Repressed Legacies of a Difficult Past: Theodor W. Adorno on culture and politics after Auschwitz


On February 1, 1960, just over a month after a large wave of anti-Semitic vandalism broke out across West Germany, Theodor W. Adorno, the philosopher, sociologist and cultural critic, delivered a presentation of his essay “The Meaning of Working Through the Past” over the Hesse State Radio:

‘…the past that one would like to evade is still very much alive. National Socialism lives on, and even today we still do not know whether it is merely the ghost of what was so monstrous that it lingers on after its own death, or whether it has not yet died at all, whether the willingness to commit the unspeakable survives in people as well as in the conditions that enclose them.’

Adorno’s famous essay is a fascinating example of a critical intellectual’s attempt to confront a public with the inconvenient and difficult legacies of their recent past. Indeed, history in the hands of the intellectual can play an important pedagogical role in society. The past can be mobilised in a way that reveals the ways in which society fails to live up to the norms and ideals it ascribes to itself. Yet this kind of public critique does not exist in a vacuum. We must acknowledge the value of scholarly and academic practice itself, for it is the means by which critical sources of knowledge about society’s failings and its ideologically obfuscating tendencies are generated. Theodor Adorno’s very public interventions in West Germany society were undergirded by a series of theoretical reflections on the relationship between fascism, capitalism and modernity that he engaged in during the 1940s. The importance of these seemingly more abstract writings is the way in which they philosophically rendered the historical events of war and genocide as cultural trauma.

When Adorno returned to Frankfurt am Main in 1949, he entered into an intellectual climate characterised by a reactionary form of cultural and political conservatism. Many intellectuals defensively sought to promote traditional German high culture as the best means of fending off the threats of ‘massification’ and modern technology, and as an edifying means of eradicating remnant totalitarian elements within West German society. Adorno had already repudiated these kinds of reactionary cultural solutions to the ‘catastrophe’ while living as an exile in the United States. Unlike those who saw the rise of Nazism as developing out of an erosion of traditional bourgeois values, Adorno instead implicated those very same values in the development of twentieth-century barbarism. In Minima Moralia, Adorno condemned as ‘idiotic’ the idea that after the horrors of war and genocide life could somehow continue ‘normally’ or that culture could simply and unreflectingly be ‘rebuilt.’ For Adorno, the restorative mindset of postwar intellectuals was equivalent to the popular notion that Germans had already ‘come to terms’ with their recent past: both were forms of a wilful forgetting of participation and complicity in Hitler’s Reich.

Minima Moralia was first published in West Germany during 1951, where its condemnations of bourgeois morality and vivid descriptions of the alienating conditions of modern life were met with enthusiasm by a younger generation uncertain of its own identity and values. Written between 1944 and 1947 while Adorno was living as an exile in the United States, Minima Moralia captured, through its fragmented philosophical and literary style, his reactions to the revelations of the murder of the Jews. As Martin Jay (Adorno, 1984) has argued, the Holocaust confirmed in Adorno’s mind the links between anti-Semitism and totalising forms of instrumental reason. Under the oppressive collective integration of Nazism, the Jews had become the ultimate repository of otherness and difference; a form of ‘non-identity’ to be liquidated.

By translating historical trauma into a theoretical narrative, Adorno was able to assign broader meanings to events and thus communicate not only an understanding of suffering, but an understanding of how the promises of modern progress were indissolubly bound up with modern barbarism. Indeed, Adorno’s own temporal proximity to the mid-twentieth-century catastrophe of Western civilisation—the Second World War and the Holocaust—and his theoretical response to these historical moments, determined the nature of his critique of society. In 1951, in his essay “Cultural Criticism and Society,” he shocked the West German reading public with his now-famous statement: ‘To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.’ One of the many disconcerting aspects of Adorno’s text was its emphasis on the continuities of Nazi barbarism: Auschwitz did not represent a break with modern progress; it was an outcome of this progress. And, he implied, in no way did 1945 spell an end to the radical form of ‘unfreedom’ represented by Auschwitz.

Whereas the general tendency within the Federal Republic was to perceive the defeat of the Third Reich and the turn to democratic institutions as marking a total and complete break with totalitarianism, Adorno’s representations of this difficult past aimed at revealing the pathological continuities of fascist modes of thought and social organisation within postwar West Germany. Adorno continued to address these issues in his essays “The Meaning of Coming to Terms with the Past” (1959) and “Education after Auschwitz” (1966). These essays, along with Adorno’s other numerous forays into West German public discourse, found traction with younger generations who had become increasingly uncomfortable with the prevailing silence on questions of German responsibility and guilt for Nazi crimes. The failure to incorporate an acknowledgement of the horror of the Holocaust and the German responsibility for it in one’s own identity, Adorno argued, opened up a potential return of the repressed fascist past in the democratic present. Only a psychoanalytically-informed ‘working-through’ of the guilt, an exposure of unconscious pathological elements to the surface of critical consciousness, Adorno claimed, would enable Germans to truly emancipate themselves from their fascist past.

