Highbrow Hatred

This book addresses one of the most puzzling questions of our era: Why did the most evil regime of modern times develop in a country so committed to higher learning and so culturally accomplished? Yvonne Sherratt, a British writer and social theorist, focuses that question through the lens of Germany’s prominence in the field of philosophy. It is generally conceded that not since ancient Greece—and perhaps not even then—had a country produced thinkers of the quality of Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, and Heidegger. Yet the first three of these men developed ideas that the Nazis would appropriate, and the last became an active Nazi himself. What is it about Germany—indeed, about philosophy itself—that enabled this to happen?

So important was philosophy to German culture that Hitler, a crude and unoriginal thinker, insisted on representing himself as one of its geniuses. Try to imagine a U.S. president instructing his generals, as Hitler did in 1944, that “it is on Kant’s theory of knowledge that Schopenhauer built the edifice of his philosophy, and it is Schopenhauer who annihilated the pragmatism of Hegel.” It’s not just the namedropping that makes this statement so remarkable (nor the ignorant characterization of Hegel, of all thinkers, as a pragmatist), but rather the use of the term “annihilation” to make an ostensibly philosophical point. Here the high and the low conjoin, ominously, in one sentence—the mad butcher who would slaughter millions citing thinkers who pushed human thought to its highest limits.

Sherratt’s approach to this fascinating subject abjures chronology in favor of portraiture. Some chapters offer capsule biographies of important thinkers: Carl Schmitt and Heidegger on the Nazi side; Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, and Hannah Arendt on the Jewish side. Others paint collective pictures, including the neo-Darwinian thinkers who influenced Hitler, the most famous of whom was Ernst Haeckel, a nineteenth-century biologist who distorted Darwin’s ideas into an ugly theory of racial hierarchies. Another chapter discusses Kurt Huber and his students in the White Rose group, who opposed the Nazi regime and paid for it with their lives.

There is plenty of room for indignation, and Sherratt does not shy away from expressing it, emphasizing how paltry a price the Nazi thinkers paid not only for their opportunism, but for their cruelty. (Heidegger, for example, removed a dedication from Being and Time to his Jewish mentor Edmund Husserl and also refused to attend his funeral.) Time, Sherratt makes clear, has been unduly merciful to the Nazi philosophers; Heidegger is now considered a major figure, and recent years have seen a significant revival of interest in the ideas of the jurist Carl Schmitt, a Nazi Party member and avid anti-Semite.

A careful reader of secondary sources, Sherratt draws forth devastating evidence of the depths to which these figures could sink. Heidegger’s discomfort with Jews is well known, but until reading this book I had no idea how avidly he joined the Nazi attack on Christianity as well: “No committed Christian of any denomination,” he declared at one point, “should in future be admitted to university lectureship.” And while we hear a lot about the big names in German philosophy, Sherratt also pays attention to the many obscure Nazi ideologues whose opportunism is astonishing to behold. These figures—Ernst Krieck, for example, or Alfred Bäumler—not only held atrocious anti-Semitic views, but rose to prominence after Jews were removed from the German academic system; like their better-known colleagues, they managed to escape any punishment commensurate with their crimes.

There is something to be said for the way Hitler’s Philosophers proceeds, avoiding technical and abstract language in favor of storytelling. Still, Sherratt pays a price for her breezy style and willingness to jump from one topic to another. A great deal of the material she discusses has been discussed before—many times—and her treatment of it discloses precious little that is new. I am not sure why she spends so much time on the love affair between Arendt and Heidegger when their tryst has already achieved soap-opera status. And while her description of the immaculately European Adorno’s attempts to negotiate the egalitarian customs of the United States makes for amusing reading, it (again) adds little to what is already widely known about this complicated man. Walter Benjamin’s suicide was indeed tragic, as Sherratt calls it, but she cannot know—nor, in truth, can anyone—why he took his own life. And nothing Sherratt writes about Carl Schmitt sheds light on how this man could be so brilliant and yet so vicious.

In a move presumably designed to make her book more readable, Sherratt adds details of everyday life to her discussions of these thinkers. “It was a hot, humid July day in Stadelheim Prison, Munich, 1943,” she writes, by way of introducing Kurt Huber. This sort of triteness abounds. Sherratt describes how Heidegger, walking in Freiburg, “dodged his way past the bicycles that wobbled over the cobbles”; witnesses Walter Benjamin traversing Berlin’s “many gray cobbled streets”; and notes that the caretaker in Huber’s prison could be seen “scraping the cobbles” as a corpse was removed after a beheading. We learn that when Arendt made it to Paris to reunite with her husband, she brought along a copy of his first novel. “It smelt of bacon,” Sherratt writes, “because she had hidden the novel in the attic in a greasy cheesecloth hung up with many slabs of bacon and had then smuggled it safely through Prague, Geneva, and finally to France.” What are we supposed to learn from this—that Arendt did not keep a kosher home?

In the end, it is a shame that such a serious subject has received such unserious treatment. Obviously there existed a powerful physical attraction between Heidegger and Arendt. But they were thinkers as well—and is there anything in their respective understanding of metaphysics or ethics that might help readers understand such an unlikely love affair? Most of the philosophers portrayed in these pages were preoccupied with the Enlightenment, and nearly all of them, Heidegger as well as Adorno and Max Horkheimer, criticized it. Yet Hitler was no mere counter-Enlightenment thinker, but a mass murderer, and one has to wonder why it was so difficult for the non-Jewish philosophers to understand such a simple point. It is true, as Sherratt writes, that the acceptance of Nazi thinkers into the canon of contemporary academic philosophy “leaves a worrying aftertaste.” But what is it about academic philosophy that has allowed this to happen? The questions go on and on, and of course no one can answer all of them. But I would have liked to see Sherratt try at least some.

I’m all in favor of making books about difficult subjects accessible to non-scholars—and especially works dealing with philosophy, a subject so easily lost in abstractions. But there can be too much of a good thing. Sherratt is so determined to bring matters down to earth that she leaves all the big questions up in heaven, where they remain as puzzling as ever.

Published in the 2013-05-17 issue: 

Alan Wolfe’s most recent book is At Home in Exile: Why Diaspora Is Good for the Jews.

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