I just finished re-reading Jean Grondin’s Hans-Georg Gadamer: A Biography (trans. Joel Weinsheimer, part of Yale Studies in Hermeneutics series, 2011). I read this biography not long after it came out, but decided to re-read it due to the rise of fascism and totalitarianism in the United States.
Gadamer lived through the Nazi Party’s rule of Germany, and after the end of the Second World War wound up in the eastern sector of Germany watching the rise of totalitarianism under the rule of the Soviet Union. He was neither a Nazi nor a Communist, and somehow managed to survive both those totalitarian regimes — though admittedly, he got out of East Germany just a few years after the war, before the border close completely.
So how did Gadamer manage to navigate two forms of totalitarianism? He did not support either regime, but did his best to work around them, in order to maintain the tradition of humanistic scholarship. Looking back from our privileged vantage point, we tend to valorize those who engaged in dramatic acts of resistance. We tend to forget that in a totalitarian regime, just living your day-to-day life puts you at risk — you don’t have to engage in dramatic resistance to be killed or imprisoned. Reading about Gadamer’s life is a salutary reminder that totalitarianism is a threat to everyone living in a totalitarian regime.
Throughout the Nazi and Soviet years, Gadamer did his best to keep the tradition of humanistic scholarship alive. That may not sound like much, but it was actually an act of major resistance — quiet resistance, but still major resistance. He wanted to keep core cultural values and traditions alive for the day when totalitarianism would at last be defeated. Again, this may not sound like much, but when you remember that totalitarianism thrives by effacing humanistic culture, then you realize that what Gadamer was doing was in fact serious resistance to totalitarianism.
As I said, I re-read this biography because I’ve been watching the rise of totalitarianism in the United States. The rapid rise in the number of books being banned, the misogynistic anti-abortion laws being passed, the Christian nationalists trying to impose their perversion of Christianity on everyone else — these are all very worrying. And maybe Gadamer’s life provides one example of one approach to the fight against totalitarianism. Some people will gladly take on the high profile resistance, the public protests, fighting fire with fire. But we also need people to keep humanistic culture alive.