Destruction of Reason

by Jurgen Habermas

[[Note by Brad Cox: I copied this translation from somewhere on the web and didn't record where. Those looking for the other half of the translation should use search tools to locate the original translator.]]

[Note by original provider: This is half of a rather sketchy translation of one of Habermas' more recent polemics on re-unification and 'discourse ethics.' The German text appeared originally in Die Zeit of May 17, 1991--I have a copy of this if anyone's curious. The editor of this is, I think, Michael Haller.]

"Die andere Zerstörung der Vernunft" = "The second destruction of reason" Jürgen Habermas. Die Zeit Nr. 20-17.Mai 1991

On the deficit of German unification and the role of intellectual critique. From the transcription of an interview.


The GDR, "workers' and farmers' State" by the grace of its own presumption, has politically and rhetorically misused progressive ideas for its own legitimation; it has mockingly denied these ideas through its inhuman practice and thereby brought them to miscredit. I fear that this dialectic of de-valuation will be more ruinous for the intellectual [geistige] hygiene in Germany than the concentrated ressentiment of five or six generations of counter-Enlightenment, anti-semitic, false romantic, teutonophile obscurantists. The de-valuation of our best and weakest intellectual traditions is for me one of the most baleful aspects of the heritage which the GDR is bringing into the expanded FRG. That is a destruction of reason which Lukàcs hadn't thought of. Certainly doctrinal diamat was from the beginning a legitimation ideology tailored to Stalin's soviet imperialism; but, until 1953, emigrants returning out of the West--such as Brecht, Bloch, Hans Mayer, Stefan Heym or others like Anna Seghers--were but witnesses the GDR proferred for its representation of that tradition which had always had it especially difficult on German soil. The pretention to represent the better cultural Germany had empty places: no Freud, no Kafka, no Wittgenstein, no Nietzsche. But the GDR press could all the more claim for itself the Heine-lineage of the pronounced enlightenment, while in the West the anti-fascism of the first years--I recall Kogon's "SS State," Langhoff's "Moorish soldiers," or Weisenborn's "Memorial," which had even appeared in Frankfurt, Munich, or Hamburg--had to yield to the customary anti-communism. And so in fact ran Adenauer's election posters.

The values worth retaining from the old GDR do not lie at the institutional level. The economy was unproductive, the administration an apparatus for oppression, de-legitimation far progressed, at least among the younger generation. What is more, the nucleus of legitimation of the political system, the social stability and security obtained through veiled unemployment and held at a base level, was corrupt, spoiled. It was lodged in a husk which--as Marx would have said--chained all productive capacities. Others--like Konrad Weiss, Friedrich Schorlemmer, Bishop Forck, Bärbel Bohley--must know what experiences, mentalities, forms of life are worth keeping at the institutional level after forty years of GDR history.

When I was a student, in the early '50s, I went a few times to the Schiffbauer-Damm theater, when Brecht still couldn't be performed here. Sometime later, it must have been 1954/55, we also once contacted an FDJ place in East Berlin in order to get Defa films for our student film club in Bonn. On the same visit I also went to Humboldt University, to attend the Philosophical Seminar there--the old seminar of my teacher Nicolai Hartmann. These were the few contacts I had with the 'official' world over there--which seemed to me as authoritarian and frightening as the controls at the Friedrichstraße train station. Three and a half decades passed until I again came into contact with this world. I obtained the first invitation in 1988 from some colleagues in Halle. There, in the summer of '88, I held a lecture under the eyes of the chief philosophers who had travelled from Berlin--a rightly absurd 'observation' when one thinks of the point in time. I had just as little contact with oppositional groups. I mention this history of a lack of relationship in order to recall the fact that our history has more in common with the post-war history of Italy or France or the USA. Their history was not our history. That is, for the first time, true for my children and my children's generation. One must be able to conceive of this without sentimentality. I. Political culture: crippled.

Naturally Jena has the sort of aura for philosophers formed in the German tradition that Oxford and Cambridge have for my English colleagues, and Harvard for my American colleagues. But intellectual traditions free themselves from their geographic sources; Kant holds for us no altered significance through the circumstance that today Königsberg is called Kaliningrad. When today one flips through a Merian volume on Saxony, it is all the cityscapes, the castles, the ruined landscapes, the markets and the decaying Baroque houses about which one is curious. That we also see Leibniz, Lessing, Wagner presented as 'great Saxons'--like in an advertising pamphlet--only adds a little shock or mild surprise to what we already have of the Europeans Leibniz and Lessing or--God forbid--of Bayreuth. Spiritual traditions are maintained as property differently than the political occupation of a territory. One would have liked to have visited the 150 square meters of eternal German Geistesgeschichte in the old graves of Jena; but for that it would have been simply a matter of normal tourism between normal neighbors. In the past year one met with a possessive fetishism of territoriality, as if we could appropriate some kind of tradition or heritage through the annexation of the GDR. This triumphal tone over a putative spiritual grand expansion has always previously made me nervous.

