The Betrayal of the Humanities: The University During the Third Reich

Bruno Chaouat, Director, Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies
Bernard M. Levinson, Berman Family Chair of Jewish Studies and Hebrew Bible


Society commonly imagines the university as safeguarding the values of Western civilization. It stands as a beacon for such fundamental values as critical thought, free inquiry, and ethical research. Yet the university, like other institutions, represents a site of historical and cultural transformation. As the situation in Germany under National Socialism (1933–1945) makes clear, the universities and the academic disciplines of the humanities became in many cases all too eager accomplices in perpetrating Nazi ideology. In the process, the normal administrative structure of the university, including appointment procedures and academic standards, became corrupted, as prestigious disciplines like law, medicine, classics, philosophy, and theology propagated Nazi racial science and ideology. Such changes were not restricted to Germany alone. Even prestigious American universities like Harvard provided tacit support for fascist policies at crucial moments, rather than taking a stand against them. 

In order to investigate this moment when the humanities betrayed their historical legacy, a two-day international symposium will take place at the University of Minnesota on April 15–16, 2012. Entitled, The Betrayal of the Humanities: The University during the Third Reich, the symposium will examine the mutations of academic disciplines during the Third Reich and the process by which they lost their moral and intellectual standing. Fourteen leading scholars from the United States and Europe will share their expertise about this topic. With major support from the Imagine Fund Special Events program, this exciting program is open to the entire university community and the broader public.

Our goal is to examine the lasting impact of the betrayal of knowledge upon the major disciplines of the historical humanities. The  organizers wish to investigate the social, intellectual, and institutional history of key disciplines of the historical humanities like classics, anthropology, theology, and Assyriology. In addition, the symposium will demonstrate the historical nature and cultural embedding of seemingly non-historical disciplines, such as music, law, and philosophy. By bringing together specialists from this diverse range of academic specializations to demonstrate the widespread changes that took place across the historical humanities, the symposium positions itself to make a lasting contribution to scholarship.

Several aspects of the symposium make it distinctive. First, the symposium does not treat Nazi Germany in isolation, as some kind of cultural aberration, but also examines the way in which the responses of universities in North America enabled and facilitated the bankruptcy of the German university. We will examine the complicity of the American intellectual elite in the process of the erosion of German intellectual integrity. Second, the symposium will explore the implications of this erosion for the present in a special Sunday evening community event. Professor Alvin Rosenfeld, Director of the Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism, at Indiana University, will present on: “Is There an Anti-Jewish Bias in Today’s University?” In both respects, therefore, we hope to prevent the too easy compartmentalization of what took place under National Socialism as remaining safely in the past, or being relegated to a neat “them” versus “us” position of false moral superiority.

International Focus

We are committed to investigating the phenomenon of the betrayal of knowledge from an international perspective. Too often, the aberration that took place under National Socialism is treated in isolation as a German phenomenon alone.[1] This approach is too comfortable and too self-reassuring: as if it were only the cultural “other,” safely displaced to Germany, which is capable of such betrayals. Historically, the facts point in the opposite direction. American universities were highly influential in shaping domestic public opinion and many of the nation’s most prominent university administrators refused to take a principled stand against the Hitler regime. American Universities welcomed Nazi officials to campus and participated enthusiastically in student exchange programs with Nazified universities in Germany. American educators helped Nazi Germany improve its image in the West as it intensified its persecution of the Jews and strengthened its armed forces.[2] Two of our conference speakers, Stephen H. Norwood and Alan Steinweis, have done groundbreaking work in investigating this phenomenon and will share their work with the participants. To the best of our knowledge, no previous conference or publication has brought together both dimensions of the historical record of how the humanities betrayed their legacy. 


