Think Piece

Unveiling evil: ‘Hitler’s furies’ and the dark side of women’s history

By guest contributor Benedetta Carnaghi

Two years ago I went to Ravensbrück. I went to Ravensbrück because I was shocked not to have been aware of its existence before reading the memoir of an ex-deportee. I went to Ravensbrück because I was appalled that, for no reason other than that it was the only Nazi concentration camp built especially for women, it is not as well known as other camps.

I was investigating Virginia d’Albert-Lake. Born in 1910, in Dayton, Ohio, Virginia had married Philippe d’Albert-Lake, a Frenchman working for the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company. She then moved to France. At the outbreak of World War II, they both decided to become involved in the Comet escape line, which eventually led to Virginia’s arrest in June 1944 and deportation to Ravensbrück.

From left to right: Virginia d’Albert-Lake after her liberation; back in health; when she received the French Légion d’honneur (Private archives of the D’Albert-Lake family, Paris)

Virginia survived deportation and died in 1997. I was fortunate enough to interview survivors, and they explained to me that female deportation remains a taboo. Women were obviously present in concentration camps, but they seem to be nearly invisible in the historiography. Research and recognition has only recently improved. Sarah Helm published a group portrait of prisoners in Ravensbrück: Life and Death in Hitler’s Concentration Camp for Women (2015). On May 27, 2015, Ravensbrück survivors Geneviève de Gaulle-Anthonioz and Germaine Tillion were interred in the French Panthéon alongside resisters Pierre Brossolette and Jean Zay.

Francois Hollande (centre) stands on the Panthéon steps between the flag-draped coffins of Jean Zay, Geneviève de Gaulle-Anthonioz, Pierre Brossolette and Germaine Tillion. Source: The Guardian

Margaret Collins Weitz’s conclusions as to why it took so long for these women’s stories to enter scholarship remain valuable, although her book Sisters in the Resistance (1995) was published two decades ago. It took a long time for women to “recount or write up recollections of their wartime experiences” (17). The rediscovery of their stories started with the French feminist movement of the 1970s and found a major touchstone in the first colloquium on “Women in the Resistance” organized by the Union des Femmes Françaises (UFF, Union of French Women) in 1975 (Collins Weitz, ibid.). But women were generally less interested in receiving recognition for their actions—that is, in filling out the official papers to be decorated or commended by the state. For those who survived deportation, the issue with “telling their story” proved more complicated. Deportation deprived them of every aspect of their femininity, forced them to parade naked at a time when nudity was taboo, exposed them to the insinuation that they had prostituted themselves to survive. They came back to a society that did not understand what they had gone through, and trying to explain it would have meant reliving the horror. Collins Weitz focuses, in particular, on “the dilemma of those who were, or subsequently became, mothers” and “found it impossible to tell their children of the horrors they had seen—and sometimes experienced,” in part because they did not want them to be marked by their personal stories (18). It was only to fight revisionist claims that extermination camps had not existed that the women found the courage to speak.

On the left: “Plus rien de personnel, plus rien d’intime” by ex-deportee Eliane Jeannin-Garreau ; on the right: Aufseherinnen greet Himmler during his visit of the Ravensbrück concentration camp in January 1941 (SS propaganda album – Archives of the Ravensbrück Memorial – Mahn- und Gedenkstätte Ravensbrück)

Nazis destroyed the barracks where the Ravensbrück deportees lived, but the houses of the SS guards still stand as a memorial and host various exhibitions. One explores the female SS guards, Aufseherinnen and Blockführerinnen, deployed there. I remember staring at their faces: their stories upset me. They were detrimental to my purpose of highlighting women’s heroism. At Ravensbrück I ignored them and kept my focus on the deportees.

But there they were, hundreds of them: on the walls of that house, in the back of my mind. I knew that the time would come when I would be forced to exhume the concerns I had buried and come to terms with the fact that there were women perpetrators among the Nazis. And that time came, indeed, when I read Wendy Lower’s Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields (2013).

Lower examines the women who were born in Germany in the wake of World War I, grew up in the Nazi regime, and worked for the Third Reich in the Nazi-occupied East, sharing responsibility for the massacres that were carried out there. Her research began in the town of Zhytomyr, in Ukraine. Lower originally traveled there to find documentation of the Final Solution, a quite impossible task. The town is about a hundred miles west of Kiev, and under the Nazi occupation, it was Heinrich Himmler’s Ukrainian headquarters.

The Nazis arrived in Ukraine in 1941 and ravaged the territory. Lower stumbled upon certain documents that listed ordinary German women living and working in towns like Zhytomyr during the Nazi occupation. She was surprised that such women would be in these areas. When she went back to the Western archives, she looked at the postwar investigative records and found testimony from many German women detailing the killings. Prosecutors appeared more interested in the crimes of their male colleagues and husbands. So Lower started wondering why prosecutors did not question or follow up on these women’s testimonies.

The female camp guards who triggered my thoughts were the only ones about whom studies existed when Lower set out to write her book. Compared to other German women working under the Nazis, the Aufseherinnen were fairly well-known, but according to Lower they were presented as caricatures or pornographic distortions of the “evil woman.” While there was a lot of literature about the different male perpetrators in the Nazi system, there were no sophisticated studies of the female perpetrators. Hannah Arendt herself “neglected the role of female administrators” when she “fashioned her thesis on the banality of evil” (Lower, 265). Yet the Cold War temporarily buried the question of the Nazi perpetrators, since “the Red Army became the ultimate war criminal entrenched in German experience” (Elazar Barkan, The Guilt of Nations: Restitution and Negotiating Historical Injustices, 2000: 10) and the German focus was on the nation’s suffering and its own victims. As for women specifically, the figure of the Trümmerfrau—the designation given to those who helped reconstruct the German bombed cities—was so powerful that it effaced every other representation of German women. Historian Leonie Treber defined it as a “German legend” and set out to dismantle the myth in her dissertation, but the controversy her work raised denotes how established this heroic image of women in post-Nazi Germany still is in today’s Germany.

