Hitler’s Philosophical Enablers

Adolf Hitler is sometimes thought of as simply a thug, but he claimed that reading Fichte, Nietzsche, Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Darwin, and Heidegger “provided the building materials and plans for the future . . . and a philosophy which became the granite foundation of all my later acts.”

In an important new book, Hitler’s Philosophers, Yvonne Sherratt examines Hitler’s vulgarization of various modern philosophers and the distinguished academics who supported the Führer and National Socialism.

To rationalize his warped Weltanschauung (“worldview”) Hitler cherry-picked from the writings of his philosophical heroes.  His one-time friend, Ernst Hanfstaengl, said Hitler “was not so much a distiller as a bartender of genius.  He took all the ingredients the German [tradition] offered him and mixed them through his private alchemy into a cocktail they wanted to drink.”

From Nietzsche, Hitler learned to hate democracy because it “encouraged mediocrity.”  He admired Nietzsche’s warrior spirit and call for violence to achieve political ends: “Brutality is respectful. . . . Terrorism is absolutely indispensable in every case of the founding of a new power.”

He adopted Nietzsche’s idea that “a culture [must] encourage not equality but greatness” and “create conditions that require stronger men.”  Hitler sought to breed Aryan supermen who would rule the world.

Hitler took from Hegel the notions that the state has supreme power over the individual and that historic progress demands conflict.  Hitler believed that Hegel’s “force within history” applied to the German people, and he justified “an invasion of Europe using Hegel’s historic ideas of ‘coming into being.’”

Hitler embraced Kant because he concluded “the greatest service Kant has rendered to us. . .[was] the complete refutation of the teachings which were the heritage of the middle ages and of the dogmatic philosophy of the [Catholic] church.”

Hitler was also attracted to Kant’s view that Judaism was superstitious and irrational: “the Jewish religion is not really a religion at all, but merely a community of a mass of men of one tribe.”  Sherratt points out that Kant “decreed in fact that pure morality sought ‘the euthanasia of Judaism.’”

From Fichte, Hitler learned of German exceptionalism and nationalism and agreed with Fichte’s declaration, “I see absolutely no way of giving Jews civic rights.”

As for Schopenhauer, Hitler boasted “I carried Schopenhauer’s works with me throughout the First World War.  From him I learned a great deal,”  apparently that he “glorified will over reason.”

Hitler pressed all these philosophical bits and pieces into the service of Social Darwinism.  He insisted that only the fit had the right to survive:  “The great masses are only a part of nature. . . .What they want is the victory of the stronger and the annihilation or the unconditional surrender of the weaker.”  The so-called rules of humanity do not apply to man: “[he] lives or is able to preserve himself above the animal world, but sadly by means of the most brutal struggle.”  “Only force rules.  Force is the first law.”  Only “the stronger man is right.”

After Hitler became German Chancellor, a number of respected scholars in  philosophy, law, and science embraced him.  They “eagerly collaborated to lend the Nazi regime a cloak of respectability.”

The most prominent was Martin Heidegger, the author of Being and Time, and one of the central figures in existentialism. After leaving a Jesuit seminary, Heidegger studied under the great phenomenologist Edmund Husserl who arranged for him to take over his chair of philosophy at the University of Freiburg in 1928.

In May 1933, weeks after he joined the Nazi Party, Heidegger was named Rector of Freiburg University and in his inaugural address praised National Socialism and gave the Nazi salute.

In the University newspaper in late 1933 he wrote:

May you ceaselessly grow in courage to sacrifice yourselves for the salvation of the nation’s essential being and the increase of its innermost strength in its polity. . . .The Führer himself and he alone is the German reality, present and, and its law. . . Heil Hitler.

He issued the Baden Decree that suspended non-Aryan professors at the University.  His mentor, Edmund Husserl was a victim of that decree.

Heidegger also lobbied for the creation of a chair in race studies and genetics and “advocated that ‘in order to preserve the health of the state’ questions of euthanasia should be seriously contemplated.” 

Sherratt rightly observes: “Heidegger had helped glorify the Führer.  He had provided the icing on the cake of Hitler’s dream:  for here was the intellectual Nazi superman for all to see.”

After the philosopher-Führer committed suicide in 1945, the philosopher-collaborators ran for cover. With the aid of university colleagues, they covered up their activities and ignored the past: “A veil of silence descended across the university halls.”

Heidegger never even condemned the Holocaust and “simply likened the loss of Jewish lives to the Germans killed during combat.” When pressed to repent, he complained “that Hitler let him down.  ‘Is Hitler going to apologize to me?’”

