Sie sind auf Seite 1von 4

Theodor W. Adorno.

"What Does Coming to Terms with the Past Mean?" (1959)

Concerns that are central to Adorno's address of 1959: --the survival of fascist tendencies in contemporary Germany despite its democratic facade; --anxiety about the Soviet Union and the nature of postwar antiCommunism in West Germany; --importance of recognizing objective forces so that citizens of postwar Germany might become fully aware and politically mature; --the collective desire to forget the past because of its criminal nature and because of sensitive consciousness; --the possibility of enlightenment through education as well as through psychoanalysis (explicit reference to Kant's essay, "What Is Enlightenment?"); --the question of how one might advance political maturity in the FRG. Aufarbeitung der Vergangenheit = coming to terms with the past, literally: "working through the past." The term has both psychoanalytic as well as political connotations. It assumes various functions in Adorno's presentation: --it relates to the personal and painful consciousness that came out of Germany's "Zero Hour"; --it signals the psychoanalytic effort to confront and "work thorough" the memory of offense and catastrophe; --the term converges, however distantly, with "Aufklrung" (enlightenment); --it implies a critique of the parallel (and dominant) notion of "Vergangenheitsbewltigung" which is tainted by the idea of some ultimate repression. "Vergangenheitsbewltigung" does not mean a clear working through of the past, a breaking of its spell. Rather, it suggests "wishing to turn the page, and, if possible, wiping it from memory." The hope is that those who were wronged will forgive and forget all past misdeeds. The past one wants to escape, however, is still intensely alive. National Socialism must be confronted and dealt with. It is not just a ghost, but indeed still a powerful presence. Nazism does not just live on among right-wing extremists, but within democracy itself. Aufarbeitung der Vergangenheit (Working through the past) --a conscious act of critical self-reflection --direct confrontation --thoroughgoing working through --public enlightenment vs. Vergangenheitsbewltung (Coming to terms with the past) --disavowal and deflection of guilt --willful denial or justification of past misdeeds --selective remembering --fuzzy universalism

Much about the presentday German relations to the past is neurotic: --defensive gestures when they are not warranted; --massive affect in situations when it is unmotivated; --lack of affect when it would be appropriate; --repression of the well-known and half-known; --saving expressions and euphemisms; --vacuous discourse to articulate monstrous memories of murder and violence; --denial ("I didn't know anything about all that"); --a readiness to belittle what happened (quibbling over numbers; was it five or six million Jews:);

--the equivalence in settling accounts (as if the Dresden firebombings "made up" for Auschwitz); --at times the victors are represented as the originators of what the losers did when they themselves were in power. "The idiocy of all this really does testify to a lack of psychic mastery and an unhealed wound--although the thought of wounds is more appropriate to the victims." These reactions, though, are not the function of a guilty conscience or a guilt complex. It's as if it all never happened, claims Adorno. Memories are being willfully destroyed. "The murdered are to be cheated even out of the one thing that our powerlessness can grant them: remembrance." The forgetting of National Socialism has to be understood "more in terms of a general social situation that in terms of psychopathology." The effacement of memory in Germany is a result of conscious intentions, not the function of unconscious processes. These thoughts are not altogether irrational. They are in fact rational insofar as that "they depend on social tendencies, and that everyone reacting in such a way feels at one with his time." Democracy came to Germany late and it was introduced by the Allied occupiers. The German people thus do not have a strong emotional stake in democracy. In fact, democracy has at best been accepted as a "working proposition"--something functional that (so far) has allowed and even promoted prosperity. (People still complain about reeducation.) Democracy is valued because it has worked, not because people fully believe in it. Germans often speak of their lack of maturity, making an ideology of their political immaturity. They unnaively insist on their own naivete. They divide themselves from within, seeing themselves as unfree subjects and the helpless object of larger powers over which they have no control. Foremost among these objective forces is international politics. Cold War approaches to the Soviet Union seem to confirm Hitler's politics of aggression, suggesting as well that Hitler might have been right elsewhere. The authoritarian personality involves character traits such as --thinking within the paradigm power-powerlessness; --rigidity and the inability to react; --conventionality and conformist behavior; --lack of self-reflection; --an altogether deficient capacity for experience. Authoritarian types have weak egos and hence identity with those in power or with large collectives. National Socialism was, for most of its followers, not all that bad. Only a few groups suffered terror's attacks. Nat'l Socialism provided "a barbaric experiment in state control of an industrialized society" and "anticipated today's crisis-management in violent fashion." For many today the Third Reich appears as the fulfillment of collective fantasies of those who were powerless as individuals and became somebody only by virtue of collective might. National vanity (collective narcissism) was immeasurably exalted by the Nazis. It was grievously damaged by the collapse of the Hitler regime. But people seem to have gotten over this loss quickly and without pain or panic. "Secretly, unconsciously smoldering and therefore especially powerful, these identifications as well as a group narcissism were not destroyed but continued to exist. Inwardly the defeat has been been as little ratified as after 1918." This collective narcissism lies in wait to be repaired, grasping at anything in consciousness which might bring the past into harmony

