Book review: Hitler’s Philosophers by Yvonne Sherratt

This analysis of the thinkers that Adolf Hitler used as support for genocide is simply wrongheaded

This analysis of the thinkers that Adolf Hitler used as support for genocide is simply wrongheaded

Hitler’s Philosophers by Yvonne Sherratt

Yale University Press, 336pp, £25

My problems with this book begin with the title. Contrary to what the reader might expect, over half the book is concerned with thinkers who in no way could be regarded as “Hitler’s Philosophers” – Walter Benjamin, author of The Arcades Project and The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, who committed suicide in the Pyrenees while attempting to escape Nazi-occupied France; Theodor Adorno, author of The Authoritarian Personality, Minima Moralia and many works on musical theory, who spent the war in America and on his return to Germany worked assiduously on denazification (and coined the oft-mangled phrase “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric”); Hannah Arendt, the author of Totalitarianism who reported on the Eichmann Trial in Jerusalem, where she memorably described “the banality of evil”; and Kurt Huber, musicologist and specialist on Kant, who, as a member of the White Rose Group, resisted Hitler and was executed by the Gestapo. To discuss these writers under the title “Hitler’s Philosophers” is like calling John Milton “the poet of the Restoration” or Andrei Sakharov “Stalin’s nuclear scientist”. And where, in this pantheon, is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, another victim of the Hitler regime and a theologian who had to square his ethical theory with the necessity of violence against Hitler? It is not as if the secular has a monopoly on moral bravery.

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But the infelicity of the title – why not Philosophy During The Third Reich? – belies much deeper and more troubling problems. The first half of the book covers Hitler’s own pretensions to being a philosopher, how he read and misread the tradition of German philosophy from Kant and Schopenhauer to Hegel and Nietzsche (and Darwin), and the activities of Alfred Rosenberg, Alfred Bäumler and Ernst Krieck, who rewrote the curriculum, implemented the Baden decree of 1933 to expel Jewish academics and oversaw the “Action Against the Un-German Spirit” where books were publicly burned. This chapter is by far the best in the book, as Sherratt charts chillingly and exactly how the Nazi regime began to indoctrinate and intimidate the universities. Thereafter, there are two chapters on the most high profile “collaborators” with the regime: the legal philosopher Carl Schmitt (author of Political Theology and Dictatorship) and Martin Heidegger, the towering figure of early 20th century philosophy, two of whose major works, Being And Time and Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics were published in 1927 and 1929, before Hitler became Chancellor. The fact that Heidegger is in the first half of the book underlines and emphasises Sherratt’s contention that he was unquestionably and unquestioningly a Nazi: the whole structural separation of the book into “bad guys” and “good guys” is a terrible unsubtlety.

Sherratt says in her introduction “Artists and musicians have shamefully been among the collaborators. Yet, since Hitler’s rise to power nearly 80 years ago, no-one has yet examined the part played by one quiet and unassuming group – the philosophers”. This is simply untrue. The relations between Heidegger and Schmitt and the Nazi regime have been worried over endlessly and – unlike here – productively (for example in Avital Ronnell’s stupendous work, The Telephone Book). The 1988 revelation that theorist Paul de Man had written anti-Semitic articles for the collaborationist Belgian newspaper Le Soir became a central feature of the “Theory Wars”.

