To Sanitize the Master’s Corpus: On the Heidegger Hoax
By Richard WolinJune 18, 2023
A closer examination of the publication history of Heidegger’s texts reveals that, for decades, his philosophical legacy has been willfully and systematically manipulated by a coterie of well-disposed intimates and disciples. Toward the end of his life, Heidegger entrusted editorial responsibility for the supervision and publication of his manuscripts not to experienced scholars but instead to acolytes and relatives who, as a rule, possessed limited professional competence—persons whose overriding concern was the preservation of the “Master’s” reputation rather than respect for inherited editorial norms.
Among this close-knit group of loyalists, immediate family members have played—and continue to play—a disproportionate role. Thus, following Heidegger’s death in 1976, the philosopher’s son, Hermann, assumed primary responsibility for the oversight and publication of his father’s manuscripts, including the mammoth, 102-volume Gesamtausgabe, or Collected Works edition, under the imprint of the Frankfurt publisher Vittorio Klostermann.
Prior to being elevated to the position of his father’s literary executor, Hermann Heidegger’s career path had been remarkably undistinguished. Following a run-of-the-mill turn as a continuing education instructor, he took up a post in 1955 with the German Defense Ministry in Bonn, where he oversaw the production of a military newsletter, Information for the Troops.
In light of Hermann Heidegger’s pivotal role as the administrator of his father’s literary estate, it is worth pointing out that he has consistently maintained ties to politically dubious, far-right political circles. For example, in 2014, when, following publication of the Black Notebooks, a heated controversy erupted over the philosopher’s antisemitism, Hermann, seeking to calm the waters, gave an interview to Sezession, a Neue Rechte (New Right) publication. This magazine, owing to its substantive links to various ethnonationalist and anti-immigrant groups—the German Identitarian Movement (IBD) and the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party’s extremist faction, Der Flügel (the Wing)—was officially placed under surveillance by the Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) in 2019, as a threat to Germany’s “basic democratic order.” Sezession’s publisher, the Saxony-Anhalt–based Institut für Staatspolitik, which is also under federal surveillance, functions as the AfD’s unofficial think tank. The Institut convenes semi-annual “summer academies” that double as gathering places for a variety of militant far-right youth groups.
Ultimately, Hermann Heidegger’s attempt to clear his father’s name fell considerably short of the mark. As he remarked at one point during the interview with Sezession, “My father was critical of ‘world Jewry’ without being an antisemite. After Auschwitz, it has become impossible to make this distinction, although anyone who was alive during the 1930s readily understands its meaning.” What seems to have escaped Hermann’s attention is that the expression “world Jewry” (Weltjudentum)—which conjures the image of a “Jewish world conspiracy”—was itself a lexical mainstay of Nazi race thinking. Hitler himself frequently had recourse to it in Mein Kampf and other writings. Truly a shame that Auschwitz, among its various pernicious aftereffects, fundamentally ruined things for well-meaning critics of “world Jewry” like the Heideggers!
The lack of professional standards that has repeatedly compromised the administration of Heidegger’s Nachlass, or literary estate, has provoked accusations that the Collected Works edition was, in effect, being run as a “family business.” In a widely read article, Heidegger scholar Theodore Kisiel lambasted the Gesamtausgabe (GA) as an “international scandal of scholarship,” insofar as the editorial procedures deviated considerably from accepted scholarly standards. The University of Siegen philosopher Marion Heinz, who edited GA 44, lamented that the willful neglect of professional guidelines has generated editorial pandemonium—a situation in which “no one knows which passages have been omitted, or whether, in the case of transcriptions or copies [of original manuscripts], insertions have been made.” “In sum,” Heinz concluded, “we have no reliable basis at our disposal to research and evaluate Heidegger’s philosophy.” The upshot of the editorial chaos described by Heinz is that the reception of Heidegger’s work has been repeatedly marred by a series of embarrassing editorial gaffes, as damning discrepancies between the manuscript versions of the philosopher’s texts and the published versions have increasingly come to light.
Public mistrust vis-à-vis the Collected Works edition was heightened by a bizarre incident that took place in January 2014, a mere two months prior to the publication of the Black Notebooks. Earlier, Heidegger’s literary executors had announced that the fourth installment of these notebooks, Anmerkungen I–V (Remarks), which covers the years 1942–48, had inexplicably gone missing. Suddenly and unexpectedly, however, the manuscript miraculously reappeared. It seems that, all along, the misplaced volume had been in the possession of an extended “family member”: Silvio Vietta, a professor of German at the University of Hildesheim. When pressed to account for the manuscript’s curious disappearance, Vietta explained that, six decades earlier, Heidegger had given it to his mother Dorothea as a “gift” while the two were engaged in a torrid love affair.
