Bernd Magnus, 1937-2014

A leading expert on the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, who was a child survivor of the Holocaust, has died

December 4, 2014

Bernd Magnus was born in Danzig, Germany (now Gdánsk, Poland) on 28 December 1937, and had a traumatically dramatic childhood. He was sent to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp with his mother and sister when he was nearly five, and they escaped being transported to Auschwitz when their train was hit by US bombs. After spending the rest of the war in hiding, he was brought to the US at the age of seven.

An undergraduate degree at the City College of New York was followed by a PhD in philosophy at Columbia University (1967) and a post as assistant professor of philosophy at the University of California, Riverside (1969). Promoted to associate professor in 1970 and full professor in 1974, he would remain at UC Riverside until his retirement in 2005. He served as associate dean in the College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences and as senior adviser to several chancellors, and he was the founding director of the university’s Center for Ideas and Society.

Writing about the experience of the few children who survived the Holocaust, Professor Magnus recalled how, unable to be part of the forced labour force in the camps, they were both “a drain on scarce resources” and “a constant distraction to our families, a reminder of a lost ‘normal’ life”. Initially inspired by “the zealous notion that there must be something inherent in recent German philosophy that would help to account for the demonic conditions which my family, among millions of others, endured”, he became an authority on Karl Marx, Martin Heidegger and particularly Nietzsche.

Books by Professor Magnus include Nietzsche’s Existential Imperative (1978) and Nietzsche’s Case: Philosophy as/and Literature (with Stanley Stewart and Jean-Pierre Mileur, 1993). With Kathleeen Higgins, he co-edited The Cambridge Companion to Nietzsche (1996), where the philosopher is described as “an ardent foe of nationalism, anti-Semitism, and power politics” who was “later invoked by Fascists and Nazis to advance the very things he loathed”. He also served on the editorial board for the first fully annotated Complete Works of Friedrich Nietzsche.

Professor Magnus was praised by Erich Reck, current chair of UC Riverside’s philosophy department, as “the driving force behind instituting a PhD programme in philosophy” at the university, and a scholar who helped make the department “an internationally known centre for European philosophy”. He died on 3 November and is survived by his wife, Lore Woodcock Magnus, a son, a daughter and two grandchildren.

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