The subtitle that Richard Wolin has attached to his new book on Martin Heidegger is “Between Philosophy and Ideology,” and it pitches one of the 20th century’s most influential philosophers between two uneasy stools. Heidegger’s Being and Time, published in 1927, served notice on the long European tradition of rational discourse. That same year, Julien Benda released his terse and tart Treason of the Clerks, which denounced the sellout of philosophers left and right to ideological unreason. It is instructive to note their respective fates. During the Occupation of France, Benda was literally “buried alive” among brave Protestants. Heidegger read the Nazi victories of 1940 as proof of Germany’s triumphant destiny, her eventual utter defeat as a temporary reverse. As Benda foresaw, Heidegger the ideologue learned nothing from experience.

It was ever thus, especially when it comes to questions about Jews. Ever since Plato and Aristotle were co-opted as intellectual buttresses, the apologists of Christianity stretched for Hellenic antecedents to dilute its Jewish provenance. When Simone Weil, self-lacerating Jewish apostate, proposed to dump the Hebrew Bible and replace it with the works of the two Greek heavyweights, General de Gaulle declared her to be folle; “nuts,” some would say. What might he have said of Heidegger’s attribution of unique powers to men whose initial was H: Heraclitus (not the pre-Socratic wit but the Hellenistic anti-Semite), Hölderlin, Hegel, and, depend upon it, Adolf Hitler? Fou, fou?

Christianity could not do without the Judaic origin of Jesus of Nazareth. His divinity had to be certified by the biblical claim that the prophet Isaiah had predicted the Messiah’s advent, “from the stem of Jesse.” When St. Paul grafted a tripartite universal saviour onto Judaism’s parochial monotheism, the singular God was poached in a three-in-one celestial Truth that defied reason. As the gospels advertised salvation as universally available, the Chosen People were dumped into villainy, serving as Christianity’s indispensable other. When the Jewish rebels’ last bastion, Masada, fell to the Romans in 73 C.E., the destruction of Herod’s Temple in Jerusalem (leaving only the Wailing Wall) and the dispersal of its priesthood were held to have proved conclusively that God’s favor had been transferred to Rome. Seven thousand Jerusalem Jews were crucified. There would have been more, had the victors not run out of wood.

Sixty years later, another generation of “stiff-necked” Judaean rebels was dispossessed of its already ruined capital. The emperor Hadrian effaced Jerusalem from the map and retitled it Aelia Capitolina. Tertullian, Christianity’s second-century propagandist, abbreviated discussion of the Trinity by announcing “credo quia absurdum: I believe because it is beyond reason. St. Augustine of Hippo came to gloat over the dispersal and degradation of the Jews as happy proof of the truth of the new faith. Ghettos and pogroms followed. In 319 C.E., the upstart emperor Constantine declared Christianity Rome’s official religion. A cloudy cross in the sky after a Roman military victory was interpreted as the Trinity’s endorsement of the arriviste’s imperial legitimacy. Holy Communion fast-tracked candidates for salvation without requiring male converts to have their tickets clipped by circumcision.

Conspiracies of “stiff-necked Jews” were useful in explaining whatever delayed the promised and postponed Second Coming. In the Middle Ages, that Jews, too, died of the plague served only to prove their diabolical part in its propagation. As that supposedly witty T.S. Eliot put it: “The rats are underneath the piles, the jew is underneath the lot.” Deprived of not only a capital city but also of a capital letter, creepy Jews were translated into the propagators of both capitalism and Communism. When he wished the Arabs well in the war of 1973, the historian Arnold Toynbee dismissed Judaism as a “fossil religion.” He had earlier claimed to have been flashed back to witness the Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C.E. Time travel is no rare affectation of prophets, professors, and philosophers. Heidegger promised that the year 2300 would deliver the eclipse of America’s hegemony. Who can be sure he will be wrong?

In the later 19th century, Bismarck’s forcibly unified empire seemed to promise the Germanic domination of mainland Europe. Prussia dislodged Austria-Hungary from primacy by provoking Vienna into the losing war of 1866. Louis-Napoleon’s humiliation in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 led to the French being deprived of Alsace and Lorraine. Disparate German-speaking states were coerced into the winners’ camp. Nietzsche’s prophecy of the advent of the Übermensch—a breed of superior successors to the Enlightenment’s civilized softies—was taken to predict German ascendancy (never precisely what Nietzsche said). At the same time, the term “anti-Semite” came into being not to condemn the idea but to describe it dispassionately. It was popularized by, among others, the nationalist Heinrich von Treitschke, whose idea that “the Jews are our misfortune” would later become the slogan of the Nazi paper Der Stürmer.


Born in 1889, Martin Heidegger grew up in the mountainous backwoods of the most confident industrial state on the continent. While the steel mills of the Ruhr promised the triumph of modern industry, the romantic legend of the unspoiled Teutonic rustic, rooted in his ancestral land, persisted in a state empowered by wealth-generating industrialists. Nazism came of a schizoid pairing of rustic nostalgia with profitable modernism. While supervising industrialized mass murder, Heinrich Himmler insisted that he was a simple farmer at heart who had yet to stable his cows.

