World War I photograph of American infantrymen on a trench raid carrying sacks of grenades.

MINIMA MORALIA: Reflections from the damaged life. By THEODOR ADORNO

PART ONE: 1944. Aphorism #33:

Far from the firing-line.

Translated by Dennis Redmond


Far from the firing-line. – Reports of air raids seldom fail to mention the names of the firms which manufactured the aircraft: Fokker-Wolf, Heinkel, and Lancaster appear where one once talked about cuirassiers, lancers and hussars. The mechanism of the reproduction of life, its exploitation and annihilation, is immediately the same, and industry, the state and advertising are fused accordingly. The old exaggeration of skeptical liberals, that war is merely a business, has come true: the power of the state has given up even the appearance [Schein] of independence from particular profit interests and puts itself into the latter’s service, which it always did in reality, now ideologically as well. Every glowing mention of the chief firm involved in the razing of cities enhances its good calling, for whose sake the best contracts for the reconstruction are doled out.

Like the Thirty Years’ War, so too does this war – whose beginning no one will be able to remember anymore, once it comes to an end – disintegrates into discontinuous field campaigns, separated by blank pauses; the Polish campaign, the Norwegian, the French, the Russian, the Tunisian, the Normandy Invasion. Its rhythm, the alternation of spasmodic action and complete standstill, due to a lack of geographically accessible enemies, has itself something mechanical about it, which characterized the means of war in the particular and which has very likely evoked once more the preliberal form of the campaign. This mechanical rhythm however completely determines human conduct towards the war, not only in the disproportion between individual bodily strength and the energy of motors, but deep into the most secret cells of the modes of subjective experience. The sheer incommensurability of the body to the war of attrition the previous time around [i.e. WW I] already made authentic experience impossible. No one could have talked about it the way the battles of the artillery-general Napoleon Bonaparte were recounted. The long interval between war memoirs and the armistice is not an accident: it testifies to the laborious reconstruction of memory, which remains conjoined to something powerless and even inauthentic in all those books, regardless of whatever horrors the writer witnessed. WW II however is as completely devoid of experience as a machine is to the movements of a body, which it resembles only in periods of illness. The less the war retains any sense of continuity, history, the “epic” element, but to a certain extent starts all over again at each phase, the less can it leave behind a continuous and unconsciously preserved picture of memory. Everywhere, with each explosion, it has broken through the protective shield in which personal experience formed, the duration between the healing forgetting and the healing memory. Life has transformed itself into a timeless succession of shocks, between which gape holes, paralyzed intermediary spaces. Nothing however is perhaps more catastrophic for the future than the fact that soon literally no one will be able to think of this, that every trauma, every unprocessed shock of that which recurs, is a ferment of coming destruction. – Karl Kraus was right to call his play The Last Days of Humanity. What is happening today should be called After Doomsday.

The total concealment of the war through information, propaganda, commentary, the film crews in the leading tanks and the heroic death of war reporters, the mishmash of manipulated-enlightened public opinion and unconscious action, all this is another expression for desiccated experience, the vacuum between human beings and their doom, in which their doom actually consists. The reified, frozen mold of events, as it were, substitutes for this itself. Human beings are turned into the actors of a monster documentary film, which no longer knows any viewers, because even the very last one has to participate on the silver screen. The genesis of the belabored talk of the “phony war” lay in precisely this moment. It originated to be sure from the Fascist technique of dismissing the real horrors of the war as “mere propaganda”, precisely in order to facilitate those horrors. Yet like all tendencies of Fascism, this too has its origin in elements of reality, which ends up prevailing only by virtue of that Fascist attitude, which sneeringly hinted at such. The war really is “phony” [in English], but its “phonyness” [in English] is more terrifying than any terror, and those who make light of this only contribute that much more to the calamity.

Had Hegel’s philosophy of history encompassed this epoch, then Hitler’s robot-bombs would have taken their place, next to the death-scene of Alexander and similar images, among the empirically selected facts in which the symbolic state of the world-spirit is immediately expressed. Like Fascism itself, the robots are self-steering and yet utterly subjectless. Just like the former, they combine the utmost technical perfection with complete blindness. Just like the former, they sow the deadliest panic and are completely futile. – “I have seen the world-spirit”, not on horseback but on wings and headless, and this at once refutes Hegel’s philosophy of history.

The thought that after this war life could continue on “normally”, or indeed that culture could be “reconstructed” – as if the reconstruction of culture alone were not already the negation of such – is idiotic. Millions of Jews have been murdered, and this is supposed to be only the intermission and not the catastrophe itself. What exactly is this culture waiting for anyway? And even if there was time left for countless people, is it conceivable that what happened in Europe would have no consequences, that the sheer quantity of victims would not recoil into a new quality of the entire society, into barbarism? As long as like follows like, the catastrophe perpetuates itself. One need only consider retribution for the murdered. If just as many of the others were to be killed, then the horror would turn into an institution and the precapitalist schemata of blood for blood, which from its inception in prehistoric times still reigns only in the most distant mountain provinces, be reintroduced and expanded, only with entire nations as subjectless subjects. If however the dead are not avenged and mercy is shown, then an unpunished Fascism has despite everything stolen its victory, and after it has once been shown how easily it is done, it will be perpetrated in other places. The logic of history is as destructive as the human beings which it begets: wherever their inertia tends to go, it reproduces the equivalent of past calamities. Normality is death.

As to the question as to what should be done with a defeated Germany, I would know only two ways to answer. First: I would at no price and under no circumstances be an executioner or deliver legal pretexts for executioners. Second: I would not wish to hold back, least of all with the apparatus of the law, anyone who wished to avenge past atrocities. That is a through and through unsatisfying, contradictory answer, as ill-fitting to the generalization as to the praxis. But perhaps the fault already lies with the question and not primarily with me.

Weekly show at the movies: the invasion of the Marianas, among them Guam. The impression is not one of battles, but of mechanical highway and demolition work undertaken with an immeasurably increased vehemence, even of “fumigation”, pest control on a telluric scale. Operations are carried out until grass no longer grows. The enemy functions as patient and corpse. Like the Jews under Fascism, he appears only as the object of technical-administrative measures, and when he defends himself, his counter-actions have the same character. Therein is the Satanic element, that to a certain extent this war requires more initiative than war in the old style, that it costs the subject all its energy, as it were, to achieve subjectlessness. The realization of Edward Grey’s humane dream, of a war without hate, is complete inhumanity. – Autumn 1944.

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