In her discussion of the philosophical tradition which was vulgarised by the Nazis, Sherratt merely cites examples of anti-Semitism in Kant, Hegel and Schopenhauer rather than engaging with their philosophies. It would be just as easy to find examples of anti-Semitism in Marx and Voltaire (“In short we find them only ignorant and barbarous people with long united and most sordid avarice with the most detestable superstition and the most invincible hatred of every people by whom they are tolerated”), enthusiasm for euthanasia in DH Lawrence, and nationalist and ego-dominated belligerence everywhere from Marinetti in Italy to Hong Xiuquan’s Taiping Rebellion in China. To take specifically anti-Semitism, the problem was not that Germany was uniquely susceptible, it was that it was typical; the fears of Adorno in America show just how universal the prejudice was. There are problems with the German philosophical tradition: the idea of the “World-Spirit” in Hegel can be constricted to less edifying ends, and Kant’s inflexible morality, best seen in his idea of the categorical imperative, a moral truth to be followed at all times and in all circumstances, can lead to a rigidity of thought (it is telling that modern philosophers, explaining the categorical imperative and its problems, often take the example of lying being absolutely wrong and ask how a thorough Kantian would deal with the Gestapo on the doorstep and Anne Frank in the attic). The fractious and ambiguous nature of the German philosophical tradition’s relationship to Nazism is far more carefully and profoundly analysed in Peter Watson’s The German Genius.

By not engaging with the philosophies, rather than the philosophers, Sherratt presents a one-sided and partial account. Schmitt was far more obviously aligned with the regime, and yet his thought has latterly inspired the left more than the right; notably Giorgio Agamben, Slavoj Zizek, Antonio Negri and Simon Critchley. Schmitt’s idea of the “state of exception”, where the “sovereign” is the one who decides when the laws fall silent, is still relevant: Guantanamo Bay is an easy example. It should be mentioned, as well, that when Sherratt describes Benjamin as “sensitive”, “no fighter, not even intellectually”, “gentle” and so on, it is at the expense of discussing his concept of “divine violence”, to which Schmitt’s “state of exception” is a form of response. Likewise, she manages to soft-soap some aspects of Adorno’s friend, the composer Arnold Schoenberg. His serialist music meant he had to flee Germany, and he and Adorno became friends in America. I wonder if they ever discussed his early epiphany about 12-tone atonality: “I have made a discovery that will ensure the supremacy of German music for the next hundred years”?

With Heidegger, Sherratt is even more sketchy and supercilious. Often this involves using emotive language – post-Nuremberg, she says “of course, Heidegger seduced [my italics] Nazi extremists and liberals alike, conservatives as well as radicals”. She writes “His mind was dynamic, his ideas dazzling – here was a ‘superman’”. The single quotation marks are duplicitous: there is no document, Nazi or otherwise, claiming that Heidegger was seen as an incarnation of the Übermensch. In her account of his 1935 series of lectures, Sherratt quotes Heidegger on “the inward truth and greatness of the movement [my italics]”, then says, “Nobody had any doubt in the National Socialist state of 1935 which movement Heidegger was referring to.” Yet, in his 1966 interview with Der Spiegel, Heidegger maintained that he knew that the Nazi officials in the audience would think that “movement” referred to them, while his students would understand it as a reference to its previous use in his lectures, where it meant the technological inflection of modern humanity. But Sherratt does not give the reader Heidegger’s own self-explanation, even to question it: every grey area is frantically scribbled black or white instead.

It may be that Heidegger was a very clever Nazi, the Jimmy Savile of philosophy hiding his nefariousness in plain view. That does not take away from the import of the work; nor does it Schmitt’s. But how would Sherratt herself deal with these vexing questions? She writes in the afterword “Should we teach their ideas, blithely encourage students to read Being and Time… without vigilance, might cryptic words not disguise prejudice, and the seeds of Hitler’s philosophy carry forward to new generations?” The answer is yes, but if you teach blithely you have no business being a teacher, and no, the Fourth Reich will not come about through reading Heidegger and Schmitt. It might come about through such weasel-worded calls for censorship (all in the best possible liberal taste, of course).

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The Americans, for once wisely, used to distinguish between “Grey-Acceptable” and “Grey-Unacceptable” in dealing with former Nazis. (Carl Orff famously got off through becoming ‘Grey-Acceptable’ by claiming he set up the White Rose, a claim Michael Kater deals with in the excellent Composers of the Nazi Era). Rather than Grey-Acceptable and Grey-Unacceptable, Sherratt gives us Black-and-White-Unsupportable.