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Hitler the Philosopher n spite of more than 70 years of unabated interest in Nazism the story of Hitler as a philosopher remains

untold. Hitler had a dream to rule the world, not only with the gun but also with the mind. Astonishingly he saw himself as a 'philosopher leader'. Philosophy was central to German culture, regarded as a national achievement. Thinkers such as Kant, Hegel and Nietzsche were as sacred to the German people as Shakespeare and Dickens were to the British or Thomas Jefferson and Mark Twain to the Americans. Hitler's fervent desire to be the most authentic of all Germans made these iconic figures deeply alluring and his egotism extended to a fantasy that he himself was a great thinker. Hitler maintained his interest in philosophy sprang from his time in Landsberg jail, where he was incarcerated for nine months in spring 1924 after the failed Beer Hall Putsch of the previous November. He described this period of imprisonment as his 'university paid for by the state' for 'the long days of enforced idleness were ideal for reading and reflection'. During this time he claimed to have read widely and developed a philosophy that guided the course of all his later actions. In fact he usurped some of the greatest minds in German culture to legitimise his macabre project. Hitler also used his time in Landsberg to hammer out a work that he believed would constitute his masterpiece. Initially entitled Four and a Half Years (of Struggle) Against Lies, Stupidity and Cowardice, this was the work that would later become simply My Struggle (Mein Kampf). In volume two, under the rubric 'The National Socialist Movement', he proclaimed his own philosophy. n reality Hitler had always been considered by his teachers to have singularly little talent, described as a lazy student with no interest in work. Although much doubt has been placed upon the proficiency of his reading. Hitler said he read 'everything he could get hold of: 'Nietzsche, Houston Stewart Chamberlain ... Marx...'. He also claimed to have immersed himself in 'the theoretical literature of Marxism', which, of course, he disparaged. Hitler idolised certain thinkers and some of these had attracted his interest from an early age. He was impressed by the German biblical scholar Paul de Lagarde, by the British-born writer and philosopher, Houston Stewart Chamberlain, the art historian and philosopher Julius Langbehn and the philospher/historians Heinrich von Treitschke and Oswald Spengler. He had borrowed copies of Spengler from the National Socialist Institute in Munich between 1919 and 1921, even before his internment in Landsberg. But his interest in these thinkers is not especially surprising; they all proffered an antisemitic, racist, nationalist or militaristic perspective - no one would be surprised by Hitler's interest in them. What was astonishing was Hitler's identification with several of the great German philosophers of the 18th and 19tlT centuries. As he whiled away his long months in prison, he apparently imbibed the ideas of the famous German Idealist philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), as well as Friedrich Schiller ( 1759-1805), Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-

The Philosopher Fhrer

Yvonne Sherratt explores the ways in which Adolf Hitler attempted to appropriate the ideas of some of Germany's greatest thinkers during his brief period of incarceration in 1924.


April 2013 I Historyi)/ii'

Previous page: Hitler in Landsberg prison. Soon after his release these photographs were tal<en by his official photographer, Heinrich Hoffmann. Hitier rehearsed his speeches in front of a nonexistent audience so he could see from the photographs how he would appear to the German public. Hoffmann was arrested at the end ofthe war and his photographic archive seized by the US military. Eva Braun had been his studio assistant and was introduced to Hitier by Hoffmann.

