Martin Heidegger was one of the most influential figures in 20th century philosophy but also both a member of the National Socialist party and a committed antisemite. That such a controversy would generate a substantial amount of scholarship is not surprising, and yet Mahon O’Brien’s Heidegger, History and the Holocaust attempts to break the trends of the usual works that deal with this highly contentious issue. In O’Brien’s view, the controversy surrounding Heidegger’s philosophy is an emotionally charged debate that fails to truly get to grips with the content of Heidegger’s philosophy. This philosophy is one that he justifiably finds ‘profound’ (4), and yet he has no delusions regarding whether Heidegger was a Nazi or antisemitic. It is all too easy to fall into the trap of taking sides in the debate which in the process eclipses the critical engagement necessary to understand the nature of Heidegger’s commitments to National Socialism and his antisemitism, and the implication of this for his thinking. It is precisely this trap that Heidegger, History and the Holocaust sets out to avoid. In the discussion that follows, however, there are other traps that O’Brien leaves himself vulnerable to.
In the first chapter, ‘Re-assessing the “Affair”’, O’Brien reviews some of the scholarship surrounding Heidegger’s political affiliations in order to explore how the controversy has unfolded. He argues that those who want to dismiss Heidegger’s philosophy on account of his political affiliations (the assumption being that it is intrinsically fascist) betray a kind of ‘victor’s morality’ (12), where the everyday, banal evils and the more overt evils of both the allies and our contemporary world are ignored. O’Brien’s reminder to step back from our own historical world and draw attention to the evils we regularly participate in is not meant to condone the horrific and abysmal acts of the Holocaust. That is, the repugnancy of Nazism is beyond dispute, but O’Brien is pointing out that the people who fought against them were not ‘faultless paragons of virtue’ either (13). This position does risk diminishing the specific horror of the Holocaust, but it is utilized by O’Brien to take on scholars such as Zimmerman who argue that the Holocaust was a singular event belonging to the Germans. On the contrary, O’Brien claims that the Holocaust is a horrific but complex story that extends beyond the borders of Germany. Framing the debate in this way, he is given cause to defend one of the only statements by Heidegger on the Holocaust:
Agriculture is now a mechanized food industry, in essence the same as the production of corpses in the gas chambers and extermination camps, the same as the blockading and starving or countries. The same as the production of hydrogen bombs. (as quoted on p. 24)
Dubbed the ‘agriculture remark’, this statement has generated much controversy due to its suggestion that the horrors of the Holocaust are no different than the horrors of the mechanized food industry. This passage, written in context of Heidegger’s confrontation with the essence of technology, is the basis of O’Brien’s second chapter, ‘The Essence of Technology and the Holocaust’. On the surface, it appears as a highly insensitive claim that suggests a lack of remorse for the victims of the Holocaust. On the contrary, however, O’Brien believes that Heidegger’s work on technology should be ‘interpreted as a robust confrontation with the Holocaust’ (23). His strategy here hinges on drawing attention to Heidegger’s use of the word ‘essence’. For the claim that agriculture, the hydrogen bomb, and the Holocaust are the same ‘in essence’ is very different than saying they are identical, morally or otherwise. For Heidegger, the essence of something is ‘what holds sway within it such that it appears as what it is’ (39). This essence, for Heidegger is Gestell, or ‘enframing’, the technological deployment of the meaning of being into which we in the contemporary world are ‘thrown’. That is, Heidegger is trying to tell us something about the way in which things appear for us in our given historical epoch. Thrown into a world of Gestell, humanity succumbs to seeing things as ‘standing reserves’, that is, things (and people) are ‘revealed’ in relation to how efficient and optimized they are for our use. Hence, the specific way in which phenomena in our contemporary world is generally understood—or ‘revealed’ in Heidegger’s language—lends itself to the production of the atom bomb, the mechanized food industry, and, at its worst, atrocities such as the Holocaust.
O’Brien does not only draw from Heidegger, however, but also explores some of the memoirs of Nazi officials. In doing so, we witness the way in which the Jewish people were interpreted by the Nazis as pests to be exterminated. As O’Brien points out, the phrase the ‘Final Solution to the Jewish Problem’ is particularly telling. This chilling phrasing expresses how ‘the inmates at the camp were revealed […] as practical, logistical problems that could be approached as one would approach an infestation of rodents or vermin within a factory’ (33) . The Heideggerian warning is that in the age of the technological dispensation of being this way of seeing lends itself to the horrors that occurred in Auschwitz. It is O’Brien’s contention that by viewing the Holocaust as a singular event specific to the German people we miss this sinister occurrence of truth that Heidegger diagnoses as part and parcel of our historical world. He thus presents the case that far from being dismissive of the horrific treatment of the marginalized in Nazi Germany, Heidegger offers us an analysis that may not only aid us in preventing the reoccurrence of something so morally repugnant, but also give us the tools to properly resist alternate expressions of its essence in our own time.