The number of women perpetrators is not negligible. An estimated 500,000 German women went to the Nazi East and formed an integral part of Hitler’s machinery of destruction. Lower tried to understand why they did so, by closely studying their biographies. Their lives showed her how human beings change and how these women ended up contributing to the violence of the Holocaust, from the idealists who were allied with the Nazi ideology and saw themselves as agents of a conservative revolution, to those who simply followed their husbands or lovers and sought material benefits.

Erna Petri, before and after her arrest. Wife of SS Second Lieutenant Horst Petri, she shot six half-naked Jewish boys who had managed to escape from a boxcar bound for a gas chamber and were hiding on the Petris’ private estate in Nazi-occupied Poland. She was barely 25 years old at the time. When pressed by the Stasi interrogator as to how she, a mother, could murder these children, she referred to her own desire to prove herself to the men (the SS). Erna Petri “embodied” the ideological indoctrination of the Nazi regime. Source: Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields (p.88 and 205)

Paradoxically, it took Lower’s book about gender to teach me that evil is not gendered. Genocide is a human problematic behavior that applies to both men and women. “Minimizing women’s culpability to a few thousand brainwashed and misguided camp guards does not accurately represent the reality of the Holocaust,” writes Lower (182). Women should be given back their agency, whether good or bad.

The idea of “evil” has significantly evolved from the way Hannah Arendt first conceptualized it. Corey Robin analyzed her position in “The Trials of Hannah Arendt” and in a recent lecture delivered at Cornell University titled “Eichmann in Jerusalem. Three Readings: Hobbesian, Kantian, Arendtian.” Arendt tried to distinguish “Eichmann’s murderous deeds from his state of mind.” Eichmann was not a “solitary actor,” but a “partner in a criminal joint enterprise.” Arendt “de-emphasized motive” to stress the “collaborative dimension of mass murder.” Robin cites one of her letters to Scholem, where she famously said that “evil is never ‘radical’” but “only extreme,” and “it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension.” Robin argues that this is specifically “what Arendt’s critics detect and dislike in her thesis of the banality of evil: a denial of evil as the summum malum, of its capacity to serve as the basis of a political morality.” In such a quasi-Hobbesian interpretation of good and evil, there is no objective moral structure to the universe.

If for Arendt ideology played a lesser role in Eichmann’s decisions, it seems to me that Lower’s book resonates more with the way Timothy Snyder conceptualized evil. Nazism—just as Snyder framed it in his Black Earth: The Holocaust As History and Warning (2015)— supplied its perpetrators with a Weltanschauung and a rationale for their crimes, namely a fictitious life-and-death global struggle against an ultimate enemy, the Jew. Overall, a minority of women directly carried out the killings of Jews in the East, but many women participated in the administration, working to keep the wheels of the Nazi system turning, the deportation trains going and the documents moving. Their agency is visible in the goal they wanted to attain: to gain social mobility and be part of the new, selected “racial aristocracy” of the Third Reich.

Addition photos for the above piece can be seen here (courtesy of Benedetta Carnaghi)

Special thanks to John Raimo for his excellent suggestions on a previous draft of this piece!

Benedetta Carnaghi is a Ph.D. student in History at Cornell University. She studies modern European history with a particular focus on Italy, France, and Germany. Her current research focus is a comparison between the Fascist and Nazi secret police. Related interests include the history of Resistance, the Holocaust, gender studies, political violence, and terror.

Think Piece

Max Weber and Carl Schmitt: Crossroads of Crisis

by guest contributor Pedro T. Magalhães

Ideas have unintended consequences. Max Weber, the founding father of German sociology, must have been keenly aware of this. In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904/05), he put forward the bold thesis that Protestant asceticism had unintentionally provided the spiritual conditions for the rise of modern capitalism. Ironically, one of Weber’s own political ideas—the notion of a plebiscitary leadership democracy, which he developed in the aftermath of World War I—would also end up being interpreted as having inadvertently paved the way to the rise of totalitarian dictatorship in Germany.

The first commentator to suggest that Weber’s vision of democracy had aroused the inclination of moderate, bürgerlich German minds to accept radical, authoritarian solutions to the predicaments of parliamentary democracy was the historian Wolfgang J. Mommsen. Mommsen argued, in the conclusion to his book, that Carl Schmitt’s theory of the plebiscitary legitimacy of the President of the Reich, astutely exploited in the early 1930s against the supposedly shallow legality of Weimar’s parliamentarianism, constituted a valid and coherent extension to Max Weber’s post-WWI demands. Carl Schmitt was a conservative Catholic legal scholar: drawn early to the political philosophies of the European counterrevolution, and flirting with Italian fascism throughout the 1920s before joining the Nazi ranks shortly after Hitler’s rise to power. It was therefore quite controversial when Jürgen Habermas suggested, in his final remarks at a Weber centenary conference (Heidelberg, 1964), that Schmitt was a “legitimate pupil”—perhaps even a “natural son”—of Max Weber’s.

