Theodor W. Adorno / Photo: Jeremy Shapiro

Thoughts on the fragility of peace

Philosopher Theodor W. Adorno set a demand for all education: “that Auschwitz not happen again”. Deborah Britzman discusses why his demand can be a model for thinking with pedagogy and teacher education today.


Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno (1903-1969) wrote a series of papers on reconceptualizing education from the devastation of Post War Germany. His culminating statement, “Education after Auschwitz,” issued a passionate appeal and an unprecedented categorical imperative:  “that Auschwitz not happen again.” This essay provides a brief history of Adorno’s life and discusses why his demand for all education to address the currency of the past can be a model for thinking with pedagogy and teacher education today.

Reflections on a damaged education

Theodor W. Adorno’s postwar demand for education “After Auschwitz” may be understood as articulating a triple challenge to educators: pedagogical relations must affect knowledge, cultural mentality, and the depth psychology of individual subjectivity. The interminable task for both students and teachers is to develop from their studies and self/other interactions moral character capable of historical memory, ethical choice, warmth, a defense of those who are vulnerable, self reflection, and the courage to question given realities and imagine a changing possible future. Never again must education fall sway to the seductions of propaganda and murderous hatred. Nor can its subject matter ever deny or exclude the study of human frailty and aggression.

The questions Adorno posed for education concern the unconscious depths of its affective influence on character formation. He asked what educators understand about identifications, or the imaginary ways people attach to others. How can we grasp the fact that horrors of Auschwitz has something to do with the ways psychical reality turns against its own capacity to know right from wrong? What do we really know about the human condition? His answer remains disconcerting for those interested in developing the urge for reparation:  education as a dimension of the human condition must disillusion its own attraction to mechanisms of social alienation that shut out the stranger, and sustain ideality, indifference, and the narcissism of national mythologies.  Adorno proposed that its institutions, from early childhood through to the University, find the moral courage to invent, from the ruins of war, a new kind of human through pedagogy that acknowledges the fragility of peace, but by way of the study of social violence and ego mechanisms of defense against becoming affected.

Why did Adorno think of education through its failure to educate and why did he argue for education to become the moral foundation for self-reflection on emotional life? Both Adorno’s life and his writing cannot be understood without taking into account the history of the Twentieth Century (Claussen, 2008).  The same can be said of our current narratives of education where 21st Century global migrations, the history of decolonization, and digital technology of communication bring to education people never anticipated such as political exiles, displaced people, survivors of national atrocities and failed States, Roma people, orphans, those fleeing from civil war, and those without documentation, who also are subject to a history of hatred. How are we to conceive of the times in which we live?

Adorno’s writing on education proposed that individuals should self-reflect on the most difficult, painful, and devastating events wrought by human actions. Yet the demands for education to be in the service of humane public life and contribute to its ethical repair are paradoxical. Humans have never lived in a world without violence and dwelling in the failure of peace and in a history of war may invoke cynicism and hopelessness, forms of forgetting the past that unconsciously repeat what has happened. Since education also reflects the people it seeks to affect—teachers were once children needing education and generations would be unconsciously affected by massive deception and social repression—Adorno drew attention to those who teach as also subject to regression, thoughtlessness, hostility, loss of self, and compliance to authority.  The most difficult work concerns creating a public that desires more education and comes to terms with the unprecedented categorical imperative “that Auschwitz not happen again.”

The depth of education

Between 1959-1967 Adorno wrote four significant papers addressing the depth of education: “The Meaning of Working Through the Past (1959),” “Philosophy and Teachers (1962),” “Taboos on the Teaching Vocation (1965),” and, “Education After Auschwitz (1967).”  These papers charged pedagogy with the problem of building democracy from the ruins of its failure. Prior to their publication, they were given as radio lectures and one can surmise that Adorno wanted to open a broad public debate that already affected his listeners.

