I curious as to know what sort of philosophy movement was used as an apologist to enable the Holocaust, the Holocaust did not happen in the third-world. It was not aimed or done by uneducated people. There was no shortage of highly educated people that were involved first-hand in one of the worst genocides in the history of mankind.

The indoctrination of the German intelligentsia had to have some sort of philosophical underpinnings, I would be curious as to what they were? Hitler, after all, must have had some sort of way to sell genocide to all the learned fellows about in 1936.

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    This is an above average book, but only a beginning. "The Mind of Germany" Hans Kohn. I would study Vienna too from the turn of the century until 1933. And Sebastian Haffner, "Failure of a Revolution, Germany 1918-1919". These books are helpful to make a beginning of a study, I think.
    – Gordon
    Jul 18 '18 at 1:58
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    I think you would do much better to study history, which of course philosophy runs through it. Twenty years prior to WWI through at least 1933. Include Vienna too, especially Karl Lueger. I already mentioned the topics of "the stab in the back" and "Lebensraum".
    – Gordon
    Jul 19 '18 at 11:25
  • To get some of the mood, "German Drama Between the Wars" (actual plays) by George Wellwarth, Editor (EP Dutton, 1972). Also it may help to study the period of German Expressionism in art (to get the sense of foreboding).
    – Gordon
    Jul 19 '18 at 11:52
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    I found it helpful in understanding Nazi ideas when I heard about en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lebensraum
    – CriglCragl
    Jul 19 '18 at 23:03
  • The irony of Lebensraum is that the Soviets apparently embraced a similar idea. Another irony is that many Soviet citizens supported the German troops who invaded the USSR. By the way, there is debate over the precise reason for the invasion. It was probably known that the Allies were courting the USSR, and I suspect they were already funneling supplies into the country by this time. Jul 19 '18 at 23:19

The beginnings of a movement

The Nazis did not invent eugenics, which was a movement the emerged in the USA, the UK, France and Germany towards the end of the 19th century. Its aim was to apply the laws of heredity (such at least as were known) to the improvement of human biology - of the human genome as we might say today. It was not 'a war against the weak'; the point was, however noble or unrealistic, to give every child all possible advantages from birth by the elimination of undesirable and the promotion of desirable characteristics. 'Desirable, 'undesirable' ? Before we inject sinister significance into such terms, we should note that the idea was not to create a super-'race' but to weed out inheritable diseases. This is true in the round; I cannot say that some scientists and pseudo-scientists did not have other and more malefic plans*. But they did not set the main agenda of eugenics.

*This is true of Francis Galton (1822-1911), who invented the word. He spoke blandly of the 'welfare of mankind' and of 'the aim of eugenics' as that of 'preventing all kinds of suffering'.But he also envisaged a genetic elite made up of the naturally gifted of each social class. This elite would administer society 'with all kindness' on condition that the less gifted maintained celebacy. If they did not they 'would be considered as enemies to the State, and to have forfeited all claims to kindness'. (Fraser's Magazine 7, 1873; quoted in P.B. Medawar & J.S. Medawar, Aristotle to Zoos, London : Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1984 : 87.)

Eugenics and the Shoah

The Jews under Nazi control suffered atrociously and intentionally right from 1933, with Hitler's advent to power, but the Wannsee Conference of January 1942 marks the real origin of literal genocide. The main aim up till 1942 was to remove Jews any which way from the territory of the Reich. Until Wannsee then there was no programme for the complete and systematic destruction of the Jewish population of Europe - 1942 was the great step down from hatred and brutality to the pure evil of the total destruction of the Jews. (This is not to deny that the destruction of the Jews, whatever the zigzag path of Nazi policy, was inherent in the logic of National Socialism.) Point is, if Nazi eugenics gave 'scientific' support to the Shoah, it was not devised for this purpose. The Nazis could and would have pursued their own version of eugenics, and they would have had their own reasons for doing so, independently of the Shoah.