There is, I believe, something more shocking in the assertion that the ideas of a mainstream liberal thinker—even if of a gloomy, late-modern variety—were “logically,” “legitimately,” or “naturally” taken to unanticipated extremes by a radical colleague than in the numerous instances of des extrêmes qui se touchent in the history of political thought (e. g. the “dangerous liaisons” between Carl Schmitt and the neo-Marxist Walter Benjamin). Extremes frequently meet because they oppose the same status quo—even if for utterly different reasons, or because they share methods, ways of thinking, or a fascination with limit cases. The circular movement of opposites that meet is less disquieting than the drift from the center to the fringes, from moderation to radicalism, because the latter entails a reconfiguration of the political space as a whole, a redefinition of the frontiers of what is politically tenable.

As regards the affinity between the political ideas of Weber and Schmitt, some commentators have tried to relativize the whole controversy. Leading Weber scholars (Lawrence A. Scaff, Joachim Radkau) have claimed that Weber’s politics is a particularly unsuitable key for considering the author’s main intellectual concerns. Others still have sought to defend him from the charge of being a forerunner of Weimar political radicalism, arguing that the supposed similarities between Weber’s ideas and those of notorious radicals—particularly the reactionary Schmitt, but also the Marxist György Lukács, who was a protégé of Weber’s in Heidelberg before joining the cause of Leninist revolution—are outweighed by much more significant dissimilarities (Dana Villa). Indeed, one must agree that the notion of a “natural” intellectual paternity is much too rigid. If one looks at the multiple sources of political ideas in each author’s fundamental theoretical positions and personal motivations, crucial differences surely prevail over the more disturbing points of continuity. But these cannot be explained away that easily. They are interesting and revealing in their own right.

Weber was one of the first observers to recognize that the structural change of modern mass politics threatened the basic tenets of nineteenth-century liberal parliamentarianism. Old liberal principles and beliefs seemed helpless to deal with the new political challenges of mass parties and interest groups in an increasingly rationalized world. To this crisis of liberalism he formulated risky answers, which were later developed in a radical, resolutely anti-liberal direction by Carl Schmitt. Retrospectively, this story became tied, as a paradigmatic instance, to the broader narrative of the collapse of mainstream German liberalism, of its ultimately tragic dislocation to the radical right.

Contexts of crisis are marked by a shifting political center—the space of acceptable political solutions and practices—whose standard answers to the challenges of the day have been exhausted. Carl Schmitt’s escalation of Max Weber’s idea of leadership democracy is a fateful example of the fluidity of such critical contexts. After years of relative stability in Western Europe, the ground of the political center has started to shake again, at least since the dawn of the great recession in 2008. In France, a populist right-wing party conquers relevant shares of the vote election after election. In Greece, a coalition of radical leftists and nationalists tries, with little success, to contest the austerity measures imposed upon the country by foreign creditors. More recently, large-scale migration to the continent from Africa and the Middle East seems to have reawakened dormant culturalist fears, as high walls and barbed-wire fences rise again in some European borders. Every answer to the present political quandaries in Europe is inherently risky, since it can help shift the shaky political center in unforeseeable, and possibly undesired, directions. The story of Weber and Schmitt recommends precaution, but it cannot justify immobility. Ideas have unintended consequences, because the future is uncertain.

Pedro T. Magalhães is a graduate student at NOVA University of Lisbon. His article “A Contingent Affinity: Max Weber, Carl Schmitt, and the Challenge of Modern Politics” appears in the April 2016 issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas.

Think Piece

Opinion Polls in International Perspective: The Case of West Germany

by guest contributor Sonja Ostrow

One can hardly open a newspaper without being inundated by graphs and charts offering up the latest poll numbers on presidential candidates. Almost as prominent are poll results covering attitudes toward everything from religion to home ownership. While public opinion research is typically thought of in conjunction with election cycles, it is more broadly integrated into the fabric of modern life. As Sarah Igo has observed, it has become one of the chief ways we know ourselves as citizens and as humans.

Still from Welt im Bild reel from August 28, 1953.
Still from Welt im Bild reel from August 28, 1953.

Igo was writing about the United States, but the trajectory of polling in other countries teaches different lessons about the collection and dissemination of knowledge. The history of public opinion research in West Germany in the first few decades after World War II makes clear how national polls have an outward-facing function: not only do they inform people (and their governments) about themselves, they have also provided a methodology for demonstrating national change to concerned foreign observers.

Rather than being conceived primarily as a way to forecast election results, empirical opinion research in postwar West Germany was prized as an innovative method for assessing denazification and democratization. Unlike in the United States, where historians like Igo have identified a persistent obsession with “the average,” in West Germany, public opinion polling was intended to illuminate the extremes of public opinion, the potential threats to a nascent democratic state. Especially in the 1950s, West German opinion research was as much about projecting an image outward into the rest of the “free world” as it was about developing insights that would make governing at home more responsive and effective.

In the wake of World War II, Allied political leaders and their social-scientific advisors were convinced that empirically-grounded survey research would help them to assess and, eventually, to shape the political cultures of former enemy lands. Survey units trailed the combat branches of Anglo-American forces in Italy in 1943 and in Germany in 1945, and began polling residents on issues including access to food, living conditions, radio habits and preferences, and political stances. While public opinion polling was already an entrenched part of the political culture in the United States and England, it was World War II that facilitated the spread of public opinion research worldwide.

