Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Nietzsche and the Nazis

Philosopher Stephen Hicks has written one of my favourite intellectual and philosophical histories, Explaining Postmodernism. His Nietzsche and the Nazis: A Personal View is the book of the documentary and is another, very clearly written, excursion into philosophical history.

It attempts to answer two questions. First, why did the Nazis and their specific ideas come to power in Germany, in what the historian Friedrich Meinecke called The German Catastrophe? Second, what was the connection between philosopher Frederich Nietzsche’s ideas and Nazism?

Before doing so, Hicks poses a series of questions indicating how fascinating history can be. Why are particular periods and places in history – Classical Greece, Renaissance Italy – marked by such startling creativity? Where did the Industrial Revolution come from? Why are some societies apparently unchanging for hundreds of generations?

We can examine particular such episodes in detail. We can also think more abstractly and broadly about causes in history treating various episodes and cultures as experiments in living: such as the Nazi experiment, one of the great disasters of human history.

Hicks dismisses as weak explanations for the Nazi success the German loss of World War I, Germany’s economic troubles, some specifically German failing, the neuroses and psychoses of the Nazi leadership and manipulation of mass media. For Hicks the interesting question is why this particular movement achieved the success it did. He points out that significant intellects (such as Nobel prize winners Phillip Lenard, Gerhart Hauptmann, Johannes Stark; public intellectuals Oswald Spengler, Moeller van der Bruck, Dr Carl Schmitt, Martin Heidegger) supported the Nazi movement and it garnered millions of votes: none of the above explanations lead from the alleged cause to the Nazis specifically (Pp6ff).

Power ideas
Hicks argues that the Nazis were selling idealism, a vision of life, a noble crusade. To explain the Nazi it is necessary to explain the appeal of their sets of ideas: tthat people needs structure and leadership; that life is fundamentally struggle and conflict; that such conflict brings out the best in people; that some cultures are superior than others. The Nazis were selling a heroic idea that resonated with some powerful streams in German intellectual life. That they were not merely after power is indicated by them setting up a fringe Party rather than just joining an established one: they wanted a vehicle for their specific ideals (Pp10ff).

Hicks then goes through the platform of the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP), setting out the ideas involved and connecting them to the writing and speeches of Hitler and Goebbels. This is a very intelligent and accessible analysis, which has the great advantage of taking Nazi ideas seriously (Pp15ff).

He then goes briefly through their electoral success, from fringe Party in 1928 to by far the largest in the Reichstag in 1933 (Pp24-5). The discrediting of other political Parties, the charisma and manoeuvrings of Hitler mattered. But what the Nazis were selling also had to have resonated with a lot of people. (Looking back on the period, it is striking how long the Weimar politicians were able to keep the largest Party in the Reichstag out of government, given that the total unacceptability and absolute rejectionism of the Communist Party [KPD] so narrowed their room to manoeuvre.)

Hicks then examines the Nazis in power, briefly covering their abolition or persuasive dissolving of the other political Parties, the Rohm purge and merging of Presidency and Chancellorship in the person of Hitler after the death of Hindenburg. Hicks starts the examination of the Nazis in power with education. The Nazi Party had 2.5 million members in 1933, of which the largest single professional group were elementary school teachers. They were able to establish domination of the education system and youth organisations fairly quickly with at least the passive acquiescence, or even enthusiastic support, of the vast majority of educators, particularly among academics (Pp27ff).
The Nazis also assiduously took control over all forms of public culture. Not content with attempting to control minds, the Nazis also sought to control bodies through eugenics programs, a mass of economic controls and increasing militarization of economy and society (Pp33ff). Hicks covers these areas well, connecting actions with ideas with statements by leading Nazis.

All this leads up to the Holocaust, which Hicks points out followed from the logic developed over 20 years of political practice and advocacy and brought together techniques the Nazis had experimented with while in power. The Holocaust becomes not some aberration, but the apotheosis of the regime, its thought and practice. Certainly, the resources put into the processes of extermination when the regime was fighting a great war bespeak of its importance to the regime. Hicks conveys this succinctly, but powerfully (Pp46ff).

Which brings us back to the philosophical roots of Nazism. Hicks argues powerfully that we need to take these seriously: the philosopher who Nazis and supporters of the Nazis most associated their ideas with being Friedrich Nietzsche (Pp48ff).

Ideas of power
The second half of the book is an examination of Nietzsche. Starting with his life and influence, moving on to the elements of his thought that did not resonate with Nazi thinking, then the elements that did and finally bringing the themes together.

Nietzsche’s life is covered very briefly and we are reminded of just how widely Nietzsche’s influence on other thinkers extends and the power of his “sometimes scorching” prose. Key elements in Nietzsche’s thought and philosophical style are covered – the death of God, the symptoms of nihilism, masters and slaves, slave morality and the overman (Pp51ff). Hicks provides an excellent, vivid, introduction and summary of Nietzsche’s thought and influence.

