Nietzsche and the Nazis is a fascinating 2006 lecture on film by professor of intellectual history, Stephen Hicks, in which he asks the same question that people have been asking themselves since World War II: how is it that Germany, perhaps the most educated country in the entire world at the time, could turn to genocidal fascism resulting in the deaths of tens of millions of people in war and the slaughter of two-thirds of Europe’s Jews?
His answer is not that economic troubles, or Germany’s failure in World War I, were the primary causes because, indeed, Italy, a country that prevailed in World War I also turned to fascism and many countries suffering from major economic troubles do not do so. Nor does Hicks find the answer within the “essence” of German culture or the German people, as if there was something inherently evil about the Germans of that time. Yet another answer rejected by Hicks is that the rise of National Socialism in Germany was a result of the personal psychologies, failures, and neuroses, of the main cast of characters.
“Oh, come on,” he says to the camera. “How many failed art students turn to fascism?”
Instead, Hicks finds the answer in ideology and philosophy. A big part of the answer, he suggests, is in the writings of significant intellectuals and opinion makers heading into the 1930s
Millions of voters in a democracy don’t decide spontaneously to vote for this political party or that,” he notes. “A mass political movement requires that much cultural groundwork be done over the course of many years. And this is where intellectuals do their work. Intellectuals develop a culture’s ideals, its hopes, its aspirations in books, magazines, in sermons, and radio broadcasts. It is intellectuals who are a culture’s opinion shapers. It is intellectuals who write opinion pieces for the mass newspapers, who are the professors at the universities, the universities where the next generation of preachers and teachers and politicians and lawyers and physicians are all getting their education.
Hicks demonstrates that support for the Nazis did not come primarily from German street thugs, as is sometimes mistakenly assumed, but from the German middle class and intellectual elites of an intellectual society. Great German philosophers like Martin Heidegger, as well as Nobel prize winning scientists, jurists, celebrated writers and scholars supported the rise of National Socialism because they honestly believed that the ideals of Hitler’s political party represented the best hope for the German people going forward into the twentieth century.
The primary cause of Nazism resides in philosophy, not economics, not psychology, not even politics… National Socialism was a philosophy intensive movement.
The Nazis were idealists, Hicks argues. This is what so many people refuse to understand. The Nazis were not cartoon villains and their supporters were, for the most part, not street thugs. They were, instead, crusaders and idealogues in what they considered to be a noble cause.
The National Socialist German Worker's Party was a highly idealistic political party that attracted young people and college students intent upon a social revolution. They believed in socialism, collectivism, nationalism, and racism. And they opposed both Marxism and capitalism, and, needless to say, associated the Jews with both.
Come the 1920s, just how strong is the case for capitalism, liberalism, democracy, republicanism? What if a culture’s brightest intellectuals believe that democracy is a historical blip? What if they believe that the lesson of history is that people need structure and strong leadership? What if they think that history shows that some cultures are obviously superior to others, superior in their arts, their science, and technology, their religion? What if they believe that history shows that we live in a harsh world of conflict and that in such a world strength and assertiveness against your enemy are necessary to survive?
Hicks finds three main ideological themes, aside from racism, in the rise of German National Socialism: collectivism, socialism, and nationalism. Combining these themes, Nazism became a moral ideal and a spiritual crusade, with a huge following among the idealistic young.
The book burnings were not instigated by non-intellectuals, but by the students themselves.
But, if other great social-political movements drew their inspiration from certain key thinkers, who, asks Hicks, did the Nazis look to? When we think about the rise of Communism in the twentieth century the name that immediately comes to mind as the ideological father of the movement is Karl Marx. When we think about the rise of liberal-democracy and the American Revolution we look to John Locke as a primary spiritual forefather.
For the Nazis, Hicks argues, it is Friedrich Nietzsche who served that role.
If the Nazis were brutal it is, in part, because they embraced an ideal of brutality that was meant to advance the well-being of the volk. The Nazis weren’t cruel merely for the sake of cruelty, but out of a moral understanding of the world that places a premium on strength in a zero-sum contest between the “races.” Nietzsche maintained that there are essentially two types of people in the world, those with a slave’s morality and those with a master’s morality. Neither morality comes from a transcendent being because God is, after all, according to Nietzsche, "dead." Instead, morality depends upon our biological natures and different biological natures have different moral codes. If one is a sheep what is moral would be sticking together, but if one is a wolf what is moral is aggression. In both cases, morality is a survival mechanism. A wolf who thinks that killing and eating a sheep is immoral will not survive for long.
Hicks then raises the question of whether or not, given Nietzsche’s philosophy, the Nazis were correct to regard him as a true ideological predecessor? What he finds is that in some ways they were and in some ways they were not.
For example, Nietzsche never argued, as the Nazis did, that some “races” were superior to others. Nor did Nietzsche admire the contemporary Germans, the volk. Quite the contrary. Nor was Nietzsche an anti-Semite and he viewed Christianity and Judaism as ideological allies because they both embraced, according to his philosophy, "the slave’s morality."
In other ways, however, the Nazis were right to see Nietzsche as a spiritual father to their movement. According to Hicks, both the Nazis and Nietzsche were anti-individualistic. Nietzsche believed in a form of biological determinism (an anti-individualist notion) and saw no value in the vast majority of the lives of individual people. Nietzsche’s goal was not to improve the life of the individual, but to promote the emergence of the uber-mensch for the purpose of creating a stronger species of human.
Both Nietzsche and the Nazis saw conflict as essential and good and zero-sum conflict as fundamental to the human condition. Both were irrationalists in their view of psychology and believed in instinct over intellect. Both praised war as something that could bring out the very best in people. Both were anti-democratic, anti-liberal, and anti-capitalist.
Hicks ends his discussion with an appeal to rationality and discussion. We can fight them in theory or we can fight them on the battlefield. It is better, Hicks argues, to fight them in theory in order to prevent the rise of fascism in the future. This is where he leaves his argument and who among us would disagree with his conclusion?
Of course it is better to fight them in theory, rather than on the field of battle.
But, today, who is “them”? The Nazis, after all, are long gone and right-wing fascism is not on the rise in Europe or the west. We do see a form of genocidal fascism rising up in the Middle East, however, under the misnomer “Arab Spring.” It is the rise of radical Islam that represents the foremost geopolitical problem in the world today. Our conflict with this movement is often discussed as a battle for hearts and minds, but is it? It should be, perhaps, but do we see the west mounting actual arguments against the fascist nature of radical Islam?
I would argue that in certain conservative circles there is a discussion of the philosophical-political differences between the prevalent trends that characterize the west versus those that characterize radical Islam. This conversation, however, is only taking place on the political right, because the political left refuses to acknowledge what is before their very eyes. For the most part, the progressive-left refuses to discuss radical Islam because to do so marks one as an “Islamophobe.” In this way the progressive movement has removed itself from the discussion almost entirely.
We cannot beat them on theoretical grounds if we insist upon censoring ourselves and those around us. Further, if the left refuses to even have the discussion this leaves their political rivals on the right in charge of defining the terms of that discussion and thereby having the greater influence. It also means that, for all intents and purposes, the western left has abandoned any real fight for social justice beyond their own communities and thus has abandoned its core value of "universal human rights."
One cannot stand for universal human rights, if one will not stand up for the rights of women in the Middle East.
One cannot stand for universal human rights, if one will not stand up for the rights of gay people in the Middle East.
And one cannot stand for universal human rights, if one will not stand up for the rights of the Jewish people to live in peace and security in the Middle East.
Sad, but true.