Between reflection and engagement

Yvonne Sherratt, Hitler's Philosophers

Yale University Press, 336pp, £25.00, ISBN 9780300151930

reviewed by Matt Ellison

In Hitler’s Philosophers Yvonne Sherratt seeks to examine the role of thinkers living in Germany during the Third Reich. The study’s title, however, is something of a misnomer. She writes in her brief introduction that ‘“Hitler’s philosophers” refers to the group of thinkers surrounding Hitler before, during and after the Holocaust’. This too is misleading: under discussion here are not only prominent Nazi party members like Alfred Rosenberg, Martin Heidegger and Carl Schmitt, but also victims of the Nazis, Jewish thinkers Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Hannah Arendt and the dissident philosopher and musicologist Kurt Huber. This is quite a list, and each of these figures - for good or for bad - surely merits a great deal of attention in his or her own right. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that Sherratt’s study turns out to be frustratingly superficial and fragmented.

From the outset one cannot help but question the validity of the book’s premise. Sherratt claims that ‘since Hitler’s rise to power nearly eighty years ago, no one has yet examined the part played by one quiet and unassuming group - the philosophers’. On the contrary, there are a number of works dealing with Rosenberg’s pivotal role as Nazi ideologue and education minister, and in Heidegger’s case there has since the late 1980s been a whole industry dedicated to picking apart his involvement with the NSDAP, especially in France. Victor Farìas’ Heidegger et le nazisme (1987), for example, argues that Heidegger’s thought is fascist down to its core; Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe’s La fiction du politique (1988) examines Heidegger’s relation to art and politics, while in De l’esprit (1987) Jacques Derrida undertakes a forensic examination of Heidegger’s inaugural address as rector of the University of Freiburg.

Sherratt’s book differs from these works in that she for the most part neglects to engage with the thought of the philosophers under discussion. Instead of grappling with the (admittedly much more complex) relationship between philosophical reflection and political engagement, she presents the reader with a series of potted biographies of thinkers living in Germany during the Third Reich. The first part of the book deals with Hitler and his collaborators and recounts how a large number of philosophers gave intellectual support to the Nazi movement. Given his role as Nazi ‘philosopher in chief’ it is odd that Rosenberg does not receive detailed treatment and is instead discussed hurriedly alongside a number of other more obscure, but no less culpable, academics like Alfred Bäumler and Ernst Kriek. The next chapters on Schmitt (‘Hitler’s Lawmaker’) and Heidegger (‘Hitler’s Superman’) rightly, if sensationalistically, portray them as nasty pieces of work and pillars of the legal and philosophical establishment. Nonetheless, Sherratt makes only passing reference to these two thinkers’ writings, and when she does, little context is given. The discussion of Heidegger’s notorious Rektoratsrede of 1933 - the zenith (or nadir) of his political involvement and influence - is also characteristically superficial.

Making up the second part of the book are chapters on ‘Hitler’s opponents’ Benjamin, Adorno, Arendt and Huber. They tell the story of how these thinkers’ lives were ruined and, in the cases of Benjamin and Huber, ended by the Nazis. It is here that one finds the strengths of the book. Sherratt’s account of Benjamin’s tragic suicide in southern France is poetic and moving, as is her evocation of the White Rose group member Kurt Huber’s last days and beheading at the hands of the Nazis in 1943. The chapter on Arendt, however, feels rushed and portrays her principally as Heidegger’s ‘student-mistress’ rather than as a thinker in her own right. (Arendt is also the only thinker in the book to whom Sherratt refers by her first name.) What’s more, insufficient attention is devoted to her writings, which is all the more puzzling given that perhaps more than any other thinker mentioned, her works are marked by a response to the horrors of Nazism.

In her preface, Sherratt explains that as a student she came to see that ‘the academy held a terrible secret: the story of how philosophy was implicated in genocide’. Ultimately she does very little to shed light on this problem. Instead, she problematically assumes that a philosopher’s disastrous political involvement means that his or her philosophy must be disastrous too. Of the thinkers covered in this book, she writes that ‘like Marx and Freud, many of their ideas have been accepted into everyday parlance. But who knows which words have emanated from executed Jews, and which from their Nazi persecutors?’ Leaving to one side the patent overstatement of the influence of Heidegger and Schmitt, it seems ironic that some of the persecuted thinkers in the second half of the book drew so heavily (though not uncritically) on some of those discussed in the first. For example, we know from both Benjamin’s published work and his correspondence with Schmitt himself, that he greatly admired Schmitt’s work (as do countless other contemporary leftist thinkers); Hannah Arendt’s thought, meanwhile, is profoundly influenced by that of Heidegger - she even planned on dedicating her book The Human Condition (1958) to him.

Of course philosophers can never be fully separated from their writings, and Nietzsche was surely right when he claimed that philosophy can be read as ‘the personal confession of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir’. However, does this mean that the ideas of far-right thinkers should be rejected wholesale as ‘tainted’? Need it follow from their disastrous political involvements that Schmitt’s critiques of economic liberalism (which also influenced Arendt) or Heidegger’s account of modern technology are of no use to anyone else? Sherratt concludes with the claim that while Nazis like Schmitt and Heidegger have entered the western philosophical canon, Jewish thinkers like Adorno, Arendt and Benjamin have remained marginal figures. One is left wondering whether this is an accurate assessment. Is it plausible to say that Schmitt receives more attention in scholarship than Adorno, Benjamin and Arendt? This is just one of many sweeping generalisations which serve to undermine the credibility of Sherratt’s endeavour.

The role played by ideas in the Third Reich and other catastrophic periods in history is an immensely important topic, but a proper treatment of it demands an altogether more careful and nuanced approach than that adopted in this book.
Matt Ellison is a freelance writer based in London.