I am deeply suspicious about writing off the Nazis as mere haters/fascists. It seems that a very plausible rationale was set rolling, within the academia, right from the middle of the 19th century, that ultimately somewhat legitimized the political environment in the 1930s-50s. 'Ubermench' and other such cornerstones of Nazi thinking seem to come straight out of Nietzsche. Heidegger was a staunch supporter of the regime, a Nobel prize winner wanted Aryan physics to replace Jewish physics.

The norm seems to be to just dismiss these as perverted racist fantasies, or just consequences of intense political disagreements. However, there seems to have been a very weird but still very 'intellectual' rationale for Nazism. What was it and how was it all put together?

Disclaimer: I am not one of the alt-right trying to find deep meaning in Hitler and his ideology. Politically I am very much to the left.

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    The use made of Nietzsche by various Nazi scholars and idealogues can hardly be said to be straight, as you put it. See for example Walter Kaufmann's writings on Nietzsche. I think it would be largely accurate to say that there is general agreement on the fact that Nietzsche was misinterpreted by the Nazis (and many others).
    – M. le Fou
    Commented Nov 6, 2016 at 8:29
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    @Isaacson This is precisely the dismissal I am worried about. What is considered pseudo-philosophical could be just a matter of perspective. And it leaves us with very little weapons to fight back, in the event of a resurgence of such ideas. Commented Nov 6, 2016 at 8:29
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    Racialism wasn't yet demoralised at the academy 80-90 years ago. At that time gross fantasies about a hierarchy of races, dressed up in Darwinian verbiage, were considered reasonable, even common place, scientific theories. Commented Nov 6, 2016 at 11:48
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    @Isaacson Well I take your point but I don't think Nietzsche's writings were neutral and they could have been interpreted one way or other. There seems to be a certain quality to Nietzsche's writings that made it much more likely to be used towards dubious political ends compared to say Dewey. And 'refutation' misses the point. It is impossible to 'refute' racialist theories, generally. Commented Nov 6, 2016 at 15:35
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    According to the members of staff in the Nietzsche- and Schiller- and Goethe-Archives in Weimar, it has rather been the poorly-educated sister of Nietzsche, Elisabeth, who had been told into using him and his terms (severely misunderstood, esp. in terms of race vs. individual) for fascist means. In particular, Nietzsche wrote about her as "anti-semitic goose" (she married a racist nationalist), and while her best friends in Weimar where Jews, at the same time she sold her brother's heritage to Nazis, because they promised her to give him a proper place in the intellectual Olymp. Not his fault.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented May 4, 2017 at 13:50

5 Answers 5


I am also concerned about some recent social movements in Western countries. They can be seen as reactions to the displacements caused by information technologies and economic globalization. This is somewhat reminiscent, although much milder for now, of the social and political turmoil partly traceable to the effects of the industrial revolution at the end of 19th - early 20th century. At the time the social crisis was accompanied by crises in mathematics, physics, biology, psychology, and yes, philosophy. One of its hallmarks was the rejection of the Cartesian picture of man reduced to his intellect and attached to senses. The backlash against rationalist neglect of other dimensions of human existence was expressed by life philosophy and existentialism (among others), Nietzsche's and Heidegger's, respectively, in particular. But I would not overestimate the effects of psycho-social causation from philosophy to political movements.

One could perhaps say that some philosophies resonated with anti-rationalism and irrationalism, which appeal to the darker sides of human nature. Cassirer, one of the most prominent neo-Kantians, in The Myth of the State names Heidegger and Oswald Spengler (the author of The Decline of the West, and Nietzsche's heir apparent in Germany) as philosophers that "did enfeeble and slowly undermine the forces that could have resisted the modern political myths". But such ideological connections are ambiguous and tenuous. There were Christian existentialists like Marcel and Jaspers, and Dilthey and Bergson were also life philosophers. The architects of red terror chose to appropriate the hyperrationalist Hegelian dialectic instead, and to claim the scientific mantle for Marx's utopian "scientific communism". Lenin made himself into a philosopher because he was dissatisfied with available flavors of Russian Marxism, like Plehanov's. It seems that appeals to intellectual hubris are as capable of servicing justifications for mountains of corpses as appeals to irrational urges. The voices of reason and moderation were also available at the time, Husserl, Freud, the Vienna circle, to name a few, but they just were not listened to by the "masses", and it is doubtful that was due to philosophical rationales.

