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Heidegger & the Gas Chambers

In response to:

Heidegger in Black from the October 9, 2014 issue

To the Editors:

Concerning Martin Heidegger’s bizarre metaphysical equivalence between mechanized food production and the death camps [“Heidegger in Black,” NYR, October 9], it must be maintained that this remark was not deleted from a manuscript that was later published. The statement was made in a speech in Bremen in 1949 and was published intact in volume 79 of the Gesamtausgabe (Collected Edition) in an essay called “Positionality” (“Das Ge-Stell”). This speech was also edited and expanded (without the statement) in the essay “The Question Concerning Technology,” published in Vorträge und Aufsätze in 1954. Heidegger exacted some deletions and emendations to conceal his political opinions, but he didn’t apparently try to conceal this one.

Bruce Heinly
Harrison, Tennessee

Peter E. Gordon replies:

In his December 1949 Bremen lecture, “Das Ge-Stell” (the second lecture of a four-part series), Heidegger said that

farming is now a motorized food industry, in essence the same as the fabrication of corpses in gas chambers and extermination camps, the same as the blockade and starving of the peasantry, the same as the fabrication of the hydrogen bomb.

Though further material may yet come to light, this ranks among Heidegger’s most direct remarks on the genocide of the European Jews. Its publication history may therefore strike us as significant.

Heidegger substantially reworked the lecture, and in November 1953 it appeared with a new title, “Die Frage nach der Technik” (“The Question Concerning Technology”); this version was then published the following year (Heidegger, Vorträge und Aufsätze, 1954). It was eventually reprinted, after the author’s death, in volume 7 of the Heidegger Gesamtausgabe. Anglophone readers are most familiar with this version since it is still widely available in the collection translated by William Lovitt as The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays (1977). But in this version, both in the German and in the English translation, the passage quoted above is missing—just why has not so far been established.

In 1994, the Bremen lectures were finally published in their original form in volume 79 of the official German edition of Heidegger’s collected works, in the third division identified as “Unpublished Works.” Here the missing passage is restored. It could be that Heidegger willfully suppressed the passage in the revised 1953–1954 version of the lecture. But to learn whether he did so and what motives he might have had for such an omission would demand further research. What we do know is that the missing sentences only appeared long after their author had died.

More intriguing is the question of what this passage may tell us about Heidegger’s thoughts on the Holocaust. Heidegger was writing in the early 1950s, at a time when the fledgling Federal Republic of Germany had just embarked on the project of economic recovery and democratic renewal. But he could not share in the general enthusiasm for industrial advancement. Although he never made his reasons specifically clear, he then compared “the fabrication of corpses in gas chambers and extermination camps” to “the fabrication of the hydrogen bomb” and he announced that these were “in essence the same” (im Wesen das Selbe) as the “motorized food industry.” It should be noted that Heidegger does not call the genocide by its proper name: murder. He refers to it only as the “fabrication of corpses” (Fabrikation von Leichen), a phrase that avoids any mention of specific agency or responsibility and evokes instead the anonymous functioning of a machine.

Heidegger may have believed that all differences of technological production dissolve into the generalized phenomenon of “machination” or Machenschaft. (This is a term that recurs with some frequency in the black notebooks he wrote between 1931 and 1941.) But a philosopher should draw clear distinctions. The comparison to industrial farming is morally obtuse not least because scientifically managed agricultural production keeps alive millions of individuals across the globe who would otherwise have died of starvation. The passage erases this distinction; it equates technologies of sustenance with technologies of murder.

More troubling still, we know from the black notebooks that Heidegger blamed the Jews for helping to spread the “empty rationality” of the technological age. As he grew disillusioned with the Third Reich, he came to believe that Nazism itself had succumbed to the modern spirit of industrial efficiency. In the notebooks he writes that “racial breeding” stems from machination. He claims that the Jews live according to the “race-principle,” and “this is why they resist its [i.e. the race principle’s] unrestricted application.” The inference is clear: in Heidegger’s imagination, the Jews embodied the very same logic of machination that brought about their destruction. This is a spectacular case of blaming the victims.

In his better moments, Heidegger was an insightful philosopher whose work remains of value. But such passages do nothing to sustain our confidence in his philosophical legacy.