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13 May 2015updated 07 Sep 2021 10:50am

Slavoj Žižek: Why Heidegger should not be criminalised

The German philosopher's Black Notebooks suggest he was anti-Semitic, but, says Slavoj Žižek, instead of his banning the work we should confront how a great philosopher was entranced by the tenets of the Nazis.

By Slavoj ŽiÅ_ek

One of the signs of the ideological regression of our times is the request of the new European right for a more “balanced” view of the two “extremisms”: the Rightist one and the Leftist one. We are repeatedly told that one should treat the extreme left (communism) the same way Europe after WWII was treating the extreme right (the defeated fascism and Nazism).

Upon a closer look, this new “balance” is heavily unbalanced. The equation of fascism and communism secretly privileges fascism, as can be seen from a series of arguments the most prominent among which is that fascism copied communism, that communism came first: before becoming a fascist, Mussolini was a socialist, and even Hitler was a national socialist; concentration camps and genocidal violence were practised in Soviet Union a decade before Nazis resorted to it; the annihilation of the Jews has a clear precedent in the annihilation of the class enemy, etc.

The point of this argument is to suggest that a moderate fascism was a justified response to the communist threat (the point made long ago by German historian and philosopher Ernst Nolte in his defence of influential 20th-century German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s 1933 Nazi engagement).

In Slovenia, the right is arguing for the rehabilitation of the anti-communist “Home Guard”, which fought the partisans during the Second World War. They made the difficult choice to collaborate with the Nazis in order to prevent the much greater Evil of Communism. The same could be said for the Nazis (or fascists, at least) themselves: they did what they did to prevent the absolute Evil of Communism.

But the truly sad thing is that part of the liberal left is following a similar strategy in its eternal struggle against this theory (the “French Theory”). The German sociologist and philosopher Juergen Habermas remarked apropos the famous Davos debate between Heidegger and fellow German philosopher Ernst Cassirer in 1929 that we should rethink the common perception according to which Heidegger was the clear winner: for Habermas, Heidegger’s “victory” was not so much a genuine philosophical victory but more the signal of a shift from liberal enlightened humanism to dark authoritarian irrationalism.

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Cassirer was effectively a figure like Habermas: his thought is simply not strong enough to grasp the horrors that threaten Europe (fascism in his time), in the same way that one looks in vain in Habermas’s writing for even the most rudimentary theory of the failure of the 20th-century communism which culminated in Stalinism. If one’s knowledge of post-Second World War Germany were to be limited to Habermas’s texts, one would never have guessed that there were two Germanies, the BRD and DDR.

For Habermas and his followers (like the modern-day thinker Richard Wolin), it is as if the philosophers Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Lacan and Georges Bataille are all proto-fascist irrationalists (see the title of Wolin’s book: The Seduction of Unreason: The Intellectual Romance with Fascism from Nietzche to Postmodernism). They are uneasy even with Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin, who, in their view, often come too close to mystical “irrationalism”, not to mention figures like Franz Rosenzweig who takes over Heideggerian motifs from a Jewish standpoint. Habermasians commit here the same mistake as those who dismiss the Freudian psychoanalysis, a theory about the irrational foundation of human psyche, as in itself irrationalist.

In 2014, a new Heidegger scandal exploded with the publication of the first volumes of the Black Booknotes (Schwarze Hefte), handwritten notes of his intimate reflections from 1931 til the early Sixties, which allegedly confirm his anti-Semitism as well as his continuing fidelity to the Nazi project. Heidegger himself planned that these notes should be published at the conclusion of the Gesamtausgabe (his collected works), in a gesture that can be read either as a display of frank openness or as a sign of his stubborn commitment to his pro-Nazi views. Things are actually a bit more complex.

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The volumes show that, after 1934, Heidegger effectively cultivated more and more doubts about Hitler and the Nazi regime; however, this growing doubt had a very precise shape of blaming the enemy. What Heidegger reproached Hitler for was not the Nazi stance as such, but the fact that the Nazis also succumbed to technological-nihilist Machenschaft (machinations), becoming like America, Great Britain, France and Soviet Union who are thereby always more guilty:

All well-meaning excavation of earlier Volk-lore, all conventional cultivation of custom, all extolling of landscape and soil, all glorification of the ‘blood’ is just foreground and smokescreen – and necessary in order to obscure what truly and solely is: the unconditional dominion of the machination of destruction.

Heidegger’s critique of Nazism is thus a critique of the actually-existing Nazism on behalf of its own metaphysical “inner greatness” (the promise of overcoming modern nihilism). Furthermore, Heidegger’s growing reserves towards the Nazi regime have nothing to do with the eventual rejection of its murderous brutality; far from denying its barbarism, Heidegger locates in it the greatness of Nazism:

National Socialism is a barbaric principle. Therein lies its essence and its capacity for greatness. The danger is not [Nazism] itself, but instead that it will be rendered innocuous via homilies about the True, the Good, and the Beautiful.

