Friday, December 17, 2010

Philosophers Buying Into Nazi Censorship?

This, from a recent article in Science, examining word usage frequencies using Google's huge corpus of books:
We probed the impact of censorship on a person’s cultural influence in Nazi Germany. Led by such figures as the librarian Wolfgang Hermann, the Nazis created lists of authors and artists whose “undesirable”, “degenerate” work was banned from libraries and museums and publicly burned (26-28). We plotted median usage in German for five such lists: artists (100 names), as well as writers of Literature (147), Politics (117), History (53), and Philosophy (35) (Fig 4E). We also included a collection of Nazi party members [547 names, ref (7)]. The five suppressed groups exhibited a decline. This decline was modest for writers of history (9%) and literature (27%), but pronounced in politics (60%), philosophy (76%), and art (56%). The only group whose signal increased during the Third Reich was the Nazi party members [a 500% increase; ref (7)].
One interpretation, perhaps, is that philosophers socked it to Hitler and suffered most. However, given the rate at which philosophers appear to have co-operated with the Nazis (explored by George Leaman in Heidegger im Kontext and hopefully subject of a future post), I don't think we should rule out another interpretation: Philosophers tended to accept the Nazi censorship and stopped referring to the censored authors, more so than academics in other fields.

I wonder if there is a way to tease these hypotheses apart....

HT: Bernie Kobes.


  1. i can't read the article, but i wonder what the identity of the primary publishers might have to do with it. who published what, in german, in that period? who was private, and who affiliated with the state or with state educational institutions? what sort of controls over private publishers did the state assert?

    given the various affinities between them, that whole set of percentages for each discipline is weird. why aren't literature and art closer together? why are history and literature the pair that are lowest?

  2. Eric, I agree that, of the two hypotheses you give, the second is more plausible.

    I wonder, though, whether philosophy by its nature is particularly suited to challenging political evil, more so than the other cultural fields studied, and therefore the discipline would have seemed more threatening to the Nazi regime if pursued openly and vigorously, hence actually more risky to pursue openly and vigorously. If so, then it's neither that philosophers had bravely challenged the regime and therefore suffered greater repression, nor that the philosophers were more cowardly, but rather that the discipline as such, pursued openly and vigorously, tends to threaten authoritarian regimes. This conjecture would be compatible with the further view that actual philosophers are, morally and politically, neither better nor worse than practitioners of other disciplines.

    Also, in the Harvard paper, figure 4E seems to show an unusual spike in philosophical references in the 1920s. I don't know how to explain that. But the greater decline in cultural references to philosophy may be in part due to that unusual spike in the 1920s.


  3. Although I am pretty weak on the history of this area, I think that the large number of prominent lefty philosophers in, e.g. the Vienna Circle, left for places like England during the Third Reich. I don't know exactly how big the movement was, but maybe their emigration is also a reason for the decline in the citations of censored authors. This is not incompatible with your second hypothesis, and even supports it since those philosophers left in Nazi Germany would be more sympathetic than before the emigration.

  4. Bernie: I agree on both counts (as we discussed by email).

  5. J Vlastis: I have been working through some of the data on this. There was indeed considerable emigration -- maybe in the ballpark of 20% of philosophers with habilitation. However, a large proportion of the remainder -- perhaps more than half -- joined the Nazi party. I hope to have better numbers on this soon. I would also like to see comparison numbers from other academic disciplines.

  6. If a philosopher accepts nazi censorship they will be doing so because of various influences being applied to them - including coersion and indoctrination. And the two are not only "not mutually exclusive" but probably highly correlated in nazi germany.

    In the light of that it would probably be very difficult to tease apart those two hypothesis and if you did it might depend on exactly where your dividing line was.

    so... I expect your task would either be very difficult or inaccurate...


  7. GNZ: A tricky business, agreed -- and I'm inclined to think that Google Books wouldn't be the way to tease them apart. (I am open to clever ideas about it, though.) But there is a difference, I think, between doing something because coerced and doing it eagerly, and more nuanced biographical approaches might be able to cast some light.