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.
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).