For my own part, nonetheless, although O’Brien’s efforts to show the relevance of Heidegger’s diagnoses is thought provoking, the existential gap between a philosophical analysis of essence and the lived suffering of those who were subject to the atrocities of the Nazi regime seems problematic. As I discuss in a footnote above, even the language of ‘reveal’ [zeigen] could serve to further de-humanize the marginalized and eclipse the responsibility of those involved in the atrocities that occurred in the Nazi regime. This, of course, raises the issue of Heidegger’s silence, his refusal to offer a public apology for his support of the regime. O’Brien’s solution to this is to draw our attention to the ‘lose-lose’ (19) situation Heidegger was in. A public apology would be an admission of guilt, which in turn would eclipse the far greater danger Heidegger wanted to warn us of. Perhaps this is a moment where our commitments to an idea can cause one to lose sight of the concrete and particular suffering in the lived experience of an individual. O’Brien’s later discussion of Heidegger’s rather unfavourable character might testify to this lack of empathy (117-124).
Chapter three moves to examine the charge against Heidegger of being a dangerous ideologue, given that critical scholarship often dismisses him on the assumption that he is just another member of the German Conservative Revolutionary Movement. Here O’Brien concedes that Heidegger does borrow some of the ‘motifs’ and ‘symbolism’ (71) of his contemporaries, such as Spengler and Jünger, but he makes a convincing case that philosophically Heidegger is far removed from the reductive and simplistic, and often dangerously racist, views of these intellectual counterparts. Here, we are reminded that identity of terms is not the same as identity in concepts, that is, that just because both Jünger and Heidegger are concerned with the role of technology in our age this does not mean that philosophically their reasons and solutions to this concern are the same. At times, however, I am left wanting for greater critical engagement with why Heidegger chose to express his philosophy through the language of the ideologues of his time, and the significance of this for a thinking which differs philosophically. O’Brien spends the first part of the chapter exploring the criticisms of the likes of Adorno, Bordieu and Zimmerman, showing in what way their issues with Heidegger’s conservatism fail to miss the content and significance of his philosophy. Having done so, O’Brien is free to move on to address some of the problems he sees in Heidegger’s conservatism, for he is aware that there are ‘genuine flaws’ in this ‘onslaught against modernity’ (48).
There is a great surprise lurking in this next part of the chapter. With its strong criticism of ‘will’, it is easy to assume that Heidegger’s concept of Gelassenheit is born out of his attempts to come to terms with what went wrong during the National Socialist regime in Germany. This concept is also born out of Heidegger attempts to confront the technological view of the meaning of being, and so offers us a potential way out of the force of its Gestell. O’Brien points out, however, that even as late as the 1950s this concept is entrenched in Heidegger’s idea of the ‘authentic rootedness of the people’ (72). Although the case might not be so evident by 1950, in the 30s it is clear that this idea of rootedness had ethnic ramifications, and given that the Black Notebooks show that Heidegger saw the Jewish people as the acme of a calculative thinking and this as a loss of the rootedness in the earth, the seemingly progressive notion of Gelassenheit becomes shrouded in doubt.
In the next chapter, ‘The Authentic Dasein of a People’, O’Brien returns to the roots of Heidegger’s notion of rootedness (Bodenständigkeit) through his analysis of the authentic community in Being and Time. Described as a ‘hornet’s nest’ (77), the author argues that the undeniably racist implications of Heidegger’s understanding of an authentic community rely on a number of arbitrary moves in his thinking. That is, O’Brien makes the case that Heidegger’s shameful prejudices are at odds with his own philosophy. Drawing our attention to Heidegger’s discussion of authentic community in Being and Time, O’Brien argues that in the notions of ‘leaping-in’ and ‘leaping-ahead’ (79) there is the potential for the development in Heidegger’s thought toward the recognition of the universal condition of finitude that is taken up in the particular historical situation one is thrown into. The inauthentic ‘leaping-in’ that Heidegger understands as the customary way we interact with others denies them the recognition of their finitude, whereas ‘leaping-ahead’ allows both individuals to be who they are (as finite beings toward death) in relation to the project at hand. Of course, my use of the word ‘individual’ here is problematic for this discussion rests on Heidegger’s conception of the human being as Dasein, a being which is primarily related to its self, world and others. As far as Heidegger is concerned Dasein is not an individual at all precisely because it is not indivisible from the historical situation it is thrown into and the others it shares this with, until, of course, it faces its finitude in the experience of anxiety-toward-its-own-death. Nonetheless, O’Brien exploits a strange ambiguity in Heidegger’s description of the social constitution of Dasein, where Heidegger rather bizarrely tries to argue that despite this primary social constitution Dasein is also ‘in the first instance’ unrelated to others (80). O’Brien contends that it is this ambiguity in Being and Time that allows Heidegger’s thought go awry in the 1930s. This is because in Being and Time Heidegger ends up, in some fashion at least, privileging the individual that he at the same time shows to be phenomenologically inappropriate. When his understanding of Dasein in the 30s becomes the Dasein of the nation, this privileging of the individual gets taken up as a privileging of a particular nation. Conveniently, this nation is the German one. Heidegger now thinks that Europe lies between the ‘pincers’ of Russia and America, and it is up to the Germans to save it, through a ‘repeat’ and ‘retrieve’ [Wiederholen] of the ‘historical-spiritual Dasein’, a task for the preserve of the Germans as the most metaphysical of people (85-87). Heidegger’s racism is thus not biological but spiritual, and one that O’Brien contends denies the implications in Heidegger’s thought of the shared history I have with others in my ‘cultural and intellectual milieu’ (88), a notion that an appropriate understanding of ‘leaping-ahead’ would have made apparent. Why are the Jewish people of the German nation denied their part in the historical-spiritual destiny of the German people?
