The Heisenberg and Heidegger Cases

This isn’t a post that is meant to either damn or defend either Heisenberg or Heidegger, primarily because I’m not a historian, and historians themselves fail to agree on the topic. It’s more a musing on the motivations, including the motivation behind my tendency to distrust those who, particularly in a self-righteous way, want to damage the reputations of either or both.

Firstly, damaging the reputation of anyone that lived in Germany under the Nazi regime is relatively easy. Any evidence is likely to be difficult to judge the veracity of, and in many cases the evidence can be looked at multiple ways. This is a feature of looking at anyone living under a totalitarian regime, unless they were either directly involved in accomplishing that totalitarianism or on the other hand so obviously opposed that they were not simply suspect to the regime but actively persecuted. Neither is the case for either of the men under discussion. Supporters of both can point to the fact that they were extremely suspect to the regime, detractors can point to the fact that they both ostensibly supported the regime, at least for a period. Whether that ostensible support could have been easily avoided or its lack could have led to serious personal and family consequences is a question both supporters and detractors rarely ask; whether the fact that the suspicion didn’t lead to extreme sanctions by the regime means the regime found their own suspicion unjustified, or simply there wasn’t enough evidence to garner public support in persecuting a well-known figure, is another question both supporters and detractors rarely ask.

As I said, though, this is more a thought experiment, applied as much to myself as to others to try to judge the motivations that underlie my own responses, particularly those that are least thought through, rather than any attempt to resolve the historical reality of either man.

My initial response in both cases has been to be on the side of defending them, without viewing either as entirely innocent. The question then concerns the reason or reasons I tend to that first, which may be different in each case. In Heidegger’s case I have more personal involvement insofar as I am overtly and obviously influenced by his work. In the case of Heisenberg, since those who have done the most to damage his reputation have used Niels Bohr as a foil, and I have been more directly influence by Bohr himself than by Heisenberg, the situation is not quite the same.

Firstly, my responses have largely been occasioned by writing that I experience immediately as both self-righteous and un-self-critical. That I’m generally annoyed by such writing or speaking, whatever the topic, has been a consistent aspect of my responses to things over my lifetime. As a specific for-instance, the latest slew of opinions occasioned by the LA Times review of Heidegger’s ‘Black” Journals immediately evoked a mental response of ‘what have you, as predominantly white Americans, yourselves done in a positive sense regarding the current spate of racist violence in the U.S.?’ If you’re going to self-righteously criticize a difficult to detect racism that you claim is not only present (which I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with) but integral to the intention, and the obvious and overt meanings of Heidegger’s work, shouldn’t you be able to claim some direct anti-racism in your own life? It’s very easy to point the finger at someone else’s apparent complicity, but if your own behavior is complicit with a racism that is not significantly less overt and efficacious than that of the Nazis through most of their regime, then you would similarly be complicit with a ‘final solution’ movement if the U.S. moved further right on the issue, and from what I can see it wouldn’t take much of a move to the right for that to become at least a possibility.

Secondly, and this is something that only became apparent to me after moving to the U.S., being initiated into a racist society has a definite effect even on those who profess non or anti-racism, including those most affected by such racism. The traces of anti-Semitism that are seen in Heidegger (which are subtle enough to be questionable as to whether they are actually there or are being projected onto the work) are, at the very least, much more subtle than the racism of most white ‘liberal’ Americans, and more subtle even than the racism against blacks evidenced by a number of black American public figures. Were there to be the kind of overt racism against black people I’ve heard consistently from people such as Charles Barkley and Bill Cosby against a specific ethnic group in Heidegger’s work, I would have difficulty reading his work at all. Being black, in that instance, doesn’t protect them from embodying in their own lives and statements the racism of the society in which they were initiated. The only thing that can protect you from it, no matter your own ethnic background, is thinking oneself through and out of it, which obviously the two I mentioned have done very little of. That my wife herself, as a black woman having grown up in the South, has had to think through and out of the racism against black people that she was initiated into, is a further demonstration of its insidiousness for anyone growing up in the milieu. That traces of it can be found in any work done by a German of that period is therefore hardly surprising to me, and that it is more obvious in Jaspers and Husserl than in Heidegger, when Jaspers was half Jewish and Husserl Jewish, is also not a massive surprise in that, they were less likely to question their own stances. In perhaps a similar way, the anti-black violence recently has come primarily in the north of the U.S., not the south where it might be expected to be more prevalent, and it appears to me that the relative lack of awareness of one’s prejudices in the north versus the overt history of the south and therefore the obviousness of prejudice is part of the problem.