with its wishes. It also, "if possible, remolds reality as if this injury could be made not to have happened. To a certain degree this was indeed accomplished by economic prosperity and the feeling of 'how competent we are.'" The economic miracle, though, is a function of circumstances; no one trusts in its unlimited duration. "Even in the midst of prosperity, even during the temporary labor shortage, most people, it seems, see themselves as potentially jobless, as welfare recipients, and therefore ultimately as the objects, and not the subjects, of society. . . It is clear that at virtually any moment this discontent can be accumulated and turned against the past and misused for the renewal of a disastrous politics." Nationalism still can stand "as the traditional and psychically invested idea of the nation (which still expresses a community of interests within the international world of business) has the power to harness hundreds of millions towards goals that they do not immediately perceive as their own." Nationalism--in an age of power blocs and of Cold War--"no longer quite believes in itself, and yet is required politically as the most effective means for bringing people around to insisting on objectively outmoded relations." Under Hitler nationalism became "a paranoid delusional system." The madness of nationalism today manifests itself "in the reasonable fear of renewed catastrophes." Madness is the substitute for the dream that humanity could organize the world humanely. "Everything that happened from 1933 to 1945 is of a piece with pathological nationalism." The past lives on, but one has not worked through the past. Instead what we get is the opposite: "empty, cold forgetting." This is the result of the continued existence of conditions that brought about fascism to begin with. The economic order continues to hold people "in a state of dependence on conditions over which they have no control, thereby keeping this majority in a condition of political immaturity." People have to conform and to adapt in order to live. They can only remain autonomous subjects by renouncing their status as autonomous subjects. One has to identify with the status quo and given its power, there is the potential for totalitarianism which "is reinforced by the dissatisfaction and rage which that forced adaptation itself produces and reproduces." Adorno seeks "to point out one of the tendencies covered up by the slick facade of everyday life before it overflows the institutional dams that formerly contained it." Things are in fact going well. One might well come to terms with the past if only there were enough time and things were to remain stable. "Enlightenment about what happened in the past must work, above all, against a forgetfulness that too easily goes along with and justifies what is forgotten." Have attempts at public enlightenment succeeded in exploring the past? Or has not this insistence on the past awakened a stubborn resistance and brought about the exact opposite of what is intended? What is crucial is how the past in recalled. To do so thoroughly and with all due consequence means that one must educate the educators. --Germany needs to strengthen sociology so that it coincides with historical research on its own epoch; --Criminology is likewise substandard; --Not to mention psychoanalysis (which remains repressed to this day).

The hatred of psychoanalysis is of a piece with anti-Semitism. Not just because Freud was a Jew "but because psychoanalysis consists precisely of a critical self-reflection that puts anti-Semites into a seething rage." One needs to work subjectively vs. the objective potential for disaster. And one cannot just pay lip service to problems and challenges. "Speeches in praise of the Jews that segregate them as a group already concede too much ground to anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism is so difficult to refute because the psychic economy of countless people needed it and, in an attenuated form, still seems to need it today." Jewish-German friendship clubs, likewise, do not serve to cope with anti-Semitism. "Coming to terms with the past in the sense of aiming for enlightenment is essentially that sort of turn toward the subject: reinforcement of a person's self-consciousness and, with that, of a sense of self." It is not enough to enlighten individuals. "If one wants to oppose an objective danger objectively, than a mere idea won't do, not even that of freedom and humanity, which in all its abstract form--as we've recently learned--doesn't mean all that much to people." "Let us remind people of the simplest things: that open or disguised revivals of fascism will bring about war, suffering, and poverty within a coercive system, and most likely in the end Russian domination over Europe; that, in short, they lead to a politics of catastrophe." "Even if one succeeds in making this clear, the danger persists. We will not have come to terms with the past until the causes of what happened then are no longer active. Only because these causes live on does the spell of the past remain, to this very day, unbroken ."