Commentary Magazine

Beyond Good, Quite Evil

Hitler’s Philosophers
By Yvonne Sherratt
Yale University Press, 328 pages

Adolf Hitler liked to think of himself as a philosopher, and was never happier than when dropping the names of the thinkers he considered his close colleagues in the realm of deep thought. “It is on Kant’s theory of knowledge that Schopenhauer built the edifice of his philosophy,” he told a restaurant full of generals in Berlin in May 1944, “and it is Schopenhauer who annihilated the pragmatism of Hegel.” With an innate understanding of how central philosophy was to German culture, Hitler deliberately went about co-opting as many in the field as he could even before he came to power. Hitler’s Philosophers tells the utterly shameful story of just how many German thinkers leapt at the chance of prostituting their profession for his cause.

Yvonne Sherratt, an historian of philosophy who has taught at both Oxford and Cambridge, concludes in this short but well-researched book that philosophers were as “subject to sordid motives” as those in any other profession in the Third Reich. One might have hoped that their ethereal discipline might have allowed them to rise above the grubby considerations of academic jealousy and low ambition, but philosophers behaved no better—and in some disgusting cases worse—than the rest of the German population.

“Many of their lives interconnected,” notes Sherratt of the German philosophers of the 1920s and 30s. “They were students, teachers, colleagues, friends, and even lovers.” Yet they were also perfectly happy to condone the burning of philosophy books if it meant they could put the coveted title “Herr Professor” in front of their names.

The “philosopher-Führer,” as Hitler liked to be described, had read Schopenhauer in the trenches of the Great War and spent part of his time in Landsberg Prison browsing the words of Kant, Schiller, Wagner, Nietzsche, and Goethe, among others. He tended to plunder philosophy books for anything that could be made to fit into his preconceived ideology. Thus, for him, Hegel legitimized the concept of the strong unitary state, Schiller underlined German patriotism, Kant opposed Catholic dogma, Wagner emphasized anti-Semitism, and Schopenhauer, Fichte, and Nietzsche formed, in Sherratt’s phrase, the “philosophical triumvirate of National Socialism.”

Schopenhauer raised the Will over Reason, and Nietzsche praised violence, glorified the master race, and predicted the “superman…who would rule the world.” Nietzsche’s sister Elizabeth showed Hitler around the Nietzsche Museum in Weimar and afterwards gave him her late brother’s walking stick. Small wonder that Hitler had himself photographed staring in rapture at the bust of the great opponent of democracy.

Yet all those philosophers were dead, and what Hitler needed were living ones to support his theories and, if possible, to justify committing genocide. He found one, Alfred Rosenberg, to propagate the Nazi philosophy of race; Rosenberg devised a “human racial ladder” that put blacks and Jews on the bottom rung. Hitler found succor as well in Alfred Bäumler, who had studied philosophy at Munich, Bonn, and Berlin universities and had written books on Kant and Nietzsche, as well as Ernst Kriek, who took a philosophy chair at Heidelberg University when the Nazis came to power. “To knock down the existing democratic system was their aim,” states Sherratt of these individuals, “and their starting point was always the Jew.”

The fact that so many Jews held distinguished philosophy chairs at German universities in 1933 meant that when the Baden Decree was promulgated to tackle “the Jewification of the universities” that year, there were plenty of plum jobs up for grabs for German philosophers willing to take advantage. Among the notable Jewish philosophers forced out were Edmund Husserl, Walter Benjamin (who committed suicide in September 1940), Theodor Adorno, Hannah Arendt, and no fewer than 1,600 others. German philosophers such as Martin Heidegger ended their friendships and working relationships with Jews and speedily took the teachings of dead Jewish philosophers such as Moses Mendelssohn and Baruch Spinoza off the curriculum. “Spinoza was a trade-Jew like his co-racialists,” opined Professor Hans Grunsky of a thinker so heterodox he was actually excommunicated by Jewish ecclesiastical authorities.

As university librarians drew up legal documents to “cleanse” public libraries of Jewish literature and Bäumler’s students at Berlin University started burning books in May 1933, there were no public protests, joint letters, or campaigns from any university philosophy departments. “The transition of the universities under Hitler required the wholesale collaboration of a mass of academics,” records Sherratt. “Ordinary everyday lecturers had to implement every tiny detail of research and teaching, revising the curriculum along Party lines and preaching it to the youth. From the outset, philosophers and other educators were included in Hitler’s task of converting the nation.” The persecution didn’t even stop at Germany’s borders; in August 1933 the exiled Jewish thinker Theodor Lessing was murdered in Czechoslovakia.

