Uncritical Theorists Who Misread the Nazis

A new volume of reports by the Frankfurt School shows their number to be at best naive and at worst dangerously misinformed

The Frankfurt School, founded in Germany in 1923 — the Institute for Social Research being its official name — was a group of intellectuals who played an important role in Europe and the United States over several decades. The school’s orientation was “critical”, which in practice meant undogmatic Marxist (within limits). It stood for a synthesis of Marx and Freud, philosophy and sociology. It also tried to integrate some German thinkers who were closer to Nazism than to Marxism, such as Martin Heidegger and Carl Schmitt. It advocated a society that was more just, saw monopoly capitalism as the main threat and was more preoccupied with high culture and the evils of mass culture than political issues. 

The dramatic upheavals of the 1930s and ’40s directly affected the Frankfurt School and moved it in directions its leading figures had neither foreseen nor wanted. Since almost all its members were Jewish, or part Jewish, they had to leave their native country soon after Hitler’s rise to power. Most made their way via London to the United States, where they had to look for new sponsors since their financial means were limited. One group, mainly based in California, undertook a study of anti-Semitism on behalf of a leading Jewish organisation, it eventually took the form of investigating prejudice and the authoritarian personality. Another group, having joined American military intelligence, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), contributed to the war effort by trying to explain Nazi Germany to American political and military leaders. They included Franz Neumann, the head of this group, Herbert Marcuse and Otto Kirchheimer. Some 30 of their many wartime position papers have now been published under the general title Secret Reports on Nazi Germany.

Why did William “Wild Bill” Donovan, the most highly decorated American soldier of the First World War and later head of OSS, enlist this group of radical theorists? There is no obvious answer: they were born and educated in Germany but, the question of their unorthodox political orientation quite apart, they were not really political animals. This goes especially for the most prominent and influential thinkers among them, such as Walter Benjamin or Theodor Adorno. Jürgen Habermas, the leading German intellectual of our time and the universally recognised legitimate heir of the Frankfurt  School, said about Adorno that he was an authentic genius. Perhaps, but his genius was in the field of cultural studies rather than politics.

They were intelligent, well-educated people with wide interests and it is only legitimate that the editor should have picked out of their many reports those which have best stood the test of time. But were they prescient, pioneering an understanding of the character of Nazism, its aims and ambitions? This has been claimed in the past and is sometimes argued even now. True, they made some useful points, such as stressing that Hitler’s Germany contained essentially new elements, quite different from the Germany of 1914, and should not be seen through the lenses of a bygone period. (Churchill in 1937 still tended to believe that Hitler and Nazism were in the tradition of Kaiser Wilhelm II, the misbegotten grandson of Queen Victoria.) The Frankfurters warned against the Morgenthau Plan of 1944-45 to deindustrialise a defeated Germany. They realised early on that underneath the seemingly monolithic façade of Nazism there was a great deal of chaos. It was never made quite clear who was in charge of what, the role of Hitler, the state apparatus, the party, etc. 

But seen from a perspective of more than 70 years, were their insights accurate or rather naive? Were their predictions born out by subsequent events? It is all too often forgotten these days that in the 1930s and ’40s there were political observers outside university campuses who had not been trained in Hegel’s ontology and, were unfamiliar with Marx’s early writings (the Frühschriften had been rediscovered in 1932) and yet, one way or another, perhaps instinctively, perhaps for the wrong reasons, understood Nazism better than the academics. They realised almost immediately that Hitler meant war. 

One of them was Sir Horace Rumbold, British ambassador in Berlin. Like his father a career diplomat, he was an educated man, and a gifted linguist; one of his pre-1914 dispatches to the Foreign Secretary was in the form of a poem. In a seven-page farewell cable (it became known as the Mein Kampf telegram) dispatched from Berlin in April 1933 he argued persuasively that Hitler, while disguising his foreign political aims until Germany was strong enough to expand and conquer, aimed at the suppression of all parties but his own, that there would be intensive militarisation and racial domination, and that a return to sanity and moderation in Germany seemed impossible in the foreseeable future. This at a time when Adorno, a pillar of the Frankfurt School, still lived under the illusion that Nazism would not last long, and that he had to remain in Germany at any price. Adorno went on to publish musical reviews and much to his later embarrassment even quoted Goebbels favourably. 

