Spring 2015

In the Shadow of Catastrophe: An Interview with Anson Rabinbach

Apocalyptic thought in the aftermath of the world wars

George Prochnik and Anson Rabinbach

In what way does writing about catastrophe, either predictively or retrospectively, risk kindling a new blaze? Conversely, is it possible to identify aspects of such texts that work against the drive to catastrophe? Conventional wisdom suggests that temporal distance from historical trauma increases the clarity of perspective, yet Central European intellectuals in the twentieth century had no opportunity to formulate their positions at a remove in space or time from the era’s successive debacles. They careened from disaster to disaster, and the texts they composed under these conditions were porous to catastrophe at both ends. But unrelenting proximity to the apocalypse on the Continent, which negated any possibility of “ivory tower” sequestration from events, also gave their writing a uniquely instructive relationship to catastrophe. At once symptomatic, diagnostic, and—in theory, if not always in practice—therapeutic, these works betray a rare consanguinity with the events they analyze. For this reason, they make viscerally manifest questions of intellectual responsibility that continue to resonate. Written in the aftermath of the Cold War, Anson Rabinbach’s In the Shadow of Catastrophe: German Intellectuals Between Apocalypse and Enlightenment (University of California Press, 1997), explores the interwoven life and works of seven influential thinkers in the age of world war. George Prochnik spoke with Rabinbach, professor of history at Princeton University, in May 2015.

Cabinet: Can you give us a sense of the basic premise and argument of the book?

Anson Rabinbach: This book is a historian’s meditation on how the catastrophic events of the twentieth century became the matrix of philosophical reflection in the periods immediately following the two world wars. It examines the aftershock of the apocalypse as it appeared in the writings of some of the central figures of twentieth-century German thought. Each of them recast the experience of catastrophe in his own unique philosophical idiom. After World War I, German-Jewish authors such as Ernst Bloch and Walter Benjamin and the Dadaist Hugo Ball translated the cataclysm of the war into messianic images of redemption and revolutionary transfiguration. After World War II, the redemptive power of violence no longer figured in the works of Karl Jaspers, Martin Heidegger, or Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno; although politically these towering figures had little in common, all of them saw the apocalyptic event as symptomatic of what might be called the burdened traditions of modernity. For them, World War II dramatized the logic of catastrophe, as at once a deep rupture in the course of modernity and as the apotheosis of Western thought. In their bleak and dispirited mood, in their deep distrust of all redemptive schemes, the texts written in the shadow of World War II call to mind the first photographs documenting the vastness of ruin visited on European cities. In their backward glance at the ruined traditions of Central European thought, these texts are themselves events, the philosophical analogy to the panoramas of destruction. The book itself was also conceived in the shadow of a cataclysmic event—the collapse of Communism—and it seemed to me that we were living in a moment where there was another shadow cast by the end of this enormous period of time in which the Cold War dominated intellectual and cultural discourse in the West. 

I like very much your framing conceit, the notion that the figures you focus on were themselves so vitally enmeshed in the catastrophic events of the era that these disasters are legible in their writings not just as subtexts but as the organizing principle of their composition. You speak of the events as being almost embedded in the texts themselves.

That was the central idea. What I was concerned with was thinking about how to write intellectual history without falling into two equally troubling traps: one was to avoid pure textualism, to write about these thinkers as if they were writing for the Journal of Modern Philosophy and completely separated from the world that they lived in. And the other trap was to over-contextualize, to write as if the ideas were simply reflections of the events themselves. My goal was to talk about the way in which these ideas were events, the texts were themselves events—they had efficacy, permanence, and you might say they cast their own shadow. So I had these two notions of events: the event as part of the text, as a component of the text, and the text itself as event, and I tried to draw on both these alternatives.

And that also brings to mind one of the central ways in which you’re considering the shadow itself, which is through the suggestion that these individuals were themselves intellectually implicated in the catastrophe. It’s not that you ever ascribe some direct causal link between a particular text and a particular event, but you suggest ways in which their critical/philosophical practices inscribed forms of explosive thought that had real world consequences.

