§1. »Weltlosigkeit.« The Term, and the Riddle of Heidegger’s Silence Concerning Auschwitz.

Rembrandt Balaam 1


In a note penned sometime in 1938 or 1939, Martin Heidegger explains why he perceives Judaism as a kind of ‘worldlessness.’ It is the fifth note in Überlegungen VIII from the recently published Black Notebooks.

One of the most hidden forms of the gigantic, and perhaps the oldest, is the stiff-necked cleverness of computing and shoving along and intermixing through which the worldlessness of Judaism is founded.1

What the ‘gigantic’ (das Riesige) signifies for Heidegger, and how exactly this specific notion from his reflections on technology concerns Judaism of all things, and how Judaism’s worldlessness is founded through the ‘gigantic,’ are questions that need to be taken up in due course. Even without undelayed comment on this, nevertheless, the use of the term ‘worldlessness,’ Weltlosigkeit, even just by itself and considered out of context, simply as a characterization of Judaism, indeed precisely as a phrase the meaning of which is more or less obvious—die Weltlosigkeit des Judentums—is enough to give pause to any consideration of Heidegger’s position on the ‘Jewish Question.’ It is enough, and even more than enough, that is to say, for anyone who has even a cursory and dilletantish awareness of the executive position held by the term ‘world’ in Being and Time and of the canonical position of Being and Time in the Heideggerian corpus.

What does ‘the wordlessness of Judaism’ mean for Heidegger? In the immediately preceding note from the Überlegungen, he seems to elucide what he has in mind by this phrase in a description of what he takes to be the true, cosmic Kampf of the German people against the Jewish people, a Kampf that can achieve only a mock victory, the caricature of victory, by extraditing all the Jews living on German soil to Madagascar or elsewhere or even by exterminating them altogether from the face of the earth.

And perhaps what is ‘victorious’ in this ‘struggle [Kampf],’ in which merely purposelessness is struggled over and which can to that extent only be the caricature of the ‘struggle,’ is the greater groundlessness [die größere Bodenlosigkeit] that, bound to nothing, makes everything serviceable (Judaism).2

This term too, Bodenlosigkeit, ‘groundlessness, lack of soil, lack of footing, lack of home turf,’ taken by itself, is enough and more than enough grist for the mill for anyone familiar with the significance that the rival notion of Bodenständigkeit, ‘groundedness, indigenousness, autochthony,’ had for Heidegger on the deepest personal level, a level where the very personality of the philosopher is inseparable from the work of philosophizing and the ad hominem element of this labour is not just its Achilles’ heel but also its Achilles arm. ‘The inner belongingness of my own work to the Black Forest and its people comes from a centuries-long and absolutely irreplaceable groundedness [Bodenständigkeit] in the Alemannian-Swabian soil.’3 ‘. . . for I am convinced that there is no essential work of the spirit that does not have its root in an originary autochthony [in einer ursprünglichen Bodenständigkeit].’4 In fact, in a letter of recommendation written in 1929, Heidegger had already demarcted the opposing camps of this great Kampf quite clearly in terms of the problem of ‘standing before the choice to again infuse our German spiritual life with genuine autochthonous forces and educators [echte bodenständige Kräfte und Erzieher], or to definitively hand it over to the growing Jewification [Verjudung] in both the broad and narrow sense.’5

What is to be done with this one little islet-like instance of this term, ‘worldlessness’ as it appears in note 5 of Überlegungen VIII—and its corollarous term, ‘groundlessness’? It goes without saying that the question thus posed can only be of interest, if at all, to a handful of individuals who still lose some sleep over the ‘Heidegger Affair,’ and whose penny-ante insomnia has been freshly upped and aggravated with the publication of the Black Notebooks in 2014. It is possible that with a good reformulation, though, the question may prove to be of a slightly wider interest.

By the same token, it should also go without saying that the executive position held by the term ‘world’ in Being and Time, and its enduring authority under later titles such as the term ‘dwelling’ (Wohnen), would not be adequate grounds for losing any sleep at all over this isolated instance of the term ‘worldlessness’ applied to Judaism. It is hardly clear if even in general the publication of the Notebooks with its intermittent notes regarding Jews and Judaism adds anything to the Heidegger dossier beyond one or two more solid corroborations of prior suspicions. To compound this general lack of clarity with the hermeneutic expectation of settling on a key term to open a decisive door to the problem may, for all we know, be a regression to the old preoccupation with a mot propre, a unique name, that sanguine espérance heideggerienne that is supposed to have been despaired of and left behind as a futile pursuit of wild geese and red herrings.6 Therefore, it must be stressed that it is due, and due only, to a recognition among some philosophers, shared by this study, of the apocalyptic dimensions of Heidegger’s silence concerning Auschwitz that this one little instance in the notebooks of the word ‘worldlessness’ can be taken out of the category that includes tangential, trivial, inconsequential, passing, obiter dicta and Nachlass floatsam, basically harmless stray-donkey remarks, and into the catgeory of the truly thought-worthy, and maybe even, who knows, das Bedenklichste. It is the overwhelming silence that, like a sound-proof chamber, makes the dropping of this frail little pin audible.

