‘Heidegger and the Myth of a Jewish World Conspiracy’, ‘Freedom to Fail: Heidegger’s Anarchy’ reviewed by Eric D Meyer

Heidegger and the Myth of a Jewish World Conspiracy

Translated by Andrew J. Mitchell, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2015. $25 hb
ISBN 9780226303734

Freedom to Fail: Heidegger’s Anarchy

Translated byIan Alexander Moore and Christopher Turner, Polity, Polity, Cambridge and Malden, MA, 2015. 101pp., £9.99 pb
ISBN 9780745695235

Reviewed by Eric D Meyer

About the reviewer

Eric D Meyer is the author of Questioning Martin Heidegger: On Western Metaphysics, Bhuddhist …


All Quiet on the Western Front? A Report from ‘The Heidegger Wars.’ The publication of Martin Heidegger’s Black Notebooks (Schwarze Hefte) (Heidegger 2014) has sparked another furious outbreak of scholarly infighting in what Richard Wolin calls ‘The French Heidegger Wars’ (Wolin 1998), with both defenders and accusers of the 20th Century German philosopher firing off denunciations and sniping at each other in the newspapers and journals, until even moderate critics may find themselves caught in a withering verbal crossfire, whether the opponents are called ‘Continentals’ and ‘analytics,’ or simply ‘Heideggerians’ and ‘Anti-Heideggerians.’

On one side, Trawny is accused, by Friedrich von Herrmann, François Fediér, and others, of betraying the trust vested in him, as editor of the Black Notebooks, by drawing attention, in Heidegger and the Myth of a Jewish World Conspiracy (HMJWC), to what he considers certain unavoidably anti-Semitic passages, which, he argues, provide evidence of Heidegger’s ‘being-historical anti-Semitism’ (HMJWC, 2), and threaten to ‘contaminate’ (3) Heidegger’s whole philosophical corpus, although Trawny is careful to distinguish Heidegger’s ‘being-historical anti-Semitism’ from the Nietzschean biological racism of Nazi race policy. On the other side, Trawny is accused, by Emmanuel Faye, François Rastier, and Richard Wolin, of virtual complicity in the Nazi Holocaust or Jewish Shoah, as an apologist for Heidegger’s Nazi anti-Semitism, who, they argue, in Freedom to Fail: Heidegger’s Anarchy (FFHA), actually celebrates the Nazi anti-Semitism of the Black Notebooks as evidence of Heidegger’s anarchic freedom of thought, and applauds Heidegger’s willingness to embrace the catastrophic ‘errancy’ of German National Socialism, under the spurious rationale that ‘“He who thinks greatly must [also] err greatly.”’ (FFHA, 9). Trawny’s position, of course, lies somewhere between these two extremes; and Trawny is to be commendedfor staking out a moderate position, and even attempting to broker a truce between the two camps, without capitulating to either. The only problem is, that this attempt to strike a compromise between the two sides makes it difficult to tell, exactly, what Trawny’s position really is, and where he draws the lines between the two opposed sides in ‘The 21st Century Heidegger Wars.’

Briefly, Trawny’s position is that, although Heidegger’s thinking of ‘the history of Being’ is neither Nazi nor anti-Semitic per se, it is still ‘contaminated’ by Nazi anti-Semitism; and exactly how far that contamination goes, and whether Heidegger manages to quarantine the contagion, are the crucial questions in point. ‘Does it affect’—or infect?—‘the corpus of his thinking as a whole? Does it seize the history of being and being-historical thinking alone? Can it even be delimited?’ (HMJWC, 94-5). These are questions Trawny himself doesn’t really answer. The curious thing about Trawny’s critique of Heidegger’s Nazi anti-Semitism, in which, as he admits, ‘[t]he concept of contamination is particularly important’ (3), however, is that it strangely resembles the German National Socialist thinking of ‘The Jewish Problem’ as a public health menace to Nazi bio-eugenic race policy, and of the Jews as a ‘contagion,’ a ‘disease,’ an ‘infection,’ which must be purged to ensure the security and health of the German Volk—which is precisely the stereotyped thinking Trawny purports to critique. The problem with Trawny’s critique of Heidegger’s ‘contamination’ by ‘Nazi anti-Semitism’ is that it risks endorsing ‘the purge mentality’ characteristic of both Stalinist Soviet Communism and the German National Socialism in the 1930s and 1940s, which justified terrorist violence against political dissidents and ethnic minorities as a therapeutic ‘purge’ of the political body, and therefore also justified the extermination of some twenty million (or more?) Byelorussians, Ukrainians, Gypsies, Poles, and Jews, in the Stalinist Great Terror, the Ukrainian terror famines, and the Nazi ‘Final Solution to the Jewish Question.’

