writer’s block: “trapped within the rhymes of reason”

"Reading Gass is like reading Thomas Mann: The Tunnel‘s moral seriousness matches The Magic Mountain‘s and Doctor Faustus‘s, but I find Gass the better writer."


—James McCourt, The Yale Review



The narrator of the tunnel, William Frederick Kohler, is a professor at a midwestern American university. He has nearly completed his magnum opus, Guilt and Innocence in Hitler’s Germany, and sits in his cellar trying to finish thebook’s introduction. Instead, he writes produces an accounting of both his work and his life. Kohler considers possible reasons for his inability to finish his book:


Who thus constricts my chest? Confucius? that old chink? Livy then? Gibbon? O la! Tacitus? Gilgamesh. How many times have I fallen inside a sentence while running from a word? Winckelmann, Kafka, Kleist. You would not believe that long bodiless climb from Descartes to Leibniz. Lewis. Lemuel Gulliver. Catullus. Gogol. Constant. Sterne. I live on a ledge—a sill—of type—a brink. Here. Pascal. Alone. Among the silences inside my books… Frege, Wittgenstein…  within the rhymes of reason… the withheld breath, the algebra of alliteration, the freedom of design… Dryden, Zeno, Stevens, Keats… At the edge of space… I beg you, let me come out alive.

—William Gass, The Tunnel, p. 96



more from william gass’ the tunnel

"A bleak, black book, it engenders awe and despair. I have read it in its entirety 4½ times, each time finding its resonance and beauty so great as to demand another reading. As I read, I found myself devastated by the thoroughness of the book’s annihilating sensibility and revived by the beauty of its language, the complexity of its design, the melancholy, horror and stoic sympathy in its rendering of what we used to call the human condition."


—Michael Silverblatt, The Los Angeles Times

Bookseller Photo 

Life in a chair

Yes, I’ve sat too long, no wonder it’s painful, though this is the great Tabor’s own chair, which I had shipped from Germany.  It swivels smoothly, tips without a sound.  In the mornings he lectured at the university.  Scholars, statesmen, writers, filled his afternoons.  My day commences, he said to me once, his fingers grazing on a slope of papers, when I come to rest in here at the end of an evening and begin making Greek and Roman history up out of German words, French wit, and English observation.  He scrawled his famous smile across his face, hastily, like an autograph; but he was old, already ill, and his hand trembled.  German words, he said, not German feeling.  Tabor spoke ironically, of course, yet what he said was true: he woke because his neighbors slumbered; he spied upon their dreams; he even entered their dreams eventually, and brandished a knife in the nightmares of Europe, Magus Tabor.  Mad Meg, they called him.  One day they’d say he wore the decade like a diadem.  His baldness glistened like a forest pool.  There’ve been times when this chair’s been my only haven, he said, and his lids closed over his protruding eyes.  Night had fallen behind them-in Mad Meg
s head.  You see how obedient it is; how swiftly it turns, like fortune in history?  He spun the chair hard, his eyes still in lids.  So I find it easy to reverse my position.  He laughed with the stutter of an angry bird and I managed a low social chuckle.  It really was a dream for him, all this: our conversation, the lecture of the morning, the interrupting applause and tumult of shouts at the end, the famous I and powerful who waited for him while he spoke with an unimportant, young, and dazzled American.  Those deeply curtained eyes reminded me that we were drifting through the middle of his sleep, and that I was just a wraith who would evaporate the instant he sank into his circuiting chair-sank into the past-into death-into history.

The study of history, gentlemen

the study of history

The hall was full.  There were hundreds-crowds in the doorways, everyone still.  The heads of the great grew like blossoms from the pillars lining the walls: in a rise along one side-Lessing, Herder, Hegel, Fichte, Schelling; in a fall along the other-Möser, Dilthey, Ranke, Troeltsch, Treitschke.  My first time in that room I had sat by the bust of Treitschke and read the inscription plaqued beneath it on the column:






It was longer than I care to admit before I realized that for Mad Meg, too, truth was the historian’s gift to history.


That’s not nearly strong enough.  And my
my what?my naiveté? my admiration? my vanity?somethingprevented me from understanding what he wrotehe preachedso many times so plainly.

The window of the car would not roll up and Lou’s face looked warm from the cold wind as if freshly slapped or shamed or elsewhere loved.  My hand fell to hers, too, somewhat like a discarded glove, and she took it with a squeeze, so that the chilled soon lay within the chilled, I thought, like a bottle of champagne.  Cold hand, moist part, I said.  Hers slipped away.

Drafts lapped my neck.  I cobble history, Tabor shouted when he saw me again, placing his huge, rough-knuckled fists against my chest.  We met at a large impersonal affair, a reception held at a chancellery, and I had finally burrowed to the stair to scan the crowd, perhaps to find a friend or two, when I observed him in the middle of the room, over his head in hair and shoulders, burning quietly, the only thing alive among the potted ferns and suits of armor.  The icy marble floor was flopped with Oriental rugs and steadily enlarging spills of people.  He was alone, ill.  I was astonished to see him in such a place.  I cobble history the way a cobbler cobbles shoes, he said.  Wretched fellow, I thought: in the midst of this crush, you’re composing a lecture.  If it were not for me the Roman Empire
here he made a hard white ball of his handswould not, an instantI heard his harsh laugh bubble from the crowd-stay togetherand his hands flew apart with startling violence, fingers fanned.  There was a terrible energy in that gesture, although he was, by this time, a sick old man, so weak he tottered.  His ears seemed unnaturally fastened to his head, and his arms emerged from the holes of his sleeves as if the flesh had remained as a lining.  I swaddled my neck in my arms and would have turned my collar if I’d dared.  Light spewed from the chandeliers.  Countless pairs of glistening boots reechoed from the marble squares.  Then an angry woman in a powdered bosom passed between us, and I was glad to be carried away.  Poor Tabor.  His lips were still moving when he disappeared behind a heavily forested Prussian chest.  Wise eyes slid sneakily down the stairs.  Voices were impeccably coiffed.  A moist mouth relieved a sausage of its stick.  Long gowns whispered like breezes together, and I saw several backs begging to be amorously bitten.  Bellies were in belly bras.  Consequently postures were perfect.  Since coming to Germany and manhood at the commencement of the thirties, I had known few such opulent days.  There were so many bits of brilliant metal, so much jewelry, so many cummerbunds and ribbons, a gently undulating sea of silk-tossed light, that the gilded ceiling drew away like heat and seemed a sky.  Thus I beheld him for the first time (or anyway eyed him out); and I felt the smile I’d penciled in above my chin fade like the line beneath the last rub of an eraser.  Never mind.  There was no need then for fidelity, only for entertainment.  Elaborate and lie.  Describe the scene to your quam diu friends: Link, Hintze, and Krauske¾friends who faded, whom heat cannot bring back even in the palest outline like lemon juice on paper.  Describe¾and make it rich, make it fun, full of rhetoric and episode¾Mad Meg in the Maelstrom.