Hannah Arendt, a former student, and Jean Paul Sartre, however, protected Heideggers reputation.  He was re-appointed as a professor at Freiburg University in 1951 and is still regarded as one of the twentieth century’s greatest philosophers.  Intellectual admiration, Sherratt  points out, “outweigh[ed] any potential moral distaste.”

Her fine book, however, ends on a troubling but prescient note.  While the German political and governmental systems were de-Nazified, not enough was done to expose, expunge, or condemn the ideas underlying the Nazi state.  “Without vigilance,” she asks, “might cryptic words not disguise prejudice, and the seeds of Hitler’s philosophy carry forward to new generations?”

She’s right.  Lack of vigilance has empowered promoters of the Culture of Death, which has been successfully advocating policies such as euthanasia as acts of compassion. Ironic, since such acts were condemned at the Nuremberg trials as crimes against humanity.

Intellectuals still have an attraction to many other deadly notions inherited from the last century or so of “advanced” thought, not least a crude materialism that, more than ever, needs careful scrutiny.

The Catholic Thing

  • Howard Kainz

    Hegel has received a lot of “bad press” and is much misunderstood. He did believe that there is a dialectic process in history, proceeding through opposites, and that these processes had come to a head in the Germanic people at that time. But he also held in his philosophy of history that the surge of history was inevitably towards freedom — starting with freedom for a tyrant or autocrat or monarch, then to select groups, and finally to freedom for all in a “free modern state” and ending with freedom for all, and recognition of the “rights of subjectivity.” It is these aspects that Francis Fukuyama emphasizes in his 1992 book, “The End of History and the Last Man,” which celebrates the triumph of the liberal ideal over Communism.

  • Jack,CT

    Mr Marlin, thanks for a
    great read.

  • Manfred

    I am disappointed that you did not enlarge upon your book report by comparing the intellectual bases of Weimar Naziism to those bases present in today’s Democratic Americanism. For example, the extermination of human beings which is the sine qua non of Obamacare by contraception, abortion, abortifacients, etc. MANDATED by the Affordable Care Act. Americanism treats sodomites and lesbians much differently than Naziism which persecuted them and annihilated them. Americanism encourages them to marry and to have children and anyone who opposes the government on this will be the ones persecuted and annihilated (one way or another).
    BTW, why do writers spend so much time on Nazism? Why don’t we read of the gulags of the Soviets or the prisons of Marxists such as Castro and Chavez? I believe the revelations and the hearings (so far) on the AMERICAN NSA, Dept. of Justice, the CIA and the work of giants such as Verizon and Booz Allen Hamilton in assisting Americanism are terrifying to thoughtful people throughout the WORLD!

  • Dennis

    The SS was originally recruited from among university graduates at first.

  • Emina Melonic

    Nice review. Sounds about right what the writer of the book is saying. It is most likely that Hitler misunderstood most of philosophers mentioned in this, but certainly not Heidegger. While Heidegger contributed greatly to the development and study of phenomenology, his Nazism remained in his being, and perhaps precisely because of his philosophy and assertion that we are only “being toward death.” As a student of phenomenology, I am conflicted – on one hand, we have a man who was intelligent, a philosopher, on the other hand, a man who embraced evil. His work cannot be dismissed, however we have to remember that the dignity of human life comes first – above any philosophical endeavor (this is what philosopher Emmanuel Levinas has said – moving from the “love of wisdom” to the “wisdom of love”). Heidegger never bothered to respond to Levinas (who was a Jew, and whose most of family perished in the Holocaust) philosophically. As for Arendt – this is another disappointment. Great thinker, and yet somehow emotionally stuck on Heidegger given their affair. Her judgment was clouded, unfortunately. But philosophically too – on some level, she has continued Heidegger’s legacy.

  • Allen

    Excellent review of an important book.

  • Jacob

    “Adolf Hitler is sometimes thought of as simply a thug, but he claimed that reading Fichte, Nietzsche, Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Darwin, and Heidegger “provided the building materials and plans for the future . . . and a philosophy which became the granite foundation of all my later acts.””

    Thank you immensely for the new quote..and the fine article!

  • maineman

    Manfred, I think that’s a tad unfair. The author overtly links the review to the current culture of death at the end of the article, and the smell of it wafts up throughout.

    And I encourage you to explore the relationship between homosexuality and Nazism more deeply, including the role of Ernst Rohm and the Wandervogel (the latter of which has some chilling implications for the recent Boy Scout debacle). Things in that realm were not as you make them seem.

