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The Great Harari Confusion

Were the Nazis actually "humanists"?

Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari published international bestsellers such as "A Brief History of Humankind" and "Homo Deus". Tragically, he made some hair-raising mistakes in his analysis, which cannot go unchallenged. A commentary by Michael Schmidt-Salomon.​

Usually I refrain from criticizing books by other authors. The impression that you want to upgrade your own works by devaluing others arises all too quickly. But after Harari's books are printed in millions, after credible minds like Daniel Kahneman praised the author above and beyond, and after even the Humanistische Pressedienst (Humanistic Press Service) (!) published an explicit reading recommendation for Harari's books (Thomas Hummitzsch, 28.6.2017: "Harari's wise, stimulating and agitating book is a wake-up call in which he analyzes the present to preserve the possibility of a human future. If you only want to carry one book in your suitcase, then take this one!"), I am forced to break my self-imposed "abstinence rule". Because you can only warn of an author who is so caught up in ideological thought patterns that he describes National Socialism (!) as a "humanistic religion" (!).

Please note: This unusual characterization of National Socialism or humanism is by no means a unique, incidental slip by the bestselling author, but a core element of his worldview. To make this clear, I have to elaborate some more: In both of his books, "A Brief History of Humanity" as well as "Homo Deus", Harari describes the rise of humanism, which replaced the old theistic religions, and the imminent decline of humanism, which was replaced by new technological ideologies ("posthumanism" or "dataism"). In both books Harari also states that humanism has to be characterized as a "religion" (one searches in vain for a differentiation between "religions", "worldviews" or "philosophies"), which falls into three hostile "humanistic sects", i.e. the denominations of "liberal humanism", "socialist humanism", and "evolutionary humanism".

Oddly enough, Harari considers only those to be "liberal humanists" who fall back "on God the Creator and the immortality of the soul" ("A Brief History of Humankind", p. 2821), thereby concealing the fact that it was precisely non-theists and non-idealists (i.e. atheists, agnostics, materialists, and naturalists) who fought for the central values of "liberal humanism", namely human rights, democracy, and the principles of an open society. No less peculiar: Harari does not describe authors such as Ernst Bloch or Erich Fromm, who considered themselves "socialist humanists", as "socialist humanists", but communist dictators such as Josef Stalin, who used the term "humanism" only as an insult and who persecuted "humanists" who referred to the early writings of Marx as representatives of a "bourgeois revisionism", i.e. as traitors to the partisan communist doctrine.

As if all this were not strange enough already, Harari then finally takes the biscuit with his characterization of "evolutionary humanism": The author lets us know in both "A Brief History of Humankind" (p. 281) and in "Homo Deus" (p. 337) that evolutionary humanism is a "sect", "whose best known representatives were the National Socialists". Yes, you read correctly: According to Yuval Noah Harari, Adolf Hitler was not only a dictator, nationalist, racist, and mass murderer, but also one of the leading representatives of evolutionary humanism!

Adolf Hitler a "humanistic" mass murderer?

How does the author come up with this bold idea? Well, according to Harari, all humanistic denominations have in common that they replace "faith in God" with a "faith in humanity" - which is not objectionable at first (even if one can hardly follow Harari's description that humanists "worship" humanity). Regarding this "belief in humanity" - Harari continues - we must regard National Socialism as a particularly consistent variant of humanism, since it renounced the "traditional monotheism" as "the only humanist sect".

This sounds saucy but has little to do with historical reality. The NS ideology was in no way shaped by a secular-humanistic worldview, but by the concept of "holy leadership" to which every part of the "people's body" had to submit. There were reasons why the German soldiers went to war "with God and the Führer" and that Hitler quoted "divine destiny" at every opportunity. Nazi Germany was one of the few states in the 20th century where "godlessness" was officially not allowed to exist. Those who were not members of a religious community were listed in the official category of "believers in God" by the Nazis, since "atheism" was regarded as an expression of a "culture-destroying, Jewish-Bolshevik attitude" which was in no way tolerated.

