Auschwitz and Hiroshima

Günther Anders

Enzo Traverso. Translated by David Fernbach

In a long autobiographical interview given to Mathias Greffrath in 1979, Günther Anders (Stern) indicated four major turning points that had marked his intellectual itinerary. First of all the Great War, which he had witnessed while still an adolescent and from which he learned what a massacre of millions of people was like: he would never forget the spectacle of mutilated soldiers and humiliation inflicted on civilians that he had witnessed in Alsace. Then Hitler’s rise to power in Germany in 1933: the event that forced him into exile. Finally, two great, almost contemporary tragedies, consummated during the Second World War, which he learned about in the United States in 1945: the genocide of the Jews in Europe and the atom bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.[1] These events shaped his sensitivity, his vocation as a philosopher and intellectual, his thinking and perhaps even his style. The last one, the nuclear destruction of the Japanese cities, marked in his eyes the beginning of a new era, a sort of ‘zero hour’ (Stunde Null) for humanity, which discovered for the first time the concrete possibility of its own annihilation. From that moment on, Anders decided to devote the rest of his life to denouncing this terrible threat, conducting his battle like an isolated and unheard Cassandra, but always tenacious. A prophet of despair, Anders did not act as a representative of a community or a spokesman for a political movement, but only as a committed intellectual, an exile by necessity and a ‘citizen of the world’ by choice: first in Paris, then in New York, Los Angeles and finally Vienna, cities and countries that were never his true home. But ‘citizen of the world’ is not an entirely appropriate definition, one should probably speak of a ‘man without a world’ (Mensch ohne Welt), using the formula he himself had forged to indicate a tradition initiated by Kafka, Brecht, Döblin and Grosz, to which he implicitly subscribed.[2]


This piece is being made available as a preprint edition of the double-volume Marxism and the Critique of Antisemitism special issue of Historical Materialism. Further additions will still be made before then. The final published version of this text will be made available on the Brill website in the coming months. We ask that citations refer to the Brill edition.All Illustrations are by Natalia Podpora.


His Jewishness, however, remained the primordial source of his conscious and proclaimed Heimatloskeit, a source that he never sought to conceal and to which he indeed returned several times during his life, making it the subject of critical reflection. It is true that he never renounced his pseudonym – imposed on him in the Weimar years by Herbert Ihering, editor of theBerliner Börsen-Curier, the newspaper for which he wrote as a journalist and literary critic – with a less Jewish sound than his real name, Stern. But after all, this borrowed name – Anders means ‘other’ in German – summed up very well his status as a foreigner and stateless person, his ‘acosmia’.

Exile and Hitler’s ‘final solution’ had thus prepared him to recognise the historical break symbolised by Hiroshima. It was the ‘non-Jewish Jew’ Anders who interpreted the twentieth century by placing it under the sign of catastrophe, an irreversible catastrophe with no return. In 1978, he dedicated a painful essay to his Jewish identity in which, through a simple anecdote, he indicated the web of threads linking Auschwitz to Hiroshima, the extermination of the Jews and the threat of the destruction of humanity. In 1958, Anders had been in Japan, in Kyoto’s market square, speaking to an audience that included several Buddhist monks. He said that the tragedy of Hiroshima concerned everyone, since it could now be repeated on a global scale, affecting the entire planet. He felt then that his words were suggested to him by the ‘prophets of doom of the Old Testament’, pioneers of a noble lineage in which he did not hesitate to include the figures of Jesus and Karl Marx.[3]

In the same autobiographical conversation with Mathias Greffrath, Anders acknowledged his debt to the ‘Jewish-German symbiosis’, the cultural universe in which he was formed. This was first and foremost a matter of language – he had written a few essays in French and English during his exile but admitted that he could only express all the nuances of his thought in German – and a congenitally non-conformist spirit. The legacy of assimilation, which had placed German Jews in a singular position, somewhere between religiosity and atheism, was perceived by Anders as the source of an exceptional freedom of mind. Although the surrounding anti-Semitism prevented them for ever forgetting that they were Jews, they often proclaimed their atheism and strongly asserted their attachment to the tradition of the Aufklärung, thus giving rise to the ‘tradition of anti-traditionalism’.[4]

