Rue des Archives/Granger Collection

Martin Heidegger, circa 1920

In the autumn of 1931, the philosopher Martin Heidegger began to record his thoughts in small diaries that he called the schwarze Hefte, or “black notebooks.” By the early 1970s he had filled no fewer than thirty-four volumes with his handwritten reflections. Several of these notebooks, composed over a ten-year span from 1931 to 1941, have now appeared in three successive volumes of the official German-language series of Heidegger’s collected works. Their name describes their black oilcloth covering, but one could be forgiven for thinking it described their content. They will cast a dark shadow over Heidegger’s legacy.

Heidegger was one of the most influential thinkers of the modern era. He was also a convinced Nazi. During his brief term as rector at the University of Freiburg (1933–1934) he worked to advance the process of Gleichschaltung, or coordination, that brought the university into alignment with the official policies of the Third Reich. Apologists for Heidegger have occasionally sought to underplay the gravity of this political record. They note that he stepped down from his post after less than a year, and they add that many of his academic contemporaries, such as Ernst Krieck and Alfred Baeumler, were both more zealous and more effective in their collaboration. The difference, however, is that few today take those other men seriously as scholars. Heidegger, meanwhile, continues to be read, and his permanent place in the pantheon of Continental philosophy seems more or less secure.

How, then, can one study his philosophy without taking some cognizance of his ignominious past? One strategy for resolving the dilemma has been to insist on a neat distinction: Heidegger was good at philosophy but bad at politics. An elegant defense along these lines was developed by Hannah Arendt, his erstwhile student, whose essay “Martin Heidegger at Eighty” (published in these pages in 1971) compared Heidegger to Thales, the ancient philosopher who grew so absorbed in contemplating the heavens that he stumbled into the well at his feet.1

For those who value Heidegger’s philosophy, this interpretation holds an obvious appeal, since it casts the whole business of Heidegger and Nazism in the ennobling light of tragic error. Some called Arendt an apologist, though her criticism reached well beyond Heidegger and faulted the whole of the philosophical profession for its unworldliness.2 Nor should we forget that German academics in more practical fields (medicine, physics, and engineering, to take only three examples) debased their disciplines with far more lethal effects.

For Heidegger the “inner truth and greatness” of the Nazi movement lay in “the encounter between global technology and modern humanity” (a specification he secretly added to a 1935 lecture when it was published in 1953). These are not the words of a brutal realist; they belong to a philosopher whose “private National Socialism” proved ill-suited to the needs of the regime. But what is most disturbing in Heidegger’s case is not primarily what he did; it is what he thought about what he did. Hence the challenge of the black notebooks: even after the “error” of the rectorship it turns out that Heidegger did not awaken from his philosophical-political fantasies. They only grew more extreme.

When rumor began to spread across Europe last winter that the black notebooks would soon appear, it caused a minor scandal in faculties of philosophy. The outcry was especially notable in France, where a passionate if ever-shrinking coterie still regards Heidegger as a maître-penseur. Defenders announced that the publication of the notebooks was unremarkable and would change nothing in their philosophical esteem for the author. Detractors, many of whom had never much admired Heidegger in the first place, rushed to say they had known it all along. Reading the pages of Le Nouvel Observateur or Die Zeit last winter, you might have thought that Heidegger’s reputation was forever shattered.3

Such gestures of outrage have a manufactured quality. After all, this was hardly the first “Heidegger affair.” The philosopher’s complicity with the Nazis first became a topic of controversy in the pages of the Les Temps modernes shortly after the war, and then, in 1987, the storm clouds gathered once again when Victor Farias, a former student of Heidegger’s from Chile, published a vigorous denunciation, Heidegger et le nazisme. This second Heidegger affair drew volleys and counterattacks from a great many of the leading thinkers of the day. Such cycles of revelation and scandal are rarely edifying, and they seem always to end with the same unsurprising discovery that Heidegger was a Nazi.

