Twisted logic

The thinkers admired, corrupted and oppressed by the Nazis. John Cornwell reviews ‘Hitler’s Philosophers’, by Yvonne Sherratt

Adolf Hitler viewing the bust of Friedrich Nietzsche in 1931

Hitler’s Philosophers, by Yvonne Sherratt, Yale, RRP£25/$35, 336 pages

Hitler believed that he was a philosophical genius. On taking power in 1933, he styled himself the “Philosopher Führer”. He saw himself up there with Immanuel Kant in the 18th century and Friedrich Nietzsche in the 19th. Yet Hitler’s knowledge of the German-speaking philosophical heritage was potted and inchoate.

He cited the anti-Semitism of Kant, who once claimed that the Jews had no right to an independent existence, decreeing that pure morality sought “the euthanasia of Judaism”. Nietzsche’s attitude towards the Jews was inconsistent; but Hitler found a use for his declaration that “one must learn to sacrifice many and to take one’s cause seriously enough not to spare men”.

The dictator’s favoured resource, as Yvonne Sherratt points out in Hitler’s Philosophers, was eugenicist Ernst Haeckel’s Social Darwinism, and the Völkisch pan-German nationalism of Houston Stewart Chamberlain, an eccentric Englishman who had taken German citizenship. Neither were authentic philosophers. Haeckel taught that human beings should be governed by the laws of evolution, survival of the fittest; that the Aryan race had earned its superiority at the apex of a hierarchy which put Jews and black Africans at the bottom. Chamberlain, the son of a rear admiral of Britain’s Royal Navy, married Richard Wagner’s daughter, whereupon he devoted his life to racialist musings intermixed with Wagnerian Teutonic myth. When Hitler was incarcerated for treason at Landsberg prison, Bavaria, in 1924, he spent the better part of a year devouring Chamberlain, alongside a mixed salad of Schiller, Oswald Spengler, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Wagner.

Sherratt, the author of two previous works on European philosophy, tells the story of Hitler’s reading habits well. She shows how Hitler drew on an eclectic range of sources to bolster his view of the leadership principle – personal and racial – and his hatred of Jews. She gives an account of the philosophers, intellectuals and party hacks who shaped Nazi ideology. Then she expands to include thinkers who were oppressed and expelled by Nazi racial policies. In this sense the book goes far beyond the narrow scope suggested by her title.

From 1933, Hitler’s chosen “philosophical” manager was Alfred Rosenberg, who was tasked with defending an ideology that would destroy democracy, pluralist toleration and individual freedom. Rosenberg even fished around in Homer and Plato to support his theories of the leadership principle, arguing that these greats of ancient Greece were “proto-Nazis”. He criticised Hegel’s idea of a strong state, arguing that the Volk takes precedence. But it was from Wilhelm Marr’s book The Victory of Judaism over Teutonism (1873) that, according to Sherratt, Rosenberg drew the Nazi version of Social Darwinism.

Sherratt’s chapter on Martin Heidegger, the renowned philosopher of phenomenology, is a powerful portrait of collaboration, and corruption of the best. He endorsed the sacking of his erstwhile mentor Edmund Husserl after the dismissal of Jews from the civil service and academia in 1933. Heidegger even removed his dedication to Husserl from subsequent editions of his magnum opus Being and Time. He lectured in a Nazi uniform. As late as 1942 he was still praising National Socialism and “its unique historical status”. He defended Hitler’s regime and war aims well into 1944. According to Sherratt, Heidegger’s intellectual project can be read as a “doctrine of radical self-sacrifice where individualisation is allowed only for the purpose of heroism in warfare”.

She mentions all too briefly the impact of the mitlaufer, or fellow traveller. These were the academic philosophers who were promoted without protest into positions vacated by their expelled Jewish colleagues; who took benefits from the dictator while remaining aloof from Nazi ideology. Current historiography – in the field of Nazi science, for example – argues that the mitlaufer did more damage than the card-carrying Nazi academics. They gave comfort to the regime, scandalised the young and demoralised opposition from the outset.

As for the victims, Sherratt provides us with pen portraits of refugee philosophers such as Hannah Arendt, for whom Heidegger had an early infatuation, and an extended, gossipy account of the life in exile of Theodor Adorno, the great musicologist. She also gives ample space to Walter Benjamin, the polymath critic, translator and journalist, who, unable to escape the Gestapo, committed suicide on the French border with Spain in 1940.

I was disappointed, however, to find no mention of Edith Stein. Stein, born into an observant Jewish family in 1891 and later converted to Catholicism, was a brilliant student of the phenomenologists Max Scheler and Husserl, and an eminent philosopher in her own right. She died in Auschwitz in 1942. Scheler, who gets no mention either, was one of the great forgotten philosopher-defenders of democracy during the Weimar period. After his death in 1928, his books were burnt and banned from philosophy curricula. His work would be taken up in the 1960s by Karol Wojtyla (the future John Paul II) to underpin the Solidarity movement in Poland.

A crucial concluding question raised by Sherratt is the extent to which philosophy in the west was affected in the long term by the Nazi era. She notes that Gottlob Frege, an anti-Semite and admirer of Hitler, was the founding father of the analytic philosophy that came to dominate academic studies in western universities, not least under the influence of Wittgenstein and Russell. It is worrying, she declares, that Frege’s morally repulsive views are overlooked. Philosophy thus betrays its ethical obligations, she asserts, while the 20th-century German-Jewish philosophical tradition is “marginalised”. Benjamin, Arendt and Adorno, all expelled from Nazi Germany, she writes, have “never been accepted in the philosophy canon in the English-speaking world”. And yet, what these thinkers offer, she argues, is a powerful force for criticism of authoritarianism inherited from the “Frankfurt School” (Hegel, Kant, Freud, Marx, Weber and Lukacs).

This implies not only a widespread lapse in ethical judgment in philosophy departments, but a contemporary anti-German-Jewish prejudice at work, originating from the Nazi era. I find this far-fetched. Academic philosophy courses tend to be self-selecting. The analytic tradition is dominated by those who have an aptitude for it (arid as it may seem to many). Yet there are plenty of scholars and students in British and American departments who favour the political theorising of the Frankfurt School and thinkers such as Habermas and Arendt. Adorno, likewise, is certainly taken seriously by aestheticians as well as philosophers of culture.

It is anachronistic, moreover, to argue that the prejudices of individual philosophers in the past taint their subsequent re-workings and appropriations in the present. Wittgenstein was hardly infected by Frege’s anti-Semitism, nor Onora O’Neill, the moral philosopher, by Kant’s.

John Cornwell is director of the Science and Human Dimension Project at Jesus College, Cambridge and author of ‘Hitler’s Scientists’ (Penguin)

Copyright of Hitler image: Bayerische Staatsbibliothek Munich/Fotoarchiv Hoffman

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