Hitler's Philosophers

Hitler's Philosophers

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by Yvonne Sherratt

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Hitler had a dream to rule the world, not only with the gun but also with his mind. He saw himself as a "philosopher-leader" and astonishingly gained the support of many intellectuals of his time. In this compelling book, Yvonne Sherratt explores Hitler's relationship with philosophers and uncovers cruelty, ambition, violence, and betrayal where least


Hitler had a dream to rule the world, not only with the gun but also with his mind. He saw himself as a "philosopher-leader" and astonishingly gained the support of many intellectuals of his time. In this compelling book, Yvonne Sherratt explores Hitler's relationship with philosophers and uncovers cruelty, ambition, violence, and betrayal where least expected—at the heart of Germany's ivory tower.

Sherratt investigates international archives, discovering evidence back to the 1920s of Hitler's vulgarization of noble thinkers of the past, including Kant, Nietzsche, and Darwin. She reveals how philosophers of the 1930s eagerly collaborated to lend the Nazi regime a cloak of respectability: Martin Heidegger, Carl Schmitt, and a host of others. And while these eminent men sanctioned slaughter, Semitic thinkers like Walter Benjamin and opponents like Kurt Huber were hunted down or murdered. Many others, such as Theodor Adorno and Hannah Arendt, were forced to flee as refugees. The book portrays their fates, to be dispersed across the world as the historic edifice of Jewish-German culture was destroyed by Hitler.

Sherratt not only confronts the past; she also tracks down chilling evidence of continuing Nazi sympathy in Western Universities today.

