The World That Hitler Made

“It is just when we think we may be moving away from him (Hegel) that he is most likely to be sneaking up behind us.”

— Attributed to Jacques Lacan

“Nothing great has been accomplished in the world without passion.”

— Hegel

The Twentieth “short” century, to put it mildly, was a very disturbing era. Most notably it began with yet another European “thirty-years” war, the repercussions of which were to cost the lives of literally tens of millions throughout the globe. Even, if, in total percentage terms of casualties it is to some extent the equivalent of the worst of the all too frequent conflicts of tribal man; it nevertheless commands our deepest sorrow as well as intellectual, spiritual commitment to never let such like happen again.1Indeed, it is a moral, ethical, political duty, akin to Kant’s categorical imperative, to never let the worst of the human rights crimes of the past century repeat themselves.

Yet, like Hegel before me, I am in fundamental agreement with him that we must understand history as it is and not as we would have liked it to be. After all, to understand is not necessarily to condone. Of course this is but one interpretation of past events which the reader, in the end, can either accept, partially agree to, or reject altogether.

To be an Hegelian is to both practice a method and espouse a vision. The method is profoundly entwined with the practice of what I call “deep history” or what Hegel called “comprehended history” (begriffne Geschichte). In Hegelian terms History is not “one damn thing after another”.

A key hermeneutical word/concept in all of Hegel’s work concerning the dialectic of History is aufheben. In an insightful study by Donald Philip Verene of Hegel’s multiple meanings, metaphor-rich, and careful play on words, Verene tells us that:

“The verb aufheben has four senses in English: (1) to lift or raise something up (as in the simple sense of heben, to raise); (2) to take something up, to pick it up, or even seize it actively; (3) to keep or preserve something, to retain it; and (4) to abolish, annul, cancel, to put an end to something. Hegel uses the term aufheben and its noun Aufhebung in all four senses at once: the sense of actively raising and picking something up so that it is preserved and held on to, yet in this act something of it is lost and annulled. It ceases to be what it was, but yet lives on in a new state. This is what occurs when one stage of consciousness is taken up into a succeeding stage through the negation of the former. The one is aufgehoben in the other, exists as a transformed presence in the other. The physical actions of meanings (1) and (2) parallel the more spiritual meanings of (3) and (4) of this very ordinary German verb. To raise something up is a way of keeping or holding to something but to pick something up carries a sense of selection in which something is taken from its context and thus some of what it was in its context is canceled and annulled.”

Following these preliminary insights, we can begin to assert that the motor of Hegelian History as opposed to mere contingent history is what Hegel calls the world-spirit or world-mind (the German contains both senses of spirit and mind, die Weltgeist). World-spirit/mind is the history of man’s true, rational comprehension of himself which culminates in the social-political recognition of each and every man as free and worthy of recognition as a man. Thus, the primary goal of man’s history (as opposed to the history of nature) is his rational self-realization of both his inner and outer freedom.

Within this interpretation is the important observation that not all events, epochs, eras, individuals of history are of importance. Some are merely contingent and pass in and out of history without great meaning, such as the conflicts between the Habsburgs and the Bourbons . Others are of the greatest importance for the advancement of humanity towards its most innermost truth and logic (that each man is free and thereby worthy of recognition). As Hegel stated in his Philosophy of Mind/Spirit:

“When individuals and nations have once got in their heads the abstract concept of full-blown liberty, there is nothing like it in its uncontrollable strength, just because it is the very essence of mind, and that as its very actuality.”

Some key moments in the history of this conception of spiritual/intellectual/social embodiment and teleology (World-Spirit/Mind) have been, according to Hegel, the advent of Christianity as a religion which promulgated that all men are equal under the eyes of God, the Protestant reformation which created a space for the individual conscience to choose its relations with both itself and the outside world, and, finally, the French Revolution which, for the first time, set up the universal principles of the Rights of Man which enshrined the concept of each man’s innate value and necessary freedom.