The earliest German surveys were conducted under the auspices of Allied occupation forces, who only gradually convinced Germans that they were neither Communist spies nor agents of punitive denazification procedures. But native West German opinion research institutes quickly emerged in the western zones. Following in the rhetorical and methodological footsteps of Americans like George Gallup and Elmo Roper, these institutes—most notably the EMNID Institute in Bielefeld and the Institut für Demoskopie at Allensbach—loudly argued that their surveys, each of which unearthed the opinions of a statistically representative sample of roughly 2,000 Germans, would aid in the establishment of a democratic political culture by facilitating communication between government and governed and granting a voice to those who would otherwise have none. What is more, they claimed that their methods were inherently democratic, since polled subjects were selected based on their fulfillment of statistical criteria, and the opinion of each statistical citizen held equal weight.

These institutes analyzed millions of survey responses each year, producing chart- and number-filled reports about the hopes, fears, and perceived realities of West German citizens. The surveys conducted by the institutes are notable for their variety: no topic, from cosmetics-buying habits to anti-Semitism, was off-limits. “Trend questions” were asked annually to trace shifts in opinion over the years. One recurring EMNID poll asked respondents, “Do you have the impression that we can count ourselves among the society of western peoples, or in your opinion are we still enemies as we were in the past?” In 1954, EMNID emphasized the increase in the number of respondents agreeing that “we belong completely” (23% in 1954, up from only 8% in 1951) on the front page of its weekly newsletter, the EMNID-Informationen (Issue 7/54).

In some cases, research institutes invited survey participants to compare themselves explicitly with other national subjects. EMNID, for instance, asked West Germans on an annual basis throughout the 1950s, “Do you have the feeling that Americans see us today primarily as friends, as strangers, or as enemies from the past?” The percentage of those stating that they were seen by Americans as friends grew from 19% in 1951 to 49% in 1954, while the percentage of those declining to answer the question shrunk from 22% in 1951 to 10% in 1954 (EMNID-Informationen 7/54). Both figures likely represent a shift not only in attitudes toward the United States, but in a willingness to answer questions touching on matters of geopolitical significance in uncertain times. But the question construction itself is worth considering: why would EMNID ask people to see themselves through the eyes of another nation? In doing so, could the opinion research institute have helped propagate the idea that identity was only created through observation from the outside? Other historians have elaborated on the theory that national identity is brought to the fore at moments of encounter which bring one’s own unique background into sharp relief. Empirical opinion research helped to systematize and “scientize” such moments of encounter and comparison.

Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, co-founder of the Institut für Demoskopie, Allensbach on the cover of Der Spiegel (October 1953).
Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, co-founder of the Institut für Demoskopie, Allensbach on the cover of Der Spiegel (October 1953).

The Allensbach Institute, through its publications and the tireless work of its co-founder, Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, fostered this notion more assertively than did EMNID. How else to understand the decision by the Institute to publish a compilation of its opinion research for an English-speaking audience? Noelle-Neumann and her husband introduced the 1967 publication of The Germans: Public Opinion Polls 1947-1966 with the observation that “This is not a portrayal of the Germans based on second or third hand reports; it is the nation’s own description of itself” (The Germans vii). The Neumanns described this self-assessment of the German people as a useful corrective to the assumptions of foreign observers. “The editors feel … that the most fruitful attribute of this publication is the fact that it disproves, or at least casts doubt on, stereotype judgments of a nation by its neighbors. The Germans, on account of their role in world politics over the past century, have at times been exposed to collective repudiation, more than any other nation, with the inevitable consequence that the entire population was identified with small ruling groups … only the self-portrayal of groups in the form of poll results can project a picture that is comparatively objective” (ix). The authors presented opinion research as the means by which Germans clarified their identities to themselves and to international observers. They also noted the public opinion research would be impossible in anything other than a democracy—thereby resting their case that there could be an lingering concerns about West Germany. The Germans was thus a multi-leveled vindication of the postwar West German public, and a clear attempt to sever that public from any continued association with National Socialism.

Sarah Igo, and, more recently, Jill Lepore, among others, have brought to life the biases and assumptions that often shaped the carrying out and reporting of polls. Yet in practice, historians frequently continue to refer to poll results as stable sources for understanding popular experiences of history. Of course, in many cases poll results do provide insights that would otherwise be completely unobtainable; yet they can never stand completely on their own.

The polling institutes that emerged in West Germany after 1945 were themselves quite aware of the malleability of polls. The Allensbach Institute led the charge in identifying, publicizing, and even exploiting biases contained within certain question formulations. Noelle-Neumann commented in a letter exchange with another researcher that the results for one survey on anti-Semitism in West Germany had to be understood in context: the questions in the survey had been crafted in order to evoke higher levels of anti-Semitism to gauge possibility rather than everyday attitudes – again, they were searching for the extremes rather than the average (Noelle-Neumann to Diedrich Osmer, 26 Jan. 1954, Korrespondenz mit Instituten, 1951- , Archive of the Institut für Sozialforschung, Frankfurt). Noelle-Neumann observed in a later address at a global congress of opinion researchers that question construction remained the crux of her work. Despite the attention paid to the accuracy of various sampling methods—the debate between those favoring random versus quota sampling raged throughout the 1950s—she argued that question construction that was more likely to prompt enormous shifts in responses.

However, for Noelle-Neumann and other opinion researchers, this element did not make polls any less “scientific.” And as Anja Kruke has shown, for the media outlets that were increasingly hungry for “news” of any sort, the subjective aspects of polls did not make them any less desirable.

In the second half of the twentieth century, there were also frequent attempts to develop comparative studies of European nations based on opinion polls. Such projects were made easier by the spread of the American Gallup Institute into Western Europe through partnerships with extant native institutes. For example, EMNID became Gallup’s West German affiliate in 1955, and in 1962 the institute carried out the polling in West Germany for a study on opinions about a European community, commissioned by the Press and Information Office of the European Community. European integration proceeded in tandem with the Europeanization of public opinion research. At the forefront was West Germany and West Germans, whose views on rearmament, anti-Semitism, and refugees, among other topics, were (and remain) a pressing concern for those within and beyond German borders.