O’Brien’s last chapter turns to Heidegger’s racism, and although the author’s use of the poetry of Kavanagh and Heaney gives rise to some of my favourite moments in this short work, it also seems to be the book’s most problematic chapter. It deals with a number of key seminars and works from the 1930s such as Nature, History, State and the Origin of the Work of Art. Major problems lurk in Nature, History, State, where Heidegger begins to conceive of historical Dasein as a Volk, thought of in terms of ‘mastery, rank, leadership and following’, where a Volk proper is only so in relation to the state (102/103). The ambiguity that O’Brien notices in Heidegger’s thought makes a return, however, for Heidegger also points out that wherever humans go we root ourselves in the soil. As such, the spiritual-ethnic chauvinism of Heidegger seems to briefly lift itself. Heidegger has always favoured the provincial, and through drawing on the poetry of Heaney and Kavanagh O’Brien offers a compelling case for why this provincialism is not necessarily problematic. He sees in Heaney, for example, an expression of the worlding of the world through a relationship with the earth that Heidegger explores in On the Origin of the Work of Art. These poets explore this tension between the universal and the particular, but give us the means of realizing that through our particular, historical and concrete struggles we are connected to all human beings as others who are thrown into the world and projected toward their end. This is of course the same latent possibility that O’Brien sees in Heidegger’s thought, but because of Heidegger’s insistence of the primacy of the particular over the universal O’Brien believes Heidegger’s thought went astray. People may indeed root themselves wherever they go, but in Heidegger’s account it is those rooted in German soil that are superior. The universal dimension that O’Brien finds in Heaney and Kavanagh is denied in Heidegger’s account of the artwork also, as the artwork is a purely regionally specific occurrence. Given that the work of art allows meaning and truth to emerge for Heidegger, O’Brien asks what the implications are ‘for a people [in this instance, the Jewish people] who are [according to Heidegger] worldless and without history?’ (112) O’Brien does not answer this question, but the implications are obvious and distressing.
Nonetheless, I am left wondering why the implications of this are not discussed in greater detail. Furthermore, there are some troubling moments where it is suggested that Heidegger’s friendship with other Jewish people at least somewhat obscures his commitments to his antisemitism (121, 132). Of course, dealing with antisemitism, particularly in such an important thinker, is a sensitive and difficult topic. O’Brien’s work is an important contribution to the growing debate around Heidegger’s political and ideological sympathies. However, perhaps O’Brien’s commitments to the resources in Heidegger’s thought that for O’Brien deny racism cause him to underplay at times the devastating role that Heidegger’s racism wreaks on this thinking. For, although Heidegger’s philosophy might on the one hand suggest that we should never deny someone their essence as a thrown projector, this is nonetheless precisely what he ends up denying the Jewish people. We may dismiss this as a personal prejudice that can be separated from his thinking, but this becomes increasingly difficult when, for example, passages of the Black Notebooks claim that ‘World Jewery’ is ‘grounded’ in the very calculative thinking and ensuing worldlessness that Heidegger’s notion of Gelassenheit attempts to resist. Furthermore, given that O’Brien does a good job of unearthing Heidegger’s specific form of antisemitism, I am left unconvinced that this ‘spiritual’ racism is indicative of the ‘garden variety’ racism (132) that O’Brien charges him with at the end of this work precisely because such a version of racism would seem to be more deeply rooted than the version of biological racism that was more prevalent at the time. That is, Heidegger does not dismiss the Jewish biology as defective as many who bought into the Nazi ideology of the time believed, but instead denies the Jewish person their Dasein. This problematizes one of the central tenets of O’Brien’s case—that Dasein is a universal condition of being human. For this is precisely what Heidegger denies in various works of the 1930’s, such as the Contributions to Philosophy. Here, Dasein is understood as a condition that we must ‘leap’ into, and we now know from the Black Notebooks that this is a possibility that for Heidegger is unavailable to the Jewish people. The troubling implications of this is not brought to the level of critical scrutiny that O’Brien shows himself capable of at other moments in this work. The sentiment that we are left with, however, is that through a proper and critical engagement with his thinking we are not de facto led to a racist ideology, although there is no doubt that Heidegger himself insists that his philosophy and politics are intertwined at some fundamental level. Thus, O’Brien’s study successfully makes the case that Heidegger’s attempt to reconcile the two is problematic.