Several leading German philosophers of the Catholic, Eugenicist, and Idealist schools of thought embraced Nazism for the way that it, in the words of Erich Rothacker of Bonn University, presented the German Volk as “a metaphysical people who violently opposed the superficiality of Western democracy.” Other leading philosophy professors who collaborated enthusiastically with the Nazis included Hans Heyse (of Konigsberg University), Eugene Fehrle (Heidelberg), Max Wundt (Tubingen), Walter Schulze-Sölde (Innsbruck), George Steiler (Freiburg), Max Boehme (Jena), and Otto Höfler (Munich), but, as the author points out, “there were many, many more.”

Yet only two pro-Nazi philosophers had any kind of reputation beyond Germany, something that troubled Hitler. Carl Schmitt was world-renowned but as a philosopher of law, which the Führer did not think really counted. It was therefore upon Martin Heidegger that his hopes of world supremacy in the philosophical sphere came to rest. For Hitler really did see philosophy in national terms, once boasting how, “in the great hall of the Linz library are the busts of Kant, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche, in comparison to whom the British, the French, the Americans have nothing to offer.” With Heidegger, however, Hitler hoped that he might have a living German philosopher to take on all comers in the competitive global philosophy stakes.

Heidegger joined the Nazi Party in a blaze of publicity on May 1, 1933, which Sherratt somewhat tastelessly likens to the blaze of the 25,000 books written by Jews that were burned in Berlin nine days later. He immediately hailed the Third Reich as “the construction of a new intellectual and spiritual world for the German nation” and had the words to the “Horst Wessel Song” printed on the back of the program of events of his installation as rector of Freiburg University, where he gave the full Heil Hitler salute prior to his inaugural speech. Heidegger remained a member of the Nazi Party until 1945 and was never to express any public remorse or apology for his idealization of Hitler. When asked by a colleague how a man as coarse as Hitler could govern Germany, the philosopher replied, “culture is of no importance. Look at his marvelous hands!”

It might well be, as Sherratt avers, that Heidegger was “a genius revered for grasping some of the most profound and complex ideas the human mind was capable of generating,” and that “his mind was dynamic, his ideas dazzling.” But anybody who thinks a dictator’s marvelous hands are more important in governing a nation than his sense of culture is a bloody idiot, and people should say so. Heidegger was described as “this uncrowned king of the empire of thought,” and yet it remains impolitic to the day to point out that, if that were so, the emperor had no clothes.

Hitler never had anything to worry about from the philosophy departments of the great German universities. The appropriately-named Professor August Faust of Breslau was happy to emphasize in 1941 how enthusiastic German philosophers were about the war: “The result shows the deep relationship between our Weltanschauung and the philosophical root in it and all the fields of humanities which deal with the problem of war. We National Socialists today feel to be in particular conformity with our species…which we owe to the Führer.” Two years later, well-funded university philosophy departments such as Munich were providing large grants for the study (i.e. promotion) of anti-Semitism.

Sherratt is right to point out that “Hitler’s love of philosophy involved, as everything else in his life, a lot of bluff and posturing,” yet the philosophers’ love of Hitler was heartfelt, and a truly foul example of the phenomenon of the trahison des clercs that so besmirched the 20th century. 

One aspect of this book disappoints, and that is the way that the author, who has written books with titles such as Continental Philosophy of Social Science, regularly resorts to overheated prose, presumably because she is worried that without it her audience might be put off by the all the philosophy. “On the battlefield of the First World War all was destruction,” she writes in one such piece of deliberately purple prose. “With bodies littering the trenches, burnt-out vehicles blotting the horizon and puddles of water reflecting the mud surrounding them, a soldier refused to put down his weapon.” Instead of leaving us excited by this description of the Western Front, we wonder why the water puddles didn’t get muddy, or if they did how they reflected anything, and which vehicles except tanks were used among the trenches.

Overall, however, Sherratt has done a superb job in showing how significant philosophers such as Heidegger and Schmitt betrayed their duty to humanity, and how scores of insignificant philosophers sold their souls for professorial chairs. It was Theodor Adorno—one of the few heroes of this book, who escaped to America and denounced Heidegger—who stated that there should be “no poetry after Auschwitz.” By the end of Sherratt’s book, one is inclined to think it would have been better if there had been no philosophy before it.

About the Author

Andrew Roberts is the author, most recently, of The Storm of War.

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