Yale University Press, $35, 328 pp.
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”...