New Black Notebooks reveal philosopher’s shocking take on Shoah
di Donatella Di Cesare
The Shoah was an act of self-destruction by the Jews. This is the view that emerges from the new volume of Heidegger’s Black Notebooks, edited by Peter Trawny and soon to be published by Klostermann (Gesamtausgabe 97, Anmerkungen I-V). The 560 pages of new material date from the crucial 1942-1948 period and contain the notebook for 1945-1946, which was thought to have been lost but was in fact located last spring.
The final years of global conflict, Germany’s defeat and the Allied occupation of Germany form the backdrop to what Heidegger elsewhere calls the “history of Being”, philosophy’s way forward to the salvation of the West. After 1945, there is no break. Instead, the path twists on itself in a series of sharp turns and diversions. Heidegger continues to seek a new beginning, the dawn of Europe, despite the near impossibility of finding any bearings. The ruins of Germany bear unequivocal witness to the failure of the mission entrusted to the German people. In the midst of this historic disaster, Heidegger was living through his own academic downfall. In 1946, the former rector of Freiburg university was banned from teaching.
Volume 97 of the Black Notebooks offers a fresh insight into Heidegger’s thought. Like earlier volumes, it combines philosophical reflection with detailed analysis of historic events. But Volume 97 is destined to be remembered primarily because it belies one of the platitudes of 20th-century philosophy regarding Heidegger’s “silence” after Auschwitz. If the Jews play a leading role in the earlier Black Notebooks, which cover 1931 to 1941, and if the Jewish question is closely bound up with the question of being (as I attempted to show in my recent book), it is no surprise that Heidegger should discuss the Shoah and consider it from both philosophical and political viewpoints. Selbstvernichtung - self-destruction - is the key word. The argument is that the Jews destroyed themselves and no fingers should be pointed at anyone except the Jews themselves. The term “self-destruction” made its first disturbing appearance as early as the 1940 and 1941 Notebooks, when the need for a “purification of Being” was advanced.
Rigorous and coherent, Heidegger does no more than draw his conclusion from everything he has said previously. The Jews are the agents of modernity and have disseminated modernity’s evils. They have besmirched the spirit of the West, undermining it from within. Accomplices of metaphysics, the Jews have everywhere brought about the acceleration of technology. The charge could hardly be more serious. Only Germany, with her people’s iron cohesion, could stem the devastating impact of technology. This is why the global conflict was primarily a war of Germans against Jews. If the Jews were annihilated in the death camps, it was because of the mechanism that they fomented by plotting to achieve world domination. The link between technology and the Shoah should not be disregarded: it was Heidegger himself who alluded to it elsewhere. What is Auschwitz if not the industrialisation of death, the “fabrication of corpses”?
In line with his metaphysical anti-Semitism, Heidegger sees extermination as “self-destruction”. In 1942, he wrote that the Judenschaft, the “community of Jews”, is “in the age of the Christian West - the age of metaphysics - the principle of destruction”. A little further on he adds: “Only when what is essentially ‘Jewish’, in the metaphysical sense, combats what is Jewish is the peak of self-destruction in history reached”.
The Shoah is presented as playing a decisive role in the history of Beingbecause it coincides with the “supreme fulfilment of technology”, which consumes itself after devouring everything else. In this sense, the extermination of the Jews represents the apocalyptic moment when that which destroys ends up destroying itself. As the peak of “self-destruction in history”, the Shoah makes possible the purification of Being.
But is this peak reached? Did world Judaism self-destruct at Auschwitz? In the end, there should be no victors or vanquished, which are again metaphysical categories. Instead the Jew is simply the end that must simply come to an end. Only in this way can a new beginning emerge and the new European morning be glimpsed. When Heidegger was writing in 1942, Hitler’ death factories were working flat out. Yet after the war, the peak of self-destruction did not appear to have been reached. The self-destructive mechanism’s agents could even, despite the millions of deaths, appear to have won. In that case, they would constitute a mortal danger for the Germans by drawing them into the mechanism of death. After 1945, Heidegger observed that “extraneous elements” continue to disfigure “our defrauded essence”. He asks himself about the Germans, about the “ease with which they allow themselves to be seduced by foreigners”, about their “political incapacity” and about the “radicality with which they make the most glaring errors”.
At the end of the day, Heidegger’s position is not dissimilar to that of Carl Schmitt and many other Germans who feel defeated, but only in a military sense and only temporarily. The Jews, now purged from the body of the nation, are perceived as a ghostly, awkward-to-handle presence. In this regard, Volume 97 of the Black Notebooks contains a lengthy note by Heidegger that is bound to create controversy. The cue comes from the leaflets handed out to the people of Germany by Allied High Command which said, under photographs of the liberated concentration camps: “This is Your Fault!” Heidegger replies: “Is not the failure to acknowledge this destiny (the destiny of the German people), and repressing our will for the world, a ‘fault’, and an even more essential ‘collective guilt’ whose enormity cannot be measured against the horror of the ‘gas chambers’, a guilt more terrible than all the officially censurable ‘crimes’, for which no one will apologise in future? It can already be perceived that the German people and German territory are a single concentration camp (ein einziges Kz) such as the world has never seen and never wants to see, a not wanting much more willed and consensual than our absence of will in the face of the feralisation of national socialism”.
The Allies failed to understand the Germans’ mission and stymied their global project. This crime is held to be more serious than all the other crimes. This guilt has no term of comparison, not even the “gas chambers” [quotation marks in the original!]. For the history of Being, the real immeasurable misdeed is the one committed against the German people, who were supposed to save the West. But Heidegger does not think that all is over, precisely because the “peak of self-destruction” has not been reached. There is still a future for Germany and for a Europe led by the German people. At this point, the questions come thick and fast. Did Heidegger contemplate a Fourth Reich? Why was he planning to publish the Black Notebooks in the mid Seventies? What did he expect from the Europe in which we live today?
It would be all too easy, as Emanuele Severino appears to suggest, to set the Black Notebooks to one side. But Heidegger himself rules this out. Here we are looking not at historical documents, as in the issue raised decades ago by Victor Farías), but at the philosopher’s own writings with intimate links to the rest of his oeuvre. We can now understand the need to reread, for example, Being and Time, as the young Israeli philosopher Cédric Cohen-Skalli did at the Paris convention, comparing Heidegger to Walter Benjamin. This does not mean, as some would argue, that we should proscribe or ban Heidegger but it does entail dealing with the complexity of his thought in an open, critical fashion. It could perhaps be an opportunity for philosophy to contemplate the Shoah in all its bottomless profundity.