Editorial Reviews

Times Higher Education - Richard J. Evans
"She has the advantage of being able to make use of recent research into Hitler’s library, so we now know what he actually read, and she is in no doubt that Hitler vulgarised the philosophical ideas he imbibed, or twisted them to his own purposes." —Richard J. Evans, Times Higher Education
Sunday Telegraph - Alasdair Palmer
"Hitler’s Philosophers…is a sobering and disturbing tale."—Alasdair Palmer, Sunday Telegraph
International Affairs - Vlaidmir Tismaneanu
“Vividly written and often absorbing . . . this book is a significant contribution to understanding both Hitler's hateful world-view and the main sources that inspired his attempt to become the "philosopher-fuhrer."—Vladimir Tismaneanu, International Affairs
The Scotsman - Stuart Kelly
"…Sherratt charts chillingly and exactly how the Nazi regime began to indoctrinate and intimidate the universities."—Stuart Kelly, The Scotsman
Standpoint - Simon Heffer
"Yet how does one explain why civilized people who do not merely have the capacity for thought, but whose life is thinking, embrace evil? In her new book Hitler’s Philosophers Yvonne Sherratt explores among other things, this conundrum . . . It is, in the end, a peculiarly unedifying story, though exceptionally well told."—Simon Heffer, Standpoint
Publishers Weekly
Oxford academic Sherratt (Adorno’s Positive Dialectic) thoroughly examines the thinkers whose ideas Hitler marshaled to his aid before, during, and after the Holocaust, including German philosophers Kant, Hegel, and Nietzsche, as well as those whose opinions he sought desperately to silence (e.g., Jewish theorists Edmund Husserl, Walter Benjamin, and Theodor Adorno) in this captivating narrative critical history. The author argues that reputable scholars like jurist Carl Schmitt and philosopher Martin Heidegger readily lent prestige to Hitler, helping him “make men into minions” and “vilify Jews and deify war.” Outfitted with this intellectual ammunition, the Führer went powerfully forward with his “desecrating vision” and “furious will” to indoctrinate a generation of Germans and murder millions. But of the entire cast of characters, none is more compelling than the unsure Hannah Arendt, whose wavering opinions on Judaism and Zionism resulted in her receiving an “unconsecrated” burial in New York State. Ultimately, Sherratt is right to question the value of “the thoughts of men who are unable to reflect critically upon the most brutal of human regimes,” and her sobering account reveals how the “racism, war and tyranny” that culminated in the concentration camps originated in the Ivory Tower, and that brutality ever lurks “beneath the surface of apparent civilization.” A brilliantly conceived work of genuine scholarship, this book is fascinating and important. Agent: Ian Drury, Sheil Land Associates. (May)
Times Literary Supplement - George Steiner
"…a moving account of Kurt Huber, mentor to the White Rose resistance movement"—George Steiner, Times Literary Supplement.
The Wall Street Journal
“Fascinating. . . . Describes the fatal intersection of politics and ideas during the Nazi era."—The Wall Street Journal
The Independent - John Gray
"Sherratt’s focus on people…is also one of the book’s strengths. The stories she presents of the philosophers who fled Germany – Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno and Hannah Arendt – are rich and moving, sometimes amusing and at times unexpected."—John Gray, The Independent
Financial Times - John Cornwell
"A powerful portrait of collaboration, and corruption." —John Cornwell, Financial Times
Commentary Magazine - Andrew Roberts
"Sherratt has done a superb job in showing how significant philosophers . . . betrayed their duty to humanity, and how scores of insignificant philosophers sold their souls for professorial chairs."—Andrew Roberts, Commentary Magazine
The Chronicle
"Her book's strongest contribution is its overview of Hitler's self-conception as the 'philosopher-Führer'—his 'astonishing' 'identification with great German philosophers.' . . . her accounts—drive the bleak picture home."—The Chronicle
Library Journal
Hitler's strategy for ruling Europe was two-pronged—military force coupled with an extensive reworking of the philosophical and cultural bases of German thought. He cabbaged parts of Kant, Nietzsche, Darwin, and other luminaries to create the conceptual underpinnings of National Socialism. Many academics, like Martin Heidegger and Carl Schmitt, eagerly cooperated; others such as Theodor Adorno and Hannah Arendt were exiled, imprisoned, or murdered. Sherratt (British Academy Researcher in Philosophy, Univ. of Oxford; Continental Philosophy of Social Science) has angrily surveyed the Nazi destruction of this segment of Europe's intellectual elite, here combining source and contextual interpretation with vignettes of selected collaborators (in Part 1) and opponents and victims (in Part 2). She concludes by examining the postwar experiences of those German academics who survived the war. Many prospered despite having collaborated with the Nazis, and others simply went on with their interrupted lives. VERDICT Not all readers, even of works on Hitler, will be interested in German philosophy and philosophers, but Sherratt's approach is biohistorical rather than analytic. Cultural historians will be absorbed by this study of the easy adoption of the Nazi meme among a coterie of intellectuals who might have been expected to know better. Useful as part of philosophy or ethics curricula.—Edwin Burgess, U.S. Army Combined Arms Research Lib., Fort Leavenworth, KS
Kirkus Reviews
A systematic breakdown of the core players and ideas usurped in Nazi ideology. British academic Sherratt (Continental Philosophy of Social Science, 2005, etc.) deconstructs the making of Hitler's thinking, from the writing of his autobiography as a political vehicle to his "savage bowdlerization" of Nietzsche, Schopenhauer and many other philosophers. Whether Hitler actually read the works he appropriated did not matter, writes the author. He plucked what he needed from this or that philosopher: From Kant, he claimed the supremacy of reason over the dogma of the church and the degradation of Judaism; from Schiller, the beloved motto: "The strong man is mightiest alone"; from Hegel, the formation of the state from ancient origins; from Nietzsche, his fantasies of an ancient Greek ideal; and so on. As a "bartender of genius," Hitler concocted his lethal ideas about racial supremacy, the lone Romantic hero within the Bavarian natural landscape, the Jewish "enemy" and the obsession with "public health." He needed a coterie of deputies to carry out his political fantasies, namely Alfred Rosenberg, whose job was to "destroy democracy and construct a new Nazi ideal" by infiltrating the schools and universities; and legal mind Carl Schmitt, who "enshrined Hitler's tyranny in law." Some of the philosophers acquiesced for the advancement of their careers--e.g., Martin Heidegger, whose affair with his student Hannah Arendt, a Jew, rendered his collaboration all the more baffling or suspect. Jewish philosophers stripped of their university positions either fled or were destroyed. Sherratt devotes one chapter to the singular resistance of one Munich academic, Kurt Huber, and another to the reckoning meted out to the collaborating philosophers at the Nuremberg Trials. A straightforward work that only hints at the underlying questions of moral failing supported by many of these philosophical works.

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Copyright © 2013 Yvonne Sherratt
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-15193-0

Chapter One

Hitler: The 'bartender of genius'

During the early 1940s the Allied bombings wreaked revenge on the Rhineland, crushing Germany's magnificent cities, and a scene unfolded on the scale of a biblical disaster. The quiet hum of a thousand distant planes was in stark contrast to the devastation they caused – over Cologne, Berlin, Frankfurt, Munich, Freiburg and the Bavarian Alps, they hunted out and destroyed German civilization.