Born in 1902 in Breslau, Silesia, son of child psychology professor Wilhelm Stern, cousin of Walter Benjamin and later the husband of Hannah Arendt from 1929 to 1936, Günther Anders belongs to the last generation of the German-Jewish intelligentsia from the Wilhelmine Empire, the only one to have been formed in the Weimar Republic. His father was a typical representative of liberal and assimilated Judaism who had hailed the acquittal of Captain Dreyfus as a triumph of justice. He did not attend synagogue but had given up a university professorship out of dignity, refusing to submit to the ‘small formality’ of converting to Protestantism, the favourite loophole for Jews in those years to achieve a semblance of honour and respectability. During the 1920s, Anders studied philosophy at various German universities, from Hamburg to Heidelberg, passing through Freiburg, where he followed the teaching of Cassirer, Husserl, Tillich and especially Heidegger. Hans Jonas, with whom he was close friends in Freiburg, recognised in him ‘the aura of genius’.[5] Like Benjamin, Anders too was forced to give up a university career – among the disparagers of his thesis on the philosophy of music was Adorno, a young Privatdozent at Frankfurt University, who found it too Heideggerian and too superficial in musical terms[6] – and settled in Berlin, where he began to work as a literary critic. He wrote mainly for the Berliner Börsen-Curier, to which he had been introduced by Brecht, while his wife worked on a biography of Rahel Levin Varnhagen. This condition of marginal intellectual left a permanent mark on his philosophical reflection and the style of his works.

In 1929, before an audience including Hannah Arendt, Theodor W. Adorno, Paul Tillich and Karl Mannheim, Anders delivered a presentation on the ‘acosmia of man’ (Weltfremdheit des Menschen), which he would revise a few years later for two articles published in French in the journalRecherches philosophiques (the first of which was translated by Emmanuel Levinas).[7] In these texts – which seem to have exerted a certain influence on the formation of Sartrean existentialism – Anders clearly situates himself within a Heideggerian philosophical horizon. The ontology of Sein und Zeit remains the background of concepts such as ‘non-identification’ or ‘freedom’, through which he defines the ways in which man belongs to the world and the discovery of his intrinsic limits, i.e. the limits of a being who ‘experiences himself as a being not-posited-by-himself’, leading to an inevitable feeling of ‘shame’, easily recognisable as a ‘shame of origin’. The personal touch that Anders added to this diagnosis was the search for a ‘spirit of flight’ as a way out of this existential condition of alienation. What is most striking about this text is the fact that even before his exile, in the twilight of Weimar, the young philosopher seemed to be plotting his destiny as aheimatlos intellectual – ‘rootless’ or ‘free-floating’ (freischwebend) in Mannheim’s definition.[8]

During the first months of 1933, at the beginning of his stay in Paris, Anders wrote ‘Learsi’, a story in which, by using a literary metaphor, he portrayed the condition of the exile and took stock of Jewish assimilation in Germany. Like Kafka’s characters, Learsi (Israel in reverse) has no clearly defined origins: all we know is that he comes from a distant land, Bocotia, and his behaviour reveals a deep-seated desire to live in Topilia, the country where he has settled and where everyone regards him as a foreigner. Entering a hotel on a stormy night, Learsi tries in vain to obtain a room, but all have been occupied for a long time. However, attracted and encouraged by the ‘signboard of freedom and the great world’[9] above the entrance, he decides to stay, even though he does not have his own room. He settles between a storeroom and a service room, and establishes friendly relations with all the residents, from staff to customers. His aim is to make people forget his foreign origins and be finally accepted no longer as a tolerated guest but as a full-fledged resident. Of course, his status is quite uncomfortable, but it possesses some advantages: the residents have only their own rooms, while Learsi seems to inhabit the whole hotel. This belonging, however, is ultimately illusory. ‘To belong and truly cease to be a foreigner, you need two things: the part and the whole’.[10] What for the other guests is a completely banal place – their residence – becomes for Learsi a veritable conquest. His identification with this place is all the stronger, as he has never really possessed it and has always been regarded as an intruder. In an unfortunate incident, he is accused in the end of stealing the sign of freedom and thrown out of the hotel,[11] forced to resume his nomadic path of statelessness.

