Immanuel Kant and Nazism

Was Kant somehow responsible for the rise of Nazism? Smith explores two points of view on this issue.

In The Ayn Rand Letter ( December 4, 1982), Rand said of Leonard Peikoff’s book, The Ominous Parallels (1982), that it “traces the philosophic sources of altruism, showing the unbroken line of development that led to the crucial modern turning point: Kant, and on to Lenin, Mussolini and Hitler.”

Peikoff’s book was reviewed by the learned libertarian historian David Gordon in the September, 1982 issue of Inquiry Magazine. Gordon’s review is cleverly titled “The butcher of Königsberg?” because of the stress that Peikoff put on the alleged responsibility of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1802) for the later rise of Nazism. Kant lived a quiet, routine life in the town of Königsberg, where he taught at the university there. As the poet and essayist Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) amusingly said of Kant:

The history of the life of Immanuel Kant is hard to write, inasmuch as he had neither life nor history, for he lived a mechanically ordered, and abstract old bachelor life in a quiet retired street in Königsberg, an old town on the northeast border of Germany. I do not believe that the great clock of the cathedral there did its daily work more dispassionately and regularly than to its compatriot Immanuel Kant. Rising, coffee drinking, writing, reading college lectures, eating, walking, all had their fixed time, and the neighbors knew that it was exactly half past three when Immanuel Kant in his grey coat with his Manila cane in hand, left his house door and went to the lime tree avenue, which is still called, in his memory, the Philosopher’s Walk….

David Gordon was not kind to Peikoff’s attempt to trace the intellectual ancestry of Nazism. According to Gordon, “Peikoff distorts Kant at every point.” Kant was neither a skeptic nor a subjectivist. “On the contrary, he thought of his Critique of Pure Reason as answering David Hume’s skepticism. In particular, he attempted to explain causality in order to justify philosophically the achievements of Newton’s physics.”

Peikoff condemned Kant’s categorical imperative but, as Gordon pointed out, had Peikoff “quoted the second formulation of the categorical imperative, he would have at once given the lie to his charge that Kant laid the foundation for the Nazi doctrine of blind submission to the omnipotent state.” As Kant put it: “Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end.”

Gordon’s disagreements with Peikoff run deeper than matters of interpretation over Kant’s philosophy. More serious and more fundamental is the method Peikoff used to link Kant to Nazism. Peikoff focused on Kant’s metaphysics and epistemology and then, after spinning out what he believed to be the disastrous logical implications of Kant’s thinking in those fields, concluded that Kant must have been a precursor to Nazism. Although Peikoff admitted that Kant was “not a full-fledged statist” and that he defended “certain elements of individualism,” Peikoff, Gordon wrote, “has the gall to dismiss these as trivial compared to the implications he perversely derives from Kant’s metaphysical and epistemological views.”

If this was a flaw in Peikoff’s reasoning (and I agree with Gordon on this point), it was a methodology that he learned from Ayn Rand, who always stressed the primacy of a philosopher’s metaphysics and epistemology. Regardless of how individualistic or pro-freedom a philosopher may have been, if his theory of knowledge logically entailed irrationalism (as judged by Rand, of course), then, even if that philosopher explicitly repudiated irrationalism and statism, he could be held responsible for the later political consequences of irrationalism. This was the reasoning behind Rand’s infamous statement that Immanuel Kant was the most evil man in the history of western civilization. And this explains why Rand would have been unmoved by David Gordon’s observation that “such preeminent defenders of freedom as Ludwig von Mises and F.A. Hayek have regarded themselves as Kantians.” (There have been many more Kantian defenders of individualism and freedom, such as Ernst Cassirer, whom I discussed in my last essay.)

It may come as a surprise to many libertarians and Objectivists to learn that Rand and Peikoff were not the first to link Immanuel Kant to Nazism. A more elaborate, knowledgeable, and nuanced defense of the same thesis is found in From Luther to Hitler: The History of Fascist-Nazi Political Philosophy (Houghton Mifflin Co, 1941), by William Montgomery McGovern, a Professor of Political Science at Northwestern University and a Visiting Lecturer on Government at Harvard. In this book of nearly 700 pages, McGovern wrote:

In each and every case the spread of idealist doctrines in the spheres of philosophy, or history, or law, or general literature coincided with the belief in either etatism [i.e, statism] or authoritarianism—very frequently with the spread of belief in both etatism and authoritarianism. A great many persons who had formerly been staunch advocates of individualism and democracy were so won over by the charm of idealist theories regarding life as a whole that they began to champion the idealist doctrine in the field of politics. It was thus in large measure due to the work of the idealist philosophers and their immediate disciples that the absolutist (we may as well say Fascist) tradition was revived in nineteenth century Europe. The idealists owed much of their success in the political field to the subtlety of their methods. They were able to revive faith in etatism and authoritarianism largely because they were able to give both these doctrines such a new and attractive dress that they were scarcely recognizable at first sight. They were careful to avoid all the old arguments and all the old slogans of their predecessors in the seventeenth century. Not once did the idealists quote Scripture in defense of passive obedience; not once did they preach the divine right of kings in the old sense of the word. To have done so would have been impolitic. The words “liberty” and “freedom” had an immense popular appeal at the time the idealists were preaching and writing. Hence the members of the idealist school were careful never to attack these terms—they were merely so reinterpreted as to become meaningless. Or rather the idealists distinguished between “false freedom,” the freedom advocated by the liberals, and “true freedom,” which meant obedience to the dictates of the absolute state, a state run in accordance with authoritarian principles.

According to McGovern, the type of statism defended by members of the idealist school, “has had a profound effect upon all subsequent political thought and has led directly to the Fascist and Nazi ideology of the present day.” Between “the twentieth century fascists and the nineteenth century idealists the connection is close and intimate.” Fascism and National Socialism “are merely the concrete embodiments” of the doctrines defended by the idealists.

McGovern understood that some idealists (those who argued that reality as we know it is largely a construction of the human mind), most notably Kant, were liberal individualists in their political theory, whereas other idealists, such as Hegel, were far more authoritarian. But McGovern maintained that the liberal idealists, by “the very mildness of their conclusions,” were “able to win many converts from the ranks of true liberals, converts who would have been shocked by the frank and brutal etatism and authoritarianism of the more radical etatist-authoritarian tradition.” Hence: “All unwittingly and unconsciously, Kant and his English disciples were thus forced to serve as the advance guard of the Fascist forces.”

Like Ayn Rand and Leonard Peikoff, McGovern pinpointed Kant’s epistemology as a doctrine that would later provide aid and comfort to Nazi ideologues. According to Kant, “practically everything we know, or think we know, about external objects is subjective in origin, or, in other words, is due to the working of the human mind.” Although Kant did not deny the existence of an external world, in the hands of later German philosophers “Kant’s system led to complete idealism.” Later in his book McGovern explored in detail how this doctrine was used by Nazi philosophers.

In order to keep from lapsing into pure skepticism, Kant was “forced to adopt a curious sort of intuitionism, somewhat out of keeping with his fundamentally rational nature.” Although intuition “played a relatively small part” in Kant’s philosophy, intuitionism was to play a significant role in later theories of irrationalism of the sort embraced by Nazi philosophers. “It is this later irrationalism, derived indirectly, at least, from Kant, which has exerted such a profound influence upon Fascist and Nazi ideology.”

McGovern also discussed certain features of Kant’s political philosophy (especially his theory of the state) that were out of sync with his liberal tendencies and how those statist aspects later proved useful to Nazis. Although I regard this part of McGovern’s discussion as more credible than his effort to link Kant to Nazism through Kant’s epistemological idealism, I shall not discuss that topic here. Instead, I wish to conclude by calling attention to the disdain that some fascist philosophers displayed toward Kant. In a speech, “The Political Doctrine of Fascism,” which Mussolini praised as “magnificent,” the fascist philosopher Alfredo Rocco identified Kant as a leading exponent of the individualism and liberalism that fascism opposed. Here is how Rocco put it:

Thus the liberals insist that the best manner to secure the welfare of the citizens as individuals is to interfere as little as possible with the free development of their activities and that therefore the essential task of the state is merely to coordinate these several liberties in such a way as to guarantee their coexistence, Kant, who was without doubt the most powerful and thorough philosopher of liberalism, said, “man, who is the end, cannot be assumed to have the value of an instrument.” And again, “justice, of which the state is the specific organ, is the condition whereby the freedom of each is conditioned upon the freedom of others, according to the general law of liberty.”

Rocco, like other fascists, vehemently opposed the liberal doctrine of individual rights and a limited government, and he correctly identified Kant as a major champion in that tradition. This doesn’t mean, of course, that some aspects of Kant’s philosophy, as reinterpreted and altered by later Kantians, did not find their way into fascist and Nazi philosophy. But here we need to consider the crucial question: To what extent should a philosopher be held responsible for the use to which later thinkers made of his ideas, especially when those later interpretations differ radically from how the original philosopher understood his own system? In truth, the philosophy of fascism and National Socialism was a patchwork, a stitching together of disparate ideas taken, frequently out of context, from whatever sources would lend credibility to their quest to justify a totalitarian state. With the possible exception of Martin Heidegger, who joined the Nazi Party in 1933, no philosophy written by a fascist was worth the paper it was written on. We should therefore exercise extreme caution before condemning Kant or any other philosopher as a forerunner of fascism and Nazism.
by George H. Smith