German philosopher Jurgen Habermas delivers a speech after being awarded the Erasmus Prize at the Royal Palace in Amsterdam on Nov. 6, 2013. (Jerry Lampen/AFP/Getty Images)

On the present occasion I cannot make a contribution to exile research, but only sift through some recollections from the unreliable perspective of a contemporary witness. After their return to the homeland that had expelled them, Jewish emigrants became irreplaceable teachers for a younger generation. Gershom Scholem’s painful observation that the so-called “German-Jewish symbiosis” had been a mésalliance from the beginning holds true for sociology and politics; it throws light upon an asymmetry in the exchanges between the two sides that has been repeatedly denied. My present words are also a continuation of such an asymmetry. For I am speaking from the perspective of a beneficiary without going into the experiences of the returnees themselves, who had to find their feet in a climate marked in part by hostile resentment and in part by an embarrassed-communicative hushing up of the mass murder that had been committed just a few years earlier.

However, Jews exhibited such an incomparable creativity in German philosophy since the days of Moses Mendelssohn that the proportional contributions of both sides to the shared objective mind are inseparably fused. Ernst Cassirer drew upon German sources of the European Enlightenment when defending the rational legal foundations of Weimar democracy against its detractors on Aug. 11, 1928, on the occasion of the constitutional celebration just as when, a short time later, he engaged in his major controversy with the then already anti-humanist Heidegger in Davos in March 1929. Thus, the Jewish background of authors such as Husserl, Simmel, Scheler, or Cassirer did not necessarily represent a philosophically relevant difference for a student who had come to the university in 1949 with a reasonably clear sense of the historical significance of Auschwitz.

What made a difference for us at the time was the divisiveness of the political fates of those banished philosophers who returned. The perception of the emigrant fates of Karl Löwith or Helmuth Plessner, whose books we read in the philosophy department in Bonn alongside those of Hans Freyer and Arnold Gehlen, is the key to understanding the outstanding importance that Jewish philosophers acquired in the old Federal Republic for the education of some members of my generation and many members of the subsequent generation. The breakdown in civilization had made us suspicious of what was specifically German in the depths—or better the shallows—of German traditions. One thing at least was intuitively clear to us: Who if not those who had been “racially discarded” while their colleagues blithely continued as before, who else could have developed a sharper sensibility for the dark elements in the best of our morally corrupt traditions?

The Few Who Returned

Most of the emigrants decided to return, if at all, during the first years of the newly-founded Federal Republic. Very few of them received appointments. Between 1949 and 1953, the philosophers Theodor W. Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Helmut Kuhn, Michael Landmann, Karl Löwith, and Helmuth Plessner returned from exile to Frankfurt, Erlangen or Munich, Berlin, Heidelberg, and Göttingen. Among them, above all Karl Löwith and Helmuth Plessner exercised an influence that extended beyond their immediate workplace. Löwith’s critique of ideas in the philosophy of history that were inspired by the history of salvation may also have confirmed some of the war veterans among the students in rejecting the ideas of 1789; but reading Weltgeschichte und Heilsgeschehen [Meaning in History] aroused in all students more than anything else a salutary distrust of the use of background assumptions of the philosophy of history as a substitute for metaphysics. His other major work, From Hegel to Nietzsche, still reflects the younger Löwith’s interests in the individual in the role of a fellow human being. It made such an impression on me that I subsequently added an introductory chapter on the Young Hegelians to my dissertation after I had completed the main part.

Before the emigration, Helmuth Plessner had been one of the founders of philosophical anthropology along with Max Scheler; for us students the relevance of Plessner’s older works, especially Die Stufen des Organischen und der Mensch as well as the study on Laughing and Crying, remained undiminished. With his idea of “eccentric positionality,” he opposed to Gehlen’s authoritarian institutionalism a concept of human beings geared to the civilizing process, to reciprocal concern and tact. In the shadowy domain of the early Adenauer period, Plessner’s Die Verspätete Nation, indeed all of his political-historical works, had something liberating. Characteristically, it was the liberal left-Catholic journal, Frankfurter Hefte, that invited me to review these writings.

Ernst Bloch, who had already returned to Leipzig in 1949, is a special case, though, if I remember correctly he did not play any appreciable role in the discussions in the early Federal Republic. The author of what was by then a forgotten book, The Spirit of Utopia, became a literary presence for us again only with the publication of The Principle of Hope. Incidentally, Siegfried Unseld revered none of his “academic” authors as much as he did Bloch. The rhapsodic works found a wider audience only in the course of the student movement. In retrospect, one might say that Bloch’s expressionistic Marxism survives as an idiosyncratic document of the time and in the history of literature, but one that left too few lasting traces within the profession.

The emigrants mentioned had all taught at German or German-speaking universities before 1933. However, their return did not always run smoothly. For example, the sociologists Julius Kraft, Gottfried Salomon-Delatour, and Alphons Silbermann were able to resume teaching at the Universities of Frankfurt and Cologne only in 1957 and 1958 in the course of the “restitution.” The sociologist and Mannheim student Norbert Elias taught in Leicester and at the University of Ghana in Accra and settled in Amsterdam after his retirement in 1975. From there, especially with the publication in 1976 of the paperback edition of his main work The Civilizing Process from the 1930s (Elias, Über den Prozeβ der Zivilisation [Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1976]), thus only at the age of 79, he found an enthusiastic following–and at the same time also an enthusiastic reception beyond the boundaries of his academic field. The economist and social theorist Alfred Sohn-Rethel, who became a professor in Bremen in 1978, hence only at the age of 79, and the philosopher Ulrich Sonnemann, who was appointed to a professorship in Kassel in 1974, remained academic outsiders. Both became cult authors on campus at the time. Gunther Anders, son of the well-known developmental psychologist William Stern and one-time husband of Hannah Arendt, was originally a philosopher. He had done his doctorate under Husserl and returned to Vienna already in 1950, but without being able to regain a foothold in the German-speaking universities. However, for a while he enjoyed major journalistic success as a philosophical essayist and a critical commentator on contemporary developments, especially with his philosophical-anthropological reflections on the “atomic age.”

