When driven to illustrate utter evil in history, many of us simply point to Adolph Hitler. Then, trying explain why he was so depraved, we easily employ therapeutic terms, labeling him an irresponsible “madman” or a puppet dancing to sociological or economic machinations. But in Hitler’s Ethic: The Nazi Pursuit of Evolutionary Progress (New York: Palagrave Macmillan, c. 2009) Richard Weikart, a professor of history at California State University, Stanislaus, endeavors to demonstrate “the surprising conclusion that Hitler’s immorality was not the product of ignoring or rejecting ethics, but rather came from embracing a coherent—albeit pernicious—ethic. Hitler was inspired by evolutionary ethics to pursue the utopian project of improving the human race. He really was committed to deeply rooted convictions about ethics and morality that shaped his policies. Evolutionary ethics underlay or influenced almost every major feature of Nazi policy: eugenics (i.e., measures to improve human heredity, including compulsory sterilization), euthanasia, racism, population expansion, offensive warfare, and racial extermination. The drive to foster evolutionary progress—and to avoid biological degeneration—was fundamental to Hitler’s ideology and policies” (p. 2). Indeed, as Fritz Lenz (an influential geneticist favored by Hitler) explained: Nazism was simply “applied biology.”
Though Hitler was hardly a profound thinker, he read extensively and by 1923 began setting forth a coherent political agenda, studding his speeches with references to (and quotations from) significant German philosophers and scientists. In 1934, at a Nuremburg Party rally he insisted that “National Socialism is a worldview [weltanschauung]” (p. 28). (The New Cassell’s German Dictionary says the word Hitler used—weltanschauung—means “philosophy of life, world outlook, creed, ideology”). He further “posed as a moral crusader gallantly battling the forces of iniquity, corruption, and even deceit” (p. 17). And he never hesitated to extol traditional—and very Christian—virtues such as duty, loyalty, honesty, sexual purity, etc., when they suited his purposes. As he garnered support in the 1920s he especially touted himself as a “truth-teller” exposing those whom Schopenhauer had called “the great masters in lying,” the Jews. (In fact, as was evident in his skillful propaganda, Hitler was himself 9a masterful liar!) To him, lying was justifiable if it helped establish his weltanschauung—especially his devotion to evolutionary progress and the ultimate triumph of the German Volk. Indeed, his “highest priority in life was to improve the human species, to advance evolution” (p. 83). As Mein Kampf (the autobiography he wrote in prison) asserted, all of life is a biological battle, and only the fittest survive. Therein he frequently cited some of Darwin’s phrases—“struggle for existence,” “struggle for life,” and “natural selection.” Such phrases had regularly appeared in The Descent of Man, where Darwin asserted: “‘Man, like every other animal, has no doubt advanced to his present high condition through a struggle for existence . . . and if he is to advance still higher he must remain subject to a severe struggle’” (p. 35). In his Table Talks and speeches Hitler celebrated evolutionary theory and “presented biological struggle in the evolutionary process as a central tenet of Nazism” (p. 38). This particularly applied to the “racial struggle” validating the superiority of Aryan or Nordic peoples. “Helping Aryans win the struggle for existence against other races was crucial to achieving his vision. Morality itself was measured by whether or not it benefitted the German people in their struggle” (p. 83). Popular books such as the Comte de Gobineau’s The Inequality of the Human Races, praised by eminent biologists including Ernst Haeckel, undergirded Hitler’s racist agenda. Though he certainly despised the Jews, Hitler equally scorned Africans, Asians and American Indians. As he declared in Mein Kampf: “‘All who are not of good race in this world are chaff’” (p. 69).
Hitler’s racism shaped the “national socialism” he championed. As a socialist he disdained the individualism of capitalist countries such as the United States, seeking to turn the “German Volk into a true socialist community’” (p. 104). Thus, as soon as he took control of the country, he launched annual Winter Relief Drives designed to help poor Germans—but not “asocial” vagrants, prostitutes, criminals et al. He envisioned and supervised extensive public works, including the celebrated autobahns, designed to help everyone. The Nazis—the National Socialist German Workers’ Party—also endeavored to provide full employment for all Germans. To Hitler, socialism meant “‘not the solution of the labor question, but rather the ordering of all German racial comrades into a genuine living community; it means the preservation and further evolution of the Volk on the basis of the species-specific laws of evolution’” (p. 111). He shared the view of August Weismann, a famous Darwinian biologist, who believed that “‘only the interest of the species comes into consideration, not that of the individual’” (p. 114).
