According to Yvonne Sherratt’s “Hitler’s Philosophers,” academic philosophers played a significant but largely unacknowledged role in enabling Nazi Germany’s persecution of the European Jews and encouraging the Holocaust. Philosophers, Sherratt argues, formulated the ideas the Nazis implemented — ideas that were used to glorify Nazi projects and to justify and legitimate their actions in the eyes of the public.
Sherratt is certainly correct that some German philosophers — most notoriously Martin Heidegger, the author of “Being and Time” — were members of the Nazi Party and at times expressed sympathy toward the party goals. Indeed, the Heidegger case in particular has generated much discussion. Precisely for this reason, however, it is odd for Sherratt to treat the subject as if she were revealing a deep, dark secret. Books by Victor Farias, Emmanuel Faye, and other critics of Heidegger have generated a great deal of controversy, but other than including Farias and Faye in her bibliography, Sherratt does not acknowledge these prior discussions. Nor does she acknowledge that some of the claims she presents as established fact — that Heidegger was deeply committed to Nazi ideals or that anti-Semitism is deeply implicated in his philosophy — are complex and continue to be strenuously contested.
Sherratt is in a poor position to address these issues, moreover, given that “Hitler’s Philosophers” has very little to say about the philosophical views of its subjects. The book consists mostly of short biographies: The first half sketches the villains, including Heidegger, Alfred Rosenberg, Carl Schmitt, and Hitler himself, while the second half summarizes the lives of thinkers who did not capitulate to the Nazis, including Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin, and Theodor Adorno. These sketches are a weird mixture of idiosyncratic and sometimes irrelevant detail combined with dramatic speculation. (Some detailed descriptions and narrations of her subjects’ thoughts are, by her admission, entirely products of her imagination.) Her subjects’ philosophical views, when they are mentioned at all, are summarized in the briefest, most simplistic terms.
This avoidance of philosophy means that Sherratt cannot raise many of the most interesting questions about the relations between philosophy and the Holocaust. Much of the discussion about Heidegger, for instance, has focused on whether his philosophical views can be separated from Nazi ideas or whether they are too deeply intertwined to prize apart. But “Hitler’s Philosophers” contains no substantive discussion of Heidegger’s actual views. From Sherratt’s perspective, it appears, these are quite beside the point.
Indeed, even the misappropriation of a philosopher’s ideas by the Nazis is taken by Sherratt to taint that thinker and his work. Referring to Adolf Eichmann’s misunderstanding of Immanuel Kant’s philosophy, she writes that “Eichmann’s Kant, like that of other Nazis, is subject to gross distortion. But the fact remains that, like Hitler, here was another Nazi quoting Kant. It was becoming increasingly difficult to extricate philosophy from any involvement with Nazism.” This sense of “involvement” is so trivial that it completely undermines Sherratt’s moral critique. Holding philosophers responsible for this sort of misuse of their ideas makes about as much sense as blaming manufacturers of box cutters for 9/11.
This exaggerated reaction — one that obscures genuine and important questions about moral responsibility and blameworthiness — is akin to the exaggerated role Sherratt assigns to academic philosophers in Hitler’s rise to power. This is unfortunate. Our anxiety to understand the Holocaust, and to try to prevent other such moral catastrophes, should not lead us to accept implausible explanations of why ordinary people succumb to evil, and the-philosophers-convinced-them-that-they-should is surely an implausible explanation. Sherratt might have written an intelligent, responsible, and searching book on these questions. But “Hitler’s Philosophers” is an awkwardly written, unconvincingly argued polemic that adds nothing new to this debate, a superficial book that skims over deep waters others have already explored with considerably more thought and care.