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
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment
Relocation, relocation: Zawe Ashton travels the pathway to Northampton
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

TV
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Arts and Entertainment
The audience aimed thousands of Apple’s product units at Taylor Swift throughout the show
musicReview: On stage her manner is natural, her command of space masterful
Arts and Entertainment
Channel 4 is reviving its Chris Evans-hosted Nineties hit TFI Friday

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford plays Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade (1989)

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
A Glastonbury reveller hides under an umbrella at the festival last year

Glastonbury
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miles Morales is to replace Peter Parker as the new Spider-Man

comics
Arts and Entertainment
The sequel to 1993's Jurassic Park, Jurassic World, has stormed into the global record books to score the highest worldwide opening weekend in history.

film
Arts and Entertainment
Odi (Will Tudor)
tvReview: Humans, episode 2
Arts and Entertainment
Can't cope with a Port-A-loo? We've got the solution for you

FestivalsFive ways to avoid the portable toilets

Arts and Entertainment
Some zookeepers have been braver than others in the #jurassiczoo trend

Jurassic WorldThe results are completely brilliant

Arts and Entertainment
An original Miffy illustration
art
Arts and Entertainment
Man of mystery: Ian McKellen as an ageing Sherlock Holmes
film review
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.

    John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

    Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

    'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
    Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

    Forget little green men

    Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
    Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

    Dying dream of Doctor Death

    Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy
    UK heatwave: Temperature reaches 39.8 degrees on Central Line - the sweatiest place in London

    39.8 degrees recorded on Tube

    There's hot (London) and too damn hot (the Underground). Simon Usborne braved the Central line to discover what its passengers suffer
    Kitchens go hi-tech: From robot chefs to recipe-shopping apps, computerised cooking is coming

    Computerised cooking is coming

    From apps that automatically make shopping lists from your recipe books to smart ovens and robot chefs, Kevin Maney rounds up innovations to make your mouth water
    Jessie Cave interview: The Harry Potter star has published a feminist collection of cartoons

    Jessie Cave's feminist cartoons

    The Harry Potter star tells Alice Jones how a one-night stand changed her life
    Football Beyond Borders: Even the most distruptive pupils score at homework club

    Education: Football Beyond Borders

    Add football to an after-school homework club, and even the naughtiest boys can score
    10 best barbecue books

    Fire up the barbie: 10 best barbecue books

    We've got Bibles to get you grilling and smoking like a true south American pro
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power
    Ron Dennis exclusive: ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

    ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

    Ron Dennis shrugs off a poor start to the season in an exclusive interview, and says the glory days will come back
    Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

    Making of a killer

    What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
    UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

    Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

    Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
    Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most