Nazi antisemitism

On what were Nazi anti-Jewish beliefs based ? In discussing this, some repellent language will come up. My initial quotations are from a Jewish writer who finds no other language adequate to describe the Nazi, especially Hitler's, mindset.

In his second book, written but not published in 1928, Hitler made his view of the Jews very clear. He said that they were an antirace, formed out of a hybrid, indeterminate, mongrel core, a nomad peo- ple of eternal restlessness, incapable of independent political, territorial existence. He also noted that their religion was a cover for their lust for unlimited power and for abs rule over all others. Their control of the world was not based on territory, which they never had, and in this they differed from all the other nations; it was based, rather, on financial and other machinations. Hitler wrote that at first the Jew demanded equal rights, and then, finally, superior rights, and that his aim was to rule the world; but, as his character was parasitic and as he was incapable of separate existence, his rule would lead not only to the destruction of the nations oppressed by him, but also to his own demise.

These views can be found, with some variations, in the writings of Alfred Rosenberg, Josef Goebbels, and other close collaborators of Hitler. They contain a number of crucial elements. First among these is the view of the Jew as a demonic presence in the world; the use of the generalizing singular "the Jew" already suggests that. This, of course, is taken from Christian antisemitism, which postulated that only a people possessed by the Devil would have killed the God-Messiah. The Jews, in the Nazi demonology, are out to rule the world, and, in fact, are already well on their way toward doing so. This again is based on Christian foundations, and we can find traces of fear of the Jewish demons controlling the world during the Middle Ages-and even earlier. In modern times, this superstition was reformulated in that famous forgery by the tsarist Soviet police, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (1905), which forms one of the cornerstones of Nazi ideology.

A second basic element in the Nazi view of the Jews is the description of the Jew as a parasite. In Nazi literature Jews are described as vermin, rats, or other noxious elements from the insect or animal world, as well as bacilli or viruses. In his previously mentioned second book, Hitler says that in order for the Jews to exist, they use the creative faculties of other nations because they are in- capable of establishing a polity of their own. They thus become parasitic, and perforce their aim must be to control as many nations as possible so as to live on their life- blood. In this way, nazism combined with the two divergent metaphoric pictures it had created for the Jews: that of demons and that of parasites.

For our purpose a third element is most important. Nazism in effect accused the Jew of vices that it {Nazism] was guilty of. The picture of the demonic force out to conquer the world reflects the desires of the Nazis themselves. Years before the wish to murder the Jews became articulate in their own minds, they formulated it in obverse fashion. Thus Hitler stated, in his directives to Goering in 1936 regarding the four-year plan, that Germany must be ready for war within four years. The reason for the tight time schedule, according to Hitler, was that "the loss of months may cause damage that will be irreparable in hundreds of years." The reason for that rather surprising statement - in 1936!- was that international Jewry was threatening Germany's existence. The prospective victory of Jewry, said Hitler, "whose most radical expression is Bolshevism . . . will not this time lead to new Versailles treaties, but to the final destruction, that is the extermination of the German people." This in turn will cause "the catastrophic destruction of the European nations, such as humanity has not known since the demise of the states of antiquity". (Yehuda Bauer, 'Genocide: Was It the Nazis' Original Plan?', The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 450, Reflections on the Holocaust: Historical, Philosophical, and Educational Dimensions (Jul., 1980), pp. 35-45 : 37-8.)

Where does the philosophy of eugenics fit in ?

Quotations from now on are from Susan Bachrach.

Science and salvation

As early as 1884, one of the country’s [Germany's] leading gynocologists, Alfred Heger, had proposed sterilization and castration as a way of preventing the inheritance of mental illness.


