British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper called Adolf Hitler as “the most philosophical conqueror of the world.” After World War II, it’s tempting to think that the man who caused the devastation must be an illiterate lunatic. But Hitler was fond of art, architecture, history and philosophy. His ideology came from the writings of two great philosophers, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, who believed in the fundamental inequality between men. Life is a struggle that can be overcome by indomitable will.
What influenced Hitler’s outlook towards life?
Before the Second World War, there was the First. Adolf Hitler was a good German soldier in that war.
- He would be promoted to the rank of corporal, be wounded two times, and be awarded six medals. And with him during the war, he had the writings of philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer.
- The image of Hitler reading Schopenhauer, a great philosopher by any standard, is startling, as one popular depiction of Hitler is of a semi-literate, semi-sane outlier who somehow lucked and manipulated his way to power in Germany. Certainly, after the devastation of World War II and the horrors of the Holocaust, it’s tempting to think that those who caused them must be close to crazy.
- But Hitler could easily count as among the most well-read person of his age. Hitler claimed that reading Fichte, Nietzsche, Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Darwin, and Heidegger “provided the building materials and plans for the future . . . and a philosophy which became the granite foundation of all my later acts.” Lance Corporal Hitler kept a copy of Schopenhauer’s ‘ The World as Will and Representation’ in his knapsack when he served in World War I. He said that he read it so many times on the front that he wore it out.
- He was later able to quote the philosopher’s works from memory. As German Führer during the Second World War, Hitler would whenever illustrating the quality of genius, repeatedly refer to the example of Schopenhauer. Hitler was notorious, both as Party leader and as German Führer in peace and war, for demanding “the impossible” from his followers.
But he often achieved the impossible because he was convinced of two things: 1) Life is an endless struggle but 2) with great willpower great things are possible.
Why are Schopenhauer’s views appealing?
Schopenhauer did not write much on politics.
- Nonetheless, he was very obviously a man of the Right, if for no other reason than he was intimately convinced of the fundamental inequality between men. In his writings, Schopenhauer repeatedly stresses, often very amusingly, the intellectual and cultural mediocrity of the average human being. One example: “judgment, a quality of which most people possess about as much as a castrate possesses of the power to beget children”.
- From his meditations, Schopenhauer came to believe that the world was in a sense made of “will,” the will-to-life or life-force, that is, the striving of every being to exist. The world can only exist, that is, be perceived, if there is a being to perceive it, and that being can only emerge and exist through a relentless will-to-life. While this may seem rather obscure, the practical insight Schopenhauer drew from this astoundingly prefigured Darwin’s later theory of evolution.
- Often considered a gloomy and thoroughgoing pessimist, Schopenhauer was actually concerned with advocating ways to overcome a frustration-filled and fundamentally painful human condition. He believed that the “will-to-life” (the force driving the man to survive and to reproduce) was the driving force of the world and that the pursuit of happiness, love and intellectual satisfaction was essentially futile and anyway secondary to the innate imperative of procreation.
- His most important work is usually considered to be “Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung” (“The World as Will and Representation”) of 1819, in which he expounded his doctrine of Pessimism (the evaluation and perception of life in a generally negative light). In dramatic and powerful prose, he described the world as a truly terrible place, full of injustice, disease, repression, suffering, and cruelty. Contrary to philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz’s view that this is the best of all possible worlds, Schopenhauer sought to prove that this is, in fact, the worst of all possible worlds.
- What you call love is merely a disguise to have sex and produce children, as per Schopenhauer. He held that this wild and powerful drive to survive and reproduce is essentially what causes suffering and pain in the world and that the only way to escape the suffering inherent in a world of Will was through art. This would have surely appealed to Hitler, who was an artist before he became a soldier.
- Schopenhauer had a distinctly hierarchical conception of the races, attributing civilizational primacy to the northern white races due to what he saw as their sensitivity and creativity. Having said that, he was also adamantly against the differing treatment of races and was fervently anti-slavery. He also held anti-Semitic views (arguing that Christianity constituted a revolt against the materialistic basis of Judaism), a chauvinistic attitude to women (claiming that “woman is by nature meant to obey”), and a partiality for the possibilities of eugenics, that is selective breeding of humans to improve the future generations.
From here, Hitler could easily take over: Consciousness can only be achieved by higher beings (chimps cannot philosophize, nor can the stupid majority of mankind), therefore one must create higher humanity by breeding and cultivating her best elements. As a statesman, Hitler was inspired not merely to contemplate Schopenhauer’s philosophy, but to actually spread and apply many of his doctrines throughout the world.
