“The Supreme Will of the People”

What Do Heidegger’s Black Notebooks Reveal?

Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht

Translated by Rodrigo Therezo

Apparently just a few days after the Nazi seizure of power (Machtergreifung) on January 30, 1933, Martin Heidegger, for his part quite seized (ergrifen), noted: “The supreme will of the people [volklich] is trapped within an enormous world darkness” (GA 94:109). Heidegger identities the critical reactions still possible within the German public sphere as part and parcel of a past, the present of which reminds him of a sewer: “The filthiness of our lushed-away era is attested by the fact that the only oppositional movement it can produce is the chit-chat of dilettantes and the hullabaloo of ‘political science’ ” (GA 94:109). Heidegger obviously took for granted that this “incomparable” moment was meant to assign German philosophy—and thus Heidegger himself—a historical role to play: “The incomparability of the world hours, the reverberant space [Schlagraum] of which German philosophy is to set ringing” (GA 94:109; Schlagraum could no doubt be translated into today’s German by the word Resonanz, “resonance”).

Heidegger, at any rate, saw in the events of early 1933 the first answers to a question he had asked with rhetorical pomp. This was not really the question whether “we are able to experience and ask which priority does destiny allot to our people” (GA 94:97), the answer for which he always kept prepared as a succinct, schematic formula of his own philosophical position: the task assigned to the German people by destiny of “inceptually taking up their exposure to beings (thrownness) and in its severe individuation and lucidity of questioning to be transfigured!!” (GA 94:97). Rather, the real question for Heidegger was ipso facto open, concerned with the “destinal readiness” (an expression he was happy to use back then) of this people and its philosophers, specifically with whether they would find the “strength to step back into the readiness and preparedness for the formative recognition of this dignity of the people and for the further advancement of its rank, into which it should march” (GA 94:98). In other shorter and less confusing words, allowing Heidegger’s pretentiousness to come to the fore: the whole destiny of the nation is supposed to hinge on its readiness and ability to take up Heidegger’s own trajectory of thought and to work toward the greatness supposedly reserved for it.

As a short meditation from around those weeks on “the Germans” shows, Heidegger’s reasons for being skeptical of the destinal readiness of his nation had to do with its “groundless impatience with any attempt at finding its way back into an essential growing power” (GA 94:95). This is why Heidegger saw in Adolf Hitler the seat of all hope, as his notes—actually only those during these few weeks—lead us to believe: “A momentous experience and joy: the Führer has brought to daylight a new reality which gives our thinking its correct course and impetus. Otherwise this thinking fundamentally would have remained lost in itself, barely able to take effect” (GA 94:111). A few days prior to joining the NSDAP on May 1, 1933, Heidegger had accepted the post of rector of Freiburg University in spite of an inner resistance to doing so—which was genuine, though probably overcome by Hitler’s charisma: “Forced to accept the rectorship, I act for the first time against the innermost voice. At any rate, this position will enable me, in the best-case scenario, to prevent a thing or two from happening. For the task—assuming it is even still possible—the people are lacking” (GA 94:110).

All these Heidegger quotations are from the thirty-four so-called Black Notebooks, published for the first time last year in three Gesamtausgabe volumes and stirring a great deal of commotion among experts and the educated public alike of many countries. They contain notes, begun in 1930 though not individually dated, from a good forty years, notes that Heidegger apparently revised with a view toward book publication. In the middle of the 1970s, he presented them to the German Literary Archive in Marbach as part of his estate. In the murmuring tones typical of him, Heidegger often characterizes these entries as “attempts at a simple naming” (GA 94:1) and, first and foremost, as a testament to how he had come to philosophical inquiry. Be that as it may, there can be no doubt whatsoever that Heidegger held these notebooks to be intellectually significant—something which, considering their thoroughgoing banality, is for me not merely surprising but actually horrifying.

After what is by now an almost rhythmic sequence of Heidegger scandals, it is shocking to find reactions that would newly discover his fascination for National Socialism. But the Black Notebooks now make it possible to reconstruct the history of this fascination in all its microscopic detail. And yet, since 1933, there was never any doubt as to Heidegger’s affinity with the National Socialist movement, it being then only predictable that he would partake of its ideology and motives. It was thus always possible, as it still is today—and on quite reasonable grounds—to respond to these historical facts by either deciding to ignore Heidegger’s philosophical work or by being open to a revised appreciation of its significance.

The Black Notebooks confirm just about everything we could have anticipated and feared regarding that part of Martin Heidegger’s intellectual biography. The only thing really surprising here is the absolutely devastating intellectual quality of these notes. Over the course of the Nazi years—after a short period of enthusiasm and hope, in which the “renewal of Germany” plays a decisive role—Heidegger’s growing disappointment with a National Socialism gone astray from his expectations raises itself to the personal level, to what an American commentator aptly described as a “rhapsody in resentment” along with the shrillest tones of academic condescension. To begin with, a predictable repertoire of positive concepts and themes assume prominence: the hierarchical complementarity between “leading [führen] and following,” “destinal readiness,” “resoluteness,” “hardness,” “the joy of work,” the dynamic of a move “forward,” and, above all, the ever-returning insistence on a suitable “attunement.” But this directly gives way both to a crescendo of condescension toward the colleagues receiving more attention from the NSDAP and to a noisy complaining— under the aegis of the omnipresent word machination—over a number of tendencies and phenomena that Heidegger held to be the symptoms of a general decadence, among which we could cite “Americanism,” “pacifism,” and of course “liberalism”—but also “boxing,” “the movies,” and the “radio,” which Heidegger called “idiotic” so as to honor it with one more of his etymological escapades in their typical philological shakiness (GA 96:265).

