Adenauer's Individuals

Konrad H. Jarausch’s study After Hitler: Recivilizing Germans, 1945-1995 (2006) examines ‘the civilizing advances of the postwar period’ – or what Jarausch alternatively calls the process of ‘Western development’ – in both nations of the divided Germany and the nascent Berlin Republic. He finds ‘three distinctive phases’ in postwar German recivilization: ‘the years around 1945, around 1968, and during 1989-1990’: here I will be focussing on the initial phase as it developed into the CDU-led governments under Konrad Adenauer in West Germany.[i] Jarausch suggests that we read ‘German political culture after 1945’ through a philological optic, remembering ‘the popularity of the various terms springing from the Latin word civis’ in dictionaries, encyclopaedias and the broader culture of the Federal Republic (FRG). For example, and with obvious relevance to the climb from the pit of Nazi barbarism, Jarausch notes how ‘Norbert Elias’s anthropological interpretation of civilizing as “an advancing process of controlling instincts and emotions, decreasing the inclination to violence, and refining customs and forms of behaviour” grew in importance’. Another example provided by Jarausch is how ‘the Anglo-American notion of “civil society” became popular among intellectuals as a “counterconcept to the state” and as an intermediary sphere of societal self-organization’. Interestingly, however, these civis-derivatives did not emerge in the German Democratic Republic: ‘Only in corresponding GDR dictionaries are these concepts completely absent.’[ii]   

If in these senses, strictly speaking, Jarausch’s postwar ‘civilizing advances’ can only refer to the FRG, likewise his equivalent term, ‘Western development’, is most obviously relevant to the FRG. It is notable that ‘Western development’, capturing an idea which can refer to both economics (capitalism) and politics (democracy), is in effect equivalent to ‘the capitalist-democratic order’ – a phrase which has been used by historian of political thought Chris Thornhill with specific reference to the emerging FRG.[iii]

Jarausch summarizes the economic underpinnings of recivilization qua democratization: the West German ‘economic miracle’. ‘The stunning success of the economic revival, sparked by the Marshall Plan, facilitated the consolidation of the new democratic order and the stabilization of social peace through an expansion of the social safety net.’[iv] As Jarausch notes, economic revival in the FRG rested on the transformation of the cartelized German economic system into a market economy which was (more) liberated from political structures. ‘Since the “cooperative capitalism” of the Third Reich had enabled the Nazi dictatorship to enrich itself’, the economy needed to change so that it would ‘no longer pose an external threat or stand in the way of parliamentary democracy internally’. The economy was thus pushed more in the direction of competition and entrepreneurship. This grounding of West German democracy in the principle of individual initiative was commented on by Ludwig Erhard in 1948: ‘The demand for democratic freedom will [continue to] ring hollow as long as basic human rights to choose occupation and consumption freely are not recognized as inviolable and inalienable.’ Erhard also thought, however, that the market economy needed state regulation. ‘This freedom does not mean licence, and it does not mean irresponsibility, but rather it means steady, obligatory devotion to the common weal.’[v] Arguably, it was this sort of emphasis on social duty which supplied the social justice in West Germany’s ‘social market economy’, as defined for example in the ‘Düsseldorf Guiding Principles’ from the 1949 Congress of the Christian Democratic Union. ‘By this the CDU understands a socially committed constitution of the economy which organizes the performance of free and capable people and yields the maximum economic benefit and social justice.’[vi]

Jarausch complains that in subsequent decades ‘the market and competition, sponsored by Ludwig Erhard’s neo-liberalism, have not prevailed permanently, since during the recessions Rhenish capitalism developed neocorporative traits that have inhibited further growth’. He ascribes to the FRG a ‘”Gulliver syndrome” of being fettered by countless state regulations’, and argues that ‘the economic lessons of the Nazi experience have only been half learned’. For not only has government-driven union/employer cooperation ‘given rise to a kind of neocorporatism that thwarts painful reforms and, as a result, perpetuates the economy’s paralysis’, but in addition ‘the practices of the cartel office have been uneven at best’, restricting ‘internal competition’.[vii] Thornhill’s account of the immediate postwar period enables us to understand that here Jarausch is describing a determination of the limiting of West German economic growth by political processes which, in fact, had already become apparent by the mid-1950s. ‘Despite Erhard’s policies […], it is striking that by the mid-1950s many traditional traits of the German economic and political system had begun to re-emerge in the Federal Republic’, Thornhill wrote. Citing economic historian Werner Abelshauser, Thornhill claims that ‘Erhard’s plan for the renunciation of corporate politics lasted (arguably) only from 1948 until 1951’; A. J. Nichols is enlisted to back up the further statement that ‘indeed, it has been widely, but not unanimously, argued that the corporate structures of inter-war Germany were in fact reinforced in the West soon after the war’.[viii] Jarausch sees the normalization or fading of immediate postwar FRG ‘learning achievements’ – such as the very founding of democracy – as explaining a contemporary immobilization of economic development by political institutions and phenomena such as ‘excessive development of the welfare state’. He recommends a breaking of present-day political paralysis in order to reanimate entrepreneurialism, judging that ‘only when German party politics, which have become immobilized by clientelism regardless of ideology, once more find the courage to take risks, and make individual initiative worthwhile again’, will ‘a greater dynamism return’.[ix]      