A word should be said about the last event in the above mentioned sequence, the French Revolution. Hegel, contrary to his many detractors, never said that History ended with the French Revolution. What he did say is that the French Revolution was the end, in principle if not in practice, of a certain important self-understanding of man; namely that he is free and worthy of recognition from every other man. Hegel was under no illusion that it would take a long time for such realization to be put into practice. Additionally, Hegel explicitly stated that the philosopher can only comprehend his own time and that of the past; he, the philosopher, was not in the business of “prophecy” and had no privileged vantage point into the future. All the philosopher of history could do is examine the march of history and look for deep meaning in its many strands and convolutions. It is in this sense that Hegel famously meant that World History is World Judgment. Man is, ultimately, rational. History is made by man and thus can be fully comprehended. Therefore, what is, or what has come to pass has an inherent rationality to it, otherwise it would never have been actuated. And the supreme reason of man’s development in “comprehended history” is his contradictory march towards subjective and objective self-emacipation (the objective side is ultimately manifested within the rational, free state/government within which he may one day live).

In everything that Hegel says, it is crucial to understand that for him, as for Aristotle, man is rational. The path he takes is rational. Even when, at first or even second, or third glance, such as the First World War, historical events may appear absurd or profoundly irrational; yet the Hegelian philosopher armed with his conception of deep History and his analytical method of historical contradictions may well find meaning where others have found none.

At this point we should say a word about Hegel’s famous “negation of the negation”. In our view this is nothing more (and nothing less) than a new challenge towards what currently is, the given, leading to a resolution of the old given through a new self-reflection or social action thereby creating something altogether new which contains both terms while, at the same time, resolving contradictions within each of the terms themselves. In this technical, logical way, history moves into new ages discarding some things standing in the way of its higher self-realization, while preserving other elements that do not stand in the way of its ultimate development.

For instance, it is popular to conceive both in the West and in Russia that the twentieth-century conflict with Imperial Germany and, later, Nazi Germany was, intrinsically, a war of barbarism versus civilization. Indeed, after almost 70 and more years of historical research and debate, the common consensus of historians is that the birth of Imperial Germany in 1871, its rapid “hot-house” industrialization, its ultra-conservative elites and quasi-feudal social and political structures, as well as its infamous late nineteenth-century culture of anti-modernism and anti-Enlightenment contributed significantly to a general atmosphere of paranoia (the famous “encirclement” complex) which produced two world conflicts of horrific proportions.

It is also common to view both world conflicts as “avoidable”, “senseless”, and even the product of two unstable individuals, one the Emperor Wilhelm the II seeking “his place under the sun” and the other the charismatic madman, Adolf Hitler seeking “a new world order” and the “new man” that would inhabit it. We think, after much consideration, that both accounts are only partially correct and that there is another more comprehensive view of the twentieth-century afforded by a close return to Hegel’s philosophy of History.

The plain historical matter of fact is that the “West” was neither as free, noble, or progressive as it would like to imagine itself to have been vis a vis its historical internal nemesis Germany. In short, the “West” from approximately 1860 to 1945 was a place rife with intellectual, spiritual, social and political contradictions many of which were barriers to the “world-spirit’s” aim of individual freedom, recognition, and self-respect.3

The Western world of this time was intellectually, and for the most part (with notable exceptions such as John Stuart Mill), spiritually racist, chauvinist, classist (particularly in England and Germany), social-Darwinist, imperialistic, misogynist, and anti-homosexual. These attitudes translated themselves, materially, in the various institutions of colonialism as well as racial segregation policies (the American “negro” question, as one notable example) and including the medical practice of eugenics in the form of sterilization if not murder. In addition, this was a world where the old feudal/aristocratic elites and their institutions were still very much alive as well as revived in imperialist beliefs and practices as well as ultra-nationalist ideas and parties. Indeed, perhaps most importantly, the old feudal/aristocratic elites had successfully inculcated the middle and lower classes in their “Culture of Honor” which was an extensive social and political belief system which encompassed romantic notions of gendered behavior under the twin notions of “Chivalry” for men, and “Chastity” for women. Furthermore, the concept of honor was not just an idea, but had very serious historical repercussions such as being a major ideal/material factor in the outbreak of World War One, through the romanticizing of war/conflict/ and normative notions of masculinity. The historical literature is rife with European elites’, as well as the classes below them, near obsession with national rank, honor, glory and, from time to time, the necessity to defend their women’s sexual reputation. As Mark Girouard once remarked: “Opinions will always differ as to whether the Great War could or should have been prevented. But one conclusion is undeniable: the ideals of chivalry worked with one accord in favour of war.”

