The consolations of German philosophy

Daniel Johnson reviews Karl Jaspers by Suzanne Kirkbright and Adorno by Lorenz Jäger
Daniel Johnson
Published: 12:01AM GMT 09 Jan 2005

What was it like to be a German in 1945 – to belong to a people that has committed the worst crime in history? Basil Fawlty’s catchphrase – “Don’t mention the war!” – encapsulates what was, in fact, by far the most common German response to the Holocaust. More high-minded, but no less of an injunction to silence, was the celebrated comment of the German-Jewish philosopher Theodor Adorno: “To write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Another great German thinker, Karl Jaspers, was preoccupied by the fact that survivors such as himself had not sacrificed themselves for the Jews: “That we live is our guilt.”

How did the Germans come to terms with their unique predicament? Emerging from the smoking ruins of the Third Reich, they expected their enemies to punish them. In the East, the Russians, Poles and Czechs did indeed exact harsh retribution; but in the West, after the hardships of war, the Allied occupation came as a relief for most Germans. And when the fledgling Federal Republic was granted sovereignty in 1949, Germans discovered that, to their surprise, they were not treated as pariahs, but swiftly welcomed back into the concert of nations. They earned their rehabilitation by hard work and exemplary conduct.

Yet this was – and perhaps still is – a traumatised nation. Though other peoples had suffered as much or more, only the Germans had no way to make sense of their suffering and nobody else to blame. They coped with their guilt and their inability to mourn their dead by selective amnesia. And, recalling that they had once been a people of poets and thinkers rather than blood and iron, Germans turned again to the consolation of philosophy.

Two philosophers, in particular, re-educated post-war Germany to live with its past: Jaspers and Adorno. They were the acceptable faces of the two main currents of postwar continental thought, existentialism and Marxism. Untainted by association either with Nazi or Soviet forms of totalitarianism, they and their pupils became influential far beyond Germany. Hannah Arendt, who took America by storm, looked on Jaspers as a second father; her phrase “the banality of evil”, coined during the Eichmann trial, derived ultimately from his philosophy. Among Adorno’s disciples was Jürgen Habermas, the intellectual guru of the present German ruling class who last year solemnly announced that the Iraq war had destroyed forever the moral ascendancy of the United States.

Jaspers had remained in Germany throughout the Third Reich. Though marginalised by the fact that his wife Gertrud was Jewish, Jaspers had the most immediate impact on the wartime generation, whose experiences he had shared. Within months of the Nazi surrender, he lectured on “the guilt question”. Jaspers argued that to brand the Germans collectively guilty was incoherent and unjust, but he insisted that all Germans must bear individual responsibility, whether or not they had participated in crimes against humanity. This he called “metaphysical guilt”. Having participated in the “de-Nazification” of more compromised academic colleagues, including his friend and rival Martin Heidegger, Jaspers knew very well how hard it was to determine the degree of culpability. Though he moved to Switzerland in 1948, Jaspers conferred a degree of moral legitimacy on the emergent Federal Republic.

The Marxist Adorno, who had spent the war in exile, only returned in 1951. Though still hostile to the commercial culture of the United States, he had been profoundly affected by life in New York and California. Even his name had changed: Theodor Wiesengrund-Adorno had become “Teddie” W. Adorno. The Frankfurt School, of which he was the leading light, made a lasting impression on the Sixties generation because its critique of capitalism had been shaped by American experience. They flirted with terrorism, denounced their Anglo-Saxon liberators and succumbed to the siren voices of the “peace movement”. They are now running Germany, rather less competently than their predecessors. Adorno was their prophet, but his “melancholy science” was not the manifesto for revolution that many of them hoped for. In 1968 they turned on him. His institute occupied and his lectures disrupted by bare-breasted girls and angry young men, Adorno called in the police. Having retreated to Switzerland, like so many German intellectuals, he succumbed to a heart attack in 1969, aged only 66. Jaspers, who was 20 years older, died in the same year.

As it happens, new biographies of both thinkers have just appeared. Both are disappointing, though in very different ways. Suzanne Kirkbright has been granted exclusive access to Jaspers’s family correspondence, and her book throws new light on dark episodes of his private life: his stormy relationship with his wild brother Enno, who ended by taking poison; his wife Gertrud’s relationship with the writer Walter Calé, who shot himself; and his own struggles with bronchiectasis, a then incurable lung condition, and depression. Jaspers had been destined for a career in psychiatry – his first book, The General Psychopathology, remains a classic – and Kirkbright charts his emancipation from Freud, Weber and Heidegger to intellectual independence. But there is a fatal flaw in this book: Kirkbright can’t write. Here is a typical sentence: “In Jaspers’ world, the game of life was only as serious as the purpose of the player whom he saw as integrated into friendships in a way that leads to the possibility of suspending the impact of time through communication of the sort that is unique and irreplaceable.” The reader sees Jaspers through a glass darkly.

Lorenz Jäger’s Adorno: A Political Biography [Yale, £22.50, 235 pp] suffers from the opposite problem: not style, but content. The German author writes elegantly and has been well translated, yet he lacks empathy with his subject and can’t see the wood for the trees. Jäger claims, for example, that Adorno was so much under the spell of life in Los Angeles that he refused to believe that the Americans could have committed atrocities against Germany. (Actually, they hadn’t, of course.)

In fact, far from being an apologist for the United States, Adorno is the godfather of present-day anti-Americanism in Germany. If Jäger had appreciated the suggestive power of Adorno’s vast oeuvre a little more and sneered at the man’s vanities a little less, he might not have underestimated Adorno’s largely malign influence.

* Daniel Johnson is writing a history of German thought.


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