The Evil of Nazism
Within the history of ideas, some figures have become controversial due to their associations with systems of thought or political movements that are now thought to be outdated or morally wrong.
The most obvious example of such a political movement is Nazism, which swept through Germany beginning in the early 1930s and led that nation down the unthinkable path with which everyone is familiar.
Today, it is very widely believed that the Holocaust perpetrated by the Nazis, as well as their other campaigns at home and abroad during World War II, was unequivocally evil, and we almost uniformly vilify any individuals who were involved in, and in some cases merely complicit in, those acts.
This overriding, inflexible position is perhaps the right position, but it has led several great thinkers, rightly or wrongly, into ill repute.
One example of a philosopher whose reputation is perhaps unjustly tarnished by Nazism is Friedrich Nietzsche. As philosophers go, Nietzsche is fairly well-known among the general populace. His most widely read work, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, is written in an accessible and engaging manner and demonstrates a few of Nietzsche's many key ideas.
However, Nietzsche is often thought of by uninformed individuals as sort of a spokesman philosopher for Nazism. Although it is true that some Nazis, including perhaps Adolf Hitler himself, latched on to certain of Nietzsche's ideas, Nietzsche himself was far from a Nazi philosopher.
Indeed, many scholars have pointed out several direct instances, particularly in the controversial work The Genealogy of Morals, where Nietzsche makes clear that he is no anti-Semite.
Another philosopher who has been criticized and scrutinized for his association with Nazis is Martin Heidegger. Heidegger, historians say, was complicit in the Holocaust by accepting ever higher positions within the academic world during the Nazi era.
Scholars who did not renounce Nazism and continued to function and, in certain ways, support the state while Hitler was in power, are sometimes vilified just as much as the primary perpetrators of the Holocaust themselves.
Some of Heidegger's ideas have been read through an anti-Semitic lens, and it may even be true that Heidegger wrote some things that were not necessarily at odds with the political culture of his time.
However, Heidegger's status as one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century is hardly diminished by this fact. Nevertheless, much of the academic community shuns him for being associated with Nazi Germany.
Sibelius, Céline, and Pound
Germans are not the only ones to suffer from damaged reputations on account of Nazism. The composer Jean Sibelius, who played an important role in Finnish nationalism through his work, has been accused of aiding the Nazis.
The French poet Louis-Ferdinand Céline is often disregarded, despite the high quality of his poetry, due to the belief that he was strongly anti-Semitic. The American poet Ezra Pound has been subject to similar accusations.
Each of these individuals, whether or not they were indeed Nazi sympathizers, were talented individuals who made a definite impact on culture through their art. The question is whether these contributions supersede their moral shortcomings.
Nazism Can't Change the Past
In the case of thinkers who preceded Nazism, such as Nietzsche, there seems to be very little reason to think less of them for the Nazis' opinion of them. After all, various individual Nazi officials liked many things, including Classical artworks, that are not thought to be retroactively tainted.
Scholars have shown that Nietzsche himself, though he held some very controversial opinions, was not in favor of anything like the Holocaust and was not even especially anti-Semitic. The associations that the Nazis made with Nietzsche's work are, therefore, irrelevant. No one dislikes the color blue simply because the Nazis associated it with purity.
Plato and Thomas Jefferson
Other cases are less straightforward, and it is left up to individuals to decide whether they believe that dealing with Nazi Germany in any way warrants cultural exile. It may be a good idea to remember, though, that many of our cultural heroes have engaged in practices and traveled in political circles that we would, today, probably not approve.
From Plato's avid interest in pederasty to Thomas Jefferson's keeping hundreds of slaves, the best and brightest philosophers and thinkers have not always had the cleanest moral records. This is perhaps something to consider when judging the likes of Heidegger, Céline, and Sibelius.