Wolin, a professor at the CUNY Graduate Center, offers an exhaustive account of Heidegger’s prodigious, godless solemnity—yet he fails to make anything of young Martin’s incipient training for the Catholic priesthood. In truth, Heidegger’s philosophy did not drift far from its roots in what it promised to supplant. Godless “Being” defaced the Trinity. A parodic “faith” axed Christianity’s antique source in the scriptures of rootless, inauthentic Hebrews. With the cult of “Being” as his godless gospel, Heidegger declared Aryans to be the world’s uniquely “spiritual” people, the truly chosen Chosen. Theodor Herzl’s Zionism had promised to purge Europe’s anti-Semitism by re-establishing the Jews in Palestine as open-necked Spartan nationalists. Heidegger had his own perverted Zionism, in which he posited the Jews as his necessary quasi-diabolical others.

History’s seeming habit of proceeding by mockery and mimesis, left and right, is not evident in Wolin’s solemn scholarship. His indictment of Heidegger might actually serve as a parody of its subject in its protracted want of wit. The invaluable virtue of Heidegger in Ruins is its relentless scholarly catalogue of Heidegger’s so-called Black Notebooks, featuring his protracted denunciation of Jews. The comedy of Heidegger’s adulterous passion for the Jewish student Hannah Arendt (and hers for him) is scarcely mentioned. She denounced him, sort of, once she was safely in New York, but Germanic vanity disposed her to take greater pleasure in his unapologetic postwar company than in that of Israel’s loud-mouthed Ost-Juden at the trial of Adolf Eichmann, which the New Yorker had commissioned her to cover, rather skimpily, in Jerusalem. She thought Eichmann should have been tried in Germany. Her memorable usage “the banality of evil” to describe his unprepossessing person was probably first coined by Heidegger, less to indict mass murder than to disclaim affiliation with anything so merely statistical as 6 million as good as self-inflicted “disappearances.”

Professorial vanity led Heidegger to suppress (or his postwar family to edit) his irredeemably obsessive Black Notebooks, but never to retract their prolonged indictment of the Jews. Sample sentence: In the “era of the Christian West…World Jewry was the principle of destruction. Such ravings were not unprecedented, but seldom before had an expostulator of this sort recruited supposedly serious followers, Jean-Paul Sartre not the least ardent. Sartre was quite undeterred, it seems, by the Master’s dismissive response to the Parisian’s trendy post-standing ardor. The sociologist Pierre Bourdieu would have none of it and had the thank-God-for-him gall to say, “When I hear people say that Heidegger alone makes it possible for us to think about the Holocaust—but perhaps I am insufficiently ‘post-modern’—I think I must be dreaming.”

Wolin’s own method is scrupulous in pinning every falsehood, absurdity, and vanity in Heidegger’s advocacy of unreason. The reader is likely to acquire as fat a vocabulary of triple-decker German professorial pomposities as Wolin’s meticulousness can reveal. He wisely avoids speculation about his subject’s motive or psychological derangement. Scruple stacks the charges but attempts no keen analysis, not least below the belt. Did Heidegger take especial pleasure in making his star pupil his Jew-mistress? Such speculation has no place in Wolin’s academic account. Yet without some witty dissection of the perversity below the Nazi belt of Heidegger’s vanity, even his ruins are liable to become places of pilgrimage.


Wolin is implacable but limited. No mere catalogue of Heidegger’s deviousness can be enough to dismantle his devious malice. Before World War II, he was an object of derision in the after-school chats of the Vienna circle of Jewish and Gentile “logical positivists.” Yet he emerged from his loud heiling of the Führer to become the furtive postwar guru of Jean-Paul Sartre’s “existentialism.” Sartre, on the French left, with a keen company of acolytes on the right, promoted Heidegger’s gobbledygook into a scripture whose author need answer no question. Oh for a latter-day Schopenhauer to dish it to Heidegger as scathingly as Schopenhauer did to Hegel!

What is now needed is something more scathing than nit-picking. Informed derision, of the kind that Hugh Trevor-Roper visited on Arnold Toynbee and Peter Medawar on Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, might do something to dislodge Heidegger from his false eminence. How do we know it false? Because, not least, it is a manifest transfer of “chosenness” from the Jews to the Germans. What was a burdensome demand made by the Almighty on the ancient Jews was reblocked in the form of a unique crown to fit only the blond and bullet heads of the idealized Aryan. “Being” became the grail of a faithless and heartless creed. The philosopher Alfred Ayer said that the whole rigmarole was based on nothing more reliable than a gross misunderstanding of the use and weight of the verb “to be.” The verbose Sartre was reduced to calling Ayer a con (moron). Comedy alone has the armor-piercing, below-the-belt capacity to reduce loud ruins to proper dust. The rise and fall of false prophets keep the masks of tragedy and comedy dangling on that same old nail.

Photo: AP Photo

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