Rumbold was not a philo-Semite — he detected among Jews more than among others a proclivity towards pacifism which in the context of the need to combat Nazism was a wrong and very dangerous attribute. But he considered anti-Semitism a far more essential (and deadly) factor in Nazi ideology and practice than the Frankfurters in OSS. Neumann had somehow persuaded himself that  for the Nazis anti-Semitism was just a substitute for the class struggle. It was no more than an ideological instrument to the attainment of the ultimate objective: the destruction of free institutions, beliefs and groups. This half-baked idea became known as the “spearhead theory”.

Secret Reports on Nazi Germany is a collection of period pieces. They cover a wide range of topics dealing with the economic situation, social stratification, the likely effects on the German people of air raids and (in the last part) proposals for de-Nazification and the impending Nuremberg trials. The language is mercifully free of the Frankfurt School idiom. But altogether there is very little secret about these reports apart from the fact that their distribution was quite restricted. Most could have been written by educated Germans with some knowledge of politics, some training in philosophy and sociology, the ownership of a short-wave radio and access to German newspapers and periodicals — something that could have been arranged even in wartime, albeit with a certain delay. In other words, they were based on open sources and not, it would appear, on secret material.

There is a distinct unevenness to Secret Reports. There is a competent report on National Bolshevism, an issue which apparently became of interest to the Allies in 1943. Franz Neumann, who advanced to acting head of the central European section of the OSS, provides an accurate historical survey of this trend in German left-wing politics, but when it comes to identifying the leading thinkers and actors, he picks Heinz Neumann, Hermann Remmele, and Max Hoelz who had little or nothing to do with National Bolshevism. Since none was alive any longer in 1943-two, possibly all, had perished in the Moscow purges — this was not a matter of great practical importance. But Neumann and his colleagues should have known better and mistakes like this make one doubt their competence. 

The Neumann office was apparently tasked with providing profiles of past German political opposition to Nazism in the past likely to re-emerge after its defeat. There is a workmanlike analysis of German social democracy but curiously hardly anything on German politics of the centre. 

It would be unfair to blame OSS for the fact that the names of Konrad Adenauer or Willy Brandt do not appear in the reports published soon after the end of the war — it took time in this chaos for leading personalities to emerge. But it should have been clear that German politics would not consist entirely of parties of the Left even though the Frankfurters believed that only these could be trusted as guarantors of democracy. The authors believed that the Communists had been moving steadily towards accepting democratic theories and practices, but they also thought that the structure of the future Germany would have to be a mixture (or a synthesis of sorts) of Anglo-American and Soviet elements. 

In their assessments of Communism in Germany they seem to have relied entirely on Communist sources. They report “underground Communist activities” at a time (1943) when these had long ceased; the Gestapo had succeeded in destroying the Communist cells well before the outbreak of the war. The Secret Reports refer to entirely fictitious groups such as the “Navajos”, an allegedly Communist trend in the Hitler Youth. Again, when it comes to identifying leading Communist personalities, it appears that Neumann and his fellow analysts were out of their depth. Studying the official Communist publications they apparently came across names that were known to them from the old days. But there seems to have been no inside knowledge whatsoever, which is surprising because they were dealing with a milieu quite close to their own. And so all kinds of Communist novelists and playwrights (such as Friedrich Wolf, Ludwig Renn or Bodo Uhse) were promoted to positions of political leadership and great influence, whereas those wielding real power, such as Walter Ulbricht, remained in the background, if they were mentioned at all. 

Nor did the OSS analysts understand that Communist groups and parties outside Russia (excepting only China) had no influence; that their occasional independent-sounding statements were of no consequence at all; that only Moscow mattered even after the Communist International had been dissolved. The likely influence of the party in Germany in the postwar period was greatly overrated, as was the likely future impact of the “cultural achievement” of the Soviet Union on Germans. The reasons for these misjudgments seem not to be politically motivated — the Washington analysts appear not to have known any better. The editors of the Secret Reports would have done Neumann and Marcuse a service if they had pointed out at least the more egregious factual mistakes. 

