Jürgen Habermas is often thought of not only as Germany’s leading philosopher but as quintessentially German. In the sense that few figures in American public life refer as often to the philosophy of Immanuel Kant or the principles of the Enlightenment, that is no doubt true. In fact, the figure he most resembles, both in his conception of what philosophy can do for public life and in his ideas about the role of intellectuals in a democracy, is an American—John Dewey. In 1947, Henry Steele Commager observed, “Until Professor Dewey speaks, America does not know what she thinks.” He exaggerated, but it is easy to see what he meant. Dewey spent a long life thinking for his country, not so much trying to capture his countrymen’s first thoughts as the thoughts they would have once they had thought things through. For four decades Jürgen Habermas has played just that role in Germany.
Like Dewey, he has led a double life: a professor of philosophy and social theory on the one hand and a political controversialist on the other. The similarities go further. Some are superficial but amusing: like Dewey, Habermas addresses his academic peers and their graduate students in clotted, impenetrable prose while writing sharp, clear, and briskly argued polemical essays for a wider public. He is no more compelling a lecturer than was the notoriously low-key Dewey; and it is a small metaphysical joke that Dewey and Habermas insistently emphasize the importance of discussion and deliberation in intellectual and political life while being themselves rather easily inclined to irritation with their critics.
Habermas has always been closer to the center of events than Dewey. Today he is widely seen not quite as the philosopher-king of the government of Gerhard Schröder, but certainly as something like its philosophical conscience. Over the German foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, in particular, Habermas exercises all the influence that a much-admired mentor could. Indeed, in an argument with Fischer over the issue of European federalism a few years back, the French interior minister, Jean-Pierre Chevènement, affected to have confused Fischer with Habermas. Nobody could have mistaken Dean Acheson for John Dewey.
Such influence raises deep questions about the role of intellectuals in a democracy. Intellectuals in a democracy not only cannot be philosopher-kings, they must not want to be. All the same, they must lay claim to some authority, and it is not easy to say what it is—not political in the way the elected politician’s is, but not expert authority either, as it would be if the subject at hand were narrowly “academic.” There have been plenty of critics who have claimed that Habermas’s polemical style—his attacks on German historians who insisted Nazism must be seen in relation to Stalinism, for example—is at odds with his own philosophical doctrines. Philosophically, he is committed to open discussion on the basis that debaters must assume one another’s sincerity. Polemically, he treats his conservative opponents as creatures who have crawled out of the swamps of German irrationalism.
Indeed, Habermas detests and is detested by conservatives of all stripes: he is at odds with nationalists and social conservatives, but he is also hostile to the cultural impact of capitalism and therefore at odds with libertarian conservatives. He is at the same time suspect to many on the left both because of his past hostility to the insurrectionary fantasies of the 1968 student revolutionaries, but today also because of his support for the Gulf War and for NATO’s intervention in Kosovo. Martin Beck Matustík’s odd but engrossing (and mostly admiring) “philosophical-political profile” denounces the 1999 bombing of Serbia as NATO imperialism, and argues that Habermas’s attempts to justify it as the kind of peace-keeping that Immanuel Kant endorsed in Perpetual Peace is bad politics and bad philosophy.
The post-1945 German context in which Habermas has worked is vastly different from Dewey’s early-twentieth- century America. Habermas was born in 1929; he was just old enough to be conscripted at the end of the war as a Flakhelfer, a field nurse in an anti-aircraft unit, but he was too young to carry on his own shoulders any guilt for youthful Nazi indiscretions. He is thus a member of the so-called “skeptical generation,” the young people who were not implicated in Nazism, but who were old enough in the immediate postwar years to develop anxieties about the continuities between Nazi Germany and the Federal Republic.
Habermas has always been personally reticent. He once joked that he might begin to recall his past when he was seventy, but he is now seventy-three and still seems disinclined to autobiographical revelation. He distinguishes with perhaps implausible sharpness between our personal and private feelings that we have no obligation to explain to anyone else and what we are obliged to feel as citizens. His father, Habermas has said, took the Nazi regime for granted—he was head of the local chamber of commerce and a minor figure in the commercial administration in the Rhineland town of Gummersbach—but Habermas has not revealed his personal reactions to that fact. This has not stopped his critics from accusing him of wanting Germans to wallow in endless guilt about Auschwitz—“political masturbation” as the novelist Martin Walser calls it. But it is clear enough that they are just wrong.