Anders was aware of the danger of National Socialism as early as 1928, and one of the few who took a book like Mein Kampf seriously.[12] When Hitler came to power in early 1933, he had already written the first draft of a novel, Die molussische Katakombe, which remained unpublished until his death.[13] Written in the same allegorical style as ‘Learsi’, this antifascist literary work describes the transmission of memory between the victims of a terror regime. As in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, the older prisoner teaches the younger one a parable, a fable that he must share with his successors in turn, to preserve the spirit of freedom and prepare for revolt. Beyond the limitations of this first literary attempt – a political-philosophical apologia broadly inspired by Brecht – its strength lies in its denunciation of fascism, described in the guise of the imaginary country of Molussia. The novel, in a line that Orwell would develop, was prevented from publication by Kiepenheuer in Berlin by the coming to power of the Nazis. It finally appeared only in 1992, the year of Anders’s death, although he spent most of his three years in Paris working on it. It seems that Manès Sperber, at that time in charge of an émigré publishing house tied to the German Communist Party, rejected the manuscript because of its ‘heretical’ orientation, too far from the official line set in Moscow.[14]

In 1934, Anders gave a lecture on Kafka at the Institute of German Studies in Paris, attended by Hannah Arendt and Walter Benjamin, among the few people in the audience for whom the Prague writer was not an unknown. Re-read in the light of current events, The Castle became for Anders a kind of mirror in which the condition of the German exiles was reflected: their status of human beings was not enough to demonstrate their existence if they were unable to show a passport. Their situation thus presented itself as a new variant of the Kafkaesque parable, in which the quest of the surveyor K. appeared neatly reversed: he could not get into the Castle, whereas they had already been expelled from it. They were ‘nothing’. Without papers, as deprived of German citizenship, they had lost their right to exist, and their existence was indeed not recognised by police headquarters (‘a realcastle” where only officials like Klamm could be found’).[15]

In 1936, following his separation from Hannah Arendt, Anders left for the United States, where a long period of intellectual and political isolation awaited him. As an exiled intellectual, a ‘non-Jewish Jew’ and a non-party Marxist, Anders could not help but exercise his ‘spirit of flight’ in the face of both Jewish tradition and official Communism. After joining his parents in North Carolina, where his father had taken up a teaching position in psychology at Duke University, and working for a time as a private tutor in the home of the composer Irving Berlin, Anders went through a long period of precariousness and low intellectual output. Apart from a few rare contributions to Aufbau, the journal of German-Jewish émigrés in New York, his time was mainly taken up by small, poorly paid jobs, first in New York then in Los Angeles, where he lived for a while in Herbert Marcuse’s house. In California he worked as a dishwasher in restaurants and an unskilled worker in a large factory, an experience from which he was to draw material for his philosophical reflection on modern technology.

Like many other immigrants, Anders was recruited by the Office of War Information to translate propaganda pamphlets that were distributed in Allied-occupied areas with the purpose of ‘re-educating’ the Germans. Anders refused to translate a text full of racist prejudices against the Japanese and was dismissed as ‘weak-minded’. He wrote that he had seldom aroused as much astonishment as that shown by his editor when he explained that he had not ‘come to America, fleeing from Nazism, to produce fascist pamphlets aimed at Germany’.[16] In conflict with Adorno since 1929, Anders was ‘tolerated’ by the Institute for Social Research, but never accepted as a member. His situation began to improve in 1948, when he was asked to teach philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York. Two years later, after a period of teaching whose ‘intellectual level’, he confessed, was no better than his English, he left America in the grip of the Cold War and returned to Europe. He chose now to settle in Vienna, the city of his second wife, in a marginal position that nevertheless allowed him to preserve his independence and assert his distance in the confrontation between the anti-Communist Germany of Konrad Adenauer and the Stalinism of Walter Ulbricht.

