German history

Revolution in the 21st Century: A Reflection on the Salon Sophie Charlotte at the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities

by contributing editor Carolyn Taratko

The Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities held its Salon Sophie Charlotte last weekend, an annual event during which the academy opens its doors to the public for an evening of guest discussions, presentations, and performances. This year’s theme, “Rebellion, Revolution, or Reform?” seemed especially prescient in our uncertain times and it did not fail to draw a crowd. (True to form, a spontaneous occupation of the stage by Berlin students defending the recently-terminated contract of a professor transpired, resulting in a shouting match between the occupiers and some tweed-clad members of the back row.) The mix of academic experts, artists, and the public made for a stimulating event, revealing perhaps the best of all possible worlds in which academics can engage the public with elements of conceptual history that have deep resonance today.

screen-shot-2017-01-30-at-9-52-01-amThe role of music in times of rapid change surfaced in several venues throughout the evening. The tone was set for the evening by actress and singer Hanna Schygulla, who performed songs of resistance (among them the song of Italian anti-fascists in the 1940s, “Bella Ciao,” and “Ein Pferd klagt an,” a Brecht/Eisler classic). A conversation between Nike Wagner and Gerhard Koch and moderated by Ernst Osterkamp explored the role of music in revolution. Koch asserted that the performance of Daniel Auber’s opera La muette de Protici catalyzed the revolution in Belgium in 1830, during which the audience members burst forth from the theater and into the streets. Wagner offered a more tempered view, claiming that music could never assume the role of a revolution, but that without music, no revolutions could take place. Music, she continued, was not inherently revolutionary in a political sense, but could always take on this quality. The side-by-side quality of Auber’s artistic production and the revolutionary actions opened up the questions of whether the opera was causal, or if it had tapped into the prevailing mood.

Another banner session, “Is Europe too old for revolutions?” featured a mix of political practitioners and historians. The provocative title referred to the demographic trend in western Europe, which is home to an ever-growing aging population, but also to the enshrined traditions, behaviors, and comforts that might make a revolution impossible, or at least highly undesirable. The panel, moderated by historian Etienne François, featured ‘68er and later German Vice Chancellor and Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer alongside activist Jutta Sundermann and political scientist Herfried Münkler. François led off by asking what it meant to have a revolution, and if it was still possible in Europe today.


A packed room prevented a decent picture of the panel “Is Europe too old for revolution?” (photo C. Taratko)

The practitioners (that is, Sundermann and Fischer) were critical of the term. Sundermann claimed that she no longer used the word and suggested that it perhaps belonged to previous generations. This was by no means to say that she and her contemporaries were no longer engaged for change, but that “revolution” was too abstract and perhaps carried with it too much negative baggage. Fischer was also skeptical. He insisted that political will is a prerequisite for change, but that it was better focused on institutions and laws that might need improvement. In light of his own peregrination from the Frankfurt left scene of the ‘60s to the corridors of power as a member of the Green Party, his response came off as typically distanced from his youthful roots.

“Revolution,” wrote Reinhart Koselleck, ”is a term now in vogue, but it is perhaps more raddled than its users’ would like to believe.” Is it the case that revolution in Europe is a romantic notion kept alive by academics and the vestiges of the student movement that live on in German universities? François felt confident that revolution was no longer Marx’s “locomotive of history” but instead was a common term in conversation, somewhat banalized and used as a descriptor for incremental change.

While the panelists seemed to take for granted that revolution was essentially modern, Münkler provided a brief conceptual history of the term. For him, its history begins with the Dutch throwing off Spanish control. The Dutch may have been the first, but it was the the German peasants’ revolt counted as the first people’s revolution, an important development that has since become an intrinsic part of the idea. The idea that change could bubble up from below, was, according to Münkler, new. Social change and the empowerment of lower classes gradually crept into the concept and took up residence there.

Münkler offered a perspective from the longue durée, one that was less interested in the immediate circumstances and effects than the overall conceptual history of the term. Others, especially Fischer, highlighted the highly-specific conditions under which revolutions, such as those experienced in France or Russia, took place. These stories of increasing tension led to a breaking point. In this sense, he argued, there was no paradigmatic revolution. Fischer closed with a sort of plea: he insisted that large political shifts are now outdated; if one looks at the past century, one can see the price of the German social state and how valuable it is, and that it should not be dismantled but carefully adjusted. For him, the “revolutionary tasks” that remained were in technology and nature.

Predictably, the consensus here leaned towards the improbability of another revolution in Europe. The Salon Sophie Charlotte provided a forum for a discussion of revolution as a diachronic concept, but also as a practice. The possibility for further political and social revolution was dismissed. Instead stability, and a desire to institutionalize the hard-won principles of earlier revolutions, seemed to guide the speakers. I wonder if perhaps the concept, at least as the panelists (all roughly of the same generation and somewhere on the left of the political spectrum) had framed it, has lost its purchase on reality. The music, it must be said, had not.

“Many thanks to Teddie Adorno”: Negative Dialectics at Fifty

by guest contributor Jonathon Catlin

Ten days after the fateful U.S. presidential election, several leading scholars of the Frankfurt School of critical theory gathered at Harvard University to reevaluate the legacy of the German-Jewish philosopher Theodor W. Adorno. The occasion—“Negative Dialectics at Fifty”—marked a half-century since the publication of Adorno’s magnum opus in 1966. Fitting with the mood of the political moment, co-organizer Max Pensky (Binghamton) recalled Adorno’s 1968 essay “Resignation” in his opening remarks: “What once was thought cogently must be thought elsewhere, by others.” To use Walter Benjamin’s phrase, dialectical work as demanding as Adorno’s has a Zeitkern, or temporal core: its meaning unfolds over time through constant re-interpretation. As participants reflected on this work’s profound legacy, they also translated its messages into terms relevant today. Time has served Negative Dialectics well. Fulfilling Adorno’s call for philosophy to restore the life sedimented in concepts, the critical energy of this conference demonstrated that both the course of time and the practice of intellectual history do not necessarily exhaust texts, but can instead reinvigorate them.

Adorno’s work has received a surge of recent attention for the ways in which it speaks to our present moment. The New Yorker’s Alex Ross went so far as to title a recent article, “The Frankfurt School Knew Trump Was Coming,” writing: “If Adorno were to look upon the cultural landscape of the twenty-first century, he might take grim satisfaction in seeing his fondest fears realized.” Ross notes that our time’s “combination of economic inequality and pop-cultural frivolity is precisely the scenario Adorno and others had in mind: mass distraction masking élite domination.” In his opening remarks, co-organizer Peter E. Gordon (Harvard)—author of “Reading Adorno in the Age of Trump”—addressed the sense of intellectual defeat palpable in the wake of the election. Yet this prognosis endowed what followed with a certain urgency that made the rigorous intellectual history of Gordon and Martin Jay (Berkeley) feel just as timely as the new critical work of theorists like Rahel Jaeggi (Berlin) and Jay Bernstein (New School).

Participants gathered in Harvard’s Center for European Studies, which, suiting Adorno’s cultural tradition, once housed the university’s Germanic Museum and resembles a fin-de-siècle European villa, ornamented with sculpture and inscribed dictums from the likes of Kant, Goethe, and Schiller. Yet Michael Rosen (Harvard) rightly described Adorno as a “Jeremiah” within German society for decrying the ways it had not come to grips with its Nazi past and then foretelling catastrophe still to come in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Adorno’s disciple Jürgen Habermas once remarked that he wouldn’t speak of Adorno and his time’s other great German philosopher, Martin Heidegger, in the same breath—and Adorno himself once claimed that he returned to Germany to “finish off” his compromised rival. But while Heidegger’s affinities with Nazism have recently left his work mired in controversy, Adorno’s corpus has re-emerged as a source of critical resistance. Without the space to address each conference speaker’s contributions, my aim here is to illustrate some reasons why they all still found Negative Dialectics compelling today.

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Axel Honneth, Rahel Jaeggi, and Martin Jay (author’s photo)

It would have been quite a feat to produce a unified conversation around a work like Negative Dialectics, which proclaims itself an anti-system and even anti-philosophy. Alas, the nearly three-hour-long conference panels often meandered far from their prescribed topics. Still, there was one theme nearly every presenter circled around: Adorno’s resistance to the overweening tendencies of concepts, a problem engaged most concretely through Adorno’s relation to his dialectical forbearer, Hegel. Negative Dialectics attempted to develop a mode of dialectical thought that harnessed Hegel’s negativity to counter his triumphalist narrative of the “slaughter-bench” of world history, which glorified existing reality and thereby undermined the possibility of critiquing it. As Adorno wrote in Negative Dialectics, “Regarding the concrete utopian possibility, dialectics is the ontology of the wrong state of things. The right state of things would be free of it: neither a system nor a contradiction.” The end goal of negative dialectics, then, is to transform present conditions into those that would render dialectics itself superfluous. If the challenge confronting Adorno in the 1940s was to develop a form of critical thought that could break through the blind, positivistic reproduction of the world order that had produced Nazism, Negative Dialectics can be seen as proposing a constellation of tentative solutions.

Gordon’s paper situated Negative Dialectics in a long intellectual tradition of disenchantment (Entzauberung) from the Enlightenment to our present “secular age.” Yet beyond the traditional sense of alienation, Gordon also identified a positive, critical potential in another use of the term: “the disenchantment of the concept.” If one historical marker came to represent disenchantment in modernity for Adorno, it was Auschwitz, an event referred to in nearly every presentation. Lambert Zuidervaart (Toronto) in particular grappled with Adorno’s search for a new mode of truth that would be adequate to a new reality after Auschwitz: “The need to lend a voice to suffering is a condition of all truth.” He suggested that this demand necessitates a material turn in Adorno’s thought toward a “thinking against thought” undergirded by a bodily revulsion at what happened at Auschwitz. Zuidervaart argued that metaphysical experience “after Auschwitz” must make contact with the nonidentical, which he connected to a practice of redemption, an undying hope for the possibility that reality could yet be otherwise.

