The Return of the Dead Souls: The German Students’ Movement and the Ghosts of Auschwitz

Christoph Schmidt. Journal of Modern Jewish Studies. Volume 13, Issue 1. March 2014.

The intellectual history determined by the 1968 students’ revolt sometimes appears as a ghost scene, emerging from the strong identification of the radical students with Jews and Judaism. This essay wishes to demonstrate the inner connection between the messianic political theology of the movement and the psychological effects of this over-identification, leading to a leftist anti-Semitism. While the revolutionary students saw themselves as the true successors of Jewish revolutionary messianism, they accused the real Jew, the one who settled in Israel, of being an imperialist traitor. The essay reconstructs the metamorphosis of these ghosts in a “phenomenology of the spirits” as a “Geistergeschichte” behind the official “Geistesgeschichte.” Against this pathological path the essay presents Jürgen Habermas’s reflections on the ethics of memory as its best therapy.

“It seems to me that the dead souls of the murdered Jews have entered the minds of the German students,” Adorno wrote about his first uncanny impression of the German students immediately after his return to Germany. In fact it would not be the last time that this philosopher would engage in “seeing Ghosts.” “Nazism was so monstrous,” he stated elsewhere, that it might have “survived its own death.” Both, the ghosts of Nazism and the ghosts of the murdered Jews were not only all too present in the days of German restoration, they might be in fact still around, as Guenther Grass suggests in his novel Krebsgang: nowadays these ghosts only seem to have adopted modern technology, so that they might perform their virtual show “Online.” When the two German youths of the novel adopt the virtual identities of a Jew and a Nazi, they in fact are preparing for a “capo de al fine” of the deadly endgame.

The Enlightenment intended in its first heroic advance to eliminate all ghosts and spirits. As entities beyond empirical verification they were supposed to vanish with all the other metaphysical phantasmagoria. What Immanuel Kant could not foresee when he wrote his early “Dreams of a Spirit Seer” was the possibility that enlightenment itself would decline, that it could itself turn into a ghost that would evoke only mockery and laughter, as in Scottish ghost stories. The entrance of the enlightened philosopher and disciple of Kant, Saul Ascher, as a ghost in Heinrich Heine’s dream, where the aged philosopher deduces the impossibility a priori of his own existence, is much more than a caricature of the unconditional belief in the powers of reason. Heine’s dream reminds us of the fact, that this Saul Ascher had become, in the age of the German national romantic restoration, one of the sharpest critics of the new medieval anti-Semitic excesses of “Germanomania.” The new generation of German enthusiasts would indeed consign Ascher’s books at the Wartburg summit 1817 to the flames, an event that provoked Heine’s so often quoted dark prophecy of the possible burning of men that might follow the burning of books.

Theodor Adorno, the modern witness of the dialectics of enlightenment, not only knew that the destruction of reason might be followed by a rebirth of nationalist ghosts and spirits. He had not only developed a fine intuition for their entrances behind the public stage but he was not afraid to recognize them as well in the excesses of the students’ movement of ’68 which in the name of a renewal of enlightenment would raise a new violent species of ghosts, namely the “messianic spirits.”

A Little Phenomenology of the Spirits

In what follows I want to reconstruct a rather marginal history of the ghosts accompanying the German students’ movement and its aftermath. Certain overtones of the historical development point to a “Geistergeschichte” (history of the spirits) behind the scenes of the “Geistesgeschichte” with rather strange transformations and conversions. It might be called a “phenomenology of the spirits,” which, analogous to Hegel’s enterprise, might be described as “a slow moving succession of Spirits, a gallery of images, each of which, endowed with all the riches of the Spirits.”

I shall reconstruct this “hidden” phenomenology as the gallery of imagined identities and their specific dialectic in relation to the different stages of the radical political messianism of the ’68 movement! My basic assumption will be that this imagined identity was a messianic identity, which often took the form of a radical identification with “the Jew.” This identification was, among others, the function of the adoption of the Jewish intellectuals, Adorno, Marcuse, Ernst Bloch and Walter Benjamin as spiritual fathers by these rebelling sons who had just rejected their own biological fathers for being guilty or responsible for Auschwitz. What is striking in this “conversion” to the imagined identity, is that it created a kind of absolute future which, later, often led to a rather awkward conflict between this imagined Jew and the real Jew. According to his messianic logic only the messianic revolutionary understood the real meaning of Auschwitz, whose conditions he was supposed to eliminate, while the survivors of Auschwitz themselves have mostly joined the imperialist camp, both in the Jewish community of Berlin and in the Zionist state.

