On Courage

Why are some people courageous enough to speak up while others either see through the wrong but are afraid to speak up and yet others don’t even perceive the wrong? Last week on this blog I looked at Rudolf Bultmann, probably the most influential NT scholar of the 20th Century, a man whom his biographer, Konrad Hammann, contends opposed Hitler. Yet many of us think of the ultimate price Bonhoeffer paid at the same time. Was their opposition so markedly different that one led to death and the other to life?

What happens to us when ideas mean life or death? Who were Hitler’s collaborators? What became of them after WWII in the reconstitution of Germany? What happened to the Jewish professors once the war was over? Were they restored to their former positions?

Bultmann and Bonhoeffer were theologians. Yvonne Sherratt examines another group of academics in the 1930s and 1940s, and beyond, in her well-written but far too often undocumented book Hitler’s Philosophers to tell the story of the intellectual support of and the intellectual opposition to Hitler’s Third Reich and its virulent anti-Semitism. Her aim is to blame the philosophers and the philosophical tradition. It is, of course, more complex than this and neither is the Nazi cause simply about anti-Semitism; the pure race tradition of Hitler was aimed at many others as well.

As I read her book I wondered constantly why some capitulated, others accommodated, and yet others — very, very few — opposed what had to be seen as a menacing trend in philosophical thinking. There is perhaps not enough attention given to Jewish opposition in the heated decade of the 1930s, leading as it did to their elimination from the university scene.

Hitler, Sherratt contends, saw himself as the “philosopher leader” along the lines of Plato’s famous vision for political leaders, and his “philosophy” (which was a form of passionate hatred and disillusioned romantic visions of the pure German race) was formed and distorted by his readings of Fichte, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, pumped up by devotion to Richard Wagner and Kant and the anti-Semitism of Kant (pure morality seeks the “euthanasia of Judaism”) and LeGarde — all resulting in Hitler’s spasms of pseudo-intellectuality with powerful, demonic results. Compounding all of this brew was Nietzsche’s “Superman” and the required violence for the Superman to become what the Superman could become. Darwin’s evolution was transformed into racist social evolution at the hand of Ernst Haeckel — and there you have some what took hold in Hitler.

But Hitler could not and did not do what he did alone. He needed collaborators and his strategy was single-minded: eliminate whatever opposed his aim to purify Germany and elevate whatever supported him.  Sherratt is after names and ideas and evidence. She’s got plenty.

It begins in her mind with Alfred Rosenberg, Hitler’s right hand man in charge of purifying German universities. Hitler not only wanted power; he wanted power of the mind of Germany. Rosenberg helped make it happen: destroy democracy (everything left) and create a Nazi empire, a religion of soil and blood. Alfred Bäumler was the philosopher professor who implemented the vision; he was joined by Ernst Krieck. 1600 professors, Jewish professors, lost their positions and in effect their lives, some physically but many professionally. Hardly a one was restored. But what she neglects is that this wasn’t simply a top down process; students and professors were intensively at work establishing both themselves and the ways of the National Socialists.

Two professors are singled out in the collaboration: Carl Schmitt, who implemented Nazi theory by taking its philosophy and making it law. Schmitt survived and became a famous German professor of law … he never repented and never apologized and German universities more or less looked over his past. Next to Schmitt was the famous German philosopher Martin Heidegger (pictured above, facing left, looking right), who lectured under Hitler in a Nazi uniform was rehabilitated after the war and who never repented and contended he deserved an apology from Hitler. Sherratt’s narrative resonates a theme: the philosophers said nothing; those who did were gone but they were mostly Jewish. When the war ended negligible shifts occurred. Obviously, both Schmitt and Heidegger were opportunists, but more than that is required to explain the times and the people.

Who opposed Hitler? Sherratt tells the story of Walter Benjamin, hounded and hunted and who committed suicide to avoid the concentration camp; of Theodor Adorno, an odd man who was exiled and in whose life she seems to be too interested when matters simply don’t matter to this narrative, lived some what among the glitterati in Hollywood but who returned to Germany only to find in the end brazen opposition; of Hannah Arendt, a Jewess who had a love affair with Heidegger, who found her Jewish roots, who after the war struck up again at some level with Heidegger and who wrote a notoriously surprising and critical account of Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem; and of the martyr Kurt Huber who really did opposed Hitler, vehemently so as part of the White Rose movement. He was executed by the guillotine.

She covers the Nuremberg trials to reveal their superficial examinations and German cover ups.  Jewish intellectuals, like Max Weinrich (and I’m not sure we can ignore Simon Wiesenthal’s efforts here) had to work hard to find evidence and justice, and it is largely through them that we have seen more than one cover up undone. One scholar after another was more or less restored to his former academic post. Slapping the hands of the collaborators while ignoring the need to restore Jewish professors is the story she tells.

It’s a story of courage, very little of it; it’s the story of complicity and collaboration, very much of it. It’s a story that needs to be told, again and again. It’s the story of ignoring the opposers and restoring the collaborators, again a story that needs to be told again and again. The story is more complex than the one Sherratt tells but she’s got some important themes in hand; her account needs attention to economics and Germany’s tense social relations.

I am grateful to this day for my high school German teacher, Herr Kurr, whose passion for German was caught by many of my peers, and not the least of this passion was Herr Kurr’s decision that we, though 16 and 17 and 18 year olds, were to read the existential Angst of the post World War II German writers, not the least of whom were writers like Gerhard Hauptmann, Bertolt Brecht, Franz Kafka, and Friedrich Dürrenmatt. It was beyond us, it was outside of us, but it drew us into one of humanity’s great tragedies, and I remain drawn in, ever ready to be reminded of the evil of the Third Reich and the need for vigilance lest it happen again.

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  • Clay Knick

    Scot, that last paragraph was beautiful. Thanks.

  • Hope to inspect this book further. I ran into a biography of Levinas, and it remarked he found it incomprehensible that Heidegger became rector at Freiburg. Levinas decided part of his research would be to expose the flaws of Heidegger’s philosophy.

  • Kara Ben Nemsi

    Scott, you’re covering an important question. Minor correction: Gerhard Hauptmann, Franz Kafka were not post WW2 writers.