It soon became apparent that the saga of the errant “Vietta notebook”—a high-stakes game of literary-philosophical “fort/da”—was merely the tip of the iceberg: one of numerous editorial irregularities afflicting the Black Notebooks. Also inexplicably missing was volume I, Winke und Überlegungen (Hints and Reflections). As of this writing, the public has yet to receive a satisfactory explanation concerning its enigmatic disappearance. In his afterword to Anmerkungen I–V, Black Notebooks editor Peter Trawny informed readers, dispassionately and with admirable pith, that “the volume’s whereabouts are unknown”: a tacit confession that, in the topsy-turvy world of Heidegger publishing, such enigmas are to be expected; hence, readers should simply “adapt” by lowering their expectations accordingly.
Another low point in this tragicomic editorial saga occurred in 2015, when Gesamtausgabe publisher Vittorio Klostermann, in a desperate gambit to bolster waning public confidence in the edition’s integrity, felt compelled to circulate a memorandum requesting that editors who were aware of additional textual irregularities step forward in order to stave off further embarrassment. As Klostermann explained, the press had received “numerous inquiries as to why Martin Heidegger’s anti-Jewish enmity [Judenfeindschaft] had not surfaced in earlier Gesamtausgabe volumes.” Fearing that a point of no return had been reached, Klostermann underlined the severity of the metastasizing editorial debacle, warning that “[e]very additional discrepancy that third parties are able to point out risks placing the publisher […] on the defensive and could potentially damage the reputation of the Gesamtausgabe as a whole.” Klostermann concluded with an appeal that targeted editors who were responsible for volumes from the Nazi period, requesting that they come forward with any information they might have concerning “questionable deviations from the authorized copies of Heidegger’s manuscripts, be it a question of omissions or transcription errors.”
In 2022, Klostermann revealed that it had been necessary to “pulp” two Gesamtausgabe volumes in their entirety and replace them with new editions, in order to correct the various omissions and falsifications. He also acknowledged that the press had posted corrections to no fewer than 26 volumes on its website.
The controversies that have haunted the publication of Heidegger’s work are significant, insofar as they concern not merely occasional and understandable editorial lapses but instead suggest a premeditated policy of substantive editorial cleansing: a strategy whose goal was to systematically and deliberately excise Heidegger’s pro-Nazi sentiments and convictions. As Heidegger scholar Otto Pöggeler observed appositely, “Heidegger is like a fox who sweeps away his traces with his tail.”
The problems began with the postwar publication of Heidegger’s lecture courses from the 1930s, as Germany and Europe struggled to climb out from under the ruins of the “German catastrophe.” In Introduction to Metaphysics (1953), Heidegger had falsified his disturbing paean to the “inner truth and greatness of National Socialism,” adding a parenthetical clarification that referenced “the encounter between planetary technology and modern man.” When queried about the authenticity of the passage in question, Heidegger doubled down on his initial duplicity, falsely claiming that the parenthetical remarks had been in the original manuscript but that he had omitted them when the course was first presented in 1935. When, at a later point, scholars sought to establish the veracity of Heidegger’s claim by consulting the original manuscript, they were taken aback to find that the page in question had inexplicably gone missing.
In Heidegger’s lectures translated into English as Schelling’s Treatise on the Essence of Human Freedom, which were presented in 1936 and published in 1971, the editors—presumably, with the philosopher’s approval—omitted a telltale profession of fealty to Europe’s muscular fascist dictatorships. In the passage in dispute, Heidegger praised Hitler and Mussolini for having “introduced a countermovement to [European] nihilism”—“technology,” “civilization,” das Man, etc.—thereby reaffirming his “metapolitical” expectation that fascism alone possessed the capacity to redeem the West from the fate of “decline” (Untergang) prophesied by a litany of conservative revolutionary Zivilisationskritiker, such as Oswald Spengler, Carl Schmitt, and Ernst Jünger.
