Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Book Review - Hitler's philosophers by Yvonne Sherratt

Hitler's philosophers by Yvonne Sherratt

New Haven : Yale University Press, 2013                           ISBN 9780300151930

Hmmmm. This book was not at all what I was hoping it might be. I perhaps should have been warned by the following lines in the introduction "The book is written as a docudrama, bringing to life the historical era and personal dramas of the people involved. It is a work of non-fiction, carefully researched, based upon archival material, letters, photographs, paintings, verbal reports and descriptions, which have all been meticulously referenced. However, it is written in a narrative style, which aims to transport the reader to the vivid and dangerous world of 1930s Germany." Hmmmm.

While there is no doubt that 1930s Germany was vivid and dangerous, I'm not sure a book about Philosophy in Germany during that time is best served by being written as a "docudrama". No matter how meticulously referenced a work, the reader struggles to take it seriously when it contains lines such as the following - "It was a hot, humid July day in Stadelheim Prison, Munich, 1943. The drizzle that had started to fall earlier that day increased to a light rain. The caretaker cursed - warm, wet weather made his job even more irksome."  It doesn't help that the endnote that covers this passage states "The details of the caretaker are my (i.e. the author's) own reconstruction."

While this kind of writing might almost have been forgivable if the work delved in detail into the thinking and milieu of the philosophers and philosophy of Hitlerite Germany, what we are given are a series of chapters, which in true "docudrama" tradition dwell on the lives and scandals of a select few individuals, with precious little effort given over to explaining their philosophical theories.

We are also given quite a bit of what I would consider unnecessary background to Hitler and Nazi Germany - I would have thought that someone coming to a work with the title Hitler's Philosophers would already have a handle on the basics of the history of that place and time.

What we do get in the book are two sections - the first being a potted history of Hitler's intellectual formation, with a chapter on German philosophy of the 19th century, mostly to do with Kant and Schopenhauer, a chapter on minor collaborators, and a chapter each on Carl Schmitt and Martin Heidegger. Section two, "Hitler's opponents" gives us the following chapters - Tragedy: Walter Benjamin, Exile: Theodor Adorno, The Jewess: Hannah Arendt, The Martyr: Kurt Huber, and The Nuremberg Trials and beyond.

The book is strangely polemical in tone - the "baddies" are irretrievably bad, and the "goodies" seem to be unable to do wrong. Whilst there is no doubt that Hitler himself was irretrievably evil, I'm not sure why Sherratt feels that she has to ridicule his claims that he read Schopenhauer in the trenches. It seems probable that he did, and there is no doubt that he was an effective and brave soldier. In fact his experiences in the trenches in World War I would seem to me to be absolutely critical in the formation of his philosophy, and yet Sherratt doesn't linger on them.

The chapter on Heidegger does not focus, except in a very general way, on his philosophy. It focuses instead on his affair with Arendt, his spurning of Husserl after the Nazis came to power, and his famous rectors speech given in 1933 at Freiburg University. While all of this is interesting in a way, I would have preferred a chapter that went into detail about his thought, and about how it aided Nazism, and how Nazism filtered into his work.

Likewise with the chapters on the victims, we get very little focus on their thoughts and interactions with Nazi ideology, and more on their close calls with the Gestapo, attempts to flee Germany, and in Benjamin's and Huber's cases, their tragic deaths.

The most interesting chapter was the Nuremberg Trials and beyond - the gradual (or not so gradual in some cases) rehabilitation of those academics that served under Nazi rule, and the (mostly) continuing exclusion of the exiled Jewish cohort could be a book of its own - touched on here, and worth further reading.

Overall, a disappointing book especially as it seems that Sherratt is an expert on philosophy, having written a couple of previous books. In this case she's erred too much on the side of "docudrama".

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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