  • Manfred

    Maineman: Check me, but wasn’t Roehm and the Sturm Abteilung which he led ordered destroyed by the Schutz Staffel when Naziism fully “arrived” in 1933? Roehm’s S.A. (the Brownshirts) were useful after the Putsch as street goons fighting Communists, but Roehm and they were often homosexuals who became an embarassment to Hitler who promised a thousand year Reich. Sodomites were one of the groups in the concentration camps. I stand by my comment that we have more than enough evil in this Country today without having to deal with what today might described as little more than a red herring. I would have preferred a discussion of how the same philosophers who taught Hitler also have had an impact, directly or indirectly, on Obama, Biden, Sebelius, the Kennedys, the Cuomos, Pelosi et al. There was no reference to God in the August, 2012 Democratic National Platform. This was not happenstance.

  • Tony

    The academics were the enablers of both Nazism and Stalinism, and, though the Nazis and the Communists sometimes made noises about hating one another, in actuality they marched arm in arm (literally) against the social democrats, to bring the Weimar Republic down. Prof. Marlin’s review confirms what I’ve read recently in Ralph De Toledano’s book, Cry Havoc: The Great American Bring-Down; and what I’ve read in Whittaker Chambers’ Witness.

    The thing is, the evil hasn’t gone away. It morphed into “cultural Marxism” and conquered the west in the 1960’s, and we are still living through the consequences. It is marked by an implacable hatred of the natural …

  • Emina Melonic

    Manfred, I cannot speak for Mr. Marlin here, but I would assume that this was only meant to be a review, not a detailed analysis of current culture. A detailed analysis is, I would imagine, beyond the scope of a short column. Also, I highly doubt that any of these philosophers who had an impact on Hitler were read by Obama and others which you mention in your comment (besides, I do not think that that was the point of this column). One thing I am sure of – after reading Saul Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals,” I am positive where Obama got his ideas.

  • Grump

    It appears Obama’s been reading the same philosophers as Hitler.

  • Ib

    @Kainz: I couldn’t agree more whole-heartedly with your comments abut Hegel. Although he was wrong concerning first principles (and so ended up very badly wrong in the end), he is often very insightful on secondary or tertiary topics. I highly recommend Charles Taylor’s monograph on Hegel as a extremely helpful guide to Hegel.

    @Emina: Heidegger’s legacy is an extremely complex subject. If one considers the tradition of Anglo-American Heidegger scholarship in the 50s through the 80s, which occurred without any knowledge of his Nazi past, a simple condemnation doesn’t wash. Did you manage to read Tracey Rowland’s masterful synthesis of “Thomism and the Second Vatican Council” (Tablet, Nov 17, 2012)? At one point she relates how one Council peritus told her years later that it was “all about the Heideggerisation of Catholic theology.” A great book that seeks to show how Heidegger relates to the Thomism of Jacques Maritain is John Deely’s “The Tradition via Heidegger”. Heidegger was a bad man, but was also a deep thinker who cast a wide influence, for both good and ill.

    One thing to remember when considering any philosopher: intelligence, perspicacity, cleverness, or superb writing style does not equal holiness. The goal of our lives as Roman Catholics is holiness lived in the Church, not anything else. Philosophy can indeed aid a life of holiness, but it can also hinder it if not pursued correctly.

    Finally, Manfred is right. Obama, Pelosi, Biden, Reid, and their intellectual abettors in the nation’s Universities and colleges are not inspired by Hitler’s philosophers, but by the gaggle of socialist thinkers from Marx through Alinsky, Wright and Ayers. More needs to be written to unmask this philosophical school of horrors.

  • Deacon Ed Peitler

    The parallels between the 1930’s and today’s American culture and government are striking. The ‘take away’ for me is this: Europe of the 30’s was spent of its religious underpinings (especially protestant Germany and other protestantized countries of northern Europe). As a result, they had little moral resolve with which to counter godless Nazism. What confronts us today as Catholics facing a similar tyrannical godless regime, is whether we have the moral resolve to counter what we face. As Catholics, we need to do some soul-searching about how the Church is doing evangelizing the larger culture. This is a question the laity needs to ask themselves since it is the primary responsibility of the laity to evangelize. Is there evidence that the evangelizing efforts of the laity are bearing fruit at all? How so?

  • Miaparrhesia

    No disrespect, Deacon, but it’s almost
    Getting comical to see the men wringing their hands “what’ll we do” while they and the quasi-catholic bitter spinsters in the academy and the Soros-funded nunsonthebus get all the positive press, while the female full-C’s are bearing the fruit (literally & figuratively), you (and most full C men over 30) are seemingly willfully ignorant to our thoughts, solutions, and efforts on the new E, further marginalizing our voices that are already either ridiculed or silenced by a corrupt media.