Gadamer's Nazi connections
lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Jul 14 09:58:02 MDT 2003
Bookforum, Summer 2003
on Jean Grondin's Hans-Georg Gadamer:
HANS GEORG GADAMER: A BIOGRAPHY BY JEAN GRONDIN, TRANS. BY JOEL
WEINSHEIMER. NEW HAVEN, CT: YALE UNIV. PRESS. 480 PAGES.
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
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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