What was essential about this period, was a precocious material progress which was not matched by an equally precocious understanding of its spiritual possibilities. In short, this was a world that had achieved great technical progress while not recognizing or being able to widely realize the necessary ethical and moral opinions to have made that achievement less dangerous. Rather, on the contrary, the survival, or revival, of older moral and ethical conceptions and ideas such as “chivalry” was the “determinate negation” that was to give the lie to that unbalanced self-perception of the age and confront it with the horror of the truth in the form of the trenches of World War One; where not only millions died, but a conception of civilization too was buried. In a word, for the West, real modern war had to reveal the falseness of the earlier concept of the “chivalrous” war, and in this sense World War One, or something like it, was inevitable. Ironically, in the fashion of Hegel, it was the first step, but only a first step, to learning the virtues of a modern peace.

Before we begin to analyze in more detail, under the influence and direction of Hegel, the dual movements or singular 30 year process of the two world wars, we should note, also in accordance with Hegel that the objective spirit of both art and philosophy were displaying significant signs of anomie and what Hegel termed “the unhappy consciousness” in the generation before the events of 1914-45. In philosophy, none other than the “Aristocratic Anarchist” Friedrich Nietzsche was to display a fateful dissatisfaction with his time and place, hearkening back to and reinterpreting, in his own way, Arete, or the notion of agonistic excellence of the Homeric Greeks, while forcefully rejecting the triple future tendencies of the West: pacifism, socialism, and democracy. While simultaneously in the art world, in the form of Aestheticism and Decadentism a profound sense of loss, ennui, incompleteness, nostalgia, exile, and isolation was being reflected and created in unprecedented works of art. In this way, Nietzsche was right in his frequent observation that he was living in a dying world that was unaware of its own decrepitude; and he was uncannily prescient in his understanding that it would take “dynamite” to reveal its essential truth. In this way, we can say, with Hegel, that art, in objective terms, was already registering a truth that it could not, as yet, fully grasp. An essential contradiction between the state of self-reflection and the longing or desire of self-reflection which was of course for more fuller forms of freedom and recognition. But that state of affairs would have to wait for the future, for the horrible resolution of the contradictions of a doomed state of cognition.

If the First World War put a formal end to three Empires (the Habsburg, Wilhelmine, and Ottoman) and shook the “Culture of Honor” it did not thereby, completely break it, and the elites which continued to support it. Indeed, in that most famous of unstable political creations after the “Great War”, the Wiemar Republic, it was rightly said of it that it was a “democracy without democrats”. As Hegel had noted long before, in his explanation of why Napoleon was unsuccessful in setting up a constitutional monarchy in the Spain of his time, the Weimar Republic was an “alien” construct that was imposed from without and had not been a historically contingent product from within. Democracy for Germany was an external wish, which had very few, true supporters among a large swathe of the population of the time. This historical feeling was encapsulated by the oft repeated phrase of the era “Everything was better under the Kaiser”.

Elsewhere in Europe the “Culture of Honor” continued as did the negative impediments to freedom which we had mentioned at the outset: racialism, imperialism, chauvinism and all its grotesque institutional and ideational permutations. Thus, the world of pre-1914 had been seriously wounded by the First World War, but not mortally so. And similar to all living things which are wounded and facing possible annihilation, because it should always be remembered that the “World-Spirit/Mind” is a living concrete, embodied thing made by the actions of men and women in history; the ideational forces of the old-world were to make one last irrational, cataclysmic stand for its understanding of itself and its hoped for promulgation into the future.

On a political level, it was in the borrowed language of the future and selected symbolism of modernity that the forces of the past were to sell themselves as a viable option. For neither Nazism nor Soviet Communism, being the half-way houses or “pathological transitions” to true modernity, could ever have garnered any support unless they focused on some aspects of modernity while neglecting others. And crucially, both historical movements focused on the technical, scientific side of modernity while discounting as “useless” what they considered the corrupt and decadent “bourgeois morality” of politics, society, and, even art, that had continued to evolve in those lands which had accepted the radical Enlightenment view of themselves as once shaped and reflected, among others, in the works of Thomas Paine and John Stuart Mill.