Adorno’s discussions on education followed from his empirical studies on the authoritarian personality while in exile in the United States, and then, upon return to Germany, from “Experiments with Groups,” his interviews with German people, young and old. That research thesis stated unequivocally the problem of education:

“The indoctrination during the twelve years of totalitarian information, propaganda, and education went too deep for it to be wiped away through a defeat that not only caused disillusionment deriving from the fall of the Reich from its dominant position in Europe but conversely also produced legends of past glory…. In all of this, one has to consider not only that fascism was forced on people from the outside by a propaganda machine, but that the receptiveness to totalitarian systems was built into the psychology of the individual through sociological, technological, and economic developmental tendencies and continues to exist to today.” (Adorno 1955, 138-139)

His large study on group experience documented the currency of psychical consequences wrought by the Third Reich’s perversions of law, civility, medicine, culture, history, and education. The professions were servants and planners of an administrated society of pervasive anti-Semitism, hatred of foreigners, genocide, and the reduction of people to functions. His work was not well received. In retrospect, he must have expected a poor reception given that he was writing on psychical problems of denial, projection, collective delusions, forgetting, and defenses against responsibility for mass murder.

The other aspect of resistance to Adorno’s studies concerns a refusal to think from a psychoanalytic notion of the human as subject to aggressive drives, projection of pain into the other, and the ego defenses of repression, regression, identification with the aggressor, and denial, all unconscious mechanisms to ward off guilt and being affected. Adorno’s (1967) analysis of post war German education pointed to one problem: cultural glorification of hardness led to the incapacity to feel and coldness of emotional life.

So it is an emotional constellation that suffers from cognitive indifference and Adorno found its traces in the conduct of and social attitudes toward education. It is here that his work leaves us with a question: how are we to identify with humanly induced catastrophe, acknowledge woeful disregard of its consequences, and work through what could be thought of as psychical allergy to truth, tolerance, and civility? Yet in turning to the German institutions of pedagogy we find it still affected by its deeply entrenched history that expelled its Jewish students, taught the propaganda of the National Socialists, encouraged the joining of Hitler’s Youth, censored books, deemed music and art degenerate, and sent very young boys off to fight a losing war. What could transform education?


Adorno, along with Max Horkheimer, Erich Fromm, Herbert Marcuse and many others, was a key member of the so-called Frankfurt School. One of the central claims of the critical theory of the Frankfurt School is that the Kantian project of European Enlightenment, where Reason was the sine qua non of civility and the capacity to speak one’s mind, has failed and has reverted into unreason or irrationality. Education was thought of as also failed and left unrecognized  “the frailty of truth” (Adorno 2000, 33) and the human tendency toward deception, lies, and genocide in the name of Reason. Essentially, Reason could not account for its fall into perverse violence and the rendering of ethics as meaningless (Bernstein, 2001).

Adorno experienced such failure first hand. His father was Jewish and his mother was Roman Catholic; his middle class secular childhood, he would later say, was happy.  He held a “supernumerary” professorship in Frankfurt; by 1933 Adorno was expelled from his teaching position, as were countless others due to National Socialism’s racial laws that prohibited Jews from working in the professions of medicine, teaching, and government. (Müller-Doohm, 2005). In 1934 he left for the UK to take a second doctorate at Oxford. By 1938, with his wife Gretel, he fled into exile to live in the United States, first in New York City, and then, to California. Those first chaotic years were dedicated to helping his family and colleagues leave Germany. He could not save his life long friend, Walter Benjamin. In retrospect, Adorno admitted he could not recognize the horrendous consequences of National Socialism (Müller-Doohm, 2005).

By 1940, living in the United States, Adorno’s work was dedicated to understanding anti-Semitism, the make up of an authoritarian personality and analysis of individual susceptibility to Fascist mentality, and what he saw as a culture industry of mass deception that contributed to loss of autonomy and thought. It was during his exile that he composed perhaps his most enigmatic text, Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life, spanning the years 1944-1947. The text runs 157 paragraphs, each ordered by a key word or phrase that leads to an ethical choice for private existence. Adorno (2005) called this work his “melancholic science”:  it was his personal testimony to loss, grief, and contemplation. In his dedication he wrote:

“The violence that expelled me thereby denied me full knowledge of it. I did not yet admit to myself the complicity that enfolds all those, who, in face of unspeakable collective events, speak of individual matters at all” (Adorno 2005, 18).