I faced the four corners, cupped the bowl of my glass like a breast, began the construction of my anecdote, and let the wine die.

gass’ the tunnel: “the world… the world, alas. it is alice committing her tampax to the trash”

The Tunnel is a stupendous achievement and obviously one of the greatest novels of the century, a novel to set beside the masterpieces of Proust, Joyce, and Musil as well as those of Gass’s illustrious contemporaries.”  


—Steven Moore, Review of Contemporary Fiction

book cover of </p> <p>The Tunnel </p> <p>by</p> <p>William H Gass

 Anaxagoras said to a man who was grieving because he lay dying

in a foreign land, “the descent to hell is the same from every place.”





What I have to tell you is as long as life,

but I shall run as swiftly, so before you know it,

 we shall both be over.






It was my intention, when I began, to write an introduction to my work on the Germans. Though its thick folders lie beside me now, I know I cannot. Endings, instead, possess me . . . all ways out.


Embarrassed, Im compelled to smile. I was going to extend my sympathy to my opponents. Here, in my introduction, raised above me like an arch of triumph, I meant to place a wreath upon myself. But each time I turned my pen to the task, it turned aside to strike me.


As I look at the pages of my manuscript, or stare at the books which wall my study, I realize I must again attempt to put this prison of my life in language.


It should have been a simple ceremony: a wreath to honor death and my success¾the defense of my hypothesis concerning Germany.


And when I wrote my book, to whom was I writing if not the world? … the world! … the world … the world is William welshing on a bet; it is Olive sewing up the gut of a goose; it is Reynolds raping Rosie on the frat-house stair; it is a low blow, a dreary afternoon, an exclamation of disgust.  And when I wrote was I writing to win renown, as it’s customarily claimed? or to gain revenge after a long bide of time and tight rein of temper? to earn promotion, to rise above the rest like a loosed balloon? or was it from weak self-esteem? From pure funk, out of a distant childhood fear or recent shame? … the world . . . the world, alas.  It is Alice committing her Tampax to the trash.


I began, I remember, because I felt I had to.  I’d reached that modest height in my career, that gentle rise, from which I could coast out of gear to a soft stop.


Now I wonder why not.  Why not?  But then duty drove me forward like a soldier.  I said it was time for “the Big Book,” the long monument to my mind I repeatedly dreamed I had to have: a pyramid, a column tall enough to satisfy the sky.  Duty drove me the way it drives men into marriage.  Begetting is expected of us, and in those days of heavy men in helmets the seed was certain, and wanted only the wind for a womb, or any slit; yet what sprang up out of those foxholes we fucked with our fists but our own frightened selves? with a shout of pure terror, too.  That too-that too was expected; it was expected even of flabby maleless men like me.  And now, here, where I am writing still, still in this chair, hammering type like tacks into the page, speaking without a listening ear, whose eye do I hope to catch and charm and fill with tears and understanding, if not my own, my own ordinary, unforgiving and unfeeling eye? … my eye.  So sentences circle me like a toy train.  What could I have said about the Boche, about bigotry, barbarism, butchery, Bach, that hasn’t been said as repeatedly as I dreamed my dream of glory, unless it was what I’ve said?  What could I have explained where no reason exists and no cause is adequate; what body burned to a crisp could I have rebelieved was bacon, if I had not taken the tack I took?


And last night, with my lids pulled over me, I went on seeing as if I were an open window.  Full of wind.  I wasn’t lying in peaceful darkness, that darkness I desired, that peace I needed.  My whole head was lit with noises, yet no Sunday park could have been more lonely: thoughts tossed away, left like litter to be blown about and lost.  There were long avenues of footfall, leaf flutter lacking leaf or tree, barks unreturned to their dogs.


My hypothesis … My word … My world … My Germany …


Of course there is nothing genuinely German about me, though my name suggests that some distant ancestor doubtless came from that direction, for I have at least three generations of Americans safety beneath me.  My wife, a richly scutcheoned Muhlenberg and far more devoted to armorial lines and ties of blood-all such blazonry-than I could ever bring myself to be, has already tunneledthrough five layers of her own to find, to her unrelenting triumph and delight, the deepest layer lying on American soil still, and under the line of the nineteenth century, if only by a spade’s length.  So my name, and the fact that I speak the German language fluently, having spent a good many years in that exemplary country (though there is nothing genuinely German about me), help make the German nation a natural inference.  I was there first as a student in the middle of the thirties, and I must confess I was caught up in the partisan frenzy of those stirred and stirring times; yet when I returned it was ironically as a soldier behind the guns of the First Army, and almost immiediately afterward I began my term as a consultant on “dirty Fascist things” at the Nuremberg Trials.  Finally, on the fore-edge of the fifties, with my fourteen hundred francs of fame, to alter the French reviewer’s expression in my favor, I purchased my release from the paws of the military and was permitted to become a tourist and teacher and scholar again.  Yes, by that time I had a certain dismal renown as the author of the Kohler thesis concerning Nazi crimes and German guilt, and this preceded me and lit my path, so that I had to suffer a certain sort of welcome too, a welcome which made me profoundly uneasy, for I was met and greeted as an equal; as, that is, a German, a German all along, and hence a refugee: I was William Frederick Kohler, wasn’t I? wasn’t I fat and fair, with a dazzling blond wife and a troop of stalwart children fond of-heaven help them-hiking about with bare knees? and so why not? … no, there was no mistake, I had the name and knew the language, looked the part, had been wisely away through the war, and, of course (though no one said it, it was this which pinned that wretched label to my coat like a star), had written that remarkably sane, peace-seeking book, so close on the event, too; a book which was severe¾all right, it was severe, perhaps severe-yet patient, fair and calm, a Christian book really, its commentators, my hostesses, their guests, all my new friends, smiling pleasantly to pump my hand, declared (as though history had a fever); yes, so calm and peace-seeking (came Herr Kohler’s cool and soothing palm), so patient and perceptive, so serene (while he lay bitterly becalmed himself)with a quotation from Heinrich Heine just beneath the title like a tombstone with a grave-that the French reviewer (and there was only one at first) spat on his page (he had a nose like a dirk and spectacles enlarged his eyes): It will be fourteen hundred francs spent on infamy, he said, and you will get your money’s worth.  Of peace-seeking, peace-making, peace-loving Buch.  A good buy.


