“From Modernity to Auschwitz”

Thus begins Joe Keysor’s provoking article in the March/April 2012 issue of Touchstone magazine.  (Yes, I’m behind in my Touchstone reading …)  Although this article is sadly not available on-line at the Touchstone web-site, it worth buying the entire issue just for this article.

Keysor subtitles his article, “The Secular and Anti-Christian Origins of the Holocaust.”  What follows is a  convincing case that Hitler was more influenced by Enlightenment philosophers than by orthodox Christianity.  Why probe the pre-history of Nazism?  Because some historians persist in maintaining the opposite–that Christianity prepared German soil for the flourishing of Nazi ideology.  Keysor writes:  “In his lengthy book The Holocaust in Historical Context, Steven Katz of Boston University links biblical Christianity to the crimes of the Nazis.”

To combat this narrative, Keysor tours the major thinkers of the Enlightenment (mostly German), showing how they sound eerily like Hitler.  A sampling:

Immanuel Kant – “humanity is at its greatest perfection in the race of the whites” (Physical Geography)

Arthur Schopenhauer – “it is to be regarded generally as a great misfortune that the people whose culture was to be the basis for our own were not the Indians or the Greeks, but these very Jews.” (The World as Will and Idea)

Friedrich Nietzsche – “While Nietzsche disdained religious, conventional, bourgeois anti-Semitism, The Antichrist makes his personal version of anti-Judaism very plain–and it is significant that while Nietzsche and Hitler were obviously different in many ways, their views of Christianity were identical.  In his Table Talk, accepted as genuine by historians, Hitler referred to Christianity as a Jewish invention, a rebellion of the weak against the strong that led to the collapse of the Roman Empire, invented by the apostle Paul (who falsified Christ’s teachings).  Like Nietzsche, Hitler saw Christianity as against natural law, a force for social disintegration, a religion of failures and losers, contrary to science, and a device for priests to hold power over people …”

Ernst Haeckel – “A tireless propangadist for Darwinism, he ridiculed Christianity as an outmoded superstition and presented scientific rationalism as the only sure path to truth.”  Further, he believed the “‘struggle for life’ was the iron law of existence (this in his best-selling book The Riddle of the Universe) … By a swift sleight of hand, Haeckel elevated this struggle from the level of biological species to that of nations and races.  Thus, if a stronger country seized territory from a weaker one, or a stronger race replaced a weaker one, or even exterminated it, this was nothing but a manifestation of the survival of the fittest, evolution being worked out in our own day and time.”

Arthur de Gobineau, Essay on the Inequality of Human Races (1853-1855) – “Gobineau’s book had a significant influence in Germany (he identified the Aryans as the most advanced and superior race), and the purity of German blood became a matter of national survival (a theme elaborated upon by a number of German thinkers).”

Johann Gottlieb Fichte – “Fichte believed that the Germanic peoples of Europe should be united, that arbitrary boundaries dividing the German people should be removed.  Hitler’s goal of bringing all Germans ‘home to the Reich’ was not a personal eccentricity but a common theme of nineteenth-century German nationalists.  Fichte also felt that the Volk should be purified of unhealthy alien influences.  Germany needed to preserve its unique virtues unmixed so that it could continue its mission of ‘pointing the way to the regeneration of the human race.’ This desire for cultural and ethnic purity entailed a deep hatred of Jews as aliens corrupting and contaminating the Volk from within (unlike the French, who contaminated it from without).  This concept of cultural pollution was later combined with the concept of racial pollution.”

The point is not that Kant, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Darwin, Haeckel, Fichte were all Nazis.  Rather, they laid the intellectual foundation which Hitler built upon.  More importantly, perhaps, they created a culture where Nazism could be accepted without a total overhaul.  Such could never occur in a consistently Christian culture.

As Keysor argues:  “The widening abandonment of traditional Christianity as the nineteenth century progressed left a spiritual void, a deepening moral and cultural vacuum.  Nationalism began increasingly to emerge in Germany as a substitute–and from exaltation of the nation, it is a short and simple step to exaltation of the leader of the nation in a manner totally inconceivable in a Christian context.’

Perhaps it is best to let Nietzsche have the last word:  “Pity thwarts the whole law of evolution, which is the law of natural selection” (The Antichrist, 7).  Ideas do have consequences, and the rejection of Christianity paves the road to perdition … or to another Auschwitz.


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