And yet, only by speaking from individual matters can we understand suffering along with a tendency to disengage from the lives of others. If there can never be “full knowledge” of any historical catastrophe, part of the incompleteness emerges from the tendency to turn away, as if identification with loss can only mean being subject to unbearable guilt. How are we to be affected by survivor testimony and remember terrible loss? For meaningful cognition to occur, the unresolved past must be brought into confrontation with our present limits of understanding, empathy, and historical memory. And part of what is unresolved concerns the aftermath of trauma as disavowal. That refusal would bring Adorno to the difficult question of what happened to any knowledge at all.  Adorno then placed into the education of teachers, professors, and students, the problem of not being able to experience the past and the question of why this psychical forgetting may be our paradoxical inheritance. He would begin by describing character as subject to defense mechanisms of projection, splitting, and denial:

“thinking oriented along the dimensions of power and powerlessness, a rigidity and an inability to react, conventionality, the lack of self-reflection, and ultimately an overall inability to experience.” (Adorno 1959, 94).

In summary then, due to the manic defenses, whereby frustration and aggression are projected into others who are then deemed as inhuman, Adorno saw in these psychological processes a social hatred toward ethical thought and action. And he attributed this to a dissociated education. The large problem for education is how can the world matter without it becoming meaningful?

The problem of re-education

Adorno returned to a devastated Frankfurt after the War in 1949. He was witness then to the disastrous consequences of murderous National Socialism and, for the everyday citizen, the massive denial and disbelief over any responsibility or guilt for what had taken place under their name. Adorno’s research turned to how individuals old and young, understood what had happened.

The empirical study, conducted between 1950-51, analyzed the subjective legacy of National Socialism for postwar Germans and concluded with a long essay “Guilt and Defense” (Adorno, 1955). Reading today, one can see the roots of Adorno’s paper, “The Meaning of Working Through the Past.” He juxtaposed a cognitive difference between a mastery of the past that involved the defenses of forgetting, undoing, and disavowal with the Freudian model of “working through,” or construction of the self capable of narrating one’s history, finding significance, and realizing loss. Mastery of the past would be devoid of feeling and a refusal to take account of the burden of memory. Working through the past would be an ongoing project for education and needed to address the mechanisms of personality structure subject to the pathology of compliance, denial, and the hatred of the human condition expressed in public opinion and the collective insistence that no one knew anything that happened.

Adorno (1955) analyzed the problem with mastering or forgetting the past found in such utterances as “Concentration camps are not all that bad” (133) and common statements such as “The Jews themselves are to blame for everything” (152).  He considered these diminishments through the defense of  “projections” and “archaic themes of hatred against the foreigner” (130).

Adorno’s writing on education was influenced by his empirical work and his life. They come about a decade after the allied forces carried out a drastic “re-education” and “denazification” program, largely a failure in the postwar years and most of which involved forcing German citizens to see their Concentration Camps and gas chambers. Adorno’s participation in re-education, however, through radio address and essays, reached deeper into the lives of people and attempted to uncouple the unconscious equation of learning from punishment by authorities. He proffered “practical advice” on pedagogy, “a turn to the subject” (Adorno 1967, 193).

On the one side, curriculum should create conditions for dis-identification through focusing on the perpetrators. On the other side, discussions should encourage identification with the fragility of freedom, autonomy, and self reflection, by which he meant the capacity to imagine that one’s perceptions of the world, however immediate they may feel, carry unconscious attitudes and beliefs.