A friend of mine did the French version, but it was I, quite unaccompliced, who betrayed my English to the German.  At twelve marks it continues to have a brisk sale.  I redid my study with a recent check.




I had intended to introduce


This is to introduce a work on death by one who’s spent his life in a chair.




I could not hold my father in much love, my mother either.  Indeed, I learned to love far later, as it proved, than they had time for.  So perished they without it. None of us grieves.  I’ve played a few sly tricks upon insanity since then, and now life holds me as it once held them-in a dry fist.  Hearts held that way wad up eventually … trees did. Once—once only—my heart burst bloodily in that grip.  But what has this to do with me now, or with Germany?




jürgen habermas explains the twentieth century—part I


Jürgen Habermas

Learning from Catastrophe?

A Look Back at the Short Twentieth Century


I. The Long Rhythms of the Century


The threshold of the twenty-first century exerts such a strong

grip on our imagination because it also leads us into a new

millennium. This calendrical turning point is itself the product

of a construction of religious history, whose starting point, the

birth of Christ, marked what we recognize in hindsight as a

break in world history. At the end of the second millennium,

the timetables of international airlines, global stock market

transactions, international scientific conventions, even rendezvous

in space are all scheduled according to the Christian

calendar. But the round numbers that punctuate this calendar

don’t match up with the plots of historical events themselves.

Years like 1900 or 2000 are meaningless in comparison to dates

such as 1914, 1945, or 1989. What’s more, these calendrical

blocs can often have the effect of concealing the very continuity

of far-reaching social trends, many of which have origins well

before the beginning of the twentieth century and will continue

well into the new millennium. Before beginning this examination

of the physiognomy of the twentieth century, then, I will

recall some of these longer rhythms that pass through the

century. Here I will mention (a) demographic changes, (b)

structural changes in the nature of employment, and (c) the

course of development of science and technology.


(a) Europe’s dramatic increase in population had its beginnings

in the early nineteenth century. Largely a result of medical

progress, this demographic change has in the meantime

largely come to a standstill in affluent societies; in the Third

World population growth has exploded since the middle of the

twentieth century. Expert opinions do not expect a stabilization

of world population — at a level of roughly 10 billion people

— before 2030. That would be a fivefold increase in global

population since 1950. Of course, a highly complicated phenomenology

hides behind this statistical trend.


At the beginning of the twentieth century, the population

explosion was described by contemporaries in terms of the

social form of “the masses.” Even then, the phenomenon was

not an entirely new one. Well before Le Bon became interested

in the “psychology of the mass,” nineteenth-century novelists

were already well acquainted with mass concentrations of

people in cities, housing blocks, factory buildings, offices, and

barracks, as well as with the mass mobilization of workers and

immigrants, demonstrators, strikers, and revolutionaries. But it

was not until the beginning of the twentieth century that massive

flows of people, mass organizations, and mass actions began

to appear intrusive enough to give rise to the vision of the

“revolt of the masses” (Ortega y Gasset). The mass mobilizations

of the Second World War, the mass misery of the concentration

camps, mass treks of refugees, and the mass chaos of

displaced persons after 1945 all exhibit a kind of collectivism

first anticipated in the illustrated title page of Hobbes’

Leviathan: countless individuals anonymously fused into the

overpowering figure of a macro-subject of collective action.

Since mid-century, however, the physiognomy of persons in

great numbers has itself undergone a change. The presence of

bodies — collected, herded together, set in motion — has given

way to the symbolic inclusion of the consciousness of the many

into ever wider networks of communication: the concentrated

masses have been transformed into a broadly dispersed public

of the mass media. Physical commercial flows, and commercial

jams, keep rising; people massing in the streets and squares

become anachronistic as individual connections are integrated

into electronic networks. Of course, this change in social perception

does not touch on the basic continuity of population growth.


(b) Similarly, structural changes in the labor system ignore

the thresholds of centuries or millennia. The introduction of

labor-saving production methods, and the subsequent increase

in productivity, is the driving force behind these structural

changes. Since the Industrial Revolution in eighteenth-century

England, economic modernization has followed the same

sequence in all countries. First, the mass of the laboring population

is shifted into the secondary sectors of manufacturing

industries from the primary agricultural work that had occupied

them for millennia. Next they shift to the tertiary sectors

of commerce, transportation, and services. Postindustrial

societies are now characterized by a quarternary sector of

knowledge-based economic activities such as high-tech industries

or the health-care sector, banking or public administration,

all of which depend on the influx of new information and,

ultimately, on research and innovation. And research and innovation,

in turn, are supported by an “educational revolution”

(Talcott Parsons) which not only eliminated illiteracy but triggered

a drastic expansion of systems of secondary and higher

education. As higher education lost its elite status, the universities

frequently became crucibles of political unrest.


Over the course of the twentieth century the pattern of these

structural changes remained invariant, while its pace accelerated.

Under a developmental dictatorship, a country like South

Korea has, since 1960, succeeded in making the jump from a

preindustrial to a postindustrial society within the space of a

single generation. This acceleration explains the new quality

that a well-established process of migration from countryside

to urban areas assumed in the second half of the twentieth

century: leaving aside sub-Saharan Africa and China, the soaring

productivity caused by mechanized agriculture has all but

depopulated the agrarian sector. In the OECD* countries, the

proportion of labor engaged in heavily subsidized agriculture

has fallen below 10 percent of the laboring population.