Negative Dialectics is thus centrally motivated by a critical relationship to history. As Henry Pickford (Duke) remarked, Adorno’s task in Negative Dialectics was to attempt to see things “in their becoming,” opening up a space of possibility beyond the “hardened objects” and “sedimented history” of the reified social world as it exists in late capitalist modernity. In one of the most original presentations, Rahel Jaeggi grappled with how Adorno’s philosophy of history at the same time challenges and requires a view of history as progress. As “indispensable as it is disastrous,” Jaeggi remarked, a progressive view of history must be posited if history is to become available to consciousness as something changeable. Hegelian universal history thus exists insofar as antagonism, agency, and resistance do. Jaeggi called for an Adornian philosophy of history open enough to allow progress without requiring it. The task of progressive history would be, fitting with Adorno’s “determinate negation,” to extract progress step-by-step from the regressive historical problems with which we are confronted. This process would define progress not as teleological but as free-standing, open, and even anarchic.

Yet this critical operation remains as difficult as ever, and several speakers questioned its political efficacy. Max Pensky’s presentation on “disappointment,” noted the difficulty of Adorno’s uneasy hybrid of philosophy and empirical social theory. Since negative dialectics offers no moral sanctuary or inner realm, a critical thinker must be both in the midst of objects and outside them. Yet philosophy’s isolation from the world, its essential “loneliness,” would also seem to entail permanent disappointment. Pensky’s reading of Negative Dialectics as an anti-progress narrative was sharpened by the observation that progress for Adorno means that “the next Auschwitz will be less bad”—echoing the title of a recent book on Adorno’s practical philosophy, Living Less Wrongly. Pensky began from Negative Dialectics’ opening line: “Philosophy, which once seemed obsolete, lives on because the moment to realize it was missed.” This recalls Hegel’s image of the “owl of Minerva,” whereby philosophy always comes too late to shape the present that has always already outpaced it. Marx’s last “Thesis on Feuerbach” subsequently called for philosophy to stop interpreting the world and start changing it. For Maeve Cooke (University College Dublin), who sought to reconcile Adorno’s apparent “resignation” with a form of political protest, Adorno always seems in the end to side with Hegel against the possibility of changing history. Seeing no way to square Adorno’s thought with Horkheimer’s early conception of critical theory as inherently emancipatory for the proletariat, Cooke instead proposed an analogy with the “vagabond” or “resistant” politics of the French novelist Jean Genet, who participated in activism from Algeria to the Black Panthers but refused to ever sign a manifesto or explicitly declare his revolutionary intentions. In his response to Pensky, Rosen connected Adorno’s disappointment to present responses to the election of Donald Trump: like Auschwitz for Adorno, Trump represents for the intellectual left today the sudden dissolution of a shared humanistic project of an ongoing, regulative commitment to liberal Enlightenment values.

One of the final panels on aesthetics led the participants, at the urging of Lydia Goehr (Columbia), into the sunny renaissance-styled courtyard, where a makeshift “chapel” was arranged.

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Peter Gordon, Lydia Goehr, Espen Hammer, and Lambert Zuidervaart (author’s photo)

The session addressed a question raised earlier by Brian O’Connor (University College Dublin) as to whether, if intuitions of truth are in the end not “reportable” in language, philosophy is not therefore “singular,” or fundamentally lonely. Goehr and Bernstein noted that, for Adorno, only particular, fragmentary works of art can be true precisely in their singularity and incommunicability. It is the negativity of this aesthetic that gestures toward utopia, for, as Adorno wrote, “In semblance nonsemblance is promised.” Goehr convincingly argued for the centrality of aesthetics in Adorno’s negative dialectics: his notion of “necessary semblance” holds that art does not merely point toward rational truth, but rather constitutes a conception of truth that is itself aesthetic.

As Pickford remarked, Adorno has at once been seen as a failed Marxist, a closeted Heideggerian, and a precocious postmodernist. Peter Sloterdijk has critiqued him for positing “a priori pain,” while Georg Lukacs accused him of taking up residence in the “Grand Hotel Abyss.” Adorno may have been among the loneliest of philosophers and yet, as Seyla Benhabib reminded us, he was also a Sozialpädagog for a generation of Germans who listened to his lectures and unrelenting radio addresses on everything from classical music to “working through” the Nazi past. Perhaps it is on account of, and not in spite of, such contradictions that Adorno continues to engage philosophers, Germanists, political theorists, and intellectual historians in equal measure. Martin Jay no doubt spoke for many in the room when he aptly dedicated his paper: “Many thanks to Teddie Adorno, who’s been troubling our sleep since the 1970s.”

Jonathon Catlin is a PhD student in History at Princeton University, where he studies modern European intellectual history. He is particularly interested in responses to catastrophe in German and Jewish thought.

Indefatigable Polyphony, or Alexander Kluge’s Narration in Complete Thoughts

by guest contributor William Stewart

Consider the oeuvre of the German filmmaker, writer, theorist, and general aesthete Alexander Kluge (b. 1932), and the word indefatigable springs to mind. The scale of Kluge’s work—thematics as much as sheer expanse and literal length, that of his individual efforts and that of the oeuvre as a whole—appears matched only by how quickly he produces it. Perhaps for this reason he explained to American author Ben Lerner that he normally sleeps ten to twelve hours a night. “Is that true?” Lerner shot back incredulously. “Yes,” answered Kluge, “I’m a specialist.”


Ben Lerner, Devin Fore, and Alexander Kluge (© author)

Such was the exchange typical of Alexander Kluge’s recent two-day residency at Princeton University: at once playful, absurd, and personal, yet nonetheless deeply honest, deceptively insightful, and surreptitiously poetic. Coinciding with this visit, Princeton’s Department of German—the home of the Alexander Kluge Research Collection and, along with Cornell University and the Akademie der Künste in Berlin, one of three repositories of Kluge’s archive—hosted an event on the theme of ‘Narration,’ a concept that the gathering’s lectures, readings, conversations, films, and performances probed and stretched. The format was as practiced (including academic talks) as it was spontaneous: Kluge often veered from script, reverting to German and demanding that whoever happened to be sitting nearest to him serve as interpreter. Kluge himself worked, so to speak, as much as he was worked on. In a style reminiscent of the audial dialectics of the simultaneous translation found in programming produced by Kluge’s German television channel, dtcp, Princeton’s event engaged in a literal polyglossia, where diversity of both speakers and format served to create a veritable thematic polyphony.

Klugian narration is heterotopic. He transmits on multiple channels simultaneously: personal anecdote, theory, story, allusion, axiom, commentary. Yet despite its volatility, Kluge synthesizes this ensemble with astounding dexterity and forcefulness in the mind of the audience. The granularity of Kluge’s material suggests a swarm of disjunctive monads. Individual moments—clips from his films, passages from his theoretical work, the short prose of his fiction, or quotations from his lectures—capture fragmented arguments and apparently unrelated transitions. Only with distance, with separation does this logic of sampling reveal the greater beauty of its vision. Kluge narrates, as it were, not in complete sentences but in complete thoughts.


Devin Fore and Alexander Kluge (© author)

An exercise in this narration in complete thoughts, the October event opened with a conversation between Kluge and Devin Fore, editor of the English translation of Geschichte und Eigensinn (History and Obstinacy, Zone, 2014). Kluge and sociologist Oscar Negt, both former students of Theodor Adorno and peers of Jürgen Habermas, originally composed this theoretical text collaboratively in 1981. Fore posed questions about the book’s difficult form, suggesting that its penchant for extreme detail created conditions for a “non-productivity” and a resistance to being taught. Kluge responded that the book had no interest in any kind of abstract theory; Negt, in fact, had insisted that the book involve no metaphors. “A concept without experience,” Kluge noted to Fore, “is void. An experience without concept is blind.” For Kluge, this “challenge of concepts” has to do with content’s being so “heavy”—schwer, lästig—a point whose metaphorical validity matches the literal weight of the thousand-plus-page Geschichte und Eigensinn. Kluge then sprung deftly to an ambivalent critique of the “grandchildren of the flower children in Silicon Valley,” parsing their perceived desire for total digitalization, that is, the desire to think the world solely in algorithms, as a kind of modern-day Dornrösschen. If Silicon Valley can be understood in the terms of Sleeping Beauty, then its algorithms are the spells that enchant the castle (or attempt to). Content may be thus relieved of its weight, but perhaps it is just this weight, qua spatial specificity and material constraint, that, when considered in Marxist terms of labor capital, previously allowed workers to “brake,” to perform their own kind of obstinacy against the forces of history. The algorithmically enchanted castle of Kluge’s Dornrösschen may fantasize and even promise a total dissolution of labor’s material specificity, but this comes at the cost of the laborer’s material specificity, as well.

In many ways a demonstration par excellence of the thematic expansiveness of Geschichte und Eigensinn, a program of “narration” concluded Thursday evening. Kluge’s curated event, with participation by Mike Jennings and musical accompaniment by Jamie Rankin, combined prose readings, film clips, poetry recitation, and live piano recital. Filmic ruminations on the material history of the Bataclan building in Paris were accented, for instance, by Schubert’s setting of Mayrhofer’s ‘Wie Ulfru fischt’; Kluge emphasized Mayrhofer’s verse—“Die Erde ist gewaltig schön / Doch sicher ist sie nicht”—as a prism through which to consider the Verschränkung (interlacing) that occurs between, one, the orientalism of Jacques Offenbach’s operetta, Ba-ta-clan, which inspired the theatre building’s architecture and, two, the horrifically violent events of November 13, 2015. Indeed, this Verschränkung remained a topic of interest throughout the narration, and Kluge went to great lengths to distinguish it from any notion of causality. The evening fixed on the ways turmoil links historical moments large and small, and the legibility that this Verschränkung provokes. For Kluge, history operates not like a river, but like a glacier, as Lutz Koepnick explained in his lecture on “Kluge’s Moments of Calm.” The move of history for Kluge is thus an erasing one, eroding as it roves, and yet nevertheless leaving behind clear, interpretable stratification. As Koepnick’s analogy suggests, whatever calm exists in Klugian narrative cannot be separated from the turmoil that defines modernity.

The polyphonic quality of Kluge’s own narrative style endowed the conference with space for less orthodox encounters, the highlight of which was Friday’s conversation and collaborative reading between Kluge and Ben Lerner, American author of 10:04 and recent MacArthur Fellow. Kluge and Lerner presented poetry that they had composed in response to each other’s texts, a form that resonated with Kluge because, as he phrased it, one cannot help but write always to the side of what one sees. Kluge’s attraction to Lerner arose from the latter’s collection The Lichtenburg Figures, but Lerner’s later remark on Kluge’s defining stylistics provides perhaps a more telling affinity: Kluge’s work, in Lerner’s eyes, employs a clinical or scientific and therefore cold gaze, and yet simultaneously maintains the wildest of metaphysical possibilities. In fact, this obstinacy of the metaphysical or fantastic against the clinical had been considered earlier in the day during a lecture by Richard Langston, the lead translator of Geschichte und Eigensinn. For Langston, who examined the thematic pertinence of the recent collaborations between Kluge and the German visual artist Anselm Kiefer, Kluge’s work always contains at its core a “protest of feelings,” a kind of innate human criticality that endows scientific subject matter with an “alchemical” aesthetics and renders the subjective legible within the perceived natural world.

