Theodor Haecker

“Prussian idealism took the heart of flesh and blood from the German and in its place gave him one of iron and paper.”
Theodor Haecker, 1940

For his open, published opposition to the German, National-Socialist “New Order,” the anti-Nazi humanist and writer Theodor Haecker (1889-1945) was prohibited from writing or speaking in public in his native Germany for the last ten years of his life, 1935-1945, operating under house arrest, with occasional raids and searches of his house and papers by the Gestapo. He secretly kept a journal of the years 1939-1945, during which his Munich house was destroyed by Allied bombing and he was gradually going blind. He lived long enough to know that the “Thousand-Year Reich” would last only twelve years, but not long enough to see the surrender. His noble “night thoughts” were published in German only after his death, and in 1950 in an English translation by Alexander Dru.

During the same years, C.S. Lewis, who had been a wounded combat veteran of World War I, was living and teaching in Oxford and meditating the epistemological, ethical, and educational issues that would lead to his Riddell Lectures of 1943, published as The Abolition of Man, which Prof. John G. West is right to call “the best defense of natural law to be published in the twentieth century.”

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Both men were philosophically literate and both meditated on how it had become possible that Western civilization, for 150 years increasingly confident about its progressive, even utopian, future in so many fields of activity, from the French “Enlightenment” of the 18th century down to August 1914, had collapsed into the nightmarish cauldron of history through which they were living in the period 1914-1945. Both men came to believe that the roots of the satanic modern developments of their time were ultimately epistemological–and not found in the apparently primitive, superstitious, poor parts of the world that the Western nations had increasingly colonized, dominated, and exploited in the 18th and 19th centuries; these satanic modern developments were inventions of Western “civilization” itself, radiating out from its historic centers of high culture–France, Germany, Italy, England.

In his secretly-written “journal in the night,” Haecker observed, with increasing gloom, that the Germany whose public-education system, universities, scientific research, industry, and technological accomplishments had after 1870 increasingly become the envy and model of the “developed” world, and the destination for foreign students, had atavistically resurrected in modern garb the most immoral kinds of consciousness, of ethnocentrism and national egotism, apparently now rationally warranted by Darwinian “racial science.” The “race” that had produced Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, and Wagner, also produced the modern intellectual tradition that had for 175 years grown into the most elaborate and prestigious forms of modern philosophy, from Kant, through Hegel and Marx and Nietzsche, to Freud and Heidegger. No more imposing speculative, systematic, intellectual structure had—or has—ever been created in the history of the world.

Having studied at the University of Berlin, Haecker was a learned beneficiary of this legacy, but he came to believe that its ultimate effect on Germany was catastrophic, and that the desertion of the classical epistemology and ethics first articulated in the works of Plato and Aristotle had played a large role in the tragedy of modern German history. “It seems as though the Germans had chosen madmen, men who quite simply went mad, and consecrated them, raised men like Nietzsche and Holderlin to the level of prophets, heroes, saints, and wise men, and made idols of them,” he wrote in 1943.

Like T.S. Eliot and C.S. Lewis across the English Channel, and Jacques Maritain in America, Haecker hoped and prayed for German defeat during those terrible years 1939-1945, and, also like Eliot, Lewis, and Maritain, he believed the profound modern confusion—“ the  dismemberment and disintegration of the modern person” (1942 entry)—had epistemological, philosophical roots. The supposedly enlightened, liberated, emancipated modern person “has a nihilistic, devastating philosophy once away from the privileged philosophy of being of Aristotle and Plato; he has a nihilistic politics, an apostate politics.” (1943 entry). He identified the “gnosticism and ‘idealism’ in German philosophy,” with the latter “after all only a sort of watered-down gnosticism.”

And the revenge against this ‘idealistic’ tradition was well under way in Haecker’s life-time in equally barbaric, opposite, reductionistic extremes—Marxist “scientific socialism” in the Soviet Union and the materialistic “logical positivism” of the “Vienna Circle” and A.J. Ayer, about which Haeker was appropriately skeptical: “the consequences deduced from the most threadbare ‘scientific’ hypothesis are looked upon as though they were eternal truths” (1940 entry). Very few major nineteenth-century writers had foreseen the apocalyptic effects of these epistemological heresies: Kierkegaard, Newman, and Dostoevsky, to whom Haecker attributed “the spirit of prophecy.”

Although Haecker translated both Kierkegaard and Newman into German—the former so much influenced by Socrates, the latter by Aristotle—he was also in possession not only of “the privileged philosophy of being of Aristotle and Plato” but also of an awareness of its civilizing, deepening continuity—its momentum, trajectory, and effects across time—in the work of the “magnanimous” Virgil (who “would today be silenced in a concentration camp” (1940 entry)) and St. Thomas Aquinas. Sometimes in history, Haecker wrote in 1941, the difference and tension between a “Master” and a “schoolmaster” is overcome: “sometimes they are united in a single person, and that is the glory of the West. Sometimes the perfect ‘Master’ is the ‘master of the Schools’, the perfect schoolmaster. The greatest example is St. Thomas Aquinas” (1941 entry).

After translating Newman’s Grammar of Assent into German, Haecker followed that grammar himself and became a Catholic in April 1921. He died exactly twenty-four years later, on April 9, 1945—his home in Munich having been destroyed by Allied bombing, he himself going blind, knowing of the impending defeat of the satanic Nazi regime he had opposed, but not living to see it. T.S. Eliot and Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, among others, were right to laud Haecker; his translator Alexander Dru was right to call him a “knight of faith.” His name be praised.


  • M.D. Aeschliman

    M.D. Aeschliman is Professor Emeritus of Education at Boston University, Professor of Anglophone Literature at the University of Italian Switzerland, and the author of The Restitution of Man: C.S. Lewis and the Case Against Scientism (1983, 1998). His most recent book is a new edition of Charles Dickens’s novel A Tale of Two Cities (Ignatius Critical Editions, 2012).

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