When did Hitler stray into politics?
Hitler the dreamy artist
- After dropping out of high school in 1905 at age sixteen, Adolf Hitler spent the next few years in gloomy idleness. His caring mother patiently urged him to learn a trade or get a job. But to young Hitler, the idea of daily work with its necessary submission to authority was revolting.
- With his father now dead, there was no one who could tell young Hitler what to do, so he did exactly as he pleased. He spent his time wandering around the city of Linz, Austria, visiting museums, attending the opera, and sitting by the Danube River dreaming of becoming a great artist. Hitler liked to sleep late then go out in the afternoon, often dressed like a young gentleman of leisure and even carried a fancy little ivory cane. When he returned home, he would stay up well past midnight reading and drawing. He would later describe these teenage years free from responsibility as the happiest time of his life.
- But the making of the future Fuhrer of Germany was evident. His only friend at the time was with another young dreamer named August Kubizek, who wanted to be a great musician. They met at the opera in Linz. Kubizek found Hitler fascinating and a friendship quickly developed. Kubizek turned out to be a patient listener. He was a good audience for Hitler, who often rambled for hours about his hopes and dreams. Sometimes Hitler even gave speeches complete with wild hand gestures to his audience of one. Kubizek later described Hitler’s personality as “violent and high strung.” Hitler would only tolerate approval from his friend and could not stand to be corrected, a personality trait he had shown in high school and as a younger boy as well.
- Young Hitler did not have a girlfriend. But he did have an obsessive interest in a young blond named Stephanie. Hitler even wrote her many letters, but never gathered enough courage to hand her one. He told his friend Kubizek he was able to communicate with her by intuition and that she was even aware of his thoughts and had great admiration for him. Stephanie, of course, had no idea that the man who later became the most powerful man of the world once used to follow her secretly.
- Hitler’s view of the world began to significantly take shape at this time. He borrowed large numbers of books from the library on German history and Nordic mythology. He was also deeply inspired by the opera works of Richard Wagner and their mythical tales of struggle against hated enemies. His friend Kubizek recalled that after seeing Wagner’s opera “Rienzi,” Hitler behaved as if possessed. Hitler led his friend atop a steep hill where he spoke in a strange voice of a great mission in which he would lead the people to freedom, similar to the plot in the opera he had just seen.
Only art could save Hitler from politics
- By now Hitler also had strong pride in the German race and all things German along with a strong dislike of the Hapsburg Monarchy and the non-Germanic races in the multicultural Austro-Hungarian Empire which had ruled Austria and surrounding countries for centuries.
- In the spring of 1906, at age seventeen, Hitler took his first trip to Vienna, the capital city of the empire and one of the world’s most important centers of art, music and old-world European culture. With money in his pocket provided by his mother, he went there intending to see operas and study the famous picture gallery in the Court Museum. Instead, he found himself enthralled by the city’s magnificent architecture.
- Hitler had developed a great interest in architecture. He could draw detailed pictures from memory of a building he had seen only once, such as the one shown here.He also liked to ponder how to improve existing buildings, making them grander, and streamlined city layouts. In Vienna, he stood for hours gazing at grand buildings such as the opera house and the Parliament building, and looking at Ring Boulevard.
- Hitler was sure he wanted to be an artist. He decided to attend the prestigious Vienna Academy of Fine Arts. In October 1907, at age eighteen, he withdrew his inheritance money from the bank and went to live and study in Vienna. Hitler’s mother was by now suffering from breast cancer and had been unsuccessfully operated on in January. But Hitler’s driving ambition to be a great artist overcame his reluctance to leave her.
- As a young boy he had shown natural talent for drawing. His gift for drawing had also been recognized by his high school instructors. But things had gone poorly for him in high school. He was a lazy and uncooperative student, who essentially flunked out. To escape the reality of that failure and avoid the dreaded reality of a workaday existence, Hitler put all his hope in the dream of achieving greatness as an artist.
- He took the two day entrance exam for the academy’s school of painting. Confident and self-assured, he awaited the result, quite sure he would get in. But failure struck him like a bolt of lightning. His test drawings were judged unsatisfactory and he was not admitted. Hitler was badly shaken by this rejection. He went back to the academy to get an explanation and was told his drawings showed a lack of talent for artistic painting, notably a lack of appreciation of the human form.