This subjectively sourced power is a clear motif of Kluge’s, evidenced by the title of his 1983 film Die Macht der Gefühle (The Power of Feelings). Philipp Ekardt highlighted scenes from the film to demonstrate the degree to which emotions and feelings are the target of an ongoing investigation in Kluge’s oeuvre. Within Kluge’s narratives, he argued, individual feelings aggregate to produce historically driving forces, a process through which the subject is transformed from analyst to agent. Kluge presents such powerful protest of feelings as a necessary response given the complicated role of hope and the utopic in his critical thought: unlike his predecessors Walter Benjamin, whose utopic visions were rooted in the past, or Theodor Adorno, for whom hope arrived from the future, Kluge relies on the counterfactual as a mode in which to access and practice potential futures, an observation that Leslie Adelson presented in her lecture “Making Time with Alexander Kluge in ‘Saturday in Utopia’.” Feelings of dissatisfaction with and criticality toward the present situation act as a powerful engine for Kluge’s narration, in which it is the future, not the past, that is rewritten as utopian reality.

Kluge concluded the event with a concrete consideration of this counterfactual future through a lecture and a film screening, which posed questions of political ethics and responsibility to the public sphere. Against the ever-increasing isolation allowed by what Kluge termed the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” and the rise of an Internet of Things; against the growing tendency for the “public realm” to become more and more mediated through the non-materiality of interfaces, algorithms, and a globalized, automatized world; the subject must more and more stake the validity of her experience as a moment of possible public interchange. This requires what Kluge called a “counter public sphere,” one that can be narrated only by poetry, can think in both singularity and probabilities, and is capable of dealing in both algorithms and anti-algorithms—a new polyphony for the modern day.

There is a certain violent relationality in Kluge’s ideas, one inherent already to the late-capitalist objects of his critical scrutiny, but also in the way his notions connect to each other. His thinking moves quickly, shifting abruptly and never pausing to second-guess a remark. As a form of critique, such a breakneck mode of narration can be perilous, and it is certainly not without its pitfalls. But as Kluge himself quipped on the precariousness of his thinking: whoever skates on thin ice will not fall through as long as he skates as fast as he can. Perhaps. What cannot be denied is Kluge’s unique gift for associative faculties, for collage and assemblage, for articulating valences that might otherwise be missed as conceptually absurd, ideologically contradictory, or temporally incongruous.

And indeed, attending “A Narration” often left one with a strange inability for temporal judgment: it was difficult to say whether Kluge’s material felt so passé as to be dated or so thoroughly resistant to the vogue as to, in fact, be avant-garde. Likely, the better answer is neither. Klugian narration enacts a sort of Auszeit, a state exterior to categories of normal time, be that in its form—the easy Verschränkung of styles, sources, and chronologies—or in its aim—the kind of contra-factual futurity observed by Adelson. In a previous conversation with Kluge, Joseph Vogl has described the revolutionary as one able to “dissolve and stitch together different times,” one who “assembles history,” “a vessel for temporal states.” As Princeton’s event demonstrated over and over, Klugian narration exemplifies this move of dissolving and stitching together again. His work is nothing if not an assembly, an assembling, an assemblage of history, and, as a narrator, he is nothing if not an indefatigable vessel for temporal states.

William Stewart is a PhD student in Princeton’s Department of German, which he joined after working for a number of years in the studio of Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson. He is interested by the ways in which cultural-historical moments appear reflected in works of visual art, film, and literature, especially in the years following 1968.

Eating for Others: The Nineteenth-Century Vegetarian Movement in Germany

by contributing editor Carolyn Taratko

“Vegetarianism is not only a question of the stomach but also one of society.” This may sound familiar to readers, as articles such as “Eat less meat to avoid dangerous global warming, scientists say” grace our newsfeeds and remind us of the environmental consequences of meat consumption. In fact, this quote comes not from a recent Guardian article but from Hermann Krecke, an advocate of a vegetarian lifestyle and member of the Eden Cooperative Fruit Settlement outside of Berlin around the turn of the twentieth century. Nineteenth-century vegetarianism represented the first popular wave of the movement, with an especially substantial following in Germany. Adherents share some key attributes with what we would recognize as vegetarianism today, but the two also differ in significant ways. While today vegetarianism is regarded as a dietary preference, historically it was associated with a certain worldview. I hesitate to trace a direct line of continuity between contemporary vegetarians and their nineteenth-century antecedents: the group has always been a heterogeneous one, perhaps best defined by a commonly held conviction that reform of society begins with the individual. These differences aside, it does appear that the larger social implications of dietary choices have circled back into contemporary consciousness.

Cover of Edener Mitteilungen, journal of Eden Settlement, 1931

Cover of Edener Mitteilungen, journal of Eden Settlement, 1931

Instead of an ethical imperative concerned with climate change, or even animal welfare, vegetarianism as practiced in nineteenth-century Germany took up the problem of social relations among humans. While an aversion towards the slaughter of animals was frequently cited as one justification for renouncing meat and adopting a vegetarian lifestyle, it was actually secondary to a group that saw itself as an association of modern practitioners of ascetism and remained skeptical of the increasingly visible manifestations of large industry and capitalism. These troubling developments catalyzed a turn inwards among members, who aimed to reform themselves without waiting for social norms or laws to change. At the Eden Settlement, founded in 1893 and perhaps the most well-known among the communities, the three doctrinal pillars, depicted in the form of three hardy trees on their crest, signified a sort of holy trinity of reform goals: reform of self, reform of land (Bodenreform), and reform of the economy. With that approach, German vegetarians hoped to alleviate some of the problems related to poverty.

Beginning in the late eighteenth century with the decline of the old corporate social structure, it became fashionable for middle-class individuals (primarily men) to organize in forms of associational life through the structure of the Verein. As Thomas Nipperdey has noted, the number of associations in Germany exploded between the late eighteenth and late nineteenth centuries. It was during this time that the first vegetarian association formed. While the earliest associations crystallized around general interests (for example, an interest in reading or patriotism), over time the trend skewed towards a greater degree of specialization. Amid the proliferation of associations for singing, education, and social reform, the Verein für naturgemäße Lebensweise (roughly “the association for a natural lifestyle”) was founded in the 1860s by a cohort of committed vegetarians. The association popularized a “natural lifestyle” which involved abstention from meat. In 1892, it was renamed as the Deutschen Vegetarier Bund, thus putting the avoidance of the meat at the center of their identity as a group.

Yet what was originally called a “vegetarian lifestyle” was not self-evidently a meat-free diet. Eva Barlösius has convincingly argued that membership in the Verein (and later, the Bund) was not about a specific diet, nor was it narrowly about abstention from eating meat. Instead of representing a core tenet of common belief, a meat-free diet was merely one strategy for communicating difference between members and non-members (Barlösius, 11). Members advocated abstention from alcohol and tobacco as well as meat; a “natural lifestyle” entailed a good deal more than a plant-based diet. Writings from early practitioners, including Gustav Struve and Theodor Hahn, focused on a life of introspection and simple, coarse clothing, as well as natural cures in addition to a plant-based diet. As Barlösius notes, avoiding meat was one practice that both distinguished and united members of a group who often had differing agendas.

Gustav Struve

Gustav Struve

On the other hand, such a strict focus on social distinction and the social structure of the association as Barlösius presents obscures the ideological and scientific bases of the movement. The development of nutritional science increasingly thrust meat into national debates about health and the “social problem.” In the first place, food safety came to the fore on the international stage. Uwe Spiekermann has highlighted the role of pork as a contentious issue in relations between the US and Germany from 1870-1900, as food inspection became professionalized in the wake of trichinosis outbreaks on both sides of the Atlantic. This was an oft-cited reason given by vegetarians, such as leading figure Struve in his 1869 publication Pflanzenkost, die Grundlage einer neuen Weltanschauung. While disease outbreaks presented one risk inherent in a meat-laden diet, another took the form of more pronounced economic disadvantage. The growth in meat consumption and production was regarded by some as a source of continuing pauperization and undernourishment. According to one calculation, annual per capita meat production in 1855 was 19.6 kg. By 1895 this figure had practically doubled; by 1914 it had reached 45 kg. Several prominent experts (Max Weber among them) regarded the shift in dietary preferences and resulting undernourishment, or nutritional “gap” as they called it, to be the origin of alcoholism and the abuse of spirits among the working class. All in all, the growing presence of meat at the table was one noticeable sign of the changing times.

Continued speculation about the influence of diet on the character of man flourished among the vegetarians. In echoes of the materialist debates of midcentury, when Feuerbach published his now famous dictum “Der Mensch ist was er isst” (Man is what he eats) in a review of Jacob Moleschott’s work, vegetarians argued that meat consumption predisposed humans to a fiery temperament, not least because the act of killing was part and parcel of meat production. While the vulgar materialism of Moleschott (which held that thought and emotion had a material basis that could be found quite literally in food) had been rejected by orthodox scientists, variations of it lived on. The association of meat with an excess of energy, both violent and sexual, appears frequently in contemporary journals. Some, such as Struve, cited the improved temperament of vegetarians and drew the conclusion that war would become impossible among nations of plant-eaters. It became increasingly difficult to socialize in such spheres without sharing the opinion that meat was a moral and social ill in modern Germany.

Today, since awareness of the carbon emissions of livestock rearing has become mainstream, we have a new, climactic justification for vegetarianism. This line of reasoning holds that we in the west who are fortunate to have such a wide selection in our diets should choose wisely. According to the climate vegetarians, choosing wisely is not only a matter of personal health, but also involves a calculus for the welfare of the planet and for others in less advantaged regions, especially the global South, where climate change has and will strike with particular vengeance. The climactic justification for a vegetarian diet in some ways resembles that of the turn–of-the-century vegetarians in Germany, who saw their choices in nourishment not only as an individual dietary choice, but an ethical commitment to mankind.