The Frankfurters in OSS did not have a monopoly as far as political misjudgments were concerned. Nazism, it should be recalled, was a novel phenomenon at the time not only for students of politics — there was little past experience to act as guidance. William Langer, the head of Research and Analysis, the section of OSS in which the Frankfurters were employed in later years, became chairman of the Harvard history department; he had a brother, Walter, a respected psychoanalyst, who was asked by Wild Bill Donovan to provide a study of Hitler’s mind. The result, The Mind of Adolf Hitler, is still in print. 

The best that can be said about it is that it is “controversial”, a typical attempt of a psychoanalyst (and his assistants) to make sense of the problems of a patient whom they never met. True, the investigators interviewed Hitler’s nephew William Patrick (who apparently had never met his uncle) and also Dr Eduard Bloch, the family physician in Austria among others. They correctly predicted that Hitler was likely to commit suicide when things went very wrong, that he was neurotic rather than clinically mad, that he was probably heterosexual and had coprophagic tendencies. But it is doubtful whether any of this, even if correct, would be of help to political leaders. Intelligence services especially in wartime will engage in all kind of far-fetched and unlikely ventures in the hope that something unknown will turn up that could be of interest and even importance. They would consult astrologers, parapsychologists and a variety of pseudo-scientists. No one should blame them for such undertakings, but nor should they be taken too seriously.

The very first of the reports in this book is entitled “Anti-Semitism-Spearhead of Universal Terror” (dated May 18, 1943) and it is certainly the most dubious of all. It says:

“The persecution of the Jews as practiced by National Socialists, is only the prologue of more horrible things to come. The expropriation of the Jews, for instance is followed by that of the Poles, Czech, Dutchmen, Frenchmen, anti-Nazi Germans and middle classes. Not only Jews are put in concentration camps but pacifists, conservatives, Socialists, Catholics, Protestants, Free Thinkers and Members of the occupied peoples. Not only Jews fall under the executioner’s axe, but countless others of many nationalities, races and religions. Antisemitism is thus the spearhead of terror. The Jews are used as guinea pigs in testing a method of repression…”

The language of this statement may be uncertain but the meaning is clear. It came therefore as no surprise that Neumann was attacked in later years for either deliberately presenting a false picture of Nazism and in particular its policy towards the Jews or for being woefully ignorant on these subjects. He did find his defenders but even they could not deny that in the “secret documents” of Neumann’s group those referring to the Jews were few and far between. This was noticed later on even by those with no particular axe to grind, such as Arthur Schlesinger Jr, working in OSS but not a Jew. On various occasions he brought up the question of why the murder of the Jews had hardly ever figured or been analysed even by those who, in view of their personal background, should have been most interested in this issue.

How to explain that American intelligence services played down, or almost ignored the Holocaust? It is probably not true that there was a deliberate attempt to deny the Holocaust. Neumann never went as far as his son Michael, a Canadian philosophy professor, who argued that anti-Semitism should never be taken seriously but treated as a joke. Both of Neumann’s sons demanded that the name of their grandmother, who had perished in the camps, should be deleted from the lists of Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.

It was a matter of priorities. Most of this generation of German Jewish intellectuals had no particular interest in Jewish affairs and anti-Semitism. Furthermore, since there were so many Jews in the Frankfurt School they made an effort to play down this fact so as not to harm the influence of the school and the message it tried to convey. In the publications of the Frankfurt School the Jews and anti-Semitism figured for the first time only in 1939 in an essay by Max Horkheimer. And their bosses in OSS had made it clear that the Jewish issue was not to be among the important ones to be covered in their work. Towards the end of the war they were involved in the preparation of the Nuremberg trials. Again, they were told that they should concentrate on Nazism as the enemy of Christianity rather than the persecutor of the Jews.

As the war went on Neumann began to modify his views on anti-Semitism to a certain extent; his friend Marcuse (as appears from private correspondence) had always had doubts about the “spearhead theory” and other leaders of the Frankfurt school seem not to have been too happy with it either. It simply did not make sense. Even with all these mitigating circumstances the attitude of Neumann, and to a lesser extent those of his colleagues, seems quite strange. 

Anti-Semitism, after all, was not an abstract issue: it affected the life (and death) of so many of their friends and close relations. Did they really fail to understand the difference between a concentration camp and gas chambers? Did they really think that the Nazis were about to carry out far more horrible massacres than Auschwitz among the Dutch or the German middle class?