Yet, in Hegelian terms, their projects were doomed to failure from the start if not only because they, from the outset, negated the essential nature of man which is rational, seeks equal recognition, and longs for an equal share in freedom, but because their own creations were unstable half-terms of the very thing they were trying to grasp and put to victorious use: modernity.

Both movements took half-steps to meet the modern spirit which had been developing in the nineteenth century and was only increasing in both rationality and reality after the “Great War”. Seen in this way, it is no accident, that, for instance, the old elites of Germany sought to align themselves and then “control” the Nazi party; a task which they were already too pre-modern to undertake. More importantly, in this way, the oft repeated, and often puzzled about “modern” nature of Nazi Germany can be more fully understood. In Hegelian terms, Nazi Germany had partially negated the Old Wilhelmine Germany in some aspects (as a broadly based popular dictatorship rather than a traditional monarchy) but had retained many of the same attitudes of the World pre-1914: racist, imperialist, and culturally anti-Enlightenment while intensely focused on industrial/technical/scientific progress. In a sense, Nazi Germany was old-Wilhelmine Germany in a futurist uniform.

The problem of course was that this half-transformation in one of the world’s most dynamic and influential states was led by a “world-historical” figure that also happened to be the greatest madman the Western World had ever produced. However, Hegel would not have been surprised for as he lugubriously noted time and again, world historical figures act on their own passions, destroy much around them, and yet, contrary or unbeknownst to their final aims, establish the will of the world-spirit, despite themselves.

At this point, we should make one point clear. We know that Hitler considered himself a “World-historical” figure. Unfortunately for him and the world, he did not read or understand his Hegel well enough. For like all the world-historical figures before him, he was not to realize his own aims, which were a “Thousand Year Reich”, but the very opposite of his aim which has always been the aim of “World-Spirit/Mind”; the promulgation of freedom and the recognition of man. In a terrible historical irony, the “Hitlerian Revolution”, similar to the French revolution a century and a half before it, was to force the resolution and thereby consequent overcoming of many of the illiberal vestiges/contradictions of the West. Thus, from a Hegelian point of view, it is no accident that almost immediately after the disappearance of this uniquely evil “world-historical” figure; the processes of racial equality, minority rights, gay rights, collective security, feminism, de-colonialization, unprecedented and widespread anti-war sentiment, the first public condemnation of genocide as a historical practice, the birth of the bomb (as of this moment arguably the most important modern device directly responsible for holding in check the outbreak of global war, if not local war), the unprecedented spread of the “gentle hand of commerce”, the birth of Israel (where Jews, in a Hegelian sense, achieved true recognition), the demise of the eugenicist movement, and even animal rights were to come to the fore. The essential irrationality and irreconcilability of the Hitlerian project with contingent, historical reality removed many of the lingering ideational/material barriers to a modern world. Instead of a “Thousand Year Reich” of pain and suffering, an infinitely better, if still very imperfect; Pax Americana has arisen in its place and with it, despite all its glaring imperfections, hope for a better future open to the further, hopefully beneficial, unforeseeable meanderings of the world-spirit/mind. Contrary to the hopelessness of Adorno and the Frankfurt school who famously stated that “poetry was not possible after Auschwitz” we tentatively call the period following the “negation of the negation” (the first half of the Twentieth Century): the Auschwitz Rebound.

Suggested Readings.

The American West and the Nazi East a comparative and interpretive perspective, Carroll P.Kakel – Palgrave Macmillan – 2014

HITLER’S AMERICAN MODEL: the united states and the making of nazi race law, JAMES Q.WHITMAN – PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRES – 2018

Nazi Connection Eugenics, American Racism, and German National Socialism, Stefan Kuhl – Oxford University Press, USA – 2014

Preaching eugenics: religious leaders and the American eugenics movement, Christine Rosen – International Society for Science and Religion – 2007


Dan Corjescu teaches at the University of Tübingen’s TRACS program.