Images of history

by John Raimo

As often as historians and art historians talk past one another, they also come together before common problems, questions, and sources. Both groups recognize the sheer power of images. Such a moment has reappeared in intellectual history. The recent one hundred and fiftieth celebrations of Aby Warburg’s birth underscored how widely Warburg’s terminology could stretch between art and cultural history. Historians such as Carlo Ginzburg and Patrick Boucheron take iconography as a starting point for deeper and deeper reconstructions of political and intellectual milieus. The work of art historians such as Georges Did-Huberman and Giovanni Careri follow similar patterns shuttling between contextual and formal considerations. Anthropologists too have not been far behind, finding in images the source for new methodologies across disciplines dealing with ideas both in and of history. And many museum curators do not shy away from presenting both ethical and historiographical challenges to the public in precisely this tenor, perhaps most spectacularly in the recent Conflict, Time, Photography exhibit at the Tate Modern.


Guerre 1939-1945. Occupation. Destruction de statues pour récupérer les métaux. La statue du marquis de Condorcet, homme politique français, par Jacques Perrin (1847-1915). Paris, 1941. JAH-REP-34-8

Four ongoing or recent exhibits in Paris also directly engage with the stakes that images—and specifically photography—hold for intellectual history today. Exhibitions dedicated to Seydou Keïta (1921-2001) at the Grand Palais, the photographers of France’s Front populaire (1936-1938) at the Hôtel de Ville, Lore Krüger (1914-2009) at the Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme, and Josef Sudek (1896-1976) at the Jeu de Paume have this much in common: their images possess immediate documentary and historical charges, intervening histories challenge any recovery of the same, and the images themselves pose different meanings—political and otherwise—in our own time. How does one reconcile these knotty realities to one another, let alone relate them to questions of sheer aesthetic value, enduring or otherwise? Perhaps counter-intuitively, the question touches at once upon the artists themselves as much as upon each show’s respective curators. Together, they answer for the most part magnificently just how ideas and patterns of thinking flow into and out from photographs.


Seydou Keïta, Untitled (1956-1957)

Perhaps no exhibit succeeds so brilliantly as that dedicated to the Malinese photographer Keïta. Self-taught and a portraitist by trade in Bamako, Keïta carefully arranges various customers against complex cloth backdrops in plain-light settings. Several layers of history collide in what only first appear as beautiful, if straightforward portraits. Keïta’s private practice runs from 1948 to 1962, shortly after Mali achieves independence from the French colonial empire. His customers find themselves at a crossroads: both women and men dress in traditional clothing as often as in European or American fashions, often modeling themselves upon the figures of the latest films and popular magazines. A watch ostentatiously displayed, a certain hairstyle, new western clothing, or certain postures together subtly betray consciousness of new cultural models, economic statuses, and social change ranged against Keïta’s brilliantly-patterned backgrounds. Both the circumstances of the photography session and the material object—the photo itself, as the exhibit makes clear—are intended to circulate by word of mouth and hand to hand. Yet an alchemical change also occurs. Keïta’s subjects prove subjects in every sense of the term; their glances say as much, even as they slowly come to look out upon a new country.

At the same time, a personal iconography emerges across the œuvre. Keïta’s workshop feature props (pens, glasses, flowers, and so on) that appear regularly throughout the portraits. An iconographic vocabulary similarly developed in the photographer’s carefully-choreographed poses. An uneasy sort of modernity can be teased out in the tension between these hugely personable figures, their clothing and possessions, and those objects and gestures which both they and Keïta saw fit to add to the compositions.

The art proves doubly-reflexive, looking inwards to the person and to life in Bamako as much as outwards to a rapidly changing Africa and globalization. Keïta’s own touch emerges in the gap. He arranges women into odalisque reclinings, organizes groups of civil servants into full profile portraits, and captures others at their ease wearing traditional clothing. The hindsight of a retrospective allows us to see how closely Keïta simultaneously engages European art history, the stock imagery of popular culture, and a Malinese society in transition throughout his career. The complex of ideas here reveal the subject much as the same ideas flow from the same person, the photographer himself, and finally the image in its own right.

The Front populaire exhibition at the Hôtel de Ville attains a similar achievement, albeit on a different scale. The show follows upon a burst of renewed popular and academic interest in Léon Blum’s government and the period immediately preceding WWII. What emerges in the photos of such luminaries as Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Chim (David Seymour), Robert Doisneau, and Willy Ronis among other photojournalists is little less than a unified, if contested image of a society rapidly refiguring itself. Here technology proves the first hero. The portability of cameras, wide lens and higher resolution photography, and the ability to turn shots into next day’s paper gave birth to a new documentary language. Close-ups from within a crowd, odd angles, photos taken from rooftops hold their own with group portraits of politicians at ease in saloon lounges or mid-speech before thousands.

Fred Stein.jpg

Bastille Day demonstrations, Vincennes 1935 (©

The great range or even discrepancy of Capa and company’s interests and work suggest a whole society falling at once under the same photographic lens, even as history jostles against advertisements and film stars in the daily papers. The photos appear on equal terms. Even publicity in the sense of public relations proves nascent, if not off balance. Airs of improvisation and the same-old business surround political figures like Blum and his contemporaries. Striking workers and public amusements achieve a glamour just as photographers accord the homeless and unemployed a new dignity. And slowly certain dramatic poses and compositions take on a new regularity across the exhibit. The vocabulary hardens and situations reprise themselves. New understandings of personal and sexual relationships, masculinity and femininity, and modernity itself track across the years. (One gentle criticism should be added here: it would have done well to have included far more female photographers.) What happens, as Michel Winock and others argue, is that French society comes to understand itself in images just as photographers came to learn their full historical potential—‘History’ with a capital ‘H.’

The German photographer Lore Krüger’s work confronts many of the same issues, if more obliquely. Her career and biography stagger the mind. Krüger studies photography with Florence Henri and other Bauhaus-trained photographers while attending lectures with László Rádványi in 1930s Paris, all the while absorbing the lessons of interwar avant-garde photographers (and living in the same house as Arthur Koestler and Walter Benjamin). An exile from Nazi Germany, Krüger passes through Majorca—witnessing Franco’s troops massacre Republican forces in 1936—and mainland Spain at the height of its Civil War before making her way to New York, where she and her husband work for the exile community’s German-language press. Giving up photography after the war, Krüger eventually returns to a quiet life as a translator and author in Eastern Germany before dying in 2009.


Lore Krüger, “Jeune Gitan, Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer” (1936; © Estate of Lore Krüger)

The exhibits’ curators posthumously assemble what remained of Krüger’s photography. In their composition, lighting, and psychological reach, her work achieves a uniform excellence across still lives, landscapes, portraits of friends, and above all in her studies of interwar gypsies. The balance between all her influences is remarkable, not least as Krüger too follows in the wake of glossy magazines and photojournalism. Yet a dichotomy of sorts also arises. For every ‘political’ image or photograph taken on the street, Krüger veers to high avant-garde experimentation elsewhere. These activities both overlap and command longer periods in her work, persisting until the end of Krüger’s artistic career. Something new emerges at the same time: what might be called the private lives of an avant-garde and an artist in wartime apart from any political engagement. The exhibit’s repeated argument that Krüger’s œuvre forms a consistent whole here seems to miss a much more interesting set of questions. How do we reconstruct private intellectual life, the persistence of international movements once contacts have been severed, and the experience of artistic experimentation continued under the hardest conditions?


Josef Sudek, “The Last Rose” (1956, Musée des Beaux-arts du Canada, Ottawa. 2010 © Estate of Josef Sudek)

All the same issues confront any attempt to wrangle the great, protean Czech photographer Josef Sudek into a coherent retrospective. The portraitist, the architecture and the landscape photographer, the artist of still lives, and the commercial man all jostle against one another over a career spanning the complicated histories of interwar and then communist-era Czechoslovakia. To reduce Sudek’s photography to any political (or apolitical) stance or simpler historical context would be a mistake on the same order of privileging one genre above the others. Yet the Jeu de Paume’s curators attempt something like this. Moving backwards from the interior studies, they claim a certain artistic unity which in turn drives the late Sudek into a sort of inner exile. An impression grows of intervening notions organizing a narrative: the late Romantic artist gradually finds himself confined to a window by the history beyond it, something like an uncritical reprise of Günter Gaus’s old notion of East Germany as a ‘niche society.’ This is not to say that the merits of Sudek’s work do not shine through the exhibit, or that the curators entirely mute his own thinking. The problem is rather that later ideas and contexts—historical or otherwise—drown out the images. As confidently as Keïta’s or as loudly as the Front populaire journalists’ pictures speak to audiences today, others such as Krüger’s and Sudek’s talk to historians, art historians, and all of us in much quieter tones.

Exhibitions reviewed: “Seydou Keïta,” Grand Palais (31 March to 11 July, 2016); “Exposition 1936 : le Front populaire en photographie,” Hôtel de Ville de Paris (19 May to 23 July, 2016); “Lore Krüger : une photographe en exil, 1934-1944,” Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme (30 March to 17 July, 2016); Josef Sudek : Le monde à ma fenêtre,” Jeu de Paume (7 June to 25 September, 2016).

Fortune. Failure. Fetish. Fest. Aby Warburg’s glorious Nachleben

by guest contributor Dina Gusejnova


Aby Warburg (c. 1900)

Aby Warburg (1866-1929), the philosopher of culture, art historian and psychopathologist of modernity extraordinaire, famously described himself as an “Amburghese di cuore, ebreo di sangue, d’anima Fiorentino.” Having renounced the inheritance of his father’s bank, Warburg became known for his purpose-built library, devoted to the study of what he called the afterlife of antiquity (Das Nachleben der Antike). In 1921, two years after the founding of the Weimar Republic, it grew into a dedicated research institute based in Hamburg. Aby was anxious about the times he lived in, yet some grounds for optimism remained. A core member of his research community, Ernst Cassirer, had been appointed Rector of the University of Hamburg a year prior to his death: the first Jewish Rector in German history. Warburg, suffering a mental breakdown after the First World War, did not live to witness the near destruction of his Institute following its eventual expulsion from Germany to Britain after the Nazi rise to power, nor its resurrection in two locations, London and Hamburg, after the Second World War and the reunification of Germany, respectively.

Few would contest that it is the library in Bloomsbury where the aura of the founder most continues to be felt. The current chief archivist, Claudia Wedepohl, had the initial idea to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Warburg’s birth this July. Though Wedepohl kept a low profile throughout the event, the conference proved her own resounding success. An initial restricted list of free tickets were snapped up within days of the quiet announcement. To make the Warburg Fest happen, the organizers switched to one of the largest lecture halls in the University.

