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Response to Gadamer Interview

Dear Radical Philosophy,
I am not sure how the interview with Hans-Georg Gadamer earned its presence within the pages of a
journal called Radical Philosophy. I am no expert on him, and I would like to be corrected, but it
appears that the interviewers allowed him to slide away from what should have been some fundamental
issues for a journal of this kind.

Karl L6with was a contemporary of Gadamer’ s and also a critical member of Heidegger’ s circle at
Freiburg in the twenties. In My Life in Germany Before and After 1933: A Report (1989, translated by
Elizabeth King, University of Illinois Press, 1994 – written in 1940) L6with describes how, despite
being a Jew, he kept his university post longer than most because of his valiant war service. (Many of
his German colleagues were surprised that he was not grateful and resented the purchase of his post
with his war-time exploits.) Nevertheless, L6with was forced to leave Marburg in 1934, and Gadamer
was one of four colleagues who were at L6with’s leaving dinner. After living in Italy, in Japan, and
then in America, L6with returned to Germany in 1952. The invitation to the chair of philosophy at
Heidelberg, the cause of his post-war return, appears to have been made at Gadamer’s instigation.

The charge that Bauman makes in Modernity and the Holocaust (Polity, 1989, pp. 109-10) is that
the German intelligentsia did little or nothing to defend Jewish university colleagues as first their
careers were destroyed, and then, in many cases, if they had not emigrated, the Jews themselves.

L6with, writing in 1940 and therefore before the mass exterminations but close to the recorded events
themselves, was obviously intent on scrupulously noting any acts of support for Jews or opposition to
the regime amongst colleagues, apparently because they were so rare. He is thankful for the Gadamers’

generous hospitality in the late twenties and notes Gadamer’s attendance at his sparsely attended
leaving dinner, but that is all that I could find in that source in Gadamer’s favour.

In the interview, Gadamer extols the virtues of friendship over individualism as an antidote to
present day racial division and hatred. Gadamer did not repudiate L6with but neither does he appear to
escape L6with’s regret that ‘A protest by professors of the most diverse faculties against the dismissal
of their Jewish colleagues was never made public’ (L6with, p. 78). In the whole of Germany, only
three German professors and the Swiss Karl Barth, L6with claims, openly protested. Even when the
Student Society at Marburg circulated a national student leaflet (‘Against the Non-German Spirit’)
which stated, inter alia, that Jews could only think as Jews and when they spoke German they lied,
none of the university staff protested. By this time there were only four Jewish lecturers left at
Marburg, besides L6with.

Gadamer replies to (avoids?) a question about his politics in the Nazi period by implying that the
most important issue was for philosophers to avoid censorship in order to keep critical intelligence
alive. This was relatively easy, we are told, because philosophy was above the heads of the censors. It
is worth contrasting this with L6with’s observation that in 1935, after the exclusion of Jewish
university staff, and the zealous embrace and application of national-socialist doctrine by many of the
remainder, ‘on the basis of the miserable exam results, the Minister declared that he would no longer
tolerate any professors dabbling in politics. The results of the “populist” scholarship indeed led to a
depoliticization for political reasons, and the total state, paradoxically, again became the advocate of
neutrality in intellectual matters!’ (L6with, p. 80).

There is an oppressive silence which surrounds the social history of this period, for those who try to
penetrate it are threatened and harassed. This silence, on the anecdotal evidence I have, even envelops
those who behaved courageously, perhaps for fear that they shame the rest. For whatever reasons, we
must not be complicit in this silence.

Radical Philosophy arrived at my house on the fiftieth anniversary of the liberation of AuschwitzBirkenau. Perhaps it was that contrast that made this interview appear both at once insubstantial and
offensive. I especially took exception to Gadamer’s complacent view that philosophers like himself
had lived up to the challenges of democracy, but the German media and the German ‘masses’ were not
yet capable of doing so.

Andrew McCulloch


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