Hitler the Philosopher I860), Richard Wagner (1813-83) and Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), among others. His fi-iend August Kubizec later asserted that Hitler had digested an impressive list of classics 'including Goethe, Schiller ... Schopenhauer and Nietzsche... '. No doubt owing to a simmering inferiority complex from the memory ofhis own academic failings Hitler was initially rather resentful of the 'academic type' and would berate Germany's 'rulers' who 'were over educated men'. Nonetheless during his time in Landsberg he stated: 'I had but one pleasure: my books ... I read and studied much.' Hitler developed a particular fascination for the Enlightenment thinker Immanuel Kant, insisting 'Kant's complete refutation ofthe teachings which were the heritage ofthe Middle Ages, and ofthe dogmatic philosophy ofthe Church, is the greatest ofthe services that he has rendered to us'. This assertion was followed by others. 'Perhaps we are ignorant of humanity's most precious spiritual treasures ... In our parts of the world, the Jews would have immediately eliminated ... Kant'. The importance of reason was something Hitler claimed Kant had inspired in him. In an electoral campaign speech of March 1936 he stated: There are many who say that reason is not the decisive factor, but that other imponderables must be considered. I believe that there can be nothing of value which is not in the last resort based on reason. I refuse to believe that in statesmanship one should regard as right any views which are not anchored in reason ... Such proclamations are superficial and amateurish but Hitler alleged great expertise and felt well qualified to pontificate. Just how deeply he read Kant from his cell we can never know. As one associate, Hermann Rauschning, remarked. Hitler 'has been a Bohemian all his life. He gets up late. He can spend whole days lazing and dozing. He hates to have to read with concentration. He rarely reads a book through; usually he only begins it.' Another thinker Hitler greatly admired was the philosopher-playwright Friedrich Schiller, who was widely favoured by the leading Nazis as a German nationalist and patriot. Hitler professed a love ofhis philosophy, joking affectionately: 'Our Schiller found nothing better to do than glorify a Swiss bowman!' referring to Schiller's most famous work, William Tell (1804), which extolled Swiss nationalism. Before the unification ofthe German states by 1871 Schiller had been more popular than Goethe because his writings encouraged German unity. As Hitler's friend Ernst Hanfstaengl observed. Hitler 'prefers the dramatic revolutionary Schiller to the Olympian and contemplative Goethe'. Hitler confirmed his preference: 'Goethe's house gives the impression of a dead thing. And one understands that in the room where he died he should have asked for light - always more light.' Whereas 'Schler's house can still move one by the picture it gives of the penury in which the poet lived.' Schiller


Hitler admiring a bust of Nietzsche, Aprin931.

became the pet genius of the Nazi generals, who would give themselves nicknames from his plays. For example, Hanfstaengl recalled; Even Goering began to call me the 'Questenberg in the camp', a phrase he had invented in 1923, which was a reference to the character in Schiller's Wallenstein. 'The strong man is mightiest alone': Hitler used this familiar quotation from Schiller's William Tell (Act I, Scene III) as the title of a chapter in the second volume of Mein Kampfand it became his motto during his later years as Fhrer. During the Second World War he had a special encasing made over the Schiller and Goethe monument in Weimar to protect it from Allied bombing. But, besides Schiller and other highminded works. Hitler was known to possess 'in the drawer of his bedside table ... literature of a less reputable character', according to Rauschning. In his prison cell Hitler laid the foundations of his philosophy from the gleanings of other German Idealists such as Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel ( 1770-1831 ) and Johann Gottlieb Fichte ( 17621814). Hegel's historical view ofthe formation ofthe state from ancient origins became a favourite theme and would often appear, in garbled form, in Hitler's orations, such as this extract from a speech at the

Faculty of Military Science in November 1937: For the states ofthe Ancient world were not ruined by their cities... The Roman Empire did notfall on account ofthe city of Rome, for without the city ofRome there never would have been a Roman Empire. The most natural way for the formation of great states - the way in which most great states had arisen - was to begin with a crystallisation point ofthe political and later the cultural life which then, as the capital city, often gave its name to the state. Stephen Tansey and Nigel Jackson have commented: Hitler's views articulated in Mein Kampf, built in many ways upon more orthodox conservative German political theorists and philosophers. Hegel, for instance, had stressed the importance of a strong state ... and the existence of a ... [destiny] in history which justified war by superior states upon inferior ones. The historian, Frank McDonough, has observed: 'It is possible to detect Hegel's view ofthe state having "supreme power over the individual" in Hitler's writings and speeches.' Others have pointed out how 'the half educated Hitler was a mosaic of influences ... (including) the messianic complex of Fichte.' Hitler's associate and fellow inmate at Landsberg,

Hitler the Philosopher

Dietrich Eckart, identified Fichte, the pessimistic metaphysical thinker Arthur Schopenhauer and the philosopher-poet Friedrich Nietzsche as the 'philosophical triumvirate of National Socialism'. In 1933 the film director Leni Riefenstahl gave Hitler a handsome eight-volume first edition of Fichte's collected works published in 1848, bound in creamcoloured vellum with gold-leaf tipped pages. uring the course of his musings for Mein Kampf Hitler's admiration for Schopenhauer was perhaps the most notable, for'Schopenhauer glorified Will over Reason'. Hitler recalled that: 'I carried Schopenhauer's works with me throughout the whole of the First World War. From him I learned a great deal'. On the topic of the purity of the Germanic language, he referred to his 'beloved' Schopenhauer: 'Only writers of genius can have the right to modify the language. In the past generation, I can think of practically nobody but Schopenhauer who would have dared do such a thing.' In an opulent restaurant in Berlin on May 16th, 1944 the Fhrer addressed his generals, asserting:

Hitler leaves a Weimar hotel for a festival celebrating Schiller's 17Sth birthday in 1934. Inset: Leni Riefenstahl's inscription to Hitler in a book from the first edition set of Johann Gottlieb Fichte's collected works, 1848.

