In the third part of CARR Senior Fellow, Dr Henry Mead’s, series on Hegel and Fascism, the author takes a look at how echoes of the ‘Great Man theory’ circulated beyond academic philosophy and into private quarters in the Reich Chancellery – showing how Hitler looked further afield for inspiration.
The World Spirit and Hegel
Karl Popper attacked Hegel’s version of an Aristotelean entelechy, a faith in development and growth over historical time. In this view, all experience is providential; even in its the most unbearable aspects, history was led by ‘the cunning of reason’. The suffering multitudes must accept their fate, which was often decided by the actions of certain powerful men, albeit unknowingly and in pursuit of their own interests. Though seemingly wicked or destructive or cruel, they were agents of a larger process, Hegel’s ‘world-spirit’. Alexander the Great, Napoleon, and no doubt the world conquerors of the 20th century would surely be excused for the same reason. This was a theory with its roots in German Romanticism; Thomas Carlyle, a key figure in the British reception of German thought, including Hegel, in Britain, captured this idea in On Heroes and Hero Worship (1841):
“Universal History, the history of what man has accomplished in this world, is at bottom the History of the Great Men who have worked here. They were the leaders of men, these great ones; the modellers, patterns, and in a wide sense creators, of whatsoever the general mass of men contrived to do or to attain; all things that we see standing accomplished in the world are properly the outer material result, the practical realization and embodiment, of Thoughts that dwelt in the Great Men sent into the world: the soul of the whole world’s history, it may justly be considered, were the history of these.”
As Hugh Trevor-Roper noted in 1981, there is a link between Carlyle’s idea and Hegel’s suggestions of a similar heroic action: ‘Carlyle and his German contemporaries put [the explanation of history] firmly into the stratosphere. Not into the will of a Judeo-Christian God, but into a world-plan, a Hegelian dialectic, a metaphysical providence.’ Such thinking was ‘in the intellectual pedigree of Nazism’.[i]
Hegel’s accounts of the idea are both vivid – famously in his recollection of seeing Napoleon outside Jena, “the World Spirit on a horse” – the admiration he evinces here is later, disturbingly, a rationale for what he calls the “the slaughter bench of history.” Isaiah Berlin puts it in a vivid metaphor in his essay on ‘Historical Inevitability’, describing how Hegel (and later Marx):
“…conjure[s] up an image of peaceful and foolish human beings… building their homes, with touching hope and simplicity, upon the green slopes of what seems to them a peaceful mountainside… without any awareness of the cosmic processes of which their lives are but a passing stage. But the mountain is no ordinary mountain; it is a volcano; and when (as the philosopher always knew that it would) the inevitable eruption comes, their homes and their elaborately tended institutions and their ideals… will be blown out of existence in the cataclysm which marks the leap from the ‘lower’ to a ‘higher’ stage. When this point is reached, the… prophets of destruction are in their element; they enter into their inheritance; they survey the conflagration with a defiant, almost Byronic, irony and disdain.”
Hegel as the (un)acknowledged dictator
For Isaiah Berlin, the philosopher-prophets seem to participate in the scene, as for Popper they seem to toy with the world – in an image recalling Chaplin’s film The Great Dictator (1940): “ghosts from the past seem to haunt the brain of the Great Dictator while he performs his dance with his balloon, with his puffed-up and fictitious problems of God and the World.” (p. 38). The Übermensch of Nietzsche are close at hand. In these polemics, the philosopher and the dictator become merged as one; indeed, Popper describes Hegel’s position in the academic world as “the acknowledged dictator”.
Yet, as noted, Hegel was one of a number of philosophers who proposed forms of ‘heroic’ leadership. As fascist ideology peaked, several studies picked out this motif in a set of modern literature. For example, in 1944 Eric Bentley’s A Century of Hero Worship gave the examples of Wagner, Spengler, Stefan George and D. H. Lawrence. Within Germany, a cluster of such ideas connected forms of conservative thought. The circle around the poet Stefan George represents a notable pre-Nazi conservative romanticism that proposed Germany as the new centre and inheritor of a Latin European culture. These ideas generated Ernst Kantorowicz’s biography of Frederick II 1194-1250 (1933), a text clearly enamoured of its heroic subject, a figure reputed as fulfilling Joachimite prophecy.[ii] In a tendentious treatment of the medieval tensions between Papal and Imperial power, the work credited the Sicilian-based emperor with having rejuvenated Germanic cultural potency. Despite the author’s Jewish status, such work provided the Nazi movement with a strongly appealing narrative; readers included Heinrich Himmler and Hermann Goering, who presented a copy to Mussolini; Hitler was also an enthusiast.[iii] Its influence can be seen in Goering’s 1943 request, as the Allies advanced into Sicily, that Frederick’s body be removed from the cathedral at Palermo and brought to Berlin, an order ignored by his underlings.[iv]
Hitler and the Dictatorial Image: A Post-Script
Was there a direct link between these dictatorial images and Hitler’s self-fashioning? Timothy Ryback’s study of Hitler’s private library dispels the idea that Hitler was closely engaged in philosophy; neither Hegel, Schopenhauer nor Nietzsche are well represented in his library. Ryback does however note the presence of Carlyle’s Frederick The Great (1858), a book which contained the same premise of the Great Man in history. Hugh Trevor-Roper’s well-known account of Hitler reading this text in the last days of the war was based on an entry in Goebbels’ diary.[v] Similarly, according to anecdote, Hitler earlier read Kantorowicz’s biography of Frederick II twice – remarkably, given this was a 600-page work by a Jewish historian.[vi] But Ryback also notes a set of books that capture in less academic, popular form, the idea of ‘demonic’ forces and the inevitable rise of the ‘man of genius’. Ryback records that The Predictions of Nostradamus (1691) were found in the plundered ruins of his private quarters in the Reich Chancellery. In a copy of Ernst Schertel’s Magic (1923), a book on Satanism and eroticism, Ryback reports that Hitler underlined the phrase: “He who does not carry demonic seeds within him will never give birth to a new world”. This is not Hegel, nor Nietzsche, but shows how echoes of the ‘Great Man theory’ circulated beyond academic philosophy in debased forms. The same is true of the timeless myth of palingenetic rebirth, most thoroughly systematised in Hegel’s own philosophy of history – the subject of the next blog in this series.
[i] Hugh Trevor-Roper, ‘Thomas Carlyle’s Historical Philosophy‘, Times Literary Supplement, 26 June 1981, p. 733; reprinted in History and the Enlightenment,ed. John Robertson (New Haven, CT : Yale University Press, 2010), pp, 223–24.
[ii] See Marjorie Reeves, The Influence of Prophecy in the Later Middle Ages: A Study in Joachimism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969).
[iii] Robert E. Lerner, Ernst Kantorowicz: A Life (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017), pp. 114–15.
[iv] Martin A. Ruehl, ‘In This Time without Emperors’: The Politics of Ernst Kantorowicz’s Kaiser Friedrich der Zweite Reconsidered’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 63 (2000), pp. 187-242 (187).
[v] Hugh Trevor-Roper, The Last Days of Hitler (1947; 2012), pp. 87-88.
[vi] Lerner, Ernst Kantorowicz, p. 115.
Dr Henry Mead is a Senior Fellow at CARR and Research Fellow at Tallinn University. See full profile here.
© Henry Mead. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).
Research for this article was supported by a European Research Council Starting Grant (TAU17149) “Between the Times: Embattled Temporalities and Political Imagination in Interwar Europe.