Counted in the phenomenological currency of lifeworld experiences,

this signifies a truly radical break with the past. The

mode of village life, which had been formative for all cultures

from the neolithic period until well into the nineteenth century,

survives only in imitation form in developed countries.

The decline of the peasantry has also revolutionized the traditional

relationship between the urban and the rural. Today,

more than 40 percent of the world’s population live in cities.

The urbanization process, as it destroys the older forms of

urban life that had arisen in premodern Europe, also destroys

the city itself. If New York, even its metropolitan center in

Manhattan, is itself already no more than vaguely reminiscent

of the great cities of the nineteenth century such as London or

Paris, then the sprawling urban areas of Mexico City, Tokyo,

Calcutta, Sao Paulo, Seoul, or Shanghai have finally exploded

the familiar dimensions of “the city.” The hazy profiles of these

megalopolises, where explosive growth is only two or three

decades old, face us with a mode of experience that we are at

a loss to comprehend.


(c) Finally, the series of social consequences of scientific and

technological progress constitutes a third continuity extending

through the twentieth century. New synthetic materials and

energy sources, new industrial, military, and medical technologies,

new means of transportation and communication have all

revolutionized modes of human interaction and forms of life,

but are all based on scientific knowledge and technical developments

from the past. Technological triumphs such as the

mastery of atomic energy and manned space travel, or innovations

like the deciphering of the genetic code and the introduction

of genetic technology into agriculture and medicine, surely

change our awareness of risks; they even touch upon our ethical

self-understanding. But in a certain sense, even these spectacular

achievements have run along familiar lines. Since the seventeenth

century, the instrumental attitude toward a scientifically

objectified nature has not changed; nor has the manner in which

we control natural processes, even if our interventions into

matter are deeper, and our ventures into space are further,

than ever before.


Technologically permeated structures of the lifeworld still

require from us laypersons the banal, routinized mode of handling

and operating machines and devices that we don’t understand;

a habitualized trust in the functioning of ongoing

technologies and processes. In complex societies, every expert

is a layperson in relation to other experts. Max Weber had

already described the “second naïveté” that emerges as we

busy ourselves with our radios and cell phones, our calculators,

video gear, or laptops — with the operation of familiar electronic

equipment whose manufacture requires the accumulated

knowledge of generations of scientists. Despite all the panicky

reactions to warnings, prognostications, and mishaps, the lifeworld’s

capacity to assimilate the strange and uncomprehended

into the familiar can only be temporarily undermined by media-

sponsored doubts about the reliability of expert knowledge and

high technology. A growing awareness of risks does not disrupt

the daily routine.


The acceleration effects of improved transport and communication

technologies have an entirely different relevance

for the long-term transformation of everyday experience. As

early as 1830, travelers on the earliest railways described a new

mode of perception of space and time. In the twentieth century,

motor traffic and civil aviation accelerated the transport of

persons and goods still further, shrinking the subjective sense of

distance even more. Space and time consciousness were also

affected by new technologies of information processing, storage,

and retrieval. Late eighteenth-century Europe already saw

the new print media of books and newspapers contribute to the

emergence of a global, future-oriented historical consciousness;

at the end of the nineteenth century Nietzsche complained of

the historicism of an educated elite that brought everything

past into the present. Since then, the thoroughgoing decoupling

of the present from the objectified pasts of museums has

reached the masses of educational tourists. The mass print

media is a child of the twentieth century too; but the time machine

effect of the print media was intensified over the

course of the century through photography, film, radio, and

television. Spatial and temporal distances are not “conquered”

any more. They vanish without trace into the ubiquitous present

of virtual realities. Digital communication finally surpasses

all other media in scope and capacity. More people have

quicker access to greater volumes of information, and are able

to process it and instantly exchange it over any distance. The

mental consequences of the Internet – which is proving much

more resistant to incorporation into the routines of the lifeworld

than a new electronic gadget — are still very hard to assess.


* Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.


jürgen habermas explains the twentieth century—part II





Jürgen Habermas

Learning from Catastrophe?

A Look Back at the Short Twentieth Century


II. Two Physiognomies of the Century


The continuities of social modernization extending through the

century can only inadequately teach us what is characteristic of

the twentieth century as such. Thus historians tend to punctuate

the historical flow of their narratives with events, rather

than trends and structural transformations. And indeed the

physiognomy of a century is molded by the caesurae of great

events. Among those historians who are still willing to think in

terms of large historical units, a consensushas emerged that the

“long” nineteenth century (1789-1914) is followed by a

“short” twentieth century (1914-89). The outbreak of the

First World War and the collapse of the Soviet Union thus

frame an antagonism that stretches through both world wars

and the Cold War. Of course, this punctuation permits three

very different interpretations, depending on where one locates

this antagonism — on the economic level of social systems, on

the political level of superpowers, or on the cultural level of

ideologies. Which hermeneutical viewpoint is chosen is, naturally

enough, itself determined by a conflict of ideas that has

dominated the century.


The Cold War is carried on today by historiographic means,

whether the terms of the conflict are described as the Soviet

Union’s challenge to the capitalist West (Eric Hobsbawm), or

the struggle of the liberal West against totalitarian regimes

(François Furet). Both interpretations explain in one way or

another the fact that only the United States emerged from the

world wars in a politically, economically, and culturally

strengthened position, and from the Cold War as the world’s

only superpower, an outcome that has labeled the twentieth

century “the American century.” The third reading of the Cold

War is more ambiguous. As long as “ideology” is employed in a

neutral sense, the title The Age of Ideologies (Hildebrand)

expresses nothing more than a variant of a theory of totalitarianism,

according to which the struggle of regimes reflects a

struggle of contending ideologies. But in another sense, the

same title signals the claim (developed by Carl Schmitt) that

since 1917 the mutually opposed utopian projects of world

democracy and world revolution, with Wilson and Lenin as

their exponents, have engaged one another in a global civil

war (Ernst Nolte). According to this ideology critique from

the Right, 1917 marks the point where history became infected

with the bacillus of the philosophy of history, and was so badly

derailed that it was not until 1989 that it was able to jump back

onto the normal tracks of pristine national histories.