Similarly, in 1961, when Heidegger’s highly regarded Nietzsche lectures were published by Neske Verlag, the philosopher stealthily excised a scathing critique of democracy that was contained in the original manuscript. Democracy, insisted Heidegger, was little more than “an expression of nihilism.” Channeling Nietzsche and other critics of “mass society,” he excoriated democratic rule as “the devaluation of the highest values, to the point where they have […] ceased to be constructive forces. Hence, ‘the ascendancy of the rabble,’ ‘the social mishmash’ of ‘equal men.’” Undoubtedly, Heidegger hoped that by excluding these passages, he could forestall yet another public debate concerning his unsavory political past.
Given these views, it is little wonder that, in recent years, Heidegger’s thought has found such favor among proponents of the transatlantic “New Right”: dubious disciples such as Russia’s Aleksandr Dugin, France’s Alain de Benoist, the AfD’s Björn Höcke, and former Trump advisor Steve Bannon. In a 2018 profile in Der Spiegel by Christoph Scheuermann, Bannon is shown handling “a biography of the philosopher Martin Heidegger. ‘That’s my guy,’ Bannon says. Heidegger, he says, had some good ideas on the subject of being, which fascinates him.” Bannon, Scheuermann writes, “jumps from the depths of politics to the heights of philosophy, from the swamp to Heidegger in five seconds. What sets us apart from animals or rocks, Bannon asks? What does it mean to be human? How far should digital progress go?”
Heidegger’s hypocrisy in the aforementioned cases was twofold. First, although he repeatedly insisted that his lectures and treatises from the Nazi era were being published verbatim—without substantive interventions or alterations—the preceding examples suggest that, as a rule, this policy was honored more often in the breach than in the observance. Second, Heidegger’s discourse was punctuated by polemical indictments of the “Enlightenment,” “liberalism,” and “modernity,” but when it came to Nazism’s genocidal excesses, he remained uncharacteristically silent—even after the war, when the Third Reich’s “annihilationist” essence had become impossible to deny. Instead, he blamed the debacle of World War II on the evils of modern technology, implying that National Socialism would have “succeeded” had it not succumbed to pernicious Western and Jewish influences.
Thus, in one of the few cases where Heidegger deigned to discuss the “Final Solution” to the “Jewish Question,” he cynically characterized the Holocaust as an act of “Jewish self-annihilation.” By making this accusation, Heidegger, in keeping with a widely held antisemitic prejudice, insinuated that, since the Jews were the leading “carriers” of modern technology, they had effectively died by their own hand at Auschwitz and the other sites of industrialized mass murder. Heidegger buttressed this callous indictment of the “disintegrative” Jewish influence by asserting in the Black Notebooks that “[o]ne of the stealthiest forms of Gigantism [das Riesige], and perhaps the most ancient, is the fast-paced cleverness of calculation, huckstering, and intermingling whereby [world] Jewry’s worldlessness is established.”
Heidegger’s incessant condemnation of the ontological-historical link between “world Jewry” and modern “technics” strongly suggests that his celebrated Technik-critique, as elaborated in “The Question Concerning Technology” and related essays, was impelled by a deep-seated, ideologically driven aversion to “Jewish materialism”—by racially motivated fears concerning the corrosive cultural consequences of “world Jewry” as purveyors of, as Heidegger once put it, “empty rationality and calculability.” Heidegger’s antisemitic animus was prefigured by a letter he wrote to his wife Elfride in 1920, in which he openly characterized himself as a “spiritual antisemite.”
Whether Heidegger overcame these prejudices later in life is extremely doubtful. After the war, he bemoaned in the Black Notebooks a “conspiracy” purportedly initiated by “world journalism” (Weltjournalismus) to keep Germany in a condition of fealty vis-à-vis the Western Allies. When, in 1986, Hans-Georg Gadamer—Heidegger’s star student—was queried about his mentor’s postwar ideological leanings, he avowed that “Heidegger remained sufficiently a Nazi after the war that he was convinced that world opinion was totally dominated by Jews.”
In 2015, yet another embarrassing and politically suspect instance of textual suppression surfaced. The editor of Heidegger’s lecture course Hölderlin’s Hymns “Germanien” and “Der Rhein” (1934–35) had incorrectly transcribed the philosopher’s abbreviation of Nationalsozialismus—“N. soz.”—as “natural science,” notwithstanding the fact that to derive the German word for “natural science” (Naturwissenschaften) from the abbreviation in question strains credulity. Here, too, it would be reasonable to assume that the faulty transcription was intentional: another awkward attempt to shield the Master’s reputation from critical scrutiny. The plausibility of this hypothesis is enhanced by the fact that, in 2022, Klostermann elected to impound extant copies of Heidegger’s 1934–35 lecture course and replace them with an entirely new edition.
