Philosophy’s Shameful Love for the Swastika
Crude and vicious anti-Semitism; narrow, bigoted nationalism; and total indifference to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people - these are not attitudes we expect from philosophers. On the contrary, these academic thinkers are supposed to have sophisticated ethical outlooks. They aim to be supremely rational, and to believe only what they can show to be true.
So it comes as a surprise to be reminded of the story told in Hitler’s Philosophers. This forthcoming book by Yvonne Sherratt, to be published by Yale, looks at the way some academics in Germany reacted to the coming of Adolf Hitler. And what an intensely depressing story it is. Most of them, including Martin Heidegger, one of the greatest names in 20th-century philosophy, did not merely reconcile themselves to Hitler. They enthusiastically espoused Nazi ideology, and came up with all sorts of elaborate reasons to justify the purging of Jews, the persecution of dissidents, and the conquest and oppression of other nations. They went out of their way to flaunt their loyalty to the Nazi cause. Heidegger used to lecture in military uniform, in a hall that he arranged to be decked out with swastikas and other Nazi flags. He got rid of Jewish academics with relish, even betraying his own teacher, Edmund Husserl, who had kindly arranged Heidegger’s professorship for him.
The way academic philosophers embraced Nazism is shocking. You might try to excuse it on the basis that they were bullied into it by the Gestapo and the SS. But they were not. As Sherratt points out, when Hitler became chancellor in 1933, his plan to purge universities of Jews “required the wholesale collaboration of a mass of academics”. No doubt it could and would eventually have been achieved by force - but, in the event, Hitler did not need to use force. The academics, particularly the philosophers, cleared out their Jewish colleagues voluntarily.