Monday, 16 July 2018

Education After Auschwitz, by Theodor Adorno (1966)

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. (...)

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. (...)

People who blindly slot themselves into the collective already make themselves into something like inert material, extinguish themselves as self-determined beings. With this comes the willingness to treat others as an amorphous mass. I called those who behave in this way “the manipulative character” in the Authoritarian Personality, indeed at a time when the diary of Höss or the recordings of Eichmann were not yet known. (...)

Walter Benjamin asked me once in Paris during his emigration, when I was still returning to Germany sporadically, whether there were really enough torturers back there to carry out the orders of the Nazis. There were enough. Nevertheless the question has its profound legitimacy. Benjamin sensed that the people who do it, as opposed to the bureaucratic desktop murderers and ideologues, operate contrary to their own immediate interests, are murderers of themselves while they murder others. I fear that the measures of even such an elaborate education will hardly hinder the renewed growth of desktop murderers. But that there are people who do it down below, indeed as servants, through which they perpetuate their own servitude and degrade themselves, that there are more Bogers and Kaduks: against this, however, education and enlightenment can still manage a little something.

Theodor Adorno

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