He insists that confronting Germany’s Nazi past in the sense in which it concerns him is a civic obligation, not a matter of personal purification. In the same way, when he observed that the German reaction to the Nuremberg Trials was sullen resentment at “victor’s justice,” this was not to complain that individual Germans did not feel badly enough about their Nazi past, but that they did not meet the duty of citizens to work through their past political mistakes and eliminate the danger of repeating them. This concept of “working through” or “working out” the past has been central to many of his recent essays, but for all the psychoanalytic resonances of such ideas, he has yet again insisted that this is a matter not of purging individual guilt but of being a good citizen. It is not obvious that we can detach personal and civic motives in quite this way, however; there surely has to be some individual, personal reason to take the duties of citizenship seriously.
Habermas is mostly known in the United States as a philosopher and political theorist. The connections between his politics and his philosophical ideas are not particularly easy to describe. Martin Beck Matustík’s Jürgen Habermas is too partial in its treatment and too eccentrically organized to do the job satisfactorily. And Matustík’s concern to refight the battles of 1968 distracts him from the task of explaining what Habermas has been thinking since reunification. Jan-Werner Müller’s Another Country, on the other hand, provides a wonderfully lucid account, not only of Habermas’s reactions to the strains of German reunification but of the relation between Habermas’s views and those of his critics and allies. One can hardly complain that in the nature of the case, this leaves it to the reader to work out how the radical thirty-year-old turned into the sixty-year-old defender of constitutional, democratic government.
It is tempting to say that the history of Habermas’s ideas, both politically and philosophically, has amounted to a move away from Marxism and toward American constitutionalism; but it is a temptation to be kept under control. For one thing, Habermas’s first philosophical interests were existentialist rather than Marxist; for another the Marx in whom Habermas was interested was the radical philosopher of the early 1840s, and not the older Marx who thought he had found the “iron law” of capitalist development. And even Habermas’s American affinities are complicated; he has lately become interested in American constitutionalism and the work of John Rawls, but he has also discovered that as long ago as 1962, when he wrote The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, he was thinking along the same lines as Dewey when he wrote The Public and its Problems in 1927.
Nor is the lineage of Habermas’s politics simple. He was first noticed in 1953 when he published a ferocious attack on Heidegger in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. He became one of the intellectual leaders of the German student movement from the late 1950s, but decided in 1967 that the student enragés were in danger of advocating “left fascism.” Those two words caused a breach in relations with his natural followers that took ten years to heal. In 1987, Habermas took up his old role as a controversialist when he set off the so-called Historikerstreit, the battle over the vexed question whether Germany could treat Nazism as largely an exaggerated reaction to Bolshevism and therefore something to be “got over.”
It was the historian Ernst Nolte who had argued this, but the issue had surfaced in 1985 during President Reagan’s ill-judged visit to the SS cemetery at Bitburg, when he and Chancellor Kohl gave the impression that some sort of ceremony of forgiveness was intended. German reunification set off another controversy about the ways in which the “new” Germany should and should not relate to pre-1945 Germany, and Habermas has played a very public role in defending Verfassungspatriotismus, “constitutional patriotism,” as the only basis for a reunited Germany that will not fall back into old, bad habits.
To an American reader, much that Habermas says about constitutional patriotism is unsurprising. With two and a quarter centuries of continental-scale federalism, and 170 years of multi-ethnic immigration behind them, Americans find the idea of a post-ethnic state commonplace, and cannot understand why Europeans are so anxious about the prospect of a federal Europe. But, as Matustík reminds us, Prussia, the Wilhelmine Empire, and the Third Reich weigh heavily on the Berlin republic. Preaching constitutional patriotism in Germany is not preaching platitudes; it is a reminder of the disastrous German past. Habermas’s insistence on “anamnestic solidarity”—on refusing as a matter of political principle to forget the victims of ethnic nationalism and its Nazi excesses—has a particular urgency in Germany.
Habermas has never been wholly at ease in his own country. Almost sixty years after the end of World War II, it is hard to remember how great the contrast was in the 1950s between the wholesale physical destruction of Nazi Germany and the survival in their jobs of most of those who had taught and worked in the pre-war universities, and elsewhere. As a philosophy student in Bonn, Habermas took his first doctorate with two philosophers from the pre-war era—Ernst Rothacker and Oskar Becker; both had been active and enthusiastic Nazis. He disliked the way the Adenauer government and its American backers eroded the denazification program under the pressures of the cold war, but there was little to be done about the fact that almost the only philosophers around were those who had survived the Nazi purges.