Yes, I think that the events themselves created a shock-effect in the text and for each of the authors, a shock-effect through which they were wedded to the events, and yet they had to create a certain amount of distance from them in order to write about them. Not all of them understand the catastrophe in the same way. Jaspers talks specifically about the Nuremberg trials and German guilt. He’s the one who talks most specifically about an event. Heidegger’s letter on humanism is overdetermined by events, by his own personal and political circumstances and the political situation in Germany. For him, the signal event is the collapse of Germany, the site of Being’s new beginning. But that is never explicitly mentioned in the text. For Horkheimer and Adorno, it was the Shoah, though they had no language to name it. So sometimes you have to think of the catastrophic event as being tattooed into the text, permanently there but not evident.

This makes me think of your interesting reading of the work of Agnes Heller and the idea that she adopts from Hegel of reflective remembrance, a form of remembrance that is not concerned with integrating the event as much as preserving intact its shock. The passage you cite is from a 1995 essay and is worth quoting in full: “After the end of the catastrophic century, we look backwards, not from the plateau of the end of history, but from the flatland of the absolutely historical present. We could enter this absolute present with the empty consciousness of forgetting. Or we could instead practice a kind of remembering, which Hegel first called ‘Andenken’ (reflective remembrance). Remembrance is respect, the respect of thinking. If there is to be mourning, then the respect of thinking is a requiem. I am speaking of a requiem for a century.”

It’s a way of thinking about the event without being nostalgic or sentimental or thinking about it as something we mourn or as traumatic. I think her word “Andenken” gives a very specific meaning to how we should contend with events: with respect but also with the capacity for criticism.

And that idea resonates with another point you make, which partly informs your choice of these texts composed in such intense proximity to crisis: how it isn’t necessarily the case, as psychoanalytic thought has it, that distance creates a useful perspective.

It’s the opposite, I think. The conventional psychoanalytic wisdom is that when a traumatic event occurs, it’s a shock to the system, and so it is submerged into the unconscious, where it lives a kind of twilight existence, which is a period of latency. As a result of this period of latency, eventually the self comes to terms with the shock and works through it, and it becomes integrated into the personality. For the writers I discuss, this was not an option. They lived in a world of permanent catastrophe. Benjamin’s famous Angel of History looking back at the rubble of progress is a perfect metaphor for this idea—that the past is a cataclysm so enormous that they can only think about it in the immediacy of the event, not after a long period of latency. That’s why I chose texts that were written in the immediate aftermath of the events; two years at the most.

The problem of death and the problem of evil. Machine guns and chemical warfare in World War I; the trains running to concentration camps in World War II.

And it’s fitting that you were writing the book in the immediate aftermath of an event which was another twentieth-century cataclysm, the Eastern European catastrophe.

I’m currently writing a book about three concepts—totalitarianism, genocide, and total war—invented in the twentieth century, and it’s specifically about the Cold War and its end. But in The Shadow of Catastrophe, it was only in the Hugo Ball chapter that I was aware of the echoes between the historical experience of my subjects and the events I was living through in the late 1990s—in other words, the collapse of Communism. There, I discussed the ways that he represented a kind of inverted German nationalism that was all about German guilt and the failures of Germany, the malignancies of the German personality and of Prussianism. And Ball then inverted all of this into a kind of pride: “We are the worst and no one can best us for our worstness.”

A kind of negative exceptionalism. You cite Hannah Arendt’s framing of the two postwar eras: “The reality is that ‘the Nazis are men like ourselves’; the nightmare is that they have shown, have proven beyond doubt what man is capable of. In other words, the problem of evil will be the fundamental question of postwar intellectual life in Europe—as death became the fundamental problem after the last war.” And I’m wondering if you can speak a little about how you understand this distinction, this transition from death to evil, and say whether in your own estimation this difference she’s drawing is correct and whether we still live with evil as our predominant problem.