In consequence of the final failure to erase the capitalist conditions for the possibility of Auschwitz after the German autumn of 1977, the German past returned and Auschwitz became the index of ultimate evil in the real world. Here one can largely differentiate in this period between two tendencies, a kind of “Gnosticism,” where the ghosts go underground and exchange their Jewish identities for a German identity of victimhood––thus completing this kind of secular supersession. The second tendency represents the renewal of a sceptical enlightenment which was, in fact, on its way from the beginnings and which aimed––against both, the messianic hyper future and the new Gnostic hyper-past––at a balance between past and future. In this new open world between the perspective on a better society and a suitable “ethics of memory” initiated by Jürgen Habermas, Joshka Fischer and others, these ghosts and demons could no longer find refuge.

I contend that this “Geisterdaemmerung,” this “dawn of the ghosts,” finds its ultimate expression in the last and ultimate messianic adoption of Walter Benjamin who in fact released the movement from its messianic mentality and allowed for its dogmatic codification and, moreover, for a process of normalization, or what one could call with Gerschom Scholem a “utopian return into history.”

The Birth of the Ghosts Out of the Messianisation of Reason

The “Geistergeschichte” I am concerned with was not only the function of a radical messianic interpretation of the meaning of enlightenment, it presupposed first of all the renunciation of the philosophical specialist in ghost vision, namely Adorno himself who had already had the opportunity to meet with the emerging new leftist ghosts of fanaticism and violence. After the “destruction of reason” which Auschwitz symbolized, Adorno, wanted to renew the project of enlightenment as the “Exodus from the tutelage that man himself is guilty of,” but it was precisely the enormous amount of guilt that man had already assumed, which turned his project of enlightenment into a highly sceptical and cautious one. Adorno intended to free enlightenment from its fundamental and original ambivalence between a sceptical and critical method striving for a cautious consolidation of secular autonomous subjectivity, on the one hand, and its possible enthusiastic messianic interpretation as a political theology creating fantasies of a “new man” beyond “original sin” or in a more Kantian language beyond “radical evil,” on the other. Adorno was shocked then by the very messianic radicalism of his former disciples, who turning enlightenment back into myth, shouted at the Israeli ambassador (whom they had invited for discussion about the Israel-Palestine conflict): “Zionisten raus!” Whatever critical approach was (and still is) needed to approach Israeli politics, this epithet was all too reminiscent of the cry, “Juden raus”!

According to Wolfgang Kraushaar’s account, Herbert Marcuse was not very impressed by the complaints of his friend Adorno and so he demanded of him a clear decision in favour of the new global revolutionary movement for which the students were supposed to be a kind of avant-garde. Marcuse became the ideologist of this first messianic “Theo-political hour” when he removed nearly all the barriers Adorno had created between theory and practice, between Freud and Marx, between aesthetic theory and political action, between historical and messianic reason! Marcuse was the representative of the radical enthusiastic type of enlightenment, which offered the necessary vocabulary for the messianic enterprise. He not only created the idea of a coalition between the revolutionary guerrilla movement of the Third World, in Vietnam and South America, and the “urban guerrilla” in the Western capitalist states of the first world, he envisioned the march towards a radical new constitution of humankind which would take action against what he defined, in rather decisionist terms, as the “absolute state of emergency.” Moreover, Marcuse made it perfectly clear that the “new man” on the way, whether engaging in political, aesthetic or erotic action, could not only perform the messianic “exodus from tutelage,” he was guilty of, that is, the history of the fathers, but this new man would free himself from guilt itself. He would even overcome, as he wrote: “primordial sin”! But this “erasure of the traces of the original sin” was nothing but the other side of Marcuse’s demand, to reject any guilt on the side of the sons:

Not we, but the fathers are guilty; they are not tolerant, but false. They want to redeem their own guilt by making us, the sons, guilty; they have created a world of hypocrisy and violence in which we do not wish to live.