Racist ideology obviously required the sexual ethic which Hitler carefully articulated. In 1937 he declared: “‘we are laying claim to leadership of the Volk, i.e. we alone are authorized to lead the Volk as such—that means every man and every woman. The lifelong relationships between the sexes is something we will regulate. We shall form the child!’” (p. 121-22). Ever-more Aryan children were needed to populate an ever-expansive Reich! Consequently, he said: “‘there is only one holiest human right, and this right is at the same time the holiest obligation, to wit: to see to it that the blood is preserved pure and, by preserving the best humanity, to create the possibility of a nobler evolution of these beings’” (p. 141). So he opposed birth control and abortion, celebrated large families, and often portrayed himself as a staunch defender of traditional family values and morality. Yet, paradoxically, he also approved extramarital sexual affairs and even toyed with the idea of polygamy if such activity birthed more (and genetically better) Germans. When the war broke out in 1939, Himmler issued a Hitler-approved order which said: “‘Beyond the boundaries of perhaps otherwise still necessary bourgeois laws and customs it will also outside of marriage be an important responsibility for German women and girls of good blood, not lightly, but rather in profound moral seriousness, to become the mothers of children of soldiers who are going to the front and of whom fate alone knows whether they will return or fall in battle for Germany’” (p. 133).
Along with breeding more healthy Aryan children, the Nazis targeted the incurably sick and disabled for extermination. They didn’t deserve to live longer—as, indeed, Karl Binding (a lawyer) and Alfred Hoche (a psychiatrist) had argued in their notorious, but widely-circulated 1920 treatise, Permitting the Destruction of Life Unworthy of Life. Learned physicians assured Hitler that infants were not fully human, for “‘when a child is born, it is not really fully matured . . . But if that is so, then the infant does not actually take its place in human society until several months after its birth’” (p. 185). Germany’s medical personnel ultimately killed 200,000 disabled “patients” in the nation’s care facilities. Explaining this, the historian Hans-Walter Schmuhl said: “‘The racial-hygiene paradigm constituted an ethic of a new type, which was ostensibly grounded scientifically in Darwinian biology.’” By discarding the Judeo-Christian tradition and “‘giving up the conception of humans as the image of God through the Darwinian theory, human life was construed as a piece of property, that—contrary to the idea of a natural right to life—could be weighed against other pieces of property’” (p. 180).
Killing Jews, though the best known aspect of Hitler’s racist agenda, actually began two years after the outbreak of WWII, in the final months of 1941. Prior to that, deportation rather than extermination has been the official Nazi position. “Hitler’s evolutionary ethic did not require killing. He could have merely sterilized the disabled and deported the Jews. This would have accomplished his goals of expanding the Germany population, strengthening the Aryan race by eliminating ‘inferior’ individuals and races, and expanding German living space. However, even though killing may not have been required by Hitler’s evolutionary ethic, Darwinism contributed nonetheless to the death of the disabled and Jews.” As Christopher Hutton, concluding his book on Nazi racism, said: “‘All the key elements of this [Nazi] world-view had been constructed and repeatedly reaffirmed by linguists, racial anthropologists, evolutionary scientists and geneticists. Ludwig Plate [a Darwinian biologist at the University of Jena] observed that “progress in evolution goes forward over millions of dead bodies” . . . For Nazism, survival in evolution required the genocide of the Jews’” (pp. 194-195).
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In Hitler’s Philosophers (New Haven: Yale University Press, c. 2013), Yvonne Sherratt endeavors to unveil “the sinister past of many German philosophers” which has been effectively buried by their protégés. Though the book “is a work of non-fiction, carefully researched, based upon archival material, [and] letters . . . which have all been meticulously referenced,” it “is written in a narrative style, which aims to transport the reader to a vivid and dangerous world of 1930s Germany” (p. xx).