Work. Legacy. Promise

Photo courtesy of the author

As current Director of the Warburg Institute in London, David Freedberg, reminded attendees, however, paradoxically the fortune of the institute had never been less secure than now. It has recently come under great financial pressure from the University of London, and only survived after a 2014 court ruling in its favour. A recent major research project, operating under the enigmatic name of Bilderfahrzeuge (named after a concept Warburg has once used in a postcard), owes its existence not to British but to German taxpayers. It has recruited a majority of its postdoctoral scholars from German institutions. It is worth adding to this that the two Warburgian havens of culture exhibit some anachronisms. They do not appear to attract non-Europeans or non-North Americans. Besides, all but one of the Institute’s Directors have been men, with the only woman, Gertrud Bing, having served from 1954 to 1959. It was particularly puzzling that two distinguished women who have broken paths for Warburg-inspired scholarship, former Archivist Dorothea McEwan and Librarian Jill Kraye, did not speak at the conference.

It is obviously the idea of Warburg’s personality or, more precisely, his elusive fondness for humanism that resonates with some of our contemporaries as it had with his. Intellectuals in Weimar Germany praised his invigorating effect on modern society, particularly at a time, as one scholar put it, when “humanism in Germany is constantly in decline” (Eduard Fraenkel to Aby Warburg, 16 May 1925). Warburg’s case also inspired works on mental illness in cultural history itself. For the philosopher Ernst Cassirer and many others, Warburg’s library gave hope and meaning. Cassirer liked to put it in the words of William Shakespeare: “The lunatic, the lover, and the poet / Are of imagination all compact [….] / And, as imagination bodies forth / The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen / Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing / A local habitation and a name” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act V, sc. 1).

It was not surprising that the celebration Work. Legacy. Promise also took material possession as one of its themes. Martin Warnke offered a particularly moving vignette in this connection, which highlighted the importance of material memory to the heirs of Warburg’s foundations. He chose to tell the biography of an object. Warburg’s paperweight, a snail, ended up in the possession of a Hamburg art historian, who then bequeathed it to the chief custodian of the Hamburg Kunsthalle Eckhard Schaar, who in turn had made provisions in his will that the snail was to become the rightful property of the Warburg Institute after his death. The snail never reached its destination, however, until one day Mr Schaar’s sister made a sudden appearance at Warnke’s door. She admitted that she had grown unusually attached to it since her childhood. Asked why she was returning it now, she replied that her brother had recently appeared in her dreams, scolding her for not fulfilling her obligations as the executor of his will. The snail’s return had prompted the question which of the two Warburg institutes, the Haus in Hamburg or the Institute in London, would be the rightful owner. In the end, they decided to make a copy. It is then that they realised that the snail which the sister had returned was in fact not made of brass, as Aby Warburg’s notes had described it, at all but of a cheaper alloy. The Hamburg team dutifully produced a brass copy, and Warnke personally used this celebration of Warburg’s birth to hand it over in front of the audience. Curiously, this copy matched Warburg’s own idea more closely than the purported original.

The snail handover

Photo courtesy of the author

So, what are we to make of Warburg’s act of cultural patronage in historical perspective? Horst Bredekamp suggested comparing it to Wilhelmine foundations such as the Bode Museum. Funded with capital sourced from the private banking sector, it emerged at a time when the German state was in severe crisis, but the memory of the public wealth of the Wilhelmine era was still vivid. Scholars of Jewish background were visibly represented there mainly because limitations in the career progression of academics were still in place throughout the Wilhelmine era. In the end, this theme – Warburg’s fraught relationship with his own Jewish identity – was strangely absent in the conference with the exception of Bredekamp’s brief treatment of the so-called “imperial Jews.”

Warburg himself encouraged thinking of his own work as an art historian and ethnographer as a process of “undemonizing the phobically imprinted inherited mass of impressions” [der Entdämonisierungsprozess der phobisch geprägten Eindruckserbmasse]. Did his madness precede Warburg’s method, or is it an occupational risk for anyone trying to think of visual culture both in terms of pedigree and in terms of synchronic association, as Claudia Wedepohl suggested? Was there an aesthetic purpose to Warburg’s assemblages, as George-Didi Huberman’s idea of a knowledge-montage might suggest? Or was Warburg’s way of thinking about lineages and pedigree Darwinian, as Sigrid Weigel insinuated? Like a snail’s path, the life of Warburg’s mind and its afterlives emerged in different ways at this conference.

“Sometimes it appears to me,” Aby Warburg wrote in his diary on April 3, 1929, “as if I, the psycho-historian, were trying to deduct the schizophrenia of the West from the imagery of autobiographical references” (Gombrich, Warburg, p. 302). On this occasion, the most stirring example of this intimate link between Warburg’s persona and the precariousness of our personal present came from W.J.T. Mitchell. Sharing his current work on insanity and visual culture, he sought to make sense of his own son Gabriel’s suicide by placing his project in a comparative perspective with the history of Warburg’s mental life-world.

As Freedberg made clear, the boundary between Enlightenment encyclopaedism and what he called Warburg’s “genealogical” approach, “pathetic in its reliance on reproduction and multiplication,” has always been porous. This critical remark would have felt almost dismissive were it not for the double entendre, which was impossible to miss for those familiar with Warburg’s work. For those doubting Warburg’s powers of logos, he remains a beacon of insight with his pathos. Warburg was not the first to signal the role of the emotions as a factor in the form and transmission of ideas, and in fact had been inspired in this by Darwin as well as his contemporary Richard Semon. His term Pathosformel captures his belief that emotions, like languages, can be captured and transmitted in the form of an engram, gesture, or symbol, and thus become the objects of study. Some papers used Warburgian formulae with a pathos that came close to magical incantations, speaking of Seelenraumbekenner, Engramme höchster Ergriffenheit, Wunschräume and Denkzwischenräume.

As Carlo Ginzburg suggested in advancing his own intellectual genealogy of Warburg’s Pathosformeln, Warburg’s method could be equally seen as a forensic approach to cultural genealogy. By extension, the task in tracing the fortune of an idea is not merely antiquarian but also moral in the way in which aesthetic practice had always been deeply embedded in theories of moral sensibility, if we only think of Burke, Kant, and, in Ginzburg’s case, Pseudo-Longinus. For some art historians, tuning our eye to the veins of the marble from which ancient sculptures were made as if they were indeed the blood vessels of a living being (Frank Fehrenbach) becomes a Warburgian practice. It makes the analysis of form a matter subservient to the understanding of the emotions.

Yet, just as the copied snail turns out to be a more authentic piece than the purported inherited original, some of the less eulogistic papers were in fact far more self-evidently Warburgian. Robert Darnton did not speak about Warburg but returned to an old question: What books did the French read on the eve of the French revolution? He applied Occam’s razor to formulate a more manageable question, namely, what books did the French buy before the French revolution? This allowed him to “use maps to highlight diachronic processes” (Claudia Wedepohl’s phrase), a feature of the Mnemosyne atlas, by tracking the paths of Swiss booksellers. This produced a literary Tour de France which could perhaps have linked back to his own studies of the visual. In the end, however, a fortune history of books and their sellers might not satisfy those seeking to know the fortune histories of ideas.

Contradicting Lorraine Daston’s curious observation that the humanities do not tend to think about the epistemological value of case studies—though without saying as much—Quentin Skinner performed an act of iconographic hermeneutics with his usual rhetorical finesse. In picking up on previous work by Horst Bredekamp on the frontispiece of Hobbes’s Leviathan and his own work on this subject, he effectively articulated a question which had been missing from a room full of answers: Why engage in studies of the Afterlife of Antiquity at all?


Frontispiece of Leviathan by Abraham Bosse, with input from Hobbes (1651)

The answer emerged from his performance of thinking. Without the knowledge of this transmission, we may not be able to discern the meaning of past communications at all, be they textual or visual. (At least not those communications which had themselves been produced by highly erudite authors.) When it comes to the place of Hobbes’s Leviathan in the genealogy of the idea of sovereignty, nobody has developed a more rigorous way of assessing the place of the frontispiece in the architecture of Hobbes’s argument than Skinner himself. His charted path – a genealogy of visual persuasion — leads to the biography of the artist who designed the frontispiece (something which Horst Bredekamp had provided before), as well as to the portraiture of sovereignty itself. Panofsky, Warburg’s mentee, can help with the formal side of this analysis, highlighting the frontispiece’s merging of two opposing traditions of representing power: the triangle of the Trinity (the power of God), and the triangle emerging from tracing the sovereign’s sword and the crozier upwards (to represent the power of the mortal God, or Leviathan). But something more than this is needed

in order to answer the old question which has haunted Hobbes scholars, namely, whether the Mortal Man in the Leviathan was a likeness of Charles I or of his de facto murderer, Oliver Cromwell. Iconology, it turns out, is not the only path to persuasion. Skinner concluded his own hypothesis – that the man is the state itself — with an affective gesture towards a detail so self-evident that it is almost invisible: “Look at that moustache! Look at that hair!” The hair of that mortal man looked remarkably like the phenotype of all the other rulers drawn by Abraham Boss’s pen for his previous patrons. It felt as though a Warburgian Mnemosyne had lifted a veil of confusion through the language of common sense.

Perhaps it is this persistent yearning for a world in which a tiny, ‘pathetic’ detail can suddenly reveal more significant meanings, which might explain Warburg’s persistent appeal to scholars today. To adopt the phrase of an older contemporary of Aby Warburg’s, being determines Nachleben. In the end, who needs a Schrift when you can have a Fest?

Note that video of the full conference proceedings of Aby Warburg 150. Work. Legacy. Promise at the Warburg Institute, London, has been posted online.

Dina Gusejnova is a Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Sheffield. After a PhD in History from the University of Cambridge, she held a Harper-Schmidt fellowship at the University of Chicago and a Leverhulme fellowship at UCL’s Centre for Transnational History. Her interests range from the intellectual history of Weimar Germany to twentieth-century European political thought and the cultural and intellectual history of statelessness. She has just published European Elites and Ideas of Empire, 1917-57 (Cambridge University Pressavailable here with open access), in which she explores the lifeworld of fading empires.

