Front Page Titles (by Subject) 5.: Nazism and German Philosophy - Omnipotent Government: The Rise of the Total State and Total War
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
5.: Nazism and German Philosophy - Ludwig von Mises, Omnipotent Government: The Rise of the Total State and Total War 
Omnipotent Government: The Rise of the Total State and Total War, edited with a Foreword by Bettina Bien Greaves (Indianapolis: Indiana, 2011).
About Liberty Fund:
The copyright to this edition, in both print and electronic forms, is held by Liberty Fund, Inc.
Fair use statement:
Nazism and German Philosophy
It has been asserted again and again that Nazism is the logical outcome of German idealistic philosophy. This too is an error. German philosophical ideas played an important role in the evolution of Nazism. But the character and extent of these influences have been grossly misrepresented.
Kant’s moral teachings, and his concept of the categorical imperative, have nothing at all to do with Prussianism or with Nazism. The categorical imperative is not the philosophical equivalent of the regulations of the Prussian military code. It was not one of the merits of old Prussia that in a far-distant little town a man like Kant occupied a chair of philosophy. Frederick the Great did not care a whit for his great subject. He did not invite him to his philosophical breakfast table whose shining stars were the Frenchmen Voltaire and Alembert. The concern of his successor, Frederick William II, was to threaten Kant with dismissal if he were once more insolent enough to write about religious matters. Kant submitted. It is nonsensical to consider Kant a precursor of Nazism. Kant advocated eternal peace between nations. The Nazis praise war “as the eternal shape of higher human existence”* and their ideal is “to live always in a state of war.”†
The popularity of the opinion that German nationalism is the outcome of the ideas of German philosophy is mainly due to the authority of George Santayana. However, Santayana admits that what he calls “German philosophy” is “not identical with philosophy in Germany,” and that “the majority of intelligent Germans held views which German philosophy proper must entirely despise.”‡ On the other hand, Santayana declares that the first principle of German philosophy is “borrowed, indeed, from non-Germans.”§ Now, if this nefarious philosophy is neither of German origin nor the opinion held by the majority of intelligent Germans, Santayana’s statements shrink to the establishment of the fact that some German philosophers adhered to teachings first developed by non-Germans‖ and rejected by the majority of intelligent Germans, in which Santayana believes he has discovered the intellectual roots of Nazism. But he does not explain why these ideas, although foreign to Germany and contrary to the convictions of its majority, have begotten Nazism just in Germany and not in other countries.
Then, again, speaking of Fichte and Hegel he says: “Theirs is a revealed philosophy. It is the heir of Judaism. It could never have been founded by free observation of life and nature, like the philosophy of Greece or of the Renaissance. It is Protestant theology rationalized.”¶ Exactly the same could be said with no less justification of the philosophy of many British and American philosophers.
According to Santayana the main source of German nationalism is egotism. Egotism should “not be confused with the natural egoism or self-assertion proper to every living creature.” Egotism “assumes, if it does not assert, that the source of one’s being and power lies in oneself, that will and logic are by right omnipotent, and that nothing should control the mind or the conscience except the mind or the conscience itself.** But egotism, if we are prepared to use the term as defined above by Santayana, is the starting point of the utilitarian philosophy of Adam Smith, Ricardo, Bentham, and the two Mills, father and son. Yet, these British scholars did not derive from their first principle conclusions of a Nazi character. Theirs is a philosophy of liberalism, democratic government, social coöperation, good will and peace among nations.
Neither egoism nor egotism is the essential feature of German nationalism, but rather its ideas concerning the means through which the supreme good is to be attained. German nationalists are convinced that there is an insoluble conflict between the interests of the individual nations and those of a world-embracing community of all nations. This also is not an idea of German origin. It is a very old opinion. It prevailed up to the age of enlightenment, when the above-mentioned British philosophers developed the fundamentally new concept of the harmony of the—rightly understood—interests of all individuals and of all nations, peoples, and races. As late as 1764 no less a man than Voltaire could blithely say, in the article “Fatherland” of his Dictionary of Philosophy: “To be a good patriot means to wish that one’s own community shall acquire riches through trade and power through its arms. It is obvious that a country cannot profit but by the disadvantage of another country, and cannot be victorious but by making other peoples miserable.” This identification of the effects of peaceful human coöperation and the mutual exchange of commodities and services with the effects of war and destruction is the main vice of the Nazi doctrines. Nazism is neither simple egoism nor simple egotism; it is misguided egoism and egotism. It is a relapse into errors long ago refuted, a return to Mercantilism and a revival of ideas described as militarism by Herbert Spencer. It is, in short, the abandonment of the liberal philosophy, today generally despised as the philosophy of Manchester and laissez faire. And its ideas are, in this respect, unfortunately not limited to Germany.
The contribution of German philosophy to the ascendancy of Nazi ideas had a character very different from that generally ascribed to it. German philosophy always rejected the teachings of utilitarian ethics and the sociology of human coöperation. German political science never grasped the meaning of social coöperation and division of labor. With the exception of Feuerbach all German philosophers scorned utilitarianism as a mean system of ethics. For them the basis of ethics was intuition. A mystical voice in his soul makes man know what is right and what is wrong. The moral law is a restraint imposed upon man for the sake of other people’s or society’s interests. They did not realize that each individual serves his own—rightly understood, i.e., long-run—interests better by complying with the moral code and by displaying attitudes which further society than by indulging in activities detrimental to society. Thus they never understood the theory of the harmony of interests and the merely temporary character of the sacrifice which man makes in renouncing some immediate gain lest he endanger the existence of society. In their eyes there is an insoluble conflict between the individual’s aims and those of society. They did not see that the individual must practice morality for his own, not for somebody else’s or for the state’s or society’s, welfare. The ethics of the German philosophers are heteronomous. Some mystical entity orders man to behave morally, that is to renounce his selfishness for the advantage of a higher, nobler, and more powerful being, society.
Whoever does not understand that the moral laws serve the interests of all and that there is no insoluble conflict between private and social interests is also incapable of understanding that there is no insoluble conflict between the different collective entities. The logical outcome of his philosophy is the belief in an irremediable antagonism between the interest of every nation and the whole of human society. Man must choose between allegiance to his nation and allegiance to humanity. Whatever best serves the great international society is detrimental to every nation, and vice versa. But, adds the nationalist philosopher, only the nations are true collective entities, while the concept of a great human society is illusory. The concept of humanity was a devilish brew concocted by the Jewish founders of Christianity and of Western and Jewish utilitarian philosophy in order to debilitate the Aryan master race. The first principle of morality is to serve one’s own nation. Right is whatever best serves the German nation. This implies that right is whatever is detrimental to the races that stubbornly resist Germany’s aspirations for world domination.
This is very fragile reasoning. It is not difficult to expose its fallacies. The Nazi philosophers are fully aware that they are unable logically to refute the teachings of liberal philosophy, economics, and sociology. And thus they resort to polylogism.
[* ]Spengler, Preussentum und Sozialismus (Munich, 1925), p. 54.
[† ]Th. Fritsch in “Hammer” (1914), p. 541, as quoted by Hertz, Nationalgeist und Politik (Zurich, 1937), I, p. 467.
[‡ ]Santayana, Egotism in German Philosophy (new ed. London, 1939), p. 1.
[§ ]Santayana, op. cit., p. 9.
[‖ ]Speaking of Fichte, Mr. Santayana (op. cit., p. 21) says that his philosophy “was founded on one of Locke’s errors.”
[¶ ]Santayana, op. cit., p. 11.
[** ]Santayana, op. cit., p. 151.