- HOW THE PHILOSOPHY OF ROMANTICISM CAUSED THE RISE OF HITLER, THE NAZIS, WORLD WAR 2 AND THE HOLOCAUST
How does one lost and lonely, unsuccessful artist named Adolf Hitler become responsible for the sadistic torture and murder of nearly 11 million other human beings? (Schwartz, n.d.) Moreover, how does the population of a country with a rich intellectual, individualistic culture where major industrialization, liberalism and democracy (even inclusive to women at a time when women’s suffrage was a new thing yet to sweep the world) have taken effect, freely and voluntarily give dictatorial powers to a man who openly spewed racist anti semitic comments such as “it was the Aryan alone who founded a superior type of humanity,”(Hitler, Mein Kampf) and “[the Jew] is and remains a parasite…the effect produced by his presence is also like that of the vampire” (Ibid.) and threatened violence on his fellow Germans, saying in a court hearing that “I may assure you that if the Nazi movement’s struggle is successful…there’ll be some heads chopped off…[and] we will fight…with all the means at our disposal, even with those which are illegal from the world’s point of view”(Sax, 1992); how does a country of seemingly intelligent people surrender itself to the psychotic fury and totalitarianism of an openly racist and violent man?
To provide a comprehensive answer to these questions is an extremely complex undertaking, thus many books on the subject have been written. There are many angles and contexts one can investigate to gain hindsight into how Germany was hijacked by Hitler and his Nazis- there are economic factors (Germany suffered hyperinflation and a depression), and political factors (Germany had been defeated in World War One, and so its economy and military were downsized as a result, and Germany was just beginning as a democracy and it was an extremely divided democracy at that) and there are also crucial philosophical factors.
As Dr. Leonard Peikoff wrote in his article “Nazi Politics”: “[Hitler and n]azism triumphed because Germany was ideologically ripe [italics are Peikoff’s throughout], because the intellectual groundwork had been prepared, because the country’s [fundamental- philosophical] ideas- were ready.”
Dr. Peikoff goes on to explain that ideas spread across individual cultures and that the dominant, trending ideas essentially determine the philosophy of most of the people in the country and the basic philosophy of the country, and its government. Throughout The Objectivist Peikoff writes a series of articles on this topic defining and explaining the body of philosophical ideas that primed Germany for Hitler’s Nazi takeover. Of the various philosophical ideas that Dr. Peikoff discusses (pragmatism, dogmatism, collectivism, subjectivism, romanticism et cetera) the one that stands out to me as the most consequential, and responsible for Hitler’s tragic rise is “romanticism”.
In this article I will argue that the spread of the philosophy of romanticism in Germany from the late 1700’s to the early 1900’s is largely to blame for not only creating the monster that was Hitler and the Nazi movement, but that it was also responsible for creating within a significant portion of the population, a vulnerability and even an openness by default, to Hitler and Nazism.
To Support my argument, I am going to analyze what I believe to be the three elements of romanticism most relevant to Hitler’s rise: the romantic aesthetics, romantic epistemology and education, and romantic ethics, each, not merely as intellectual ideas, but ideas in relation to their manifestations in the history preceding Hitler’s rise.
Before I elaborate on exactly what romanticism is, and discuss its aesthetic, epistemological-educational, and ethical ideas and their impact, I think it must be noted that my assertion that romanticism is to blame for Hitler’s rise is a controversial one.
First of all, among philosophers and historians who do concede that romanticism played a part in the rise of Hitler and Nazism, they disagree on the degree in general, and in relation to other philosophical ideas (also in varying degrees) they also think are to blame.
As I mentioned about Dr. Peikoff, he emphasizes a range of ideas. In fact, more so than any specific idea, Peikoff seems to think the influence of philosopher Immanual Kant and the idea of collectivism were more to blame than romanticism (which is not fundamentally Kantanian).
In his own words, “It is Kant who made possible the sudden mushrooming of the Platonic collectivism and statism in the modern world, and especially in Germany,” (Peikoff, Nazi Politics II) even though Peikoff admits that Kant was not actually a statist.
In contrast, Lawrence Birken, argues, quite to the contrary that it was not romanticism that is to blame, but actually what romanticism was an opposition to. He writes that the philosophical problem “was actually a further development of the Enlightenment, a revolutionary Enlightenment which used fanaticism to destroy an older but weakened fanaticism, terror to destroy an older but milder ‘terror’”. (Birken, 1999)
So then, what, in the most general sense, is this ‘philosophy of romanticism’ that philosophers, historians and commentators are debating about? There is not a consensus here.
Elizabeth Millan-Zaibert contends that there are types of romanticism, and that the romanticism of Germany is a specific “German Romanticism” and that even that can be divided into phases. (2004) For example, she focuses on what she terms “Early German Romanticism” which she defines as a philosophy that opposes the notion that a philosophy can have a basic, primary, fundamental principle, and one that posits that “an introduction to philosophy can only be a critique of earlier philosophy.” (Ibid.)
