What Does it Mean to be Free: Sartre’s Take On Human Freedom in the Face of the Nazi Regime

by Gina Koch, April 15, 2022

Jean-Paul Sartre is undeniably one of the most prominent philosophers of the twentieth century and the chief founder of existentialism. The works he published influenced various ideologies spanning philosophy, politics, literature, and cultural studies. Sartre, like most philosophers, had his moments of being subject to public disappointment and outrage. After living through World War II as a French prisoner of war, he sparked outrage when he published the essay, “The Republic of Silence,” which he started with the infamous line “Never were we freer than under the German Occupation” (Sartre, 1).

In  “The Republic of Silence,” Jean-Paul Sartre explores the concept of true freedom amid the Nazi German occupation of France. Extreme conditions often breed unique schools of thought for many thinkers, and Sartre was no different. Being a witness and victim of the brutal Nazi regime resulted in profound ideologies coming to light, especially regarding the concept of freedom as evidenced by his essay “The Republic of Silence.” Sartre explains that the essence of true freedom materialized during times of oppression. When people are condemned to extreme conditions of suffering, the sanctity of every thought and every right becomes apparent, and they are faced with the question of their freedom. There exists no force or authority that is capable of taking away one’s freedom because it is inherent and essential to the human condition. However, some forces can place physical limitations on one’s freedom, and it becomes a grave situation when these limitations go so far beyond as to attack one’s rights, beliefs, and principles. Under such an attack, people have the choice to exercise their freedom and resist such oppressive forces or partake in bad faith and give up on such beliefs and principles. This concept of freedom was different from other ideologies circulating at the time. For example, French philosopher Albert Camus, known for his contributions to the absurdist movement, maintained that human freedom is not inherent to humans but rather a state of mind achieved when people understand the absurdity and meaninglessness of life; thereby stopping themselves from constructing some greater meaning from it (Camus). Many differing ideologies regarding human freedom circulated during this war-torn era, but Sartre’s ideas managed to stand out among them. 

During the Nazi era in Germany, which lasted from 1933 to 1945,  particular groups of people such as the Jewish, gypsies, homosexuals, and any other groups not considered a part of the superior Aryan race were targeted as part of the ethnic cleansing scheme initiated by political leader Adolf Hitler. These groups faced oppression, suffering beyond imagination, and witnessed their inherent and basic rights being stripped away from them. They were stripped of their citizenship, denied interactions with those considered part of the Aryan race, and sent to concentration camps, often to be killed. Sartre, being a philosopher who means to seek meaning in everything that happens around him, found hope among the brutality that surrounded him. In his essay, he claims, “never were we freer than under the German Occupation” (Sartre, 1). It is quite a wonder that Sartre was able to find such freedom when the majority of people around him were arrested, sent to concentration camps, or killed. He is not talking about physical freedom, but inherent freedom; the freedom that governs the human condition and is an essential part of existence. He compares the manner people think in during peaceful times and during atrocious ones, similar to that of Nazi occupation. 

As Sartre says, “In this way, the very question of freedom was posed, and we were on the verge of the deepest knowledge human beings can have of themselves” (Sartre, 5). During times of oppression, people tend to question the limits of their freedom and their character questions that were neglected during peaceful times. Would they resist the torture and hold on to secrets and information about the resistance movement or would they give in to the pain and reveal secrets that can lead to numerous arrests and deaths? It is during moments like these that people question their freedom and existence because the choices they make can have profound effects, many times concerning life or death. Sartre also discussed “resistance was a true democracy” (Sartre, 6). There was solidarity in how they resisted the Nazi regime. During such difficult times, there is a sense of equality and responsibility among the people that is not palpable in society during peaceful times. Sartre claims he witnessed the strengthening of the Republic because everyone shared the same freedom regardless of their rank or position within the movement. The freedom they experienced while under the ironclad rule of the Nazi regime was one that was true, absolute, and equal. 

The freedom that Sartre discusses in his essay is distinct from the conventional idea of freedom that many may have. The freedom to do anything one wants is separate from the true and absolute freedom that Sartre refers to. True personal freedom is one’s ability to express their beliefs and principles regardless of the forces that govern them. It is the ability to make choices regardless of any rewards or material possessions one may obtain as a consequence of their choice. In an oppressive society, personal beliefs often start to take precedence over any material possessions and sometimes, over their own life. In other words, people are willing to die at the hands of their oppressors rather than give up on what they believe in. In his essay, Sartre explains that people often made the authentic choice in the presence of death, and it was through this act that they were able to exercise true freedom. Many of those who were tortured at the hands of the Nazis resisted revealing any information they had on the resistance movement because they stayed true to believing that their people should be freed from the oppressors. This choice may have cost them their lives but they did so as part of exercising their freedom. If they had instead chosen to spill information as a means to keep themselves alive, they would have continued living a limited life; one in which they sacrificed their freedom and lacked any meaning or purpose because they abandoned any beliefs they had. People are more than their situation so they should be able to transcend the situation and stay committed to their beliefs. 

The attitudes that Sartre shared in his essay forces us to think about the manner in which we live. Initially, society seems to be guilty of stripping freedom away from the people, and then forcing them to obey laws in order to keep their freedom. In fact, it may seem quite ironic how we are rewarded with freedom, which is something inherently ours, for giving up a certain level of our autonomy. However, this outlook on society in freedom is not accurate. Since freedom is something that is inherently ours and essential to our existence; it cannot be stripped away from us by external forces or authority. However, as members of society, we agree to accept some limitations placed on our freedom. For example, we agree to obey the laws of society as a means to maintain order in our lives and fulfill our potential as social creatures. However, we do not lose our freedom because everyone has the ability to break the law. The fact that we are still capable of committing terrible acts but choose not to proves that we still maintain our freedom. 

However, one would have to face the consequences of committing any terrible and unlawful acts. Therefore, it is important to distinguish between the consequences of an act and freedom. People have the freedom to commit any acts but they may not be successful or satisfied with the consequences, but this does not mean they do not have the freedom to commit an act. The German occupation placed limitations on people’s freedom that conflicted with their rights and beliefs. At this point, it becomes a clear case of oppression as opposed to society maintaining order. During peaceful times, it is not obvious if something is lacking in the manner they live their lives but during oppressive circumstances, it becomes very apparent. Once, it becomes apparent that their lives are not to be lived in the way that it is supposed to be, the urge to fight for their lives materializes and it results in a strength that ultimately empowers them to exercise their freedom. The absolute freedom that they experience under the regime is one that was born out of the shackles that they were bound to. 


Works Cited

Camus, Albert. “The Myth of Sisyphus.” The Myth of Sisyphus, and Other Essays. Translated by Justin O’Brien, Hamish Hamilton, 1955, pp. 3-119.  

Sartre, Jean-Paul. “The Republic of Silence.” Lettres françaises, 1944, pp. 1-7.

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