Sonja Ostrow is a PhD Candidate at Vanderbilt University and a Review Editor at H-German. Her dissertation examines the use of empirical opinion research to measure and influence political change in Germany after World War II.

Think Piece

Reestablishing Philosophy in a Destroyed Country: Karl Löwith’s Return to Germany

by guest contributor Mike Rottmann

Almost one year after the end of war, on July 20, 1946, a leading executive of the Department of Education in the State of Baden sent a letter to the President of Heidelberg University:

With regard to the letter of the Dean of the Faculty of Philosophy from May 23, 1946 […], we have—lacking any files—reconstructed by looking at the last staff appointment scheme that at the end of the Nazi regime only a single ordinary professorship of Philosophy existed, which is now filled with Professor Jaspers.

Karl Jaspers. By permission of Karl Jaspers Stiftung, Basel
Karl Jaspers. By permission of Karl Jaspers Stiftung, Basel

Within the newly constructed scheme, we have budgeted the reestablishment of a second professorship. We would like to inquire now how the fields of specialization of both chairs should be defined and how the new chair can be entitled. The new chair is to be filled by Professor Ernst Hoffmann as part of compensation. A precise labeling should be desirable, so that several lines of thinking are kept permanently in Heidelberg.

Gerhard Hess. By permission of Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, Bonn
Gerhard Hess. By permission of Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, Bonn

One week later, on July 28, Dean Gerhard Hess formulated his answer and underlined the Faculty’s “exceptional satisfaction” with Ernst Hoffmann’s return. In the same letter, however, the dean emphasized that at this University “the fields of specialization have never been circumscribed” and that each professor always has the right “to cultivate the entire field” of philosophy. This system, Hess argued, was based on a “fundamental understanding of philosophy” and should be maintained.

In October that year, Hess sent a list with three nominees to the Head of Baden’s Department of Education. A university commission nominated the three candidates. The first (and most preferred) candidate was Erich Frank. As a renowned historian of ancient philosophy, he succeeded Martin Heidegger as professor of philosophy at the University of Marburg in 1928. After the Nazi seizure of power in 1933 and the introduction of the Gesetz zur Wiederherstellung des Berufsbeamtentums (Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service), Erich Frank, who was of Jewish descent, was forced to resign his office. After a brief imprisonment in a concentration camp, Frank emigrated to the United States where he taught at both Harvard University and Bryn Mawr College. The second candidate was Hans-Georg Gadamer, professor at Leipzig University since 1939. Gadamer tried to leave the Soviet occupation zone, and moved to Frankfurt in October 1947. The third was Gerhard Krüger from Münster. Like Gadamer and, in some respects, Frank, he spent most of his career in Marburg, where he wrote his doctoral dissertation under the supervision of Nicolai Hartmann and became a close friend of the famous New Testament scholar Rudolf Bultmann.

While the government of the State of Baden entered into negotiations with the nominees, Karl Jaspers suddenly accepted a job offer from the University of Basel, Switzerland. This directly influenced the faculty and their dean, and they were under immediate pressure to make a decision: both chairs were vacant and, due to his disappointment with the political developments in the immediate postwar period, a prominent figure of West-German academia was gone. As a result of Jasper’s departure, filling his prestigious chair became top priority. Since Jaspers supported Gerhard Krüger, Krüger received the appointment in April 1948. For reasons that are difficult to understand—especially from today’s perspective—the Government of Baden was unable to allure him to Heidelberg. One external cause might have been the fact that there was no appropriate residence available! Certainly, the decisive reasons were of a personal nature and thus difficult to reconstruct. In any case, by the end of the year 1949, Hans-Georg Gadamer succeeded Karl Jaspers as chair of philosophy.

In July 1950 a second commission came to an agreement about three new candidates: Karl Löwith as primo loco, followed by Oskar Becker and Helmuth Plessner. In the report we can find the following statement as an introduction:

To re-establish the chair of Philosophy, the commission was guided by the viewpoint of bringing a new note to academic instruction.

Commission report on Löwith's candidacy. Deutsches Literaturarchiv Marbach, Nachlass Hans-Georg Gadamer
Commission report on Löwith’s candidacy. Deutsches Literaturarchiv Marbach, Nachlass Hans-Georg Gadamer

About Löwith one can read this opinion:

L. is a brilliant author. All his literary works are thoroughly made and demonstrate an unusual intellectual personality. His point of origin lies completely in the Weltanschauliche Problematik of the 19th century. Yet in his most recent work especially, he traces this problem back to its origins in the Apostolic Age in a most systematic way. There he proves again a complete mastery of the Abendländische Geistesgeschichte (western history of ideas) L. is a brilliant lecturer and he is able to stimulate and to encourage the students. As a restrained, calm and likeable scholar, he would be a pleasant colleague. It is to be expected that he would accept a call to Germany because the American teaching style remains strange to him.

Karl Löwith. By permission of Universitätsarchiv Heidelberg
Karl Löwith. By permission of Universitätsarchiv Heidelberg

In April 1951, Löwith, Professor at the New School since 1949 (as successor of Leo Strauss), received the call. But before the “causa Löwith” was able to pass through the committees, another difficulty had to be resolved. Ernst Hoffman and Raymond Klibansky had begun an edition of the works of Nicholas of Cusa in 1927, based at the Heidelberg Academy of Sciences and Humanities. When the interest in Löwith became known, the Academy intervened: with respect to this most significant project, the University should require a more appropriate candidate to follow Hoffmann. A solution was found when Gadamer agreed to burrow into the edition of Cusa’s works.

