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The Frankfurt School: A Timeline

Stuart Jeffries presents a timeline from 18812004, threading the lives of leading Frankfurt School thinkers through the major events of the times in which they lived.

Stuart Jeffries29 September 2017

The Frankfurt School: A Timeline

To mark the publication of Stuart Jeffries' Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School in paperback we're republishing excerpts and pieces related to Frankfurt School thinkers. Here Stuart Jeffries presents a timeline from 1881–2004, threading the lives of leading Frankfurt School thinkers through the major events of the times in which they lived.

One reason I thought it would be worthwhile to write  a group biography of the Frankfurt School – that group of (mostly) dead Jewish German Marxist philosophers – is that they were witnesses to and critics of some of the most important events of the 20th and early 21st centuries. Even though some terrific histories of the Institute for Social Research that we know as the Frankfurt School have been published – Martin Jay’s The Dialectical Imagination, Rolf Wiggerhaus’s The Frankfurt School, Susan Buck-Morss’s The Origin of Negative Dialectics among them – I thought there was space for something different: a book that traced the lives of Walter Benjamin, Henryk Grossman, Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Erich Fromm, Jürgen Habermas and others, as they were shaped by and reacted to the times in which they lived.  

These men (the Frankfurt School, to its eternal discredit, has had no leading women thinkers) bore witness to everything from the rise of capitalism’s mass production techniques, the birth of Hollywood, World War I, the failed German revolution, the Soviet experiment, the Weimar Republic and the rise of Hitler, the Holocaust, the era of mass European exile, sexual liberation, the swinging 60s and student radicalism, Germany’s post-war travails, the rise and fall of the Berlin Wall, 9/11, and the development of multicultural multi-religious western societies.

The resulting story (I hope) has a narrative energy and a level of intriguing personal detail so that, when read alongside my interpretations of the Frankfurt School’s critiques of capitalism, it might serve as an introduction to those who have found these thinkers too intimidating to bother with in the past. 

Just possibly, then, Grand Hotel Abyss is like Wittgenstein’s ladder. Wittgenstein imagined his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus might serve as a ladder that, once climbed, enabled the reader to “see the world rightly” and so, its function spent, could be kicked away. I’m not Wittgenstein and Grand Hotel Abyss is no philosophical masterwork, but my hope is that my book will help readers to get an overview of the Frankfurt School’s concerns. I don’t think Wittgenstein said which way you should climb his ladder, but you’d think up.  There is no direction on Jeffries’s ladder. You could climb it down into the abyss, to study the barbarism that Walter Benjamin maintained underlay the thin crust of civilisation. Or you could use it to ascend to the  the terrace of the Grand Hotel where, György Lukács imagined, the Frankfurt School’s pampered philosophers reclined on the terrace, surveying the world’s horrors beneath while the waiters brought them trays of nice things. Then you could kick Jeffries’s ladder away (why so hostile? Maybe just leave it on a bus) and go deeper, or depends on your tastes, higher, into critical theory. There is — spoiler alert! – a guide to further reading at the end of the book.  

In any event, here’s a timeline to give you a sense of what I’m trying to do in the book — to thread the lives of the leading Frankfurt School thinkers through the major events of the times in which they lived.

1881: Henryk Grossman, street-fighting revolutionary, secular Jew and the Frankfurt School’s leading economist, is born in Kraków (in present-day Poland).

1892: Walter Benjamin, the critic and philosopher who will be the most profound intellectual influence on the development of the Frankfurt School, is born in Berlin, the capital of a united, fast growing, industrialising and newly self-confident Germany. Throughout his early years, little Walter sees Berlin change from Prussian provincial backwater to a city rivalling Paris as mainland Europe’s most modern capital. The Reichstag building opens in 1894, its first department store in 1896. By  the turn of the century its population had risen to two million – from 800,000 after German unification in 1871.

1894: Friedrich Pollock, social scientist and one of the Frankfurt School’s founders, born in Freiburg im Breisgau. The following year, his lifelong friend  the philosopher Max Horkheimer, director of the Frankfurt School from 1930 onwards, born in Stuttgart.