Trawny appears to recognize this perplexing problem when he confesses that ‘[h]ere and there I have even allowed my own thoughts to be “contaminated”’ by Heidegger’s thinking of ‘“the purification of being”’; and self-critically asks: ‘Have I consequently overinterpreted Heidegger’s statements on world Judaism?’ (HMJWC, 101). Amidst the fury and bombast of ‘The Heidegger Wars,’ in which bellicose critics often take their own projections of sinister evil-doings as evidence of Heidegger’s Nazi anti-Semitism, Trawny’s self-critical circumspection is no doubt therapeutic; but it makes it difficult for the reader to decide: Which side is Trawny really on? Is he really an apologist for Heidegger’s Nazi anti-Semitism, as Faye, Rastier, and Wolin argue? Or is he, contrarily, a critic of Heidegger‘s Nazism, as von Herrmann and Fediér insist? Propagandist or critic? Apologist or antagonist? Defender or accuser? Which is the real Peter Trawny? And which the real Martin Heidegger? Trawny’s ambivalence about Heidegger’s alleged Nazi anti-Semitism leaves the reader, too, wandering in a no-man’s-land between the two embattled sides and caught in the critical cross-fire, while perhaps also wondering: is it really necessary to take sides? Can’t we settle this without all this bombast and battle-fury? And in taking sides in ’The Heidegger Wars,” isn’t the contemporary critic simply endorsing one side or other in the pitched battle between ‘Stalinists‘ and ‘Nazis,’ ‘communists’ and ‘fascists,’ which raged in Western European intellectual circles in the 1930s, and in which so many German, French, Italian, and English intellectuals (Pound, Eliot, Hemingway, Yeats, Gide, Céline, Marinetti, Schmitt, Junger, Benjamin, etc.) were battle-hardened casualties or walking wounded survivors’?

After failing to decide for either side in HMJWC, Trawny takes up these questions again in Freedom to Fail: Heidegger’s Anarchy (German title: Irrnisfuge: Heideggers An-archie), in which he argues that Heidegger’s ‘contamination’ by Nazi anti-Semitism is an effect of his Nietzschean tragic willingness to follow wherever the fatal errancy (Irrnis) of philosophic thought might lead, even to the catastrophic brink of wholesale annihilation in the Nazi Holocaust or the Jewish Shoah. Although Trawny ‘emphasiz[es] that philosophy and anti-Semitism … are mutually exclusive,’ and attempts, once again, to draw a strict line between them, he still poses the contagious questions: ‘Yet what happens to philosophy when we attempt to exclude it in advance from the dangers of anti-Semitism? What happens to philosophy when we exclude it from errancy [Irre]? Is that even possible? Wouldn’t this attempt to immunize philosophy be the worst error [Irre]? Overcoming anti-Semitism,’ Trawny finally concludes, ‘can only succeed by drawing near it.’ Or, perhaps, Trawny implies, by being infected by it? By ‘suffer[ing] it, go[ing] through it’? (FFHA, 16). Like a contagious infection or a fatal disease?—which must be purged or cleansed before sanity and health can be restored, but which also risks setting the body against itself, in that strange dis-ease of counter-terrorist/terrorist violence which Jacques Derrida describes in ‘Auto-Immunity: Real and Symbolic Suicides.’ Here again, Trawny’s thinking comes dangerously close to replicating the suspect thought it ostensibly critiques, and, while attempting to quarantine the ‘contamination’ of Nazi anti-Semitism, actually becomes infected by it, and is not purged or cleansed, simply by critical thought, just as the political body of the German Volk or the Russian narod was not cleansed or healed by the purges and pogroms of the Stalinist Great Terror or the Nazi ‘Final Solution to the Jewish Question.’ By contrast, Heidegger’s thinking is surprisingly un-contaminated by this peculiar strain of contagious thought, through which the German National Socialists and the Stalinist Soviets each attempted to forge the solidarity of the political body by fabricating the sinister menace of a fictitious national enemy (whether ‘Jews’ or ‘capitalists‘) who must be cleansed or purged to ensure its security and health, and thence also attempted to mobilize the terrorized masses against these fictitious enemies, finally resulting in the Great Western vs. Eastern European civil war of ‘Stalinists’ vs. ‘Nazis,’ ‘communists‘ vs. ‘fascists,’ sometimes called World War II.