Another problem came up when Löwith wrote to Karlsruhe that he would expect about 10,000 DM to cover his moving expenses. He also noted the great difference between the salary he was currently receiving and the salary he would get in Germany. In the appeal record, one finds the notice of a circumstance which increased the pressure on the decision-makers. After the death of Nicolai Hartmann in October 1950, the administration of the University of Göttingen made inquiries about the status of the proceedings—which could be interpreted to suggest as though Göttingen were also considering an appointment of Löwith. 
Hess contacted the Federal Government in Bonn and asked for grants to fund the emigration. An Oberregierungsrat (senior civil servant) rejected this request and recommended that Hess contact the State of Hessen, since the University of Marburg had dismissed Löwith in 1935 without any claims.

Although the high academic importance of Löwith was consistently emphasized, and a failure of the negotiations due to a few thousand DM was considered unforgivable, the meagerness of the public budget could not be overcome. At the end, 7,500 DM had to be enough. 
A “cosy 2-bedrom-apartment,” an annual salary of 11,600 DM plus 2,000 DM seminar fee, and a study room at the Institute of Philosophy were initially the only conditions the university was able to offer. Löwith, who had become an American citizen, was not required to swear an oath on the constitution. The government also did not demand that he should take German citizenship again.

By the end of 1954, Löwith received a call from the University of Hamburg and a second from the University of Cologne. He could demand more concessions: a secretary as well as the highest possible salary.

Document dismissing Löwith from Marburg. By permission of Universitätsarchiv Marburg
Document dismissing Löwith from Marburg. By permission of Universitätsarchiv Marburg
Löwith's personal data form. By permission of Universitätsarchiv Marburg
Löwith’s personal data form. By permission of Universitätsarchiv Marburg

In 1954, the University of Marburg was also looking for somebody to follow Julius Ebbinghaus. The appointment commission invited Josef König to prepare a report on the candidates: Walter Bröcker, Walter Schulz, Ludwig Landgrebe, Klaus Reich and Karl Löwith. In January 1955, König wrote:

It seems to me that Mr. Löwith holds an exceptional position among those who are doing Philosophy these days. I regard him as a genuine philosopher in a broader sense of the word. He is a gentle, restrained nature. He stands with a certain distance against the Welttreiben, but also (in some way) against the going-ons of the Philosophers. But behind this form of distance his original solicitousness and connoisseurship becomes distinctly and visibly. He is absolutely not an aesthete, but his artistic nature is appreciable. Insofar, general things are of lesser interest for him, but the individual human being. These are the roots of his interest of historical situations, of psychology, sociology, and phenomenology. And this is why he is deeply moved through existentialism and, especially, through Heidegger. Therefore it is well-founded that, in his book From Hegel to Nietzsche, the following became his topic: the conflict between Hegel’s philosophy which allocate towards general things, and the philosophy of the great individuals. At the same time, this is also the conflict between philosophy and religious self-awareness. I estimate this book and the later published Meaning in History to the best that was issued since the end of war. Löwith has got a dialogic power. He is in full possession of his own and his competence. His standing should be generally accepted.

König's report on Löwith. By permission of Universitätsarchiv Göttingen
König’s report on Löwith. By permission of Universitätsarchiv Göttingen


Only a short time later, on January 28, Rudolf Bultmann, in a letter to his friend Gerhard Krüger, stated that

there is still no decision made about the succession of Ebbinghaus. Löwith, who initially had the chance to get the first position on the list, has ruined the favour of his friends through his lecture on knowledge and faith. Now Bröcker seems to have a chance.

There may well also have been objective reasons due to which an appointment to Marburg was no longer being considered. However, it is evident how stubbornly and unrestrainedly Martin Heidegger counteracted an appeal of his former student. To Bultmann he wrote in October 1954:

Löwith is an extraordinarily learned and versatile man, but he cannot think. In principle he always says “No!” where it is essential to go into the matter. Basically he is a skeptic who is able to achieve to utilize the Christlichkeit for his skepticism.

In the end, Klaus Reich became successor of Julius Ebbinghaus, while Löwith stayed in Heidelberg until his retirement in 1964. In 1961, Löwith served as visiting professor in Basel to replace the chair of Karl Jaspers.

Mike Rottmann is writing his MA thesis at the University of Jena on religious discourse in literature around 1800. He has studied modern German literature, Jewish studies and philosophy.

Think Piece

Asking the Social Question

by guest contributor Steven McClellan

What’s in a name? When I began thinking about writing a dissertation on the history of the Verein für Sozialpolitik (Association for Social Policy), I assumed that the largest problem would be related to the “Verein” part of the name: tracking down members, finding personal papers, mastering the voluminous output of their writings, etc. After all, this was an association that included some of the most important economists and sociologists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century: Gustav Schmoller, Lujo Brentano, Adolph Wagner, Max Weber, Alfred Weber, Werner Sombart, Ferdinand Tönnies, Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, Emil Lederer, and Eduard Heimann among others. It is more or less a who’s who of German social scientists for the time period. However, though this issue still remains (and will continue to do so), I’ve found it far harder to nail the jelly that is the word ‘Sozialpolitik’ to the wall. Often translated into English as ‘social politics,’ it isn’t quite the equivalent of that still-ambiguous term. Certainly, calling someone a ‘social politician’ doesn’t roll off the tongue, or invite understanding in the way that calling someone a ‘Sozialpolitiker’ in German does. Although this group is well-recognized—a biographical lexicon of German Sozialpolitiker during the Imperial Germany has recently been published under the supervision of the Kassel historian Florian Tennstedt, with a volume on the Weimar period is underway—this hardly gets us any closer to a definition. Both the notion and the practice of social politics/Sozialpolitik are crucial to the history of the last 150 years, and not just in Germany.