The catastrophic loss of nearly two million German men in the “Great War” exacerbated already existing German fears about the falling birth rate and the “biological degeneration” of the nation. In 1927 a new research center, the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology, Human Heredity, and Eugenics, opened in Berlin. Cutting-edge research at the institute was funded by the government as well as the Rockefeller Foundation in New York— reflecting continuing American respect for German science, even after the [1914-18] war. (Susan Bachrach, 'Deadly Medicine', The Public Historian, Vol. 29, No. 3 (Summer 2007), pp. 19-32 : 23.)

So a eugenic mindset was present before the Nazis came to power. It may not have been powerful but it was active in its way.

The biological state

Nazi racism and eugenics were an explosive combination. Eugenic ideas were compatible with and were absorbed into Nazi ideology in the years before 1933, and the establishment of the Nazi dictatorship and police state created the political conditions for the application of radical eugenic proposals on a mass scale. Diverse, opposing political viewpoints that stood in the way of the enactment of even a “voluntary” sterilization law before 1933 were silenced (as were the voices of Jewish scientists dismissed from their positions, such as the biologist Richard Goldschmidt, who ironically supported eugenic sterilization, but was forced to emigrate and reestablish his career at the University of California, Berkeley.) [There were] “positive” eugenic programs of the Hitler regime ... to raise the birthrate of “fit Aryans.” [The] centerpiece of the Nazis’ “negative” eugenic program in the 1930s, a mass sterilization program developed with the help of one of the co-founders of German eugenics, academic psychiatrist Ernst Rüdin. An estimated 400,000 Germans became victims of the regime’s compulsory sterilization law. [GT : This program was not specifically directed against Jews. The severely mentally or physically disabled of any ethnicity were subject to it, though naturally some Jews were caught in its toils.]


[The] Hitler regime introduced another form of eugenics—marriage restrictions. The Law for the Protection of German Blood and Honor, proclaimed at Nuremberg on September 15, 1935, criminalized marriage or sexual relations between Jews and non-Jews. The aim was to prevent future births of “racially mixed” (mischling) offspring— an attempt, in effect, to weed “Jewish genes” from “German-blooded” stock. The term mischling was originally used in botany, denoting a hybrid, and German officials referred to Mendelian genetics in formulating the Nuremberg laws Charts evocative of Mendelian genetics were also used widely to educate Germans about the application of the law. (Susan Bachrach, 'Deadly Medicine', The Public Historian, Vol. 29, No. 3 (Summer 2007), pp. 19-32 : 21-28 passim. This law was specifically directed against Jews.

Deadly medicine : creating the Master Race

Nazi sculpture standardly depicted the tall, strong, upright, healthy male 'Aryan' as the authentic model and example of human physical excellence. One role of Nazi eugenics was to promote the model as an aspiration within the scope of science. From this it was a short step to destroying the antetype : the 'demonic', the 'parasites', the 'bacilli', the 'virus', of Hitler's antisemitic hatred.

  • Thank you for performing excellently on the delicate task to form an informative, impartial, and well-sourced answer on that subject-matter - including a correct use of terms. One thing worth adding could be a source that gives testimony for the qualitative break and dawn of the Shoah proper with the Wannsee conference. Another aspect may be using Lebensraum (excellent English Wiki article linked in comments above) as a philosophical link between the Holocaust as a whole (of which the Shoah is but a part - 6 of 11 million victims) and NSDAP politics/ideology.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Jul 20 '18 at 9:44
  • @Philip Klöcking. Thank you. I was aware of the need to tread carefully. I've taken note of your points and will see if I can, with acknowledgement, work them in. All much appreciated. Best - GT
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Jul 20 '18 at 10:27

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and German Idealism inspired many at the time, that society had reach a paradigm shift that would enable humanity to transcend the limits of nature. Heidegger had also contributed to the existential considerations regarding the purpose and value of being. This transcendentalism and existentialism in philosophy created an aspirational rationale;

P1) Society has achieved greatness (the Renaissance, the industrial revolution and the looming scientific revolution) and is on the precipice of transcending to a higher, pristine and stable state.