‘Promethean shame’

On 11 March 1942, Günther Anders wrote in his diary some impressions triggered by a visit to a technical exhibition in Los Angeles. He had suddenly been seized by an unfamiliar feeling, a pudendum still hard to define, he called ‘prometheische Scham’ (Promethean shame), seeking to express man’s humiliation in the face of the perfection and power of his own technical creations.[17] This was not unrelated to the climate generated by the War, which would rapidly acquire much clearer and more terrifying features in the form of the Nazi extermination camps and the atom bomb. This theme of ‘Promethean shame’ became the centre of all Anders’s subsequent thinking and was reflected in his work on the ‘obsolescence of man’ (Die Antiquiertheit des Menschen), which brought together in two volumes, published in 1956 and 1980 respectively, a collection of texts written over a period of forty years.

This sense of shame stemmed from an awareness of the growing gap between imagination and production. After two centuries of being accompanied first by the utopian dreams of the Enlightenment philosophers and then by the achievements of the first Industrial Revolution, technology had abandoned the realm of the thinkable and was beginning to stand against humanity as a hostile force. Representation (Vorstellung) and production (Herstellung) had consummated their divorce and men were no longer able to conceive what they had been able to achieve by technology.[18] In a formula typical of his style of thinking, Anders defined the men of the twentieth century as ‘inverted utopians’ (invertierte Utopisten). In contrast to the ‘classical’ utopians who prefigured in their imagination  a reality that did not yet exist or was purely fantastical (Jules Verne’s journeys to the moon or the centre of the earth), the ‘inverted utopians’ of the twentieth century were no longer able to foresee the reality that they were perfectly capable of producing.[19] This awareness, still vague and confused in 1942, became precise under the impact of Auschwitz and Hiroshima. A Zyklon B capsule had the appearance of a simple tin can, and its manufacture involved nothing extraordinary in technical terms, but the gas chambers and the scientific organisation of death defied even the most fertile imagination at the start of the Second World War. The aerial images of the total destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were a shock even for the scientists at Los Alamos who had conceived and manufactured the atom bomb.

This transformation was marked by three industrial revolutions, defined by Anders more in philosophical and anthropological than in historical terms.[20] The first industrial revolution gave rise to machines as means of production; the second was the extension of commodity production to all spheres of society (all needs were now satisfied by commodities) and began the colonisation of humanity by technology; finally, the third industrial revolution had rendered man obsolete and prepared his complete replacement by technology. Of course, the common thread running through all these industrial revolutions was capitalism, which expressed and displayed the totalitarian vocation of technology. In this way, the conquering technology became the ‘subject of history’ and menaced to destroy the whole of humanity. The transformation of technology into the subject of history inevitably implied a tragic corollary: the end of history (Endzeit), for there can be no history when people are no longer the actors.[21] For Anders, the twentieth century stood therefore under the sign of catastrophe. In this philosophy devoid of any teleological aspect, ‘Promethean shame’ in the face of this spectacle of destruction corresponds to the terrified and desperate gaze of Walter Benjamin’s angel of history.[22]