Now, feeling quite depressed, Hitler left Vienna and returned home where his beloved mother was now dying from cancer, making matters even worse. Hitler would never be the same again. Nor would he let the world be the same again.
- Adolf Hitler triumphantly returned to Vienna in 1938 following his Anschluss, the German annexation of Austria. His parade progressed along the boulevard, passing the dissolved parliament and the town hall before stopping at the Hofburg Palace, where the emperor once lived.
- From the terrace of the Neue Berg wing, he welcomed to the Reich the 200,000 jubilant Viennese gathered before him in the Heldenplatz. Hitler spent just 24 hours in Vienna before returning to Berlin. Vienna had become a provincial capital. Vienna had no need for Hitler the artist. Now Hitler the great conqueror didn’t need the art school. The entire city was his canvas. And, no, he did not destroy the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts. He was too proud to do that.
So, how could a failed artist rise to be the leader of his country and take the entire world to war? What Hitler achieved was unthinkable, but he was attempting exactly that. Hitler was, after all, a superman in his mind.
Where did Hitler find his Superman?
If there was one philosopher the fascists of the mid-20th century loved, it was Friedrich Nietzsche.
- He was so adored by them that Hitler gifted Mussolini the complete works of Nietzsche for his birthday. The Nietzschean ideals of anti-egalitarianism, the Superman, and the will to power inspired them to act, and millions died because of it. They adored his ideas, and anointed him as the prophet of their ideology.
- Nietzsche was a German philosopher who was known for his critical writings on religion, morality, contemporary culture, philosophy, and science. Nietzsche (1844-1900) was in a way anti-everything. He was anti-democracy, anti-Christianity, anti-Judaism, anti-socialist and self-acclaimed Anti-Christ, and he expressed his belief in a master race and the coming of a superman in many of his works.
- Nietzsche thought of his own views as “untimely” and called himself “the last anti-political German”.In his hero-worshipping autobiography Ecce Homo, he claimed he was “born posthumously”. When Nietzsche glorifies war, domination, and cruelty, they are made to seem like a “spiritual” struggle, and the merciless suppression of everything that is weak or “resentful” within ourselves.
- The first public appearance of Nietzsche’s Übermensch (Superman) was in his book Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883). For Nietzsche, the idea of Übermensch was more like a vision than a theory. It suddenly surfaced in his consciousness during the memorable summer of 1881 in Sils-Maria (Swiss Alps), born out of that mystic experience that also gave rise to Eternal Return, Zarathustra and God is Dead. It was a timeless moment of ecstasy at the boundary between the conscious and the unconscious, of past and present, of pain and elation. Nietzsche entered his own inferno in “the middle of life, so surrounded by death”.
- He never explained what he meant by Übermensch, only intimated: “The Übermensch shall be the meaning of the earth! I entreat you my brethren, remain true to the earth, and do not believe those who speak to you of supra-terrestrial hopes! …Behold, I teach you the Übermensch: he is this lightning, he is this madness! …Behold, I am a prophet of the lightning and a heavy drop from the cloud: but this lightning is called Übermensch.”
- Now, this appealed to Hitler, who may or may not have read Nietzsche’s complete works. The Übermensch became a symbol of the Aryan master-race. Under Hitler, German universities started teaching Nietzsche as part of courses on the new order, with references to soldiers being the Ubermensch, and the will to power was adopted by the Nazis as a key psychological insight.
Nietzsche wasn’t alive to see his works being used and misused by the Nazis
- Toward the end of his life, Nietzsche suffered a mental breakdown and gradually lost his faculties. When his sister Elizabeth returned to Germany from a failed mission to create a Utopian Aryan colony in the jungle, she took care of her brother and his estate. When Nietzsche died, Elizabeth also had full access and control to all of Nietzsche’s literary and philosophical writings.Elizabeth actively edited her brother’s writings after he suffered from a mental breakdown in 1889. She started adding, removing, and changing passages to align Nietzsche’s philosophy with her own ideologies and anti-semitic beliefs.
- Elizabeth meddled with her brother’s work, particularly after his death. Scholars call Elizabeth’s “editing” of his writings “criminal.” For instance, Niemeyer, a psychologist and Nietzsche expert from Dresden University, learned that of the 505 letters that Elizabeth published in 1909, only 60 of them were original versions. Thirty-two others were completely fabricated and ascribed to Nietzsche.
Nietzsche’s end was very sub-human.