Arendt was never more brilliant than when she wrote that sentence. Whether true or not, it’s an extraordinary sentence. Obviously, you can find moments in the aftermath of World War I where people were talking about evil: about the evil of the Kaiser, whether or not to put him on trial, and about the right-wing militias that arose out of the war—the “trenchocracy,” as Mussolini called them. There was plenty of evil to go around after the World War I. But she’s basically right. The catastrophe of that war was seventeen million dead, twenty million wounded; the magnitude of the cataclysm was enormous. People had never contended with that kind of mass death. Obviously in the Middle Ages, you had the Black Plague, but people had never contended with this level of seemingly purposeless mass death. 

Inflicted from person to person.

And of course there was enormous mass death in World War II. How could you say that that war was not about death, with roughly fifty-five million people dead, including the Holocaust, which is a very small part of the overall death figures. But, nevertheless, I think she’s right that people focused on a kind of evil that had never been manifested before. At no time previously had any group been singled out for absolute destruction by another group in the way that the Jews were. So for her, Auschwitz was a break with civilization. And I think she’s right about that.

And that rupture was something with which all the thinkers you consider had to engage.

Yes. And that’s why when I wrote the chapter on Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, I interpreted it as a book about the murder of the Jews. The book had not been read that way before, although there’s plenty of evidence once you look at the book from that point of view. 

Let’s talk about the first chapter where you’re also focused on Jewish thought from a very different perspective; if not exactly a hopeful perspective, it is at least a perspective in which apocalypse might be turned into something more promising than what the intellectuals felt in the wake of World War II. You start by looking at the generation of Jews in the early twentieth century, 
a whole enormously varied group of intellectuals, who were thinking about messianism in a new way.

There was an explosion of interest in things Jewish, in what it meant to be Jewish, although it’s anachronistic to talk about identity because these people didn’t think about identity. They invented the Judaism they needed.

And what brought them to that?

The immediate occasion were Martin Buber’s Three Speeches to the Jews in, roughly, 1910. By 1912, there was this enormous interest in discussion about anti-Semitism, what it meant to be Jewish; people made jokes, they wanted to absorb Hasidism without becoming Hasidic. It was a kind of experimentation with what it meant to be Jewish, with the Jewish condition. It wasn’t about identity; 
it was about what it meant to be Jewish in Europe. 

The marginality.

Marginality and how they related to the assimilationists, to the diaspora, to the Zionists who dreamed of Palestine, and also to the cultural Zionists. There were all these manifestations and varieties of Jewish intellectualism; there was a famous case in Berlin where somebody named Moritz Goldstein wrote an article in which he said that Jews had to abandon assimilationism, that it had been a colossal failure and that liberalism had not worked out for the Jews. The young Walter Benjamin also participated in all this; he had an extensive correspondence with Buber’s son-in-law, Ludwig Strauss, talking about what it meant to be Jewish. He says at one point that as far as Zionism goes, he wouldn’t object to it for the Eastern European Jews because for them, it was the question of whether or not to leave a burning building. 

I was struck by his incredibly precocious evaluations. You quote a letter that Benjamin writes to Strauss in 1913, when he’s all of twenty-one, where he talks about the idea of the “creative culture-Jew,” and imagined Judaism as a kind of inverted Tower of Babel. The Jews, he writes, “handle ideas like quarry stones.” But they “build from above without ever reaching the ground.”

The idea of not reaching the ground is a messianic idea of tremendous potential without any vehicle to bring it into realization or existence. So you live between potential or hope and the absence of any possibility of its realization. 

That goes to the question of Benjamin’s anti-political urge for radical change, and what it meant for him to feel that any sort of normative political behavior was doomed by definition.

Benjamin’s sensibility was to bring it so close to the skin that you understand that he has his finger on exactly what the situation is, and there is no exit from that situation. He considers various options—he toys with Communism with Brecht, and with Zionism with Gershom Scholem. But for him, there is no exit. It’s a cliché that his suicide is symbolic, but it is a metaphor for the fact that he couldn’t see himself exiting Europe.

What, then, is he advocating? Somehow, 
it seems, in at least some of his writings, that he manages to still believe that there is a kind of sublime activism that can be galvanized in opposition to the status quo, while disavowing the potential for substantive political action.