Dr. Leonard Peikoff agrees that there is a specific “German romanticism” but does not provide terms for different stages of “German Romanticism”. (Nazism Versus Reason) He defines “German romanticism” as “the open revolt against reason and the Enlightenment” that had its “greatest influence- in Germany…and that man’s true source of knowledge….is: feeling- or passion, or intuition, or instinct, or faith, or the subconscious.” (Ibid.)
I believe that Dr. Peikoff’s definition is accurate for as I analyze the romantic aesthetics, epistemology-education and ethics, the most central theme throughout will be the primacy of “feeling”, especially the feelings of “passion” and “intuition.”
Indeed, I contend that a significant number of the German population, as a result of the spreading romantic philosophy, were quite literally lost in a plague of unchecked passion, and were so enthralled by Hitler’s extreme, out of the ordinary passion, that many had an intuitive feeling that his incredible passion could save them, and so they submitted themselves to him.
I think it is a very important point that, to a considerable degree, romanticism was first developed by philosophers who were contemplating art and poetry in the 1790’s and, in fact, throughout the so called romantic movement in Germany and even at the onset of the birthing political Nazi movement, the political activism was led by very artistically minded men. (As many know, Hitler himself was a failed artist).
I say this is important to note because one may not typically think of something as esoteric as art and aesthetics as a catapult for political movements.
In any event, of romanticism’s origin, Millan-Zaibert tells us that in the 1790’s, “[in the very early stages of [the romantic] movement [the term romantic was used in Friedrich Schlegel’s] literary criticism to denote…subjective [poetry as opposed to] classical poetry [which] was objective…”and then later, in reference to “an appreciation for the subjective elements in art [more broadly], [and] a developing interest in viewing and understanding art in terms of its history.” (2004)
This romantic aesthetic spread, developed and endured for over a century, and in fact, remained very key to romanticism as such, as well as the beginnings of the Nazi movement.
One very influential German thinker, for example, who wrote the bestselling Rembrandt als Erzieher in 1890 (Author Fritz Stern tell us “in the first two years the book went through thirty-nine editions”) said of art that it was “the highest good, the true source of knowledge and virtue.” (Stern, 1961) However, he added that “great art could spring only from the volk” (The Aryan Germanic people as a unified community and state) and that from such art knowledge could be intuitively gained. (Ibid.)
The popularity of this book, according to Stern, which I am willing to grant, indicates that a significant number of Germans either agreed with him or were open to or interested in those key ideas.
The meaning to gain here from this romantic aesthetic is that it made reason an unpopular thing in Germany, and intuition the popular replacement, but also we see an aesthetic idea that embraces racism- most notably a view of Germanic/ Aryan supremacy and the idea that good art is dependent on adhering to that racist tenant. Moreover, art, and this view of art in particular, is posited as a something like a religion- but on what grounds? This leads us to romantic epistemology.
ROMANTIC EPISTEMOLOGY AND EDUCATION
As romanticism developed and spread as an aesthetic philosophy, so to did the importance of subjectivity- the notion that knowledge (to whatever degree a subjectivist even believes in knowledge) is to be gained by feeling, and especially intuition and not by reason.
One necessary consequence of any given epistemological foundation is going to be the education that the youth of a culture receives. If parents, teachers, and professors agree that knowledge is to be gained one way or another by feeling, then curricula and pedagogy would of course follow suit and indeed it did. As we have seen from the romantic aesthetics, an emphasis was placed on the idea that good art can only come from communion with the volk. This general obsession with the Volk in aesthetics, and in other aspects of philosophy, was called Volkish thought and was a huge element of German education in the 1800’s.
Writes George L. Mosse: “Schools were founded according to Volkish blueprints and principles. In the state schools the ideology infiltrated into the minds of the students through books, curricula and teachers. [And then the teachers and students]…spread the ideas they had picked up.” (1964)
Mosse adds that Volkish ideology in the schools was the rule, not the exception. (Ibid.) Also, as a result of Volkish ideology in schools, antisemitism began to spread; it was believed that “[Jews] could not be expected to have sufficiently deep or sacred feelings about [the Volk, and the Volk landscapes, the Volk History] to appreciate the message.” (Ibid.) Further, it was believed and propagated that the Jews were too intellectual for German Volkish schools.
Through these romantic Volkish schools, as is evidenced by a new racism, it can further be seen how a romantic ethics can be established and taught.
Just like romantic aesthetics, and romantic epistemology centered on “feeling”, so too did romantic ethics.
In fact, it is the romantic ethics that are the most dangerous, because it is one’s code of ethics that mandate what essentially one is going to do with one’s life, and how one will treat one’s self and others.
