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Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Justice: Ethan Putterman on the Nuremburg Trials

Singapore: When people think of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the great philosopher of the French Revolution and luminaire of celebrated writings such as the Social Contract, few associate him with the horrors of Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich. Although critics have labeled his major ideas authoritarian or even anti-democratic over the past two centuries, express mention of Rousseau in Nazi speeches or writings is hard to find. The most famous commentator to highlight, such a link, Karl Popper, offers scant evidence. 

      In an upcoming article, ‘Rousseau at Nuremberg,’ Ethan Putterman is the first thinker, perhaps ever, to make such a connection expressly by way of actual references to the great nemesis of Voltaire during the Second World War. Using transcripts drawn from the Nuremberg Trials and other court documents, Putterman demonstrates convincingly that Rousseau was indeed a major player for Nazi jurists and their defenders at Nuremberg -and they did so wrongly. Rousseau’s writings are not only cited by a multitude of lawyers at Nuremberg, but elaborate renderings of his philosophy were proffered. Most of them classically educated, they delved into key aspects of the Social Contract and other key works. 

       Interestingly, Putterman highlights that court transcripts show Hermann Jahrreiss, counsel for General Alfred Jodl, the Chief of Operations for the Wehrmacht, justified Nazi ‘crimes against humanity’ by way of the universality of the general will. Erroneously calling it “la volonté tous,” over two extended arguments Jahrreiss expounded to jurors at Nuremberg on July 4th, 1946 that “Rousseau knew how much the volonte de tous can be in contradiction to what is right, but he did not fail to appreciate that orders by volonte de tous are binding.”

      Likewise, Alfred Thoma, defending General Alfred Rosenberg, the notorious author of the racist screed ‘The Myth of the Twentieth Century”, explains, “I am trying to prove that neo- romanticism, the philosophy of the irrational, whose forerunner was Rousseau, invaded Germany with elementary force and was at the same time influenced by French, English, and American philosophers.” 

      Leaving little doubt about the unbroken linage between Rousseau’s ideas of government and Nazi ideology, Putterman, author of ‘Rousseau, Law and Sovereignty of the People’ (Cambridge University Press, 2010), defends the famous author by illustrating how far such juridical defenders stray. Only a twisted and deliberately erroneous reading of Rousseau’s view of sovereignty, according to Putterman, allows for its appearance as a defense of fascism in the mouths of jurists at Nuremberg in 1946.

       A former professor of political science at the National University of Singapore, Putterman comments, “appreciating the gravity of what is being defended -Auschwitz- it might be asked whether such a view is indeed congruous with Rousseau’s philosophy. So many scholars have accepted this root and branch and the consequences (and condemnation) are far-reaching. Blowing away the dust, it is important to see that fascism, mass murder or, God forbid, genocide should not be considered deliberate or even accidental consequences of Rousseau’s beliefs. Challenging Talmon, Popper and others, I defend JJR against charges of even ‘protototalitarian’ thinking. It is not only that Europe or America lacks the kind of surveillance powers we have today, but it is not what Rousseau advocated.”

       Putterman, who visited the killing fields of Cambodia and Srebrenica during the writing of a book length study, ‘War, Wickedness and Peacebuilding in the History of Political Thought’, says he hopes to speak to issues relating to current dangers in the 21st century. “Political philosophy should not be a relic of intellectual history, but a living breathing discipline, always. It is not merely about elucidating truth, or a scholarly accounting of sorts, but serving justice and protecting humanity in the future.” 

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