We must not forget, however, that despite the problems in doing so Heidegger did try to reconcile the two. We can, if we wish, dismiss this aspect of Heidegger’s philosophy, but it is nonetheless a part of its legacy. I welcome O’Brien’s attempt toward a reconstruction of Heidegger’s philosophy. His project, one of critically engaging Heideggerian discourse through delicacy, warranted suspicion, but a certain amount of good will, is bound to bear fruit for Heideggerian scholarship. But I am left with the uncomfortable feeling that despite setting out to do otherwise there is an attempt in this work to find a sanitized Heidegger, as if his revolting prejudices can be weeded out of his philosophy. There is only one Heidegger, and his philosophy will (and should) continue to inspire, provoke, and propel thinking. But the man himself was an ethnic chauvinist and an antisemite, and his attempts to reconcile his philosophy with his prejudices have stained the possibilities of his thought.
His emphasis. It is important to note that ‘revealed’ is not meant to invoke some sort of ‘true’ (in the usual sense of the term) reality coming to appearance, but simply the way in which the appearance is at a given time. In this view, the appearance gets its stability from a given historical movement of ‘truth’ (in Heidegger’s sense of the term), but this truth is not guaranteed or grounded by any transcendent source, such as a God, for example. As such, to say the Jewish people were ‘revealed’ as ‘pests to be exterminated’ is not meant to suggest that this revealing shows anything intrinsic (or truthful, in the usual sense of the term) about Jewishness. Instead, it is meant to suggest something highly problematic about the way in which the world reveals itself to us in our contemporary historical world, where things ‘show up’ as ‘standing reserves’ to be made efficient and optimized. Although phenomenologically justifiable, that the language used to express this (i.e. how the world ‘reveals’ itself) could be utilized to avoid responsibility is not brought under critical scrutiny in this work. That is, Heidegger, or O’Brien’s defence of his position here, has the potential to be used to justify the atrocities of the Nazi regime by arguing that it was simply the way the world was revealed to them at the time and, as such, one bears little responsibility for the horrors committed. Although this is certainly not what O’Brien intends it is a problematic worth drawing attention to.
O’Brien’s discussion in a later chapter of Heidegger’s appropriation of the term Volk touches on this problem somewhat (98-105).
In the first of these instances, O’Brien is quoting Hugo Ott. The second is his own, but afterwards he concedes ‘And yet […] he once insisted that there was indeed a dangerous international alliance of Jews, a belief which he expresses again in his notebooks from the 1930s.’ Although both these instances are not central to his argument, it is a dangerous and distasteful defence to bring into play.
Cf., for example, GA 95: 97 (Überlegungen VIII, 5), trans. by Richard Polt in ‚References to Jews and Judaism in Martin Heidegger’s Black Notebooks, 1938-1948‘, available at https://www.academia.edu/11943010/References_to_Jews_and_Judaism_in_Martin_Heidegger_s_Black_Notebooks_1938-1948 [last accessed 05/04/2017 at 15:39].
One assumes that what O’Brien means by this is that Heidegger’s inability to reconcile his ‘garden-variety’ racism with his philosophy, one that could not so easily accept the prevalent ‘blood and soil’ ideology at the time, causes him to develop the ‘spiritual racism’ in his thinking that O’Brien does a decent job of unearthing. The problem is that this spiritual racism seems to me to be a far more profound and dangerous form of antisemitism than the more prevalent form of its time, and it is precisely the intellectuals of the era that gave credence to the horrific and base forms of prejudice (leading to the Holocaust) that were occurring, whether their versions of antisemitism or otherwise were aptly understood by the populace. As such, to dismiss Heidegger’s antisemitism as simply a ‘garden-variety’ gone astray comes too close to a Heideggerian apologetics for my taste. If we then accept that the version of antisemitism that Heidegger seems to have developed is deeply troubling, and perhaps more so than other variations of antisemitism, then an earlier defence O’Brien offers, that Heidegger criticized the philosophy of the German Conservative Revolutionary movement for its misappropriation of Nietzsche (66), becomes deeply troubling, for it is precisely this disagreement with their lack of philosophical insight and depth that leads him to develop a more profound form of antisemitism, one that he at least believed to be concurrent with his philosophical thought.