By saying the romantic ethics are most dangerous I mean that perhaps through a subjective epistemology at least a universal compassion is a possible direction, or even, one could intuitively feel that at least sometimes there is a time and place for reason. (For example, it could be argued that American culture of today is pragmatic-existential and allows for degrees of subjectivity, but still concedes a value in science ((which absolutely depends on reason and empiricism)) and maybe even sometimes a degree of rational consideration with respect to treatment of others. Existentialists are by nature supposed to allow tolerance towards others as it posits that everybody can define their own meaning and values.)
Unfortunately, the romantic ethics essentially dictates a worship of feeling- especially of intuition and passion. I alluded to this earlier when I mentioned that art, and romantic aesthetics was viewed somewhat religiously and as superior to science.
Bertrand Russell writes that romantics had a “proneness to emotion…the emotion of sympathy…[which was] direct and violent and quite uniformed by thought.” (1945) (I contend that this sounds quite a bit like Adolf Hitler. No, I do not mean to say that Hitler was actually sympathetic, but I would argue that he thought he was sympathetic to the cause of the aryan race and providing them living space and making them strong and that that which he believed to by his sympathy was arguably a major motivating factor.)
It is not just an obsession with emotion, and sympathy or perceived sympathy. It is an obsession with passion. Russell adds:
“It is not the psychology of the romantics that is at fault: it is their standard of values. They admire strong passions, of no matter what kind, and whatever may be their social consequences…..most of the strongest passions are destructive- hate and resettlement and jealousy, remorse and despair, outraged pride and the fury of the unjustly oppressed, martial ardor and contempt for slaves and cowards. Hence the type of man encouraged by romanticism…is violent and anti-social, an anarchic rebel or a conquering tyrant.” [Emphasis mine] (Ibid)
Upon reading that assessment of the romanticist’s obsession with passion, I contend that a person with a basic understanding of Hitler cannot help but think of him again, as Hitler was violent, anti-social, and a tyrant.
But were the German people in general violent, anti-social tyrants? Some clearly were because they voted for the Nazis and became Nazis and participated in mass genocide. Other Germans leaned towards the other kind of passion obsessed type that Russell mentioned- the anarchic rebel.
I say that because Germany, when it was the Weimar Republic became a near de-facto anarchy, which Benjamin Sax and Dieter Kuntz describe as a “severe crisis over the distribution of power…which destroyed the parliamentary system in 1930.” (1992)
Another property of the romantic ethics was the idea that one should cultivate a strong personality. As Mosse tells us about romantic-volkish education: “The strong personality was important for the school, not the strongest intelligence.” (1964)
Robert W. Lougee calls this a “romantic individualism” which “ stressed the uniqueness of individuals, a uniqueness which placed them beyond conformity to any general law or principle” and “Man became a law and measure unto himself” and further yet, “developing one’s own individual nature is a primary objective.”(1959)
I would make the argument, that here too, we see the manifestation of Hitler, who was obsessed with his personality- so obsessed that he had to be the captivating, charismatic center of attention and of control and his fellow Germans were to idolize him, and never question him. Also, I believe it is true that one could see that in a culture where passion, and a strong personality, and intuition are like moral imperatives, how would one not be vulnerable to Hitler?
After all, Hitler had a strong personality, and he was extremely passionate. For a person who views such concepts as moral imperatives, and sees a man so methodically and extremely practicing them, what vision other than Hitler’s would be able to compete for their- it hurts me to say- love and worship?
Romanticism is an extremely complex, systemic philosophy. As a philosophy that was perhaps first developed with art in mind, i.e., in the philosophical branch of aesthetics, I believe, it should make one pause for a moment, for how often does one think of theories of art as potential precursors to something like the Holocaust?
In contrast, traditionally, perhaps, at least in western, or American culture, we think of art as the realm of a safe, free self expression, or maybe we think about Leonardo da Vinci’s famous Mona Lisa. But isn’t even that possibility quite telling of art and art theory- that is- that it has, at least, a kind of political implication.
If a certain kind of art and/or a certain kind of aesthetic becomes popular, perhaps we ought to question what the implications might be. But a subjectivist aesthetic alone, although I think it is at best a bad habit, does not have to mean a subjectivist epistemology- that is to say, perhaps one might think that in the realm of art, one should be subjective, but in matters regarding “what is knowledge?” and “how do I gain knowledge” one could still be an objectivist, or at least partly. The romantic epistemology however, does away with this possibility.
In truth, the romantic epistemology is actually extremely complex if fully examined, as it not only upholds ideas such as ‘knowledge comes from intuition, not reason”, but it further holds complex ideas as to how ones ‘intuition’ can be informed.
