Magazine article Times Higher Education

Hitler's Philosophers

Magazine article Times Higher Education

Hitler's Philosophers

Article excerpt

Hitler's Philosophers. By Yvonne Sherratt. Yale University Press. 336pp, Pounds 25.00. ISBN 9780300151930. Published 22 February 2013.

Back in the 1940s and 1950s, scholars such as Rohan Butler, William McGovern, Edmond Vermeil and Peter Viereck used to blame Germany's philosophers for the rise and triumph of Nazism. Ripping quotation after quotation out of its contemporary context, they purported to show that Nazism's core ideas had been held in advance by the entire German philosophical tradition, from Novalis to Nietzsche. In the 1960s, George Mosse and Fritz Stern gave this tradition greater sophistication by turning to second- and third-rank thinkers instead, but the argument was in essence the same. The advent of social history put paid to this teleological approach to the origins of Nazism by focusing instead on political structures and class antagonisms as the key factors.

But the cultural turn has made it possible to revive this tradition, which Yvonne Sherratt now attempts to do in Hitler's Philosophers. She has the advantage of being able to make use of recent research into Hitler's library, so we now know what he actually read, and she is in no doubt that Hitler vulgarised the philosophical ideas he imbibed, or twisted them to his own purposes. Nevertheless, her book is as flawed in intention and execution as were those of the wartime and post-war propagandists.

The problems start with the author's confession that this is not an academic work but a "docudrama ... which aims to transport the reader to the vivid and dangerous world of 1930s Germany". There is indeed a lot of scene-setting, much of it not really necessary, and there are descriptions of the lives of the dramatis personae, but nothing about the actual philosophical ideas they held. Thus, for example, the crucial question of whether Martin Heidegger's philosophy in itself overlapped with the doctrines of Nazism is ducked in favour of a lengthy account of his affair with Hannah Arendt.

Immanuel Kant, Johann Fichte and other thinkers are portrayed as anti- Semites and proto-Nazis without the reader being made aware of the fact that their anti-Semitism was religious and not racial. Wagner was "perhaps the most virulent anti-Semite of them all. In some of his operas", Sherratt asserts, "he turned Jew hatred into an aesthetic experience." Again, no evidence for this - to put it mildly, controversial - claim. In ransacking all these authors for "anti-Semitic" quotes she reduces Nazism to the single aspect of anti-Semitism and ignores every contemporary context in which they were written. …

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