Monday, November 22, 2010

Fallen scholars

What should be our attitude towards the work of German scholars who were members of the Nazi party? Two cases have bought this to mind in the past week. In the previous post, I gave a quote from Karl Barth who favourably mentioned the work of the theologian Emmanuel Hirsch, who I discovered was a member of the Nazi party. Karl Barth was the principal author of the Barmen Declaration and was forced to resign from his position at Bonn University because he refused to swear an oath to Hitler. Hence, he was hardly sympathetic to National Socialism!
The second example of a fallen scholar from the Nasi era iis the philosopher Martin Heidigger. The Wikipedia page concerning him makes fascinating reading. He was author of one of the most influential books in philosophy in the twentieth century. When Rector [i.e. President or Vice-chancellor] of Freiburg University he made speeches in support of Hitler. Those significantly influenced by Heidigger include Rudolf Bultmann, Gadamer, and Derrrida.

I can think of three several possible attitudes towards the scholarly work of such people:
* Outright dismissal fueled by moral indignation
* Turning a blind eye and hoping that their philosophy and theology was completely unrelated to their political involvement.
* Cautious critique which acknowledges that one can never completely separate philosophy, theology, political views, and personal choices. But justice, punishment, compassion, and humility should not be separated either.

I am eager to hear other perspectives.


  1. Hi Ross, it's always a source of disappointment that some of my favourite authors of the early 20th century- Wells, Eliot, Pound and Yeats were devoted to fascism, it seems to have been the era of a belief in "enlightened despotism". At least I hope that's what it was meant to be... I'd hate to think the Third Reich was the end they were hoping for.

  2. Hi Ross, I've been following your blog for a while now and have really enjoyed it. Thanks.

    On the issue you raise here, I too struggle with the question you ask us to consider, and not only with scholars who were Nazis. Barth had a strange relationship with his PA, whom he invited to live in the family home and whose presence was a great source of upset for his wife. Others, such as Tillich, have reportedly had questionable levels of fidelity within their marriages. Where I struggle is with the relationship between the personal morality of these thinkers, including those who were Nazis, and the quality of the work they produce. In my case I'm a big Barth fan, but I struggle when I think about his home situation.

    Sometimes I have wondered if these issues should be put to one side - in the sense that the inadequacy of the thinker doesn't spoil the quality of the thought. Of course, this goes against all the rules of thinking about theology contextually. Other times I reflect that the choices such scholars make can indicate the deepest and most significant problems present in their thought - 'by their fruits you shall know them'.

    The cautious approach you advocate in your third suggestion seems a good one. Perhaps the pitfalls of others serve as examples of how we must continually examine our own thoughts and presuppositions etc. and measure these against the scriptures and the church's proclamation.

  3. Meanwhile both Martin Luther and John Calvin gave their permissions for the whole-sale slaughter of the Anabaptists (and others), who they classified as vermin.

    And essentially to the decades long Protestant vs Catholic wars that ruined much of Europe during the Reformation - CounterReformation period.

    And what about the images to be found here.

    And this too?

  4. Caution sounds sensible to me. As you imply, compartmentalizing to some extent must be possible, if it weren't then I couldn't trust anyone, least of all myself! My favourite secular authors have a lot to teach me about my worldview, which seems counterintuitive because the massive black hole right in the centre of my worldview is completely missing from theirs. Similarly Christians with blind spots (as gaping as some of those mentioned here seem to be) must each be able to teach us about many things.

    Perhaps some measure of the overlap between someone's blindspots and particular areas/fields is possible. I think we do it every day subconsciously. I trust my boss when it comes to physics, and by implication to some extent in other areas, and even less again when it comes to relationships. I trust my mum when it comes to relationships, less again when it comes to science, etc. We do this without thinking, I think because we understand this dilemma where people can be so right in some ways and so wrong in others.

    Incidentally, if Calvin is simply pointing out what the biblical text says and I just hadn't understood it properly, then there is some (limited of course!) objectivity there. When it comes to personal matters, or opinions (as I believe his stuff on baptism and communion tends toward), then it's another matter.

    Interesting question in any case Ross, thanks.

  5. Thanks for all the thoughtful comments. It was helpful to see that others also find this a troubling issue with no clear answers.