Members of the Frankfurt School fell out of favor with the National Socialists and were forced into exile. Frankfurt’s Jewish Museum is now highlighting those who returned to Germany and had a major influence on the young democracy.
The so-called Frankfurt School of neo-Marxist sociologists and intellectuals was pivotal to the development of democracy in Germany after World War II.
Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer are among the most well-known of the group, who worked at the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt during the early 20th century. Founded in 1923, the institute was later closed by the National Socialists and the scholars were forced to seek refuge abroad, many of them in the United States.
Some of them returned after the war and rebuilt the facility, which has become an important think tank in Germany. Those who returned are currently the focus of an exhibition at Frankfurt’s Jewish Museum, which runs through January 10, 2010.
A close network in exile
The exhibition at the Jewish Museum in Frankfurt primarily explores the years of reconstruction and the lives of the returning scholars, who had developed their research and built an extensive network while living in exile during the war.
“What almost all of these people have in common is that they were emigrants, mostly Jewish emigrants, who then formed a social network in the US which continued after the war,” Erik Riedel, one of the exhibition’s curators, told Deutsche Welle.
At that time, letter writing was the main means of communication. Across great distances, the scholars exchanged details in the 1930s and 40s on everything from visits to the cinema to their academic research. Social scientists were not the only members of the network: Filmmaker Wilhelm Dieterle, for example, was a neighbor of Theodor W. Adorno in California, and was on the board of trustees at the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt.
Even long before the Second World War, scholars of the Frankfurt School had made significant observations on German society. Included in the exhibition is an audio clip from sociologist and economist Friedrich Pollock from the Institute for Social Research, who told German broadcaster Deutschlandfunk the following in 1963:
“Inspired by American social research, the institute conducted a major study in 1931 on the attitudes of German workers and employees in the Weimar Republic, on socialism and on life in general. The first results showed with startling clarity how little mental resistance the labor movement had to withstand the impending violence of the totalitarian regime.”
Their study was never completed, continued Pollock, because the Nazis seized power shortly thereafter and the institute was closed due to “anti-state” activities. Its employees were dismissed from their work and their archive, which contained many documents on the history of National Socialism, was confiscated.
German attitudes shifted slowly after 1945
The exhibition in Frankfurt gives viewers a glimpse into the post-war period, and intentionally leaves out other aspects, such as Adorno’s participation in the 1968 student movement.
In 1951, researchers from the institute launched a “group study” that aimed to create a kind of psychological profile of Germans. Some 1,800 participants held group discussions about a fake letter, supposedly from an American military officer, in which he gives his assessment of the German people.
The results were sobering: The majority of Germans participating in the study still considered Hitler to be one of the greatest Germans in history after Otto von Bismarck, the first chancellor of the united German empire. The findings could have prompted a wide public discussion, but the study was not published until 1955 and only received minimal attention.
According to curator Erik Riedel, efforts were made to soften the contents of the study. The post-war economic upswing was underway and “coming to terms with the past was really not a major topic of discussion anymore in Germany,” he said.
Although the group study hadn’t garnered much attention, researchers Horkheimer and Adorno quickly became well-known public figures. Horkheimer was made dean of the philosophy department, then rector of the university in Frankfurt in 1951. In 1960, he became an honorary citizen of the city.
Both Horkheimer and Adorno had a strong presence in the media and commented frequently on major social issues. As a music theorist, Adorno in particular was a vocal critic of the commercialization of music and culture, among other things.
Anti-Semitism central to study of fascism
For a long time, many scholars, historians and psychologists had treated anti-Semitism as only one element of fascism. Through the research of the Frankfurt School, however, hostility towards Jews became the focus of analysis, which was a controversial approach even among sociologists.
Only a few of the expelled intellectuals actually returned to Frankfurt, and they did so, perhaps, out of a sense of duty to society – not to turn post-war Germany over to Hitler and quietly accept the expulsion of the Jews. Their research made the Frankfurt School an academic and moral compass to a young federal republic.