Trawny’s scathing critique of the ‘contamination’ of Heidegger’s Nazi anti-Semitism draws upon the sophisticated strategies of critical textual analysis characteristic of contemporary postmodernist theory (deconstruction, post-structuralism, hermeneutics etc.); and Trawny is clearly attentive to the subtleties and nuances of Heidegger’s thinking that more hostile critics ignore. But what Trawny neglects to observe is that the Black Notebooks were written in the specific world-historical context of Nazi Germany in the 1930s and 1940s; and Heidegger’s thinking of ‘the history of Being’ cannot finally transcend that specific world-historical situation, any more than, for example, Hegel‘s Phenomenology of Spirit, as the young Karl Marx argued, could escape its complicity in The German Ideology of the 1830s and 1840s (Marx and Engels 1978). The Black Notebooks were written in the wake of the Nazi coup d’etat in Weimar Germany, and, specifically, following Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor (January 30, 1933), the declaration of a state of emergency (February 28, 1933), and the Gleichschaltung (conformitization) of the German universities (March 23, 1933), which sinister events describe the ominous prelude to Heidegger’s brief tenure as Rector Magnificus at Freiburg University, from April, 1933 to April, 1934. During that same period, the Soviet Communists were carrying out the Ukrainian terror famines, which resulted in the death by starvation of some 3.5 million Ukrainian peasants in 1933 alone, thereby provoking German fears of a Stalinist communist takeover, and greatly increasing German support for the Nazi Party and Hitler. Heidegger appears briefly to have subscribed to the equation of ‘Jews’ with ‘communists’ which was current among German conservative revolutionaries like Carl Schmitt; and Heidegger’s Schmittian comments about ‘the enemy’ which had ‘attached itself’ parasitically’ to ’the innermost roots of the Dasein of the people’ in the Being and Truth lectures of 1933-4 (Heidegger 2010, 73) are probably anti-communistic rather than anti-Semitic, although they lend themselves to either interpretation, and cannot finally be absolved of complicity in ‘the purge mentality’ of ‘The Stalin/Hitler Wars.’ During Heidegger’s writing, the Nazi Party and the S.A. completed their purge of Social Democrats and Communists, begun with the assassination of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg in 1919, after which Hitler personally presided over the purge of the Röhm faction of the S.A. (June 30, 1934)—an event to which Heidegger ascribed his disillusionment with the Nazi Party and the Fuhrer—and the Nazis implemented the Nuremberg Laws against German Jews on September 15, 1935. And by the time the more arguably anti-Semitic remarks begin to appear in the Black Notebooks, the German invasions of Austria (April 10, 1938), Czechoslovakia (October 20, 1938), and Poland (September 1, 1939) had taken place, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact had broken down, and Germany invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. In a speech at the Reichstag on January 30, 1939, Hitler had declared that the consequence of a world war would ‘not be the Bolshevization of the earth and thus the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race throughout Europe’ (Snyder, 2010, 114): a threat which finally became a self-fulfilling prophecy when ‘The Final Solution to the Jewish Question’ was dictated at the Wannsee Conference on January 20, 1942, and implemented in the S.S. death camps in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe, between 1942 and 1945.