Some believe that the damning evidence in the black notebooks will leave Heidegger’s philosophical reputation in ruins. But even before their publication, new evidence of his ideological commitment had come to light, especially the transcripts from a 1933–1934 seminar, “On the Essence and Concept of Nature, History, and State.”4 One intemperate critic was even moved to announce that Heidegger’s works no longer deserved the title of philosophy at all and should instead be shelved in the libraries among other books on the history of the Third Reich. Such a verdict is surely rash. But the notebooks no doubt will, and should, transform the way Heidegger’s philosophy is read. In them—more than 1,200 pages have been published so far—he is revealed as a man who refused to abandon his political delusions.


To be sure, after 1934 Heidegger grew disenchanted with the Nazi movement, and devoted himself with greater energy to new philosophical concerns. But this was only because he felt that Nazism had betrayed its own promise, and had succumbed to the technological fate that afflicted the modern age overall. Meanwhile, his anti-Semitism turns out to have been far more pronounced than one might have imagined. None of this would necessarily modify our political judgments of the author, since we knew the basic contours of the story even before the black notebooks appeared. But the urgent question remains: What has all of this to do with Heidegger’s actual philosophy?

In his early masterpiece, Being and Time, first published in 1927, Heidegger set forth a bold challenge to the conventional picture of the human being that, in his view, had held sway in philosophy at least since Descartes if not long before. According to this picture, the human being confronts the external world as a disengaged thinker or res cogitans. Knowledge of the world is therefore a matter of correct representation, and truth is essentially a correspondence between an external state of affairs and one’s representation of that state of affairs within the confines of one’s own consciousness. Heidegger objected to this picture not only because he felt it was bad epistemology but, more importantly, because he felt it was bad metaphysics. It splits reality in two, placing the mind on one side and the world on the other, and then makes representation do the work of bridging the divide.

Heidegger proposed instead that philosophy should take as its cue our everyday commerce with worldly things. When I wield a hammer, my knowledge of that hammer is not primarily a matter of how it is represented or conceived; it is an implicit know-how that animates my action and embraces its elements all at once: the weight of the tool, the heft of the wood, my care in the work, and so forth. This everyday kind of purposeful involvement motivates a general picture of the human being as already immersed in its world. To emphasize the this-worldly character of such immersion Heidegger uses the term Dasein (which is simply the German word for existence). Dasein is not consciousness but rather “being-in-the-world.” It is an ongoing event that is thrown into time and can only come upon itself as it presses forward into its own possibilities.

Much of the brilliance—but also the difficulty—of Being and Time is due to Heidegger’s conviction that he could only convey this unfamiliar portrait of human existence by developing a radically novel language. While this idiosyncrasy has exposed him to criticism, it is not surprising that in challenging fundamental metaphysical prejudices he should have felt it necessary to wrench us free of our inherited philosophical terminology. For according to Heidegger the Western tradition is captive to a basic misunderstanding that goes to the very heart of its metaphysics. We have misconstrued, or even forgotten, what it is for the world to “be” at all.

This misunderstanding not only reveals itself in formal philosophical systems, it also affects our daily conduct, our understanding of our surroundings, and our encounters with others. Heidegger’s primary task in Being and Time is to develop a proper understanding of human existence in the “everyday” manner of being that the philosophical tradition has obscured. It is in this “analytic of Dasein” that we first encounter some of Heidegger’s most celebrated ideas, e.g., that Dasein is characterized by “thrownness,” “falling,” and “lostness” in the anonymity of the public realm.

But such discoveries prompt a question: If the human being is so entangled in the surrounding world, how can that being ever return to itself? If Dasein is inauthentic to the core, how can one ever hope to be authentic? In answering this question, Heidegger resorted to a great many themes familiar to religious tradition. There must be some special insight that permits the human being to grasp itself as it truly is despite the fallenness and opacity of its this-worldly being. Although Dasein can no longer find this understanding in divine revelation—God is absent from Heidegger’s argument—it gains this knowledge in an anticipation of its own end. In awakening through anxiety to the possibility of death, Dasein is brought to realize that its ongoing existence depends on nothing but the resolute decision to embrace certain possibilities as its own. Authenticity is not a metaphysically distinctive way of being human; it is just a way of taking responsibility for what one has already been given.