Lastly, something I’ve found consistently in the secondary literature on both Heidegger and Hegel, considered by many to be both difficult and obscure (which are by no means the same), is that even in interpretations that are overall sympathetic, there is a strong tendency to an exceedingly liberal reading of their writings, one that reinterprets extensively while simultaneously ignoring clear statements in the work. Deconstructing a body of work is not equivalent to re-imagining the work in a way that at times creatively invents something not at all noticeable in the work itself and ignores what is overt. At times it seems the difficulty is not with understanding what is written, but with believing that they meant it as it was written, since it goes against the assumptions of the interpreter, and the result is a reinterpretation that, while it successfully maintains the prejudices of the interpreter, has little or nothing to do with the discursive regularities actually present in either Heidegger’s or Hegel’s writing.

So, having set the background to some degree upon which I’m assessing my own thoughts and motivations, the next obvious step is to look at my personal history and examine whether there is anything that would make me overlook things based on my own prejudices and assumptions.

Where I initially grew up, in a small village in northern England, was of course not free of racism. The prevalent prejudice while I was growing up there was white on white, specifically against those of Polish descent. The reasons for this are complex, but the bulk of its origin was the large influx of Polish refugees to the area after the Second World War. The parochial resentment at the hit on the standard of living (already hard hit by the cost of the war) that a large group of destitute refugees inevitably has was buttressed by a suspicion that some percentage of those refugees had been collaborators with the Germans, who had done a tremendous amount of direct damage to the area. Had there been Germans to be racist against nearby, I have no doubt it would have been worse than what did exist against the Polish refugees, but there weren’t, and the Polish refugees, most of whose lives were far more devastated than the lives of the English by the war, unfortunately took the brunt of the backlash. That some Polish people had been sympathetic to and collaborated with the Nazis was used as a justification for prejudice that in the vast majority of cases was completely unjustified.

I can claim to have not been complicit in this from childhood, though in a personal and not fully aware way. My best friend was Polish, and I spent a good part of my early elementary school life threatening the lives of any kids that made derogatory remarks, backing it up by kicking the shit out of a good number of them. Had I been unusually big or tough that would mean little, but given that I was instead unusually small for my age, and having skipped two grades before grade 3, was tiny relatively to the kids I went after, I think I can claim that it indicates something about my initial response to the racism I perceived.

I currently reside in the U.S., and I have been somewhat active contra racism here although more anonymously than I might like, which has been necessary as a non U.S. citizen. The limitations of what I can do without endangering myself and/or my family perhaps assists me in understanding by analogy the limitations of what is possible to those living under a totalitarian regime. I’m not claiming the U.S. to be that, simply that living here as a non-citizen gives me a similar lack of rights to someone who actually is living under a totalitarian regime in terms of any right to oppose the non-totalitarian regime, one that nevertheless has a powerful systemic racism embedded in it, in place here. I perhaps feel this lack more keenly than most since the racism does affect me personally – my wife is black, and I love her and her family.

Whatever the Nazis thought of black people, and I’m sure it wasn’t positive, the crux of racism under that regime concerned Jewish people. So there is always the question, especially since a covert anti-Semitism can still be discerned in England, and to a lesser degree in Canada, where I spent the latter part of my childhood and most of my adult life, of whether I myself covertly harbor such sentiments. I can’t say I’ve had a great deal of interaction with Jewish people, in terms of close personal relations I can only really point to three instances. My family doctor in Canada was Jewish, and he and I spent a good deal of time discussing both the Nazi regime and the Weimar republic that preceded it. I can say that I’ve never met a sweeter or, as demanded by his specific job, a more capable person in my life. I also lived with a retired Jewish-Canadian couple for a time during university, what fascinated me about the man of the couple more than anything was that he also was in university – after retirement (he had been an engineer since his early 20s, a trade he learned in WWII) he went back to study the history he had witnessed firsthand, which I thought was a really fascinating thing to do, not to mention requiring a strength and presence of mind that is a bit unusual. My only other close relationship with someone Jewish was in more than one way an oddity. I worked for someone who was of German-Jewish background, but had been born in Israel. He and I were very close – he treated me more like a son than he did his own sons to be honest. Part of the reason for that was that we were very alike – technical, inventive, creative and not especially detail oriented, whereas his wife and sons were the opposite of those things. We also looked alike, and part of his reason for leaving Israel was that as a blond, blue-eyed man with a distinctly German last name, he took a fair amount of racist abuse in Israel for not being “Jewish enough”. Canada was a place to escape to where his wife and kids, who looked more like one might expect a Jewish family to look, would not be treated badly by non-Jews, but where simultaneously he wouldn’t be treated badly by Jews. His eldest son was a few years younger than me, and really trying to please both parents by doing a double major in economics and computer science although he was rather hopeless at the latter. I tutored him through those courses in my spare time, because I wanted to see him do well and his father as well as his mother to be proud of him.