Despite his caustic comments about German National Socialism, Nazi biological racism, and Hitler, Heidegger still attempts to track these disastrous events, to write a critical commentary on them, and to place them within the frames of his thinking of ‘the history of Being,’ in which the world-historical agents (the ‘subjects’ or ‘bearers’ of history) are collective subjects (‘National Socialism,’ ‘Bolshevism,’ ‘Americanism,’ ‘world jewry,’ etc.); and if the Black Notebooks are ‘contaminated’ by those catastrophic events—and by the terrorist propaganda and contagious bigotry which became epidemic during that frightening time—it’s not surprising, since the Nazi rise to power and the build-up to World War II were accompanied by a psychological warfare campaign far exceeding the Heraclitean polemos of ‘The 21st Century Heidegger Wars,’ in which the Nazi Party and the Soviet Bolsheviks alike attempted to rule by wholesale terror, by deportation of whole subject populations, and by brutal elimination of their political opponents, who were the first victims of the Soviet Gulag and of the S.A. concentration camps; and German and Russian intellectuals were subject to imprisonment and torture for the slightest deviation from the official party lines. As Karl Jaspers describes his own public stance under the Nazi terrorist regime, ‘I made no direct allusion to what the National Socialists were doing’ in 1930s Nazi Germany. ‘That would have been fatal at the time,’ considering ‘the destruction of the German soul and spirit that was in progress‘(Jaspers, 1971, 97-8). In the 1930s, Heidegger was a married man, with two sons in the German army, and with Jewish friends and lovers; and for him to speak out, publicly, the critical remarks about German National Socialism and Nazi race policy made privately in the Black Notebooks would clearly have been catastrophic, which is a fact that should be borne in mind before taking sides in ‘The 21st Century Heidegger Wars.’

In a memoir of his time as Heidegger’s student, George Picht describes how he was threatened with death by a militant Nazi student simply for associating with Heidegger; and Heidegger must have been aware of his precarious situation, although he expresses no qualms about his personal safety under the Nazi regime in the Black Notebooks. And yet Heidegger continued to write and speak within and against the Nazi regime, while couching his critique in an Aesopian allegorical form, as a deconstruction of the Nietzschean ‘metaphysics of will,’ and of the Nazi propaganda of Germany as ’the most metaphysical nation,’ both publicly, in his Nietzsche lectures, and privately, in the Black Notebooks. What is perhaps more surprising is that, by building upon his comments on Nazi bio-eugenic race policy, the Nietzschean metaphysics of will, the Nazi führer-principle, and the Stalinist/Hitlerian metaphysics of terror, Heidegger was finally able to purge his critical thinking of the contamination of Nazi anti-Semitism, and to write the scathing critique of National Socialist metaphysics incorporated in ‘Overcoming Metaphysics’ (1936-46; published 1954). And if Heidegger’s critical thinking of ’Stalinist/Nazi metaphysics’ somehow survived the self-destructive debacles and wholesale catastrophes and ‘The Stalin/Hitler Wars,’ it will no doubt survive the comparatively petty, minor skirmishes and fractious scholarly disputes of ‘The 21st Century Heidegger Wars.’ 

10 April 2016


  • Derrida, Jacques 2003 Auto-Immunity: Real and Symbolic Suicides Philosophy in a Time of Terror ed. Giovanna Boradorri (Chicago: University of Chicago Press): 85-136.
  • Heidegger, Martin 2010 Being and Truth trans. Gregory Fried and Richard Polt (Bloomington: Indiana University Press).
  • Heidegger, Martin 2014 Gesamtausgabe Bd. 94-97, ed. Peter Trawny (Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann).
  • Jaspers, Karl 1971 Philosophy of Existence trans. Richard F. Grabau (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press).
  • Marx, Karl and Frederick Engels 1978 The German Ideology The Marx-Engels Reader ed. Robert C. Tucker (New York: W. W. Norton): 146-200.
  • Picht, Georg 1988 Die Mach des Denkens Antwort: Martin Heidegger im Gespräch ed. Guenter Neske and Emil Kettering (Tuebingen: Guenter Neske Pfuellingen): 175-183.
  • Snyder, Timothy 2010 Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (New York: Basic Books).
  • Wolin, Richard 1998 French Heidegger Wars The Heidegger Controversy: A Critical Reader ed. Richard Wolin (Cambridge: MIT Press): 272-300.

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