1898: Herbert Marcuse, Frankfurt School political philosopher, author of 1960s counter-cultural bible One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society and in the 1960s intellectual hero of  student radicals, is born in Berlin.

In the same year, Felix Weil, the son of German grain merchant Hermann Weil and a scholar of Marxism, is born in  Buenos Aires. Felix will convince his father to  provide  an initial endowment to the Institute of Social Research in the 1920s that will help it survive during the Weimar Republic’s hyperinflation, the Wall Street Crash and the Third Reich.

1900: Erich Fromm, the Frankfurt School’s leading psychoanalytical thinker who will write such bestsellers as The Art of Loving, Escape from Freedom and The Sane Society, is born in Frankfurt. In the same year and same city, Leo Löwenthal, Frankfurt School literary theorist and sociologist, born. Franz Neumann, labour lawyer and sociologist, who will write the classic analysis of the Third Reich, Behemoth: the Structure and Practice of National Socialism, 1933- 1944, born in Katowice (in present-day Poland).

1903: Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno, the philosopher, composer,  sociologist and music theorist, and author (with Horkheimer) of Dialectic of Enlightenment, as well as such classics of pessimism and gloom, Minima Moralia and Negative Dialectics, is born in Frankfurt.

1908: Henry Ford introduces the Model T car, priced at $850, and built on an assembly line. The rise of such Fordist production principles will be key to the way in which the Frankfurt School, much influenced by György Lukács’ 1922 book History and Class Consciousness, will reconfigure Marxism for a new age.

1910: The Nestor Company opens the first film studio in the Hollywood area of Los Angeles. Within the decade, "Hollywood" will become the nickname for an entertainment industry. In the 1940s, leading members of the Frankfurt School will live in exile nearby and excoriate such American popular culture as a capitalist tool to keep the masses  from rising up against their oppressors.

1914: World War One begins. Many of the thinkers who will become associated with the Frankfurt School are too young too fight – or too cunning (Benjamin dodges the draft by simulating a heart condition). Henryk Grossman sees bitter fighting against the Russians for the Austrian Army’s 5th Field Artillery’s regiment in February 1915. Later, ironically,  the Marxist economist will help prepare briefs for Count Czernin, the Habsburg imperial foreign secretary, during peace negotiations at Brest Litovsk in 1918 with the Bolshevik delegation led by Leon Trotsky.

1917: Bolshevik revolution in Moscow. Its success and the failure, two years later of the German revolution, will preoccupy the thoughts of many of left-wing German thinkers about the future of Marxism, and lead to the establishment of the Institute for Social Research, which became known as the Frankfurt School.

1918: WW1 ends. The Habsburg Empire collapses, and defeated Germany seems on the brink of revolution. Soviet-style republics briefly established in Bavaria, and in Berlin. In Berlin’s Alexanderplatz, a young Herbert Marcuse sees revolutionary action when he is charged with shooting rightwing snipers who themselves were targeting left-wing demonstrators and revolutionary agitators

1919: German revolution collapses. Its leaders, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebkneckt are murdered by right-wing Freikorps, with possible connivance of the Social Democratic party. Luxmburg’s body thrown in Berlin’s Landwehr Canal. The Weimar Republic is thus born from the blood of socialist martyrs. Or so it is claimed.

1922: György Lukács’ History and Class Consciousness is published, arguing for a distinction between the ascribed and actual consciousness of the proletariat - the higher ascribed consciousness was embodied in the revolutionary party, while actual consciousness of the proletariat may not be able to grasp its historic role. Inspirational text for the Frankfurt School.

1923: Felix Weil sets up and finances the Erste Marxistische Arbeitswoche ("First Marxist Work Week"), a conference in the German town of Ilmenau, attended by eminent left-wing thinkers including various leftist figures such as, György Lukács, Karl Korsch, Richard Sorge, Friedrich Pollock and Karl August Wittfogel. Weil’s hope for the Ilmenau symposium was that “if afforded an opportunity of talking it out together” that the intellectuals present could arrive at a true or pure Marxism.

