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2014 Andrew Glynn

The Heisenberg and Heidegger Cases

This isnt a paper that is meant to either damn or defend either


Heisenberg or Heidegger, primarily because Im not a historian, and
historians themselves fail to agree on the topic. Nor am I claiming any
kind of false neutrality in the debate. Its 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 didnt lead to extreme sanctions by the regime means the
regime found their own suspicion unjustified, or simply there wasnt
enough evidence to garner public support in persecuting a well-known
figure, is another question both supporters and detractors rarely ask.

2014 Andrew Glynn

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 Heideggers 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
Im 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 Heideggers 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 youre going to self-righteously criticize a
difficult to detect racism that you claim is not only present (which I
wouldnt necessarily disagree with) but integral to the intention, and the
obvious and overt meanings of Heideggers work, shouldnt you be able
to claim some direct anti-racism in your own life? Its very easy to point
the finger at someone elses 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

2014 Andrew Glynn

the U.S. moved further right on the issue, and from what I can see it
wouldnt 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 Ive heard consistently
from people such as Charles Barkley and Bill Cosby against a specific
ethnic group in Heideggers work, I would have difficulty reading his
work at all. Being black, in that instance, doesnt 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

2014 Andrew Glynn

south where it might be expected to be more prevalent, and it appears


to me that the relative lack of awareness of ones prejudices in the north
versus the overt history of the south and therefore the obviousness of
prejudice is part of the problem.
Lastly, something Ive 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 Heideggers or Hegels writing.
So, having set the background to some degree upon which Im 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

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(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 werent, 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. Im 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

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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 Im sure it wasnt
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 cant say Ive
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 Ive 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

2014 Andrew Glynn

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 wouldnt 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 didnt play a major part in that. By the
same token Ive hardly been called upon to demonstrate a lack of bias,
since its 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 coopted 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

2014 Andrew Glynn

biggest thing in the work itself is that Heideggers 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, Heideggers 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, Im more
influenced by and involved with Bohrs work than Heisenbergs 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 Bohrs 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 Heisenbergs version of events rather

2014 Andrew Glynn

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 Heisenbergs 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 dont 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. Its 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
didnt see it as much different, in fact Heideggers 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.

2014 Andrew Glynn

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.