As far as I can tell, then, I have no intrinsically negative feelings about Jewish people. Those that I have met have been very nice people, but I also have no belief that luck didn’t play a major part in that. By the same token I’ve hardly been called upon to demonstrate a lack of bias, since it’s difficult on a personal level to do anything but like people who are intelligent, interesting and like you as well.

So then comes the question, why do I distrust those who would damn Heidegger and Heisenberg? As I said above, people who come across as self-righteous without any demonstrable positive actions on their own part tend to put my back up to begin with. The ‘evidence’ is not as clear cut, either, as many try to make out.

In the case of Heidegger, he obviously was initially taken in by the Nazis, but that seems unsurprising given that they had already co-opted much of his earlier verbiage without actually thinking through what it thought. That he lost trust in Hitler and in fact was as far as I can tell as against the Nazis as one could overtly be as someone well known under the regime, while Churchill and most liberals in England or the U.S. were still pro-Hitler, also speaks in his favor. Probably the biggest thing in the work itself is that Heidegger’s work, although it can be challenging, is hardly obscure. Unlike most thinkers Heidegger enacts in writing the process of thinking itself, and as such any strong ties of inherited (via social initiation) anti-Semitism to the work itself ought to be far more obvious than they in fact are. Finally, that Hannah Arendt, Jewish herself, Heidegger’s ex-lover, and certainly an adept judge of totalitarian thinking remained close to Heidegger until his death speaks more about his character to me than the attempted character assassinations by people with something to gain from it.

How does it stand with Heisenberg? Unlike Heidegger his thought process is not laid bare in his work. As well, as I noted above, I’m more influenced by and involved with Bohr’s work than Heisenberg’s directly, and Bohr is a big part of the supposed evidence against Heisenberg. I do have trouble with the main evidence being a thrice-drafted letter, never apparently sent and only discovered after Bohr’s death, when its authenticity could not be fully demonstrated, because as part of a long correspondence between the two even if Bohr decided on the basis of their friendship not to confront Heisenberg as strongly as it was worded in those drafts, he had plenty of time to do so both before and afterwards in a different way. Part of my feeling that the letter may not be genuine is based precisely on my respect for Bohr, which if the draft were proven genuine, would be more affected than my respect for Heisenberg, since it would count as evidence that Bohr had something major against Heisenberg that he never took up either personally with Heisenberg or publicly. That would be, to me, an act of cowardice that would damage my respect for Bohr, who on all other evidence appears to have been a decent, honest person with the courage of his convictions, and one who made sure his convictions were first well thought through.

Without the evidence of that drafted letter to skew interpretation, the other evidence tends to support Heisenberg’s version of events rather than contradict it, as does the personal behavior of Heisenberg himself, Bohr, and the physicists involved in the Manhattan Project. That many believe the damning version says more, at least on the surface, about their desire to exonerate those involved in the Manhattan Project, even in the very peripheral and unaware way that Bohr himself contributed to it, than it says about Heisenberg’s complicity with the German bomb project. This kind of exonerating Americans in cases where they were obviously not guiltless by claiming the other side was as bad or worse is a common American ploy, if not a defining American trait, and that makes it all that much more suspect. I don’t have anything particularly against those that were involved in the bomb project. I believe they did what they sincerely thought was best under difficult circumstances, where the most ethical course of action was not at all clear. It’s this allowing for difficult circumstances that I find absent from those who attempt to damn Heidegger and Heisenberg.

The Western liberal origin of the damning of both, where non-liberals, even those on the radical left tend to be, if not exactly for both, at least more even handed in their judgment of both, is the final reason I distrust it. Neither Heidegger nor Heisenberg thought much of liberalism, not because they were Nazis, but precisely because they didn’t see it as much different, in fact Heidegger’s problem with Nazism began when he realized it was inherently the same as the Americanism and Bolshevism it pretended to oppose. Silencing a critique of liberalism by Nazi-shaming anyone involved in the critique is itself more shameful than anything I can find that either demonstrably did.

So far as I can tell, then, my primary motivation for tending to fall on the side that defends these men, albeit with certain reservations, is based on a specific distrust of those who try to damn them, and that distrust itself is based on a far too intimate knowledge of Western liberalism and the type of human being that defends it at any cost. That the arguments themselves appear weak is a consequence of an a posteriori thinking through the matter, but the initial motivation in questioning the arguments is my judgment concerning the usual sources of that argument.


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