Philosophy occupies a prominent place in German culture, granting professional philosophers a celebrity status. Thus Hitler liked to invoke legendary thinkers such as Goethe, Schiller, Kant, Fichte, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. He even sought to portray himself, in Mein Kampf, as the “philosopher Fuhrer.” For example, a well-known quotation from Schiller’s William Tell—“the strong man is mightiest alone”—served as a chapter title in Mein Kampf and became his motto during his later years as the Fuhrer” (p. 21). He especially claimed to embrace to the “critical philosophy” of Immanuel Kant, saying: “‘Kant’s complete refutation of the teachings which were the heritage of the middle ages, and of the dogmatic philosophy of the church, is the greatest of the services which Kant has rendered to us’” (p. 20). Though Kant certainly seems to be an implausible figure to indwell the Nazi pantheon, he represented for
Hitler a repudiation of the past, with its irrational superstitions and religious prejudices. And, importantly, Kant disparaged Judaism, “labeling Jews as a body superstitious, primitive and irrational.” Indeed he declared Judaism was not even a bona fide religion “but merely a community of a mass of men of one tribe’” (p. 39). Jews were innately dishonest and had “no right to an independent existence” (p. 40). Following Kant, three 19th century thinkers—Fichte, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche—became “the ‘philosophical triumvirate of national Socialism’” (p. 23). Schopenhauer effectively extended Kant’s insights and, importantly, “glorified Will over Reason,” as would Nietzsche, the philosopher most frequently cited in Hitler’s speeches. Hitler claimed he read Nietzsche’s works while in prison, and he “‘often visited the Nietzsche museum in Weimar . . . posing for photographs of himself staring in rapture at the bust of the great man’” (p. 236). In 1934 he met Nietzsche’s sister Elisabeth, who gave him “one of Nietzsche’s most personal possessions’—his last walking stick (p. 26). “From that day on the Nietzsche catchphrases were everywhere, Wille zur Macht, Herrenvolk, Sklavenmoral—the fight for the heroic life, against formal deadweight education, against Christian ethics of compassion.” (p. 26).
There’s no mystery as to why Hitler would be drawn to Nietzsche, for his most noted work was “Zarathustra, in which he had coined the idea of the ‘Superman.’” During the First World War 150,000 copies of the book were “handed out to German soldiers at the front. A London broadcaster even went so far as to dub the war the ‘Euro-Nietzschean War,’ and the best selling English novelist of the time, Thomas Hardy, claimed in a letter to the Daily Mail that there was ‘no instance since history began of a country being so demoralized by one single writer’” (p. 50). Nietzsche’s sister selected and published passages from his works, including his “discussion on the possibilities of selective breeding and of educating a ruling caste, ‘the masters of the earth’, ‘tyrants who can work as artists on “man” himself” (p. 50). When she met Hitler in 1934, she would likely have shown him such passages, and her portrayal of “Nietzsche seemed to supply just of the needs of the Third Reich—there was a zeal for war, a dash of anti-Semitism, the ‘Superman’ and nationalism” (p. 51).
Hitler He claimed to have read “everything he could get hold of,” including Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, though it’s clear he mainly devoured and absorbed racialist and nationalist tomes composed by writers such as Houston Stewart Chamberlain, Heinrich von Treitschke, and Oswald Spengler. Above all, he found in Charles Darwin one of his “most crucial influences” (p. 53). Darwin’s evolutionary thought swept through Germany under the guidance of the “enormously influential zoologist and social philosopher
Ernst Haeckel,” whose books “vastly outsold Darwin’s” (p. 54). “Nature is God” Haeckel declared, and Nature, through natural selection, had elevated the Aryan race. Following Haeckel, scores of German scholars propounded his version of Social Darwinism, many of them serving as “collaborators” helping the Nazis gain control of universities and various cultural institutions in the ‘30s.
The most prestigious philosopher actively lending his support to Hitler was Martin Heidegger, a Freiburg University professor. That he was deeply influenced by Nietzsche must be noted, for the two of them have profoundly shaped 20th century philosophical and literary thought. To Sherratt, Heidegger was “Hitler’s Superman.” He had studied with Edmund Husserl, the noted phenomenologist, and enjoyed his patronage as he established his reputation as a world-class philosopher. Heidegger joined the Nazi Party in 1933 and was named rector of the University of Freiberg soon thereafter. Though he resigned as rector within a year, he maintained his Party membership until 1945, and his commitment to National Socialism seems inseparable from with his philosophy. He “heralded the Third Reich as ‘the construction of a new intellectual and spiritual world for the German nation,’” adding that the “‘construction of National Socialism has now become the single most important task for the German universities’” (p. 106). He thought no Christian should be appointed to a university lectureship, for traditional morality needed to be consigned to the trash bin of history. Students were drawn to him and subsequently spread his version of atheistic existentialism, including a disdain for Christian and humanist ideas.
Though some Jewish (e.g. Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, and Hannah Arendt) and Christian (e.g. Dietrich von Hildebrand) philosophers fled Germany in the 1930s and opposed Hitler, very few who remained in the country did so. The notable exception highlighted by Sherratt was Kurt Huber, a devout Roman Catholic and popular professor at Munich University, who taught musicology as well as philosophy.
He had been appointed to a prestigious Chair for the Institute of Folk Music at the University of Berlin in 1938, but he refused to toe the Party line and was soon dismissed, though he regained his position in Munich. He used his lectures on Kant, Spinoza, and Leibniz to subtly criticize der Fuhrer, and he ultimately joined a secret student group (the White Rose resistance society) dedicated to distributing subversive pamphlets. In time he would be arrested and executed—a “martyr” in Sherratt’s view.
