Book Review: Heidegger in Ruins

Richard Wolin’s Heidegger in Ruins is a compelling synthesis of what scholars have learned about Heidegger over the past decade – and also an account of what has been known about him all along, but rarely directly confronted. Indeed, the greatest value of the book is not what it tells us about Heidegger, but rather what it shows about the fecklessness and dishonesty of a certain wing of the academic enterprise.

Wolin patiently lays out a series of claims and defends them in great detail:

  1. Heidegger persisted all his life in loyalty to the key principles of National Socialism, especially the conviction that the German people are the world’s chosen Volk and the corresponding belief in what he called “world Jewry’s predisposition to planetary criminality.”
  2. When confronted with his history of unswerving commitment to Nazi principles, Heidegger consistently took evasive action, declaring himself one of the victims of the regime. (For instance, he often said that he had to make his criticisms indirectly because the Gestapo was surveilling him.)
  3. He pursued his self-defense through two strategies: addition and omission. That is, he added self-exculpatory passages to texts that had been written in the Nazi era, and then claimed that they had been there all along; and, in other cases, he removed incriminating passages when he had works of that period re-published later in his life. In one case he claimed that he had said something critical of National Socialism, and when it was pointed out that the transcript of his lecture contained no such statement, he countered that he couldn’t account for that but that the statement was definitely in his manuscript. When the manuscript was inspected, the relevant page was missing. This kind of thing happened over and over again.
  4. Editors of Heidegger’s Gesamtausgabe (Complete Works) – several of whom are members of Heidegger’s own family, including first his son and now his grandson – have consistently aided and abetted Heidegger’s own obfuscations. For instance, in one lecture Heidegger uses the abbreviation “N. soz.”; the lecture’s editor helpfully explains that this means not Nationalsozialismus but rather, somehow, Naturwissenschaften (the natural sciences). And in the 1980s, when Peter Trawny was preparing an edition of Heidegger’s lectures, the philosopher’s literary executors pressured him to silently delete the phrase I quote above: “world Jewry’s predisposition to planetary criminality.” Their pressure worked, as Trawny admitted – but he didn’t admit it until 2014.

This last point is perhaps the most interesting and significant one. Wolin convincingly argues that “As a result [of such additions and omissions], for decades, the public has been presented with a misleading, politically ‘sanitized’ image of Heidegger’s thought: a bowdlerized version in which Heidegger’s profascist political allegiances have been extensively airbrushed.”

But that’s only the tip of the iceberg. “Much of the damage that has been done appears to be irreparable,” because no one outside the Heidegger “family business,” as Wolin calls it, can edit the Gesamtausgabe, and “as far as the numerous translations and foreign-language editions of Heidegger’s works are concerned, from a publishing standpoint, it is essentially too late too cumbersome and too expensive to implement the requisite corrections and emendations.” He thus concludes,

As a result, for the foreseeable future, generations of students encountering Heidegger’s work for the first time will be exposed to editorially doctored, politically cleansed versions of Heidegger’s thought. These significantly flawed texts have, meretriciously, become the de facto standard editions.

Moreover, in the voluminous secondary literature on Heidegger, this web of editorial deception is rarely mentioned. Were it acknowledged, it would risk exposing a deliberate policy of textual manipulation that, by masking the philosopher’s ideological loyalties, has sought to marginalize fundamental questions bearing on the intellectual and moral integrity of his work.

Therefore, many of those defending Heidegger, especially if they have read him in English translations, have never seen the whole of what he actually wrote; they have only seen the sanitized versions. 