Each of these three perspectives endows the short twentieth

century with a distinctive physiognomy. According to the first

reading, the century is driven by the challenge presented to the

capitalist world system by the single largest experiment ever

conducted on human beings: carried out with extreme brutality

and at the cost of enormous sacrifice, the forced industrialization

of the Soviet Union certainly set the course for its rise to

the status of a superpower, but it also left the Soviet Union

without a sound economic and social-political basis on which to

construct a superior, or even a viable, alternative to the Western

model. The second reading sees the century under the shadow

of a totalitarianism that broke entirely with the civilizing forces

ushered in by the Enlightenment, destroying the hopes for a

domestication of state power and a humanization of social

relations. The boundless violence of regimes engaging in total

war shatters the barriers of international law just as ruthlessly as

the terrorist violence of single-party dictatorships neutralizes

constitutional protections internally. These first two readings

divide up light and shadow between the forces of totalitarianism

and their liberal enemies clearly enough; for the

third, post-fascist reading, the century stands overshadowed

by an ideological crusade of parties whose mentalities are essentially

similar, even if they are not of the same rank. Both sides

appear to fight out the global contradictions between programs

justified by differing philosophies of history; programs that owe

their power to kindle fanaticism to essentially religious energies

perverted to serve secular ends.


Notwithstanding all their differences, these three interpretations

have one thing in common: they all oblige us to look at the

gruesome features of a century that “invented” the gas chambers,

total war, state-sponsored genocide and extermination

camps, brainwashing, state security apparatuses, and the

panoptic surveillance of entire populations. The twentieth

century “generated” more victims, more dead soldiers, more

murdered civilians, more displaced minorities, more torture,

more dead from cold, from hunger, from maltreatment, more

political prisoners and refugees, than could ever have been

imagined. The phenomena of violence and barbarism mark

the distinctive signature of the age. From Horkheimer and

Adorno to Baudrillard, from Heidegger to Foucault and Derrida,

the totalitarian features of the age have also embedded

themselves into the very structure of its critical diagnoses. And

this raises the question of whether these negativistic interpretations,

by remaining transfixed by the gruesomeness of

the century, might be missing the reverse side of all these



Of course, it took decades for those who were directly

involved and affected to come to a conscious assessment of

the dimensions of the horror that finally culminated in the

Holocaust, in the methodical annihilation of the Jews of Europe.

But even if it was suppressed at first, this shock eventually

set loose energies, even opened new insights, that brought

about a reversal in the perception of this horror during the

second half of the century. For the nations that dragged the

planet into a technologically unlimited war in 1914, and for

the people who were forced to confront the mass crimes of an

ideologically unlimited war of extermination after 1939, the

year 1945 also marks a turning point — a turn toward something

better, toward the mastering of the forceof barbarism that had

broken through the very foundations of civilization in Germany.

Should we not have learned something from the catastrophes

of the first half of the twentieth century?


My doubts regarding all three of these readings can be

expressed in this way: the demarcation of a short twentieth

century forces periods of global war and the Cold War period

together into a single unit, suggesting the appearance of a

homogenous, uninterrupted, 75-year war of systems, regimes,

and ideologies. But this has the effect of occluding the very

event that not only divides this century chronologically, but

also constitutes an economic, political, and above all a normative

watershed: the defeat of fascism. In the context of the Cold

War, the ideological significance of the wartime alliance

between the Western powers and the Soviet Union against

the German Reich was dismissed as “unnatural” and promptly

forgotten. But the Allied victory and the German defeat of

1945 permanently discredited an array of myths which, ever

since the end of the nineteenth century, had been mobilized

against the heritage of 1789. Allied victory not only sparked the

democratic developments in the Federal Republic of Germany,

Japan, and Italy, and eventually Portugal and Spain. It undermined

the foundations of all forms of political legitimation that

did not — at least verbally, at least in words — subscribe to the

universalist spirit of political enlightenment. This is of course

little consolation for victims of ongoing violations of human



The year 1945 saw a change in the cultural and intellectual

climate that formed a necessary condition for all three of the

uncontested cultural innovations of this century. The revolutionary

changes in the fine arts, architecture, and music that had

begun in the decades before, during, and after the First World

War, and which drew from the experience of war itself,

attained worldwide recognition only after 1945, in the past

tense, as it were, of “classical modernism.” Until the early

1930s, avante-garde art produced a repertoire of entirely new

aesthetic forms and techniques, opening a horizon of possibilities

that was exploited but never transcended by the experiments

of international art during the second half of the century.

Only two philosophers, Heidegger and Wittgenstein — both

opposed to the spirit of modernism, to be sure — possessed a

comparable originality and exerted a comparable historical



This changed cultural climate after 1945 also formed the

background for the political developments which, according

to Eric Hobsbawm,1 changed the face of the postwar period

until the 1980s: the Cold War (a), decolonialization (b), and

the construction of the social welfare state (c).


(a) The continuing spiral of an arrogant, exhausting arms

race certainly succeeded in keeping directly threatened nations

in a state of continual fear. Nevertheless the mad calculations of

a balance of terror — MAD was the self-ironic abbreviation for

mutually assured destruction — did prevent the outbreak of a

hot war. The unexpected, mutual concession of two superpowers

gone wild — the eminently reasonable agreement that

Reagan and Gorbachev reached in Reykjavik that introduced

the end of the arms race — makes the Cold War appear in

hindsight as a high-risk process of the self-domestication of

nuclear alliances. This is also an apt description for the peaceful

implosion of a global empire, whose leadership recognized the

inefficiency of a supposedly superior mode of production, and

admitted defeat in the economic race rather than following the

time-honored pattern of deflecting internal conflicts with military

adventures abroad.


(b) The process of decolonialization did not follow a straight

path either. In hindsight, however, the colonial powers only

fought rearguard actions. The French fought in vain against

national liberation movements in Indochina; in 1956 Britain

and France saw their military adventure in Suez end in failure.

In 1975 the United States was forced to end its intervention in

Vietnam after ten costly years of war. The year 1945 marked

the end of Japan’s colonial empire and the independence of

Syria and Libya. Britain withdrew from India in 1947; Burma,

Sri Lanka, Israel, and Indonesia were all founded in the following

year. The western regions of the Islamic world from Iran to

Morocco next gained independence, followed gradually by the

states of Central Africa and finally the last remaining colonies in

Southeast Asia and the Caribbean. The end of the apartheid

regime in South Africa, and the return of Hong Kong and

Macao to China, conclude a process that has at least formally

ended the dependencies of colonial peoples and established new

states (all too often torn by civil war, cultural conflicts, and

ethnic strife) as equal members in the UN General Assembly.