Who did Hitler follow the most?
Hitler was his own follower. He only picked and chose from Schopenhauer and Nietzsche.
- Hitler differed from Schopenhauer in his view of salvation. For Hitler salvation was through the creation of civilization made possible by victory in war. Willpower was the means to that victory. Schopenhauer saw will as the cause of suffering. Salvation to the extent it was possible in life came through the contemplation of art and the practice of asceticism. True release came only through death to Schopenhauer.
- Hitler claimed to have read some Nietzsche while he was in Landsberg Prison. Also, Hitler once gave a deluxe edition of the collected works of Nietzsche to Mussolini. Nietzsche is much harder to read than Schopenhauer. It’s safe to conclude Hitler not read Nietzsche in any systematic way. Nietzsche’s works are written in aphorisms and it is easy to dip into them from time to time without gaining an in-depth understanding of the author’s developing position. Hitler was much closer to Nietzsche’s thought with its Ubermensch than he was to Schopenhauer’s.
- When Hitler lived in Linz as a teenager he held three library cards at one time. So we know he was a reader. It is, however, possible that as an adult he would skim through books looking for information that would confirm his preconceived ideas. Hitler was not a profound student of philosophy.
The will must be free, but only his
- In his first speech as Chancellor, Hitler emphasized the core value of National Socialism: the individual is nothing outside the State. At the core of libertarianism is the idea that the individual is logically prior to the state, and that if states are to exist, they have certain responsibilities toward their citizens.
- The opposite view is that individuals are important only by virtue of their participation in a state, that the people have obligations to serve the state, rather than the other way around. We can see this anti-libertarian view expressed clearly and in an extreme form in the first speech Adolph Hitler made to the Reichstag after becoming Chancellor, titled “Proclamation to the German Nation.”
Hitler rested his case for the National Socialist regime on the fundamental conviction that the State is the most precious thing on earth, the individual nothing. A mere seventeen days after the speech, the Reichstag burned and Hitler seized his opportunity to suppress and purge the German Communist Party.
How could people die for Hitler?
Fritz Darges, who died aged 96 in 2007, was the last surviving member of Adolf Hitler’s inner circle. An Obersturmbannführer(lieutenant colonel) in the Waffen SS during the Second World War, he was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross, the second-highest military award of the Third Reich, given in recognition of battlefield bravery or successful military leadership.
- Darges’ admiration for Hitler knew no bounds and even after the war when the full horrors of Nazi Germany mass murder had been exposed, he regarded Hitler as “the greatest who ever lived” and a “warm-hearted” man.
- But the Führer’s charm had its limits, as Darges discovered in a bizarre incident involving Hitler and a fly which caused Darges’ military career to take a sudden turn for the worse. Darges was present with Hitler and other senior Nazis at a strategy conference in Rastenburg in East Prussia on July 18th, 1944 – two days before the Claus von Stauffenberg bomb plot almost killed the Führer. During the conference, a fly began buzzing around the room, landing several times on Hitler’s shoulder and on the surface of a map.
- Irritated, Hitler ordered Darges to “dispatch the nuisance”. Darges responded by suggesting, apparently whimsically, that as the fly was an “airborne pest” the job should go to the adjutant of the Luftwaffe (the German wartime air force), Nicolaus von Below. Enraged, Hitler dismissed Darges on the spot. “You’re for the eastern front!” he yelled.
- Darges survived his stint at the eastern front and, unlike most of Hitler’s other inner circle, lived to a ripe old age. He became a car salesman after the war and regretted nothing. “We all dreamed of a greater German empire,” he said recently. “That is why I served him and would do it all again now.”
- As the German army collapsed, Hitler stayed in Berlin continuously from November 1944, eventually retreating into the bunker with his entourage. In the middle of April 1945, Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi’s propaganda chief, his wife Magda and their six children moved in. They all committed suicide because Hitler too had decided to do so. Hitler killed himself before the revenge-seeking Russians could lay their hands on him.
That is how his struggle ended.
- How the Nazis Hijacked Nietzsche, and How It Can Happen to Anybody
- Nietzsche’s Übermensch: A Hero of Our Time? | Issue 93 | Philosophy Now
- Friedrich Nietzsche Influence on Adolf Hitler
- Arthur Schopenhauer’s philosophy of Will
- Guillaume Durocher, “Schopenhauer and Hitler,” Part 1 | Counter-Currents Publishing
- Hitler as Artist