Gadamer's Nazi connections

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Mon Jul 14 09:58:02 MDT 2003

Bookforum, Summer 2003

Richard Wolin
on Jean Grondin's Hans-Georg Gadamer:
A Biography


The philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer was a modern Methuselah. He was born 
on February 11, 1900, and died on March 13, 2002. During his lifetime he 
witnessed two world wars, Hitler's seizure of power, the collapse of 
communism, and the reunification of Germany. In one of his final 
interviews, published in the German daily Die Welt, he even commented on 
the events of 9/11. Although Gadamer officially retired from the 
University of Heidelberg in 1968, this proved to be the beginning of a 
momentous second career. Thereafter, he was a frequent lecturer at North 
American universities, bringing the tidings of "hermeneutics"—the art of 
textual interpretation—to a new generation of students who felt 
alienated from indigenous American intellectual traditions.


In a 1945 speech, "On Germany and the Germans," Thomas Mann observed 
that "there are not two Germanys, an evil and a good, but only one, 
which, through devil's cunning, transformed its best into evil." During 
the Third Reich Mann opted for exile. He realized early on that the idea 
of achieving a modus vivendi with the National Socialist dictatorship 
was out of the question. The maxim from "On Germany and the Germans" was 
Mann's rejoinder to scholars and intellectuals who claimed the country's 
cultural traditions remained unimplicated in the catastrophe of 1933–45. 
Indeed, as historians have shown, many German humanists, convinced that 
the Western democracies were past their prime and that Germany's hour 
had struck, were extremely eager to climb on board the Nazi bandwagon.

A number of German scholars, like Gadamer, claimed to have sought refuge 
from the gathering storm in so-called inner emigration. It was a concept 
that Mann flatly refused to accept. How could one find inner peace in 
the midst of unprecedented tyranny? Mann's son Klaus brilliantly 
dramatized this dilemma in his 1936 novel Mephisto, a roman à clef about 
an actor who engages in a series of piecemeal compromises with the 
regime until finally he realizes that he has in fact sold his soul.

The most problematic aspect of Grondin's biography concerns its status 
as an apologia writ large for Gadamer's conduct during the Third Reich. 
In order to silence potential critics, Grondin employs a two-pronged 
defense: (a) Gadamer unequivocally resisted the lures of Nazism; (b) 
even in those cases where Gadamer willingly went along with the regime, 
he was circumstantially justified in doing so. That claims a and b 
happen to be mutually exclusive seems never to have crossed Grondin's mind.

To account for Gadamer's questionable acts of political accommodation, 
Grondin employs the hermeneutic approach: He tries to intuit himself 
into the frame of mind of those Germans who wholeheartedly supported the 
regime. In doing so, he repeatedly paints the Nazis as a perfectly 
reasonable and legitimate alternative: Germany had tried democracy, but 
it was a political experiment that failed miserably. Moreover, Hitler 
came to power in a quasi-legal manner and thus enjoyed an aura of 
legitimacy. In Germany's last free election, the Nazis were the biggest 
vote getters. In view of the draconian character of the Treaty of 
Versailles, many of Hitler's revanchiste geopolitical claims seemed 
perfectly justified to everyday Germans. Grondin makes Nazism out to be 
such an attractive political option that, in the end, one wonders why 
any reasonable German would have resisted its lures.

Ironically, though, what Grondin's "sympathetic" method demonstrates is 
the moral bankruptcy of the hermeneutic approach. To wit: If one 
"intuited oneself into the frame of mind" of Hitler's victims rather 
than his followers, one would, of course, arrive at a very different set 
of conclusions. Moreover, many of the claims Grondin makes on behalf of 
the Nazis' early successes are at best half truths. The Nazis were 
Germany's leading vote getter. But in the November 1932 elections they 
garnered a plurality of 33.1 percent, which meant that two-thirds of the 
German electorate rejected their program. The Versailles Treaty of 1919 
may have been draconian. But to conclude that the Nazi dictatorship was 
the only politically available mechanism to redress its injustices is 
false and misleading. Here, too, the ethical indigence of the 
"conventionalist" approach, which Grondin takes over from Gadamer 
himself, stands fully exposed.

Unlike Heidegger, who was banned from university life for five years 
after the war for his connections with the regime, Gadamer never joined 
the Nazi party. By the same token, he was hardly a convinced democrat. 
Like numerous German conservatives, Gadamer undoubtedly disagreed with 
many of the particulars of National Socialist rule. Judged by mandarin 
caste standards, Nazi methods—concentration camps, anti-Jewish boycotts, 
"strength through joy" histrionics—were crude. But such details never 
seemed to interfere with Gadamer's acceptance of the regime as a whole.

Thus, in 1933 Gadamer, along with other Marburg professors, signed a 
public declaration of allegiance to the National Socialist state. The 
avowal was translated into a variety of languages and circulated abroad. 
Its aim was to demonstrate emphatically in the court of international 
public opinion that the Nazi dictatorship had broad support among the 
German populace, especially among the ranks of the Bildungsbürgertum, or 
educated elite.

In 1934 Gadamer wrote a scholarly article justifying Plato's banishment 
of the poets in the Republic. Even the well-disposed Grondin finds 
Gadamer's views indefensible, acknowledging that they approximate the 
Nazis' "infamous campaign against 'degenerate art.'" In retrospect, the 
study may be read as an allegory of the Weimar Republic's rise and fall. 
Its none-too-subtle subtext is that excessive cultural freedom breeds 
anarchy. Only recourse to a strong state, as Plato recommends in his 
authoritarian treatise, will put an end to social and political chaos. 
Gadamer praises the Platonic ideal of "educational dictatorship" as 
follows: "In Plato justice of the state is not founded negatively on the 
weakness of individuals whose prudence leads them into a contract [here, 
a shibboleth for "liberalism"]. Instead the human being is political in 
a positive sense because he is capable of rising above his insistence on 
himself." The latter claim reveals Gadamer's longing for a "tutelary 
state"—one that, like the educational dictatorship of the Republic, 
supervises, forms, and shapes the individual at every step. The moral of 
the story: When it comes to politics, one should be careful about what 
one wishes for.

The following year, as Gadamer encountered difficulties in securing a 
permanent teaching position, he voluntarily enrolled in a Nazi 
political-reeducation camp. With any lingering doubts about his 
political reliability eliminated, he succeeded in receiving professorial 
appointments at Marburg (1937) and Leipzig (1938).



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