It should be evident that no straight and simple line leads from the analysis of existence in Being and Time to the political choices of its author in 1933. But this has not deterred critics from finding Nazism in Heidegger’s philosophical texts as if they were mere scripts awaiting the hour of their performance. There are connections, to be sure, and readers with some sense of the cultural and political atmosphere of Germany in the years before the catastrophe cannot help but note the resonances when Heidegger defines authenticity as an unflinching affirmation of the history of one’s own people and the “hardness of its fate.”

If one sifts through Heidegger’s writing in this way, a good detective will find much that suggests, if not Nazism in particular, then at least some longing for conservative revolution. But what works for the detective turns reductive when applied to the interpretation of philosophical texts. A great many philosophers, after all, wrote distasteful things and supported brutal regimes. Aristotle defended slavery. Kant’s writings contain passages that we would not hesitate to characterize today as racist. A philosopher’s politics are not the best measure for the legitimacy of his ideas; nor should knowledge of his intentions, political or otherwise, inhibit us from seeking new instruction in his work.

The method of detection also ignores the obvious fact that there is more in Heidegger’s philosophy than a dormant politics. What most consumed him was not primarily a political but a metaphysical question, the “question of Being” or Seinsfrage. This question may have political significance, but only because its implications stretch across every domain. Although the very generality of this inquiry left it vulnerable to charges of senselessness, Heidegger insisted that some understanding of Being is already built into our everyday existence, and we can no more dispense with it than we can shrug off the world itself: Dasein is distinctive, he claimed, because it is the being for whom its very being is “at issue.”

Human existence, in other words, is gifted with an understanding of what it means to be, but it is also invested in this being as the very ground of things. This hardly implies a return to traditional metaphysics: Being does not inhabit a higher order of perfection such as Plato’s realm of Forms. It lies instead at the background of our experience, like a light that glows within all things and grants the world its intelligibility. In later years Heidegger would write with gnomic simplicity that “Being is the clearing.”

It would be absurd to insist that the question of Being points ineluctably to Nazism. But the black notebooks may nonetheless help us to understand how a philosopher consumed with a question of such generality could come to see in the Third Reich a realization of his own ideas. In one of the earliest entries (circa 1933, though precise dating is difficult) he wrote: “The metaphysics of Dasein must deepen itself into its innermost structure and broaden into a metapolitics of the historical people.” A bit later he writes that Being has a “groundplan” but it is “not Idea, but mission.” The ground plan “does not detach itself into pure Spirit, but rather first opens and binds Blood and Soil [Blut und Boden] to a readiness for action and a capacity for realization and work.”

The emphasis here is on effect, concreteness, and action. While refining his plans for the rectorship he reminds himself that “the intellectual National Socialism is not ‘theoretical.’” Such statements are consonant with what we already knew about Heidegger’s political commitments. In a notorious speech from November 3, 1933, he admonished students: “Let not propositions and ‘ideas’ be the rules of your Being [Sein]. The Führer alone is the present and future German reality and its law.”

The unifying theme in such passages is a principled antipathy for abstraction. But this harkens back to a familiar theme from Heidegger’s philosophy. He resists “ideas” and “propositions” just as he resists the Cartesian model of the disengaged mind. He is constantly on the alert for whatever smacks of mere theory as against the solidity and efficacy of worldly practice. As rector he tried to resist “vulgar National Socialism.” He knew that Nazism was a concatenation of competing ideologies, and he expressed both resentment at his rivals and fear that the ascendant language of allegedly scientific racism would mislead the German people from its true historical mission. Although he grasped at the official jargon of “blood and soil,” he eschewed “dull biologism” because he felt it wrongly applied the schema of the natural sciences to human existence, as if the entire “intellectual-historical world” grew in a “plantlike” fashion from the body of the Volk.