Schriften des Vereins (Titelblatt)

Traditionally, Sozialpolitik refers to the responses by actors from the state, church and civil society to the ‘social question,’ or the group of problems centered on alleviating the social and economic disadvantages of particular groups in society. In the particular case of Germany, rapid industrialization and political unification in the latter half of the nineteenth century spurred interest in Sozialpolitik. It was in this context that Gustav Schmoller called a group of academics, civil servants, businessmen, politicians, union leaders and journalists to Eisenach (where the Social Democratic Workingman’s Party was founded in 1869) to discuss ways to address the social question. This meeting would lead to the founding of the Verein für Sozialpolitik. One year later, Schmoller declared that, “Standing above egoistic class interests, [the State] would issue laws, administer justly, protect the weak [and] raise the lower classes[‘s]” standing in society. Schmoller’s conception of Sozialpolitik was one based on moral-ethical and nationalist premises, as he sought the social unification of Germany, thereby completing her political unification. The founding of the Verein was a great success and resonated with contemporaries. Many commentators at the time and successive generations of historians would point to the effectiveness of the Verein in mobilizing support for the social policies implemented under Bismarck during the 1870s and 1880s.

However, two things need to be pointed out. First, the Verein did not monopolize Sozialpolitik—in fact, far from it. Furthermore, it was never a monolithic group. At times there were prevailing tendencies, but individual members often did not fit this mold. Therefore, the Verein always found itself in a peculiar dialectic between inner and outer tensions and debates. This was especially the case when it came to issues related to the working class. Approaches to Sozialpolitik were loaded with a host of ideological underpinnings and assumptions that were shaped along the lines of members’ political, social and religious affiliations. What is perhaps most odd about the Verein is that it attempted to navigate the stormy waters of these often divergent strands of German society by standing on the firm ground of “science”. They were, as their secretary and historian Franz Boese repeatedly wrote in correspondence, merely a “scientific publication society.”

Gustav von Schmoller )by Nicola Perscheid, c. 1908)
Gustav von Schmoller (by Nicola Perscheid, c. 1908)

Flying the banner of Sozialpolitik became a way to ingratiate oneself into the academic fields of economics and sociology at the time, however. The leading figures of the Verein (especially Schmoller, through his personal relationship with the Prussian Minister of Education, Friedrich Althoff) were thought to dictate postings in Prussian academic institutions. The idea that Schmoller and the Verein wielded this sort of influence led dissident economists and political opponents to use words like “tyranny” and “terrorism” in the press and in pamphlets to describe their iron grip on economic teaching in Germany. Did this mean that young economists had to become a Sozialpolitiker in order to hope for an academic posting? Not exactly. But that opponents levelled the accusation shows that the Verein had helped to shape Sozialpolitik. But how did it exactly do this? And for how long did it do so? This is the at the heart of the problem that I am grappling with in my research.

Another key issue is one of boundaries. Can the term be globalized, or at least expanded beyond the borders of the nation-state? For some members of the Verein, it certainly could be. In a meeting that took place in Dresden on May 15, 1910 to decide the future research agenda, the Munich professor Moritz Julius Bonn proposed an “international” investigation on whether white races could live and work in the tropics. During the exchange that followed, noted economist Max Sering explained, “In the colonies, the race question is always an economic and a sozialpolitische question.” This was in response to his mentor Georg Friedrich Knapp’s dismissal of the proposal on the grounds that such a study did not fall under the purview of the Verein. That Sering objected to this extension and argued that colonial spaces were important to the national economy at home (heimischen Volkswirtschaft) while also claiming that the Verein’s work should taken an international turn is suggestive. Coupled with his statement about the race question and Sozialpolitik, one has to wonder how far the Verein was willing to really push the boundaries of Sozialpolitik, geographically and conceptually. The transformation of the members’ ideas about economics and sociology beyond continental Europe is a dimension of their work that is not often discussed by historians.

Indeed, around the same time of Bonn’s proposal, the Verein was undergoing an expansion of its working groups and investigations. It was recruiting scholars from numerous countries to collaborate and publish in their publication series. Unfortunately, the First World War put a stop to much of this activity, though efforts were made to rebuild those transnational scholarly networks in the 1920s. Still, the question remains: how successful was the Verein in broadening the confines of the social question? In what ways did they spur changes in Sozialpolitik in Germany and elsewhere? These are questions that we need to be asking, even if conclusive answers are hard to find.

Steven McClellan is a PhD Candidate in History at the University of Toronto. He is currently on a DAAD Research Fellowship in Germany. His dissertation project is a history of the Verein für Sozialpolitik, focusing on the years between 1890 and 1936.


Think Piece

A Case of Androgynous Gender-Bending in Early Modern Radical Religion

By guest contributor Timothy Wright

From the perspective of contemporary feminism, Christianity has a decidedly mixed record on gender. On the one hand, many modern scholars, such as Mary Wiesner-Hank, cite Christian culture as leading to an “erosion of gender variation” as the patriarchal hierarchy implicit in Christian scripture demanded a binary model of gender identity (Wiesner-Hank, Mapping Gendered Routes and Spaces, 72). On the other hand, scholars of early modernity have increasingly pointed to the egalitarian and subversive potential of the doctrine and practices of radical Christian sects such as the Quakers, whose doctrine of the ‘universal light’ legitimized such practices as female prophesy and female traveling ministers, leading the historian Mack Phyllis to label Quakerism the “cradle of modern feminism” (Phyllis, Visionary Women, 349).

