Almost 70 years after his death, arch-villain Adolf Hitler — once described by Theodor Adorno as “a mixture of King Kong and a suburban hairdresser” (182) — continues to fascinate.
Yet the most shocking thing about Nazism isn’t Hitler the person, but the fact that an entire regime, and almost an entire society, could ever become so vile. This book illustrates that fact by looking at the role philosophy and philosophers played both in Nazi Germany and in Hitler’s own life.
At heart, Hitler seems to have been contemptuous of theory. Beaten and bullied by his father, he believed that, in his own words, the “plain man in the street respects nothing but brutal strength” (11). However, as author Yvonne Sherratt explains, philosophy is a German icon. So Hitler styled himself a philosopher, owned a large collection of books, and would often “name-drop from Germany’s formidable intellectuals to his generals” (xviii).
Along with his supporters, he stole, twisted, and amplified the wickedest ideas from the best-known thinkers. From Kant, for example, anti-Semitism; from Hegel, the view that the State must have supreme power; from Fichte, nationalism and anti-Semitism; from Schopenhauer, the glorification of Will over Reason, and more anti-Semitism; from Nietszche, militarism and the notion of the “superman”; from Darwin, anything that smacked of racial selection; and so on.
More brazenly still, the Nazis claimed for themselves ancient prestigious thinkers such as Homer and Plato. Even Jesus was depicted by party theorist Alfred Rosenberg as “a member of a Nordic enclave resident in ancient Galilee that had struggled against Judaism” (68).
That such bullshit could ever be taken seriously by large numbers of German intellectuals shows that, even in highly educated circles, social and political forces easily trump reason — a fact, we should reflect, that still holds true today. Hitler’s supporters included Gottlob Frege, a logician now considered the father of analytical philosophy (one of the two main branches of Western philosophy) and Martin Heidegger, ironically a key figure in the other branch, continental philosophy.
Heidegger, we are told in this book, joined the Nazi Party in 1933, weeks after being elected rector of the University of Freiburg. He implemented Nazi policies requiring the firing of non-Aryan faculty — among them his friend and former teacher, Edmund Husserl — and became a police informer.
According to Heidegger, the Third Reich represented “the construction of a new intellectual and spiritual world for the German nation” (106). Romanticizing the Volk, he often retreated to a mountain cabin, where he chopped wood, dressed in rustic clothing, and spoke like the locals. Yet while he argued that rural communities had an authentic existence, his own existence was nothing but. Famously, he had an affair with one of his young students, Hannah Arendt. Then dumped her when her Jewishness got in the way.
All this and more Sherrat does a good job of telling in the format of a docudrama; a light, non-academic account that focuses hardly on the philosophical ideas themselves, but instead on historical background and personal stories.
After discussing Heidegger and other Hitler collaborators, Part 2 of the book considers some German intellectuals who stood up to the Nazis.
The most tragic case, recounted in Chapter 6, is that of Walter Benjamin, a Jew whose views were diametrically and deliberately opposed to Heidegger’s. Instead of rejecting modern urban life, he embraced it with gusto.
It’s no surprise, then, that Benjamin hated his exile on the island of Ibiza, today a clubber’s and chic-hippy paradise, but then a forsaken rural backwater. After succumbing malaria, he left for mainland Europe, only to be hunted down by the authorities and finally kill himself with a massive dose of morphine.
Heidegger’s lover, Hannah Arendt, earns a chapter of her own in this book due to her colorful life and lasting intellectual influence. She discovered Judaism, hid a communist in her apartment, became a Zionist, befriended Benjamin (arranging his work for publication) escaped from a Nazi jail, and eventually made it to the US.
The final chapter looks at how the diverse thinkers fared after the war. Some collaborators received short prison sentences; others committed suicide or died of seemingly natural causes; but many were able to continue with or resume their careers. Sherratt claims that Germany turned at least one blind eye towards the Nazi past, and that philosophy departments remained politically poisoned. Never did Heidegger, for example, apologize for his actions or sympathize with the Reich’s victims.
As for Hitler’s surviving Jewish opponents, few of them ever returned to Germany. One exception was Adorno who, four years after the war got back to his hometown of Frankfurt. Three quarters of it laid in ruins; yet the city, he wrote, almost gave “an impression of normality. Food excellent, room overheated… Only the people’s clothes are shabby, and there are no elegant women at all any more” (255-6).
Sherratt ends her book with some bitter reflections on the contemporary reputations of the thinkers discussed. While Heidegger is widely considered one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century, dissident Frankfurt School members such as Benjamin and Adorno are ignored by many philosophy departments. Plenty of students, Sherratt complains, are “happily oblivious of the context of the ideas taught in their discipline” (263).
Let us hope that with Hitler’s Philosophers, this most sinister episode in philosophy’s history will have less room to hide.