The education of teachers

After returning to Germany from his exile in the United States, and due to the fact that his 1933 expulsion from teaching in the university disqualified him from being reinstated as a professor, Adorno’s chief means of employment was at a teacher’s college. He was assigned the charge of examining secondary teachers on the topic of philosophy (Hohendahl, 1995). In “Philosophy and Teachers,” Adorno analyzed the new teachers’ malaise: whereas most candidates could give the facts and adequate answers, they also admitted that philosophy meant nothing to them. They passed the exam by offering clichéd accounts and platitudes:

“The test should. . .permit us to see whether those candidates, who as teachers in secondary schools are burdened with a heavy responsibility for the spiritual and material development of Germany, are intellectuals, or as Ibsen said more than eighty years ago, merely specialized technicians.” (Adorno, 1962, 21)

Adorno’s preoccupation then was whether it is possible for education to work against fascistic mentality, an unconscious hostility that far too easily takes as its form a hatred of education. His essay, “Taboos on the Teaching Vocation,” saw teachers as a socially disparaged profession and he linked public disaffection toward teachers to why teachers choose cruelty over thoughtfulness, meaninglessness over meaning, and violence that consents to  “barbarism…delusional prejudice, oppression, genocide, and torture” (Adorno, 1965, 190).

Hatred of education is met by an aversion to teaching, not only because of the regimentation of institutional life at school and the teacher’s disciplinary function, something we know from our childhood. The problem is closer to the affecting imaginary of the figure of teacher in the minds of the general public that contributes to an unconscious attitude of suspicion toward the worth of teachers, the ideas of knowledgeable people, and the value of education as such. Adorno (1965) saw these unconscious attitudes within the “latent hierarchy” (186) of the school and university, where some are rewarded while others are punished. He named this as a part of the unconscious problem of education and asked how may teachers understand the antimonies of their profession? “The pathos of the school today,” Adorno wrote, “ its moral import, is that in the midst of the status quo it alone has the ability, if it is conscious of it, to work directly toward the debarbarization of humanity” (1965, 190).

Education after Auschwitz

A close reading of Theodor Adorno’s essay, “Education After Auschwitz” reveals his deep ambivalence over whether teachers can meet a new categorical imperative:  “The premier demand upon all education is that Auschwitz not happen again” (Adorno, 1967, 191).  The complications of what comes before the demand render any simple response inadequate. The large question is how are we to think with and act from an ethic of care, specifically because the terrible truth is that as an authoritarian structure and as indoctrination of the belief in compliance to authority, education also has the regressive tendency to prepare social mentality to accept destruction of life as natural and thus life as meaningless.

This education was cold and Adorno (1967) calls it by its other name, “the insane dimension” (194).  So it is the capacity for knowledge to touch and transform character that matters if education is to create a reparative function in opposition to authoritarianism and its other side, ideality, or what Julia Kristeva (2009) called the adolescent syndrome made from “the incredible need to believe.” The working through of education will have to disillusion the phantasy that a paradise awaits those who split the world into the absolute of good and bad.

Difficult knowledge

Robert Hullot-Kentor’s (2006) comment on Adorno’s notion of regression gives us a way into the problem of education: “Regression . . .could be described as the enduring situation of the reproduction of an incapacitating conflict” (9). In other words, education must not leave people with the anxiety that nothing can change. But education too must change and if it is not to be caught in the vicious circle of regression, then two opposing forms of understanding knowledge are at stake: the intellectual working through of the facts of historical events and at the same time attending to the subjective experience of creating new emotional ties to difficult knowledge of victimhood and perpetration that does create guilt, responsibility, and the pain of thinking. But how does one acknowledge emotional avoidance and the denial of psychical reality?  How can education break through what Adorno (1967) named as emotional coldness?

We cannot say today that information is lacking although we can begin with the psychological difficulty of being affected at the level of our psychological proclivities, preferences, drives, and idioms that orient cognition. Indeed, documentation of the holocaust, Shoah, is massive and has gone through a number of transpositions that have influenced worldwide truth commissions, demands for human rights, modes of commemoration, and the public pedagogy of museums.

