Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Hitler's Philosophers: Reductio ad Hitlerum?

In his book on Leo Strauss, Will Altman points out that Strauss coined the phrase reductio ad Hitlerum.  In Natural Right and History, Strauss remarked: "we must avoid the fallacy that in the last decades has frequently been used as a substitute for the reductio ad absurdum: the reductio ad Hitlerum.  A view is not refuted by the fact that it happens to have been shared by Hitler" (42-43).

We might wonder, as Altman suggests, why Strauss didn't identify this fallacy as a noble fallacy.  Surely, it's good that our disgust with Hitler and the Nazis is so deep that we think a view is refuted by the fact that it happens to have been shared by Hitler.

But when we do this, we have to identify those views that were most directly responsible for the evils of Hitler's regime, and we have to understand the history of those views and their adoption by Hitler.  A view is not refuted by the fact that it happens to have been professed in a perversely distorted form by Hitler.

I thought about that while reading Yvonne Sherratt's new book Hitler's Philosophers (Yale University Press).  She sets out to tell "the story of Hitler's philosophers," and thus "the story of how philosophy was implicated in genocide" (xvi-xvii).  Contrary to what she asserts, she is not the first person to tell this story, as should be clear by the many citations in her notes to other books on the history of philosophers connected to Hitler.  But she is the first person to tell this story as a "docudrama" in a "narrative style," which doesn't work for her, because she has little skill for narrative writing.

She claims that this is "a work of non-fiction, carefully  researched, based upon archival material, letters, photographs, paintings, verbal reports and descriptions, which have all been meticulously referenced" (xx).  In fact, her research is remarkably sloppy.  For example, she repeatedly claims that Hitler "came to regard himself as the 'philosopher Fuhrer'" or "philosopher leader" (xviii, 16, 31, 35, 63, 127).  If Hitler actually called himself the "philosopher Fuhrer," as she implies, that would be something worth knowing.  But if you look for a citation for this claim, you will find only one reference (16, 267, n. 41) to Ian Kershaw's Hitler 1889-1936: Hubris, page 250.  If you then check Kershaw's book, you won't see any indication that Hitler ever called himself the "philosopher Fuhrer," although Kershaw does quote Hitler as saying: "the combination of theoretician, organizer, and leader in one person is the rarest thing that can be found on this earth; this combination makes the great man" (252). 

Here Kershaw is quoting from Mein Kampf (trans. Ralph Manheim, 1943, pp. 580-81).  In Mein Kampf, Hitler identifies the "theoretician" as the man who grasps the "ideas" that constitute the "worldview" (Weltanschauung) necessary for a political party like National Socialism that will bring a total cultural transformation (pp. 452-62).  As an example of such leadership in cultural transformation, he mentions the triumph of Christianity over paganism as "the first spiritual terror," and he suggests that National Socialism will overturn that Christian terror with a new spiritual terror to create a new cultural regime (pp. 454-55).  He also mentions Martin Luther, Frederick the Great, and Richard Wagner as examples of "great reformers" of culture (p. 213).

Sherratt claims that Martin Heidegger was identified as "Hitler's Superman" (104-107).  But she never provides any citation with evidence that Heidegger or anyone else identified him as "Hitler's Superman."  It is true, however, that Heidegger in his Rectoral Address at the University of Freiburg did speak of his "spiritual/intellectual leadership" (geistige Fuhrung) over Germany.  And he told Karl Jaspers that he wanted to "lead the Leader."  In Mein Kampf, Hitler spoke of the need for geistige Fuhrung (p. 457); and so Heidegger could have picked up this phrase from Hitler's book.

Despite the sloppiness of her research, Sherratt does provide a comprehensive history of the connections between Hitler and German philosophy.  First, she surveys Hitler's references to German philosophers like Kant, Fichte, Hegel, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche.  Then she claims to find in those philosophers evidence that Hitler's reading of them was valid, because one can see in them many of the elements of Hitler's Nazism--anti-Semitism, German nationalism, militarism, racism, and eugenics.  She then surveys the history of those many philosophers in Germany who collaborated with Hitler and the Nazis--Heidegger, Carl Schmitt, and many others. 

She also provides a history of Hitler's philosophical opponents who were forced to leave Germany--particularly, Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, and Hannah Arendt.  And she tells the remarkable story of Kurt Huber and the White Rose resistance movement.  As a professor of philosophy at the University of Munich, Huber became the only academic philosopher in Germany to resist Nazism.  He joined with a group of his students at the University--led by Sophie Scholl and her brother Hans Scholl--who wrote and distributed a series of leaflets in 1942-1943 calling for nonviolent resistance to the Nazi regime.  They were arrested and convicted of treason.  Some of them--including Huber--were executed by beheading.  (The texts of their leaflets can be found online.)

Finally, Sherratt surveys the history of how most of the Nazi philosophers managed to avoid any severe punishment after the war and to even resume their academic careers in Germany.  Heidegger was especially despicable in lying about his active support of the Nazis, and even claiming that he supported the White Rose resistance, so that he could return to the University of Freiburg and eventually regain his high position, even to the point of being praised by some academic philosophers as the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century.

This history is helpful to anyone who wants to make an intellectual assessment of the connection between philosophy and the evils of Nazism.  But Sherratt's own intellectual assessment of the issues raised by this history is shallow and confused.  For example, she points to Kant's anti-Semitism as showing that Hitler was correct to identify him as a forerunner to Nazism (36-41).  But then she notes that Huber read Kant very differently from how Hitler read him: "Kant, in fact, was one of Huber's main weapons in his intellectual resistance to Nazism, and Huber lectured on him as often as he could" (215).  She makes no attempt to decide whether Huber's reading of Kant was better than Hitler's.

Moreover, she never tries to identify clearly the philosophical mistake that leads philosophers like Heidegger to support evil tyranny like that of the Nazis.  She might have done this if she had carefully read Nietzsche.  As is usually the case for scholars looking at the connection between Nietzsche and Nazism, she skims over some ideas in Nietzsche's early and late writings, while giving his middle period only one sentence: "Nietzsche explored many ideas throughout his life including, in his middle period, rationalism and Enlightenment philosophy" (48).

If she had actually read Nietzsche's Human, All Too Human, Sherratt might have noticed that Nietzsche identified there the philosophical mistake that can lead philosophers to support tyranny.  She might also have noticed that it was Nietzsche's adoption of Darwinian evolutionary science that allowed him to see that philosophical mistake.

Evolutionary science allowed Nietzsche to see that social order arises best as a largely spontaneous order of human cultural evolution that does not require any intelligently designed metaphysical order enforced by state coercion.  This leads Nietzsche to embrace the liberal separation of culture and the state, so that the purpose of the state is only to protect individuals from one another, and then cultural life is a realm for freedom of thought and action. 

By contrast, Nietzsche saw, philosophers like Plato and Heidegger who want the state to execute their "spiritual leadership" in enforcing their vision of metaphysical order become "tyrants of the spirit," and consequently they are easily seduced by tyrants like Hitler.  (See Human, All Too Human, 1-9, 235, 261, 438-41, 465, 472, 474.)

Unfortunately, Nietzsche moved away from the Darwinian aristocratic liberalism of his middle period to the Dionysian aristocratic radicalism of his later writings.  And it was the latter that inspired Hitler and the Nazis.

Some of these points are elaborated in other posts here, here, here, here, here, and here.

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