Opinion |

Why It's Futile to Boycott Top Nazi Philosopher Martin Heidegger

Heidegger’s philosophy is experiencing a renaissance among Israelis while being attacked in Germany, his birthplace

Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany
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Martin Heidegger.
Martin Heidegger.Credit: adoc-photos / Corbis via Getty
Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany

“What is in truth the thing, insofar as it is a thing? When we so ask, we want to learn to know the being-thing (the thingness) of the thing. The point is to experience the thingness of the thing” (translated by Roger Berkowitz and Philippe Nonet)

This question and the statement of intentions behind it are one of the key points in the essay “The Origin of the Work of Art” by Martin Heidegger, which was recently published in Hebrew by Hakibbutz Hameuhad, translated by Adam Tenenbaum. It’s the second book by Heidegger to be published this year in Hebrew, having been preceded by the essay “On the Way to Language,” translated by Danit Dotan, and published by Pardes.

But anyone who becomes addicted to Heidegger’s characteristic style and isn’t satisfied with those two titles can look forward to the Hebrew publication of two additional works by him in the coming months: an exchange of letters with political philosopher Hannah Arendt, translated by Roi Bar, and Heidegger’s major work, “Being and Time,” translated by Elad Lapidot.

We are therefore at the height of a wave of interest in Heidegger’s philosophy in the world of Hebrew books. Those responsible for the translations are mainly members of a younger generation of Israeli scholars, many of whom live in Berlin. But in Germany, the philosopher’s birthplace, his thought is under unprecedentedly harsh attack these days. Heidegger has long been considered, in general, to be an ethically dubious figure due to the fact that he enthusiastically joined the Nazi Party in 1933.

“I expected a spiritual renewal of all of life from National Socialism,” he explained after the fact. Although Heidegger (1889-1976) became disappointed in the Nazis as early as 1934, it is clear that his sobering up did not stem from their persecution of Jews nor from any other crime committed by the regime. Rather, some of the philosopher’s writings indicate that his main criticism against the Nazis was entirely different: They simply didn’t properly understand poet Friedrich Hölderlin. Heidegger believed that it was the Germans’ task to understand the enigmatic poet, because “History will take its revenge on us if we don’t ...” And that, in his view, is what happened.

Heidegger saw Hölderlin in a semi-religious light, and declared, “I consider Hölderlin not [just] one poet among others whose work the historians of literature may take as a theme [for study]. For me, Hölderlin is the poet who points into the future, who waits for a god.”

Despite the fact that Heidegger’s views were quite well known, some people were surprised three years ago, when his personal diaries from the Nazi era – the so-called “Black Notebooks” – were published.

They contain thousands of pages of philosophical writings, but naturally what attracted most of the attention were several paragraphs filled with anti-Semitic stereotypes. Many commentators claim that these writings, which deal with Weltjudentum – “World Jewry” – are proof that even after he had ostensibly abandoned Nazism, Heidegger’s views remained fundamentally anti-Semitic, during a time when the cruelty toward German Jews intensified. Moreover, they ostensibly prove that Heidegger’s “history of being,” in other words his entire philosophical project, is tainted by Nazism. Therefore “it is no longer possible to rescue Heidegger.”

This was another blow to Heidegger’s image, to the extent that some now relate to his philosophy as if to contaminated meat, and are calling to refrain from “touching it” at all, in order not to catch and spread the infection.

Thus, in broad intellectual circles, people are demanding a boycott of the most important German philosopher of the 20th century. They would have his writings read only in the context of historical documents that demonstrate the Nazi way of thinking – as though “The Origin of the Work of Art” were no different from a speech by Hitler or Goebbels.

It should be said, however, that if Heidegger’s philosophy is contaminated, a large part of 20th-century thought already carries its infection. Heidegger is one of the most influential philosophers of our times. His thought is reflected in the writings of Jean-Paul Sartre, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Hannah Arendt, Emmanuel Levinas, Leo Strauss, Herbert Marcuse and many others, as well as in the works of such poets as Paul Celan and architects like Daniel Liebeskind, who designed the Jewish Museum Berlin. Indeed, Liebeskind’s critique of modern architecture and technology owe much to Heidegger’s essay “Building Dwelling Thinking.” This means that even if we lock up all of Heidegger’s writings in a safe, we would still not be protected from encountering his philosophy as it is mediated by others. In that case, isn’t it preferable to read the original?

Fleeing with treasure

Heidegger’s philosophy has already been written in any case, and it could be argued that turning it into “forbidden fruit” only gives it greater power. Therefore, boycotting Heidegger seems irrational: not only because his philosophy is found everywhere, but because the boycotter will really be punishing himself, in the final analysis. It is here that we discover a significant point that relates to boycotts in general: A boycott is first of all a restriction that the boycotter imposes on himself. Harming the object of the boycott is a secondary effect of this activity, if it exists at all. (In the case of Heidegger, for example, the person being boycotted is long dead and buried.) And that, after all, is the original, biblical meaning of the word herem in Hebrew: dedicating assets or animals to a god, with a prohibition against benefiting from them.

You don’t have to conclude that a boycott is an illegitimate step; but even when it is perceived as being practical in nature, it contains religious aspects related to sanctity and impurity. It’s a decision by a specific community to establish its identity by refraining from some pleasure. And that is also true, incidentally, of the Palestinian effort to impose an international boycott on Israel. In that sense, the Israeli argument that those who boycott Israel are punishing themselves doesn’t make this behavior any less reasonable – because as we have said, the essence of a boycott is self-punishment; the boycotters understand what they are doing and intend to punish themselves.

And still, if we seek biblical parallels, perhaps we can think of another way of contending with the thought of the anti-Semitic philosopher: to behave like the Israelites, who, according to Exodus 3:22, fled from Egypt with the Egyptians’ gold and silver vessels. Christian theologian Augustine saw the commandment to the Israelites to steal Egypt’s treasures as an allegory for the permission granted to him and his ilk to appropriate the Greeks’ philosophical treasures, without adopting their idol worship.

But in the same way, anti-fascist philosophers in the 20th century, as well as many Jewish philosophers, permitted themselves to appropriate basic ideas from the Nazi Heidegger’s philosophy – even if they totally rejected his political worldview. In fact, Jews were especially fond of the Nazi philosopher.

Perhaps in the final analysis, and in an entirely different context, that is also the only way for the Palestinians to deal with the powerful Israeli economy – not by boycotting, but by appropriating the hoard of gold and silver of Israel’s economy and technology. And perhaps that’s what they’re doing in any case.

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