At this point, however, the repeated attempts to sanitize Heidegger’s corpus backfired spectacularly, as suspicions arose that the editorial manipulation of his Hölderlin lectures was part of a long-standing campaign to airbrush the philosopher’s dubious political past. Writing in the German newsweekly Die Zeit, Adam Soboczynski wondered aloud whether the escalating list of editorial omissions and falsifications were merely signs of a much bigger campaign—part of a systematic effort on the part of Heidegger’s literary executors to whitewash his prodigious National Socialist sympathies. As Soboczynski mused,
A widespread suspicion has emerged with respect to the Heidegger edition: has there been an attempt to present a version of Heidegger’s philosophy purged of references to National Socialist doctrine? Are the errors that have surfaced with respect to the so-called “last hand edition” [Ausgabe der letzten Hand] […] merely the tip of the iceberg?
In 2014, the public belatedly learned that, 16 years earlier, Peter Trawny and Hermann Heidegger had teamed up to suppress Heidegger’s avowal, in The History of Beyng (1938–40), that “[i]t would be worthwhile inquiring into world Jewry’s predisposition to planetary criminality.” In doing so, Trawny and Heidegger fils willfully violated the strictures of the “last hand edition,” since, as Trawny himself later acknowledged, although the assertion had been contained in the original manuscript, the editorial duo nevertheless decided to omit it.
To accuse “world Jewry,” circa 1939, of “planetary criminality”—shortly after the anti-Jewish pogroms of Kristallnacht and following Hitler’s infamous prophecy of January 30, 1939, that, should a new world war erupt, the result would be the “annihilation of world Jewry”—is tantamount to “eliminationist” antisemitism at its purest. This is true insofar as Heidegger’s reproach inculpated all Jews—men, women, and children—not because of their specific actions or deeds but purely and simply because of their “racial character” as Jews.
The History of Beyng was originally published in 1998 as GA 69. To this day, readers have never been provided with a satisfactory account of why Trawny and Hermann Heidegger jointly decided to excise the dictum in question. Nor has the public ever been informed why Klostermann and his associates waited 24 years to restore the passage, as occurred in 2022, when a third edition was finally published. (A second edition appeared in 2012.) Here, the hazards and pitfalls of allowing the Gesamtausgabe to be run as a “family business” emerge clearly and undeniably. In order to explain the excision, we must return to Soboczynski’s plausible supposition that Heidegger’s literary executors sought to “present a version of [his] philosophy that has been purged of references to National Socialist doctrine.”
Only with the publication of the third edition of The History of Beyng, in 2022, were readers informed about the precise positioning of Heidegger’s disturbing remark concerning “world Jewry’s predisposition to planetary criminality” in the manuscript. It appeared in a section entitled “Power and Criminality” (“Macht und Verbrechertum”), in which Heidegger sought to unmask and denounce so-called “leading planetary criminals” (planetarische Hauptverbrecher).
In his 2014 book Heidegger and the Myth of a Jewish World Conspiracy, Trawny, seeking to defuse the antisemitic implications of Heidegger’s dictum, suggested that the “planetary criminals” the philosopher had in mind were not the Jews, but instead the “rulers of the totalitarian states […] Hitler and Stalin.” The only problem with this argument is that Hitler and Stalin are nowhere mentioned in the text itself. Moreover, Trawny overlooked the fact that, whereas Heidegger’s texts are suffused with denunciations of “Bolshevism” and “Americanism,” when it came to National Socialism’s genocidal transgressions, he remained uncharacteristically reticent. Ultimately, Trawny’s effort to portray Heidegger as a prescient critic of “totalitarianism” was little more than a diversion or smoke screen.
In the final section of The History of Beyng (“Koinon: Out of the History of Beyng”), Heidegger forcefully condemned “communism” as the culmination or apogee of “machination” and the “forgetting of Beyng.” “Power’s empowering into the unconditional aspect of machination and from out of the latter,” he asserted, “is the essence of ‘communism.’ What goes by this name is […] conceived rather as that ordering of beings as such and as a whole that marks the historical era as that of the consummation […] of all metaphysics.”
It is important to note that, in the remarks just cited, Heidegger’s excoriation of “communism” as the ne plus ultra of technological “ruination” was entirely consistent with his antisemitism. This is true insofar as Heidegger, along with other Nazi critics of “Jewish Bolshevism,” viewed communism as a part of a Jewish “plot” to achieve “planetary domination.” As Heidegger avowed to fellow philosopher Karl Jaspers during the early 1930s, “There really is a world conspiracy of Jews.”