Two decades earlier in 1923, on a quiet street in Munich in southern Germany, one man had summoned all this. 'What does it matter if a couple of dozen of our Rhineland cities go up in flames. A hundred thousand dead would mean nothing provided Germany's future was assured'. The man who desired war was quite ordinary looking, rather shabbily dressed and walking with an austere gait down a grey paved street bathed in the late summer sunshine. He was at this time a mere provincial politician, but with extremist fantasies. He loved fire. He enjoyed the power of its destruction, its vivid light, rank smoke and ability to destroy in seconds that which took centuries to form. He was an impatient man with a passion for the immediate, the dramatic. He wearied of traditional politicians with their incessant talking, vacillation and timidity.

The man with the apocalyptic vision was thirty-five years of age, tramping through the peaceful promenades of Munich discussing his ideas with his friend Ernst Hanfstaengl, a high-society and cultured German businessman. The city was tranquil, the sunshine reflecting off the white neo-Baroque Justizpalast and echoing in the flat space around the square, before dancing off the warm, ochre-coloured facades of the other Gothic and neo-Gothic monumental buildings. The various city parks enticed walkers into their midst and, occasionally glimpsed along the other city streets, were hanging baskets or a window box draping their blossoms and summer foliage into the street. The droning of a distant tram, the rap of a cane from a passer-by, were all that accompanied the murmur of the two men's voices, lost deep in conversation. Having recounted his fantasy of war, 'Germany will either be a world power or there will be no Germany', the politician turned to musing over a film they had recently watched together. He had enjoyed the movie and was now rapt in discussion of its main features. Fredericus Rex (Frederick The Great) had been showing at the Sendlinger Tor Platz cinema in Munich throughout the long summer. The politician dwelt upon his favourite scene where the old king threatened to have the crown prince beheaded. 'This is the best part of the film,' he declared. 'What a classic example of discipline when a father is prepared to condemn his son to death.' His eyes shone with glee, the image of the Rhineland aflame was conjoined with his fantasy of punishment and brutal authority. The ability to cause massive suffering without flinching was, he believed, the ultimate proof of strength. 'Great deeds require harsh measures,' he pronounced. Hanfstaengl, however, was nervous – they were on the open street and were just walking past the Friedrich Schiller monument in democratic, law-abiding Weimar Germany.

Several months later, in November 1923, the politician was arrested by the Weimar police. Frustrated with the slow ebb of regional debate, he had burst into a meeting in a beer hall outside Munich, gun in hand, demanding action. Prepared to set the place on fire and destroy the entire building and all its occupants, he had been halted in his tracks. He was now at the mercy of the law he had sought to violate.

The politician was of course Adolf Hitler. Sentenced and convicted of high treason for radical political actions in the name of National Socialism, in the spring of 1924 he found himself incarcerated inside Landsberg Fortress, a penal facility in Landsberg am Lech in the south-west of the German state of Bavaria.

From the outside, Landsberg was typically Bavarian, soft brown-brick walls were framed by curved turrets with opal-coloured domes. The three storeys visible from the exterior communicated with the world by way of windows leaded with diagonal criss-crossings. Warm red tiles topped the building connecting the domed turret with the flat sloping roof. The doorway was welcoming with a broad, high arch; altogether it was a homely design, if somewhat grand in scale.

Cell no. 7 was Hitler's room. 8 His windows were tall and wide, stretching across the entirety of two walls. They were wooden framed and barred, the metal cage keeping the prisoner from the outside, reflected shadows across the walls creating symmetrical lines across the floor. One looked straight out on to a wall while the other was framed by the branches of a sparse tree. The view beyond stretched across the rising oak forests and fir-clad hills of the splendid countryside. There was a narrow white-painted metal bed in one corner with a slim mattress upon it, and a couple of feet away, leaning against the other wall, was a modest, dark-stained desk with a small chair. An ample mirror hung on the wall, the furnishings giving the appearance of a student room rather than a Spartan cell.

An associate once described Hitler's appearance – not a description that would have flattered the man himself, or one that reflected his popularity while in gaol:

Hitler is not physically attractive. Everyone knows that ... stories were circulated in the party and among sympathisers about his deep blue eyes. They are neither deep nor blue. His look is staring or dead, and lacks the brilliance and sparkle of genuine animation. The timbre of his harsh, uncommon voice is repellent to the North German. The tone is full, but forced as though his nose were blocked. Since then this voice, guttural and threatening ... embodies torment ...

There is something peculiar about the magic of a personality. I found in myself and in others that one succumbs to such magic only if one wishes to succumb to it. I have noticed that Hitler made the strongest impression on such people as were either highly suggestible or somewhat effeminate or accustomed by their education and social background to formalism and hero-worship. A receding forehead, with the lank hair falling over it; a short, unimposing stature, with limbs somehow ill-fitting and awkward; an expressionless mouth beneath the little brush of a moustache – such are the traits of the outer man. His only charm lies perhaps in his hands, which are strikingly well shaped and expressive.

