The public hatred of Martin Heidegger after the Second World War is more due to his lack of condemnation of the Nazi regime, and his silence on the subject of concentration camps, than to his own involvement with the party in 1933-34. So I think it’s pretty important to understand why this response is absent from Heidegger’s later work. From whither Heidegger’s silence on the Nazis and the Holocaust?
Firstly, we might look at the fact that Heidegger’s silence on the Holocaust was only partial. He in fact did, in a 1949 presentation state
“Agriculture is now a motorized food industry – in essence, the same as the manufacturing of corpses in gas chambers and extermination camps, the same as the blockading and starving of nations, the same as the manufacture of hydrogen bombs.”
Heidegger’s silence is then not one of failing to mention the Holocaust at all, but one of failing to mention the Holocaust as an absolute event – as an event categorically different from every other tragedy, and as an event which must not be thought out of its similarity with other tragedies but only out of its absolute specificity. Still today it is considered absolutely insensitive to compare any other political events to the Holocaust, (yet devout ultra-orthodox Jews which I am proud to think of as friends, do not object to understanding fascism in its essence and making comparisons between current fascist trends in Canadian society and Germany during the early and mid 1930s). Heidegger’s refusal to endorse such specificity is emphasized in a letter to Herbert Marcuse:
“To the serious legitimate charges that you express “about a regime that murdered millions of Jews, that made terror into an everyday phenomenon, and that turned everything that pertains to the ideas of spirit, freedom, and truth into its bloody opposite,” I can merely add that if instead of “Jews” you had written “East Germans”, then the same holds true for one of the allies…”
Clearly, Heidegger acknowledges the truth of Marcuse’s criticisms of the Nazi regime. I also doubt many would refuse to use such a condemnation against the Soviet Red Army. What it’s normal to find awful in this claim is not the content of either condemnation, but the equivocation of one condemnation with another. We have this idea, I know not where from, that condemning two actions because they fail to meet the same standard means there is a moral equivalency between the actions. Moral equivalency is a concept we use to condemn anyone who criticize a power who is not to be criticized – i.e. someone who condemns America for violating war crimes is claiming America is “morally equivalent” with those nations it is attacking, and therefore the critic is plainly insane and immoral for making the criticism in the first place. Chomsky makes a big deal about the term “moral equivalency”.
But back to Heidegger – why does Heidegger not consider the genocide of Jews to be absolutely specific, different from the terror of the red army? I think it’s because he doesn’t find annihilation – the destruction of people and things – very interesting. He draws a distinction between annihilation and what he calls “devastation”:
“Devastation is more uncanny than mere annihilation [bloße Vernichtung]. Mere annihilation sweeps aside all things including even nothingness, while devastation on the contrary orders [bestellt] and spreads everything that blocks and prevents” (WHD, 11/29–30;
Devastation is not the physical breaking of people or things, but a malady of spirit or History. It is rather that which conceals home, which conceals the inceptual. Devestation makes the world “unworld”. To put it in an everyday way of speaking – annihilation destroys people and things, but devastation sweeps away our ability to to recognize what people and things are – it robs from us our ability to think according to our own histories and concepts. But what role does our history play in judgement, in our ability to think? This is actually not difficult to explain: Western Civilization is built on values and ideals – most countries have constitutions which are understood as founding documents which lay out principles on which societal order is formed. Thinking according to our inceptual home means something like thinking in the context of a history in which values and ideals play a certain kind of role. To be devastated means for that role to be concealed, for us to lack the abilities to think handed down from history – for us to lose track of the historicality of our ideals in the history of spirit. For Heidegger, America plays an active role in the spread of devastation:
“We know today that the Anglo-Saxon world of Americanism has resolved to annihilate [zu vernichten] Europe, that is, the homeland, and that means: the inception of the Western world. The inceptual is indestructible [unzerstörbar]” (GA 53: 68/54; tm).
This is confusing because Heidegger uses the word “annihilate” to mean what devastation means in the previous quote. The key is to recognize that annihilation in this expression is not the annihilation of people or things, but the annihilation of “the homeland”, which for America is Europe and the “inception of the Western World”. America attempts to be rid of its European heritage – it thinks it can strike out on its own, but in fact, this is not possible – it remains tied to the “indestructible” inception from which it is born.
But what of concentration camps? For Heidegger, such camps – or any other horror bestowed on the world in the early to mid 20th century – are themselves only examples of annihilation. And yet, at the same time, they all express the devastation which has befallen spirit in the age of technological thinking. That devastation is only indirectly manifested in specific horrors, and not qualitatively more or less “present” in the Holocaust than in the Atomic Bomb (it might be relevant to remember that the Atomic Bomb very much could have, and could still, end humanity – it would be difficult to claim that next to the annihilation of humanity the Holocaust remains an absolutely specific evil). This equivalent manifestation of devastation in disparate annihilations is what makes Heidegger guilty “moral equivalence”, i.e. holding many incidents under the same standard.
The very notion of moral equivalence is an example of the devastation, of the annihilation of homeland, which we experience (or rather, fail to experience) on a daily basis in modern corporate/liberal society. When Chomsky calls for the most basic moral principle, hypocrisy, be observed, and is called a terrorist, our alienation from the inceptual Western homeland is extreme.
But what does devastation have to do with the G20? Certainly at the G20 summit many experienced the annihilation of basic rights and freedoms. At the G20 detention centre many had police officers tell them “there are spaces where your rights do not apply”. This echos the logic of the “free speech zone” at Queens Park – an ominous assertion both given the recent history of the Chinese “Protest Zones” during the Olympics at Bejing, and the fact that according to the Charter, Canada itself is a free speech zone.
But devastation – our loss of homeland – is not experienced in the taking away of rights, or in the G20 integrated security unit acting like Canada is a Police State. No, the devastation is experienced in the civil response, or rather, the lack of a civil response to the abolition of peoples rights. It is a devastation because it expresses our lack of understanding of our own ideals, their importance, and their force in legitimating a society which is substantially better than many others. Those ideals, although written on a document brought home to Canada in 1982, have their origin in European traditions. The extent to which we lose touch with the importance of upholding our ideals is the extent to which we choose to abandon them.
Principles are not to be universally adhered to – principles exist for a reason, and if those principles no longer function to serve life, to serve society, then those principles should be re evaluated and replaced. However, we should recognize that the moment our rights and freedoms can be taken away at a moments notice for the convenience of a particular political regime is the moment when these rights are merely propaganda and tools of power – to be accorded and not accorded to various groups for particular ends. The lack of appreciation of the historical depth of such annihilations that took place during the G20 is symptomatic of the deep devastation of Americanism.
The antidote to Americanism is nothing other than thinking – thinking which appreciates the role of principles and rights, thinking which evaluates the reality against the ideality of “democracy”, and a thinking which does not fall to the easy truisms and simplifications of the corporate media.