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Nazi Philosophers

December 31, 2010

Recently, I've done a fair bit of work on the moral behavior of ethics professors (mostly with Josh Rust). We consistently find that ethics professors behave no better than socially comparable non-ethicists.

By Eric Schwitzgebel

So far, the moral violations we've examined are mostly minor: stealing library books, not voting in public elections, neglecting student emails. One might argue that even if ethicists behave no better in such day-to-day ways, on grand issues of moral importance -- decisions that reflect one's overarching worldview, one's broad concern for humanity, one's general moral vision -- they show greater wisdom.

Enter the Nazis.

Nazism is an excellent test case of the grand-wisdom hypothesis for several reasons: For one thing, everyone now agrees that Nazism is extremely morally odious; for another, Germany had a robust philosophical tradition in the 1930s and excellent records are available on individual professors' participation in or resistance to the Nazi movement. So we can ask: Did a background in philosophical ethics serve as any kind of protection against the moral delusions of Nazism? Or were ethicists just as likely to be swept up in noxious German nationalism as were others of their social class? Did reading Kant on the importance of treating all people as "ends in themselves" (and the like) help philosophers better see the errors of Nazism or, instead, did philosophers tend to appropriate Kant for anti-Semitic and expansionist ends?

Heidegger's involvement with Nazism is famous and much discussed, but as I see him as a single data point. There were, of course, also German philosophers who opposed Nazism. My question is quantitative: Were philosophers any more likely than other academics to oppose Nazism -- or any less likely to be enthusiastic supporters -- than were other academics? I'm not aware of any careful, quantitative attempts to address this question (please do let me know if I'm missing something). It can't be an entirely straightforward bean count because dissent was dangerous and the pressures on philosophers were surely not the same as the pressures on academics in other departments -- probably the pressures were greater than on fields less obviously connected to political issues -- but we can at least start with a bean count.

There's a terrific resource on philosophers' involvement with Nazism: George Leaman's Heidegger im Kontext, which contains a complete list of all German philosophy professors from 1932 to 1945 and provides summary data on their involvement with or resistance to Nazism. I haven't yet found a similar resource for comparison groups of other professors, but Leaman's data are nonetheless interesting.

In Leaman's data set, I count 179 professors with "habilitation" in 1932 when the Nazis ascended to power (including Dozents and ausserordentlichers but not assistants). (Habilitation is an academic achievement after the Ph.D., without an equivalent in Britain or the U.S., with requirements roughly comparable to gaining tenure in the U.S.) I haven't attempted to divide these professors, yet, into ethicists vs. non-ethicists, so the rest of this post will just look at philosophers as a group. Of these, 58 (32%) joined the Nazi Party, the SA, or the SS. Jarausch and Arminger (1989) estimate that the percentage of university faculty in the Nazi party was between 21% and 25%. Philosophers were thus not underrepresented in the Nazi party.

The tricky questions come after this first breakdown: To what extent did joining the party reflect enthusiasm for its goals vs. opportunism vs. a reluctant decision under pressure?

I think we can assume that membership in the SA or SS reflects either enthusiastic Nazism or an unusual degree of self-serving opportunism: Membership in these organizations reflected considerable Nazi involvement and was by no means required for continuation in a university position. Among philosophers with habilitation in 1932, two (1%) joined the SS and another 20 (11%) joined (or were already in) the SA (one philosopher joined both), percentages approximately similar to the overall academic participation in those organizations. However, I suspect this estimate substantially undercounts enthusiastic Nazis, since a number of philosophers (including briefly Heidegger) appear to have gone beyond mere membership to enthusiastic support through their writings. I haven't yet attempted to quantify this -- though one further possible measure is involvement with Alfred Rosenberg the notorious Nazi racial theorist. Combining the SA, SS, and Rosenberg associates yields a minimum of 30 philosophers (17%) on the far right side of Nazism, not even including those who received their university posts after the Nazis rose to power (and thus perhaps partly because of their Nazism).

What can we say about the philosophers who were not party members? Well, 22 (12% of the 179 habilitated philosophers) were Jewish. Another 52 (29%) were deprived of the right to teach, imprisoned, or otherwise severely penalized by the Nazis for Jewish family connections or political unreliability (often both). It's somewhat difficult to tease apart how many of this latter group took courageous stands vs. found themselves insufferable to the Nazis due to family connections or previous political commitments outside of their control. One way to look at the data are these: Among the 157 non-Jewish habilitated philosophy professors, 37% joined the Nazi party and 30% were severely penalized by the Nazis (this second number excludes 5 people who were Nazi party members and also severely penalized), leaving 33% as what we might call "gliders" -- those who neither joined the party nor incurred severe penalty. Most of these gliders had at least token Nazi affiliations, especially with the NSLB (the Nazi organization of teachers), but probably NSLB affiliation alone did not reflect much commitment to the Nazi cause.

Membership in the Nazi party would not reflect a commitment to Nazism (or, also problematic, an unusually strong opportunistic willingness to fake commitment to further one's career) if joining the Nazi party was necessary simply to getting along as a professor. The fact that about a third of professors could be "gliders" suggests that token gestures of Nazism, rather than actual Nazi party membership, were sufficient for getting along, as long as one did not actively protest or have Jewish affiliations. Nor were the gliders mostly old men on the verge of retirement (though there was a wave of retirements in 1933, the year after the Nazis assumed power). If we include only the subset of 107 professors who were not Jewish, habilitated by 1932, and continuing to teach past 1940, we still find 30% gliders (28% if we exclude two emigrants).

Here's what I tentatively conclude from this evidence: Philosophy professors were not forced to join the Nazi party. However, a substantial proportion did so voluntarily, either out of enthusiasm or opportunistically for the sake of career advancement. A substantial minority, at least 19% of the non-Jews, occupied the far right of the Nazi party, as reflected by membership in the SS, SA, or association with Rosenberg. Regardless of how the data look for other academic disciplines, it seems unlikely that we will be able to conclude that philosophers tended to avoid Nazism. Nonetheless, given that 30% of non-Jewish philosophers were severely penalized by the Nazis (including one executed for resistance and two who died in concentration camps), it remains possible that philosophers are overrepresented among those who resisted or were ejected.