In gaol Hitler was forced temporarily to repress his fantasies of destruction and take stock of his new surroundings. Standing in the dark shadow behind the window, he stared out across south-west Germany, steely eyed and standing stiffly upright in the pose of a soldier. His gaze was given over not to the landscape but to himself. Then with his right arm resting upon the sill, he turned his back to the window and leant against the discoloured, roughly plastered wall. He likened himself to a portrait in a Rembrandt painting, hastening to remind himself that although 'Rembrandt painted in the Jewish quarter, he was at heart a true Aryan'. Then, perfecting the image of the soldier's portrait from the painting Man in a Golden Helmet, he caught his reflection in the mirror and mused with approval: 'There you have something unique. Look at that heroic, soldier-like expression.'

The prison cell was in stark contrast to all the other inmates' cells in Landsberg. Whereas theirs were bare, this one became adorned with gifts. In fact a visitor noted that Hitler 'had not so much a cell as a ... delicatessen store. You could have opened up a flower and fruit and a wine shop with all the stuff stacked there.' People were sending him presents from all over Germany, and Hitler had grown visibly fatter on the proceeds. Moreover, the prison guards had offered him preferential treatment, indulging him this freedom of receiving gifts in his cell, and in return he would say 'take this box of chocolates home to your wife'. 'The ascendancy he gained over the officials and guards at Landsberg was quite extraordinary. The gaolers even used to say Heil Hitler when they came into his cell.'

How was he to spend his time in Landsberg prison? Hitler had charmed the guards, but was still seething with frustration at what he considered to be the waste of his political genius. He fumed for many a long hour, ranting politics and raging to the other inmates. How long would the imbeciles that ruled the country keep him inside? Hitler's stormy outbursts would gradually recede and become interspersed with periods of calm. Then he would recover his composure and regain belief in his own authority, occupying his time dealing with visitors and answering correspondence. Some of his letters were personal or domestic, in which he thanked his friends and sympathizers for their many gifts. For example:

Landsberg on the Lech, 1 October, 1924.

Dear Frau Deutschenbauer,

A few days ago Frau Reichart was kind enough to bring me your plum cake. It was a brief reminder of the time which I spent near you when I was a soldier and also a sign that you have not forgotten me. Please accept my cordial thanks for this attention. With kindest regards to you and your husband, I remain, Yours sincerely, Adolf Hitler.

In other correspondence he meted out advice and coined slogans and mottos.

Landsberg on the Lech, 10 April, 1924.

To the Hetzendorf Group Sincere thanks for your confidence. Our struggle must and will end in victory! With German Heil! Adolf Hitler.

Hitler also worked on presenting himself in an authoritative style to important associates:

Landsberg on the Lech, 20.10.24.

Patriotic Defence Alliance, District Commander Freystadt, Upper Austria. Attention: W. Hollitscher, District Commander.

Dear Herr District Commander,

A few days ago I received your announcement of the presentation of colours to the Patriotic Defence Alliance, District Commander Freystadt. Would you receive my belated congratulations on that occasion, and also my sincere thanks for the pledges of loyalty you transmitted to me. For the rest I have only one desire: that the day may soon come in which my former homeland is incorporated in the glorious wreath of German states, in a united Greater Germany. With true German greeting, Yours sincerely, Adolf Hitler.

Completing correspondence was not, however, Hitler's only pursuit during incarceration. He was later to reflect that this time in Landsberg was, in his own words, his 'University paid for by the State'. In fact, 'the long days of enforced idleness in Landsberg were ideal for reading and reflection'. Hitler decided to peruse a vast wealth of literature and he also embarked upon a project that he believed would demonstrate to the world his immense mental superiority.

Although he considered himself first and foremost a man of action, he believed that he did not lack other talents, and prevented by fools from fulfilling his destiny in the outside world he would therefore turn to the inner one. His mission was to construct a masterpiece, his magnum opus. After all his great hero of the eighteenth century, the philosopher Friedrich Schiller, had done just that. Hitler took an old typewriter that had been lent to him by the guards and hunched over his desk. His hands began to tremble over the keys as he hammered out the project with venom, his 'left arm and leg kept trembling [and] the movement of his forearm was restricted'.