1924: Lenin, the leader of the Russian Revolution and, subsequently, of the Soviet Union, dies in January. On June 22, the Institute for Social Research opens at Victoria Allée 17 in Frankfurt am Main, bankrolled by Hermann Weil following the apparent success of the Erste Marxistische Arbeitswoche under the directorship of Marxist philosopher Carl Grünberg. In the same year, Frankfurt elects its first Jewish mayor. At the time, the city  was more renowned as the headquarters of  the world’s largest chemicals conglomerate IG Farben, which would later develop Zyklon B, the cyanide-based killing agent used in Nazi concentration camp gas chambers to murder Jews.

1927: Max Horkheimer publishes The Impotence of the German Working Class, dismally arguing for the lack of likelihood of his country’s proletariat to deliver socialist revolution.

1929: Henryk Grossman publishes The Law of Accumulation and Collapse of the Capitalist System, arguing  that because capitalism increases the productivity of human labour and accelerates the production of use values, there is a tendency for the rate of profit to fall and, ultimately, for capitalism to create the conditions of its own demise. In spring, the American-led Young Plan to allow Germany to pay its debt of 112 billion gold marks over 59 years seems to offer a lifeline to the Weimar Republic struggling under punitive world war one reparations and hyperinflation. But the plan is scrapped following the the Wall Street Crash the following autumn. Only the Nazi party seems capable of capitalising on the capitalist crisis.

1930: The premiere in Leipzig of Brecht and Weil’s opera The City of Mahoganny, branded by Nazis the embodiment of the “Jewish-Bolshevik threat”, but hailed in a review by Adorno: “The present system, with its mores, rights and order, is exposed as anarchy; we ourselves live in Mahoganny, where everything is permitted save one thing: having no money.”  Following Grünberg’s retirement in the previous year, Horkheimer becomes director of the Frankfurt School, radically changing its intellectual trajectory - encouraging its thinkers to reflect on issues it would not have done under Grünberg. Under Horkheimer, the Frankfurt School will study horoscopes, movies, jazz, sexual repression, the sado-masochistic impulses at the heart of fascism, and reconfigure Marxist theory in the light of the publication in the early 1930s of Marx’s early Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts.

1933: Hitler becomes chancellor of Germany. On March 13 1933, the swastika flag is raised over Frankfurt town hall. Benjamin flees Berlin into exile, never to return to his homeland. Horkheimer closes the Institute and moves first to Geneva and then to New York. Erich Fromm, during a  trip to the United States,  persuades Columbia University to give the Institute refuge, and a large contingent of its membership—including Horkheimer, Adorno, and Marcuse— will move to Morningside Heights in New York, where they will establish the Frankfurt School in exile.

1935: Nuremberg Laws strip German Jews of citizenship.

1936: Benjamin writes The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, typifying the interest of Frankfurt School-associated thinkers with the revolutionary potential - and counter-revolutionary possibilities – of new mass forms of culture.

1938: Kristallnacht in German cities on November 9 and 10, in which Jewish homes, hospitals, synagogues and schools were destroyed, hundreds of Jews killed and tens of thousands arrested to be imprisoned in concentration camps. In the same year, Adorno leaves Oxford, where he has been studying, for 11 years of exile in the United States. His first job is as researcher on the Princeton Radio Research Project led by Viennese sociologist Paul Lazarsfeld to study the effects new forms of mass media on American society.

1939: Germany invades Poland. Britain declares war on Germany. World War Two begins.

1940: Benjamin dies on the run from the Nazis in the Catalan seaside town of Port Bou, most likely by committing suicide with a massive overdose of morphine. He was attempting to leave Europe for New York, where exiled members of the Frankfurt School had prepared an apartment for him.

1941-45: The Holocaust: Six million Jews are murdered by the Nazis. Among them is Walter Benjamin’s brother Georg, killed at the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp in 1942. During this time, exiled Frankfurt School thinkers Marcuse, Neumann and Otto Kirchheimer work as intelligence analysts for the OSS, the forerunner of the CIA, while Pollock and Löwenthal also support the war against Nazism by working in other US government departments.

1941: The US enters World War Two after Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbour.