In challenging the public’s attitudes to their difficult past, Adorno simultaneously took on the roles of a public dissident and an enlightening educator; a critical intellectual informing a public of how their society was failing to live up to the norms and ideals it had set for itself, and moreover, revealing the public’s failure to acknowledge the enormity of the crimes that had been committed in its name.

Further Reading:

Adorno, Theodor W., Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life, translated by E.F.N. Jephcott (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1951).

Adorno, Theodor W., Prisms, translated by Samuel and Shierry Weber (London: Neville Spearman Limited: 1967).

Adorno, Theodor W., Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords, translated by Henry W. Pickford (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998).

Adorno, Theodor W., Guilt and Defence: On the Legacies of National Socialism in Postwar Germany, translated and edited by Jeffrey K. Olick and Andrew J. Perrin (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2010).

Heins, Volker., Beyond Friend and Foe: The Politics of Critical Theory (Boston: Brill, 2011).

Hohendahl, Peter., Prismatic Thought: Theodor W. Adorno (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1995).

Jay, Martin., Adorno (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984).

Mülller-Doohm, Stefan., Adorno: A Biography, translated by Rodney Livingstone (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2005).

Wiggershaus, Rolf., The Frankfurt School: Its History, Theories and Political Significance, translated by Michael Robertson (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1994).

3 comments on “Repressed Legacies of a Difficult Past: Theodor W. Adorno on culture and politics after Auschwitz

  1. stephaniefehon says:

    I really enjoyed reading this! I’ve read about the denazification process in West Germany and about the aftermath of the Holocaust before, but I’d never heard of Adorno before, although I’ve heard his quote about writing poetry before. I’ve always found this area to be really complex, but focusing on Adorno really brought it all together. I found the point about Germans coming to terms with the Holocaust as them wilfully forgetting their own complicity in Nazism really fascinating- it raised lots of ideas as to whether it’s ever appropriate to attempt to derive meaning from incredible trauma. Adorno’s ideas on modernism sound really interesting, I’d love to read Minima Moralia based on this!

  2. giamtesta says:

    Dear David, your blog (and your research) was very inspiring. It attempted to trace the deeper theoretical and philosophical challenges in coming to terms with Germany’s Nazi past once Germany transited towards peace-time government proposed by the philosopher Theordore Adorno.. Adorno’s personal circumstances in his early life are similar to those of many other European thinkers who were forced to flee from the repressive measures of dictatorship. They found refuge in the United States and commenced their struggle against the limitations imposed by totalitarian regimes on their home countries. It was interesting to note that as Adorno travelled back to West Germany, he sought to highlight that the regime might have turned towards democracy, while society in its mindset continued functioning, in many regards, in the same way it had done during Hitler’s time. There is also a more philosophical part which I believe cannot be easily understood due its complexity and the blog tends to shift away from theory in favour of Adorno’s actions. Adorno’s works would have represented a real shock to a West German society on the road to liberal democracy, especially in the early post-war years. In coming to terms with the ‘German Guilt’ and the horrors of the Holocaust, Adorno found support from the 1960s generation. A younger cohort began to realise the need to address Germany’s Nazi memories, hence, welcomed Adorno’s scholarship. It was interesting to see that the blog referred to the theme of modernity in very negative terms. Progress in Nazi terms meant that the Jews were to be seen as “a form of ‘non-identity’ to be liquidated.” Well done!

  3. nicolekbest says:

    Hi David,
    What a fascinating topic. It’s really remarkable the way in which intellectual debate and discussion intersects with the public and society in creating cultural norms and morality. I particularly like this point- “By translating historical trauma into a theoretical narrative, Adorno was able to assign broader meanings to events and thus communicate not only an understanding of suffering, but an understanding of how the promises of modern progress were indissolubly bound up with modern barbarism.” This is so key, and perhaps in a way a misuse of history when historical events are transformed into theoretical ideas in order to draw out their meaning- to learn from the past and apply it to our own contexts. For Adorno, of course he was discussing his own context so it is valid. A very interesting read and topic! I hope you enjoyed it!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s