a suspension of belief in the reality of everything apart from the contents of his own consciousness.  However, Heidegger regarded such moves as inadequately motivated unless stemming from, as he put it, “a strange concern for certainty” that he personally considered philosophically misguided. Why, he wondered, should an ordinary human being ever become a philosopher? His answer is that everyday life itself contains the seeds from which, if they are suitably nurtured, the philosophical attitude will germinate.

Everyone, at some time or other, suffers from anxiety and boredom. But most people simply let these moods pass and make nothing of them. Not so Heidegger.  In Being and Time and in subsequent lectures, he argued that a philosopher needs to cultivate moods such as anxiety and boredom, which flatten everything out and make life seem strange and uncanny, depriving the philosopher of his secure foothold in the here and now and leaving him thereafter at a certain distance from otherwise familiar things.

Moreover, Heidegger thinks that a ground-breaking philosopher, such as he supposed himself to be, has to be even more distanced from the familiar. He must be detached from the everyday world of philosophy — conferences, peer-reviewed journals, and research assessment exercises. He has to spend time with such early forebears as Aristotle, Plato, and Heraclitus, none of whom is widely read by German peasants. Heidegger seems not to notice, however, that the effect of moods such as anxiety and boredom on the philosopher is, by his own account, similar to that of technology. The initial alienating effect of these moods is less long-lasting than that of technology. Nevertheless, the similarity raises the question of whether technology is as baneful as Heidegger suggests. If Heidegger is as great a philosopher as Heidegger believes himself to be, technology and nomadism are not uncongenial to philosophy, precisely because they wrench us out of our native surroundings.

In short, Heidegger has a deeply ambivalent attitude towards rootlessness. He hates and fears it, but also cultivates and exploits it. Among other things Being and Time tells a story about how an everyday human being becomes a philosopher, detached from the everyday world. What he projects onto Jews is his own rootlessness, painful no doubt, but essential for him as a philosopher.