Heidegger’s “Angst” vis-à-vis “Jewish Bolshevism” resonated in his assertion in June 1941, as the Hitler-Stalin pact unraveled, that “[t]he ‘underhandedness’ of Bolshevik politics has come to light with the reappearance of the Jew [Maxim] Litvinov”—a reference to the former Soviet foreign minister who had recently been named ambassador to the United States. Heidegger’s allusion to Bolshevik “underhandedness” conveyed his view that Jews were the “Drahtzieher” or “string pullers” who were orchestrating Soviet politics from behind the scenes. In Heidegger and the Myth of a Jewish World Conspiracy, Trawny himself acknowledged the pivotal role that “Jewish Bolshevism” played in Heidegger’s worldview during the 1930s. As Trawny affirmed, Heidegger “thinks that ‘world Judaism’ occupies the key positions among the Bolsheviks.”
Thus, in The History of Beyng, Heidegger’s inquiry concerning “world Jewry’s predisposition to planetary criminality” culminated in his inculpation of “communism” as a manifestation of “Jewish Bolshevism,” whose representatives he regarded as the “leading planetary criminals.” However, since Heidegger’s unsettling assertion was suppressed by the philosopher’s literary executors, the true extent of his antisemitic convictions was concealed from the public until quite recently.
The editorial manipulation of Heidegger’s texts was intended to deflect critical attention from the fraught nexus between the “History of Being” (Seinsgeschichte) and the “Politics of Being” (Seinspolitik) in his oeuvre. As a result, the public has for decades been presented with a misleading, politically sanitized image of Heidegger’s Denken, a bowdlerized version in which traces of his profascist political allegiances have been extensively airbrushed.
As far as the numerous foreign-language editions of Heidegger’s works are concerned, from a publishing standpoint, it is essentially too late—too cumbersome and too expensive—to implement the requisite corrections and emendations. Consequently, for the foreseeable future, generations of students encountering Heidegger’s work for the first time will be exposed to editorially doctored, politically cleansed versions of his thought. These significantly flawed editions have, meretriciously, become the de facto standard editions.
Equally dishonest is the fact that, in the increasingly voluminous secondary literature on Heidegger’s work, the web of editorial deception I have described is rarely mentioned. For were it acknowledged, it would risk exposing a concerted and deliberate policy of textual manipulation that, by camouflaging Heidegger’s troubling ideological loyalties, has sought to suppress essential questions concerning the intellectual and moral integrity of his work.
Recent reports have confirmed that, following Hermann Heidegger’s death in 2019, the legacy of the Collected Works edition as a Heidegger “family business” will endure. Consequently, in keeping with an established tradition, Hermann Heidegger’s youngest son, Arnulf, was named as the new executor of the philosopher’s literary estate.
Announcing his plans for the publication of Heidegger’s remaining papers in the form of a “supplementary edition” (Ergänzungsausgabe), Arnulf Heidegger let it be known that the manuscripts from his grandfather’s estate would be barred from public view until 2046, when the existing copyright was due to lapse. In making the announcement, Arnulf confirmed the existence of what he called “politically tricky passages” (politisch heikle Stellen). He pointedly declined to specify, however, what “politically tricky” meant or entailed—a refusal that led to speculation that the “supplementary edition” would serve as a repository or “bad bank” for a subset of the philosopher’s politically toxic views.
This essay is adapted from Richard Wolin’s 2023 book Heidegger in Ruins: Between Philosophy and Ideology, available now from Yale University Press.
Richard Wolin teaches history, political science, and comparative literature at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His new book, Heidegger in Ruins: Between Philosophy and Ideology, was published by Yale University Press in 2023.
Richard Wolin teaches history, political science, and comparative literature at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He is the author of Heidegger’s Children: Hannah Arendt, Karl Löwith, Hans Jonas, and Herbert Marcuse (2001), The Seduction of Unreason: The Intellectual Romance with Fascism from Nietzsche to Postmodernism (2006), and The Wind from the East: French Intellectuals, the Cultural Revolution, and the Legacy of the 1960s (2012), all with Princeton University Press. His new book, Heidegger in Ruins: Between Philosophy and Ideology, was published by Yale University Press in 2023. His articles and reviews have appeared in Dissent, The Nation, and The New Republic.
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