Poor Frankfurt School: posterity has been dealing with it in strange ways. The documents now presented in this book are recommended by the school’s admirers as indispensable, outstanding, of exceptional force, coolly objective insights of relevance and power, illuminating and of excellent scholarly service. Such loyalty is touching, and it is of course true that not all these disinterred documents are as misleading and indeed nonsensical as the spearhead theory. But it is not easy after all that is known to whitewash some of their wartime attitudes. Some of those trying now to make sense of these publications tend to underrate the element of naivety involved; surely such sophisticated and deep thinkers must have known better? But naivety did apparently play a major role — and not just as far as the theory of anti-Semitism was concerned. 

Those roaming the internet will encounter websites promoting “Smash Cultural Marxism” in which the critical thinkers of the 1930s appear as the grandchildren of the Elders of Zion, engaged in a giant, nefarious conspiracy dating back centuries, villains committing crimes too sinister to put into words. The current slogan of the discoverers of this megacrime is: Marxist socialism is supercapitalism. 

We know where these insights are coming from.

The Frankfurt School not only had its admirers but also severe critics and enemies. One of them (again a professor of philosophy) claimed that they were Soviet agents. This was considered a base calumny: there was no hard evidence to this effect and we know from their private correspondence that they were quite critical of Soviet politics and conditions. They merely thought that open criticism would put them in the camp of the reactionaries and warmongers.

But it is also true that they did not know much about the Soviet Union (perhaps did not want to know too much) and many years later, after the breakdown of the Soviet system, it appeared that Neumann had indeed passed on information to KGB agents; his handler was the wife of the KGB resident in the US, a lady of Romanian origin and a relation of the famous Ana Pauker. In his defence it could be argued that such collaboration lasted only for a year, that the Soviet Union was not an enemy but an ally at the time, that the Soviets could not possibly benefit much from the information he conveyed — and that, as so often, they disbelieved the information they received from him anyway.

 And yet, how to explain such behaviour but for the presence of a great deal of political naivety? According to many of his students, Neumann was not a fanatic but a man of sterling character. Moreover, unlike many Marxists he was a strong believer in the rule of law. He was firmly convinced that unless the wartime alliance between the West and the Soviet Union continued, Nazism in Germany would undergo a revival.

The idea that passing on information to the Russians would somehow prevent a return of Nazism was far-fetched, to put it mildly. But it may perhaps help to understand the strange political psychology of a misguided individual.

The historical fate of the Frankfurt School has been described and discussed in many books and articles. After the end of the war some of the functions of OSS were taken over by the State Department, others by the Pentagon. Eventually, following the National Security Act of 1947, the CIA was established. Marcuse and Kirchheimer continued to work for a number of years for various agencies of the American government. Neumann became a professor at Columbia University. He died in a traffic accident in Switzerland in 1954.

Horkheimer and Adorno, the central figures of the Frankfurt School, returned to Germany after the war and re-established the institute at Frankfurt University. Adorno died in 1969, Horkheimer in 1973. In their last years their views underwent considerable change, partly as the result of a collision with the New Left whom they regarded (in contrast to Marcuse) as “left-wing fascists”. Horkheimer, who had always tended towards pessimism, became more conservative with age. Adorno, while not a puritan, never quite overcame the shock caused by some female students who, appearing bare-breasted, tried to kiss him and thus break up his classes. Flashing was not part of the Dialectic of Enlightenment as he understood it.

The tradition of critical theory lingered on in the United States, Germany and a few other places but mainly in the field of cultural studies. In the United Kingdom an offshoot has appeared in the form of a journal, Critical Terrorism Studies, published at the Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Contemporary Political Violence at Aberystwyth University. A book entitled Rethinking the Roots of Terrorism (2006) from the University of St Andrews claims to base itself on the critical theory of the Frankfurt School. But its real concern is with the evil doings of anti-terrorism rather than the theory and practice of terrorism. Providence and critical theory have moved in strange and mysterious ways and the end may not yet be in sight.

Underrated: Abroad

The ravenous longing for the infinite possibilities of “otherwhere”

The king of cakes

"Yuletide revels were designed to see you through the dark days — and how dark they seem today"