(c) The third development is an unambiguous change for the

better. In the affluent and peaceful Western European democracies,

and to a lesser degree in the United States, Japan, and

some other countries, mixed economies made possible the

establishment and effective realization of basic social rights.

Of course, the explosive growth of the global economy, the

quadrupling of industrial production, and an exponential

increase in world trade between the early 1950s and the early

1970s also generated disparities between the rich and the poor

regions of the world. But the governments of the OECD

nations, who were responsible for three-quarters of global production

and four-fifths of global trade in industrial goods during

these two decades, had learned enough from the catastrophic

experiences of the period between the two world wars to

pursue intelligent domestic economic policies, focussing on

stability with a relatively high rate of economic growth, and

on the construction and enhancement of comprehensive social

security systems. In welfare-state mass democracies, highly

productive capitalist economies were socially domesticated for

the first time, and were thus brought more or less in line with

the normative self-understanding of democratic constitutional



These three developments lead a Marxist historian such as

Eric Hobsbawm to celebrate the postwar era as a “golden age.”

But since 1989 at the latest, there has been a growing public

realization that this era is reaching its end. In countries where

the social welfare state is still acknowledged as a positive

achievement even in hindsight, there is a growing mood of

resignation. The end of the twentieth century was marked by

a structural threat to the welfarist domestication of capitalism,

and by the revival of a socially reckless form of neoliberalism.

Commenting on the current mood — somewhat depressed,

somewhat clueless, the whole thing washed over by the throb

of techno-pop — Hobsbawm could almost be taken for an

author from late Roman antiquity: “The Short Twentieth

Century ended in problems, for which nobody had, oreven

claimed to have, solutions. As the citizens of the fin-de-siècle

tapped their way through the global fog that surrounded them,

into the third millenium, all they knew for certain was that an

era of history had ended. They knew very little else.”2


Even the old problems — peacekeeping and international

security, economic disparities between North and South, the

risks of ecological catastrophe — were already global ones. But

today these problems have all been sharpened by a newly

emerging problem that supersedes the old challenges. Capitalism’s

new, apparently irrevocable globalizing dynamic drastically

reduces the G7 states’ freedom of action, which had

enabled them, unlike the economically dependent states of

the Third World, to hang on to a relative degree of independence.

Economic globalization forms the central challenge for

the political and social orders that grew out of postwar Europe

(III). One way to meet this challenge would consist in strengthening

the regulatory power of politics, to allow politics to catch

up with global markets that are beyond the reach of nation-states

(IV). Or does the lack of any clear orientation for ways of

meeting this challenge indicate not that we can learn from

catastrophes, but indeed that we only learn from catastrophes?

jürgen habermas explains the twentieth century—parts III and IV



Jürgen Habermas

Learning from Catastrophe?

A Look Back at the Short Twentieth Century

At the End of the Welfare-State Compromise

Ironically, developed societies in the twenty-first century

are faced with the reappearance of a problem that they seemd to

have only recently solved under the pressure of systemic competition.

The problem is as old as capitalism itself: how to make

the most effective use of the allocative and innovative functions

of self-regulating markets, while simultaneously avoiding

unequal patterns of distribution and other social costs that are

incompatible with the conditions for social integration in

liberal democratic states. In the mixed economies of the

West, states had a considerable portion of the domestic product

at their disposal, and could therefore use transfer payments,

subsidies, and effective policies in the areas of infrastructure,

employment, and social security. They were able to exert a

definite influence on the overall conditions of production and

distribution with the goal of maintaining growth, stable prices,

and full employment. In other words, by applying growth-

stimulating measures on the one side, and social policies on

the other, the regulatory state could simultaneously stimulate

the economy and guarantee social integration.


Notwithstanding the considerable differences between them,

the social-political spheres in countries like the United States,

Japan, and the Federal Republic of Germany saw continued

expansion until the 1980s. Since then, this trend has been

reversed in all OECD countries: benefits have been reduced,

while at the same time access to social security has been

tightened and the pressure on the unemployed has increased.

The transformation and reduction of the social welfare state

is the direct consequence of supply-side economic policies —

anti-inflationary monetary and fiscal policies, the reduction of

direct taxation, the transfer of state-owned enterprises into the

private sector, and so on — aimed at deregulating markets,

reducing subsidies, and creating a more favorable investment



Of course, the consequence of the revocation of the welfare-state

compromise is that the crisis tendencies it had previously

counteracted now break out into open view. Emerging social

costs threaten to over burden the integration capacities of liberal

societies. The indicators of a rise in poverty and income disparities

are unmistakable, as are the tendencies toward social disintegration.3

The gap between the standard of living of the employed, the

underemployed, and the unemployed is widening.

“Underclasses” arise wherever exclusions — from the

employment system, from higher education, from the benefits

of transfer payments, from housing markets, from family

resources, and so on — are compounded. Impoverished social

groups, largely cordoned off from the broader society, can no

longer improve their social position through their own efforts.4

In the long run, a loss of solidarity such as this will inevitably

destroy a liberal political culture whose universalistic self-understanding

democratic societies depend on. Procedurally

correct majority decisions that merely reflect the fears and self-

defensive reactions of social classes threatened with downward

mobility — decisions that reflect the sentiments of right-wing

populism, in other words — will end up eroding the legitimacy of

democratic procedures and institutions themselves.


Neoliberals, who are prepared to accept a higher level of

social inequities, who even believe in the inherent fairness of

“position valuations” via globalized financial markets, will naturally

differ in their appraisal of this situation from those who

recognize that equal social rights are the mainstays of democratic

citizenship, and who thus still adhere to the “social-democratic

age.” But both sides describe the dilemma similarly.