Clearly Jarausch can flip his analytical framework so that whereas at times economics is seen to determine the political, at other times politics is seen to motivate economic life. Yet throughout this inversion of terms the axis of Jarausch’s analysis remains the same – the individual. Political promotion of an exercise of ‘individual initiative’ is argued to motivate capitalist ‘dynamism’; yet equally Jarausch’s perspective on what he calls ‘the economic foundations of freedom’ posits ‘self-realization’ as the bridge between the economy and recivilization qua democratic politics: ‘the reintroduction of the free market […] restored the basic conditions for a recivilization, as they unleashed a new economic dynamism and offered greater freedom for individual self-realization’. The idea of self-realization represents for Jarausch not just the private accumulation of capital or consumer goods, but also a civilizing form of social agency. Hence in his next sentence, which compares the case of the GDR, ‘self-realization’ becomes equivalent to ‘initiatives to a civil society’: ‘a more radical reconfiguration of the economy and society in the East tended to smother all initiatives for a civil society and thus led, instead, to a new minority dictatorship of the SED [Socialist Unity Party of Germany]’.[x] Elsewhere (as we have seen already), Jarausch associates the phenomenon of civil society with an ‘intermediary sphere of societal self-organization’ – or ‘a sphere of autonomous civic action in society’. Just like the self-realizing individuals who would make it up, Zivilgesellschaft is ‘located somewhere between politics and the economy’.[xi]   

In their useful student primer Germany Since 1945: Politics, Culture, and Society (2018), Peter C. Caldwell and Karrin Hanshew likewise hold individualism to be integral to German recivilization, for instance through the formation of a diverse civil society. Summarizing the historian Heinrich August Winkler’s thesis of the German ‘long road west’, Caldwell and Hanshew write of how ‘postwar political as well as cultural history involved the gradual acceptance of all that had previously been rejected, namely ideas of individualism and rights, of democracy and pluralism’. In a key passage that is worth quoting in full, Jarausch identified the German road west as involving a return to a Western revolutionary (Enlightenment?) intellectual tradition preoccupied with the reclamation of self-realization and rights within a climate of socio-political coercion:

‘The cumulative process of a “normative Westernization” could only succeed if its advocates oriented themselves on an ideal notion of the West that encompassed the central values of the American and French Revolutions. The philosophical point of departure of these liberating ideas was the postulate of releasing the individual from authoritarian tutelage and affording him greater opportunities for self-realization. Central to this ideal was therefore a guarantee of the human rights of “freedom, equality, and fraternity,” that was to prevent a relapse into right- or left-wing dictatorships. These lofty notions also contained the principle of a civil society based on civic responsibility that preceded the state and allowed bringing people together in groups to pursue collective goals. Finally, the public sphere that emerged from such initiatives offered the chance for self-criticism that was lacking in dictatorships […].’[xii]

But already in 1948 the conservative historian Gerhard Ritter, who had conspired to assassinate Adolf Hitler four years earlier, was questioning whether a renovation of the late-eighteenth century discourse of individualism and ‘human rights’ – such as ‘“freedom, equality, and fraternity”’ – would necessarily prevent the re-formation of political dictatorships. For in his Europa und die deutsche Frage, Ritter maintained that the French Revolution in fact ‘shaped the concepts and slogans with whose aid the modern national dictatorships were established’. This was because within ‘the collectivist, egalitarian nation-state, creature of the Revolution’, as Ritter argued, ‘the popular will is omnipotent – and therewith the state’. Hence ‘the democratic-collectivist state, deriving logically from Rousseau’s premises, turns out to be the most unlimited of despotisms’.[xiii] Ritter considered that the very principles of democracy or equality which would enable the individual’s self-realization as a political agent can become turned to submerge her within a collective, busy only reducing itself to an unreflective ‘popular will’ that is incapable of distinguishing itself from the state. (One could cite the contemporary university as one prominent example of such a disabling (micro-)collective).