The same debate went on at the beginning of modernity when Erasmus of Rotterdam, the Renaissance Catholic polyglot humanist, accused Martin Luther of barbaric primitivism – true, but Luther’s break nonetheless opened up the space for modernity.

While anti-Semitism persists and survives Heidegger’s disenchantment with Nazism, one should note that it doesn’t play a central role in Heidegger’s thought but remains relatively marginal, an illustration or exemplification of a central scheme that survives without it.

However, although one can well rewrite Heidegger’s scheme of the growing Western nihilism without any mention of Jews, this doesn’t mean that “Jewishness” (Judentum) just serves as a misleading example of a certain spiritual stance – such exemplification is never neutral or innocent. Ultimately, one can say the same about Hitler: is the Nazi figure of the Jew not merely an exemplification of the capitalist spirit of inauthentic profiteering and manipulation – in both cases, the “example” irreducibly colours what it serves as an example of.

What is true is that one can reconstruct from Heidegger’s dispersed remarks a consistent “theory” about the Jews. First, he performs the well-known operation of rejecting primitive biological racism: the question of the role of world Jewry is not a biological-racial question but the metaphysical question about the kind of humanity that, without any restraints, can take over the uprooting of all beings from Being as its world-historical “task”.

European nihilism, our forgetting of Being, culminates in modern Machenschaft, which “leads to total deracination, resulting in the self-alienation of peoples”, and contemporary Jewry’s increase in power finds its basis in the fact that Western metaphysics — above all, in its modern incarnation — offers fertile ground for the dissemination of an empty rationality and calculability, which in this way gains a foothold in ‘spirit’, without ever being able to grasp from within the hidden realms of decision.

The “World-Jewry” (Welt-Judentum) thus embodies the technological degradation of the totality of Being, which is why, as Heidegger observes in a related text: “it would be important to enquire about the basis of Jewry’s unique predisposition toward planetary criminality.” (And, incidentally, since this “Jewish worldlessness,” their lack of roots in a Boden, is counteracted by the Israeli government’s endeavour to make out of Israel a proper Heimat for the Jewish people, maybe today’s Israel would find full approval of Heidegger as an attempt to decriminalise Jewishness.)

So how about the Holocaust? Here things get really dark. As Heidegger observed in 1942, with regard to Jews: “The highest type and the highest act of politics consists in placing your opponent in a position where he is compelled to participate in his own self-annihilation.”

In an obscenely pseudo-Hegelian way, the elimination of European Jews must thus be understood as an act of Jewish “self-annihilation” (Selbstvernichtung): at Auschwitz and other death camps, the Jews – as the prime movers behind “machination” and the technological devastation of all of Being – themselves succumbed to industrialised mass murder. In this way, according to Heidegger, Europe’s Jews merely fell prey to forces that they themselves had unleashed, or, as Heidegger states in Volume 4 of the Notebooks: “When the essentially ‘Jewish’, in the metaphysical sense, struggles [kämpft] against what is Jewish [das Jüdische], the high point of self-annihilation in history is attained.”

In short, according to Heidegger, the Nazis, in organising the technological annihilation of Jews, merely turned the “essentially Jewish” stance of Machenschaft against the empirical Jews themselves. (Following an old cliché, Heidegger claims that Jews prefer to stay out of sight, manipulating the events behind the scenes and leaving it to other nations, especially to Germans, to shed their blood in real struggles.)

But does this imply that this Nazi shadow falls also on the leftist Heideggerians? Already back in Eighties (among others) Lacan was attacked in the US for his alleged Fascist links, and deconstruction was denounced as a justification of French collaborationism. And, maybe, this brings us to the true stakes of the ongoing attacks on Heidegger: to get rid of the “French Theory” left by way of imposing on them a guilt by association.

But the ultimate target here is a tendency within Critical Theory itself: the theoretical complex called “dialectics of Enlightenment”, with its basic premise according to which the horrors of the 20th-century (Holocaust, concentration camps, etc.) are not remainders of some barbaric past but the outcome of the immanent antagonisms of the project of Enlightenment.

For Habermasians, such a premise is wrong: the horrors of the 20th century are not immanent to the project of Enlightenment, but an indication that this project is unfinished. (Incidentally, Adorno and Horkheimer also emphasise that the only way to overcome the deadlock of Enlightenment is through further enlightenment, through enlightened reflection upon these very deadlocks.) We should make one step further here and recognise in this opposition between Enlightenment as an unfinished project and the dialectic of Enlightenment the opposition between Kant and Hegel: between the Kantian progress and the Hegelian dialectic of immanent antagonisms.

