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Morality in German Philosophy between 1933 and 1945

Christian Strub, Fellowship project

This project is based on the conviction that it is wrong to regard the relationship between the members of the Nazi Volksgemeinschaft and their regime solely as a relationship of power and coercion, without considering that the moral justification of what the perpetrators did or allowed to happen played an important role. It is often argued that people were seduced by their Führer and that acts of violence did not result from their own free will. Other frequently cited stereotypes are that of the Mitläufer (fellow traveller) who was forced to join in and that of the amoral person who committed violence out of political conviction and did not lay claim to any moral justification.

This study will pursue the argument from a new angle, namely that the members of the Nazi Volksgemeinschaft were acting on a concept of morality and that they therefore had an interest in their principles to be universally applicable. This Nazi morality appears to be made up of three elements: (1) traditional, partly universal concepts of morality; (2) specific, highly flexible, extremely shallow concepts such as ‹race›, ‹blood›, ‹Volksgemeinschaft›, ‹Volksempfinden› etc.; (3) the transformation of the traditional concepts of morality by these specific, shallow concepts - a process which covers up the deficiencies resulting from this transformation.

As the project is based on the assumption that one of the essential elements of the relationship between the Nazi Volksgemeinschaft and its regime is a specific morality, it seems reasonable to examine the professional discourse on morality between 1933 and 1945. The first main task of the project is therefore the analysis of the philosophical publications - books, specialist journals and university papers - dealing with issues of morality.

The reception of Kant's concept of morality under National Socialism will play a special role, as Kant is no doubt the one author who has most effectively put into words a moral claim to universal validity with concepts such as ‹duty›, ‹conscience› and the ‹categorical imperative›. Another main area of investigation will be a historical analysis of the usage of the concept of morality and related concepts such as ‹honour›, ‹loyalty›, ‹duty› and ‹morals› in different contexts between 1933 and 1945.

This study is closely connected with a project on national socialism and morality which Raphael Gross and Werner Konitzer are currently working on. It also complements Christian Strub's work Sanktionen des Selbst (Hildesheim 2000) focusing on the concept of moral self-obligation which is, in Strub's opinion, essential to the explanation of what it means to be part of a social group. The abstract thoughts presented in Sanktionen des Selbst are going to be applied to a concrete case in this project.