Similarly pitched remarks about “Judaism” appear rather seldom in the Black Notebooks, and when they do they correspond to the anti-Semitic standard of protofascist intellectual circles from the first third of the twentieth century, as sketched most succinctly by Oswald Spengler in his historico-speculative work The Decline of the West. For both Spengler and Heidegger, “the underlying reason for Judaism’s temporary empowerment lies in the fact that western metaphysics, especially in its modern form, provided the starting point for the ensconcement of an otherwise empty rationality and calculability, which thus managed to find a home in ‘spirit’” (GA 96:46). Heidegger is on a roll here and also relegates the “phenomenological investigation” of his teacher Edmund Husserl to that same vulgar “empty rationality” so as to preclude Husserl’s philosophy from ever being able “to attain the realms of essential decisions” (GA 96:46). In the midst of this motley ocean of ressentiment-laden banalities without argument, intuition, or variation, the reader is nearly surprised to find that Heidegger typically puts the word race in quotation marks. Alluding to the “race- theory” propagated by the German state and party, Heidegger actually criticizes positing this as an absolute (which clearly does not require any special courage in the confines of a private notebook entry). But at the same time he was eager to stress the fundamental importance of this ideological horizon: “Race—which makes up one necessary condition of historical Dasein (thrownness), not only attains the fake status of being the one and only sufficient pre-requisite—but rather, at the same time, as that which gets talked about [sic!]. The ‘intellectualism’ of this approach: not being able to differentiate between racial indoctrination and actual racial theories. One condition is elevated to the status of the unconditional” (GA 94:189).

We readers of Heidegger have long ago accepted the bitter realization that neither all of his critical remarks on the “nationalistic movement” and its ideologico-political decisions nor his increasing resentment over the same ever allowed him to take a decisive distance or even a self-critical stance toward the movement—not even once in the thirty-one years between the end of World War II and his death. Despite all the internal disappointments and the “denigrations” he experienced during the years between 1933 and 1945, Heidegger’s assurance of himself and of his mission remained unshaken: “For years now I know myself to be working down the right path toward the cultivating of knowledge and I cannot be taught by raw youth with their foolish idle talk of a ‘new’ concept of science” (GA 94:158). As this lasting self-consciousness races to hyperbolic amplitudes and heights, it frequently peaks in unintentionally humorous ways. Such is the case in a thought just as ceremoniously as auspiciously entitled “The Play and Uncanniness of Historical Calendar Dates at the Forefront of the Abyssal German History” (GA 94:523). Here Heidegger wishes to single out what he takes to be the decisive moments of German history during the nineteenth century. He starts out with the year 1806 and the beginning of Hölderlin’s madness (“Hölderlin departs”) and of a national romanticism (“the German gathering”), next comes 1813 (“the German commencement [Anlauf] reaches its summit and Richard Wagner is born”), Hölderlin’s death and Nietzsche’s birth (1843/1844), several works from Nietzsche and the death of Richard Wagner (1883), “Nietzsche’s ‘euphoria’ before the collapse” (1883), finally landing right at his own birthday, inserted after two dashes and between parentheses: “(9/26/1889)” (GA 94:523).

But what is revealed—in the midst of such unfortunately unforgettable passages—in the many hundred pages of Heidegger’s Black Notebooks, I mean in terms of its content, “values,” and prejudices? Precisely what we could have anticipated from our previous knowledge of Heidegger’s biography. Anyone who would still entertain the illusion that Heidegger was not really seduced or permeated by National Socialism must now be quiet. On the other hand, what is surprising and painful since the publication of the Black Notebooks—to everyone who believes themselves to have philosophically profited from reading Heidegger—is the hopelessly irremediable banality of its entries (especially when we know—as already mentioned—just how much importance he placed in their publication). Must this disappointment turn into the beginning of a devaluation of all other Heidegger texts? I think this question remains structurally similar to the question dealing with the consequences one should draw from the facts of Heidegger’s life between 1933 and 1945. Taking a distance is a plausible response—even though the banality of the Black Notebooks does not fundamentally cancel out the significance of texts such as Being and Time, Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics, or the “Letter on ‘Humanism.’ ” Their inspirational force has stood the test of time and is fundamentally even independent of the quality of the thoughts in Heidegger’s head that must have both preceded and attended the genesis of these texts.


The question still remains as to how we should account for the conspicuous difference in quality between the Black Notebooks and other texts written and revised by Heidegger around 1930 (when the notebooks begin) up until his death in 1976. Most of the significant texts are underpinned by lectures or courses given by Heidegger—which were always nicely prepared and focused on a theme, yet with a peculiar and almost always justified faith in momentary intuitions. This lecture style entailed a particularly dramatizing gesture, which, in his philosophizing, relentlessly pointed out the possibility of a breakthrough in thinking and the “dangers” this brings with it. I often have the feeling, when reading post-1930 Heidegger texts, that precisely this self-staging, lecturing gesture could have been a structural predecessor for the motif of the “appropriative event of truth” as the “self-revealing of being” (according to which this self-revelation is, first, supposed to be impossible to control, and, second, destructive for human existence [Dasein]).

At any rate, this gesture of his self-staging, directed to a public (as a “reverberant space [Schlagraum]”?) seemed to have inspired Heidegger and brought a new agility to his thinking. This framing condition of thinking, which was apparently so important for Heidegger, drops out of the picture with the writing of personal notes, letting his intuitions drown in the endlessly repetitive and reactionary banality of seasonal calendar slogans. Writing polished sentences and aphorisms in the solitude of a writing desk—in the only way this can happen—this was never the sort of author Heidegger was.

Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht - The Supreme Will of the People: What Do Heidegger’s Black Notebooks Reveal?
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