He has a wonderful affinity for these moments of activism, but he has absolutely no heart for engaging with it. He talks about surrealism, but in the past tense, when it’s over. He talks about Dada in the same way. Communism is also not a possibility. He captures the core messianism of the Communist idea, but his philosophy of history is totally opposed to Communism. The idea of progress is inimical to him.

And how do you align that idea with an essay like “The Critique of Violence” where Benjamin seems to imply that there are forms of general action—the proletarian strike, etc.—that can entertain violence without violating?

It’s exactly the same thing. He admires and invokes Sorel, but in the end, it’s divine violence—not human violence—that is ultimately the final judgment.

How do you contrast that with Ernst Bloch’s approach to these messianic, redemptive ideals?

Well, Bloch was engaged with the Communist Party. But it’s important that, coming back to what we were saying earlier about the Jewish ferment around 1912, when he wrote The Spirit of Utopia in 1918, it had a Jewish section, a couple of Jewish chapters. When he republished the book a few years later, he took them out.


I think that the ferment, the excitement, the electricity was over, and that his communism didn’t allow it. It didn’t fit with his new socialist utopianism.

You had a great observation about how “the messianic idea implied the radical rejection of any sort of quotidian politics combined with a characteristically apocalyptic attitude, which often incorporated antipolitics in extremis.”

That’s about Benjamin, but Bloch too had it. During World War I, they were all part of an anti-Prussian, anti-German exile group in Switzerland. Scholem was also part of it; Hugo Ball was the central figure in that movement.

Let’s turn to Ball. First of all, who was he, and how did he come to this group of people?

He was a young Catholic intellectual who had two simultaneous careers: one was as an anti-war activist and a philosopher, and the other was as the founder of Zurich Dada, as a Dada poet and performer. And he was the editor of the anti-war newspaper Die Freie Zeitung in Bern. Bloch was part of his staff at that newspaper; they all knew each other. His book Flight Out of Time, a diary, is a central text of the Dada movement and is still read widely. Later in his career, he became very religious and recommitted himself to Catholicism, and became a close associate of Carl Schmitt and an admirer of his conservative political theology.

What happened between Bloch and Ball at Die Freie Zeitung?

It emerged that Ball was, among many things, also an anti-Semite. His book Critique of the German Intelligentsia, written in 1919, is not an anti-Semitic book, except when you restore the parts that were deleted after World War II to make the book more palatable for post–World War II generations.

His view was that the central feature of German militarism and authoritarianism was German Protestantism. Luther’s idea that you can be a good Christian, and at the same time, you must obey secular authority, was for Ball the crux of the problem with German nationalism. He identified more with French Catholicism and Russian anarchism, but he also said that the Protestant Junkers and materialistic Jews were responsible for Germany’s descent into war and apocalypse. After the war, he accused the Weimar Republic of being a Jewish republic, the marriage of Marx and Walther Rathenau, the foreign minister who was assassinated in 1922. Why were the Jews responsible? Because they were manipulative, they held the purse strings of the Prussian government, the usual litany of complaints. He was a conventional anti-Semite, but the expurgation of the egregious passages meant that this was completely undiscovered until recently. Bloch eventually got totally fed up with Ball and left Basel.

We had spoken before but let’s return to that idea of the possibility that anti-Semitism was in fact so pervasive that it was imagined to be a force unlikely to ever effloresce in physically toxic ways.

Before World War II, anti-Semitism was completely normal in polite and impolite discourse. It was only after World War II and the Holocaust that it became taboo, and so, that’s why Ball’s anti-Semitic pages were excised from the book. Because you couldn’t have this sophisticated, intellectual artist be thought of as an anti-Semite in the new, Western-oriented, and contrite Federal Republic of Germany.

In some way, there may have even been something anesthetizing about the omnipresence of anti-Semitism. But let’s turn to Heidegger and his “Letter on Humanism.” You have a wonderful line about how the letter exemplifies Heidegger’s characteristic ability to assume a position that pretends to the highest philosophical rigor while positioning himself in the most opportune political light.