While the former adherents of the “subversive action” had split into the political faction and the erotic faction of the first commune, their activities and demonstrations were not only inspired by the new messianic drive; these new sons found themselves, already at this early stage, regularly condemned by those Berlin citizens shouting at the subversive activists, especially Rudi Dutschke, that they were the “enemies of the state,” who should be sent to a concentration camp, that they were “Jew pigs”! Rudi Dutschke and his friends were not only internalizing these attacks, they often described their mission metaphorically in terms of a messianic war. It had become common rhetoric to compare their street wars with the guerrilla war of the Jews, the partisan upheaval of the Jewish Messiah Bar Kochba against the imperial powers of Rome or with the Jewish messianic revolutionary Jesus Christ, whose death on the cross was, according to the political theology of Ernst Bloch and Helmut Golwitzer, inflicted by the Roman imperialist counterrevolution. Dutschke’s famous “overthrowing of the tables” in the Berlin Church on Christmas Eve was inspired by his vision of the evangelical revolutionary. “If we are nationalizing the Springer publishing house we will be the Jewish scapegoats,” declared Dutschke’s companion Lefebre in a night session of these messianic partisans, which he defined as the historical moment before the seizure of power, the “Machtergreifung,” a moment which was in fact postponed.

This messianic political theology found its ultimate expression in Dutschke’s friendship with Ernst Bloch, whose 1921 book on Thomas Muenzer, the theologian of the revolution, was very influential on Dutschke’s perception of the history of messianism. Bloch had indeed adopted Muenzer not only in order to define the necessary fusion between revolution and theology; he intended, through Muenzer’s eschatology, to create a new messianic politics on the basis of the Joachite Trinitarian theology of the three kingdoms in order to signify with it the new unity between the Jewish Father, the Christian Son and the revolutionary Holy Spirit. This Spirit representing the true eschatological “Third Reich” of enlightenment, according to Ernst Bloch, was not only the symbol of a totally new world order, a new creation, it was the ultimate aim of the enlightened “exodus from tutelage” which found its present “incarnation,” so to speak, in what appeared as a kind of Trinitarian friendship between the Father Bloch and the Son Dutschke united in the revolutionary Spirit. At this peak of messianic enthusiasm which Bloch tended to describe occasionally in pure Gnostic terms as the advent of the “absolute other,” enlightenment had in fact cancelled all sceptical restrictions and left all rational analytical arguments and Marxist economic analysis behind in favour of an absolute future.

This messianic enthusiasm coincided with the violent escalations which functioned according to the principle that one fought against the measures, laws or decisions of the state in order to provoke their implementation, so that the liberal state was forced to show its “real oppressive face.” The demonstrations against the “law of emergence” were, in fact, directed towards its implementation, and when the violent demonstrations led to the murder of Benno Ohnesorg and, later, to the shooting of Rudi Dutschke, for many there was no doubt any more, that the “absolute emergency state,” and so the moment for a “sovereign revolutionary decision” against the class and state enemy, had arrived.

This messianic logic was supported by an important event, namely the Six-Day War in June 1967, which led to the discovery of a new seat of war and a new theatre of operations: Palestine. This was the very moment of the emergence of a new enemy, namely the Zionist Jew who had, in fact, the best chance to become the “incarnation” of American and German imperialist aspirations. There could be no better proof of this truth than the fact that the Springer press, so hostile to the students, was among the enthusiastic supporters of the Israeli state and its supposedly colonial war against the Arab land proletariat. Although Marcuse opened the horizon of the third world as a theatre of operations, he himself was, in fact, more cautious in adopting a radically hostile line against the Jewish state, while Erich Fried and Ernst Bloch fostered strong anti-Zionist positions which were in line with the new position. In his poem “Shma Israel” Fried alluded to a comparison between Nazi and Zionist statehood, while Bloch suggested that Zionism was nothing but a nationalist betrayal of the originally universal messianic project, indicating by this the split between the true Jewish messianic identity and the wrong nationalist one. (It is not the place here to discuss the parallel messianic movement which was developed after 1967 by the Jewish settlers in the Occupied Territories and which itself turned into a terror movement against Palestinians!)

