Adorno and the Holocaust

I was pleased to see a review of Utopia or Auschwitz in the journal Holocaust and Genocide Studies, which is published by the United States Holocaust Museum. The reviewer, Philip Spencer, raises the interesting question of whether the West German student movement misunderstood Theodor Adorno and the Frankfurt School’s interpretation of the Nazi past. Spencer says the Frankfurt School had a “sophisticated” view of the Holocaust as a “radical break” whereas the student movement “over-generalized” the Holocaust so that it became “only one case of genocide among many”. I think this is basically right. But it also seems to me, though perhaps I didn’t bring this out clearly enough in the book, that the tension between these two views of the Holocaust existed within the work of Adorno himself. So perhaps the student movement didn’t so much distort Adorno as read him selectively.

The Frankfurt School had initially seen Nazism and the Holocaust as a function of capitalism (e.g. Max Horkeimer’s dictum that “he who does not wish to speak of capitalism should also be silent about fascism”). But beginning with The Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947), Adorno and Horkheimer saw it instead as the end point of an even longer Western tradition of instrumental reason. This Fortschrittskritik, or critique of progress, tended to universalise the Holocaust. For example, at a lecture in 1965, Adorno said that the Vietnam war was proof of the continued existence of the “world of torture” that had begun in Auschwitz. On the other hand, however, as Spencer rightly points out, Adorno also saw Auschwitz as a Zivilisationsbruch – an unprecedented ethical and metaphysical break. This view is reflected above all in later works such as Negative Dialectics (1966). In short, there is a tension within Adorno between a particular and a universal view of the Holocaust.

Dan Diner brilliantly elaborates this tension between particularism and universalism in his important book Gegenläufige Gedächtnisse (which has not yet, as far as I know, been translated into English). The two central questions about the Holocaust, Diner says, are how and why? The question of how is a historical one that focuses on the victims – i.e. the particular experience of Jews as Jews. The question of why, on the other hand, is an anthropological one that focuses on the perpetrators – i.e. the implications for humanity as a whole. Although it aims to learn lessons from the Nazi past, this latter perspective tends to turn the Holocaust into “one genocide among other genocides,” as Diner puts its. He thus suggests it was no coincidence that Adorno and his Frankfurt School colleagues embodied the tension between these two perspectives: as “universal thinkers of Jewish origin” their biographies compelled them to see the Holocaust in both ways simultaneously.

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4 thoughts on “Adorno and the Holocaust

  1. Dear Hans
    I’ve just listened to the interview you gave to Marshall Poe last year.
    An absolutely fascinating discussion, I’ve ordered a copy of Utopia or Auschwitz which I look foreword to reading. If you will forgive me for playing the Armchair Psychologist (and not very convincingly at that!), I recall watching a BBC documentary In Love with Terror, something that struck me was a remark made by Ulrike Meinhof where she appeared to liken her treatment in prison to that experienced by the inmates of Auschwitz. It was very strange and disturbing, almost as if she had convinced herself that she had experienced the horror of Auschwitz, she was as much a victim as those persecuted and murdered by the Nazis.

    Regards Matt

    • Matt,

      Thanks for the comment – and for buying the book! You’re quite right about Ulrike Meinhof imagining she was a Holocaust victim – when she and Gudrun Ensslin were in prison they exchanged letters in which they explicitly compared the conditions under which they were being held to Auschwitz and Buchenwald. They seem to have felt it proved the Federal Republic was a fascist state, as the West German student movement had claimed all along. In a sense it was the culmination of a general tendency among the Achtundsechziger to imagine they were, as one member of the student movement put it, the “new Jews”. I hope you enjoy the book!

  2. Pingback: Some place on this earth | Hans Kundnani

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