First, there is the gathering of the facts of what happened made real through the testimony of those that survived. Then come fights with those who deny either the meaning of the event or its actuality.

What breaks through the claustrum is the problem of symbolizing an unspeakable history. Literature, art, and music are the methods for the creation of an affecting curriculum that allows for the relations among self-reflection, education, morality, and thoughts of social justice. Such cultural expressions of working through the past directly address the imagination needed to think otherwise.

Some of these transformations began in the court trials of Nazi administrators. By 1947, there were the Frankfurt trials on Nazi medical crimes (Mitscherlich and Mielke, 1949). Perhaps the most publically discussed concerned the Eichmann Trial in Jerusalem in 1957 along with Hannah Arendt’s (1979) famous judgment on Eichmann’s insistence that he was only a bureaucrat following Nazi orders. His incapacity to think for himself, surely one element of the failure of European Enlightenment, lead to what Arendt saw as “the banality of evil” or a spectacular thoughtlessness where policy and actions were simply reduced to a carrying out of a job. One of Arendt’s arguments was that National Socialism destroyed any language that could distinguish between right and wrong. People became thought of as material for waste and this, Arendt argued, obliterated the self’s capacity to imagine the other as human.

It was with the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem that survivors began to testify to the genocide. In our own time, there are now numerous electronic archives documenting the horrors.  Before the trial, by 1953, the Israeli Government established legislation to create a memorial—Yad Vashem—that had as its purpose, remembrance of the martyrs, documentation of the events, and education for the future. If any one idea guides the commemorations, it would have to be identification with education as the capacity to witness and learn from history.

Yet the obligation to remember “never again” involves the paradox for the self that Freud (1915) first pointed out in his essay on World War I, “Thoughts on War and Death:” “In reality there is no such thing as ‘eradicating’ evil” (281) and “In reality our fellow-citizens have not sunk so low as we feared, because they have never risen so high as we believed” (285). And acknowledging this capacity for regression and its disillusionment only gives education a foothold into its conflicts between egoistic and social forces and working through the past.

What Now?

It is still our case that fear of working through the consequences of genocide translates into incapacity to become affected by suffering. Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich (1975) made such a point by their stress on the inability to mourn which they identified as the loss of social empathy. Anxiety substitutes for an awareness of the depressive position that thinking also invokes and must contain. So Adorno turned to the vocabulary of psychoanalysis, arguing that the working through of knowledge of human life involves more than an accumulation of information. Efforts in teaching and learning must affect subjective life and touch and transform unconscious attitudes:

“In the attempt to prevent the repetition of Auschwitz it seems essential to me first of all to gain some clarity about the conditions under which manipulative character arises, and then, by altering those conditions to prevent as far as possible its emergence . . . This could be done only if they would want to collaborate in the investigation of their own genesis.” (Adorno, 1967, 199)

In our time the relation between self-reflection and moral action is not immediate in the sense that we require a great deal of knowledge and time to work through self understanding and in the sense there is a gap between simple knowing and emotional realization of the consequence and responsibility knowledge brings. For this reason we can ask what would provide the conditions for imagining the linkage of self-reflection and moral action?

We can begin from the subjective fact that education is a place where strangers meet and where individuals can experience not only the nature of knowledge but also a transformation of human nature through a capacity for feeling and being affected. Probably for this reason the majority of Adorno’s writing was deeply invested in the study of aesthetics—literature, music, and poetry—as expressing life’s affective struggles and the suffering of becoming a thinking subject. Notably, the arts open the question of meaning. It is through the desire for imagination, and only if one wants it, that gives capacity for memory to bear the psychical weighing of mental pain with the need to revive the search for truth, justice, and beauty (Britzman, in press). In this sense, educators must work within the emotional procedures for apprehending knowledge. Our challenge is to auscultate freedom to feel, imagine, and learn from the significance, vulnerability, and fragility of human life by asking the question, what now?


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