These differentiations accompanied the split between the students’ imagined messianic identity and the real existing Jew. It was the split between the implied adoption of a revolutionary Jewish identity in the tradition of Marx, Luxemburg, Lukács and Marcuse and the non- or wrong messianic Jews, the real survivors of the concentration camps reorganizing themselves either in the ruins of the Jewish Community in Berlin or in the Jewish state. It was, in fact, a conflict between the true Jew, the “Jew of the Spirit,” who had learned his anti-capitalist lesson from Auschwitz, and the wrong Jew, the “Jew of the Flesh” who had failed to do so and who had joined the capitalist imperialist front. This split found its most surreal, but nevertheless “logical” expression in the bomb attack on the Jewish Community Centre in Berlin on the memorial day of Kristallnacht in 1969. This was accompanied by pamphlets on the connection between “Shalom and Napalm” (indicating the connection between Vietnam and Palestine) as later in the justification of the Munich massacre against Israeli athletes published by Ulrike Meinhof from within the prison walls of Stammheim. These remarks are indeed revealing if one reads them together with the later prison reflections of Ulrike Meinhof and Gudrun Ensslin who speculated about their terms of detention in Stammheim, comparing their own situation with no less than the victims of Auschwitz and Bergen/Belsen. So the radical German revolutionary had not only inherited the messianic Jewish revolutionary persona, he/she now assumed the position as the ultimate victim in the concentration camps.

The Gnostic Partisans of the Rebellion and Its Converts

Now, it is most interesting to have a glimpse at the aftermath of this conversion of the spirits, which, after the German Autumn of 1977, seemed to have gone underground, but in fact continued to appear “undercover,” as it were, in a series of intellectual phenomena some of which I will turn to next.

One does not have to subscribe to Jacob Taubes’s argument against Gerschom Scholem’s dichotomy between Jewish political messianism and Christian inverted and spiritualized messianism, in order to see its possible relevance for this schematic overview. Taubes claimed that both are the two sides of the same coin, so that the Christian inverted form deferring the end into transcendence has to be seen as a consequence of the impossibility of realizing the political aims of Jewish messianism which would lead in the next and last stage to a Gnostic abyss between an entirely evil world and the absolutely transcendent world of redemption. With this, Taubes seems to have also described the messianic logic of the students’ movement of which he was an active member.

After the German Autumn, “the movement” was partly transformed into a stage of internalization, a return to the subject by means of art and reflection and a (re)turn to the democratic-parliamentary game, characterized by a “messianic reservation” or “delay” and partly into different forms of Gnostic despair condemning this world as the evil scene of fascism and ultimately the modern world as the “paradigm of the concentration camp.”

The Gnostic response seemed to be the direct consequence of the belief in an absolute future, which, refuted by reality, now turned into despair about the continuation of the past. Instead of jumping into an absolute future, one would now drown in an absolute past. The price of this return was manifold: Where Auschwitz was once, in consequence of the elimination of its social conditions of possibility, supposed to be erased from history, it now became somehow omnipresent, in a certain sense even “metahistorical.” Everything now became a symptom of fascism, and potentially of Auschwitz. This was not only the time where the same Adorno, who refused to engage in messianic action and to play the role of the first father figure, gained some popularity again, but it was as well the time of an aesthetic reflection on the continuation of the presence of Auschwitz and the deplorable tragic destiny of the orphaned sons superimposed by their historical fathers. It was the time of Bernard Vesper’s and Peter Schneider’s novels about the biological and historical fathers, the father-son relations and the experience of the fathers with, and in, the war reflecting some sort of a historical inescapability: the German sons were now––like the German anarchists in Stammheim––captured in a prison, namely the prison of history. They were imprisoned in their historical past without even a little glimpse of the light of the future. And most of all: they now became the true victims. Like the Jews they were victims of the Nazis, who only happened to be their fathers. Since their elimination through the German fathers was not a physical one, but a moral and spiritual one, this new ghost was a direct continuation of the imagined self-conception as the true “Israel of the Spirit” turning now into some kind of “German of the Spirit.”