However Hitler would eventually become irritated by the contemplative side of philosophy, complaining: W/iere would I get ifL listened to all his [Schopenhauer's] transcendental talk? A nice ultimate wisdom that: To reduce oneself to a minimum of desire and will. Once will is gone all is gone. This life is War. Schopenhauer was out. Another German philosopher was in. But which one? Hitler's friend Ernst Hanfstaengl heard him remark: 'Now it is the heroic Weltanschauung which will illuminate the ideals of Germany's future ...' 'What was this?' Hanfstaengl questioned. 'This was not Schopenhauer, who had been Hitler's philosophical god in the old ... days. No, this was new. It was Nietzsche'. Hitler's admiration moved camp. As he expressed it:

From the Archive

\ Germania: Hitler's ^ Dream Capital J Albert Speer's plan to transform Berlin into the capital of a 1,000-year Reich would have created a vast monument to misanthropy, as Roger Moorhouse explains.

Schopenhauer's pessimism which springs partly, L think, from his own line ofphilosophical thought and partly from the subjective feeling and the experiences of his own life, has been far surpassed by Nietzsche. Hitler's speeches became littered with ideas hacked from Nietzsche. Hitler aped the Nietzschean love of the ancients, especially his veneration for the Greeks, as here in Nuremberg in 1938:

It is on Kant's theory of knowledge that Schopenhauer built the edifice of his philosophy, and it is Schopenhauer who annihilated the pragmatism of Hegel.

The art of Greece is not merely a formal reproduction of the Greek mode of life, of the landscapes and inhabitants of Greece; no, it is a proclamation of the essential Greek spirit. /'Combining Nietzsche's love of the Greeks with V^Hegel's depiction of the ancient origins of the western world became a favourite theme. Except that Hitler used Darwinism to claim that the ancients were biological ancestors of the Germans: A cultural ideal stands before us which even today thanks to its art and to our own origin which relates us to it by our blood, still mediates to us a compelling picture of the fairest epochs of human development, and of the most resplendent bearers of its culture. Hitler copied Nietzsche in admiring the ancient Greek ideals of strength and beauty and borrowed phrases such as 'affirmation of life'. Speaking at the opening of the second exhibition of German Art in Munich on Jully 10th, 1938, he proclaimed: The German people of this 20th century is the people of a newly awakened affirmation of life, seized with admiration for Strength and Beauty and therefore for that which is healthy and vigorous. Strength and Beauty these are fanfares sounded by this new age. Hitler went aU the way in his veneration of Nietzsche's ideal and claimed that the Nazis were the modern renaissance of ancient culture: The gigantic works of the Third Reich are a token of its cultural renaissance and shall one day belong to the inalienable cultural heritage of the western world, just as the great cultural achievements of this world in the past belong to us today. (September, 1938) The journalist William Shirer (1904-93) noted that, after leaving prison. Hitler 'often visited the Nietzsche museum in Weimar and publicised his veneration for the philosopher by posing for photographs of himself staring in rapture at the bust of the great man.' A decade after his release, in August 1934 on the 90th anniversary of Nietzsche's birth. Hitler visited the Nietzsche Archives in Weimar. A fi-iend recalled it thus: / thought back only a few months earlier to a visit he had paid during one of his election campaigns, while travelling from Weimar to Berlin, to the Villa Silberblick, where Nietzsche had died and where his widowed sister, aged 86, still lived. The rest of us had waited nearly an hour and a half Hitler had gone in carrying his whip, but, to my astonishment, came tripping out with a slim little turn of the century cane dangling from his fingers: 'What a marvellous old lady] he said to me. 'What vivacity and intelligence. A real personality. Look, she has given me her brother's last walking stick as a souvenir... From that moment Nietzschean catchphrases noticeably pepper his speeches: Wille zur Macht (the
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Hitler attending the Berlin Opera for Wagner's Lohengrin in August 1938 and, right, meeting Winifred Wagner at the opening of the Bayreuth Festival the following year.