Harari, however, does not only ignore the theistic-religious (sometimes occult) character of the Nazi ideology. It is much more serious that it undermines all criteria by which humanistic and anti-humanistic worldviews can be meaningfully distinguished. All (modern) humanisms share the imperative to "overthrow all conditions in which man is a degraded, enslaved, abandoned, and contemptible being". As a rule, bourgeois-liberal humanists agree with Karl Marx's phrase - even if they usually have quite different ideas about how this can be realized socially. For this reason, National Socialism, which radically excluded large groups of people from the outset, humiliated them to an unimaginable degree, enslaved them, annihilated them, may under no circumstances be described as "humanistic", if this term should continue to have any solid meaning.

Harari now tries to save his concept by prefixing the supposed "humanism" of the National Socialists with the attribute "evolutionary". However, in logical terms, this is nonsensical. If the attribute "evolutionary" meant that humanism mutated into antihumanism, we would have to speak of "evolutionary antihumanism" instead of "evolutionary humanism". But so be it. Harari defends his curious choice of terminology by claiming that the National Socialists differed from "other humanists" (sic!) in that their view of humanity was "strongly influenced by the theory of evolution". That sounds like a powerful argument, but is it true?

Did the Nazis think "evolutionary"?

The answer to this question is: No! It is easy to show that "socialist humanism", which goes back to Darwin's admirers Marx and Engels, is also based on the theory of evolution. Among the "liberal humanists" of the 20th century, one will also find (even if we accept Harari's unfounded limitation of the term) only a few representatives who opposed the theory of evolution. In fact, "socialist humanists" like Erich Fromm or "liberal humanists" like Karl Popper referred to the theory of evolution much more strongly in their writings than Nazi ideologists like Hitler, Streicher, or Rosenberg.

In any case, it is wrong to think that the theory of evolution significantly influenced the National Socialist idea of man. At its centre were not scientific concepts such as the theory of evolution, but anti-scientific and anti-humanistic myths such as the idea of the superiority of "Europeans/Whites/Aryans" (a legacy of colonialism) and the "culturally destructive power of the Jews" (a remnant of Christian anti-Judaism). Mixed with exaggerated authoritarianism (a consequence of the obedience techniques trained over generations, especially in Prussia) and an overflowing nationalism, which was further fuelled by the defeat in the First World War, this developed into a highly dangerous political ideology, which was at best embellished with the help of well-selected "evolutionary theoretical findings".

These evolutionistic fragments in Nazi ideology, however, were not based on "the" theory of evolution, but on a highly distorted interpretation of it. Thus, the Nazi idea of the "fight of all against all" diametrically contradicted the findings that Darwin had presented particularly in his second major work on evolutionary theory, "The Descent of Man". At that time, Darwin had already shown with innumerable examples (which Peter Kropotkin impressively reinforced in the beginning of the 20th century in his famous book on "Mutual Help in the Animal and Human Realms") that love, caring, willingness to cooperate, altruism, and gentleness are evolutionarily successful strategies.

Let us note: The Nazis' worldview was neither "humanistic" nor "evolutionary" if these terms are used in a somewhat serious way. Harari himself could have easily seen this if he had addressed what the term "evolutionary humanism", which has been introduced into the international debate for decades, actually means. However, this is precisely what makes Harari's books so odd: although the concept of evolutionary humanism plays an important role in his books as an additional threat, nowhere does he even mention that this term was coined in the middle of the 20th century by distinguished evolutionary biologist and first general director of UNESCO, Julian Huxley.

