There was a time I was absolutely convinced: existentialism is the answer. Nowadays I’m not so sure anymore. Not because it is not an answer to many problems, because it is. But I happen to wonder whether it is a sufficient answer.
Existentialism became popular after the Second World War particularly in France under the influence of Jean-Paul Sartre. For a good book as introduction into his thought: read ‘Letter on Humanism‘ by Heidegger to Sartre, or of course Sartre’s short but enlightening ‘Existentialism is a Humanism‘. Although understanding its philosophical perspective can take you a lifetime, when you grasp the ‘existence precedes essence’ part, you surely get an idea of what is going on.
When existence precedes essence, this means that unlike regular conceptions for instance of religious institutions, the essence of a human being, that what defines who he or she is and in more general terms also what it means to be human, is not pre-supposed, is not already knowable and defined before it comes into existence. Instead, existentialism claims that by coming into existence, by the way one presents him- or herself and chooses to act (existence), he becomes who he is (essence). Or, as Sartre puts it: “…man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards.”
It can easily be seen why this was attractive to a nation, to a world that was facing a crime that was impossible to grasp. The Shoah made it rather impossible to continue accepting moral theories that relied on the inherent goodness of mankind. People were searching for explanations: how could this have happened, and also: how could individual people participate towards executing that plan.
Many individuals who participated in executing or organising the Shoah blamed the government, and legal systems were often at a loss, as individuals could only be tried under the laws of the country as they were during the act itself. So it is understandable people started looking for an explanation of human life and human actions that made it possible to blame individuals, irrespective of whether they (merely?) followed orders. If the actions of people are chosen and not predestined by their genes or by divine will, they become responsible for their own actions.
But there was another advantage. People who had no idea of what was happening in the camps, could feel relieved, they could not be blamed. And it also made it possible to at least partly blame Jewish leaders for participating in the grand scheme of the Shoah (see for instance Hannah Arendt). Existentialism was therefore an easy fix. Perhaps too easy.
Existentialism and Nazi Politics
But existentialism wasn’t invented only after the Second World War. Without any historical sources to back this up, I think it would be safe to say that existentialism even influenced Nazi politics. The Nietzschean Superman (Übermensch), although in that time greatly misconstrued (blame the sister, blame the existing paradigm, whatever), is essentially an existentialist view. The Übermensch is the individual who is not influenced by the order of society and is independently defining himself. The etymological relationship with the term “Untermensch” used by the Nazis to refer to the Jewish race, should not be overlooked.
Perhaps it can be said that existentialist thought also made it possible for Nazi politics to systematically degrade specific groups in society (Jews, Roma, gays, etc etc). The Nazis did not only claim a racial difference – which would be an essence before existence argument. No, they actively proclaimed that these specific groups had chosen their specific lives, they were responsible for their own actions and were therefore to be systematically eradicated. According to Hitler the Jews were behind all the moral and economical problems of Germany. This was not due to their race, but because of their actions (see for a good analysis of the development of this attitude towards the Jewish people in Germany and Europe the first chapters in the excellent book by Hannah Arendt The Origins of Totalitarianism).
Popularity of Existentialism as Mauvaise Foi
We can conclude existentialism can both be used as an argument in favour of executing the Shoah and as a way to free oneself of blame after it had taken place. This is problematic. But existentialism isn’t merely a theory of individuality. To explain this, allow me one more educational diversion.
Sartre introduced the term ‘bad faith’ (mauvaise foi) to delineate behaviour of people who thought themselves to behave as free individuals, but instead are just fooling themselves and are very much part of the social sphere and are not defining themselves freely, but are defining who they are based on their role in society. In ‘Being and Nothingness‘ he gives a classic example is of the waiter, who can wait on tables in different ways. Either he does this freely, he acts because he wants to act the way he does and this happens to be seen by others as actions of a waiter – the waiting makes him a waiter.
Or, he acts as he thinks is required of him as he is a waiter – even if he freely chooses to be a waiter – his actions are therefore not free but based on what he thinks is expected of him – he is therefore in mauvaise foi.
Although for existentialists like me it is impossible to judge others (and this is also a problem, but I’ll leave the problem of relativism for another time), people who in post-WWII France claim their innocence on existentialist grounds were probably in bad faith. For, weren’t they just as free to find out about the truth of what happened to their Jewish neighbours when they were deported or threatened to be deported?
But even if it was not done in bad faith, it is a problem when existentialism can be used to silence a lack of moral persistence.