As an audience to his venture Hitler ensnared his deputy Rudolf Hess. Hess had been convicted along with Hitler of high treason. He was Hitler's favourite and accompanied him in his gaol cell every day. A restless character, he had the 'habit of fooling around with the chair he was sitting on. He would sit on it the wrong way round, pass it through his legs, sit on the back, twirl it on one leg, like an amateur acrobat trying to show off', a visitor noted. Hess could not bear to see Hitler exposed to any views other than his own, for he regarded himself not merely as a disciple but also as a tutor – he had studied geopolitics, doctrines of land and power. Hess spoke in catchphrases, 'we must learn to be more brutal in our methods. That is the only way to deal with our enemies,' he would chant. 'He loved the word "brutal", which in German is pronounced with a rolling "r" and equal stress on both syllables, and Hitler also seemed to take pleasure in the sound of it.'

With Hess hanging on his every word, Hitler lost himself in his political fancies and perceived oratorical might. Whatever the ebb and flow of his moods, Hitler was always aware of an audience, sure of the importance of his ideas and the certainty of their impression upon an imaginary, unblinking mass of men.

The book Hitler was composing from his prison cell in the midst of the Bavarian forests, although first entitled Four and a Half Years (of Struggle) Against Lies, Stupidity and Cowardice, was in fact the infamous one that would later become simply Mein Kampf (My Struggle). In it, Hitler both set out and justified his various prejudices and outlined the beginnings of the National Socialist cause. He also discussed himself and presented an idealized image of his own life and background. With his companion he began the first volume (subtitled 'A Reckoning'), starting with the chapter 'In The House Of My Parents'.

Hitler had been born in Gasthof zum Pommer, an inn in the municipality of Braunau am Inn, Austria-Hungary, on 20 April 1889. 'Today,' he spoke:

it seems to me providential that Fate should have chosen Braunau on the Inn as my birthplace. For this little town lies on the boundary between two German states which we of the younger generation at least have made it our life work to reunite by every means at our disposal. German Austria must return to the great German mother country ...

His childhood had been an unhappy one. His father, Alois Hitler, a customs official, had introduced him to violence at an early age – frequent beatings had left an indelible mark upon him. This, however, was omitted from his account. Hitler preferred instead to dwell upon issues of his supposedly German roots: 'In this little town on the Inn, gilded by the rays of German martyrdom, Bavarian by blood, technically Austrian, lived my parents.' He described his mother as 'giving all her being to the household' and meanwhile referred to his brutal father as simply a 'dutiful civil servant'. Rather than admit the paternal bullying he simply spoke of 'an old gentleman', and mentioned in passing, 'Little remains in my memory of this period.' In his observation of others, however, Hitler had the rather intimate insight of a father who 'comes home on Sunday or even Monday night, drunk and brutal ... [when] ... such scenes often occur that God have mercy'.

Out of brutality came strength, of this Hitler was convinced. In later years he proclaimed:

Haven't you ever seen a crowd collecting to watch a street brawl? Brutality is respected. Brutality and physical strength. The plain man in the street respects nothing but brutal strength. And ruthlessness – women, too, for that matter, women and children. The people need wholesome fear. They want to fear something. They want someone to frighten them and make them shudderingly submissive. Haven't you seen everywhere that after 'boxing matches' the beaten ones are the first ones to join the party as new members? Why babble about brutality and be indignant about tortures? The masses want that. They want something that will give them the thrill of horror.

Even as a younger man Hitler believed violence was constructive. He always considered it to be a nurturing force for the development of positive character traits: 'I believe that even then my oratorical talent was being developed in the form of more or less violent arguments.'

Hitler flattered himself that he had risen above his circumstances, growing strong out of austerity. Life had been tough, he gloated, so much so that a weaker man might have succumbed, but he had passed his first test in life. Pausing and looking around his prison cell, he was for an instant overwhelmed by memories of injustice. Bitterness rose in his throat as he recollected all those who had failed to recognize his greatness during his early years – it was one thing to overcome the test of hardship but quite another to endure being overlooked. In the Austrian and German towns of Passau, Lambach, Leonding and Linz, as a boy in elementary school things had not been too bad. At first his talents had been recognized – his school had awarded him excellent marks. It was later in his first year at high school (Realschule) in Linz that they had failed him. Being of superior insight, however, he decided, by the age of sixteen, that the 'pen pushers' who shaped education could not account for one as singular as himself, so he dropped out without a degree.


Excerpted from HITLER'S PHILOSOPHERS by YVONNE SHERRATT Copyright © 2013 by Yvonne Sherratt. Excerpted by permission of YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Yvonne Sherratt is a former fellow of Corpus Christi College and most recently taught at New College, Oxford.

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Hitler's Philosophers 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is an engrossing work of philosophic detective work, a very good read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
BobFelton More than 1 year ago
For some reason, this book opens with a black page background and is unreadable. B&N was notified on Feb 21, 2013, but as of March 1 it remains unreadable.