One of the chief airbrushers over the decade since the publication of Heidegger’s revelatory and appalling Black Notebooks – which make it abundantly clear just how obsessed Heidegger was for the last fifty years of his life by the belief in German cultural superiority, its vocation to save the world – has been Giorgio Agamben, who has said that “Si tout propos critique ou négatif sur le judaïsme, même contenus dans des notes privées, est condamné comme antisémite, cela équivaut à mettre le judaïsme hors langage” – “If any critical or negative statement about Judaism, even in private notes, is condemned as anti-Semitic, that is the equivalent to putting Judaism outside of language.” But if the claim that Jews have a “predisposition to planetary criminality” – a claim that was not made in une note privée but rather in a public lecture – is not anti-Semitic, then what is it? Does Agamben really want to insulate such statements from critique? Apparently he does. But this is to put not Judaism but rather anti-Semitism hor langage.

Much of this airbrushing, by Agamben and many others, has been built around the insistence that critics of Heidegger are over-interpreting common words. Blut just means “blood,” Boden just means “soil,” Heimat just means “home,” and Führer is the common German word for “leader.”

(As Wolin points out, Führer is one German word for “leader,” another one being Leiter – why does Heidegger always choose the former? I would suggest that you can get a clue by reading Max Weber’s famous 1917 lecture “Wissenschaft als Beruf,” or “Science as a Vocation,” in which he sternly warns students against the desire for ein Führer – by which he clearly means not a plain old leader but a charismatic figure who will give your life purpose and direction.)

Wolin patiently works his way through these and other words, repeatedly showing us the very distinctive character certain previously ordinary German words assumed under Nazism. Wolin points out that in his 1946 book The Myth of the State, the philosopher Ernst Cassirer had mused on what Nazism had done to the German language:

If nowadays I happen to read a German book, published in these last ten years, not a political but a theoretical book, a work dealing with philosophical, historical, or economic problems — I find to my amazement that I no longer understand the German language. New words have been coined; and even the old ones are used in a new sense; they have undergone a deep change of meaning. This change of meaning depends upon the fact that those words which formerly were used in a descriptive, logical, or semantic sense, are now used as magic words that are destined to produce certain effects and to stir up certain emotions. Our ordinary words are charged with meanings; but these new-fangled words are charged with feelings and violent passions.

The defenders of Heidegger’s use of these “magic words” have to assume, and have to encourage us to assume, that Heidegger was somehow ignorant of or indifferent to this change in the character of the German language — deaf to the “magic words.” As early as 1939, Heidegger’s former student Karl Löwith wrote – though he did not then publish – an essay showing how implausible such an idea was:

Given the significant attachment of the philosopher to the climate and intellectual habitus of National Socialism, it would be inappropriate to criticize or exonerate his political decision in isolation from the very principles of Heideggerian philosophy itself. It is not Heidegger, who, in opting for Hitler, “misunderstood himself;” instead, those who cannot understand why he acted this way have failed to understand him.

Heidegger understood the Nazi language and the habitus it embodied and reflected; and he wholly endorsed the whole package — and, Löwith says, did not simply do so personally but also as a thinker. If belief in Heidegger’s innocence was implausible to a knowledgable observer in 1939, it is, as Wolin patiently and thoroughly shows, completely indefensible today.

Finally: I should mention something in Wolin’s argument that troubles me personally. I am among those who have found some value in the critique of technology that Heidegger developed in the decade or so after the end of World War II. But Wolin indicates that already in the 1950s a young philosopher named Jürgen Habermas had called the logic of Heidegger’s critique into question: By arguing that the real crisis of the mid-twentieth century was “the planetary imperialism of the technically organized human beings,” the rise of technology as “the instrument for total … dominion over the earth,” Heidegger was implicitly reducing the significance of the Holocaust, reducing the guilt of the German Volk. And not always implicitly: in his “Bremen Lectures” of 1949, he straightforwardly claimed that “mechanized agriculture [is] in essence, the same as the fabrication of corpses in gas chambers and extermination camps.” A farmer sitting on a tractor and a German soldier shoving emaciated Jews into a gas chamber – who can say which is the more wicked? I am always drawn to a strong critique of modern technology, but Wolin’s account makes me wonder what that inclination might have led me to overlook. This is a point I may develop in future posts.