Hitler’s Philosophers, by Yvonne Sherratt

An effort to blame German thinkers for Nazism revives a discredited tradition, says Richard J. Evans

February 21, 2013

Back in the 1940s and 1950s, scholars such as Rohan Butler, William McGovern, Edmond Vermeil and Peter Viereck used to blame Germany’s philosophers for the rise and triumph of Nazism. Ripping quotation after quotation out of its contemporary context, they purported to show that Nazism’s core ideas had been held in advance by the entire German philosophical tradition, from Novalis to Nietzsche. In the 1960s, George Mosse and Fritz Stern gave this tradition greater sophistication by turning to second- and third-rank thinkers instead, but the argument was in essence the same. The advent of social history put paid to this teleological approach to the origins of Nazism by focusing instead on political structures and class antagonisms as the key factors.

But the cultural turn has made it possible to revive this tradition, which Yvonne Sherratt now attempts to do in Hitler’s Philosophers. She has the advantage of being able to make use of recent research into Hitler’s library, so we now know what he actually read, and she is in no doubt that Hitler vulgarised the philosophical ideas he imbibed, or twisted them to his own purposes. Nevertheless, her book is as flawed in intention and execution as were those of the wartime and post-war propagandists.

In ransacking these authors for ‘anti-Semitic’ quotes she reduces Nazism to the single aspect of anti-Semitism and ignores context

The problems start with the author’s confession that this is not an academic work but a “docudrama…which aims to transport the reader to the vivid and dangerous world of 1930s Germany”. There is indeed a lot of scene-setting, much of it not really necessary, and there are descriptions of the lives of the dramatis personae, but nothing about the actual philosophical ideas they held. Thus, for example, the crucial question of whether Martin Heidegger’s philosophy in itself overlapped with the doctrines of Nazism is ducked in favour of a lengthy account of his affair with Hannah Arendt.

Immanuel Kant, Johann Fichte and other thinkers are portrayed as anti- Semites and proto-Nazis without the reader being made aware of the fact that their anti-Semitism was religious and not racial. Wagner was “perhaps the most virulent anti-Semite of them all. In some of his operas”, Sherratt asserts, “he turned Jew hatred into an aesthetic experience.” Again, no evidence for this - to put it mildly, controversial - claim. In ransacking all these authors for “anti-Semitic” quotes she reduces Nazism to the single aspect of anti-Semitism and ignores every contemporary context in which they were written. But the Jews were not the only “targets of Hitler’s wrath”; many more people, among them liberals, socialists, communists, homosexuals, gypsies and pacifists, were targets of his wrath as well. Elsewhere, the biologist and eugenicist Ernst Haeckel is characterised as a precursor of Nazism without any recognition of the fact that his Monist League was actually a pacifist organisation because it believed that war killed off the best and bravest in every generation and was therefore counter-evolutionary.

Sherratt presents the Nazi takeover of German universities as carefully planned and instituted from above by the Nazi ideologue Alfred Rosenberg acting through the Nazi professors Alfred Bäumler and Ernst Kriek. She has no evidence to back up this assertion. She ignores the scholarship that has shown how higher education was already undermined by Nazi students before Hitler came to power, and also the many works that have demonstrated the extent to which the Nazification of universities was achieved from below, by students and lecturers; it was the students, for example, who staged the book burnings of 10 May 1933, not “Rosenberg and his cronies”.

Unsupported assertions permeate the book. We are told that Hitler considered himself a “philosopher-leader”, and that his self-presentation as a prophet was directly derived from Nietzsche; no evidence is presented for either of these surprising claims. Amazingly, Sherratt asserts that “during the first year of Hitler’s chancellorship the terror and reprisals associated with the later years of Nazi rule had not yet begun”. That would not have amused the 100,000 opponents of Nazism who were imprisoned in concentration camps between February and July 1933, nor the many hundreds who were murdered during this time.

Hitler’s Philosophers claims to expose the shameful story of German philosophy’s collaboration with Nazism, and it is not surprising that it relies on books by authors such as Daniel Gasman, Daniel Goldhagen, Víctor Farías and others who have composed their one-sided tracts more as retrospective prosecutors than as conscientious historians. There are interesting and important things to be said about the relationship between philosophy and Nazism, that most anti-intellectual of political creeds, but you will not find them here.

Hitler’s Philosophers

By Yvonne Sherratt
Yale University Press, 336pp, £25.00
ISBN 9780300151930
Published 22 February 2013

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