Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Theodor Adorno - Education After Auschwitz (1966)

 'The premier demand upon all education is that Auschwitz not happen again...' 

Download the text herehttp://ada.evergreen.edu/~arunc/texts/frankfurt/auschwitz/AdornoEducation.pdf

Under the title “Education to Maturity (Erziehung zur Mündigkeit, Adorno 1971a), a collection of radio interviews with Hellmut Becker from the years 1959-1969, was published after Theodor Adorno’s death in 1971. In these interviews, Adorno presented his ideas on education in a very accessible form. The aim was to illustrate his ideas about education towards personal and political maturity (Mündigkeit)(Adorno 1971a, 133). The key article of this book, named “Education after Auschwitz” (Adorno 1971b), formulates the essence in the first sentence: “The premier demand upon all education is that Auschwitz not happen again”. Theodor Adorno describes the characteristics of the perpetrators and followers of the Holocaust as blind submission, the glorification of functions, no interest in self-determination and the treatment of others as anonymous members of a mass (Adorno 1971b, 97). http://infed.org/mobi/theodor-w-adorno-on-education/
Theodor Adorno

The premier demand upon all education is that Auschwitz not happen again. Its
priority before any other requirement is such that I believe I need not and should not justify it. I cannot understand why it has been given so little concern until now. To justify it would be monstrous in the face of the monstrosity that took place. Yet the fact that one is so barely conscious of this demand and the questions it raises shows that the monstrosity has not penetrated people’s minds deeply, itself a symptom of the continuing potential for its recurrence as far as peoples’ conscious and unconscious is concerned. Every debate about the ideals of education is trivial and inconsequential compared to this single ideal: never again Auschwitz. It was the barbarism all education strives against. One speaks of the threat of a relapse into barbarism. But it is not a threat—Auschwitz was this relapse, and barbarism continues as long as the fundamental conditions that favored that relapse continue largely unchanged. That is the whole horror. 

The societal pressure still bears down, although the danger remains invisible nowadays. It drives people toward the unspeakable, which culminated on a world-historical scale in Auschwitz. Among the insights of Freud that truly extend even into culture and sociology, one of the most profound seems to me to be that civilization itself produces anti-civilization and increasingly reinforces it. His writings Civilization and its Discontents and Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego deserve the widest possible diffusion, especially in connection with Auschwitz.

If barbarism itself is inscribed within the principle of civilization, then there is something desperate in the attempt to rise up against it. Any reflection on the means to prevent the recurrence of Auschwitz is darkened by the thought that this desperation must be made conscious to people, lest they give way to idealistic platitudes. Nevertheless the attempt must be made, even in the face of the fact that the fundamental structure of society, and thereby its members who have made it so, are the same today as twenty-five years ago. Millions of innocent people—to quote or haggle over the numbers is already inhumane—were systematically murdered. That cannot be dismissed by any living person as a superficial phenomenon, as an aberration of the course of history to be disregarded when compared to the great dynamic of progress, of enlightenment, of the supposed growth of humanitarianism. The fact that it happened is itself the expression of an extremely powerful societal tendency. Here I would like to refer to a fact that, very characteristically, seems to be hardly known in Germany, although it furnished the material for a best-seller like The Forty Days of Musa Dagh by Werfel.

Already in the First World War the Turks—the so-called “Young Turk Movement” under the leadership of Enver Pascha and Talaat Pascha—murdered well over a million Armenians. The highest German military and government authorities apparently were aware of this but kept it strictly secret. Genocide has its roots in this resurrection of aggressive nationalism that has developed in many countries since the end of the nineteenth century.

Furthermore, one cannot dismiss the thought that the invention of the atomic bomb, which can obliterate hundreds of thousands of people literally in one blow, belongs in the same historical context as genocide. The rapid population growth of today is called a population explosion; it seems as though historical destiny responded by readying counter-explosions, the killing of whole populations. This only to intimate how much the forces against which one must act are those of the course of world history.

Since the possibility of changing the objective—namely societal and political— conditions is extremely limited today, attempts to work against the repetition of Auschwitz are necessarily restricted to the subjective dimension. By this I also mean essentially the psychology of people who do such things. I do not believe it would help much to appeal to eternal values, at which the very people who are prone to commit such atrocities would merely shrug their shoulders. I also do not believe that enlightenment about the positive qualities possessed by persecuted minorities would be of much use. The roots must be sought in the persecutors, not in the victims who are murdered under the paltriest of pretenses. What is necessary is what I once in this respect called the turn to the subject. One must come to know the mechanisms that render people capable of such deeds, must reveal these mechanisms to them, and strive, by awakening a general awareness of those mechanisms, to prevent people from becoming so again.

It is not the victims who are guilty, not even in the sophistic and caricatured sense in which still today many like to construe it. Only those who unreflectingly vented their hate and aggression upon them are guilty. One must labor against this lack of reflection, must dissuade people from striking outward without reflecting upon themselves.

The only education that has any sense at all is an education toward critical self-reflection. But since according to the findings of depth psychology, all personalities, even those who commit atrocities in later life, are formed in early childhood, education seeking to prevent the repetition must concentrate upon early childhood. I mentioned Freud’s thesis on discontent in culture. Yet the phenomenon extends even further than he understood it, above all, because the pressure of civilization he had observed has in the meantime multiplied to an unbearable degree. At the same time the explosive tendencies he first drew attention to have assumed a violence he could hardly have foreseen. The discontent in culture, however, also has its social dimension, which Freud did not overlook though he did not explore it concretely. One can speak of the claustrophobia of humanity in the administered world, of a feeling of being incarcerated in a thoroughly societalized, closely woven, netlike environment.
The denser the weave, the more one wants to escape it, whereas it is precisely its close weave that prevents any escape. This intensifies the fury against civilization. The revolt against it is violent and irrational.