So we can not draw direct logical connections between philosophical systems and pernicious ideologies. Perhaps, some are more susceptible to the abuse than others, perhaps not. One can see how Nietzsche's will to power, master morality, the Übermensch, and certain "juicy" passages could be appropriated, e.g. this one from Genealogy of Morals:

"In Latin malus... could indicate the vulgar man as the dark one, especially as the black-haired one, as the pre-Aryan dweller of the Italian soil which distinguished itself most clearly through his colour from the blonds who became their masters, namely the Aryan conquering race".

But the big difference between Nietzsche and Heidegger is that the former was simply appropriated, while the latter enthusiastically did his very own self-appropriation with his own two hands. Friedman describes it as a part of interesting analysis of the general philosophical context of 1920-30s in Parting of the Ways (the title refers to the analytic/continental split after 1930s):

"When Hitler came to power in 1933, Heidegger was appointed rector at Freiburg, officially joined the Nazi party, and greeted the victory of the new political movement with his notorious rectoral address, "The Self-Assertion of the German University" [Heidegger, 1933], in May of that year. Although Heidegger left the rectorship after ten months, and in fact appears to have grown increasingly disenchanted with the Nazi regime, he was nonetheless still able, in his well-known lectures, Introduction to Metaphysics, presented in 1935 and published in 1953, to depict Germany as the West's last best hope for salvation from Russian communism on the one side and American technological democracy on the other, and to speak in ringing and famous words, of "the inner truth and greatness" of the National Socialist movement."

Heidegger connected this "inner truth and greatness" to the existential rootedness of authentic Dasein in the "soil", the German soil that is, and grand rejection of inferior "calculating intelligence" in a 1955 essay Gelassenheit ("releasement", translated as Discourse on Thinking). He dismissed new developments in mathematics, science and technology as obscuring the Being and philosophically irrelevant already in Sein und Zeit (Being and Time, 1927), and decried "degeneration of logic into logistic" in the early 1930s. But again, Friedman warns against identifying philosophy with politics:

"Some "scientific" philosophers were and are conservative and even reactionary in their politics... An important example of the former type of philosopher is Gottlob Frege, who espoused strongly anti-democratic, and even anti-Semitic, political views in the period of the Weimar Republic. He shared some of these opinions with his friend Bruno Bauch, who became a leader of "Nazi philosophy" during the National Socialist period (next to Bauch, Heidegger's own involvement with Nazism somewhat pales). Important examples of "progressive" (or at least left-wing) students and followers of Heidegger, of course, are Herbert Marcuse, Hannah Arendt, and Jean-Paul Sartre."

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    It's interesting that you touched Frege. That is probably one the biggest blemishes in 19th century academia, in my view, that the greatest logician since Aristotle should have such shady views. Commented Nov 8, 2016 at 0:14
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    user2277550:Same here; I only recently came across this view of Frege when I was reading an interview by Dummett, who was a prominent anti-racist activist as well as a philosopher - he got knighted for both; what was remarkable to me, was that he was surprised that a philosopher of mathematics, merely by being such would be immune to racism. Commented Nov 12, 2016 at 4:58
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    @Conifold I'd like to change the translation of "Gelassenheit" to serenity, or one of the other translations provided by dict.leo.org/englisch-deutsch/gelassenheit, releasement really does not mean the same as Gelassenheit. However, I do not know the text, so it is diffcult to judge if you have just reason to choose that word.
    – jjdb
    Commented May 4, 2017 at 10:32
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    @jjdb "Releasement" is the translation for Gelassenheit used by a number of Heidegger scholars, see here.
    – Conifold
    Commented May 4, 2017 at 22:27
  • @Conifold Perfect, so I retract my proposal and leave it as it is.
    – jjdb
    Commented May 5, 2017 at 6:43

You can see :

Nazi's regime produced "consensus" and "legitimation", promoting academic philosophers and intellectuals that were ideologically supportive, like Heidegger.

It produced also an ideological background based on a partially misleading reading of some intelelctuals and philosophers of the near past, like Nietzsche, that can be only in part responsible for the (bad) use of their ideas an works.


It seems that a very plausible rationale was set rolling, within the academia, right from the middle of the 19th century, that ultimately somewhat legitimized the political environment in the 1930s-50s.

First, you seem making an unjustified assumption here. That Nationalistic minded philosophers stared writing in the 19th century with and end result like the Nazi state in mind, in the same way that feminist thinkers started writing with the hopes of eventually having a female president, or the way Marx and others were writing with the long term objective of establishing communist governments around the world.