Direct criminalisation of Heidegger offers an easy way to avoid these questions. The title of the review of Schwarze Hefte in the Guardian was: “Heidegger’s ‘black notebooks’ reveal antisemitism at core of his philosophy” – which is exactly the wrong point. It’s wrong to see in Heidegger’s scattered anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi remarks a “secret truth” of his thought, a proof that he was “in his core a Nazi”, or, to quote the subtitle of Emmanuel Faye’s book, that his name simply and directly stands for the “introduction of Nazism into philosophy”.

It is entirely legitimate, necessary even, to raise the question of how Heidegger’s endorsement of Nazism was rendered possible by his thought, ie. which immanent failures of his thought opened up the space for a Nazi engagement. But we should nonetheless bear in mind that his Nazi engagement was a kind of symptom of his thought, a secondary phenomenon which indicated that something went wrong in it, not its direct “core” or “inner truth”.

The task is thus to demonstrate how the space for the Nazi engagement was opened up by the immanent failure or inconsistency of his thought, by the jumps and passages which are “illegitimate” in the very terms of this thought. In any serious philosophical analysis, external critique has to be grounded in immanent critique: one should show how Heidegger’s external failure (Nazi engagement) reflects the fact that Heidegger fell short measured by his own aim and standards. Such an immanent critique of Heidegger has a long history, beginning with the early Habermas’s attempt to think “Heidegger against Heidegger.” There are many pertinent attempts on this road – suffice it to mention Jean-Luc Nancy’s observation that, already in Being and Time, Heidegger strangely leaves out the analytic of Mit-Sein as a dimension constitutive of Dasein.

There is something profoundly symptomatic in the compulsion of many liberal-democratic critics of Heidegger to demonstrate that Heidegger’s Nazi engagement was not a mere temporary blunder, but in consonance with the very fundamentals of his thought: it is as if this consonance allows us to dismiss Heidegger as theoretically irrelevant and thus to avoid the effort to think with and through Heidegger, to confront the uneasy questions he raised against such basic tenets of modernity as “humanism”, “democracy”, “progress”, etc.

Once Heidegger disappears from the picture, we can safely go on with our common concerns about the ethical problems opened up by biogenetics, about how to accommodate the capitalist globalization to a meaningful communal life – in short, we can safely avoid confronting what is really New in globalisation and biogenetic discoveries, and continue to measure these phenomena with old standards, with the wild hope of a synthesis that would us to keep the best of both worlds.

Heidegger’s Nazi escapades are not part of his basic philosophical frame – his basic edifice can be described without any reference to Nazism. This is why there are so many “left Heideggerians” who unite a key reference to Heidegger with a leftist ecological approach. And the same holds already for Heidegger himself. According to the memoirs of a leading member of the German student movement in the late Sixties (personal information from Prof. Wolfgang Schirmacher, New York/Saas Fee), a delegation of the student protesters visited Heidegger in 1968, and he professed his full sympathy and support for the students, claiming that they are doing now what, in 1968, what he tried to do in 1933 as a rector in Freiburg, although from a different political position.

One should not dismiss this claim as Heidegger’s hypocritical illusion. What Heidegger was looking for in Nazism (to avoid a misunderstanding: not only due to an accidental error in his personal judgment, but due to the flaws of his theoretical edifice itself) was a revolutionary event, so that even some measures he imposed on the Freiburg university during his brief tenure as its rector bear witness to his intention to enact there a kind of “cultural revolution” (bringing together students with workers and soldiers – which, in itself, is not a Fascist measure, but something Maoists tried to do in their Cultural Revolution). Plus there are other interesting details: in a letter to his wife, Heidegger expressed great jubilation when Willy Brandt was elected a German chancellor, and there are indication that late in his life he mostly voter for Social Democrats.

There are many levels at which we could locate Heidegger’s Nazism. The first one runs from thought to political engagement: one endeavours to discern the flaws in his philosophical edifice which opened up the path to his Nazi involvement. The second one is historicist: an inquiry into the genesis (empirical sources) of his thought, his volkisch roots, his advocacy of the authentic rural way of life in contrast to the superficial hectic life in the big cities, his conservative distrust of individualist liberalism and intellectualism.

While all this is true, one should bear in mind that Heidegger reworks all these sources into something new, a philosophical edifice which can lead is life also independently of these sources, decontextualised. In other words, what is needed is not just a historicist reduction to sources but a proper Foucauldian genealogy which brings out the contingent and inconsistent multiplicity of “sources.” However, recent Habermasian critiques of Heidegger aim at something more than these two approaches: they locate the Nazi dimension of Heidegger into the very conceptual core of his thought (motifs of finitude, decisionism, etc.).

A more general interpretive problem has to be raised here: the limitation of the approach which focuses on the level of “micro-practices” which actualise a certain ideological edifice. Let’s take the case of racism: a “new materialist” analysis can convincingly demonstrate how the truly persistent racism does not reside in the general ideological premises advocated by the racist individual but at the level of his everyday life practices, rituals, gestures, tastes, attitudes, sensitivities. 