What the term "evolutionary humanism" actually means

After the horrors of the Second World War, Nazism, and Stalinism, Huxley's aim was to develop an interdisciplinary, open framework model of evolutionary humanism (not least for the UN organizations) that brings together old humanistic values and modern scientific knowledge. Huxley's concept combined the principles of freedom (according to Harari an exclusive property of "liberal humanism") with the principles of equality (according to Harari the unique characteristic of "socialist humanism") and, of course, it particularly included the findings of evolutionary biology. This "new humanism" was "evolutionary" in yet another significant respect: As an experienced researcher, Huxley knew that scientific findings are always prone to error and thus in need of correction, and that ethical and political norms are also subject to a historical development process. Hence, Huxley deduced that evolutionary humanism must develop itself evolutionarily and that absolute authorities such as unchangeable dogmas must be rejected with the utmost determination - a clearer contrast to the radical-authoritarian, dogmatically deadlocked ideology of the Third Reich is virtually inconceivable.

Is it really possible that Yuval Noah Harari, when writing his books, had no idea that the term "evolutionary humanism" meant something completely different than what he described to his readers? I have serious doubts about this. After all, there is also an entry on "evolutionary humanism" available on Wikipedia, which of course does not refer to the Nazis, but to Julian Huxley. Moreover, in "Homo Deus" there is a passage (p. 349) which suggests that Harari knew very well how easily his understanding of "evolutionary humanism" can be deconstructed. Admittedly, this passage does not make his hair-raising interpretation any more bearable, but caps it all off. Harari writes: "It should be remembered, however, that Hitler and the National Socialists represent only an extreme version of evolutionary humanism. (...) Not all evolutionary humanists are racists, and not every belief in humankind’s potential for further evolution necessarily calls for setting up police states and concentration camps." (translated from the German edition for this text).

I had to catch my breath when I read this passage. Needless to say, National Socialism was of course not an "extreme form of evolutionary humanism", but an "extreme form of antievolutionary antihumanism". As I said, the Nazis thought neither humanistic nor evolutionary, but anti-humanistic and totalitarian. And of course - it is embarrassing having to emphasize this at all - "racists" by definition can never be "humanists", since they disregard the fundamental principle of any serious humanism, the idea of one united humanity, in which every single individual counts! Even more - and this shows how grotesquely Harari twisted the facts: It was precisely the founder of evolutionary humanism, Julian Huxley, who deprived racism of any foundation by stating in 1935 in a much-discussed essay (included in the book "We Europeans: A Survey on Racial Problems") that the genotypic and phenotypic differences among humans are far too small to speak of "human races" in the scientific sense. The concept of "race", according to Huxley in 1935, is only a "social myth", not a scientific category. Thus, he ensured that the term "race" was first dropped in scientific debate and later replaced by the term "ethnic group" at the political (UN) level (cf. the UNESCO statement "The Race Question" from 1950).

The consequences of the Hararic confusion

As I said, I don't know whether Harari was ignorant or manipulative to the point of reversing these easily checked facts into their opposite. It is a fact, however, that it offered him some dramaturgical advantages to connect evolutionary humanism counterfactually with Hitler, and socialist humanism counterfactually with Stalin. Since without this twist, the story that Harari wanted to sell to his readers, the story of the approaching demise of humanism, would not have worked. Why? Because Harari, after discrediting evolutionary and socialist humanism, could disregard all the arguments that came from these traditions. Instead, what remained was "liberal humanism", which Harari (following his own logic, but actually grossly distorting) presented as an a) anti-egalitarian (directed against the "socialist-humanistic" ideal of equality) and b) naive-idealistic (against the "evolutionary-humanistic" principle of science) ideology.

According to Harari, liberal humanists must believe in a "free will" hovering godlike above our neuronal structures, independent of natural causes. Otherwise, their belief in "freedom" would collapse. Accepting this assumption, it is obviously easy to prove that such "liberal humanism" violates fundamental insights of the biosciences and is doomed to failure (the main theme of "Homo Deus") in an age in which digital algorithms are increasingly revealing the regularity of our behavior. However: is it true that political liberalism must be coupled with a belief in the idealistic construct of free will?