Almost as soon as the Allies conquered Germany they conducted the Nuremberg Trials and sought to bring leading Nazis to justice. One of the “criminals” sentenced to death was Alfred Rosenberg, who had played a leading role in Hitler’s administration, largely because he had written the Myth of the Twentieth Century, which had been, “along with Mein Kampf, the ultimate Nazi bible” (p. 232). But almost none of the scores of philosophers who had supported Hitler suffered anything more than transient disciplinary measures in their universities. Though Martin Heidegger was investigated, he successfully “reconstructed his life and career from 1933 to 1945 as one of minimal involvement with the Third Reich” (p. 244). He managed to reestablish himself as a leader in the European academic world and gained assistance from a most unlikely source—Hannah Arendt, his former student and lover. Though she was Jewish and had fled to America during the war and had denounced him as a “murderous monster” for his Nazi views, she revisited him in 1950 and abruptly decided to champion his rehabilitation. Similarly, Jean-Paul Sartre, deeply reliant upon Heidegger’s philosophical work, ignored his Nazi activities and “firmly helped to reestablish Heidegger on the post-war stage” (p. 248). Subsequently Heidegger traveled widely, giving lectures, and greatly influenced many currents of contemporary thought, especially “post-modernism.” In light of all this, Sherratt seriously questions the academy’s adulation of Nietzsche, Heidegger et al. So too we should seriously doubt the value of much that passes as “Postmodernism.”
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Robert Jay Lifton, in The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide (New York: BasicBooks, c. 1986), probed, by conducting interviews with both doctors and survivors as well as researching thousands of documents, one of the true mysteries of iniquity—how highly trained and skilled medical doctors (allegedly committed to saving lives) cooperated with the Nazi’s genocidal policies. Surprisingly, a number of “prisoner doctors” played an important role in running Auschwitz. These were (generally Jewish and frequently female) medical doctors sent to the camps who assisted the SS doctors. They often worked as orderlies or nurses, and many of them heroically sought to help other inmates as much as possible, appearing to collaborate while “actually using their position to save as many people as possible” (p. 218). Still more: they differentiated between the truly evil and somewhat “better” Nazis who tried to help inmates and were markedly sorrowful as they carried out their orders.
As one expects from a psychiatrist, Lifton cites many “case studies” and crafts telling illustrations. He is deeply concerned with medial ethics and confesses that “nothing is darker or more menacing, or harder to accept, that the participation of physicians in mass murder” (p. 3). Amazingly enough, the doctors he interviewed tried to “present themselves to me as decent people who tried to make the best of a bad situation” and failed (or refused) to make any “clear ethical evaluation of what he had done” (p. 8). To the extent they did so, it was to rationalize their activities, employing therapeutic language. They immersed themselves in “medical science” as a “means of avoiding awareness of, and guilt over, their participation in a murderous project” (p. 61). Thus Dr. Fritz Klein said: “‘Of course I am a doctor and I want to preserve life. And out of respect for human life, I would remove a gangrenous appendix from a diseased body. The Jew is the gangrenous appendix in the body of mankind’” (p. 16).
The program the Nazis designed to remove gangrenous people was called “euthanasia,” eliminating those deemed “unworthy” to live. They first implemented the coercive sterilization of “defectives,” for “only the healthy” should procreate. Then they began killing “impaired” children, for it initially seemed easier to eliminate newborns or young children than larger humans. Next “impaired” adults, whether mentally or physically disabled, were “put to sleep.” They also culled out undesirable or “morally inferior” inmates in concentration camps. Finally came the mass killings in camps such as Auschwitz, whose “primary function” was to kill Jews. Here the doctors were essential. They decided, as prisoners were unloaded from the trains, which ones would be immediately sent to the killing centers. They determined when inmates were not longer useful as laborers and ready to be gassed. They selected, as did Dr Josef Mengele (doing “scientific” studies on twins), some who would be momentarily spared and used for medical experiments. As one Auschwitz prisoner doctor remembered: “‘They [the SS doctors] did their work just as someone who goes to an office goes about his work. They were gentlemen who came and went, who supervised and were relaxed, sometimes smiling, sometimes joking, but never unhappy. They were witty if they felt like it. Personally I did not get the impression that they were much affected by what was going on—nor shocked. It went on for years. It was not just one day’” (p. 193).
They were not monsters, nor even “sadists” as we understand the term. They were, in fact, rather “normal” human beings. But they did enormous evil, and what obviously guided and sustained them was their commitment to Nazi ideology—Hitler’s Ethic—with its racist components rooted in a naturalistic, evolutionary, Darwinian ethos.