Ritter’s postwar concerns with the coercive potential of mass democracy and the difficulties of fostering individualism are reflected in Jürgen Habermas’s first major work, Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit (1962). Thornhill presents Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere as ‘a damning critique of the specific conditions of the Federal Republic under Adenauer’s administration’, one which ‘includes a complex commentary on the failure of the opportunity for genuine political foundation in Germany, after 1945’. Thornhill suggests that Habermas’s reading of the particular economy of the Adenauer years motivated his general critique of German democracy. ‘In many respects, […] Habermas’s historical inquiries into the structural weaknesses of the German democratic tradition are a response to the conditions of the 1950s, which outlines a critique of ordo-liberalism and corporate capitalism’. Specifically, Thornhill notes, ‘the writing of Structural Transformation, in the late 1950s, coincided with the “deep caesura” in post-war economic growth, in which Adenauer’s policy of social investment was curbed owing to protests at the overburdening of the state’, and in which ‘the conditions for the rapid economic expansion of the immediate post-war period were no longer guaranteed’. This meant that the text represented ‘the first major theoretical reflection on the legitimacy of the Adenauer/Erhard-state, and on the limited possibility of consensual change which this state offered’.[xiv] 

But precisely how did the neocorporate capitalism of the 1950s limit democratic activity in the FRG? Thornhill addresses what he calls ‘the fear’ underlying Habermas’s thinking in Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, that ‘modern society (implicitly, the Federal Republic) is at once rendered both rigidly static and structurally fragile by the technical modes of governance which have emerged from corporate agreements’. Habermas, Thornhill explains, suggested that the reason for both ‘the fragility and the autocratic character of modern government’ is that modern society is ‘coloured by a plurality of non-general interests, which are represented by collective organizations, and for the balancing of which the state takes on technical responsibility’. Importantly, because the political order lacks ‘generalizable interests’, it also lacks civil society. In the FRG in the 1950s the governmental system had shifted back towards ‘a pluralist mode of balanced interests’, Thornhill repeats, ‘in which parliament’s power was structurally limited, in which political decisions accorded with macro-economic guidelines and were based upon technical or strategic consensus between organized bodies’. This mode of ‘reciprocal control of rival organizations’ entailed the removal from the public sphere of ‘rationalization in the medium of public reasoning of private persons’ (Habermas), or rational consensus between individual citizens. As Thornhill stresses, Habermas’s vision is that political technicality structurally eliminates individuals’ discursive presence, vaporizing Zivilgesellschaft before it can coalesce. ‘Through their technical administration by parties, unions and other organizations, Habermas implies, particular social interests remain merely private, annexed and unformed, and do not enter the stage of public mediation.’ There is a strange – if fantastical – sense in which for (Thornhill’s) Habermas, the modern German individual of the Adenauer period is comparable to dry ice. As the inhibited child of a coercive politics and neocorporate capitalism, he at once models an unformed civil society and freezes the economy-politics relation: in the FRG ‘the active components of human reason, volition or even conflict have been eliminated in order to stabilize the collective interests of social groups and organizations (labour and capital) against each other’.[xv]   


[i] After Hitler: Recivilizing Germans, 1945-1995, trans. by Brandon Hunziker (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), pp. 264, 271.

[ii] Jarausch, p. 269.

[iii] Chris Thornhill, Political Theory in Modern Germany: An Introduction (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2000), p. 139.

[iv] Jarausch, p. 273.

[v] Jarausch, pp. 93, 87 (quoting Erhard).

[vi] Jarausch, p. 87; compare Peter C. Caldwell and Karrin Hanshew, Germany Since 1945: Politics, Culture, and Society (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018), p. 40.

[vii] Jarausch, pp. 272, 94-95.

[viii] Thornhill, p. 138.

[ix] Jarausch, pp. 279, 95.

[x] Jarausch, p. 98.

[xi] Jarausch, pp. 269, 237.

[xii] Caldwell and Hanshew, p. 13; Jarausch, pp. 128-29.

[xiii] Caldwell and Hanshew, p. 8; Ritter quoted from p. 9, citing the 1965 English edition titled The German Problem.

[xiv] Thornhill, pp. 137, 140, 141.

[xv] Thornhill, pp. 140, 141, 140-41, 140 (quoting Habermas).


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