Eine Mutter über dem Kinderwagen ihrer Zwillinge im Todeerstarrt, Dresden (photo by Richard Peter)
Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer wrote their seminal Dialectic of Enlightenment as the world around them was ravaged by World War II. Even before the war, Horkeimer and Adorno – both of Jewish descent – had already watched their own country of Germany destroyed from the inside by the vicious and insanely idealistic Nazi regime, and had left for the States in the 1930s. Their book, then, was written out of a deep sense of despair. It begins with the haunting words:
In the most general sense of progressive thought, the Enlightenment has always aimed at liberating men from fear and establishing their sovereignty. Yet the fully enlightened earth radiates disaster triumphant.
Here they were voicing what many others also could not help but see: the Enlightenment, which had been meant to lead us out of the darkness of the Middle Ages into an ever-brightening light of reason, intellect and freedom, had been too much for our still essentially primitive minds, and we had twisted its noble aims.The Enlightenment’s bi-products of technological inventiveness, scientific advances, fearsome organisational skills, and a blind determination to impose one’s own ‘rational’ will on others and achieve material wealth at whatever human or animal cost had created a toxic combination that led to brutal colonialism and imperialism and reached its climax with the horrors of the Holocaust.
The now-widespread use of film and photography meant the world was confronted by and could not escape the harrowing images of its own cruelty: the Nazi death camps, the blackened city of Dresden burnt skeletal by the allied bombing, and the terrifying literal erasure of humans in the allied nuclear attack on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which in the epicentre left only their shadows. The phoenix that rose out of the ashes of this devastating war was a battered and bewildered creature.Those aligned to the centre of power had to review their unswerving beliefs in their own grand narratives. And in their weakness they were able to offer less resistance to those other, previously excluded voices, now demanding to be heard in both the realms of politics and art.
In 1940, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, in his rallying speech to the nation, spoke of how Britain must defeat Adolf Hitler, or the world will ‘sink into the abyss of a new dark age, made more sinister and perhaps more protracted by the lights of a perverted science’. This is a striking foreshadowing of the theories of Adorno and Horkheimer.However, less foresight is shown by Churchill when it comes to looking at the state of his own nation and its colonies, rather than at Germany, as he goes on to say that, ‘If the British Empire and its Commonwealth lasts for a thousand years, men will still say, “This was their finest hour”', echoing the Nazis’ belief that their Third Reich would last a miillennium. It is now hard for us to re-enter this mindset of the 1940s, when it was still possible to believe that the Third Reich or even the British Empire could endure for another ten centuries.Hitler's Reich would last just five more years, and within a generation the British Empire would be dismantled and begin to be viewed in many quarters as a dark age itself, made more sinister and perhaps more protracted by the lights of a perverted science. A new era in the West had began.
Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. By John Cumming (London: Verso, 1997). This was first published in 1947.