In this respect both Botho Strauss and Peter Sloterdijk continued the history of the Jewish ghosts, but gave this a very Teutonian turn and tone. From now on, the German sons were the true victims, because they were thrown as innocents into the prison of a history they did not choose and for which they were supposed to be held guilty or at least held responsible. This made for a kind of archaic, mythical, pre-ontological experience of their “Being in the World” which both described in aesthetic and tragic terms of Nietzsche and Heidegger––which was both a new narcissistic concentration on “one’s own self” as it led in fact to the final forgetting of the Jewish victim.

While Strauss dreamt of a new right-wing eschatology which would overcome all efforts of rational enlightenment to explain “away” the basic tragedy of the German sons after Auschwitz, at the same time he pleaded for a sovereign poetic and pseudo-religious initiation against rational modernist culture which could hardly conceal the influence of the former anarchist decisionism as it came at the same time close, all too close, to the language of the Nazi fathers.

Peter Sloterdijk, who in his early Critique of Cynical Reason of 1983 managed to employ all safety measures against the call of Nietzsche’s and Heidegger’s sirens, found himself later caught up under their spell. It is difficult not to interpret his later remarks on the archaic tragic victimhood of the son as reflections on the German son born after 1945. In Strangeness of the World (1999) Sloterdijk describes the archaic experience of the son as an “erratic block” (Findling) having been washed up as debris on the shores of history. Lonely, naked forced to survive alone, this son had to create himself now as a hero who can overcome the fundamental Gnostic “strangeness of the world,” superimposed by his father and then possibly take revenge. Sloterdijk’s enthusiastic anthropologist eliminates the swamp of despair so typical of all those deplorable melancholic and confused student rebels who still mourned their defeat, in order to draw himself out of all this misery in a sovereign act of self-redemption. Sloterdijk’s rhetoric––although presented as half serious, half ironic––intended an extraction from the sea of despair which coincided with the new nationalist mood immediately after 1989, leading later to a wave of new conversions of some of the more prominent former Maoists like Horst Mahler, Guenther Maschke and others from radical left to radical right––always already implied, as it were, in their radical leftist anti-Judaism.

It would lead us too far astray here to deal with the huge topic of the post 1945 conversion of Protestant theology, which fought its Gnostic ghosts from Harnack’s Marcion 1921 until Emmanuel Hirsch’s SS-Theology, adopting a reverse philo-Semitic Gnosticism with a new army of pastoral ghosts. But these ghosts move like so many other Gnostic soldiers towards radical forms of an ethical “Israel of the Spirit” with new forms of a hyper-messianic supersession. Quite often they just change the trains of history and convert to Judaism as an act of compensation of guilt.

Most relevant for today’s phenomenology of the ghosts is Giorgio Agamben, who adopts the language of Carl Schmitt’s political theology in order to describe modern European political history as a whole in terms of the emergence of the “paradigm of the concentration camp.” Like the new conservatives who have described their German sonship as a mythical tragedy superimposed on them, Agamben interprets the present stage of the world in similar catastrophic terms of the logic of the concentration camp. Agamben does not speak as a German; he still speaks the language of the radical leftist messianic imagination, while adopting the discourse of sovereign decision in order to deactivate it through poetics and aesthetics. Walter Benjamin’s idea of the absolute emergency case functions here as the model for a Heideggerian poetical coup against the metaphysics of will, in order to initiate an exit from the whole of Gnostic history.

Another Successful Overcoming of Gnosis

Now that we have entered the absolute realm of the past with no perspective for the future, this little phenomenology of the spirits and ghosts seems to have arrived literally at its dead end. The ghosts and inheritors of the “Israel of the Spirit” having been converted into German victims, are imprisoned in their own past which has to be dialectically interpreted as the negation of the absolute messianic future. Both, the absolute future and the absolute past, are but two aspects of a metaphysical or messianic absolutism, which is obviously a refusal to enter history, and in this sense the refusal to become a concrete self and take responsibility for this history as an event unfolding between past and future. The need for a utopian retreat into history presupposes then a radical de-messianisation and in consequence a radical de-gnostification of all politics described. Only a treatment against the addiction to the messianic opium, as Joshka Fischer once put it, could lead to an end of this Kierkegaardian flight from politics and from the self. The classical religious opium was at least far less violent and dangerous than the political messianic opium.