1943: Adorno, now living in Los Angeles along with Horkheimer, is invited to collaborate with Nobel Laureate Thomas Mann, also in Californian exile, on the latter’s Doctor Faustus, a novel ambitiously aiming to intertwine the current tragedy of Germany with the the history of the tragic life a modern composer.

1944: Allied forces invade Normandy in largest amphibious assault in history in what is known as D-Day. Adorno and Horkheimer publish Dialectic of Enlightenment, seminal text of the Frankfurt School’s critical theory in which they pessimistically consider the possibility of human emancipation and freedom.

1945: (May 8) Nazi Germany unconditionally surrenders to the Allies on May 8.  The US drops atomic bombs on Hiroshima (August 6) and Nagasaki (August 8), resulting in Japanese surrender and the end of World War Two, the Nuremberg Trials of Nazi leaders and those responsible for the Holocaust and other war crimes. For the schoolboy Jurgen Habermas, who will become a leading figure in the Frankfurt School after the war, witnessing these trials and documentaries about Nazi concentration camps, makes him appreciate his fellow Germans' "collectively realised inhumanity”. His horrified reaction to them, he writes later, constitutes "that first rupture, which still gapes".

1949: Adorno returns to Frankfurt where, with Horkheimer, he re-establishes the Institute of Social Research. The previous year Henryk Grossman, becomes professor of economics at the University of Leipzig in Germany’s Soviet-occupied zone which. In October 1949, that zone becomes a separate state called East Germany, and Berlin, too, is divided between communist east and capitalist west: Germany is, as a result, divided for the first time since 1861.

1950: Grossman dies in Leipzig. Adorno co-authors The Authoritarian Personality, the results of  a sociological study at the University of California, Berkeley, that sets out to define personality traits according to an F-scale (where F stands for fascist),

1951: Adorno publishes Minima Moralia: Notes from Damaged Life. “There is no true life,” he writes, “within a false life.”

1953: A young Jürgen Habermas writes asking formerly Nazi-supporting philosopher Martin Heidegger what he means in his newly republished 1935 book Introduction to Metaphysics by the "inner truth and greatness" of National Socialism. Heidegger doesn’t reply.

1954: Neumann dies in car crash in Switzerland.

1955: The Vietnam War begins, with North Vietnam supported by the Soviet Union and China, and South Vietnam by the USA and the Philippines. Adorno publishes a book of essays called Prisms in one of which he writes: “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Marcuse publishes Eros and Civilisation: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud, imaging a society no longer in thrall to work thanks to the subversive potential of sexual desire. In that book, Marcuse attacks Fromm for his Freudian revisionism, prompting a public spat in the pages of Dissent magazine from which their relationship never recovers.

1958: Fromm publishes his bestseller The Art of Loving, arguing that love is a skill that can be taught and developed. In Frankfurt, Habermas addresses a rally opposing the Bundestag vote that West German armed forces be equipped with NATO’s atomic weapons. His activism and politicised writings irritate Horkheimer, who opposes political commitment among his staff. What had been known in the late 1920s as Cafe Marx, after its political philosophy, is now known as Cafe Max, after its director. Marcuse publishes a critique of the Soviet Union in his book Soviet Marxism.

1961: Building of the Berlin Wall by East Germany ringing West Berlin and making it all but impossible for East Germans to flee to the west.

1963: US president John F. Kennedy assassinated in Dallas. His successor Lyndon B. Johnson escalates US military action in Vietnam. In November, he says: “The battle against communism [...] must be joined [...] with strength and determination.” While most of American troops were volunteers (and from poor and/or working class backgrounds), a third were selected through drafts - prompting so-called draft dodgers to flee to neutral countries as the US’s military campaign in Vietnam escalates.

1964: Marcuse publishes One-Dimensional Man and becomes a voguish thinker, known as the father of the New Left, despite his misgivings about that honorific.  In it, he argues the “totally administered” nature of advanced industrial society, with its consumerism, militarism and sexual repression masquerading as erotic free-for-all was  parallel, to the proverbial grimness of life under Stalin and his henchmen.  

