We should blame Socrates for the high regard in which philosophers are held. Here was a man who was sentenced to death and, instead of doing a runner, actually drank his hemlock like a brave thinker should. Not only that but he explained to his friends why he was obliged to follow this course of action. As a consequence, Socrates has set a moral standard that few philosophers can match.
Yvonne Sherratt's very readable, if occasionally tabloid, Hitler's Philosophers, examines those philosophers who happily supported Hitler and those who did not. Those who did included such luminaries as Martin Heidegger, still much read, while the opposition included the likes of Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno (who survived the Shoah in exile) and Kurt Huber, who was guillotined by the Nazis and whose philosophical work – what he managed to finish before his execution, that is – has faded into oblivion.
Sherratt's pen portraits of the pro-Nazis does not make for pleasant reading. The philosophers involved were vain, self-centred, vicious and greedy. Heidegger would not resign his university position to protect his mentor, Edmund Husserl, let alone drink hemlock. It was poor, desperate Walter Benjamin who took his own life rather than face deportation to the concentration camps.
Sherratt’s short chapters give the reader a good idea of the confusion and desperation from which so many people suffered at the time. “Why didn’t they all just run?” is a question that occurs with hindsight, but Sherratt skilfully shows just how the Nazi noose tightened around so many unfortunates.
The postwar years in Germany, Sherratt argues, were also repugnant. Those anti-Hitler philosophers who had survived were not welcomed back into the academy, while the pro-Hitler faction shamelessly wheedled their way into positions of power and enjoyed long, fruitful careers, all the while saying they had done nothing and seen nothing. (Before we all become too smug in our righteous indignation, look northwards and you will see the same phenomenon on our own wee island.)
What would Socrates say?