What was at stake then was the clarification of the relation between liberation and guilt or responsibility indicated by the repeated formula of Kant, that enlightenment indeed was the exodus from the tutelage of which mankind was guilty. It is not by chance that Jürgen Habermas has dealt with this relation between past and future, the need to expand civil liberties and to develop a responsible approach to the historical past again and again. Although he appreciated some of the movements’ achievements, namely the emergence of a post-metaphysical liberalism characterized by a new individualism and a pluralisation of lifestyles, he was very much aware of the demand to establish an acceptable and practicable balance between past and future in order to initiate the necessary transformation from an imagined history into a real political history which would allow for a serious return to the project of modernity. When Habermas reminded us of the obvious fact that, in contrast to what happens in mythology, good and evil are not passed down from fathers to sons, since every person, father and son alike, are personally responsible for their actions, this was not meant to grant an exemption from the German past, but rather as a commitment to a retroactive solidarity with the victims and survivors.

Habermas asserted––against the idea of a supposed “grace having been born after”––that the lives of those “born after” are stamped with an inner bond to “the contexts of life that facilitated Auschwitz.” These contexts not only comprise the parents’ impotence, but also German intellectual traditions of radical imagination that induced the criminals to perpetrate their acts and others to stand by idly. This imposes on the succeeding generation a duty not merely to explain these traditions, but primarily, to recognize the “anamnetic rights” of the dead and the victims to solidarity and memory. In this context Habermas even develops a kind of mathematical formula for the necessary retroactive solidarity:

To the extent that collective frameworks of living afforded less partnership, the more they survived by virtue of conquest and destruction of the lives of others, the greater the onus of reconciliation, the burden of facing up to the situation and the burden of self-criticism placed on the succeeding generations.

Only once these relations between liberation and responsibility, future and past are unravelled could one cure the cultural pathologies and hallucinations induced by the flight into imaginary identities of the absolute future or the absolute past. Only then there can there be a clear distinction between imagination and reality, between liberation and oppression, and most important, between criminal and victim, between German and Jew.

This “utopian return into history” was paralleled by a final adoption of a Jewish father figure who allowed for a more mythical or aesthetic way to express, and more importantly, to perform, this return. Indeed what is often conceived outside Germany as an “obsession” with Walter Benjamin seems to be a kind of dogmatic reflex of the end of the messianic realm of the movement and the return to the seminar room where all this began––without shame. Benjamin’s thinking was not only highly ambivalent when it comes to deciding whether he speaks theology or politics, aesthetics or political engagement, whether it is the Messiah or the revolutionary action which is at stake, his deconstruction of the concept of Carl Schmitt’ s sovereign in his book on the German Baroque tragedy seems to express this ambivalence: “The prince, who is in charge of the decision on the emergency case, proves at the first opportunity, that it is impossible for him to decide.” The reason for this impossibility lay in Benjamin’s concept of the Messiah whose kingdom was no longer considered the aim and telos of history, but could appear at any second without anyone being able to prepare themselves for this appearance. “Only the Messiah himself completes all history, in the sense that he alone redeems, completes, creates its relation to the messianic.”

In this sense Benjamin was the Messiah himself, the one who could “redeem” the former revolutionaries from their messianic aspirations, and provide them a respectable way out––without having to lose face or to become cynical. As a compensation for the messianic discontinuity of the disastrous history, the former revolutionaries could adopt Benjamin’s theory of messianic memory, which enabled them now to recognize the victims as victims. Moreover, in light of Benjamin’s own tragic martyrdom at the Spanish border, the distinction between Nazi and Jew, criminal and victim, German and Jew finally regained focus, precisely because they reflected the very past where these distinctions were clear cut. Benjamin became the “tragic messiah” figure with whom the movement could formulate its dogmatic system, its “depositum fidei,” as the basis of a new post-revolutionary and post-messianic “community.” With Benjamin’s redemption from messianic action, the enlightenment could finally return to its sceptical version. While the students were responsible for, or even guilty of, the “Exodus from self-inflicted tutelage” it only became possible with this last “Exodus from political messianism.”