Commentary Magazine


Topic: Adolf Hitler

The Closing of the British Mind

Last week’s vote by the British Universities and Colleges Union admonishing its members to “consider the moral implications of existing and proposed links with Israeli academic institutions” marks a new stage in the concerted campaign to put Israel into a kind of cultural quarantine. This boycott and others like it are not merely aimed at forcing a change of that country’s policy towards the Palestinians—they are explicitly intended to undermine the legitimacy of the Jewish state. By branding Israel an apartheid state, these academics are denying its right to exist in anything like its present form.

But what are the “moral implications” of aligning the British academic community with those, such as the Palestinian government, who are dedicated to the destruction of Israel? Is it plausible that the universities now under censure would survive a Hamas-led regime? The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, it is true, long preceded the founding of the state of Israel, but the survival of this and other academic institutions in Mandatory Palestine was only possible because they were protected by the British authorities and supported by academics around the world. Had the Hebrew University been left to the mercies of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, its faculty members would have suffered the same fate as the Jewish academics in Germany did at the hands of the Mufti’s ally, Adolf Hitler.

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Last week’s vote by the British Universities and Colleges Union admonishing its members to “consider the moral implications of existing and proposed links with Israeli academic institutions” marks a new stage in the concerted campaign to put Israel into a kind of cultural quarantine. This boycott and others like it are not merely aimed at forcing a change of that country’s policy towards the Palestinians—they are explicitly intended to undermine the legitimacy of the Jewish state. By branding Israel an apartheid state, these academics are denying its right to exist in anything like its present form.

But what are the “moral implications” of aligning the British academic community with those, such as the Palestinian government, who are dedicated to the destruction of Israel? Is it plausible that the universities now under censure would survive a Hamas-led regime? The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, it is true, long preceded the founding of the state of Israel, but the survival of this and other academic institutions in Mandatory Palestine was only possible because they were protected by the British authorities and supported by academics around the world. Had the Hebrew University been left to the mercies of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, its faculty members would have suffered the same fate as the Jewish academics in Germany did at the hands of the Mufti’s ally, Adolf Hitler.

Academic boycotts were a favorite method of the Nazis in the early days of the Third Reich, before all Jews had been excluded from German universities. Viktor Klemperer was one of those Jewish professors who, as veterans of the First World War, were permitted to teach under the Nazi Civil Service code introduced shortly after Hitler seized power. In his diaries, Klemperer describes how his lectures were initially well attended. Clinging to the hope that the regime would not last, he noted with satisfaction, “My most eager student is the Nazi cell leader Eva Theissig.”

Two years later, however, Klemperer was down to one student for his lectures on French and two for those on Italian literature—and in May 1935 he was abruptly dismissed. Then he was banned from using the university library—“the absolute end.” For Klemperer, the academic boycott was an intellectual death sentence, foreshadowing the physical one.

We have seen what happened when the Israeli settlers were evicted from Gaza: the first thing the Palestinians did was to burn the homes and desecrate the synagogues the Jews left behind. The universities of Israel, among the best in the world, would be among the first priorities for destruction if Hamas and Hizbollah were ever to achieve their “right of return,” as the British academics advocate.

It is vital to grasp what is at stake here. Western civilization in general—and the idea of the university in particular—has always depended upon the love of knowledge and the cultivation of the intellect for their own sakes. When science and scholarship are subordinated to political ends, it is not only universities that suffer. The British academics who condemn their Israeli counterparts are in reality perpetrating an act of vandalism against their own institutions—and, indirectly, against the society that supports these institutions and is, in turn, shaped and supported by them.

It is Britain, not Israel, that is most harmed by this vandalism. These academics are cutting themselves off from the mainstream of Jewish intellectual life—from one of the sources of their own civilization. When Alan Bloom conjured the image of the closing of the American mind, he meant just such self-inflicted amnesia. Only this time, it is the British mind that is closing.

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Thoughts in a Freiburg Cemetery

As the Jewish world commemorated the Holocaust last weekend, I happened to be at a conference in what was once the heart of darkness. Freiburg, a small town in Germany, was the scene of perhaps the most notorious single example of trahison des clercs, the betrayal of reason by the intellectuals.

In May 1933, Martin Heidegger inaugurated his term as rector of the university by extolling the “glory and greatness” of the new Nazi state and its Fuehrer, Adolf Hitler, on behalf of professors and students alike. Heidegger immediately distanced himself from those of his former friends and colleagues who were Jewish—with the partial exception of his lover Hannah Arendt—and above all from Edmund Husserl, to whom he had dedicated his masterpiece, Being and Time, in “admiration and friendship” only five years before. Even today, his record makes painful reading, though he has never lacked for apologists.