The Third Reich’s relation to the University will serve as a case study to understand the role of the transmission of knowledge in Western civilization and the importance of free inquiry to sustain democratic polities. While German fascism generated its own distinctive ideology that used to repress knowledge, other ideologies have since repressed academic freedom. Both communism and anti-communism have led to widespread repression of academic freedom. Although a Nazi-like ideology may never resurface in the West, it remains critical to understanding what kind of ideologies could today or tomorrow stifle human striving for intellectual and artistic accomplishments. As early as 1934, the Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas provided a lucid assessment of what he called the “philosophie de l’hitlérisme.”[3] For Levinas, who had recently immigrated to France from Lithuania and had enthusiastically studied ontology and phenomenology with Husserl and Heidegger in the 1920s, Nazism marked a brutal disruption of the Western spiritual and philosophical tradition. He argued that for the first time in the history of Western culture, humanity no longer strives toward something higher than his material or biological conditions of existence.

This striving characterized the Judeo-Christian tradition as well as a modern liberalism emerging from the Enlightenment project. Against this tradition, with Hitlerism, humanity is riveted to his body and denied any possibility of escaping. A Jew is a Jew and an Aryan an Aryan—such is the disastrous tautology that delineates the vicious cycle of totalitarianism. In Hitler’s neo-Wagnerian worldview, the gods dwell among humans. Being no longer needs to be transcended, nor does it long for something higher than itself. In a world where Aryans are the gods, non-Aryans are non-human. Such was, in a nutshell, Levinas’ dazzling analysis of Nazi ideology.

How did the Nazi regime succeed in imposing such a spectacular perversion or inversion of Western metaphysics? How was Nazism able to turn Western humanism upside down, reject humanity’s quest for transcendence and emancipation from its material determinations? And how did Nazism force a worldview radically opposed to the humanistic tradition on intellectuals and scholars whose mission was supposedly to exert critical judgment and resist intellectual anesthesia? Immanuel Kant famously defined Enlightenment as “humanity’s emergence from its self-imposed immaturity.” Yet a regime that claims total control over the souls of a population had to reject the tradition of emancipation fostered by centuries of Aufklärung (Enlightenment).

The Nazi “bio-political” project required a radical rethinking of the Bildung of students and scholars. Once the Gesetz zur Wiederherstellung des Berufsbeamtentums [Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service] passed, Jewish scholars and scientists were dismissed from the University, even when they had served their disciplines, as well as their nation, with distinction. Edmund Husserl, the influential founder of phenomenology, was dismissed from his position at the University of Freiburg by the Badische Ministry of Culture in 1933—despite having spent his entire adult life and professional career as a Christian, after having been baptized as a Lutheran. Martin Heidegger, Husserl’s former student and Assistent, then looked the other way as he assumed the position of Rektor [President] of the prestigious university on April 21–22 and joined the Nazi party. The equivalent double betrayal took place in the case of Benno Landsberger, one of the most important scholars of Assyriology. Born in Austria, he fought with distinction on the Eastern front during World War I, where he received the golden Distinguished Service Cross. Subsequently, he was dismissed from his position as Ordinarius at Leipzig, as his Assistent, the Assyriologist Wolfram von Soden, joined the Sturmabteilung and later spoke out against his Doktorvater while serving in the German military. Ironically, following the war, von Soden—who failed to pass the review process of Entnazifierung—was only able to assume an academic chair in Vienna because Landsberger wrote on his behalf.

While such stories can bring to life the betrayal of the teacher-student relationship and the mass forced exodus of “Jewish” scholars from German universities (which left a lasting impact upon German research in all areas), the focus of our symposium is on the nature of knowledge itself. All humanities disciplines were undermined by a political project whose purpose was to restore a fantasized national identity through an ideological conception of aesthetics and culture. While Goebbels claimed, in his early novel Michael, that “politics is the artwork of the State,”[4] one should add that the Nazi regime implemented a politics of the arts. The critical potential of the arts, their ability to bear witness to the transient, human finitude and vulnerability, was banned. Artworks and artists deemed “degenerate” were expelled and replaced by an “art of eternity,” to use art historian Eric Michaud’s phrase.[5] This “art of eternity” consisted of an aesthetic regression (neo-classicism) that Theodor Adorno would later label “kitsch.”[6]

