In Evil Hour

Adolf Hitler with jackdaw, Obersalzberg, Germany, n.d.
Adolf Hitler with jackdaw, Obersalzberg, Germany, n.d.

The last sixty years have witnessed a steady stream of critiques targeting intellectuals for supplying rationales—on either a direct or indirect basis—for the brutal totalitarian regimes of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao. Even as the specter of overt totalitarian rule has faded, European intellectuals have continued to trade charges and countercharges over the perennial threat of what the French polemicist Jean-François Revel famously labeled “the totalitarian temptation.”

Writers on the American scene have shared this sense of hazard—most notably Richard Wolin and the late Tony Judt, who have respectively called out the existentialist thinkers Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre for indulging significant strains of totalitarian philosophy. And indeed in Heidegger’s case, this habit of intellectual tolerance edged over into praxis: de facto collaboration with the Nazi regime. Such reckonings of historical culpability are undeniably important, but many recent studies in this vein have come bearing a none-too-subtle present-day subtext: We must remain vigilant, they urge, lest the US academy become too smitten with the dangerous ideas of European philosophers who had fallen prey to their own totalitarian temptations. Moonlighting as watchmen, these academics have sounded the tocsin to warn of strange teachings and the threat of recurrent heresy.

In Hitler’s Philosophers, Yvonne Sherratt—a researcher at Oxford University—steps up to send off the alarm once more. As she unpacks the history of the intellectual toleration of Hitler’s crimes, she is plainly concerned that the Western university harbors far too much sympathy with Nazi philosophers and political theorists. This claim will surprise many, especially parents paying $55,000 a year to universities that supposedly tolerate Nazi ideas. Yet to size up the true proportions of the threat we must ask: What is a Nazi idea? What was Hitler’s philosophy? And what is the chilling evidence that Hitler’s philosophy is now meeting with approval among the educators of a new generation?

In Sherratt’s account, “Hitler’s philosophers” refers to the constellation of thinkers surrounding the German leader before, during, and after the Holocaust. This grouping includes Hitler’s collaborators and opponents, and even some Jewish academics. What united these disparate figures, Sherratt suggests, was a common philosophical tradition—and every thinker subscribing to it shared philosophical concerns and debated the same ideas.

Did Hitler himself possess anything like a systematic philosophy? Many scholars demur, noting both the complete incoherence of his ideas and the administrative dysfunction and goose-stepping chaos of the Third Reich. Sherratt, too, recognizes the utter babble of Hitler’s infamous memoir, Mein Kampf, but holds that it ultimately issued from the “dark side” beneath Germany’s noble philosophical heritage.

Yet this assertion forces Sherratt to isolate the myriad intellectual inspirations for Hitler’s thought. Much guesswork ensues, as she marshals a motley crew of German thinkers to demonstrate a natural affinity between various elements of their thinking and Hitler’s own.

Sherratt starts her intellectual reconstruction some two hundred years prior to Hitler’s birth in the late nineteenth century. In her second chapter, which bears the ominous title “Poisoned Chalice,” she offers a rapid survey of the key figures and ideas that converged in producing Hitler’s worldview. She gives due prominence, unsurprisingly, to Nietzsche’s positive statements about nationalism, militarism, destruction, and the heroic individual, or “Superman.” She also reviews the German völkisch populist movements that stressed race, ethnicity, nation, and tribe, while also examining allied themes in Western pseudoscience, such as the racialized doctrines of social Darwinism and the overtly racist eugenics movement. These are all familiar figures and intellectual trends in the backdrop to the rise of National Socialist ideology, with one significant exception: Sherratt also traces the origins of Hitler’s ideas back to Immanuel Kant—the principal philosopher of the German Enlightenment.

In standard accounts of German intellectual history, commentators usually treat Kant’s rationalism in diametrical opposition to the utter irrationalism of Nazism. For them, Kant symbolizes all that is good in German philosophy: reason, morality, peace, and freedom—the road not taken. But in her account of Kant’s legacy, Sherratt begs to differ. She contends that his stress on rationalism led him to characterize Jews as superstitious and irrational. And since rationalism was the basis of religion and morality for Kant, he deemed Judaism to be neither a religion nor a moral system. Instead, he labeled Judaism a tribe of “mass men” living in a perpetual state of immorality. Sherratt takes these ill-considered judgments to mean that Kant served as the “philosophical grandee” for the future political criminalization of the Jews. Small wonder, then, that in her telling “Hitler considered Kant a gift.”

To make such a provocative claim stick, though, Sherratt needs to supply a full accounting of the alleged Kantian influences shaping Hitler’s thought—and this is a still taller order than unearthing the diffuse völkisch utopian roots of Nazism. In Mein Kampf, Hitler claimed to have read almost the entire German philosophical canon, but few scholars take Hitler at face value. Sherratt herself admits that she does not know whether to credit his assertions of philosophical expertise.

