Heidegger, Levinas, Derrida: Forgetting and Remembering the Jews

By Stoll, Donald | Philosophy Today, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

Heidegger, Levinas, Derrida: Forgetting and Remembering the Jews


Stoll, Donald, Philosophy Today


In a letter to a friend dated May 4, 1933, Edmund Husserl confides his dismay over Martin Heidegger's "increasingly strong anti-Semitism of recent years."' As Richard Wolin has pointed out, Husserl's impression of Heidegger would seem at odds with the fact that the latter "had so many gifted Jewish students," except that generally:

these students did not regard themselves as Jewish, nor did their teacher Heidegger so regard them. Instead, they viewed themselves as fully assimilated Germans. Heidegger never shared the Nazis' version of biological anti-Semitism. Rather, his dislike of Jews was of the traditional cultural variety-a mentality which, as a rule, was accepting of acculturated or baptized Jews!

The career of the influential nineteenth-century German writer Paul de Lagarde (born Bottischer; 1827-1891) proves that cultural anti-Semitism can motivate a "call for the extermination of the Jews like bacillae."3 Lagarde "did not work within a framework of racial thought" and insisted that "Germanism lies not within the blood but in the character."' At the same time he saw "Judaism as spiritually empty" and "incompatible with the inner character of the German Volk." Jews were "a danger to the regeneration of the Volk" and "an irreconcilable foreign element on German soil" who possessed "conspiratorial motives."'

But the cultural anti-Semitism which had formed a liaison with racial "science" well before the rise of National Socialism obviously did not originate with Lagarde and his contemporaries. In his article "The Death of God at Auschwitz?" Michael Zimmerman considers the long history of cultural anti-Semitism. There he approvingly summarizes the interpretation of the Holocaust offered in Jean-Frangois Lyotard's Heidegger et (les juifs))."' Zimmerman writes that Lyotard argues that the Jews died in Auschwitz and other concentration camps because the Greco-Roman West has long resented them as reminders of the impotence of those great projects (commercial, legal, scientific, technological, military, cultural) whose aim is to deny human dependence on the nameless Divine. The Jews, who experienced the trauma of being uprooted and made hostage to the unnamable Divinity, represent the memory of the unconquerable obstacle to the Western quest to make everything representable, present, and thus controllable. As bearers of the memory of human finitude and dependence, Lyotard argues, the Jews had to be excluded. In destroying the Jews, then, German National Socialists believed that they were saving the West. The extermination of the Jews, the most extreme attempt to erase this unwanted memory, was carried out in secret so that the very memory of the obliteration of memory would also be forgotten.'

Zimmerman immediately goes on to quote George Steiner, who makes a point similar to Lyotard's. According to Steiner, the history of persecutions of the Jews culminating in the Holocaust represents

a desperate endeavor by Christianity, and by its pagan-parodistic off-shoots such as Nazism, to silence once and for all the curse of the ideal inherent in the Mosaic covenant with God, in the more than humaneness of Isaiah, in the teaching of Jesus the Jew. Eradicate the Jew and you will have eradicated from within the Christian west an unendurable remembrance of moral and social failure.'

Not the least interesting of Steiner's claims is that German National Socialism amounts to a "pagan-parodistic off-shoot" of Christianity. Since paganism signifies the worship of false gods in ecclesiastical Latin, and since Christianity and paganism have been at odds with each other for two millennia, it is tempting to dismiss Steiner as having taken a gratuitously cranky sideswipe at Christianity. To speak of Christian pogroms and the Nazi Holocaust in the same breath is one thing; but it seems another thing entirely to identify Nazism as an outgrowth of Christianity, hence as sustaining an inner relationship to Christianity. …

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