Karl Philipp Moritz and Oralism

By guest contributor Paul Babinski

In 1783 Karl Philipp Moritz went to Berlin’s Charité hospital looking for a human guinea pig. What we know of the deaf teenager he brought home, Karl Friedrich Mertens, comes from two accounts Moritz published in his journal of experiential psychology, the Magazin für Erfahrungsseelenkunde. The encounter is only a footnote, if that, in the history of deaf pedagogy, but it is a fascinating window onto the experience of the late Enlightenment German thinker as he grappled with disability and the humanity of the disabled at a moment when their supposed limitations were being enshrined in the hierarchies of cold, pseudo-scientific certainty.

Moritz is remembered today for his autobiographical novel, Anton Reiser, whose intense, often brutal psychological self-observation Moritz had cultivated with a circle of collaborators in the pages of the Magazin für Erfahrungsseelenkunde. Moritz took in Mertens to see for himself about a debate that had sprung up in European journals. Was it better to teach deaf students to speak or to use signs? This split between so-called oralist and manualist methods remains today a contentious topic. The controversy reached the European stage in 1779, when Joseph II founded the Taubstummeninstitut (Deaf and Dumb Institute) in Vienna.

Joseph II had been inspired by the Parisian Abbé de l’Épée who took in deaf street children and taught them using “methodical signs,” the pre-cursor of modern sign language, which the Abbé had developed by combining grammatical elements with the signs already in use among his students. He believed that his work would uncover a natural universal language—a kind of silent lingua franca for transnational communication. When the Abbé claimed that a young boy in his care was in fact the abandoned son of a French noble, the Count of Solar, the ensuing scandal raised awareness of the Abbé’s methods. The Affaire Solar, which provided material for a popular play decades later and several films in our own time, distilled the dawning awareness that the Abbé’s project reclaimed the basic humanity of a marginalized group whose station in life was the sign not of a natural order, but of past wrongdoing committed against them.

The increased attention also ensnared him in one debate after another, as various pedagogues came out of the woodwork with competing theories. With the adoption of the Abbé’s methods in Vienna, the young director of Leipzig’s school for the deaf, Samuel Heinicke, took up the German oralist counter-offensive. Heinicke’s methods were cobbled together from a variety of earlier published sources, most significantly the work of Johann Konrad Ammann, whose 1692 Surdus loquens outlined a method for teaching the deaf to speak. Building on Ammann, Heinicke developed a method of training vocal production by mapping it onto a scale of flavors, and he used what he called a “Sprachmaschine,” an anatomical model of the speaking organs, in instruction. These he kept “secret,” refusing to divulge the details of his methods without a substantial cash reward.

Holding useful knowledge ransom did not endear him to the republic of letters – nor did the excessive discipline with which Heinicke was rumored to handle the students in his care – but Heinicke’s ideas nevertheless convinced many of his German contemporaries. He argued forcefully against the use of signs, going so far as to group the Abbé’s methods alongside the cruel surgeries and electric shocks that doctors and charlatans inflicted on deaf children to “cure” their silence. More significantly, Heinicke presented the hodgepodge of ideas he had culled from earlier works in the tantalizing and novel garb of cognitive psychology. The deaf, he argued, simply think differently.

To illustrate his point, he compared the child learning to speak to the apprentice typesetter, who must know not only the letters, but their place in the type case and the feel of the nick with which the individual letters are oriented on the composing stick. Heinicke invites us to follow the beginning apprentice’s thought as it follows the awkward movement of his hand from the copy, to the type, to the nick, letter by letter. With experience, however, this process becomes automatic, and the typesetter’s attention can rest solely on the text itself. So is it with concept formation, Heinicke argues. Like the typesetter’s station, sound and speech provide the sensual basis upon which the basic workings of thought are mastered, and it is to these sensations that visual signs in turn refer. Without this spoken referent, the written sign appears jumbled and unintelligible or, if ever grasped, is unable to take root in memory. Without a foundation in these basic, embodied cognitive processes, deaf children would remain forever grounded in the immediate and the material, and never graduate to abstract thought. Heinicke spoke often of Denkarten (ways of thinking). There was, he explained, a speaking Denkart and a “deaf-mute” Denkart, and the latter was fundamentally inferior, like the thinking of a child.

Moritz and his collaborators were intrigued by these ideas, even if Moritz seemed hesitant to embrace Heinicke and his less-than-stellar reputation. In his journal, he staged the oralist-manualist debate that Heinicke had picked with the Abbé, printing excerpts from their letters, and later published Friedrich Nicolai’s critical account of his visit to a public examination at the Vienna Taubstummeninstitut, whose director had trained with the Abbé, as well as observations on deaf individuals from other contributors.

Magazin für Erfahrungsseelenkunde

Magazin für Erfahrungsseelenkunde (1786)

However, it is the account of his cohabitation with Mertens, the boy he took in from the Charité, that is perhaps the strangest, and most fascinating, monument to Moritz’s experiments in deaf pedagogy. Moritz at first wanted to teach the boy to speak, like Heinicke advocated. The first of his two entries in the Magazin für Erfahrungsseelenkunde follows his efforts to teach Mertens to produce individual sounds. He describes in detail how quickly his pupil picked up the basics, mimicking the way Moritz moved his mouth and intuitively grasping that he should imitate his teacher’s hand movements with his tongue. “After four weeks,” Moritz reports, “he could already bring forth various two-syllable words, such as flower, paper, etc., as people who have seen him at my place know.”

In the meantime, unexpected lines of communication sprung up between the two. It struck Mertens, as he watched Moritz and a friend reading together from the same book, that he’d seen the two before when he was living “wild on the street” and rowing boats to make a little money. Moritz and his companion had read like that once as he rowed for them. The boy energetically told the others through gestures and signs, and Moritz wondered at the vividness with which Mertens could recall the event. The deaf, he noticed, had perfectly good memories.

Soon the oralist instruction fell away and, in the second installment, Moritz simply observed the young boy for those qualities of mind that Heinicke claimed were inaccessible to the deaf “way of thinking.” How were his judgement and imagination? Did he understand the abstract concepts of Christianity? When, unprompted, Mertens covered the portals of their house with crosses on Walpurgisnacht – April 30th, when the witches fly to the Blocksberg to have their sabbath – Moritz noted that he could think calendrically. To find out whether or not he considered suicide a sin, Moritz held a knife to his breast and made like he would plunge it in. Mertens explained through gestures that if he did so the devil would take him and stomp him to bits. Another time, Moritz lay in bed like someone dying as a way of asking Mertens what would happen to him after death. We can only imagine what Mertens thought of his new roommate, the strange intellectual with his theatrical scenarios meant to probe the boy’s inner state.

Piece by piece, Moritz located the inventory of conceptual thought in Mertens and dispelled Heinicke’s myth of the inferior “deaf-mute’s way of thinking.” What he found instead was something all too human, a complicated personality, hurt, resentful, often vain, and at times consumed by anger. It was, I think, with an empathetic look to Mertens that Moritz later said of a deaf boy in his novel Andreas Hartknopf that “envy and self-interest had taken root so deeply within him that he begrudged the flower sunshine or the flock camped beneath a tree the shade.”

In fact, the line that separated Moritz from his deaf pupil was a more familiar one: between Enlightened rationality and small-minded prejudice and superstition. Berlin’s Jewish intellectuals, like Moses Mendelssohn, Salomon Maimon, and Marcus Herz, counted among Moritz’s friends and collaborators, and the fiercely anti-Semitic Mertens disapproved of Moritz’s Jewish visitors. At one point, “he formed with his fingers the figure of two horns on his head, and pointed to the fire burning in the oven, expressing through pantomime that the devil would lead the Jews to hell.” The boy chided Moritz for not going often enough to church (though he never went himself), was convinced Moritz withheld money that the state had supposedly given him for Mertens’ care, and seemed unsure if his host could even be counted among the saved. He was quick to hold a grudge. Threatening those whom he felt had wronged him with divine retribution, he evoked in gesture the lightning with which God would smite his enemies. If the Affaire Solar narrated the realization of the marginalized deaf child’s humanity with a grand scale and hopeful optimism fit for the popular stage, Moritz’s case study was its gritty, realist counterpart.

In an essay containing his theoretical conclusions on the subject, Moritz does not entirely do away with Heinicke’s link between the use of signs and cognitive limitation, but he implicitly rejects the oralist method. He compares the arbitrariness of spoken words, a “light tool for thought,” with the often unwieldy gestures that he fears can never truly break free from the objects they signify. Nevertheless, he advises that we constantly strive to simplify these signs, “with which the deaf-mute seeks to order in his mind the world around him.” It is hard not to see echoes of his depiction of Mertens when Moritz cautions that otherwise, “[the surrounding world] would seize hold of him, and represent itself more within him than he himself can conceive of the world.”

Paul Babinski is a PhD student in German at Princeton University. He is writing his dissertation on early modern German orientalism.

Further Reading:

Joachim Gessinger, Auge und Ohr: Studien zur Erforschung der Sprache am Menschen: 1700-1850 (Berlin: de Gruter, 1994).

Jonathan Ree, I See a Voice: Deafness, Language and the Senses – A Philosophical History (New York: Holt, 1999).

Unveiling evil: ‘Hitler’s furies’ and the dark side of women’s history

By guest contributor Benedetta Carnaghi

Two years ago I went to Ravensbrück. I went to Ravensbrück because I was shocked not to have been aware of its existence before reading the memoir of an ex-deportee. I went to Ravensbrück because I was appalled that, for no reason other than that it was the only Nazi concentration camp built especially for women, it is not as well known as other camps.

I was investigating Virginia d’Albert-Lake. Born in 1910, in Dayton, Ohio, Virginia had married Philippe d’Albert-Lake, a Frenchman working for the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company. She then moved to France. At the outbreak of World War II, they both decided to become involved in the Comet escape line, which eventually led to Virginia’s arrest in June 1944 and deportation to Ravensbrück.


From left to right: Virginia d’Albert-Lake after her liberation; back in health; when she received the French Légion d’honneur (Private archives of the D’Albert-Lake family, Paris)

Virginia survived deportation and died in 1997. I was fortunate enough to interview survivors, and they explained to me that female deportation remains a taboo. Women were obviously present in concentration camps, but they seem to be nearly invisible in the historiography. Research and recognition has only recently improved. Sarah Helm published a group portrait of prisoners in Ravensbrück: Life and Death in Hitler’s Concentration Camp for Women (2015). On May 27, 2015, Ravensbrück survivors Geneviève de Gaulle-Anthonioz and Germaine Tillion were interred in the French Panthéon alongside resisters Pierre Brossolette and Jean Zay.