The gist of their diagnoses is that national governments have

been forced into a zero-sum game where necessary economic

objectives can be reached only at the expense of social and

political objectives. In the context of a global economy,

nation-states can only increase the international competitiveness

of their “position” by imposing self-restrictions on the

formative powers of the state itself. And this justifies the sort

of “dismantling” policies that end up damaging social cohesion

and social stability as such.5 I cannot go into a full description of

this dilemma here.6 But it boils down to two theses: First, the

economic problems besetting affluent societies can be explained

by a structural transformation of the world economic system, a

transformation characterized by the term “globalization.” Second,

this transformation so radically reduces nation-states’ capacity

for action that the options remaining open to them are not

sufficient to shield their populations from the undesired social

and political consequences of a transnational economy.7


The nation-state has fewer and fewer options open to it. Two

of these options are now completely ruled out: protectionism,

and the return to a demand-oriented economic policy. Insofar

as the movement of capital can be controlled at all, the costs of

a protectionist closure of domestic economies would quickly

become intolerably high under the conditions of a global economy.

And the failure of state employment programs today is

not just due to limits on national domestic budgets; these

programs are also simply no longer effective within the national

framework. In a globalized economy, “Keynsianism in one’s

own country” just won’t work any more. Policies that promote

a proactive, intelligent, and sustainable adaptation of national

conditions to global competition are much more promising.

Such policies include familiar measures for a long-range industrial

policy, support for research and development, improving

the competitiveness of the workforce through retraining and

continuing education, and a reasonable degree of “flexibility”

for the labor market. For the middle term, measures such as

these would produce locational advantages but would not fundamentally

alter the pattern of international competition as

such. No matter how one looks at it, the globalization of the

economy destroys a historical constellation that made the welfare

state compromise temporarily possible. Even if this compromise

was never the ideal solution for a problem inherent

within capitalism itself, it nevertheless held capitalism’s social

costs within tolerable limits.


Until the seventeenth century, emerging European states

were defined by their sovereign rule over a specific territory;

their enhanced steering capacities made these states superior to

earlier political forms such as the ancient empires or city-states.

As a functionally specialized administrative state, the modern

state differentiated itself from the legally institutionalized private

sphere of a market economy; at the same time, as a tax-based

state, it grew dependent on a capitalist economy. Over

the course of the nineteenth century, now in the form of the

nation-state, the modern state began for the first time to open

itself to democratic forms of legitimation. In some privileged

regions of the world, and under the favorable conditions of the

postwar period, the nation-state — which had in the meantime

established the worldwide model for political organization —

succeeded in transforming itself into a social welfare state by

regulating the national economy without interfering with

its self-correcting mechanisms. But this successful combination

is menaced by a global economy that now increasingly escapes

the control of a regulatory state. Obviously, welfare-state functions

can be maintained at their previous level only if they

are transferred from the nation-state to larger political

entities which could manage to keep pace with a transnational



IV. Beyond the Nation-State?


For this reason, the focus is on the construction of supranational

institutions. Continent-wide economic alliances such as

NAFTA or APEC let national governments enter into binding

agreements, or at least agreements that are backed by mild

sanctions. The benefits of cooperation are greater for more

ambitious projects such as the European Union. Continent-wide

regimes of this sort can establish unified currency zones

that help reduce the risk of fluctuating exchange rates, but,

more significantly, they can also create larger political entities

with a hierarchical organization of competencies. In the future,

we will have to decide whether we want to rely on the status

quo ofa Europe that remains integrated only through markets,

or whether we want to a set a course for a European democracy.8


Of course, even a geographically and economically expanded

regime of this sort would at best still generate internal advantages

for global competition, and would thus enhance its position

against other regimes. The creation of larger political

entities leads to defensive alliances against the rest of the

world, but it changes nothing in the mode of locational competition

as such. It does not, per se, bring about a change of
course that would replace various adaptations to the transnational

economic system with an attempt to influence the overall

context of the economic system itself. On the other hand,

expanded political alliances are a necessary condition if politics

are to catch up with the forces of a globalized economy. With

the emergence of each new supranational entity, the overall

number of political actors grows smaller, but the club of those

very few actors capable of global action, or capable of cooperation,

gains a new member. Given the required political will,

such actors will be in the position to enter into binding agreements

that will set up a basic framework for a globalized



Given all the difficulties of creating a European Union, an

agreement for the creation of a worldwide order — especially

one that would not simply exhaust itself in creating and legally

institutionalizing markets, but would introduce elements of a

global political will-formation, and would work toward addressing

the undesired social consequences of global commerce —

would be much more difficult. As nation-states are increasingly

overwhelmed by the global economy, one clear alternative

emerges, even if somewhat abstractly and viewed, so to speak,

from the academic ivory tower: transferring functions that

social welfare states had previously exercised at the national

level onto supranational authorities. At this supranational level,

however, there is no mode of political coordination that would

both guide market-driven transnational commerce and maintain

social standards. Of course, the world’s 191 sovereign

states are bound together in a thick network of institutions

subsisting belowthe level of the United Nations.9 Approximately

350 intergovernmental organizations, half of which

were created after 1960, serve a variety of economic, social,

and peacekeeping functions. But these organizations are naturally

in no position to exercise any positive political coordination,

or to fulfill any regulatory functions in areas of social,

economic, or labor policy that are relevant for questions of



Nobody wants to spin out utopian fantasies; certainly not

these days when all utopian energies seem to be exhausted.10

Without some significant effort on the part of the social

sciences, the idea of supranational politics “catching up” with

markets cannot even attain the status of a “project.” Such a

project would, at the very least, need to be guided by examples

where differing interest positions are equalized in a way that all

involved could find reasonable, and it would need to sketch the

outlines for a range of unified procedures and practices. Social

science’s resistance to the project of a transnational regime

along the lines of a world domestic policy is understandableif

we assume that such a project could only be justified by the

given interest positions of existing states and their populations,

and put in place by independent political powers. In a stratified

world society, unredeemable conflicts of interest seem to result

from the asymmetrical interdependencies between developed

nations, newly industrialized nations, and the less developed

nations. But this perception is only correct as long as there are

no institutionalized procedures of transnational will-formation

that could induce globally competent actors to broaden their

individual preferences into a “global governance.”11


Globalization processes are not just economic. Bit by bit,

they introduce us to another perspective, from which we see

the growing interdependence of social arenas, communities of

risks, and the networks of shared fate ever more clearly. The

acceleration and the intensification of communication and commerce

shrink spatial and temporal distances; expanding markets

run up against the limits of the planet; the exploitation of

resources meets the limits of nature. These narrowed horizons

rule out the option of externalizing the consequences of many

of our actions: it is increasingly rare that costs and risks can be

shifted onto others — whether other sectors of society, other

geographical regions, other cultures, or future generations —

without sanctions of one kind or another. This fact is as obvious

for the risks of large-scale technologies, which can no longer be

localized, as it is for affluent societies’ production of toxic

wastes, which now endanger every part of the earth.12 But

how much longer will we be able to shift social costs onto the

“superfluous” segment of the working population?


