The persistence of Heidegger

In the Shadow of Catastrophe

April 17, 1998

So specialised has the study of modern German intellectual history become over the past generation that very few scholars are now capable of encompassing more than one current of thought. Anson Rabinbach, one of the founders and editors of the important US journal New German Critique, is a rare exception. In his latest collection of essays, one encounters such incommensurable, though contemporaneous traditions as the Dadaism of Hugo Ball, the Marxist messianism of Ernst Bloch and Walter Benjamin, the Frankfurt school of Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno and the existentialism of Martin Heidegger and Karl Jaspers. This kaleidoscope of 20th-century thinkers is given structure and unity by the careful choice of texts arising from the common situation and experience of the generation of German intellectuals born at the end of the l9th century: that of catastrophic war, defeat, revolution or exile. They are divided, however, by the other theme that runs through the book: the bifurcation of German thought into Jewish and Aryan, confronting both camps with the consequences of anti-Semitism and, ultimately, the Holocaust.

Rabinbach begins with the impact of the first world war on Benjamin, Bloch and Ball. He provides a striking portrait of Bloch in Heidelberg during the period of the genesis of The Spirit of Utopia, but the author's real sympathies are with the young Benjamin and his quest for a new identity after his disillusionment with Gustav Wyneken's communitarian youth movement and Martin Buber's Zionism. Bloch and Benjamin were shocked by the betrayal of their ideals by their heroes, who supported the war regardless of politics or race. Both also rejected the outlook and lifestyle of the assimilated German-Jewish intellectual, der Luftmensch, embracing the problematic present of the Weimar republic with a mixture of irony and pessimism while looking to an uncertain and apocalyptic future for redemption.

Ball, their Catholic friend, reacted to the war by rejecting the whole German intellectual tradition, most obviously with his creation of Dadaism. But another product of wartime Swiss exile, his Critique of the German Intelligentsia, is marred by its eccentric theory that German liberalism was crushed by an unholy alliance of Jewish and Protestant "Prussians". Rabinbach rightly castigates the modern editors and publishers of this flawed but stimulating book for censoring anti-Semitic passages. He argues that Ball, in seeking to escape from Teutonic nationalist solipsism, merely reinvented it.

The scene then moves forward to 1946-47 and three contemporary and exemplary texts: Heidegger's Letter on Humanism, Jaspers's The Question of German Guilt, Adorno and Horkheimer's Dialectic of Enlightenment. All three exercised a profound influence on postwar Germany, and beyond. Rabinbach locates the origins of Heidegger's Letter in the wartime debates in Germany about how far National Socialism was compatible with western humanism, and shows how his French disciples helped him to obfuscate the issue of his own complicity in the dehumanisation of German culture under Hitler. The paper on Jaspers is perhaps the best in the book. It demonstrates the philosopher's decisive role in creating the new paradigm of the German intellectual, one which lasted until reunification, and it documents the agonised attitude of Jaspers towards Heidegger, his old comrade-in-arms, with Hannah Arendt as the go-between. It is a rich and subtle argument, but it does not fully explain why the anti-nationalist Jaspers, though vindicated by the success of the federal republic, was eclipsed by the unrepentant Heidegger. The essay on Adorno and Horkheimer, finally, reveals something of the coauthors' own dialectic of enlightenment. As Rabinbach says, all three books are "rubble texts", reflecting on the collapse of three distinct versions of modernity. It is sobering that Heidegger, whose Nazism makes him the odd man out in this company, is by far the most widely read by today's students.

Daniel Johnson is assistant editor, The Times. He is writing an intellectual history of Germany.

In the Shadow of Catastrophe: German Intellectuals between Apocalypse and Enlightenment

Author - Anson Rabinbach
ISBN - 0 520 20744 0
Publisher - University of California Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 263

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