Francois Hollande (centre) stands on the Panthéon steps between the flag-draped coffins of Jean Zay, Geneviève de Gaulle-Anthonioz, Pierre Brossolette and Germaine Tillion. Source: The Guardian

Margaret Collins Weitz’s conclusions as to why it took so long for these women’s stories to enter scholarship remain valuable, although her book Sisters in the Resistance (1995) was published two decades ago. It took a long time for women to “recount or write up recollections of their wartime experiences” (17). The rediscovery of their stories started with the French feminist movement of the 1970s and found a major touchstone in the first colloquium on “Women in the Resistance” organized by the Union des Femmes Françaises (UFF, Union of French Women) in 1975 (Collins Weitz, ibid.). But women were generally less interested in receiving recognition for their actions—that is, in filling out the official papers to be decorated or commended by the state. For those who survived deportation, the issue with “telling their story” proved more complicated. Deportation deprived them of every aspect of their femininity, forced them to parade naked at a time when nudity was taboo, exposed them to the insinuation that they had prostituted themselves to survive. They came back to a society that did not understand what they had gone through, and trying to explain it would have meant reliving the horror. Collins Weitz focuses, in particular, on “the dilemma of those who were, or subsequently became, mothers” and “found it impossible to tell their children of the horrors they had seen—and sometimes experienced,” in part because they did not want them to be marked by their personal stories (18). It was only to fight revisionist claims that extermination camps had not existed that the women found the courage to speak.


On the left: “Plus rien de personnel, plus rien d’intime” by ex-deportee Eliane Jeannin-Garreau ; on the right: Aufseherinnen greet Himmler during his visit of the Ravensbrück concentration camp in January 1941 (SS propaganda album – Archives of the Ravensbrück Memorial – Mahn- und Gedenkstätte Ravensbrück)

Nazis destroyed the barracks where the Ravensbrück deportees lived, but the houses of the SS guards still stand as a memorial and host various exhibitions. One explores the female SS guards, Aufseherinnen and Blockführerinnen, deployed there. I remember staring at their faces: their stories upset me. They were detrimental to my purpose of highlighting women’s heroism. At Ravensbrück I ignored them and kept my focus on the deportees.

But there they were, hundreds of them: on the walls of that house, in the back of my mind. I knew that the time would come when I would be forced to exhume the concerns I had buried and come to terms with the fact that there were women perpetrators among the Nazis. And that time came, indeed, when I read Wendy Lower’s Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields (2013).

Lower examines the women who were born in Germany in the wake of World War I, grew up in the Nazi regime, and worked for the Third Reich in the Nazi-occupied East, sharing responsibility for the massacres that were carried out there. Her research began in the town of Zhytomyr, in Ukraine. Lower originally traveled there to find documentation of the Final Solution, a quite impossible task. The town is about a hundred miles west of Kiev, and under the Nazi occupation, it was Heinrich Himmler’s Ukrainian headquarters.

The Nazis arrived in Ukraine in 1941 and ravaged the territory. Lower stumbled upon certain documents that listed ordinary German women living and working in towns like Zhytomyr during the Nazi occupation. She was surprised that such women would be in these areas. When she went back to the Western archives, she looked at the postwar investigative records and found testimony from many German women detailing the killings. Prosecutors appeared more interested in the crimes of their male colleagues and husbands. So Lower started wondering why prosecutors did not question or follow up on these women’s testimonies.

The female camp guards who triggered my thoughts were the only ones about whom studies existed when Lower set out to write her book. Compared to other German women working under the Nazis, the Aufseherinnen were fairly well-known, but according to Lower they were presented as caricatures or pornographic distortions of the “evil woman.” While there was a lot of literature about the different male perpetrators in the Nazi system, there were no sophisticated studies of the female perpetrators. Hannah Arendt herself “neglected the role of female administrators” when she “fashioned her thesis on the banality of evil” (Lower, 265). Yet the Cold War temporarily buried the question of the Nazi perpetrators, since “the Red Army became the ultimate war criminal entrenched in German experience” (Elazar Barkan, The Guilt of Nations: Restitution and Negotiating Historical Injustices, 2000: 10) and the German focus was on the nation’s suffering and its own victims. As for women specifically, the figure of the Trümmerfrau—the designation given to those who helped reconstruct the German bombed cities—was so powerful that it effaced every other representation of German women. Historian Leonie Treber defined it as a “German legend” and set out to dismantle the myth in her dissertation, but the controversy her work raised denotes how established this heroic image of women in post-Nazi Germany still is in today’s Germany.

The number of women perpetrators is not negligible. An estimated 500,000 German women went to the Nazi East and formed an integral part of Hitler’s machinery of destruction. Lower tried to understand why they did so, by closely studying their biographies. Their lives showed her how human beings change and how these women ended up contributing to the violence of the Holocaust, from the idealists who were allied with the Nazi ideology and saw themselves as agents of a conservative revolution, to those who simply followed their husbands or lovers and sought material benefits.


Erna Petri, before and after her arrest. Wife of SS Second Lieutenant Horst Petri, she shot six half-naked Jewish boys who had managed to escape from a boxcar bound for a gas chamber and were hiding on the Petris’ private estate in Nazi-occupied Poland. She was barely 25 years old at the time. When pressed by the Stasi interrogator as to how she, a mother, could murder these children, she referred to her own desire to prove herself to the men (the SS). Erna Petri “embodied” the ideological indoctrination of the Nazi regime. Source: Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields (p.88 and 205)

Paradoxically, it took Lower’s book about gender to teach me that evil is not gendered. Genocide is a human problematic behavior that applies to both men and women. “Minimizing women’s culpability to a few thousand brainwashed and misguided camp guards does not accurately represent the reality of the Holocaust,” writes Lower (182). Women should be given back their agency, whether good or bad.

The idea of “evil” has significantly evolved from the way Hannah Arendt first conceptualized it. Corey Robin analyzed her position in “The Trials of Hannah Arendt” and in a recent lecture delivered at Cornell University titled “Eichmann in Jerusalem. Three Readings: Hobbesian, Kantian, Arendtian.” Arendt tried to distinguish “Eichmann’s murderous deeds from his state of mind.” Eichmann was not a “solitary actor,” but a “partner in a criminal joint enterprise.” Arendt “de-emphasized motive” to stress the “collaborative dimension of mass murder.” Robin cites one of her letters to Scholem, where she famously said that “evil is never ‘radical’” but “only extreme,” and “it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension.” Robin argues that this is specifically “what Arendt’s critics detect and dislike in her thesis of the banality of evil: a denial of evil as the summum malum, of its capacity to serve as the basis of a political morality.” In such a quasi-Hobbesian interpretation of good and evil, there is no objective moral structure to the universe.

If for Arendt ideology played a lesser role in Eichmann’s decisions, it seems to me that Lower’s book resonates more with the way Timothy Snyder conceptualized evil. Nazism—just as Snyder framed it in his Black Earth: The Holocaust As History and Warning (2015)— supplied its perpetrators with a Weltanschauung and a rationale for their crimes, namely a fictitious life-and-death global struggle against an ultimate enemy, the Jew. Overall, a minority of women directly carried out the killings of Jews in the East, but many women participated in the administration, working to keep the wheels of the Nazi system turning, the deportation trains going and the documents moving. Their agency is visible in the goal they wanted to attain: to gain social mobility and be part of the new, selected “racial aristocracy” of the Third Reich.

Addition photos for the above piece can be seen here (courtesy of Benedetta Carnaghi)

Special thanks to John Raimo for his excellent suggestions on a previous draft of this piece!

Benedetta Carnaghi is a Ph.D. student in History at Cornell University. She studies modern European history with a particular focus on Italy, France, and Germany. Her current research focus is a comparison between the Fascist and Nazi secret police. Related interests include the history of Resistance, the Holocaust, gender studies, political violence, and terror.

Max Weber and Carl Schmitt: Crossroads of Crisis

by guest contributor Pedro T. Magalhães

Ideas have unintended consequences. Max Weber, the founding father of German sociology, must have been keenly aware of this. In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904/05), he put forward the bold thesis that Protestant asceticism had unintentionally provided the spiritual conditions for the rise of modern capitalism. Ironically, one of Weber’s own political ideas—the notion of a plebiscitary leadership democracy, which he developed in the aftermath of World War I—would also end up being interpreted as having inadvertently paved the way to the rise of totalitarian dictatorship in Germany.

The first commentator to suggest that Weber’s vision of democracy had aroused the inclination of moderate, bürgerlich German minds to accept radical, authoritarian solutions to the predicaments of parliamentary democracy was the historian Wolfgang J. Mommsen. Mommsen argued, in the conclusion to his book, that Carl Schmitt’s theory of the plebiscitary legitimacy of the President of the Reich, astutely exploited in the early 1930s against the supposedly shallow legality of Weimar’s parliamentarianism, constituted a valid and coherent extension to Max Weber’s post-WWI demands. Carl Schmitt was a conservative Catholic legal scholar: drawn early to the political philosophies of the European counterrevolution, and flirting with Italian fascism throughout the 1920s before joining the Nazi ranks shortly after Hitler’s rise to power. It was therefore quite controversial when Jürgen Habermas suggested, in his final remarks at a Weber centenary conference (Heidelberg, 1964), that Schmitt was a “legitimate pupil”—perhaps even a “natural son”—of Max Weber’s.

There is, I believe, something more shocking in the assertion that the ideas of a mainstream liberal thinker—even if of a gloomy, late-modern variety—were “logically,” “legitimately,” or “naturally” taken to unanticipated extremes by a radical colleague than in the numerous instances of des extrêmes qui se touchent in the history of political thought (e. g. the “dangerous liaisons” between Carl Schmitt and the neo-Marxist Walter Benjamin). Extremes frequently meet because they oppose the same status quo—even if for utterly different reasons, or because they share methods, ways of thinking, or a fascination with limit cases. The circular movement of opposites that meet is less disquieting than the drift from the center to the fringes, from moderation to radicalism, because the latter entails a reconfiguration of the political space as a whole, a redefinition of the frontiers of what is politically tenable.

