You are here:   Civilisation >  Books > Uncritical Theorists Who Misread the Nazis

Herbert Marcuse: The father of the New Left worked for US military intelligence during the war 

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. 

View Full Article
September 15th, 2013
3:09 PM
People who live in ivory academic towers are destined to intellectually suffocate in them. The so-called left had a problem with National Socialists, it currently has problems with Islam. Anti-semitism is a thread running through some "left" world-views. Might secular/atheistic Jewish "antisemitism" have contributed to this? That beginning with Marx.

Russ Davis
September 9th, 2013
2:09 PM
As usual, the whole vacuous consideration of motives and notions misses the most important, underlying matter of man's rebellion against God from the beginning with Adam & Eve. Because Jews & Christians are in varying aspects objects of God's Covenant, they are thus likewise the devil's objects of persecution and destruction before, above and beyond all other considerations, as America's Founders of her Christian endeavor understood (no matter the blind, ignorant, groundless bigotry of those in antiChristian denial). See and for a true understanding of this.

September 8th, 2013
2:09 PM
I think this analysis is somewhat misguided. The spearhead theory, as articulated in this review, might seem unpalatable, but Horkheimer and Adorno's explanation of antisemitism and the threats of fascism in Dialetic of Enlightenment offer a more nuanced view. The legacy of the Frankfurt School argument on antisemitism and genocide is, in my opinion, this: The extermination of the Jews in Nazi Germany was not just a singular, local, delimited event in history, but rather represents a dangerous potential within the structure of late capitalism itself. When ideology combines with limitless technological mobilization, evil on a grand scale is possible. I have always seen, therefore, the "conservative" strain of thought in the later Horkheimer and Adorno as being an attempt to preserve humanism against this dangerous potential. These OSS papers might not make this argument clearly, but the seminal works of the school hold up better to criticisms of naivete.

September 8th, 2013
4:09 AM
Hitler's madness may have come from influenza.

Wim Schul
September 5th, 2013
8:09 AM
I do not consider the spearhead concept as essential element in Frankfurter thought. This alarmist consideration can be found in nearly every consideration of nazism that calls to action. The legacy consists in taking attention from social and geopolitical images to that of the mindset of fascism, later autoritarism, more parallel to lines of thought of Wilhelm Reich or someone like Walter Benjamin. Apart from onesidedness and narrowness there still remains this lasting legacy of the Frankfurters in connection with fascism, as well as - contrary to some of the others - the obligation to take sides in practice, that was the Allied cause.

Granite Sentry
September 5th, 2013
2:09 AM
Not especially surprising; the record of Leftist intellectuals woefully misunderstanding, misinterpreting, and misstating political developments around the world during most of the last 100 years is unfortunately quite extensive. But to this day they still think they're the smartest guys and gals in the room. Go figure.

Ted Schrey Montreal
September 2nd, 2013
6:09 PM
This is one sad story. It is depressing in the extreme to realize activist-theorists of this calibre didn't amount to a whole-hell-of-a-heap of useful thought. It is quite incredible, actually, coming from those who lived close to the abyss, and obviously blinded by their own precious ideas. Yuck.

Post your comment

This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.