I think that characterizes Heidegger very well. He had an ability to think himself through his astute philosophical lens and at the same time he had an absolute inability to think of himself apart from his most banal and mundane circumstances. 
In “Taking Philosophy Seriously,” Richard Rorty said that Heidegger was a “redneck,” “a good old boy from the Black Forest.”

What were the circumstances of the composition of Heidegger’s letter?

Well, the situation was that Heidegger was in dire straits in 1945. His house had been confiscated by the French occupation authorities and the university had established a commission to discuss whether he would be allowed to teach in the future, which did not look like it would turn out very well. But there was one bright spot in all this darkness and that was that a number of French intellectuals visited Heidegger at this time. One of the visitors was a young man called Jean Beaufret, who arranged to ask him a series of questions to which Heidegger would respond. They would be published in French; French authorities would not allow him to publish in German. The “Letter on Humanism,” which was written in the fall of 1946 and published in 1947, came out of this exchange with Beaufret.

It gets more complicated because the other figure who played an enormous role in the partial rehabilitation of Heidegger was Jean-Paul Sartre, who was influenced by Heidegger and never made any bones about it. As the very powerful editor of Les Temps modernes, he devoted three issues to the Heidegger case in the first few years after the war. In the end, Sartre’s verdict was that Heidegger was no more culpable for Nazism than Hegel was for the Prussian state. Heidegger repaid Sartre by attacking him in the letter as an example of humanism and existentialism, which he rejected because all humanism, all self-assertion—whether it be intellectual self-assertion, technology, science, knowledge—represented metaphysics, the false beginning of putting man at the center of the universe, whereas the center has to be Being, with man relegated to the humble position of shepherd of Being.

I like the idea of humility being invoked as the ultimate value by someone who at the same time is positioning himself as the ultimate victim of Nazism.

He’s only the victim of Nazism to the extent that Nazism is itself a manifestation of the arrogance and metaphysical hubris of humanism. Nazism is a humanism—he doesn’t say that, but the implication is there—because the idea of race is the self-assertion of the human. Heidegger argued that he himself was only culpable to the extent that he was culpable for all of Western civilization, from the Greeks to the moderns, which represented this false road of metaphysics. Heidegger claimed that he himself, through error or misjudgment, had taken that road too.

How do you fathom his charisma and his influence over the next generation of French intellectuals, such as Derrida?

I don’t understand it. Even without the anti-Semitism, what do we learn from him? Pure, unsullied Heideggerianism is the idea that we have to pay attention to thinking, to poetry, to nature, to immerse ourselves in the Being of nature and the Being of language, and not to engage in political adventures.

That’s a good transition point to your treatment of Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, which opposes the Heideggerian glorification of rootedness and the idea that “dwelling” rules supreme. Their book starts with the figure of Odysseus, but you’ve conjured something subtler than just the archetype of the wanderer through that connection.

Adorno once said that he went back to Germany to finish off Heidegger; the Frankfurt School saw him for who he really was. I think Dialectic of Enlightenment is a very anti-Heideggerian book in the sense that, although it is intensely critical of not just the Enlightenment but of enlightenment—in the sense of the domination of nature by concepts as the most fundamental source of reification and domination—they refuse to posit an alternative in the sense that Heidegger posited an alternative: his idea of the truth of Being. For them, the idea of this alternative is anathema, and in this they stayed faithful to Benjamin’s legacy. I think it’s not unimportant that Dialectic of the Enlightenment was written just after the time that Benjamin’s manuscripts arrived in New York.

Undated photograph of Heidegger outside his hut in the Black Forest.

So they were thinking about his “Theses on the Philosophy of History”?

And the Jewish dimension was paramount.

What do make of the way they take the idea of anti-Semitism and almost extend it into a philosophical principle affecting all the ways in which civilization failed?

The more I immersed myself in their correspondence and in the texts, the more I became convinced that this was a book about anti-Semitism, and that Dialectic of Enlightenment is not just about how Odysseus, escaping myth and nature, becomes the source of enlightenment and domination. There was a second thesis, maybe even more important, namely that that the Jews were sacrificed—this is the word they use—because they represented the taboo on mimesis, the taboo on art and representation. The austerity of the Jews, in a way, revealed through negative example, the mythical, premodern, pre-enlightenment character of Christianity, and anti-Semitism, and by extension the Holocaust, was a revolt of this mythicized, image-bound, Christianity against the Jewish taboo on mimesis.

