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Archive for April 11th, 2014

Hitler's Philosophers

 Available on Amazon

I’m glad that Yale Press published this.  When I first saw this book I knew I had to read it for two reasons:  As someone who enjoys intellectual history, this book will no doubt touch on the ideas and philosophy that influenced Hitler (or to be more charitable, it would point out the ideological capitals Hitler used to persuade people to his policies).  Secondly, we see an increase in the last fifteen years of historical works addressing the question of how did a mad man managed to lead a civilized people towards barbaric policies with the focus of the complicity of various institution, from the Pope, the church, scientists, social sciences and the universities.  In the same vein, this works show the intersection of philosophy/philosophers with Hitler/Nazism.  The book definitely fulfilled the initial reasons for why I wanted to read the book.

The author divided the book into two parts. The first section focused on Hitler and philosophy, and on the philosophers who collaborated with the Nazi’s ideological vision.  The second section concentrated on German philosophers that the Nazi opposed.  It is a big endeavor the author pursued since each section of the book can easily be the focus of a book-length treatment.

Chapter one was a mini-ideological biography of Hitler and what philosophers he liked and who and what influenced him.  I appreciated the chapter’s focus of the early years of Hitler before political opportunism seasoned his rhetoric and when he was passionately frank about what he believed during the lowest point of his life in a German prison.  The author worked through materials not only from Hitler’s writing and speech (he tend to brag about his intellectual prowess) but also sources from early supporters and friends.  I think chapter one definitely establishes the Nietzsche influence in Hitler’s worldview.  Chapter one also indirectly contributes to the debate of whether Hitler was a Christian or not, and what degree he was a Christian if he was one.  If one understands Hitler’s philosophy its very hard-pressed to see how his atheistic Nietzschean beliefs is compatible with Christian theism.

Chapter two looked at the historic philosophers and philosophies that Hitler invoked in his ideology.  For those familiar with philosophy the main idea of these philosophers are nothing new.  What is interesting and new to many is the thread of anti-Semitism among these philosophers, some of them who are important canons of Western philosophy.  The author is nuance in describing how these philosophers are not “Nazis” and many of these philosophers would probably be surprised with how someone like Hitler would invoke their name and thoughts.  I do think that these philosophers do project a trajectory that Hitler later borrowed and build his own philosophy upon.

Chapters three through five focused on the collaborators with Hitler’s Germany, with chapter three being specifically about the Nazi figures who controlled academia and German philosophy while chapter four and five look at the specific example of philosopher of jurisprudence Carl Schmitt and existentialist Martin Heidegger respectively.  Most interesting of this section is the author’s argument that Heidegger was more than an opportunists but one who embraced Hitler’s Nazi’s ideology wholeheartedly.  I think the author presented an excellent case.

Chapters six through nine focuses on philosophers the Nazis opposed.  We read of the tragic story of the Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin who committed suicide when he was unable to flee from the Nazis and the exile of Theodor Adorno.  The best known of the philosophers in this section is Hannah Arendt, a Jewish woman who managed to escape from the Nazis.  In juxtaposition to Arendt is the story of Kurt Huber who as a philosopher spoke out against Nazi beliefs in the classroom and involved with the White Rose resistance movement that led to his execution.  Here is a heroic philosophical martyr who dared to oppose the Nazis.  The author laments of how Huber is little known today because of his resistance to the Nazis.

 

What I learned

This book re-affirmed to me the maxim that ideas have consequences.  Though it is a bit tangent from the book, there is no political systems that are philosophically neutral: there is some kind of worldview driving one’s political theory and at minimum we can say some philosophers will be willing mercenaries for political agendas in order to advance their academic careers, their school of thoughts, etc (Kuhn’s theory of the structure for scientific revolution is applicable in evaluating social sciences and the humanities as well).

From this book I learned of the composer Richard Wagner and his influence upon Nietzsche.   From there the book also show how Nietzsche’s idea shape other influential members of the Nazi party.

Perhaps the most surprising thing I learned was Heidegger’s adulterous affair with Hannah Arendt.  In one of history’s incredibly ironic moments, we see this famous philosopher whom the Nazis earned great intellectual credibility with him on their side, being caught up with a Jewish woman.   One sees how personal affair can shape one’s philosophy in the instance of Hannah Arendt beliefs in the war and after.

What I want to look up more on

I love looking through the endnotes and the bibliography of the book for it provides a treasure trove of references for further studies.  It is a wonderful way to acquaint oneself with the primary sources and scholarly secondary sources.

This book also made me realize I need to study more of certain philosophers.  Martin Heidegger is someone that I want to look up more beyond the few selected readings from my days in undergraduate.  I have always heard the name Schopenhauer but don’t really know what he believes.

Drawback

I wished the book would have adopted Chicago style format since it was rather annoying for me as someone who reads all the endnotes to turn from the page I’m reading to the end notes and then again to the bibliography.  I don’t find this kind of format being conducive to readers’ attention to the sources (why give citation anyways when your format discourage its use?).

Conclusion

Excellent work.  I wholeheartedly recommend it and I think those acquainted with philosophy would get the most out of it.

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