P2) Each individual is at their moral and practical “best” serving their proper role and contributing to these goals; Absolute idealism for Hegel and Dasein for Heidegger

P3) If not for the obstacles we would achieve this transcendence.

C) Therefore, actions to move society into this era of greatness are justified and morally supported.

Eugenics is an attempt to achieve this transcendence through a mechanism conceived in the field of biology.

These transcendental and existential philosophies also the first inspired the Young Hegelians, from which Karl Marx emerged. Not to over compare the two (as they were polemically opposing and held outward animus towards each other), but I see some parallel in the thought process of Eugenics and how Communism attempts to achieve this transcendence through a mechanism conceived in the field of economics.

  • Most of the "intelligentsia" of this period would have gotten Kant in their youth (various neo-Kantian "schools" of thought). Hegel was out of vogue almost completely during the time these people were young.
    – Gordon
    Jul 19 '18 at 11:01
  • Of course, there were many informal lectures in open air on socialism, Marx and so on, and also the teaching of these subjects in lecture halls (not university, the teachers would rent a hall and give lectures). Public lectures were a big thing. Not just on Marx either. The period I speak of being the 20 years prior to WWI.
    – Gordon
    Jul 19 '18 at 11:08
  • Martin Buber gave some of his first lectures in such a setting. But not on Marx I don't think. Rather on Jewish topics. This same Buber was with Dilthey and his family in Italy when Dilthey died in Italy and Buber helped make funeral arrangements. Dilthey knew Hegel's philosophy, still he was mainly neo- Kantian.
    – Gordon
    Jul 19 '18 at 11:20
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    @PhilipKlöcking, I believe there is a clear delineation from Hegel to Heidegger laid out in the history of 19th and 20th century Continental philosophy. I would also argue that there is quite an extensive amount of literature that establishes an link between Martin Heidegger and Nazism - some so far as to indicate Heidegger as an active influencer and participant in the movement.
    – PV22
    Jul 20 '18 at 16:03
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    @PV22: I do not question the correctness, I just want to encourage you to add sources for the claims. Heidegger did engage with Hegel in the late 30s, long after Being and Time and induced by objections against it, while Hitler himself nit-picked parts of Hegel (like the absolute power of a state, the force of history) as early as 1925 in My Struggle. I am even sure that Darwin plus Hegel did a lot to intertwine eugenics and "the end of history"/"fly of the Minerva". Alas, this is opinion/conjecture as long as it is not supported by sources other than our own minds.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Jul 20 '18 at 16:29

By "philosophical underpinnings" you could mean either an explicit understanding of the foundations of thought obtained through critical reflective study in an attempt to understand, or you could mean what were the unreflective foundational assumptions that underpinned the thought that the Nazi leaders had.

I think the former basically did not exist.

The latter was narcistic nihilistic anti-intellectuallism and will to power combinded with a notion of self that included race and country.

Force of will was deployed epistemically to render political aspirations legitamate and silence criticism.

Unconsciously, the will can become entangled epistemically in a mind, and then versions of what is true are produced by how one would feel if such versions were true. "Thinking" is then the will deciding what it wants to feel and ensuring the reality required to feel it is rendered legitemate. A lot of thinking then goes into how to execute that political struggle absent reflection on why one should. A political struggle develops with the world to carry those opinions needed to allow the will to be express its desire to be. Contradiction of thise state of affairs is dealt with politcally.

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    Hello, and welcome to Philosophy.SE. You might want to take the tour and read in the help center to get an idea of what this site is about and how contributions should look like. Your post appears to reflect your opinion. Fair enough, but there is a problem with that: How is your opinion any more correct than that of John Doe writing his thoughts on the internet? See, this is why we encourage to support answers with sources. And many sources, including some in the comment thread to the question, disagree.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Jul 20 '18 at 15:08
  • I think you should add in references to justify the claim: "I think the former basically did not exist" Why were they " unreflective foundational assumptions"? Jul 20 '18 at 15:42

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