More important is the mode of the unification process itself; historical events are interpreted retroactively. The manner and tempo of re-unification were determined by the Federal administration. The most pronounced physiognomic feature is the instrumental character of an administrative procedure tailored to economic imperatives and armed by a shrewd foreign policy, a procedure which has won no democratic dynamic. The editorials have extolled the administration for its use of the 'hour of the executive.' In truth Kohl and his 'kitchen cabinet' have prevailed through the sorts of tricks and talents one otherwise knows only from petty careerist domestic political disputes. They have outmaneuvered the public sphere and the deeply split parliamentary opposition with a politics of self-proclaimed deadlines, with the brisk engaging of the block parties' organizational networks, and with the instrument of international treaty. They have installed the guides for a process which has run primarily in categories of economic organisation--without having made political alternatives also into themes.

Naturally a naive economic liberalism stands behind the grotesquely false appraisal that the liberated play of market forces will bring about what only a political overhaul could have accomplished. But one should not underestimate as equally naive the, let us say, Dreggerish consciousness of being capable to engage in 'grand' politics in the fatal hour of national history. A good bit of the 19th century stirs about in the heads of the actors, who obtrude all the sooner in spite of their unobtrusiveness.

The intellectuals have bemoaned the normative deficit of the unification process. That seems to me important because it concerns the irresponsible handling of our political culture and hence long-term damages, damages which the political parties and the civil service have dangerously neglected through, respectively, their electoral tactics and the administrative installation of an economic system. The Basic Law can function no better than it is allowed to by the consciousness of State citizenship on the part of a population accustomed to institutions of freedom.

Political culture arises out of delicate networks of mentalities and convictions which cannot generated by or simply steered through administrative measures. What we lament is the handling without hindsight of imponderable and rest-worthy moral and spiritual [geistigen] resources which can only regenerate spontaneously, and not by decree. The self-understanding, the poltical self-consciousness of a nation of citizens of the State forms itself through the medium of public communication. And this communication is founded on a cultural infrastructure which today is being allowed to decay in the new Federal states.

The administrative "liquidation" of academies, colleges, museums, the re-orientation of theater, film and literature on the Western model of markets and subventions are worse in effect than the destruction of productive capacities in other sectors because the intellectual capacities no longer regenerate themselves when production is interrupted for two, three or five years. Ruptured biographies are in every case a catastrophe. Industrial capacities are, however, repaired through other means. Broken cultural milieus cannot be reconstructed in a similar fashion. When they are ruined, they are ruined forever.

In retrospect I recognize that I had not, as a student, appraised Adenauer's great accomplishment--his energetic binding of the Federal Republic in the Western alliance and the Western social system--in its proper historical consequence and reach. All of my being reacted back then against Adenauer, against the politics of normalization conducted by an old man with a narrow vocabulary. He was not only completely out of touch with the experiences and expectations of the younger generation, but he was also entirely unsympathetic concerning the mental damages of a restoration of sentiments--and not only of sentiments--thriving under his wing.

Our radical opposition to that spirit of the Adenauer time seems to me also justifiable today. Without the opposition of the left-liberal and many times even left intelligence which formed itself at that time and which first since the beginning of the '60s, in the incubation period of the student movement, gained any sticking power--without this division of labor between the administration and their 'pinschers,' a civilized sense of citizenship, in fact any civil mentality, scarcely would have emerged in the Federal Republic. A deep-rooted identification with an order in whose universalistic basic laws a potential for self-critique and self-transformation were also anchored would never have emerged from the neoconservative stink and the Gelsenkircher baroque.

Let us suppose that today once again I am mistaken about the historical significance of what appears to me as Kohl's politics of annexation. Let us suppose further that there was not a single alternative to this politics. Let us suppose, for the sake of argument [in English in the original], that Kohl were even aware of the political-cultural imponderabilities and the moral costs which he would accept as inevitable--even then it would be an omission or neglect on the part of the intellectuals not to point out these imponderable damages. Critique does not in fact direct itself to the State unification itself, but rather against the mode through which this goal is reached.

Naturally the State unificiation was legitimated through democratic choice. But the mode of decision took the chance to freely decide away from four-fifths of the electoral population. They were simply not asked; they could only confirm the completed annexation--in a listless Bundestag election with a relatively low level of voter participation. The normative deficit is contained in the lack of care on the part of the 'political class' to win over the majority of the West German electorate--who are much too young to be able able to develop much with or bind much to a rather alien GDR--to the careful project of a common nation of State citizens. And on the other side a related deficit has arisen because no one concerned themselves--outside of brisk Persilscheinen for an "Alliance for Germany"--with familiarizing the mass of the GDR population--who can no longer have any personal memories of the time before 1933--with the normative content of the democratic and constitutional principles embodied in the Basic Law. That was in any case the critical meaning of Schily's banana. 2. The logic of electoral struggles.



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