Two Initial Sparks

In order to comprehend the scale of the public influence of Jewish emigrants, one must look beyond the walls of the university. However, in the diffuse medium of the public sphere, indicators that could provide orientation are much less distinct than intra muros. Therefore, I will mention just two events that seem to me in retrospect to have provided initial sparks for momentous advances in the political culture of the Federal Republic. I cannot deny the subjective element of my assessment in singling out two academic events, first, the lecture series that was held in 1956 in parallel at the universities of Frankfurt and Heidelberg to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of Sigmund Freud, and, second, the presentation by Herbert Marcuse at the Deutscher Soziologentag in Heidelberg in the summer semester of 1964. In my estimation, the relevance of these two events goes beyond the merely biographical level of my personal impressions.

Max Horkheimer along with Alexander Mitscherlich had invited the international elite of psychoanalysis from the United States, England, and Switzerland to present a lecture cycle. The brilliant lectures by René Spitz, Erik Erikson, Michael Balint, Ludwig Binswangen, Gustav Bally, Franz Alexander, and others broke like an intellectual flash flood from a foreign world over the early Federal Republic. At any rate this is how it appeared from the perspective of a young man who had become acquainted with Freud only from a nebulous distance and as the name of a scientific street urchin. In order to understand the intellectual excitement of the audience, one must recall that at that time psychoanalysis was undergoing its scientific golden age and was internationally recognized as a key discipline for explaining anthropological and socio-psychological, and also in the broadest sense political, questions. Of course, intellectual impulses do not operate directly. But from then on analytical arguments forced their way into public discourses and constituted an important ferment within the arduous remembrance processes of a German society that was only learning to confront its still “recent” past.

Incidentally, the series concluded with two lectures by a philosopher on “The Idea of Progress in Light of Psychoanalysis” which electrified me like scarcely any other lecture before or since. This was the first time that I saw Herbert Marcuse, who lectured on ideas from his still unpublished book Eros and Civilization. I had begun my work at the Institute just two months before. Now a vital contemporary spirit from its forgotten past confronted me, unexpectedly and without dialectical embellishment. The picture that we retain of Marcuse from the activist period of the student movement unjustly obscures the quality of the scholar who had received a solid philosophical training with Heidegger in Freiburg. Within the circle of “old” members of the Frankfurt School, Marcuse was the one who adhered to conventional scientific standards in his philosophical studies. His book Reason and Revolution from the early 1940s—in a sense the parallel action to Löwith’s From Hegel to Nietzsche—is the best example of this. Without this scientific quality, Marcuse’s lecture on “Industrialisation and Capitalism” eight years later would not have met with the response among the younger generation that interests me in the present discussion of historical impacts.

At the sociology conference in Heidelberg in 1964, so it appears to some observers in retrospect, Max Weber had been, in a sense, installed as a classic. Be that as it may, this meeting of legendary figures in the discipline like Talcott Parsons, Raymond Aron, and Herbert Marcuse, who delivered the keynote addresses, amidst the assembled German sociologists was at any rate an event of major intellectual importance. At its centre was, in turn, a controversy conducted essentially between Jewish emigrants—between Herbert Marcuse, on one side, and the astute Reinhard Bendix, backed up by Parsons and Benjamin Nelson, on the other. I recall that the year 1964 fell in the incubation period of the student movement. At that time, there was not yet any talk of “capitalism”; the preferred term was “advanced industrial society.” The first books by Adorno had appeared in the edition suhrkamp, but as yet none by Marcuse. The Socialist German Students Union was not yet controlled by the actionists but instead by the most dedicated and most brilliant students in the discipline. I do not know how many of them were hearing “their” Marcuse for the first time.

Marcuse stuck meticulously to Weberian texts in laying bare the secret paradigmatic core of old Critical Theory—a Weber Marxism that promised to uncover the internal connection between formal rationality, domination, and capitalism. At any rate, sitting in the audience, I sensed how this hermeneutic exercise caused a spark to leap across to the young minds, much as had happened to me during the Freud lectures. Regardless of how we now assess the ambivalent aspects of the public impact of Freud and of Marcuse’s Marx and Max Weber, the two events mentioned were a condensation of the elusive and extremely indirect influence that, in rare moments, the intellectual translation of scientific work can have on public discourses.

Of course, careful empirical studies would need to be conducted in order to test the concluding generalization that I can base solely on my own life experience. My impression is that the political culture of the old Federal Republic owes the hesitant progress it made in civilizing its attitudes in good, perhaps decisive, part to Jewish emigrants. It owes this happy outcome chiefly to those who were magnanimous enough to return to the country that had driven them out. One or two academically “fatherless” generations learned from them how to distinguish the traditions that are worthy of being continued from a corrupt intellectual heritage.

Excerpted from “Philosophers And Sociologists of Jewish Background As Returnees in the Early Federal Republic of Germany: A Recollection.” Translated by Ciaran Cronin from: Habermas, Jurgen. Judische Philosophen und Soziologen als Ruckkehrer in der fruhen Bundesrepublik. In Im Sog der Technokratie [The Lure of Technocracy]. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2015. Permission to print this essay is granted by Polity Press.