Philosopher Stephen Hicks throws out a challenge to the way people see Hitler and his fellow statist mass-murderers:
It’s always a bad strategy to underestimate one’s enemies. And especially with the recent popularity of National Socialist ideas and movements, we remain vulnerable if we do not fully understand them. It is more comfortable to dismiss a threat by thinking of our adversaries as stupid or depraved. But sometimes they are not.
Very often they’re not. Very often it’s the true zealot who is most dangerous. This is the challenge. To see them as they actually are, and to understand the source of their evil.
If we are going to fully understand the causes of National Socialism and other horrors, we have to consider an unsettling possibility: Maybe those who commit them, like Hitler and his accomplices, can be highly intelligent, well educated, and think of themselves as noble idealists …
The problem not being the idealism, but the ideals embraced.
The phenomenon of bookish young men and women becoming activists for political violence is not rare. Consider these geographically varied examples:
- Pol Pot, the genocidal dictator in Cambodia, was an indifferent student but received part of his education in Paris and upon his return to Cambodia taught French literature and history at a private college.
- Abimael Guzmán, leader of Peru’s Shining Path terrorist group, wrote a dissertation on Kant and became a professor of philosophy at a Peruvian university.
- Osama bin Laden — who was a university graduate with a degree in civil engineering — read the works of theologian Seyyid Qutb. At university in Saudi Arabia, bin Laden attended regularly the lectures of Muhammad Qutb, who was his brother Seyyid’s translator and editor as well as professor of Islamic Studies.
- And Josef Goebbels attended five of the best universities in Germany and received his Doctor of Philosophy degree from the University of Heidelberg.
Like many odious totalitarians, the source of Hitler’s ideals, argues Hicks, can be found in their reading. Hitler read widely, and fully absorbed what he read.
All of the evidence shows that Hitler not only collected books but was a serious and systematic reader. According to Professor Ambrus Miskolczy, author of Hitler’s Library (Central European University Press, 2003), Hitler’s books show much underlining and the systematic use of coloured pencils, with the different colours indicating agreement or disagreement.
And he read widely [in History, Economics, Military Strategy, Culture, Art and Architecture – and] in Philosophy, including the works of Kant, Hegel, Marx, and Nietzsche.
So, “where to begin?” asks Hicks.
Here is one place: When some names crop up regularly — as do the names Immanuel Kant, Johann Fichte, George Hegel, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Nietzsche — in the reading lists and the writings of major activists who have committed political violence, then it is important to all of us that we commit ourselves to becoming better educated in philosophy.
* * Read more: How Smart and Well-Read was Adolf Hitler? – Stephen Hicks, EVERY JOE