Hitier the Philosopher will to power), Herrenvolk (master race), Sklavenmoral (slave morality) - the fight for the heroic life; against formal dead weight education, against Christian ethics of compassion. But many scholars, including McDonough, have traced Hitler's homage to Nietzsche to his time in Landsberg. The philosopher's term 'Lords ofthe Earth' is in constant use throughout Mein Kampf. As the historian James Giblin puts it, Nietzsche 'predicted modern society would result in the "death of God"... Overall what Hitler latched onto in Nietzsche's writings were [what he took to be] his fervent criticisms of democratic forms of government, his praise of violence and war and his prediction ofthe coming "master race" led by an all powerful "superman" ... who would rule the world.' From the Reichstag on December 11th, 1941, just days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Hitler made a speech drawing on ideas he had gained in Landsberg. Declaring war on the US he quoted the mythic notion of'blood sacrifice', which came directly from his reading of Nietzsche. 'You, my deputies, are in the best position to gauge the extent ofthe blood sacrifice', he declared. In the same speech Hitler justified an invasion of Europe, using Hegel's historical idea of 'coming into being': 'In the whole history of the coming into being', he would proclaim, 'the German Reich ... will wage the war forced upon them by the USA. Thus it was that during a year of musing in prison Hitler would find ideas to deploy in later years to justify war upon the world. HanfstaengI later reflected on Hitler's 'savage bowdlerization of Nietzsche', commenting: 'The guillotine twist which Robespierre had given to the teachings of Jean Jacques Rousseau was repeated by Hitler and the Gestapo in their political simplification ofthe contradictory theories of Nietzsche.' A year or so before his internment in Landsberg -iVHitler had met the family of his greatest hero Richard Wagner, the 19th-century German composer from Bayreuth. Dressed in his traditional Bavarian outfit of lederhosen, thick woollen socks and a red and blue checked shirt he arrived at Haus Wahnfried, where in the music room and library he marvelled over Wagner's former possessions. In a sacred whisper, 'as though he were viewing relics in a cathedral', he articulated his reverence. Hitler's admiration knew no bounds: 'Wagner was a man ofthe renaissance;' 'Wagner was typically a prince' and so on. He referred in public speeches to 'the genius of Richard Wagner' and among the great men in history he always singled out Wagner. Beyond music. Hitler's veneration ofthe composer in fact became one of emulation. Hitler watched Tristan and Isolde 30 to 40 times and used the stage setting of'theatre and pageantry' for the military displays ofthe Third Reich. 'I came to see,' wrote Hanfstaengel

... a direct parallel between the construction of [Wagner's operas] ... and that of his [Hitler's] speeches. The whole interweaving of leitmotifs, of embellishments, of counterpoint and musical contrasts and argument, were exactly mirrored in the pattern of speeches, which were symphonic in construction and ended in a great climax, like the blare of Wagner's trombones.' In Mein KampfHier also described Wagner as one of the intellectual precursors of National Socialism, for not only his music but his antisemitism struck a chord: 'To understand Nazism one must first know Wagner', he wrote. n September 1924 the warden of Landsberg prison made a report on Hitler to the Bavarian ministry of justice. It couldn't have been more favourable. Adolf Hitler had been 'at all times cooperative, modest and courteous to everyone, particularly to the officials ofthe institution', the report stated. 'There is no doubt he has become a much more quiet, more mature and thoughtful individual during his imprisonment than he was before, and does not contemplate acting against existing authority.' Hitler responded, 'When I left Laiidsberg ... everyone wept (the warden and i the other members of the prison staff) - but not I! We'd won them all over to our cause.' So it was that they released a jubilant Hitler. He had arrived as a man of action and left, he fancied, as the 'philosopher leader'. As his friend HanfstaengI expressed it. Hitler 'was not so much a distiller as a bartender of genius. He took all the ingredients the German [tradition] offered him and mixed them through his private alchemy into a cocktail they wanted to drink'. But, for a man for whom every ingredient of his life was fantasy, his professed admiration of philosophy was no less significant than anything else about him.

A German patriotic poster, C.1870.

Yvonne Sherratt is the author of Hitler's Philosophers newly published by Yale University Press.

Further Reading M. Kuehn, Kant: A Biography (Cambridge University Press, 2001). J. G. Fichte, State Within a State'(1793), in The Jew in the Modem World: A Documentary History, ed. P. Mendes-Flohr and J. Reindharz (Oxford University Press, 1995). S.R Renny The Heidelberg Myth: The Nazification and Denazification of a German University (Harvard University
Press, 2002).

Frani< iVicDonough, Hitler and the Rise ofthe Nazi Party (Pearson Education, 2003) James Giblin, The Life and Death of Adolf Hitler (Clarion Books, 2002).
S. Tansey and N. Jackson, Politics the Basics (Routledge, 2008).

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