Yale University Press, £25 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

Hitler's Philosophers, By Yvonne Sherratt

This book tells the disturbing and important story of how major thinkers abetted genocide

The only German philosophy professor who actively resisted the Nazis is nowadays virtually unknown. Though one or two scholarly monographs have appeared on him, Kurt Huber will not be found on any university syllabus. The silence that has swallowed his name and his works is almost as complete as that which followed when, after being stripped of his university post and doctoral degree by a Nazi People's Court, he was executed by guillotine in July 1943 for writing a pamphlet against National Socialism as a member of the White Rose resistance group.

A conservative Catholic who produced a classic study of Leibniz and made important contributions to aesthetics and musicology, Huber is today not much more than a footnote in history. When Yvonne Sherratt writes, "Huber's intellectual prowess remains as quiet in the Western world as it was under Hitler", she hardly exaggerates.

In contrast, some active collaborators with the Nazis feature among the most celebrated names of post-war philosophy. Serving the Nazis for a time as a university rector, Martin Heidegger cut off relations with Edmund Husserl, the Jewish philosopher who had secured his professorship, removing the dedication to Husserl from Being and Time (Heidegger's principal work) and failing either to visit his mentor when he was dying or attend his funeral in 1938. As a result of the intellectual campaign waged by his former student and lover Hannah Arendt, and support form prominent figures such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Heidegger succeeded in becoming one of the most influential of late 20th-century philosophers.

The jurist Carl Schmitt, who rose to become Hitler's chief legal advisor, was arrested by American forces in 1945. Yet he avoided any public trial and returned to his home town where he received distinguished visitors such as the French Stalinist and Hegel scholar Alexandre Kojève. By the time Schmitt died in 1985 at the age of 97, his books had been translated and published throughout the world.

Sherratt describes Hitler's Philosophers as being concerned with "a terrible secret: the story of how philosophy was implicated in genocide". It is a good description of a fascinating, disturbing and necessary book. No doubt the collaboration of German philosophers with the Nazi regime was largely opportunistic. When there is fear in the air, philosophers are no more inclined to heroism than doctors or teachers, who also collaborated with Nazism on a large scale.

But in some ways, philosophy itself had opened the way to the Nazis. As Sherratt notes, it was Immanuel Kant who wrote that "the Jewish religion is not really a religion at all" and described Jews as "a nation of cheats". As she comments, "the greatest thinker of the Enlightenment... provided a legitimate basis deep within European culture for the potential criminalisation of the Jews". She might also have mentioned that Voltaire – the other great Enlighten- ment worthy – promoted a version of the pre-Adamite theory of human origins in which Jews were remnants of a pre-human species.

By revealing the sources of Nazi ideology in German philosophy, Sherratt nails the myth that Nazism was an inexplicable aberration in European history. In the absence of the chaos that followed the First World War, Hitler's movement would not have gained the mass support it did. But the ideas he deployed when in power were widely current in fin-de-siècle Europe, not least in progressive circles.

An important feature of Nazi ideology, commonly neglected by those who see Nazism as simply a variety of irrationalism, is that Nazi racism claimed to be based in science. One the books admired by Hitler in his early years was Racial Typology of the German People by Hans FK Gunther, one of many exponents of "scientific racism". Among these, none was more important than Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919), who used a distorted version of Darwin's ideas to advocate the use of eugenics. Citing a recent assessment, Sherratt rightly maintains that "Haeckel and his fellow Social Darwinists advanced ideas that were to become the core assumptions of National Socialism".

But similar ideas were widespread in many European countries. In Britain, where they originated in the work of Francis Galton, eugenicist theories continued to be influential until after the Second World War. It was only the destruction of the Nazi regime and the ensuing publicity given to its crimes that relegated these ideas to the margins.

In detailing the complicity of philosophers with Nazism, Sherratt is not opening up new ground. There is a large literature on Heidegger's involvement, while scholars such as Richard Wolin have explored the appeal of fascism to several generations of European intellectuals. There are no startling insights here into why some of Germany's leading philosophers actively collaborated with Nazism. From one point of view, Heidegger's flirtation with Nazism may have been not much more than an extreme example of careerism; but it may also have flowed from some deep features of his philosophy. Dealing mainly with events and personalities rather than the internal logic of philosophical positions, Sherratt cannot tell us whether it was the philosopher or the philosophy that was principally at fault.

Sherratt's focus on people may be a weakness, but it is also one of the book's strengths. The stories she presents of the philosophers who fled Germany – Walter Benjamin, Theodore Adorno and Hannah Arendt – are rich and moving, sometimes amusing and at times unexpected. I hadn't heard of Adorno's encounter, while exiled in California, with Greta Garbo and her dogs. Again, I wasn't aware that Carl Schmitt was singled out by Vera Lynn for his endorsement of violence. It's instructive and somehow uplifting to know that a wartime singer showed herself to be more clear-eyed and intelligent than a gaggle of philosophers.

John Gray's latest book is 'The Silence of Animals: on progress and other modern myths' (Allen Lane). He will appear at the 'Independent' Bath Literature Festival on 10 March

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

    Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

    His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
    'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

    Open letter to David Cameron

    Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
    Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

    You don't say!

    Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
    Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

    So what is Mubi?

    Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
    The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

    The hardest job in theatre?

    How to follow Kevin Spacey
    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders