Speaking the Unspeakable in Postwar Germany: Toward a Public Discourse on the Holocaust

Book Details

Was bedeutet: Aufarbeitung der Vergangenheit (The Meaning of Working through the Past)

Theodor W. Adorno

Born in 1903 in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, Theodor W. Adorno studied philosophy under Hans Cornelius in Frankfurt and music composition under Alban Berg in Vienna. He completed his Habilitationsschrift on Kierkegaard’s aesthetics in 1931 under the direction of Paul Tillich. An assimilated Jew, Adorno was expelled from his position as a Privatdozent (university instructor) at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt by the Nazis in 1933. He emigrated to Oxford in 1934, and to New York City in 1938, where he was invited to join the newly relocated Frankfurt Institute for Social Research. In 1941, Adorno followed Max Horkheimer to Southern California where they collaborated on their Dialektik der Aufklärung (1947), an influential study of authoritarianism, subjectivity, mass culture, instrumental reason, and myth. In California, Adorno also wrote his Philosophie der neuen Musik (1949), Minima Moralia (1951), and, together with other researchers working at the University of California Berkeley, The Authoritarian Personality (1950).

Adorno returned from exile in 1949 to take up a professorial chair in philosophy and sociology at the University of Frankfurt. Through works such as Versuch über Wagner (1952), Prismen: Kulturkritik und Gesellschaft (1955), and the first volume of Notes to Literature, Adorno quickly established himself as a leading German intellectual and a central figure of what became known as the Frankfurt School. Adorno was also heavily involved in debates about restructuring German universities and he was an influential figure for left-wing student activists protesting the Vietnam war and the emergency laws. As he continued to teach critical theory, Adorno published two more volumes of Notes to Literature, as well as his Drei Studien zu Hegel (1963), and Eingriffe: Neun kritische Modelle (1964), Zur Metakritik der Erkenntnistheorie (1970). Adorno’s magnum opus, Negative Dialektik (1966), appeared in 1966. Ästhetische Theorie, the other magnum opus on which he had worked throughout the 1960s, appeared posthumously in 1970. Adorno died of a heart attack on August 6, 1969, in Visp, Switzerland.


Theodor W. Adorno delivered the address “Was bedeutet: Aufarbeitung der Vergangenheit” (“The Meaning of Working through the Past”) in 1959 during a conference on education hosted by the Deutsche Koordinierungsrat der Gesellschaften für Christlich-Jüdische Zusammenarbeit (German Coordinating Council of Organizations for Christian-Jewish Cooperation) in Wiesbaden. The Frankfurt School thinker conceived the speech in response to a new wave of anti-Semitic attacks against synagogues and Jewish community institutions in West Germany. Based on group experiments conducted by the Institute for Social Research, which had shown that Germans frequently used rhetorical strategies that would allow them to shield themselves from the reality and soften the truth of their involvement in German crimes against the Jews, Adorno rejects the tendentious and dangerously misleading notion of “working through the past.” Marked by denial and omissions, “working through the past” was diametrically opposed to what Freud defined as “working upon” and coming to terms with the past through guided analysis and critical reflection.

Date: 9 Nov 1959
Duration: 59:57
Context: Tagung des Deutschen Koordinierungsrates der Gesellschaften für Christlich-Jüdische Zusammenarbeit (Conference of the German Coordinating Council of Organizations for Christian-Jewish Cooperation)
Language: German



Used by permission of Suhrkamp Verlag and Hessischer Rundfunk. Expires: 1 Jan 2018

Text (English): Used by permission of Columbia University Press and Suhrkamp Verlag, with thanks to JSTOR. Expires: 30 Nov 2019
Text (German): Used by permission of Suhrkamp Verlag, with thanks to Alexander Street Press. Expires: 8 Jan 2023
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