Book Reviews: Hitler’s Philosophers
Three vastly different reviews of Yvonne Sheratt’s Hitler’s Philosophers
By revealing the sources of Nazi ideology in German philosophy, Sherratt nails the myth that Nazism was an inexplicable aberration in European history. In the absence of the chaos that followed the First World War, Hitler’s movement would not have gained the mass support it did. But the ideas he deployed when in power were widely current in fin-de-siècle Europe, not least in progressive circles.
From one point of view, Heidegger’s flirtation with Nazism may have been not much more than an extreme example of careerism; but it may also have flowed from some deep features of his philosophy. Dealing mainly with events and personalities rather than the internal logic of philosophical positions, Sherratt cannot tell us whether it was the philosopher or the philosophy that was principally at fault.
Unsupported assertions permeate the book. We are told that Hitler considered himself a “philosopher-leader”, and that his self-presentation as a prophet was directly derived from Nietzsche; no evidence is presented for either of these surprising claims. Amazingly, Sherratt asserts that “during the first year of Hitler’s chancellorship the terror and reprisals associated with the later years of Nazi rule had not yet begun”. That would not have amused the 100,000 opponents of Nazism who were imprisoned in concentration camps between February and July 1933, nor the many hundreds who were murdered during this time.
Hitler’s Philosophers claims to expose the shameful story of German philosophy’s collaboration with Nazism, and it is not surprising that it relies on books by authors such as Daniel Gasman, Daniel Goldhagen, Victor Farias and others who have composed their one-sided tracts more as retrospective prosecutors than as conscientious historians. There are interesting and important things to be said about the relationship between philosophy and Nazism, that most anti-intellectual of political creeds, but you will not find them here.
Dr Sherratt provides compelling studies of the philosophers who fled or died rather than play along with Hitler. There was Walter Benjamin, a philosopher who was supposedly the finest writer in German, who went into exile shortly after Hitler came to power. It was his misfortune to have made France his home, and as the Gestapo closed in on him near the Spanish border in September 1940 he took enough morphine “to kill a horse”. There was Theodore Adorno, a musicologist who went first to Oxford (where he was taken up by Maurice Bowra, but patronised and derided by Isaiah Berlin, in further proof that his judgment and humanity were not all his adorers claim them to have been) and then to America. He ended up in Los Angeles, immersed in Hollywood. There was also Hannah Arendt, brilliant student and sometime mistress of Martin Heidegger, who managed to escape round-ups in an almost miraculous fashion. And it is Arendt who brings us back to the most puzzling and disturbing feature of this story.