A methodological principle is thus automatically assumed. Modelled on Freud’s notion of parapraxis (Fehlleistung), we make the assumption that when a keyword which has operated as a defined term in a fully developed, highly terminological7 discourse (such as Being and Time and its later variations on the same theme) shows up in an region that is instead pervaded by a thinker’s taciturnness, rather than the usual relaxed discursivity, or, what is not far from his laconic code, a thinker’s notebooks, where we see him with his shoes off, in his pyjamas, and hear him ‘just shootin’ the breeze’8—then such a keyword must function as a veritable key to open a door of interpreation. Until 2014, the ‘scandal’ of Heidegger’s silence was a question. The invaluable advantage of the Black Notebooks is that it has considerably simplified the problem by reducing the question down to a mere riddle. Our thesis is that, by recognizing the term ‘worldlessness’ as the key to the riddle, we unlock the meaning of the silence, which means the meaning of the silence for Heidegger’s thinking as a whole. For the meaning of Heidegger’s silence concerning Auschwitz is not to be found in the term itself, nor does the silence have any significance as such. A parapraxis is not the actual neurosis to be treated; it is a key to the neurosis. Likewise the lonely instance of the word ‘worldlessness’ is nothing more than that of a key, serendipitously chanced upon, under a spell of archive fever, under a pile of papers, to open the door to a storehouse. The meaning of Heidegger’s silence concerning Auschwitz is to be found in the totality of the Heideggerian corpus, above all in its most cherished and honoured terms (Denken, Wohnen, Ereignis, Technik, etc.), a storehouse opened with this key, which can now been seen as a rich corpus that ‘is faschist right down to its innermost cellular parts.’9

In sum, there are four distinct phenomena, or moments, in Heidegger’s thinking that need to be carefully distinguished, and carefully weighed each according to its own type of hermeneutic value, before the interconnections can be appreciated:

  1. Heidegger’s silence concerning Auschwitz.
  2. Heidegger’s general disinterest in the question concerning Auschwitz.
  3. Heidegger’s occasional comment or lapsus linguae regarding Judaism.
  4. Heidegger’s thought in its innermost cellular parts.

The first phenomenon, Heidegger’s silence, is ambivalent. To a large extent, it is simply rooted in the second phenomenon. Perhaps from a certain desire to perceive a great tragic flaw in his thought, a ‘scandalous inadequacy’ in his thinking, such as in his Bremer lecture comparison of the ‘motorized food industry’ with the ‘production of corpses in the gas chambers,’10 this silence is interpreted as a Machivellian sin of omission. There is almost something flattering to Judaism in the assumption that Heidegger would make such a heroic effort to be silent about Auschwitz. The more likely humdrum reality is that Heidegger couldn’t be bothered to give so much thought to Auschwitz, any more than an average German citizen in 1943 could be bothered with the issue. It is along the same lines that Daniel Goldhagen’s question is badly positioned, even before there is any attempt to answer it based on historical evidence. The question whether ‘all’ or ‘most’ German citizens in Hitler’s Germany were willing executioners is really secondary to the question of how such a national culture could produce even a handful of individuals who could organize such an impressive bureaucratic machine. The questions regarding the active complicity of the whole Volk, or the passive sin of omission in the silence of the great majority, or the banality of the bureaucracy—all take second place to how a truly magnificent culture like that of the Germans could end up seating fifteen perfectly sane and highly educated men, eight of them with doctorates, at a table in Wannsee to plan the construction of Auschwitz; and another small well-organized group of sane, capable, well-meaning individuals to run the extermination camp.

The real value of the first two phenomena is thus to be found in the third one. Just as the ‘guilt’ of the German people as a whole must be sought in the actions of the very few, the eccentrics, so too must the value of Heidegger’s silence be sought in the desultory lapsus linguae regarding the Jews. Auschwitz was like a parapraxis that revealed what Germany real was, the truth of Germany. Being highly articulate people, the Germans until then had made a strong collective statement about who they were. But the truth of Germany, the essence of Germany, was not Germany itself or what Germany thought of itself. The truth was concealed and had to be revealed in nervous twitches and ticks that took the lives of millions of Jews. Likewise the truth and essence of Heidegger’s thought is something that yet needs to be revealed.

It is only the fourth phenomenon, therefore, that is of real concern in this essay. Nothing less than the innermost cellular parts of Heidegger’s thought are at stake. The silence and indifference and parapraxes are all merely symptomatic indicators to be examined, analyzed and deciphered for the purpose of disclosing the ‘inner greatness and truth’ of Heidegger’s thought as something that corresponds to the ‘inner greatness and truth’ of Auschwitz itself.