The absence of any firm suggestion of Kantian influences in Hitler’s thought would, on the contrary, seem to buttress the verdict of most academic philosophers in the Germany of his time, who dismissed the rising demagogue as a crude thinker. It’s certainly a copiously documented fact that, once the Nazis completed their ascent to power, many philosophers shamefully offered their intellectual services in support of the new regime. Did they do this out of opportunism? Or did the “dark side” of the German tradition allow for these thinkers to build out an elective affinity with National Socialism that made it seem only natural for them to join the party? Sherratt clearly favors the latter explanation, and calls on two familiar Nazi collaborators to seal her case: the jurist Carl Schmitt and the philosopher Martin Heidegger.

Schmitt joined the Nazi Party in 1933 and shortly thereafter became the principal Nazi legal philosopher at the University of Berlin until 1945. Many point to Schmitt’s analysis of sovereign dictatorship, based on article 48 of the Weimar Constitution, as a key document that provided the legal justification for Hitler’s rise to power in 1933. But by 1936, many in the inner circle of Nazi leadership believed Schmitt to be either a careerist or a covert Catholic thinker. Although he was eventually marginalized in the party, he continued to defend Hitler’s dictatorship and regularly expressed anti-Semitic views. After the war, Schmitt defended his actions, stressing that the only alternatives to collaboration were exile or internment in the concentration camps.

For Sherratt, the question of whether Schmitt was an opportunist is irrelevant to any assessment of his legacy. He became Hitler’s lawmaker, she argues, by virtue of supplying the legal rationale for Nazi tyranny. And since Schmitt’s ideas have recently gained renewed academic currency in debates over the standing of national sovereignty and international law, Sherratt suggests that this is key evidence that Nazi legal ideas are alive and well in the Western academy.

Sherratt likewise approaches the controversy over Heidegger’s involvement with National Socialism as an unequivocal study in enthusiastic intellectual collaborationism. Heidegger is often considered to be the most significant philosopher of the twentieth century. Well before he joined the Nazi Party in 1933, he had already become famous for his magnum opus, Being and Time. Heidegger was also a committed National Socialist, one who played a significant role in the nazification of the German university. He purged Jewish colleagues and supported Nazi book burnings.

However, scholars are still a long way from settling the question of whether such hateful activities qualify Heidegger as a Nazi philosopher. After Heidegger’s decision to join the party, many of his students were able to discern those elements of his thought that led him to support Hitler. Yet that’s not anything close to a demonstration that the essence of Heidegger’s thought can be identified with Hitlerism. Nevertheless, Sherratt endorses this position virtually without qualification; Heidegger is Hitler’s philosopher par excellence. But as was the case in her discussion of Schmitt, she merely states this argument, rather than demonstrating it.

Sherratt suggests that one tragic effect of ongoing interest in the thought of figures such as Schmitt and Heidegger is the marginalization of far more heroic intellectuals who were opposed to Hitler—such as the literary critic Walter Benjamin and the famed Frankfurt School sociologist Theodor Adorno. Her accounts of these two thinkers’ flight from Nazi terror stand as the strongest sections of Hitler’s Philosophers—even if it’s hard to see just how the intellectual influence of either Adorno or Benjamin is in any way on the decline.

Sherratt also devotes a chapter to Hannah Arendt, revisiting the political theorist’s love affair with Heidegger during the 1920s. As Sherratt lays aside this familiar saga to size up Arendt’s own intellectual legacy, she ultimately falls prey to the “good Hannah”–versus–“bad Hannah” dichotomy, holding Arendt’s reunion with Heidegger in 1950 to be responsible for the decline of her Jewish enthusiasms. Sounding very much like Richard Wolin in Heidegger’s Children (2001), Sherratt raises the pedestrian question of whether Arendt’s love affair and reunion with Heidegger had influenced her controversial view that Adolf Eichmann was nothing more than a banal German military leader.

Hitler’s Philosophers ends on a plaintive note. Why are Carl Schmitt and Martin Heidegger, Sherratt asks, so popular today? How can scholars be so interested in the subtleties of their respective intellectual legacies alongside the hideous lessons of the Holocaust? But there are ample reasons for such interest—just as the poetry of Ezra Pound and the filmmaking of Leni Riefenstahl still command serious attention in their respective fields. Sherratt offers no clear sense of why engaging with Schmitt’s legal thought or Heidegger’s existentialism should amount to any sort of endorsement of their political views. What’s more, even if such a linkage could be demonstrated, what would Sherratt have us do about it? Should their books be banned? Should their ideas be censored? Should one form of illiberalism replace another?

Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins is a doctoral student in the history department at Columbia University and is currently writing an intellectual biography of the French sociologist Raymond Aron.