Study reveals shame of Hitler’s tame philosophers

Adolf Hitler called himself the ‘Philosopher Fuhrer’ and was backed by some of the greatest minds of the 20th Century. How did supposedly wise thinkers fall under the dictator’s evil spell?

Germany after the First World War was a wounded country. Millions of men had died. Those who had escaped the horror of the trenches were confused, angry, and looking for someone to blame.

Into that space stepped Adolf Hitler, charismatic leader of the National Socialist Party. He offered a vision of the future: an empire reborn. Just as importantly, he offered answers to the burning question of the past. Why had the Germans lost the Great War? Because, he said, they had been betrayed by the Jews.

This toxic vision seduced millions of ordinary Germans, and led directly to the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust. Now, a new book* by historian Yvonne Sherratt has shown that Hitler’s rhetoric also worked on people who might have been expected to know better: Germany’s academic philosophers.

Germany had a philosophical tradition unmatched by any other country in the world. It is the land of Kant, Nietzsche and Schopenhauer among many others; great thinkers who explored the meaning of life, the origins of good and evil, the existence of god and all the other deep questions that have troubled humans for hundreds of years.

Hitler himself was inspired by that tradition. During a spell in prison in the 1920s, he read philosophy widely (though not well), eventually producing his own garbled attempt at a philosophical treatise: Mein Kampf.

This rambling and hate-filled manifesto is a crude and pathetic work of philosophy but, shockingly, as Hitler grew more powerful some distinguished German philosophers declared themselves impressed. Gottlob Frege, the father of analytical philosophy, declared Hitler a hero. Martin Heidegger, still regarded as one of the greatest philosophers of all time, gave lectures wearing a Nazi uniform and helped expel Jewish academics from his university. All over the country, people who had devoted themselves to the search for deep truths fell silent or, even worse, spoke up in support of Hitler’s monstrous lies.

Dangerous ideas

Philosophy did nothing to stop Hitler. In fact, it probably helped him. Should we be surprised? After all, cynics might point out, nothing is as dangerous as a big idea. Extreme religion, fascism, communism – these are all big ideas whose followers have, throughout history, shown themselves willing to kill millions in the quest for a ‘better world’.

Yes, big ideas can be dangerous, philosophers will reply, but it is the essence of humanity to try to find meaning in our short and chaotic existence. As the great greek philosopher Socrates once said: ‘the unexamined life is not worth living.’

*Hitler’s Philosophers, by Yvonne Sherratt, is published by Yale University Press in 2013

You Decide

  1. Socrates said that the ‘unexamined life’ was not worth living. Do you agree?
  2. Is it possible to be a good philosopher and a Nazi sympathiser?

Activities

  1. What is the meaning of life? Give your answer in a single sentence. Compare with others in your class.
  2. Choose a big philosophical idea from history, for example: democracy, communism, libertarianism, nihilism, determinism etc. Write a short piece introducing the big idea and explaining its impact on the world.

Some People Say...

“The world would be a better place without religion and philosophy.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why would I ever care what philosophers think?
Philosophical questions might seem like they don’t matter, but philosophy is actually quite important in modern life.
How’s that?
One big field is medical ethics. The way in which we, as a society, deal with things like abortion, euthanasia or stem cell research is largely determined by our answers to philosophical questions: where does life begin and end? What moral value do we put on life and suffering?
Anything else?
Philosophy of mind, which tries to understand the nature of consciousness, could turn out to be vital in creating real thinking machines. Most of all, though, thinking about the meaning of life can help us understand how we should live.

Word Watch

Looking for someone to blame
Many German soldiers were surprised when Germany surrendered at the end of World War One. They felt the war was not yet lost. This surprise turned to resentment when the victorious allies imposed very harsh peace terms, crippling the German economy.
National Socialist Party
The official name of Hitler’s political party was the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, known as the Nazi Party, for short. Despite the name, Hitler’s National Socialist ideas had little in common with true Socialism.
Kant
The world’s most famous moral philosopher, Kant wrote about ethics and metaphysics. He tried to construct a universal moral rule that everyone could follow in all situations.
Nietzsche
Controversial and charismatic, Nietzsche became famous for criticizing Christianity. He believed that to live well a person should cultivate fierce willpower and strength of mind.
Schopenhauer
A famously pessimistic philosopher, Schopenhauer believed that humans live in an irrational universe, full of endless strife.

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