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
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Jenny Lee may have left, but Miranda Hart and the rest of the midwives deliver the goods

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
tv
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
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.

    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all