While one can be a declared non-racist liberal, one’s daily practices can reveal strong racist attitudes. Even apparently contingent and external examples tell a lot. Suffice it to recall the beginning of the paragraph from Heidegger’s Introduction to Metaphysics in which he questions the being of a state: “A state – it is. In what consists its being? In that the state police arrests a suspect /…/?” (Martin Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics, New Haven: Yale University Press 2000, p. 27).

The very example he uses to illustrate what Hegel means by his claim about the speculative identity of the rational and the actual is, again, ominous: “The treaty of Versailles is actual, but not rational.” However, one should nonetheless not elevate such micro-practical contextualization into an access to the inner truth of a theoretical edifice: a work in question may well survive a radical de-contextualization and continue to function in a totally different life context.

The commonplace according to which we are all irreducibly grounded in a particular, contingent life-world, so that all universality is irreducibly coloured by and embedded in that life-world, needs to be turned around. Marx already pointed out how the true problem with Homer was not to explain the roots of his epics in early Greek society, but to account for the fact that, although clearly rooted in their historical context, they were able to transcend their historical origin and speak to all epochs.

Perhaps, the most elementary hermeneutic test of the greatness of a work of art is its ability to survive being torn out of its original context. In the case of truly great art, each epoch reinvents and rediscovers it: there is a baroque Shakespeare, a romantic Shakespeare, a realist Shakespeare, a modern Shakespeare, a postmodern one.

Richard Wagner’s operas provide perhaps the greatest example of such de-contextualization. Recent historicist work tries to bring out the contextual “true meaning” of various Wagnerian characters and topics: the pale Hagen is really a masturbating Jew; Amfortas’ wound is really syphillis, and so on. Wagner, the argument goes, was mobilizing historical codes known to everyone in his own time: when a person stumbles, sings in cracking high tones or makes nervous gestures, “everyone” then knew this was a Jew. Thus Mime from Siegfried is a caricature of a Jew. The illness in the groin caught from having intercourse with an “impure” woman was, because of syphilis, an obsession in the second half of the 19th-century, so it was clear to everyone that Amfortas really contracted syphilis from Kundry.

The first problem with such readings is that, even if accurate, the insights garnered do not contribute much to a pertinent understanding of the work. Indeed, historicist commonplaces can blur our contact with art. In order properly to grasp Parsifal, one needs to abstract from such historical trivia, decontextualise the work, tear it out of the context in which it was originally embedded. There is more truth in Parsifal’s formal structure which allows for different historical contextualizations than in its original context. Nietzsche, Wagner’s great critic, was the first to perform such a de-contextualisation, proposing a new figure of Wagner: no longer Wagner as the poet of Teutonic mythology, of bombastic heroic grandeur, but the “miniaturist” Wagner, the Wagner of hystericized femininity, of delicate passages, of bourgeois family decadence.

And the same goes for Heidegger: what the eco-Heideggerians or Leftist Heideggerians are doing is precisely such a de-contextualization. In his Arcades Project, Walter Benjamin quotes the French historian André Monglond: “The past has left images of itself in literary texts, images comparable to those which are imprinted by light on a photosensitive plate. The future alone possesses developers active enough to scan such surfaces perfectly.” (Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1999, p.482). 

This certainly holds for Shakespeare whose ability to prefigure insights which properly belong to the later epochs often borders on the uncanny. Was not, well before Satan’s famous “Evil, be thou my Good?” from Milton’s Paradise Lost, the formula of the diabolical Evil provided by Shakespeare in whose Titus Andronicus the unrepentant Aaron’s final words are: “If one good deed in all my life I did, / I do repent it from my very soul”?

Was not Richard Wagner’s short-circuit between seeing and hearing in the last act of Tristan, which is often perceived as the defining moment of modernism proper (the dying Tristan sees Isolde’s voice) clearly formulated already in Midsummer Night’s Dream? In V/1, Bottom says: “I see a voice; now will I to the chink, To spy if I can hear my Thisbe’s face.” And does the same not hold also for Heidegger? Are his texts not also “open” towards future?

Against the persistent calls for the direct criminalisation of Heidegger’s thought, for his simple and direct exclusion from the academic canon, one should insist that he is a true philosophical classic. A direct criminalisation of Heidegger’s though is an easy way out – it allows us to avoid the painful confrontation with the proper scandal of his Nazi engagement: how was it possible for such a great authentic philosopher to get engaged in this way? When I asked a Heideggerian Jewish friend of mine how could Heidegger remain a key reference for him in view of his anti-Semitism and Nazi sympathies, he mentioned an old Jewish wisdom according to which there are some deep traumatic insights than can only be formulated by a diabolical person.