In fact, it is so complex that I do not believe it could be fully explained in this specific discussion, however, I would emphasize, as I mentioned earlier, that the romantic epistemology holds that intuitive knowledge comes from a religiosity towards art, and, at least according to the German romanticism, from oneness with the Volk, which thus breeds racism and did breed especially, anti-semitism, and a general culture of basic irrationality, and the German romantic volkish schools truly indoctrinated these bizarre ideas and taught what would become a truly deadly, destructive system of ethics that worshipped extreme emotion, irrational passion, and “strong personality” above intelligence and intellect.
As I have said, it is no wonder, not only that an Adolf Hitler entered the German scene, but moreover, it is also no wonder that enough German people were duped by him and democratically elected him thus enabling him to do away with the democracy he used to gain power and impose his evil tyranny.
This is important to keep in mind because Manfred Frank claims in his book The Philosophical Foundations of Early German Romanticism that the historical connection made between romanticism and Hitler’s Nazi Germany is an “invented” one and a “cliche”, because the Nazis “hated the protagonists of early German Romanticism.” (2004)
That some Nazis may have hated philosophers who contributed to romanticism for any reason, or that they may have rejected some aspects of various versions of or takes on romanticism is to totally miss the point: that romanticism created, within German culture, enough people with the mentality- the obsession with irrational art, the obsession with intuition, passion, racism, irrational, whimsical as opposed to intellectual and healthy cultivation of personality (or cultivation of personality for its own sake, as opposed to truly knowing one’s self and cultivating a good self)- that could be easily become or be swayed by Hitler and the Nazis and for any one who discusses this romanticism-nazism relationship and overlooks that and/or tells others to overlook it as “cliche” and “invented” is to literally ignore facts- which is exactly what the romantic epistemology called for, thus, such a person has fallen prey to it.
1 Terese Pencak Schwartz, “The Holocaust: Non-Jewish Victims” in the Jewish Virtual Library (n.d) http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Holocaust/NonJewishVictims.html (accessed July 1st, 2016)
2 Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf (London, New York, Melbourne: 1939), Kindle edition, chap 11 (Kindle Location 4548)
3 Hitler, Mein Kampf. (Kindle Location 4806-4808)
4 Benjamin Sax, Dieter Kuntz, “The Triumph of National Socialism, 1929-1933” in Inside Hitler’s Germany (Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath and Company, 1992) , 108-109
5 Leonard Peikoff, “Nazi Politics” in The Objectivist original ed Ayn Rand (Irvine, Ca, Second Renaissance Inc., 1990) 599
6 Peikoff, “Nazi Politics”, 560
7 Peikoff, “Nazi Politics II” in The Objectivist, 625
8 Lawrence Birken, “Prussianism, Nazism and Romanticism in the Thought of Victor Klemperer.” The German Quarterly, Vol. 72 , No. 1 (Winter 1999) 33-43, http://www.jstor.org/stable/407902 accessed July 2, 2016
9 Elizabeth Millan-Zaibert, “Introduction: What is Early German Romanticism” in The Philosophical Foundations of Early German Romanticism (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2004) Adobe Digital Editions, 1
10 Elizabeth Millan-Zaibert, “Introduction” , 11
11 Elizabeth Millan-Zaibert, “Introduction”, 10
12 Peikoff, “Nazism Versus Reason” in The Objectivist, 724-725
13 Elizabeth Millan-Zaibert, “Introduction”, 12
14 Fritz Stern, “Critic as Failure” in The Politics of Cultural Despair: A Study In the Rise of The Germanic Ideology (Berkley, Los Angeles and London: 1961, 1974, 1989) 109
15 Fritz Stern, “Critic as Failure” 98
16 Fritz Stern, “Critic as Failure” 138
17 Fritz Stern, “Critic as Failure” 119
18 George Mosse, “Education Comes to the Aid.” In The Crisis of German Ideology,
(New York, NY: First Howard Fertig, Inc. 1964, 1998) 152
19 George Mosse, “Education Comes to the Aid” 154
20 George Mosse, “Education Comes to the Aid” 155
21 George Mosse, “Education Comes to the Aid” 166
22 Bertrand Russell, “The Romantic Movement.” In The History of Western Philosophy. (New York, NY: A Touchstone Book- Registered Trademark of Simon & Schuster, Inc. 1945, 1972.) 675
23 Bertrand Russell, “The Romantic Movement” 681
24 Benjamin Sax, Dieter Kuntz, Inside Hitler’s Germany 13
25 George Mosse, “Education Comes to the Aid” , 161
26 Robert W. Lougee “German Romanticism and Political Thought.” The Review of Politics 21, no. 4 (1959): http://www.jstor.org/stable/1405644. 638-639
27 Manfred Frank, “On Early German Romanticism as an Essentially Skeptical Movement: The Reinhold- Fitche Connection” in The Philosophical Foundations of Early German Romanticism (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2004) Adobe Digital Editions, 25