Habermas on the Return of Exiled Jewish Philosophers


In an essay at Tablet Magazine, Jürgen Habermas describes the impact of Jewish philosophers and sociologists who returned to Germany after the Holocaust. An exceerpt:

On the present occasion I cannot make a contribution to exile research, but only sift through some recollections from the unreliable perspective of a contemporary witness. After their return to the homeland that had expelled them, Jewish emigrants became irreplaceable teachers for a younger generation….

I am speaking from the perspective of a beneficiary without going into the experiences of the returnees themselves, who had to find their feet in a climate marked in part by hostile resentment and in part by an embarrassed-communicative hushing up of the mass murder that had been committed just a few years earlier.

However, Jews exhibited such an incomparable creativity in German philosophy since the days of Moses Mendelssohn that the proportional contributions of both sides to the shared objective mind are inseparably fused. Ernst Cassirer drew upon German sources of the European Enlightenment when defending the rational legal foundations of Weimar democracy against its detractors on Aug. 11, 1928, on the occasion of the constitutional celebration just as when, a short time later, he engaged in his major controversy with the then already anti-humanist Heidegger in Davos in March 1929. Thus, the Jewish background of authors such as Husserl, Simmel, Scheler, or Cassirer did not necessarily represent a philosophically relevant difference for a student who had come to the university in 1949 with a reasonably clear sense of the historical significance of Auschwitz.

What made a difference for us at the time was the divisiveness of the political fates of those banished philosophers who returned. The perception of the emigrant fates of Karl Löwith or Helmuth Plessner, whose books we read in the philosophy department in Bonn alongside those of Hans Freyer and Arnold Gehlen, is the key to understanding the outstanding importance that Jewish philosophers acquired in the old Federal Republic for the education of some members of my generation and many members of the subsequent generation. The breakdown in civilization had made us suspicious of what was specifically German in the depths—or better the shallows—of German traditions. One thing at least was intuitively clear to us: Who if not those who had been “racially discarded” while their colleagues blithely continued as before, who else could have developed a sharper sensibility for the dark elements in the best of our morally corrupt traditions?

The rest is here (via David Estlund).

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