In April 1934, Heidegger tendered his resignation as rector. The details of his career have received ample documentation, notably in the scrupulous historical study by Hugo Ott.5 But the notebooks give us a fuller picture of Heidegger’s personal disappointment. On April 28 he made sketches for a farewell address, desperately seeking a higher significance for the “wrecked year.” The failure was not his alone, he wrote, and perhaps it was not a failure at all, since wreckage itself was “the highest form of human experience, in which we meet with the effective world-powers in their merciless efficacy.” Failure or not, from this point onward the notebooks assume a tone of marked bitterness. Everywhere he saw only “rushers and alarmists, makers and strivers.” By the summer of 1936 Heidegger was under surveillance, and although he continued to nourish hopes for Germany’s political future, his own chances for a career as a public official of the Third Reich began to dwindle.

Frustrated and isolated, Heidegger sought consolation in the idea that genuine philosophy is only understood “after two or three generations at the earliest.” By 1936 he was drafting a second major work, the Contributions to Philosophy, in which he entertained thoughts of the “other beginning” beyond the errors of the metaphysical tradition. The notebooks from the mid-1930s include copious sketches for this new approach: the technical vocabulary he had honed to precision in Being and Time now gave way to a far more meditative and exploratory language. Heidegger now wrote of an “abandonment by Being” that had begun as early as Plato; only pre-Socratic thinkers such as Heraklitus preserved the memory of an alternative path. The notebooks bespeak a growing alarm at the course of modern civilization and an emergent concern that Nazism, too, was afflicted. He warns of a new phenomenon: “the gigantic” or, more typically, “machination” (Machenschaft).

Machination was his preferred name for the technological force that Heidegger saw as dominating the modern world. The notebooks of the later 1930s are thick with dark ruminations on the rise of technology and its manifold consequences across the globe. Machenschaft appears with such frequency that it assumes a quasi-mythological status not unlike an ancient god. Heidegger brooded over “the unconditional power of machination” and “the complete groundlessness of things.” Occasionally, however, Machenschaft is embroidered with a more specific meaning: in an entry (circa 1939) he denounces liberalism, pacifism, and “the rising power of Jewry.” The ascendency of the Jews belonged to “the metaphysics of the West” that helped to spread both “empty rationality” and “a capacity for calculation.” Elsewhere he wrote that “one of the most hidden forms of the gigantic and perhaps the oldest is the tenacious aptitude for calculating and profiteering and intermingling, upon which the worldlessness of Jewry is founded.”

Regarding such passages two points should be made. First, they are clearly instances of anti-Semitism (and at first glance rather banal). The allusion to the Jews’ “worldlessness” taps into an old belief that, having rejected Christ’s divinity, the Jews are condemned to homeless wandering. Heidegger also recycled the rather more modern myth that the Jews are gifted in finance (itself a reconstructed variant of the medieval commonplace linking Jews with usury).

But we would be wrong to dismiss such language as the unthinking echoes of past chauvinism. For it was Heidegger’s singular genius to interlace these idées reçus with themes from his own philosophy. Even the idea of Jewish “worldlessness” evokes the argument from Being and Time that the disruption of skillful labor brings a loss of existential communion with things and (in Heidegger’s phrase) “the deworlding of the world.” The complaint against reason and calculation recapitulates themes from works such as Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics in 1929 and, from the same year, the famous encounter in Davos with the philosopher Ernst Cassirer, where Heidegger insisted that a valid philosophy would demand the “destruction of the former foundation of Western metaphysics” in “spirit, logos, [and] reason.”6