In the discipline of legal scholarship, likewise, all previous assumptions were turned upside down. Nazi legal scholar Carl Schmitt, author of the Nuremberg Laws, had to build a whole theory of the State and of politics based on the “exception” and on the distinction friend/enemy. Further, as philosopher Yves-Charles Zarka has shown, Schmitt had to justify “philosophically” the status of the Jews as “substantial enemy” of the Reich.[7]

One can argue that philosophy was reduced to ideology. While it is easy enough to dismiss as ideology and propaganda Alfred Rosenberg’s Myth of the Twentieth Century, published in 1930, scholars have shied away from disqualifying Heidegger’s attempt at re-founding metaphysics based on a return to the Pre-Socratics. However, in his controversial book, Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism into Philosophy, French scholar Emmanuel Faye has shown that Heidegger’s ontology (his theory of Being) reveals itself, if one reads the 1933–35 Freibourg lectures clearly, as a translation of Nazi ideology into the language of philosophy.[8] The debate on this question, however, is fierce and it is the purpose of our symposium to address both sides of the issue rather than taking sides a priori. Do anti-Heidegger scholars use philological “tricks” to discredit the philosopher? Do Heidegger disciples exclude certain texts, signifiers, and pages to exonerate the thinker? We were fortunate to be able to bring Professor Faye to campus for this event. Philosopher and historian Alain Besançon has argued that Nazi ideology pertains to the Gnostic tradition.[9] Nazi anti-Semitism, as Philippe Burrin has shown, was indeed “apocalyptic” and redemptive.[10] While it was based in part on pseudo-science (racial theory), Nazism can also be considered a modern avatar of Christian anti-Judaism grounded on the massive suppression of the legacy of Hebrew Scripture. To address this issue, Professor Anders Gerdmar (Uppsala University), who specializes in this important topic, will present on: “Theological Anti-Semitism and Its Lasting Impact upon the Discipline.”

Impact on Future Research

The symposium will bring together international specialists from diverse subject areas that have never before, to the best of our knowledge, had a chance to share perspectives and create conversations across disciplinary boundaries. The conference will thereby expand the intellectual boundaries of the humanities themselves: bringing the past into dialogue with the present, philology into dialogue with theory, modern German history into dialogue with Jewish Studies and American history. We believe the conference will change the way that the distortions of the German university under National Socialism have been conceptualized. The conference will have a significant impact upon the humanities, as the various academic disciplines involved each reflect upon their vulnerability and their shared history. That process of self-examination and reflection in itself leads to the renewal of knowledge and the reaffirmation of the humanities. 


1] That the lens is cast only on Germany constitutes one significant weakness in the otherwise valuable study by Anson Rabinbach and Wolfgang Bialas (eds.), Nazi Germany and the Humanities (London: One World Publications, 2007).

[2] See Stephen H. Norwood, The Third Reich in the Ivory Tower: Complicity and Conflict on American Campuses (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

[3] Emmanuel Levinas, Quelques réflexions sur la philosophie de l'hitlérisme (first published in 1934 ; republished, ed. Miguel Abensour; Paris: Rivages, 1997).

[4] Joseph Goebbels, Michael: Ein deutsches Schicksal in Tagebuchblättern (Munich: Zentralverlag der NSDAP F. Eher Nachf., 1931), p. 31.

[5] Eric Michaud, Un art de l’éternité: l’image et le temps du national-socialisme (Paris: Gallimard, 1996).

[6] Theodor Adorno, The Culture Industry (London: Routledge, 2001).

[7] Yves-Charles Zarka ,Un détail nazi dans la pensée de Carl Schmitt (Paris: PUF, 2005).

[8] Emmanuel Faye, Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism into Philosophy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011).

[9] Alain Besançon, Le Malheur du siècle, Communisme, Nazisme, Shoah (Perrin, 2005). [1] Philippe Burrin, Ressentiment et Apocalypse, Essai sur l’antisémitisme nazi (Points, 2007). 

[10] Philippe Burrin, Ressentiment et Apocalypse, Essai sur l’antisémitisme nazi (Points, 2007).