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Editorial published in the Heidegger Review, No.1, July 2014.


A few months ago, an invitation was offered, and it was refused: an invitation to think. That is, an invitation to think about our world, its changes, and their implications. And also to ask some questions about modern thinking. How can the most dynamic thinking of the present time be described? In what ways is it changing the world? Where might it be taking us? And is there any possibility of anything except more and more of the future of present trends?

The invitation was offered, posthumously, by Martin Heidegger. Over about 40 years, roughly from 1930 to 1970, this philosopher wrote his most dangerous thoughts in notebooks which were not intended for publication in the foreseeable future. Some of them, composed between 1931 and 1941, were published for the first time in March of this year. These writings give us thought at full gallop. Heidegger expresses himself freely, much more freely than was possible in his lectures and currently published books.

The topics addressed include Nazi racial doctrine, social policy and geopolitical strategy, all of which are treated with contempt in the entries from 1938 on. But there are other big topics besides Nazism: the competing systems of Liberal Democracy and Communism; their “representative nations” England, America and Russia; the relationship of modern man to technology; the history and current state of modern thinking. On all of these topics he thinks with the same ruthless intensity. Finally, with the quality there’s some quantity. In three substantial volumes, the recently published notebooks come to about 1300 pages.

Surely, one might say, the man has given us food for thought? Isn’t this an invitation to think? After all, Heidegger was no ordinary practitioner of the art. There were many respected judges who considered him the 20th century’s greatest thinker. Even recently Peter Sloterdijk, one of Germany’s two celebrity philosophers, declared that this opinion “is perhaps not wrong” (Zeilen und Tage, 2014 ed., p. 228).

Now, one wouldn’t expect everyone to accept an invitation to think! You have to like doing it, and not everybody does. It is understandable that many of those who noticed the invitation might turn it down. Such people feel they have other things to do besides thinking. Better things. More useful things!

In fact, Heidegger goes so far as to say, “Thinking is passion for the useless” (Notebooks IX, 15). But this is a very austere definition of thinking, maybe too rigorous. It seems to confine the chances that any thinking will happen to those strange people who are addicted to mental exertions that will never bring them profit (a vice which was widespread in rural Ireland in the 19th century and later, according to improving critics).

One might shrink from this raw statement by the ferocious German thinker. One might water it down a bit. And then one might wonder: is it too much to expect that some of the professional academic community, functionaries in “the culture business” as that philosopher unkindly called it, some few of the many who like to write little things about Michel Foucault; or even exponents of the higher journalism, the journalism that has pretensions, what the Germans call Publizistik - is it too much to expect that some of these people (within their limits, not over-straining themselves) might take up the invitation to think? Or that, supposing they felt compelled to turn the invitation down, they might do so with grace and good humour?

But yes, in actual fact, that was too much to expect! Witness what happened in March and April of this year, when a violent campaign was undertaken against this thinker on the flimsiest of pretexts.

In the course of those writings amounting to 1300 printed pages, Heidegger made a few brief mentions of Jews and Judaism. There are about 12 such references, according to Jürgen Kaube of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (12/3/2014), though I have found only 9. None of these 9 passages, which readers will find in this journal, employ a language of hatred. Race terminology is not used - except in one passage which attacks the biological racism of the Nazis. Heidegger even specifically says that “the problem of the role of world Jewry” is not racial, it is metaphysical. What he says about Jews does not even have the high intensity of some of his comments on Christianity. For example, “Christianity is the most extreme humanisation of mankind and takes the godliness from its God” (XIII, 110 - a statement which might be praised in Teheran or Tel Aviv, but which any traditional Christian would surely consider outrageous).

It is true that when Heidegger judges the contribution of Jewish thinking to the Christian west in its phase of modernity, he gives it a negative rating. And ditto international Jewish political influence at the outset of World War 2. When referring to Jews and Judaism he expresses himself as freely as when writing about anyone else, and this leaves him short of the standards of present-day political correctness. From the greatest thinker of the 20th century that simply cannot be tolerated.

So an international campaign was launched in the “quality press” to debate the question. Is Heidegger Contaminated by Nazism? In reality, this question - it’s the title of Joshua Rothman’s New Yorker essay - had been answered beforehand. “Yes” was the answer. The real question, to be discussed by examining those nine or so references to Judaism tom completely out of their context, was this: how badly is Heidegger contaminated by Nazism? On the question of degree there could be differing views.

Participants in the decontamination campaign included Thomas Assheuer in Die Zeit (21/3/2014), Jürgen Kaube in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (12/3/2014), Emmanuel Faye, who got going at the prepublication stage, in Le Monde (28.1.2014), Joshua Rothman in The New Yorker (28/4/2014), various writers in the English papers, and inevitably, Fintan O’Toole in the Irish Times (5/4/2014). But none of these was the star performer. On centre stage was none other than the director of the Martin Heidegger Institute at the University of Wuppertal, Professor Peter Trawny.

This was the man - a harmless enough official in the culture business, to all appearance - who had edited the notebooks for publication. While going through them he became aware that they included statements about Jews which no respectable person could make in those particular words today. One or two - I rely on Rothman’s vivid account of a public meeting in Greenwich Village featuring Trawny - one or two he might have passed over, but when there were seven or eight...! He confided his worries to colleagues, but their responses only frightened him more. “‘You cannot be director of the Adolf Hitler Institute,’ a colleague had warned him.”

Now, the poor devil liked his job! He wanted, if at all possible, to keep it, as he disarmingly told his New York listeners. (“‘I’m the director of the Martin Heidegger Institute, and I actually want to be that for a longer time,’ he said, to laughter from the audience.”) So what was he to do? There was nothing for it but to write a book called Martin Heidegger und der Mythos der jiidischen Weltverschworung (Martin Heidegger and the Myth of the Jewish World Conspiracy).

Heidegger, as a matter of fact, had not used the term “Jewish world conspiracy”. The terms he used were das internationale Judentum and das Weltjudentum, usually translated in English as “international Jewry” and “world Jewry”.

Now, these are the terms which were used by very respectable British politicians in 1916 when they started to speculate about harnessing Jewish influence to help them win their world war (c.f. Jonathan Schneer: The Balfour Declaration, p. 152). It was on the assumption that a well- organised international Jewish interest existed, which was capable of effectively helping Great Britain in its war, that the Balfour Declaration was issued in November 1917, and Balfour later acknowledged that effective help was in fact given. Now it was as reasonable to assume that such an interest existed in 1939 as it had been in 1916. If Professor Trawny wanted to be fair, he could have written a book about Martin Heidegger and the Myths and Realities of International Jewish Politics - but, well, the job seemed to need a broad brush...