Here, again, the answer is no! That Harari's argumentation may seem convincing at first glance is because the concept of "political freedom of action" can easily be confused with the concept of "free will". In fact, however, political liberalism is by no means concerned with the philosophical question of whether people could want the exact opposite of what they actually want (the concept of a free will in the sense of the so-called "principle of alternative possibilities") at a specific moment in their lives, irrespective of natural causes; rather, it is concerned with the socio-political question of whether people under certain social conditions have the freedom to do what they want (guaranteeing individual freedom of action).

In both cases the word "freedom" occurs, but one has nothing to do with the other! Moreover, it can be shown (as I did in my book "Jenseits von Gut und Böse" - "Beyond Good and Evil") that some of the most persistent opponents of the free will thesis were at the same time resolute pioneers of political freedoms - and vice versa: that some of the most enthusiastic advocates of the free will thesis fought fanatically for dictatorial conditions. While this may confuse Harari followers, it is a historical fact: The arguably most brutal enemies of freedom and liberal humanism, namely the National Socialists, were unconditionally convinced of the "freedom of will", since this was the idealistic basis of their strict "guilt and punishment criminal law" and their "heroic stand on life" (according to Roland Freisler in his statement on the draft of Nazi criminal law), while liberal legal scholars such as Gustav Radbruch or Fritz Bauer, who advocated greater freedom and a broad humanization of the legal system, rejected the "unscientific hypothesis" of a free will and instead raised awareness of the various social and cultural causes leading to criminal behavior.

The fiction of a "humanistic religious war"

Not only is Harari's concept of freedom obscure because it impermissibly conflates the different categories of freedom of action and freedom of will, but also because it places the principle of freedom in radical contradiction to the principle of equality. While this is a popular figure of thought in politically and ideologically loaded debates, it can hardly be reconciled with a solid philosophical and democratic theoretical approach. The latter illustrates that freedom and equality can only be thought of as a unity, indeed that every step towards equal rights for human beings (meant as the creation of equal opportunities - not as the inhuman egalitarianism of individuals!) is at the same time a step towards greater freedom (cf. my book "Die Grenzen der Toleranz - Warum wir die offene Gesellschaft verteidigen müssen" - "The Limits of Tolerance - Why we Must Defend the Open Society", p. 122 ff.).

For this reason it is certainly no contradiction at all, but rather logically consistent to advocate an evolutionary humanism oriented towards the freedom and equal rights of all human beings. Thus, the contradictions on which Harari based his construction of the supposed "humanistic sects" are eliminated - and it gets even more obvious how grotesque Harari's depiction of the conflicts of the 20th century is. Harari wants to convince us in all seriousness ("Homo Deus", p. 254 ff.) that both the Second World War and the East-West conflict were consequences of a great "humanistic religious war" that has raged since the supposed "schism of humanism" between the hostile "sects" of liberal, socialist, and evolutionary humanism.

We need to realize what this means: According to Harari, the Holocaust, the Stalinist "cleansing actions" and the countless starvation deaths of the "Third World" resulted from the fact that in the 20th century there were unfortunately too many "humanists" in power who fought each other as representatives of different "humanistic sects"! Certainly: If we assume that Adolf Hitler, who saw himself as a tool of "divine destiny", was a "humanist", that Josef Stalin, who as a "prophet of dialectical materialism" had dissenters slaughtered in an inconceivable scope, was a "humanist", that Ronald Reagan, who listened to evangelical preachers whispering to him what politics "God's own Country" needed, was a "humanist" - then we can understand the story that in the 20th century a "humanistic religious war" with millions of victims took place. We can also let it go and use our own reason instead, without having to fall into the ideological thought traps that Harari set up in his books.

Sources for this text, which first appeared on the portal of the Humanistischer Pressedienst (Humanist Press Service, hpd), can be found in the author's book "Hoffnung Mensch - Eine bessere Welt ist möglich" (Piper 2014), which deals with a similar range of topics as Harari's "A Brief History of Humanity", but clearly differs from it in the quality of the argumentation.

1All sources are taken from the German editions of Harari's books.