A pattern that has been confirmed throughout the entire history of persecutions is
that the fury against the weak chooses for its target especially those who are perceived as societally weak and at the same time—either rightly or wrongly—as happy. Sociologically, I would even venture to add that our society, while it integrates itself ever more, at the same time incubates tendencies toward disintegration. Lying just beneath the surface of an ordered, civilized life, these tendencies have progressed to an extreme degree. The pressure exerted by the prevailing universal upon everything particular, upon the individual people and the individual institutions, has a tendency to destroy the particular and the individual together with their power of resistance. With the loss  of their identity and power of resistance, people also forfeit those qualities by virtue of which they are able to pit themselves against what at some moment might lure them again to commit atrocity. Perhaps they are hardly able to offer resistance when the established authorities once again give them the order, so long as it is in the name of some ideal in which they half or not at all believe.

When I speak of education after Auschwitz, then, I mean two areas: first children’s education, especially in early childhood; then general enlightenment that provides an intellectual, cultural, and social climate in which a recurrence would no longer be possible, a climate, therefore, in which the motives that led to the horror would become relatively conscious. Naturally, I cannot presume to sketch out the plan of such an education even in rough outline. Yet I would like at least to indicate some of its nerve centers. Often, for instance, in America, the characteristic German trust in authority has been made responsible for National Socialism and even for Auschwitz. I consider this explanation too superficial, although here, as in many other European countries authoritarian behavior and blind authority persist much more tenaciously than one would gladly admit under the conditions of a formal democracy. Rather, one must accept that fascism and the terror it caused are connected with the fact that the old established  authorities of the Kaiserreich decayed and were toppled, while the people psychologically were not yet ready for self-determination. 

They proved to be unequal to the freedom that fell into their laps. For this reason the authoritarian structures then adopted that destructive and, if I may put it so, insane dimension they did not have earlier, or at any rate had not revealed. If one considers how visits of potentates who no longer have any real political function induce outbreaks of ecstasy in entire populations, then one has good reason to suspect that the authoritarian potential even now is much stronger than one thinks. I wish, however, to emphasize especially that the recurrence or non-recurrence of fascism in its decisive aspect is not a question of psychology, but of society. I speak so much of the psychological only because the other, more essential aspects lie so far out of reach of the influence of education, if not of the intervention of individuals altogether.

Very often well-meaning people, who don’t want it to happen again, invoke the
concept of bonds. According to them, the fact that people no longer had any bonds is responsible for what took place. In fact, the loss of authority, one of the conditions of the sadistic-authoritarian horror, is connected with this state of affairs. To normal common sense it is plausible to appeal to bonds that check the sadistic, destructive, and ruinous impulse with an emphatic “You must not.” Nevertheless I consider it an illusion to think that the appeal to bonds—let alone the demand that everyone should again embrace social ties so that things will look up for the world and for people— would help in any serious way. One senses very quickly the untruth of bonds that are required only so that they produce a result—even if it be good—without the bonds being experienced by people as something substantial in themselves. 

It is surprising how swiftly even the most foolish and naive people react when it comes to detecting the weaknesses of their betters. The so-called bonds easily become either a ready badge of shared convictions—one enters into them to prove oneself a good citizen—or they produce spiteful resentment, psychologically the opposite of the purpose for which they were drummed up. They amount to heteronomy, a dependence on rules, on norms that cannot be justified by the individual’s own reason. What psychology calls the superego, the conscience, is replaced in the name of bonds by external, unbinding, and interchangeable authorities, as one could observe quite clearly in Germany after the collapse of the Third Reich. Yet the very willingness to connive with power and to submit outwardly to what is stronger, under the guise of a norm, is the attitude of the tormentors that should not arise again. It is for this reason that the advocacy of bonds is so fatal. People who adopt them more or less voluntarily are placed under a kind of permanent compulsion to obey orders. The single genuine power standing against the principle of Auschwitz is autonomy, if I might use the Kantian expression: the power of reflection, of self-determination, of not cooperating.

I once had a very shocking experience: while on a cruise on Lake Constance I was reading a Baden newspaper, which carried a story about Sartre’s play Morts sans s´epulchre, a play that depicts the most terrifying things.3 Apparently the play made the critic uneasy. But he did not explain this discontent as being caused by the horror of the subject matter, which is the horror of our world. Instead he twisted it so that, in comparison with a position like that of Sartre, who engages himself with the horror, we could maintain—almost maintain, I should say—an appreciation of the higher things: so that we could not acknowledge the senselessness of the horror. To the point: by means of noble existential cant the critic wanted to avoid confronting the horror. Herein lies, not least of all, the danger that the horror might recur, that people refuse to let it draw near and indeed even rebuke anyone who merely speaks of it, as though the speaker, if he does not temper things, were the guilty one, and not the perpetrators...

Also see:  Raising Children After Auschwitz

Theodor Adorno Archive
All are free to dance and enjoy themselves, just as they have been free, since the historical neutralisation of religion, to join any of the innumerable sects. But freedom to choose an ideology - since ideology always reflects economic coercion - everywhere proves to be freedom to choose what is always the same.” Enlightenment as Mass Deception 1944