Karl Jaspers- A Man with a Moral Compass

In the last few blogs, I have shared little blurbs about why I write this blog and why I write on this subject, and when I watched a six-part documentary on the Nazis it included a quote by a man named Karl Jaspers and that quote really simplifies why I write this blog:

“That which has happened is a warning. To forget it is guilt. It was possible for this to happen and it remains possible for it to happen again at any minute.”- Karl Jaspers, persecuted German citizen and philosopher.


Karl Jaspers

Childhood to University

Karl Theodor Jaspers was born February 23, 1883 in Oldenburg, Germany. His father, Karl Wilhelm Jaspers, was a lawyer and bank director and his mother, Henriette Tantzen, was a homemaker. The family came from humble beginnings on both sides of the family. They started as peasants, merchants and pastors.

Karl was a sickly child who had bronchiectasis and cardiac decompensation. Both ailments would follow him throughout his life and leave him with lasting disabilities into adulthood. But the disabilities didn’t matter to him, he was an intelligent young man who was gifted in the study of the human mind.

In 1901 he entered the University of Heidelberg to study law, to in essence follow in his fathers’ footsteps. A year later, he moved to Munich and continued his study of the law. However, law didn’t hold his attention and soon he found himself studying medicine at the Universities of Berlin, Göttingen and Heidelberg, studies he completed six years later in 1908.

Karl wrote his dissertation titled Nostalgia and Crime, and with it he completed his state exam and registered as a doctor in 1909. A year later he married his college sweetheart, Gertrud Mayer. The couple had met in 1907 at university and married in 1910.


Gertrud Mayer

Academic Life

Karl spent the next thirteen years studying the human mind and philosophy. Because of his keen mind and his willingness to work for no pay, Karl was allowed to study under Franz Nissl. Nissl himself was a psychiatrist and medical researcher, as well as being a prominent neuropathologist. Karl didn’t want his studies to be the ideas and regiment of anyone else’s thought pattern, and because he worked for no pay, he was allowed to work at his own pace and with patients that interested him.

At this early stage of psychiatry, any kind of framework did not exist. While they studied different aspects of human suffering such as anatomical, physiological, genetic to neurological, psychological and sociobiological influence, their primary focus was to diagnosis but not to treat, as therapy was largely neglected.

Karl understood that for psychopathology to become a true science there was a need for further study into the why’s, how’s and wherefores of what caused a person’s mental state. They would need direct investigation and description of phenomena as a conscious experience and not just a casual theory.

In 1911 at the age of 28, Ferdinand Springer (himself a famous painter and publisher) approached Karl to write a textbook of his studies. In 1913 the work was received with distinction due to it critical approach to the various methods of psychiatry, while attempting to make them into a cohesive whole method.

Karl rose quickly through the academic ranks.

1913- Begins philosophical faculty at University of Heidelberg

1916- Became an assistant professor of psychology

1920- Became an assistant professor of philosophy

1921- Was professor of philosophy

1922- Became second chair in field of philosophy for the university

Karl worked with his brother in law, Ernst Mayer and Martin Heidegger to demarcate the limits of psychological understanding of the human mind. The basic themes of this work are later fully developed in his philosophical work. Karl felt that philosophy should be recognized as a science, that it was a subjective interpretation of being. He suggested that life’s norms and values could be seen as universal. However, Karl soon broke off the work with Heidegger, as Heidegger became deeply involved with the Nazi party.


The Nazi Years

When the Nazi party became the ruling party in 1933, Karl was surprised. He had never taken them seriously and had thought that they would eventually implode leaving a gap in politics in which other political parties would re-group and take over. Karl’s wife, Gertrud, was Jewish, which made him an enemy of the state. Due to being an enemy of the state he was now excluded from higher university councils, yet he was allowed to continue writing and teaching.

Over the next five years, he would publish four books while teaching.

1935- Reason and Existenz– the first part of his work on logic.

1936- A book on Frederic Nietzsche.

1937- An essay on Descartes.

1938- Philosophy of Existence– a larger more preliminary work on logic.

However, more problems arose for Karl. As he was never one to pander and make concessions to the Nazis, unlike many of his counterparts, the Nazis sent a series of decrees against Karl. First, he was removed from his professorship and second, he was banned on publishing anything else. These effectively stopped him from working in Germany.

For several years the friends of the Karl and Gertrud worked to get them out of the country. In 1942 the Nazis granted permission for Karl to emigrate to Switzerland, however he would have to leave his beloved wife in Germany. Being the man, he was, staying true to his principles, he refused to leave his wife alone in Germany.

Over the next three years, Karl and Gertrud’s friends would hide Gertrud from the Nazis. The couple had made a pact, that if they were arrested, they would commit suicide instead of being sent to a concentration camp. In the spring of 1945, a reliable source advised Karl that they were scheduled for deportation on April 14, luckily for them the American Army marched into Heidelberg on March 30, 1945, ending Nazi control of the city, they were safe.


Post War Years

Karl became very disillusioned by the events of the war and withdrew into himself. However, after the capitulation of Germany he found a new purpose, helping rebuild the university. He called for the de-Nazification of all the teaching staff, however there were not many teachers left who had not compromised with the Nazis, thus this was not possible. Yet, Karl believed that he could help bring about a moral and political rebirth of the people of Germany.

The first thing that Karl felt needed to be done, was that the German people needed to admit their guilt in order to be re-born as a new nation. He felt that Germany had a collective guilt, as those who had actively participated with the Nazis were morally guilty and those who went along with the Nazis so that they could avoid being a target of the Nazis were politically responsible. Because no one could escape the collective guilt and responsibility, Karl believed that in acknowledging it they could begin to re-build Germany from its collapse into a better developed and morally responsible democracy.

When his ideas to re-build Germany were not taken seriously, Karl accepted a philosophy professorship in Basel, Switzerland in 1948. Disappointed in his fellow Germans, he left for Switzerland.

In the 1960’s when German politics became an oligarchy of a few parties, Karl wrote a book in 1967 called The Future of Germany in which he attacked these systems of government tendencies. The book did not go over well with the political establishment. Thus, in 1967 Karl renounced his German citizenship and applied for Swiss citizenship.

Upon his death in 1969, Karl Jaspers had published 30 books, left over 30,000 handwritten pages and a large cache of important correspondence.


Before I watched the documentary, it was called The Nazis: A Warning from History in case you want to watch it, I had never heard of Karl Jaspers. But what I found so very interesting in the man, is that in a time when people quickly let go of their moral compass and principles to follow the crowd, this man was not afraid to stand his ground. I certainly admire him for that. I often wonder if more people had stayed true to their moral compass and not followed the easy path of blame and hate, how different this time in history would have been.

I hope that the life of Karl Jaspers has made as much an impact on your life as it has on mine. If you enjoyed my blog, please consider following it. Looking forward to seeing you again in two weeks.


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