Nietzsche Scholar Bernd Magnus Dies

Longtime UCR philosophy professor survived the Holocaust

Bernd Magnus

Bernd Magnus

RIVERSIDE, Calif. – Bernd Magnus, professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of California, Riverside, died Nov. 3 at the age of 76. Professor Magnus, a survivor of the Holocaust, was an internationally recognized expert on 19th and20th century European philosophy and, more specifically, a leading scholar of Friedrich Nietzsche.

Born in Danzig, Germany, Mr. Magnus immigrated to the United States in 1947. He was 4 when he and his mother and sister were sent to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, where they lived for a year and a half. They escaped when they were being transferred to Auschwitz and their train was bombed by American troops. The family spent the rest of the war in hiding and on the run, Rabbi Suzanne Singer of Temple Beth El said in a eulogy delivered during a Nov. 10 memorial service.

Bernd Magnus’ specialization in German philosophy was an effort to understand “the mentality of a society that was so advanced in terms of arts, letters, culture and science, yet capable of the most intentionally cruel crime against humanity,” Rabbi Singer said. Mr. Magnus concluded that “it was not specifically the German character that was responsible for the Shoah (Holocaust) but, rather, and to his dismay, the banal quality of evil that we are all capable of.”

Writing about the experience of children in the camps, Rabbi Singer said, Professor Magnus recalled, “Those of us who were infants, toddlers, or very young children were of no use in the camps. We could not serve as a labor force as many of our parents and older siblings could be forced to do. We needed food to survive even at a starvation level. We were a drain on scarce resources.

“Most of all, however, we were a constant distraction to our families, a reminder of a lost ‘normal’ life, a danger that constantly threatened to rehumanize inmates. Our very presence threatened to once again make human and humane the stark, brutal, and systematic dehumanization of camp victims. That dehumanization, after all, was one of the principal objectives of concentration camps. … In the typical case, therefore, we the children of the Holocaust were the first to be killed. Even before the ovens were built in the camps that had crematoria, children were already perceived as a potential menace to Germany’s Final Solution to the Jewish Question. At the very least we were perceived as a potentially subversive force in the process of dehumanization. That is why there are so few of my peers left alive today.”

After undergraduate studies at CCNY and a Ph.D. in philosophy from Columbia University in 1967, Professor Magnus joined the UCR faculty in 1969. He was a longtime member of UCR’s Department of Philosophy, serving as its chair from 1972 to 1976 and from 1979 to 1983. He also was appointed an associate dean in the College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, served as senior advisor to several UCR chancellors, especially Tomás Rivera, and was the founding director of UCR’s Center for Ideas and Society.

Besides publications on Marx, Heidegger, and various postmodern thinkers, he authored or co-authored two pioneering books on Nietzsche, co-edited the influential “Cambridge Companion to Nietzsche,” served on the editorial board for the “Complete Works of Nietzsche,” and was the founder of the North American Nietzsche Society. He also received a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship for his research on Nietzsche.

“Professor Magnus was the driving force behind instituting a Ph.D. program in philosophy at UCR, and helped to turn the philosophy department into an internationally known center for European philosophy,” said Erich Reck, professor and chair of the department. “Over the years, the department has attracted a large number of graduate students, many of whom remember him fondly for his energy, his generous support, and his influence on shaping their research interests.”

After his retirement, the philosophy department started the Magnus Lecture, which brings an internationally known philosopher to campus once a year to speak about Nietzsche or related topics.

In addition to his renown as an expert on Nietzsche, friends knew “Bernie” as a sports enthusiast, Reck noted. “Besides playing tennis, softball, and basketball himself, he owned season tickets for Anaheim Angels games for decades,” he said.

Professor Magnus is survived by his wife, Lore Woodcock Magnus, his children, David Magnus and Victoria Varnals, his grandsons, Tyler and Ryan Varnals, and his sister, Miriam Eis. The Department of Philosophy plans to organize a memorial conference in honor of his contributions to UCR.

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