This article was first published in the February 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine
For over 70 years the world has been gripped by the horror of Nazism and the atrocities of the Holocaust. In the decades since Hitler’s death in a Berlin bunker, no sector of German society has remained untarnished: businessmen, scientists and doctors have all been shown to have bolstered the führer’s power. Yet among all these people, one group ought surely to have had both the intellectual insight and moral grit to stand up to Hitler – the philosophers. Philosophy, after all, is descended from the moral sciences.
Until 1933 there had been hundreds of Jewish academics, including philosophers, in universities across Germany. In the year that Hitler became chancellor, more than 1,600 scholars were expelled from their posts, the majority being Jews. They included some influential philosophers like Edmund Husserl and also, eventually, Karl Jaspers (whose wife was Jewish). In the wake of this purge, there is almost no evidence of any opposition from ‘Aryan’ philosophers – no letters, campaigns or protests. As one commentator expressed it: “Their silence was strong.”
The expulsion of so many Jews left a considerable number of jobs vacant, and the standard required to obtain these was vastly reduced. The remaining philosophers quickly spotted the opportunities.
Alfred Bäumler was a crude interpreter of the cult 19th-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. From a meagre unknown, he underwent an immediate and dramatic ascent to fame due to his commitment to National Socialism. In 1933 he gained promotion to professor of philosophy at Germany’s prestigious University of Berlin and undertook the entire mental training of the Nazi party. Bäumler’s colleague Ernst Krieck, a member of the National Socialist party, despised pacifist and democratic ideas. Krieck became preoccupied with the annihilation of Jewish influence and was awarded a chair at Heidelberg University, where he spied on his colleagues, worked for the security services and helped run a number of prominent Nazi institutions.
Many other Nazi sympathisers were soon promoted to become professors and rectors (chiefs of the universities). They included Ernst Bergmann, University of Leipzig; Max Hildebert Boehme, University of Jena; Hans Alfred Grunsky and Otto Höfler, University of Munich; Walter Schulze-Sölde, University of Innsbruck; and Hans Heyse, rector of the University of Königsberg.
These men encompass only a few of Nazi Germany’s philosopher collaborators, and hardly represented the cream of the nation’s thinkers. Yet if you thought that those of greater talent would offer more resistance, you’d be wrong.
One of Germany’s leading lights was Professor Martin Heidegger, author of the acclaimed Being and Time. In 1933, when asked how a man as coarse as Hitler could govern Germany, Heidegger replied, eyes shining with glee: “Culture is of no importance. Look at his marvellous hands!”
When Heidegger was granted the rectorship of Freiburg University in 1933, the programme notes that accompanied his inauguration ceremony carried the words of the Horst-Wessel Lied, the anthem of the National Socialist party. He declared: “The führer himself and he alone is the German reality, present and future, and its law… Heil Hitler.”
Carl Schmitt, a brilliant legal philosopher born in 1888, joined the National Socialist party in May 1933 and began to reap the fruits of collaboration almost immediately. He was appointed Prussian state councillor and became chair of the University of Berlin.
Schmitt used his considerable intellectual talents to help draw up an ideal of a legal system that provided the foundations for a total authoritarian regime. Then, praising Nazi leaders’ calls for “healthy exorcism”, Schmitt welcomed “the genuine battle of principles between the Jews’ cruelty and impudence and Germans’ ethnic honour.” Schmitt condemned mere “emotional anti-Semitism that does not accomplish the task of driving out Jewish influence”. He quoted Mein Kampf: “In defending myself against the Jew… I am doing the work of the Lord.”
Enjoying their promotions, Hitler’s philosophers went on to help establish the framework for a Nazi ‘philosophy’. Like Heidegger, they worshipped the führer. Hans Heyse, for example, advocated total obedience: “The new German university has only one law… to serve the intentions and objectives of the führer of the German people.”
Many, like Schmitt, also targeted the Jews. Dr Hans Alfred Grunsky and Max Wundt, professor of philosophy at the University of Tübingen, became the prolific authors of anti-Semitic theories, while Alfred Bäumler took a lead in the book burnings of mainly Jewish literature in May 1933. Indeed, throughout the thirties, it seems that not one philosopher in the German universities – whether mediocre or brilliant – did anything other than consent with Hitler.