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As the Jewish world commemorated the Holocaust last weekend, I happened to be at a conference in what was once the heart of darkness. Freiburg, a small town in Germany, was the scene of perhaps the most notorious single example of trahison des clercs, the betrayal of reason by the intellectuals.

In May 1933, Martin Heidegger inaugurated his term as rector of the university by extolling the “glory and greatness” of the new Nazi state and its Fuehrer, Adolf Hitler, on behalf of professors and students alike. Heidegger immediately distanced himself from those of his former friends and colleagues who were Jewish—with the partial exception of his lover Hannah Arendt—and above all from Edmund Husserl, to whom he had dedicated his masterpiece, Being and Time, in “admiration and friendship” only five years before. Even today, his record makes painful reading, though he has never lacked for apologists.

The odious pettiness of Heidegger’s personal conduct, and the moral collapse that it implied, was brought home to me by a visit to the little cemetery in Günterstal, a suburb of Freiburg. We were there to pay our respects at the grave of Walter Eucken, the great economist whose work inspired the post-war “economic miracle” and helped to set Germany back on the path of liberty and democracy.

A stone’s throw away from the memorial to Eucken is the Husserl family grave. A young scholar at the Walter Eucken Institute, Nils Goldschmidt, told me how Freiburg treated the founder of phenomenology, who was then the most famous living German philosopher. Having already retired when Hitler came to power, Husserl avoided the teaching ban that was imposed on Jewish professors, but he was not even allowed to use the university library. Socially, not only Heidegger but practically all the professors at Freiburg shunned Husserl—with the exception of Eucken, whose wife Edith was herself partly Jewish and who continued to pay visits to the Husserls. While Heidegger was busily excising all references to his former master from new editions of Being and Time, Eucken made a point of quoting Husserl.

When Husserl died in 1938, only two professors attended his funeral: the economist Eucken and the historian Gerhard Ritter. Long afterwards, in an interview he gave to Der Spiegel in 1966, Heidegger excused himself by claiming that it was the Husserls who had broken off relations, not the other way round. But he admitted that “it was a human failing that I did not express once more my gratitude and my admiration” at the time of Husserl’s death. I do not think Heidegger ever grasped the enormity of his “human failing,” of which his treatment of his teacher was only a symbol. But it is Heidegger the Nazi who still basks in the posthumous limelight, while the names of Husserl and Eucken are known only to specialists.

On a warm April evening in that lovely place surrounded by hills, the stillness broken only by the church bell, I tried to imagine the unimaginable repeating itself here in Europe. A lifetime—threescore years and ten—now separates us from the great betrayal. Just long enough for a combination of anxiety and amnesia to wipe out the memory of those days. In British schools, many teachers are afraid to talk about the history of anti-Semitism because they fear confrontation with their Muslim students, who have often been told at the mosque that the Shoah is a myth.

Even in Germany, where Holocaust denial is a crime, there is vast ignorance about both the past and its implications for the present. Few are prepared to entertain the thought that, unless Iran and other Islamist states or terrorists are prevented from acquiring nuclear weapons, our generation, too, may witness another Holocaust. They do not seem to grasp that this time, Israel’s fate is directly linked to Europe’s.

One retired German professor, just old enough to remember the Third Reich, has this week made a symbolic commitment to that shared destiny. Joseph Ratzinger, writing under his own name, not as Pope Benedict XVI, has published the first part of a book about Jesus Christ. To judge from extracts in the German press, the main import of this work is finally to lay to rest the age-old enmity of the Church and the Jews. For the first time, a Pope has not only portrayed Jesus as an observant Jew, “the living embodiment of the Torah,” but has written with humility and love about the Jews of Jesus’ time. Gone is the old caricature of the Pharisee as hypocrite and the “Old Testament morality” as un-Christian. John Paul II already embraced the living covenant and divine purpose of Israel. But Benedict has gone even further: in his view, only the person of Jesus divides Jew and Christian, and the universal mission of Jesus is entirely compatible with the special status of the Jewish people.

A lifetime separates Heidegger’s betrayal from Ratzinger’s reconciliation. How long before Europe recognizes the present danger to Jew and Christian alike, and unites against the common enemies of Western civilization?

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