As regards the affinity between the political ideas of Weber and Schmitt, some commentators have tried to relativize the whole controversy. Leading Weber scholars (Lawrence A. Scaff, Joachim Radkau) have claimed that Weber’s politics is a particularly unsuitable key for considering the author’s main intellectual concerns. Others still have sought to defend him from the charge of being a forerunner of Weimar political radicalism, arguing that the supposed similarities between Weber’s ideas and those of notorious radicals—particularly the reactionary Schmitt, but also the Marxist György Lukács, who was a protégé of Weber’s in Heidelberg before joining the cause of Leninist revolution—are outweighed by much more significant dissimilarities (Dana Villa). Indeed, one must agree that the notion of a “natural” intellectual paternity is much too rigid. If one looks at the multiple sources of political ideas in each author’s fundamental theoretical positions and personal motivations, crucial differences surely prevail over the more disturbing points of continuity. But these cannot be explained away that easily. They are interesting and revealing in their own right.

Weber was one of the first observers to recognize that the structural change of modern mass politics threatened the basic tenets of nineteenth-century liberal parliamentarianism. Old liberal principles and beliefs seemed helpless to deal with the new political challenges of mass parties and interest groups in an increasingly rationalized world. To this crisis of liberalism he formulated risky answers, which were later developed in a radical, resolutely anti-liberal direction by Carl Schmitt. Retrospectively, this story became tied, as a paradigmatic instance, to the broader narrative of the collapse of mainstream German liberalism, of its ultimately tragic dislocation to the radical right.

Contexts of crisis are marked by a shifting political center—the space of acceptable political solutions and practices—whose standard answers to the challenges of the day have been exhausted. Carl Schmitt’s escalation of Max Weber’s idea of leadership democracy is a fateful example of the fluidity of such critical contexts. After years of relative stability in Western Europe, the ground of the political center has started to shake again, at least since the dawn of the great recession in 2008. In France, a populist right-wing party conquers relevant shares of the vote election after election. In Greece, a coalition of radical leftists and nationalists tries, with little success, to contest the austerity measures imposed upon the country by foreign creditors. More recently, large-scale migration to the continent from Africa and the Middle East seems to have reawakened dormant culturalist fears, as high walls and barbed-wire fences rise again in some European borders. Every answer to the present political quandaries in Europe is inherently risky, since it can help shift the shaky political center in unforeseeable, and possibly undesired, directions. The story of Weber and Schmitt recommends precaution, but it cannot justify immobility. Ideas have unintended consequences, because the future is uncertain.

Pedro T. Magalhães is a graduate student at NOVA University of Lisbon. His article “A Contingent Affinity: Max Weber, Carl Schmitt, and the Challenge of Modern Politics” appears in the April 2016 issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas.

Opinion Polls in International Perspective: The Case of West Germany

by guest contributor Sonja Ostrow

One can hardly open a newspaper without being inundated by graphs and charts offering up the latest poll numbers on presidential candidates. Almost as prominent are poll results covering attitudes toward everything from religion to home ownership. While public opinion research is typically thought of in conjunction with election cycles, it is more broadly integrated into the fabric of modern life. As Sarah Igo has observed, it has become one of the chief ways we know ourselves as citizens and as humans.

Still from Welt im Bild reel from August 28, 1953.

Still from Welt im Bild reel from August 28, 1953.

Igo was writing about the United States, but the trajectory of polling in other countries teaches different lessons about the collection and dissemination of knowledge. The history of public opinion research in West Germany in the first few decades after World War II makes clear how national polls have an outward-facing function: not only do they inform people (and their governments) about themselves, they have also provided a methodology for demonstrating national change to concerned foreign observers.

Rather than being conceived primarily as a way to forecast election results, empirical opinion research in postwar West Germany was prized as an innovative method for assessing denazification and democratization. Unlike in the United States, where historians like Igo have identified a persistent obsession with “the average,” in West Germany, public opinion polling was intended to illuminate the extremes of public opinion, the potential threats to a nascent democratic state. Especially in the 1950s, West German opinion research was as much about projecting an image outward into the rest of the “free world” as it was about developing insights that would make governing at home more responsive and effective.

In the wake of World War II, Allied political leaders and their social-scientific advisors were convinced that empirically-grounded survey research would help them to assess and, eventually, to shape the political cultures of former enemy lands. Survey units trailed the combat branches of Anglo-American forces in Italy in 1943 and in Germany in 1945, and began polling residents on issues including access to food, living conditions, radio habits and preferences, and political stances. While public opinion polling was already an entrenched part of the political culture in the United States and England, it was World War II that facilitated the spread of public opinion research worldwide.

The earliest German surveys were conducted under the auspices of Allied occupation forces, who only gradually convinced Germans that they were neither Communist spies nor agents of punitive denazification procedures. But native West German opinion research institutes quickly emerged in the western zones. Following in the rhetorical and methodological footsteps of Americans like George Gallup and Elmo Roper, these institutes—most notably the EMNID Institute in Bielefeld and the Institut für Demoskopie at Allensbach—loudly argued that their surveys, each of which unearthed the opinions of a statistically representative sample of roughly 2,000 Germans, would aid in the establishment of a democratic political culture by facilitating communication between government and governed and granting a voice to those who would otherwise have none. What is more, they claimed that their methods were inherently democratic, since polled subjects were selected based on their fulfillment of statistical criteria, and the opinion of each statistical citizen held equal weight.

These institutes analyzed millions of survey responses each year, producing chart- and number-filled reports about the hopes, fears, and perceived realities of West German citizens. The surveys conducted by the institutes are notable for their variety: no topic, from cosmetics-buying habits to anti-Semitism, was off-limits. “Trend questions” were asked annually to trace shifts in opinion over the years. One recurring EMNID poll asked respondents, “Do you have the impression that we can count ourselves among the society of western peoples, or in your opinion are we still enemies as we were in the past?” In 1954, EMNID emphasized the increase in the number of respondents agreeing that “we belong completely” (23% in 1954, up from only 8% in 1951) on the front page of its weekly newsletter, the EMNID-Informationen (Issue 7/54).

In some cases, research institutes invited survey participants to compare themselves explicitly with other national subjects. EMNID, for instance, asked West Germans on an annual basis throughout the 1950s, “Do you have the feeling that Americans see us today primarily as friends, as strangers, or as enemies from the past?” The percentage of those stating that they were seen by Americans as friends grew from 19% in 1951 to 49% in 1954, while the percentage of those declining to answer the question shrunk from 22% in 1951 to 10% in 1954 (EMNID-Informationen 7/54). Both figures likely represent a shift not only in attitudes toward the United States, but in a willingness to answer questions touching on matters of geopolitical significance in uncertain times. But the question construction itself is worth considering: why would EMNID ask people to see themselves through the eyes of another nation? In doing so, could the opinion research institute have helped propagate the idea that identity was only created through observation from the outside? Other historians have elaborated on the theory that national identity is brought to the fore at moments of encounter which bring one’s own unique background into sharp relief. Empirical opinion research helped to systematize and “scientize” such moments of encounter and comparison.

Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, co-founder of the Institut für Demoskopie, Allensbach on the cover of Der Spiegel (October 1953).

Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, co-founder of the Institut für Demoskopie, Allensbach on the cover of Der Spiegel (October 1953).

The Allensbach Institute, through its publications and the tireless work of its co-founder, Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, fostered this notion more assertively than did EMNID. How else to understand the decision by the Institute to publish a compilation of its opinion research for an English-speaking audience? Noelle-Neumann and her husband introduced the 1967 publication of The Germans: Public Opinion Polls 1947-1966 with the observation that “This is not a portrayal of the Germans based on second or third hand reports; it is the nation’s own description of itself” (The Germans vii). The Neumanns described this self-assessment of the German people as a useful corrective to the assumptions of foreign observers. “The editors feel … that the most fruitful attribute of this publication is the fact that it disproves, or at least casts doubt on, stereotype judgments of a nation by its neighbors. The Germans, on account of their role in world politics over the past century, have at times been exposed to collective repudiation, more than any other nation, with the inevitable consequence that the entire population was identified with small ruling groups … only the self-portrayal of groups in the form of poll results can project a picture that is comparatively objective” (ix). The authors presented opinion research as the means by which Germans clarified their identities to themselves and to international observers. They also noted the public opinion research would be impossible in anything other than a democracy—thereby resting their case that there could be an lingering concerns about West Germany. The Germans was thus a multi-leveled vindication of the postwar West German public, and a clear attempt to sever that public from any continued association with National Socialism.

Sarah Igo, and, more recently, Jill Lepore, among others, have brought to life the biases and assumptions that often shaped the carrying out and reporting of polls. Yet in practice, historians frequently continue to refer to poll results as stable sources for understanding popular experiences of history. Of course, in many cases poll results do provide insights that would otherwise be completely unobtainable; yet they can never stand completely on their own.

The polling institutes that emerged in West Germany after 1945 were themselves quite aware of the malleability of polls. The Allensbach Institute led the charge in identifying, publicizing, and even exploiting biases contained within certain question formulations. Noelle-Neumann commented in a letter exchange with another researcher that the results for one survey on anti-Semitism in West Germany had to be understood in context: the questions in the survey had been crafted in order to evoke higher levels of anti-Semitism to gauge possibility rather than everyday attitudes – again, they were searching for the extremes rather than the average (Noelle-Neumann to Diedrich Osmer, 26 Jan. 1954, Korrespondenz mit Instituten, 1951- , Archive of the Institut für Sozialforschung, Frankfurt). Noelle-Neumann observed in a later address at a global congress of opinion researchers that question construction remained the crux of her work. Despite the attention paid to the accuracy of various sampling methods—the debate between those favoring random versus quota sampling raged throughout the 1950s—she argued that question construction that was more likely to prompt enormous shifts in responses.

However, for Noelle-Neumann and other opinion researchers, this element did not make polls any less “scientific.” And as Anja Kruke has shown, for the media outlets that were increasingly hungry for “news” of any sort, the subjective aspects of polls did not make them any less desirable.

In the second half of the twentieth century, there were also frequent attempts to develop comparative studies of European nations based on opinion polls. Such projects were made easier by the spread of the American Gallup Institute into Western Europe through partnerships with extant native institutes. For example, EMNID became Gallup’s West German affiliate in 1955, and in 1962 the institute carried out the polling in West Germany for a study on opinions about a European community, commissioned by the Press and Information Office of the European Community. European integration proceeded in tandem with the Europeanization of public opinion research. At the forefront was West Germany and West Germans, whose views on rearmament, anti-Semitism, and refugees, among other topics, were (and remain) a pressing concern for those within and beyond German borders.

Sonja Ostrow is a PhD Candidate at Vanderbilt University and a Review Editor at H-German. Her dissertation examines the use of empirical opinion research to measure and influence political change in Germany after World War II.