Yet, in the early 1940s, Kurt Huber, professor of philosophy at Munich University, decided to buck that trend. A conservative nationalist, Huber was angered by the wanton loss of young German lives in the battle of Stalingrad, and the Third Reich’s ever-increasing brutality. Thus he became a member of a covert resistance group named the White Rose. Huber wrote leaflets urging the German people to come to their senses and oppose Hitler. Tragically, in 1943, he was captured, tried and executed.
That it was dangerous to oppose Hitler by the 1940s was evident from Huber’s fate. But, in the 1930s, before the reprisals began, why had the vast majority of philosophers collaborated? When examining their motives it seems that some were just conforming to a norm. Others were opportunistic, perhaps even jealous of their erudite Jewish-German colleagues and eager to take any opportunities they could. Others, however, were ideological – Bäumler and Krieck, for example, were signed-up Nazis, just waiting for Hitler to come to power.
Whatever their motives, one thing is certain: the actions of these philosophers had enormous resonance. In Germany, philosophy was iconic, it held an eminence in the nation’s heritage, rather like the royal family for the British. Philosophers were celebrities. What they did, how they behaved and what ideas they promoted exerted a powerful influence upon the German imagination. So their collaboration sent a powerful message of legitimacy to society at large, a profound endorsement of an immoral regime.
In 1945, following the fall of the Third Reich, the Allies tried to purge the German universities of Nazism. Their attempts were, however, ineffectual, and former Nazis went on to dominate a number of faculties.
Meanwhile, Carl Schmitt, who never recanted his views, and Martin Heidegger, who never apologised for his role in supporting Hitler, rose to international stardom. In fact, Heidegger would be hailed as the 20th century’s greatest philosopher, while it was said that “Carl Schmitt was famous, possibly the most-discussed German jurist of the 20th century”.
Today, while Kurt Huber lies forgotten, Heidegger and Schmitt’s ideas are venerated by some of the most prestigious institutions in the western world.
Hitler: the ‘philosopher führer’
Adolf Hitler’s egotism on the subject of philosophy spread to a fantasy that he himself was a great thinker. Indeed he came to regard himself as the ‘philosopher führer’.
During the time when he was imprisoned in Landsberg am Lech in the south-west of the German state of Bavaria in 1924, Hitler claimed to have read many books. He read, he said, “everything he could get hold of”, including racist ideas from thinkers like Paul de Lagarde and Houston Stewart Chamberlain, as well as canonical philosophers like “Nietzsche [and]… Marx”. In his words: “I had but one pleasure: my books… I read and studied much.”
It was in Landsberg, assisted by (his later deputy) Rudolf Hess, that he wrote Mein Kampf. In this he outlined his own atrocious ‘philosophy’. Albeit in a crude way, Hitler referred to the founding fathers of the German philosophical tradition like Immanuel Kant: “Perhaps we are ignorant of humanity’s most precious spiritual treasures… in our parts of the world, the Jews would have immediately eliminated… Kant.” He claimed to have read Arthur Schopenhauer, professed adoration of the ‘genius’ Friederich Nietzsche, and was fond of German interpretations of Charles Darwin.
Hitler also alleged a love of Friederich Schiller’s philosophy. As one of his closest friends, businessman Ernst Hanfstaengl, noted: “He prefers the dramatic revolutionary Schiller to the Olympian and contemplative Goethe.”
“The strong man is mightiest alone.” This familiar quotation from Schiller’s William Tell (Act I, Scene III) formed the title of chapter 8, volume 2 of Mein Kampf and became his motto during his later years as führer. In fact, during these years, Hitler would name-drop many of Germany’s formidable intellectuals to his generals.
Hitler also found strands of anti-Semitism and usurped ideas about race, the nation state and war – all in order to legitimise his macabre project. However, in Hanfstaengl’s words, Hitler was not an actual philosopher, more a “bartender of genius”.
Yvonne Sherratt is a former fellow of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. Her book, Hitler’s Philosophers, is published by Yale University Press