But this not necessarily the case. More likely, Nazi ideologues used the writings of Philosophers they found sympathetic to justify their policies only after the fact. There was no actual movement that saw it self as progressing towards a pre-etsbalished end result. Even Heidegger didn't start drawing connections between his thinking and National Socialism until pretty late in the game.

Second, you seem to be conflating the words 'plausible' and 'justified': It was perfectly plausible, given the level of general scientific knowledge at the time, that there were objectively distinct races with different characteristics. But the fact that it was plausible doesn't mean that it was justified. Just like the idea of life on Mars was plausible but not justified.

Third, you state that the rationale was set rolling in the 19th century. Adorno and Horkheimer in "Dialectic of Enlightenment" argue that the seeds for fascism were sown from the very beginning of enlightenment.

Finally, in terms of trying to find "weapons to fight back", using logic and facts is usually very difficult, confirmation bias and the underdetermination of theories by data, make it almost impossible to convince someone they are wrong once they have staked out a position. See here and here(and answers to that post) for further discussion. If you are lucky, you might be able to a logical inconsistency in their ideas, but in most cases "True-beleivers" will find ways of justifying their beliefs in the face of any evidence. Pragmatism, humility, and a willingness to engage instead of off hand dismissal is your best bet. You might want to check Karl Popper's "The Open Society and Its Enemies". Also this recent news item might be relevant.


I think this is more of a question in the realm of the history of ideas, or intellectual history or indeed philosophical history; for example, this talks about the 'influence and reception of Nietzsche':

Many political leaders of the twentieth century were at least superficially familiar with Nietzsche's ideas. However, it is not always possible to determine whether or not they actually read his work.

Regarding Hitler, for example, there is a debate. Some authors claim that he probably never read Nietzsche, or that if he did, his reading was not extensive. Hitler more than likely became familiar with Nietzsche quotes during his time in Vienna when quotes by Nietzsche were frequently published in pan-German newspapers. Nevertheless, others point to a quote in Hitler's Table Talk, where the dictator mentioned Nietzsche when he spoke about what he called "great men", as an indication that Hitler may have been familiarized with Nietzsche's work. Other authors like Melendez (2001) point out to the parallelism between Hitler's and Nietzsche's titanic anti-egalitarianism, and the idea of the "übermensch", a term which was frequently used by Hitler and Mussolini to refer to the so-called "Aryan race", or rather, its projected future after Fascist engineering.

Alfred Rosenberg, an influential Nazi ideologist, also delivered a speech in which he related National Socialism to Nietzsche's ideology. Broadly speaking, the Nazis made very selective use of Nietzsche's philosophy, and eventually, this association caused Nietzsche's reputation to suffer following World War II.

It might be worth examining the books referenced in the article.


I believe you're right about 'throwing the baby out with the bathwater'. National Socialism was a movement of it's time, most of it concerned with the tedious domestic policies of 1930's Germany.

To directly answer your question, there were some very prominent propaganda documents around in the 30's which I won't list, that had a powerful effect on the choice of the victims of Nazi extremism above and beyond zeitgeist eugenics.

So the ideology we known now as Nazism was a combination of Zeitgeist philosophical, flaws in the human condition, and the ubiquity of various pieces of this pernicious literature (much of it emanating from Russia decades before).

The flaws in the human condition relate to humanity's susceptibility to things like fallacy and semiotics.

But also conceit and hubris. We mention Nietzsche. In a cruel twist of irony it was base, unremarkable human conceit and hubris that led the Nazis to war, attrocity and catastrophe. They weren't 'ubermenche'. They were in fact very ordinary fools.

In the case of Nazism the misappropriation of the artistic output of an entire culture (the Norse) created powerful symbols such as the swastika, behind which the disenfranchised and poor Germans of the 30's could rally. The displaying of this symbology became de-rigeur, those not displaying it became 'the other'. Simple false arguments, and powerful colours led a whole nation to political extremism, war, and atrocity.

The parallels for the modern day are incredibly striking. No matter where you look you see evidence of nascent fascism. "you're either with us or your against us". Colour revolutions. Ubiquitous surveillance, imprisonment, kidnap and torture without trial.

But the most worrying is the return of hubris. Had the Nazis realised that their military and technological lead was not enough, perhaps 40M people might have survived the 40's.

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