Do they position it as a repetition of the fundamental Christian revolt against Judaism?

Exactly; the mythicized, image-bound Christianity was always present latently. Protestantism was one attempt to rebel against, or to remove, this magical quality of Christianity. But, ultimately—and here Adorno and Horkheimer followed Freud—only Jews manifested the abstract non-sensual character that they identified as Bilderverbot, the proscription on images. Christianity revolted against the “demagified” world, and the Jews represent “demagification.” You can’t even translate the word that Adorno and Horkheimer use.

I think you use “disenchantment” at one point.

That’s not so good. But it is true that their idea was that Christianity represented a kind of revolt against disenchantment, and the Jews were identified with a disenchanted world.

And do Adorno and Horkheimer advocate for disenchantment?

It’s not that they advocate it; it is just the nature of the human condition, and they were convinced that Max Weber was right and that this is our fate.

You speak about living with that as something distinct from solace, but still a position—a kind of composure in the face of disenchantment. They saw themselves as permanent exiles, but their lives were not entirely without enchantment. You write about the names that they had for each other.

The animal names. That’s very important; you can’t do work on them unless you know the names, because you wouldn’t know who the characters are in the correspondence. Adorno was “the hippopotamus,” his wife Gretel “the giraffe,” and Horkheimer “the wooly mammoth.”

How did you come to see the importance of these names, apart from being able to recognize who they were talking about?

Eventually, I began to think it was important, that there was something about staying in this childhood world that made life worth living for them.

And there is something beautiful in your suggestion that this form of childhood fantasy is very distinct from the re-mythification that they are indicting in Heidegger.

It’s a better alternative than re-mythification.

I wonder if you can expand a bit on the figure of the shadow and the way you use it in relation to catastrophe. It seems to me one of the many merits of the book is how you complicate the idea of the shadow, giving us something of a taxonomy of its multifarious nature, as manifested through the works of the thinkers you focus on. A shadow can be retrospective in this sense, but it can be foreshadowing as well; it’s a figure operating temporally and spatially as the signal of a new beginning or of a final collapse. And you suggest that the shadow lingers but the shadow is not uniform.

The conceit of the shadow was initially employed to try to indicate the different ways in which events were both perpetuated and elongated, as you say, but also short-circuited in a variety of intellectual contexts. And it seemed to me that the shadow was a good metaphor for thinking about the ways in which the two different catastrophes of the twentieth century impacted the intellectual engagement that occurred as a result of those events.

There is a huge field concerned with the history of concepts, but it’s almost entirely devoted to concepts invented between 1750 and 1850. Historians have even given a name to that period: the “saddle time,” the period in which modernity became established in science, politics, and philosophy. So where are the twentieth-century concepts? Where is the shadow? Is it latency? People have said that the shadow is another word for latency; the concepts invented in the twentieth century are too traumatic, and so they have been driven underground. So, that is one argument, the trauma argument. I understand the shadow of catastrophe in two dimensions; first, the one cast by the cataclysmic events of the twentieth century, and second, the shadow cast by the texts I examine, the protracted impact of catastrophe in what have become iconic works, in part because they are themselves the incarnation of those events. 

Walter Benjamin’s grave in Portbou, Catalonia, where he committed suicide in September 1940. The epitaph, in German and in Catalan, is from Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History”: “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.”

George Prochnik has written for the New York Times, the New Yorker, Bookforum, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among other publications. His most recent book The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World (Other Press, 2013) received the National Jewish Book Award for Biography/Memoir in 2014. He is also the author of In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise (Doubleday, 2010) and Putnam Camp: Sigmund Freud, James Jackson Putnam, and the Purpose of American Psychology (Other Press, 2006).

Anson Rabinbach is a professor of history at Princeton University and co-founder of New German Critique, which he continues to co-edit. He recently co-edited, with Sander L. Gilman, The Third Reich Sourcebook (University of California Press, 2013).

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