International agreements and regulations aimed at counteracting

such externalizations of costs can certainly not be

expected from governments as long as they are perceived as

independent actors controlling their own national arenas, where

governments must always secure the support of (and reelection

by) their populations. The incorporation of each

individual state into the binding cooperative procedures of a

cosmopolitan community of states would have to be perceived

as a part of states’ own domestic policies. Thus the decisive

question is whether the civil society and the political public

sphere of increasingly large regimes can foster the consciousness

of an obligatory cosmopolitan solidarity. Only the transformed

consciousness of citizens, as it imposes itself in areas of domestic

policy, can pressure global actors to change their own self-understanding

sufficiently to begin to see themselves as members

of an international community who are compelled to

cooperate with one another, and hence to take one another’s

interests into account. And this change in perspective from

“international relations” to a world domestic policy cannot be

expected from ruling elites until the population itself, on the

basis of its own understanding of its own best interests, rewards

them for it.13


An encouraging example of this is the pacifist consciousness

that had clearly developed in the wake of two barbaric world

wars in the nations that were directly involved, and which

subsequently spread to many other countries. We know that

this change of consciousness did not prevent further regional

wars, or countless civil wars in other parts of the world. But it

did bring about a change in the political and cultural parameters

of interstate relations large enough for the UN Declaration of

Human Rights, with its prohibition against wars of aggression

and crimes against humanity, to gain the weak normative binding

force of a publicly recognized convention. This is not

enough, of course, for the institutionalization of the economic

procedures, practices, and regulations that could solve the problems

of economic globalization. An effective regulation of world society
demands policies that successfully redistribute

burdens. And that will be possible only on the basis of a cosmopolitan

solidarity that is still lacking; a solidarity that would

certainly be weaker and less binding than the civil solidarity that

developed within nation-states. The human population has

long since coalesced into an unwilling community of shared

risk. Under this pressure, it is thus quite plausible that the

great, historically momentous dynamic of abstraction from

local, to dynastic, to national to democratic consciousness

would take one more step forward.


The institutionalization of procedures for global coordination

and generalization of interests, and for the imaginative construction

of common interests, will not work in the organizational

form of a world state; a form that is itself not even

desirable. The autonomy, particularity, and uniqueness of formerly

sovereign states will have to be taken into account. But

what sort of path will take us there? The Hobbesian problem —

how to create a stable social order — overtaxes the cooperative

capacities of rational egoists, even on the global level. Institutional

innovations come out of societies whose political elites

find a resonance and support for them in the already transformed

basic value orientations of their populations. Thus the

first addressees for this “project” are not governments. They are

social movements and non-governmental organizations; the

active members of a civil society that stretches beyond national

borders. The idea that the regulatory power of politics has to

grow to catch up with globalized markets, in any event, refers

to the complex relationships between the coordinative capacities

of political regimes, on the one hand, and on the other a

new mode of integration: cosmopolitan solidarity.

jürgen habermas explains the twentieth century—footnotes



Jürgen Habermas

Learning from Catastrophe?
A Look Back at the Short Twentieth Century



1 Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes: A History of the World

1914-1991, New York 1994. I owe more to this stimulating

book than the notes express.


2 Ibid. 558-9.


3 W. Heitmeyer (ed.), Was treibt die Gesellschaft auseinander?,

Frankfurt/M. 1997.


4 N. Luhmann, “Jenseits von Barbarei,” in M. Miller and H.G.

Soeffner (eds.), Modernität und Barbarei, FrankfudM. 1996,



5 R. Dahrendorf describes this in “Squaring the Circle,” Transit 12

(1996), 5-28.


6 My thanks for permission to look at the following manuscripts:

C. Offe, “Precariousness and the Labor Market. A Medium

Term Review of Available Policy Responses” (MS 1997); J.

Neyer and M. Seeleib-Kaiser, “Bringing Economy Back,” in Economic

Globalization and the Re-commodification of the Workforce,

Zentrum für Sozialpolitik, University of Bremen, worlung paper

16/1995; H. Wiesenthal, “Globalisierung. Soziologische und

politikwissenschaftliche Koordinaten eines unbekannten Territoriums”

(MS 1995).


7 The following receives a fuller treatment in J. Habermas, “Jenseits

des Nationalstaates? Zu einigen Folgeproblemen der

wirtschaftlichen Globalisierung,” in U. Beck (ed.), Politik der

Globalisierung, Frankfurt/M. 1998, 67-84.


8 See pp. 89-100.


9 D. Senghaas, “Interdependenzen im internationalen System,” in

G. Krell and H. Müller (eds), Frieden und Konflikt in den internationalen

Beziehungen, Frankfurt/M. 1994, 190-222.


10 I do not believe that the unpredictable implosion of the Soviet

Union has discredited my diagnosis from 1985: J. Habermas,

“The New Obscurity and the Exhaustion of Utopian Energies,”

in Shierry Weber Nicholson (ed. and tr. ), The New Conservatism:

Cultural Criticism and the Historians’ Debate, Cambridge, MA,



11 D. Held, Demomacy and the Global Order, Cambridge 1995.


12 U. Beck, Gegengifte. Die organisierte Unverantwortlichkeit, Frankfurt/

M. 1988.


13 On the model of a global domestic policy without global governance,

cf. pp. 100-12.


— Jürgen Habermas, "Learning From Catastrophe? A Look Back at the Short Twentieth Century," Chapter Three in The Postnational Constellation: Political Essays. Translated, edited, and with an introduction by Max Pensky. First MIT Press edition, 2001. (Studies in contemporary German social thought). This translation 2001 Polity Press. First published in Germany as Die postnationale Konstellation: Politische Essays, 1988 Suhrkamp Verlag.