The entanglement of Heidegger’s anti-Semitism with his philosophical critique of Western metaphysics should give us pause. At the very least it suggests that when he philosophized in a minor key about the modern age and the “abandonment of Being,” he was also thinking of the Jews as symptoms of this misfortune. Their reputed capacity for calculation was yet another sign, though it was not a cause, of the technological nihilism that he came to see as the metaphysical fate of the West. That Heidegger does not actually blame the Jews for the afflictions of the modern world invites the saving thought that his chauvinism was incidental, not intrinsic to his philosophy. But on the final page of a notebook from 1941 Heidegger writes that “the question concerning the role of world Jewry is not a racial but a metaphysical question.” According to Peter Trawny, the editor of the notebooks, such passages show that Heidegger subscribed to a highly unusual species of “ontological-historical” (seinsgeschichtliche) anti-Semitism.7 Lacking “worldhood,” the Jews became a philosophical category: an antitype to the artisanal innocence of being-in-the-world.

Still, not all of his opinions were cast in the elevated language of philosophical history. By the summer of 1941, when the German army began its assault on the Soviet Union, Heidegger descended into gruesome suggestions of world conspiracy:

World Jewry, spurred on by the emigrants who have been let out of Germany, is ungraspable everywhere and doesn’t need to get involved in military action while continuing to unfurl its influence, whereas we are left to sacrifice the best blood of the best of our people.

We should recall that both of the philosopher’s sons, Jörg and Hermann, served in the German army during the war, and both spent time in Soviet prisoner-of-war camps. But this fact is irrelevant to the question of their father’s anti-Semitism. Nor did his persistent nationalism prevent him from seeing the entire war as another symptom of the era of “machination” in which power reigned as the essence of Being. Enchanted with his own philosophizing, Heidegger conflated any and all modes of technology, as would become clear in his notorious postwar remark that “the manufacture of corpses in the gas chambers and the death camps” and “the motorized food industry” are “in essence the same.”8

Generalizations of this kind efface all differences of morality and history in the name of philosophical insight, as Heidegger conceived it. They suggest the verdict that Heidegger—notwithstanding his reputation as a thinker of “concrete” and “this-worldly” existence—was himself prone to the most lamentable abstraction. Philosophy is supposed to be the beginning of wisdom, but philosophy did not make Heidegger wise. The banal prejudices of a provincial childhood were not dissolved through education but only grew more expansive and assumed the vacuous grandeur of world-historical generalities. There is an intelligent way to develop a critique of technology, and there are rational ways to explore the limits of human reason. But Heidegger’s is not the salutary model for either. In his zeal to prosecute a war on the critical intellect he ignored all of the differences that matter to us as inhabitants of a common world, and he ended in a place of abstraction no less fantastical than the enemy he wished to defeat.

When the Frankfurt-based publisher Vittorio Klostermann has concluded its work, the number of volumes in Heidegger’s collected works will surpass one hundred. It was the author’s wish that the black notebooks appear as the final volumes in the series. A lingering mystery is why he wished them to be published at all. One possibility is that in his waning years he was seized by a need for candor. Is their appearance therefore a posthumous act of confession?

It seems unlikely. Although Heidegger was presented with several opportunities to offer an apology, he always demurred. His exchange of letters with his former student Herbert Marcuse is a shameful exercise in misdirection, in which he suggests that Marcuse’s outrage over murders during the war might be directed equally against the Communist treatment of “East Germans” as well as “Jews.” His 1966 interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel is thick with half-truths. After his resignation from the rectorship Heidegger is said to have confessed to a student that his term of office had been “the greatest stupidity of my life.” Yet no public statement of contrition was forthcoming.

Even if Heidegger came to regret his service to the Reich, the notebooks written after 1934 show that many of the political beliefs that first drew him to Nazism remained unchanged. Worse still, those beliefs continued to contaminate his philosophy. Many more notebooks are slated to appear, but there is little reason to believe that they will reveal a change of heart. Heidegger had the habit of blaming his personal misfortunes and the misfortunes of the modern age on conspiracies and anonymous metaphysical processes that no human being could hope to control. But one thing is certain: whatever damage the black notebooks may inflict on Heidegger’s philosophical legacy, the blame will lie with their author, and with him alone.