1965: Adorno publishes Negative Dialectics, a philosophical treatise that is an anti-systemic, anti-utopian and devoid of hope. “There can be few works of philosophy that give such an overpowering sense of sterility,” argues Leszek Kołakowski in his Main Currents of Marxism.

1967: Amid increasing student protests in Germany, that combine opposition for American war in Vietnam and calls for democratising auniversity reforms, Jürgen Habermas shares a platform with student leader Rudi Dutschke in which he notoriously calls their tactics “left fascism”. Adorno, while initially sympathetic to the students (arguing in one sociology seminar of this year that the “students have taken on something of the role of the Jews”), becomes a leading target of the Sozialistische Deutscher Studentbund.

1968: Student revolt escalates with May evénements in Paris and protests in Berkeley. At that year’s Frankfurt book fair, Adorno is condemned during a speech by his former student for refusing to join a sit-in. “I do  not know,” Adorno retorts, “if an elderly gentlemen with a paunch are the right people to take part in a demonstration.”

1969: A group of SDS students occupies a seminar room at the Institute for Social Research. Adorno calls the police who arrest all those who refuse to leave. A later lecture by Adorno is interrupted when a student writes on the blackboard “If Adorno is left in peace, capitalism will never cease.”  After two women protestors bare their breasts and try to present him with a teddy bear, he flees the lecture theatre. Months later, on holiday in the Alps, Adorno suffers a heart attack and later dies in hospital.

1971: Habermas leaves Frankfurt to become director of the Max Planck Institute for Research into the Conditions of Living in a Scientific and Technological World.

1973: Horkheimer dies in Nuremberg, West Germany.

1978: Marcuse dies in Starmberg, West Germany

1980: Fromm dies in Muralto, Switzerland.

1981: Habermas publishes his magnum opus, the two-volume Theory of Communicative Action. It is in part  retort to his dead teachers Adorno and Horkheimer, in which he argued the emancipatory power of communicative reason against instrumental reason. Against their gloomy diagnosis, he pitted a hopeful "ideal speech situation" in which citizens are able to raise moral and political concerns and defend them by rationality alone.

1983: Habermas returns to Frankfurt.

1986: Start of the so-called Historikerstreit (historians' quarrel) a four-year dispute in which Habermas is drawn into public conflict with right-wing historians over the meaning of the Holocaust. German historian Ernst Nolte had recently argued that the Gulag Archipelago was prior to Auschwitz and inferred from this that Germany "reasonably" turned to Nazism in the face of Bolshevik threat. Habermas furiously demurs.

1989: Fall of the Berlin wall. Habermas fears German reunification was happening so quickly that East Germans citizens were to be quickly incorporated into the Federal Republic by West German bureaucrats without having any say in the kind of society they might want to live in.

1992: American political scientist Francis Fukuyama publishes The End of History and the Last Man, arguing that the great ideological battles between east and west are over, and that western liberal democracy has triumphed. In the same year, Frankfurt School thinker Axel Honneth publishes The Struggle for Recognition: The Moral Grammar of Social Conflicts sounds a less complacent note. Honneth worries in this book and others (notably his 2007 Reification: A New Look at An Old Idea) that under liberal democracy there can be a “forgetfulness of recognition”, caused caused either by reifying social practices which prompt individuals to perceive subjects merely as objects or by ideological belief systems that depict some human beings as non- or sub-human.

2001: A series of four coordinated terrorist attacks by the Islamic terrorist group al-Qaeda on the United States kills 2,296 people and injures more than 6,000 others.

2004: Habermas takes part in a debate at the Catholic Academy of Bavaria on “Pre-political moral foundations of the liberal state” with Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI. Both men had been members of the Hitler Youth. Habermas is increasingly interested, after 9/11, in religion as a means of holding secular society tougher. In 2007, he explores these thoughts in a short book called An Awareness of What is Missing. Secular reason, he there argues, suffers from a “motivational weakness” in that it could not inspire its citizens to virtuous acts.

Stuart Jeffries' Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School is out now and 40% off (along with lots of other books on our Frankfurt School Bookshelf) until Friday September 23rd. 

- Read all our Frankfurt School excerpts here.

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