MA student Matt Beard recently published an article on The Importance of Academic Impartiality, in Quillette. Matt’s research interests include the history of political thought, artificial intelligence, and education.
In November 1933, as rector of Freiburg University, Martin Heidegger published a letter urging students to vote “yes” in support of Hitler’s decision to leave the League of Nations. “German men and women!” Heidegger wrote, “The Führer is asking nothing from the people. Rather, he is giving the people the possibility of making, directly, the highest free decision of all.” Alongside this so-called free decision, students were ordered to march to the local polling office to vote. Heidegger, using the full authority of his position as head of the university, told students: “The Führer has awakened this will in the entire people and has welded it into a single resolve. No one can remain away from the polls on the day when this will is manifested.”
Intellectual thought in Weimar Germany was diverse, but many scholars could not resist the allure to proselytize from their podiums. Carl Schmitt—an international relations theorist who defined the political as the possibility of violence against enemy groups—joined the Nazi Party in 1933 and advocated for book burnings. Both Schmitt and Heidegger produced enduring works of philosophy that are still read for their influence today, but this sinister turn hangs over their legacies. In the chaos of the interwar period, many students were desperate for political answers. While some academics believed it was irresponsible to use their position to advance any cause beyond the impartial pursuit of truth, others took up a party line.
Heidegger and Schmitt are extreme examples of professors allowing politics to cloud their academic responsibilities, to say the least. I do not raise the horrors of Weimar in an attempt to write a cheap polemic about culture-war issues on campus today. Rather, I believe that studying the response to academic overreach in Weimar, particularly from the philosophers Max Weber and Hannah Arendt, may clarify the foundations of our academic speech debates today. Extreme examples often push thinkers to consider problems more deeply, which Weber (a contemporary of Schmitt’s) and Arendt (a student of Heidegger’s) surely did.