Hicks then takes us through the ways in which Nazi thought diverged from Nietszche’s philosophy. For Nietszche:
(1) the superior man could manifest in any racial type;
(2) contemporary German culture was degenerate and infecting the rest of the world;
(3) anti-Semitism was a moral sickness;
(4) praised Jews for their toughness, intelligence and sheer ability at survival;
(5) believed Judaism and Christianity to be essentially similar, with Christianity being a worse and more dangerous version of Judaism (Pp77ff).

So, plenty for defenders of Nietzsche to claim that he was no sort of proto-Nazi at all since the Nazi believed the opposite on all these points. But, as Hicks points out, it is not that simple because there are plenty of aspects of Nietzsche’s philosophy that fed directly into Nazi belief systems. In particular, they shared:
(1) a strongly collectivist, anti-individualist view (with some qualifications in Nietzsche’s case);
(2) saw zero-sum conflict as inescapably fundamental to the human condition;
(3) were irrationalist in psychological theories, downplaying reason and exulting the power and glory of feelings and instincts;
(4) saw war as necessary, healthy and majestic;
(5) were anti-democratic, anti-capitalistic, anti-liberal (Pp87ff).

Nazi admiration for Nietzsche as providing support for their worldview was not irrational or unfounded.

The power of ideas
In his conclusion, Nazi and anti-Nazi philosophies, Hicks points out the enormous cost in stopping the Nazis, what a close-run thing it was and poses a choice: we can oppose such ideas in practice (with all the effort and destruction that may potentially cost again) or we can oppose them in theory before it gets to practice. That fighting the battle of ideas is much better than fighting actual battles. For the Nazis gained such power because their ideas had genuine power and appeal. Against the Nazi ideas and ideals of collectivism; instinct, passion, “blood”; war and zero-sum conflict; authoritarianism; socialism the polar opposites of Nazi philosophy are: individualism, reason, production and win/win trade; liberalism; capitalism (Pp10ff). (Or, to put it another way, Churchill was Hitler’s opposite, Stalin merely a competitor: hence the desperate, longstanding attempts to deny Nazism’s status as a form of socialism.)

Hicks ends on a provocative note:
The Nazis knew what they stood for. Do we? (p.107).
Good question.

The book concludes with various Appendices: the platform of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP) (Pp109ff); quotations on Nazi socialism and fascism (Pp115ff); quotations on German anti-Semitism (Pp131ff); quotations on German militarism (Pp 135ff). The four Appendices alone make this book a very useful resource. For example, in displaying the connection between the thought of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Nazi ideas.

Hicks is an excellent historian of ideas because he writes with clarity and succinctness while covering the key issues in a clear, evidence-based way. He does not merely cover, he understands and conveys that understanding in a highly accessible way: both the ideas and their historical context. I would imagine he is an excellent teacher.

Hicks takes the Nazis in their own terms and then puts them in context. That may seem an obvious thing to do, but it is truly amazing how many commentators on the Nazis and Nazism over the years have taken their own preconceptions as definitive and forced the Nazis and Nazism into them. They look for footnotes, they do not begin with the evidence.

A friend has argued to me that military history is a great defence against nonsense, because so much of it is to do with brute facts. It is a brute fact that Napoleon was defeated at the Battle of Waterloo, for example. The course of the battle can be traced and followed to their conclusion. A certain approach to economic history can have the same effect: the gains from trade are a reality – that is why trade happens; the massive expansion in productive capacity from the Industrial Revolution happened, and so on.

Hicks is the Director of the Centre for Ethics and Entrepreneurship: he has a longstanding interest in how business and commerce actually operates. It gives him some intellectual defence, I would suggest, against certain academic foibles – tendencies to pretentious jargon; to an underlying contempt for the commercial; to base worldviews on grandiose schemes; to see people as integers of theory, not beings with often good reasons for what they do; to have distinctive cognitive blind spots from too much association with people in too similar a social circumstance. (To take an example I am familiar with, it is striking how many academic medievalists fail to think through why so much of medieval resources were poured into castles, knights, etc and the implications thereof because such academics live in very safe milieus in very safe and stable societies and do not associate with police or military folk.)

Be that as it may, Nietzsche and the Nazis: A Personal View is not only an excellent treatment of a contentious intellectual topic, it is one of the better, and most accessible, books on Nazism itself. Both because of its wealth of quotations but also because it takes the power of their ideas seriously and, if you do not do that, you cannot understand the appeal, and thus the power, of Nazism.

[ADDENDA Great interview with the maker of a documentary on Heidegger and Nazism here.]


  1. Hey, Lorenzo. It's Colonel Neville AKA Paul Whatsisname from the Monday Night group. No, really. I saw your hip and economical comment on 'Why Are There No Japanese Looters?" A shortage of lutes?

    This is a really great review and now I have to buy the book! Sadly I have wasted to much time not knowing about your blog. I agree completely with the fact that the Nazi's were just a natural progression from their earliest nutso proto-Nietzschian socialist madness, and nothing was therefore an aberration, but was a continuum.

    A lot of parallel's with leftist ecofascism et al ad nauseum, today too.

    Very good and thus very bad. All the best from er, Colonel Neville.

  2. Welcome, and glad you liked it. I enjoy spreading the good word about the work of Stephen Hicks.

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