A particularly outlandish example of experimenting with gender roles in early modern radical religion is found in the practice of Christian rebirth in the ascetic radical Protestant network led by Johann Gichtel (1638-1710), named the “Brethren of the Angelic Life”. Far from being understood as a purely symbolic allusion to a change in one’s inward ‘spiritual’ attitude or disposition, Christ’s reference to rebirth in John 3:5 evoked widespread early modern mystical, alchemical, and Rosicrucian speculation on how the soul and body could be transformed by faith (Dohm, Alchemische Poesie, 15). Gichtel and his circle followed in this tradition, but with a twist: his concept of rebirth aimed to erase all traces of gender from the human body, thus precipitating an androgynous transformation rendering us as the angels, or as Adam before the Fall, a doctrine Gichtel took from the highly heterodox and speculative musings of the German mystic Jakob Boehme (1575-1624). Gichtel, following Boehme, taught the great ‘mystery’ that mankind must reclaim in its own body the image of God as found in the first creation before the Fall. Gichtel argued that “the first man Adam was neither man nor woman” (Gichtel, Theosophische Send-Schreiben, 276) and this androgynous Adam, incredibly, had the ability to

impregnate himself through paradisaical means through the power of imagination like Mary and multiply without tearing [Zerreissung]. But because he did not desire this, so did God create him for this earthly life and split him in two [my italics], in which he now must spend his life with fear and pain in great sorrow. He should have had no need for his beastly genitalia [thierische Glieder] which were first given to him when he slept, of which afterwards he was ashamed and of which we still today are ashamed. The circumcision of children also shows that the phallus does not belong in the kingdom of God… (Gichtel, Theosophische Send-Schreiben, 271-2) (all translations are mine)

That the Brethren of the Angelic Life sought to realize this androgynous rebirth in mortality is illustrated by the case of one Sister Beatrix, with whom Gichtel and his companion Johann Überfeld (1659-1732) practiced celibacy, poverty, and intensive meditative prayer in a house community in Amsterdam from 1695 to 1705. In a letter from 21 March, 1710, Überfeld claimed that Beatrix had achieved such a “high and deep degree of purification” that she had “overcome her gender” (Überfeld Briefe, Theil IV, 120). In another letter, Überfeld explained that Beatrix “had died to the world to such a degree that she had almost completely lost her nature, and one could not tell in the last five years she lived, that there was a woman in the house” (Briefe, Theil IV, 128).

Unfortunately, Überfeld does not go into precise detail about the changes to Beatrix’s body, but elsewhere, including in descriptions of Gichtel’s own rebirth, we learn that the Angel-Brothers believed that sexual abstinence and other ascetic practices could induce a purifying mutation of the very substance of the human body. In a biography of Gichtel published in 1722, Überfeld claimed that Gichtel as early as the 1680s “already carried the body of the first Adam in his soul” (Lebens-Lauf, 150) which manifested itself in an outward manner: “his spirit was thereby transformed in a wholly new form, such that he appeared to be a completely new man. His soul beamed through his eyes.” (Lebens-Lauf, 84). Gichtel himself had earlier described how reborn bodies change into a ‘transparent, crystalline’ substance like Adam’s body and shed the “earthy, hard, and dark” fallen flesh (Theosophische Send-Schreiben, 217).

genderMuch of the activity of Gichtel and his network of Protestant ascetics was geared toward propagating through correspondence and publications the precise means by which such a transformation could occur. Gichtel even published a guide in 1697 to this system, or ‘theosophia practica’, of ascetic rebirth replete with anatomical diagrams illustrating the spiritually significant parts of the body (see image) such as the ‘dark world’ of the genitalia and the seat of sexual desire in the kidneys.

A spiritual transformation understood as the loss of the male-female sexual binary is nothing new to those familiar with the Christian ascetic tradition. Peter Brown indicates that Origen’s castration was not so much about ensuring chastity but rather an attempt to eliminate his maleness (Brown, The Body and Society, 169). Early Christian ascetic practice aimed not to escape the body, but rather to reclaim the original pre-lapsarian Adamic body (Body and Society, 222) that, according to Valentinian Gnostics, was characterized by a platonic unity which knew no diversity or separation into gender, as could be seen in the homogeneity of the angels. The polarity between male and female would disappear as the confusion of spiritual forces occasioned by the fall were overcome through the individual’s battle with his/her fallen flesh. Thus, the overcoming of gender was “the surest sign that the redemption offered by Christ had come to the believer.” (Body and Society, 115).

We should not assume, of course, that Gichtel’s early modern reiteration of early Christian androgynous spiritual rebirth is equivalent to an emancipatory post-modern play with the contingency of gender. Enough misogyny lay hidden in Gichtel’s hatred of sex to fill volumes. Nevertheless, Gichtel does treat sexual identity as a secondary, temporary aspect of human nature. Earthly androgyny becomes, therefore, a way to escape the straightjacket of earthly sexuality, and takes us one step closer to a form of divine ontology not expressed in gender binaries. If nothing else, Beatrix’s androgynous transformation is a colorful example of the manner in which theological heterodoxy and divergent ideas of the body and sexuality were often two sides of the same coin.

Timothy Wright is a fourth-year PhD student studying Early Modern History at UC Berkeley. His interests include religious heterodoxy and separatism in the Protestant Reformation as well as the relationship between theology, scholarship, and religious praxis in the early Enlightenment.