Viennese Philosophy in the Shadow of Nazism

October 21, 2020 | Adam Kirsch
About the author: Adam Kirsch, a poet and literary critic, is the author of, among other books, Benjamin Disraeli and The People and The Books: Eighteen Classics of Jewish Literature.

In the aftermath of World War I, the city of Vienna was no longer the capital of the sprawling Hapsburg empire, but of the small country commonly referred to as “rump Austria.” Yet it remained a thriving center of cultural and intellectual life. One particularly influential example was the Vienna Circle, an interdisciplinary group—its best-known member was the mathematician Kurt Gödel—interested in the relationship between language and philosophy. Deeply influenced by the Viennese philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, himself a Christian of Jewish descent, the group consisted of both Jews and Christians, but was understood to be somehow “Jewish.” Adam Kirsch, reviewing a new book on the circle, The Murder of Professor Schlick, explains:

Moritz Schlick, who turned to philosophy after earning a doctorate in physics [was the group’s leader]. . . . Schlick’s death had nothing to do with his ideas; he was killed by a psychotic former student, Johann Nelböck, who had been stalking and threatening him for years and finally shot him, in June, 1936, on the steps of a university building. But what happened next . . . was indeed shaped by what the Vienna Circle had come to represent in the ideological frenzy of interwar Austria.

No sooner had news of the crime broken than the nationalist, anti-Semitic press began to extenuate and even to praise it as a blow against degenerate Jewish thought. Schlick was accused of damaging “the fine porcelain of the national character” and of embodying Jewish “logicality, mathematicality, [and] formalism,” qualities inimical to “a Christian German state.” One writer urged that the murder should “quicken efforts to find a truly satisfactory solution of the Jewish Question.” Nelböck, at his trial, played to this sentiment, claiming that he had killed Schlick for ideological reasons.

In this deranged atmosphere, no one was deterred by the fact that Schlick was not Jewish but, rather, a German Protestant. Some of his defamers probably didn’t know this, but others simply didn’t care, since in their eyes Jewishness wasn’t defined only by religion or ethnicity. It was also a mind-set, characterized by the modernism and liberalism they saw as sources of spiritual corruption.

The great rival of Wittgenstein and the Vienna Circle at that time was Martin Heidegger, who, in Kirsch’s words, “wanted to make philosophy more like poetry, whereas the Vienna Circle wanted it to be more like math.” He was also “an enthusiastic Nazi.”

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