Although presented in fragmentary texts, often inspired by contingent circumstances – Anders characterised his thought as an ‘occasional philosophy’ (Gelegenheitsphilosophie)[23] – these reflections have an undeniable coherence expressed in multiple variants. In the hundreds of pages of these two volumes, ‘Promethean shame’ takes on different contents: sometimes it reflects awareness of the incomplete and limited character of human nature in front of the perfection of its technical products, in a world where the ontological superiority of commodities over humans is no longer in doubt; sometimes it defines the powerlessness of humans facing the destructive capacities of their demonic creations. Inspired by Kafka, Beckett, and Strindberg (to whom Benjamin would be added), Anders saw modern technology as the purely negative consummation of the ancient Faustian dream. ‘Promethean shame’ appears as a kind of dialectical reversal of the unshakeable faith in progress that dominated the nineteenth century.[24] Modern technology has not freed Prometheus from his chains, it has made his torture still harsher and more unbearable, to the point of making all efforts at liberation futile. Technology has given men the illusion of being all-powerful gods, ‘the equals of God himself’, but they have not realised that their power is exclusively negative and destructive. The power they have conquered has not been that of creating ex nihilo; technology has made them masters of the world only in the sense that it has conferred on them the capacity for a ‘totalreductio ad nihil’.[25]

This philosophy clearly betrays the influence of Heidegger, for whom modern man is no longer a creating subject but a mere appendage or executant of technology.[26] Anders always denied this filiation, stigmatising Heideggerian philosophy as pre-modern thought, not only anti-Marxist but above all ‘pre-capitalist’. In the above-mentioned interview with Mathias Greffrath, Anders maintained that ‘[Heidegger’s] world of tools [Zeugwelt] is that of a village craftsman, anatelier-world [Werkstattwelt]. Scheler rightly called his philosophy a “cobbler’s ontology”. Factories have not yet appeared inSein und Zeit.’[27]

Heideggerian ontology places being in relation to time but not space, taking for granted a bond between men and the earth based on an ‘anthropology of roots’ which had been its most damaging political consequence, leading the German philosopher to espouse the nationalist myth of Blut und Boden.[28] In an essay published in 1948 in the United States, Anders denounced the ‘pseudo-concreteness’ and ‘pseudo-radicalism’ of Heidegger,[29] characterising it as ‘a philosophy of life hostile to life’[30] a totally solipsist conception of freedom, and a vision of the historical that displayed an extreme form of ‘voluntary provincialism’,[31] an ontology without social density, and a moral vacuity that had prepared the ground for his adhesion to National Socialism.[32] But in his critical reading of Sein and Zeit, Anders discussed the question of technology only in passing. Besides the influence of Heidegger, his own reflections were stimulated by an intense and fruitful dialogue with Herbert Marcuse, who had published on this subject in 1941 a pioneering essay in which he presented Nazism as ‘a striking example of the way in which a highly rationalised and completely mechanised economic system… could function in the service of totalitarian domination and the maintenance of misery’. The Third Reich, Marcuse concluded, was a ‘technocracy’, whose terroristic character would be all the more accentuated in the conditions of a war economy but was directly consubstantial with technology.[33] Taking up and radicalising this thesis, Anders wrote in the following year that the tendency to totalitarianism ‘belongs to the essence of the machine and derives originally from the world of technology’.[34]

Anders was always very discreet regarding his sources, but the affinity of his reflections with those of Marcuse is evident throughout. And the thought of both men was situated substantially within a Heideggerian philosophical horizon.[35] Heidegger’s ontology, which sees ‘being-towards-death’ (Sein zum Tode) as the fundamental modality of history, is very reminiscent of Anders’s philosophy of desperation, according to which the contemporary human condition lies in a constant and irreversible threat of extermination. ‘Authentic being-towards-death, which means the finitude of temporality is the hidden foundation of the historicity of existence’ (Das eigentliche Sein zum Tode, das heißt die Endlichkeit der Zeitlichkeit, ist der verborgene Grund der Geschichtlichkeit des Daseins).[36] Basically, Anders could have subscribed to this famous Heidegger’s formula, even if he enriched it with a moral and political content that was foreign if not antithetical to Heidegger’s philosophy.

The critique of technology developed by Anders took shape as a humanist (and Marxist) Aufhebung of Heidegger’s thought, not as its pure and simple negation. The Heideggerian vision of technology as the true ontological condition of men in the modern world[37] finds an undeniable correspondence in the work of Anders. In Die Antiquiertheit des Menschen, technology is perceived systematically and exclusively as a source of alienation, never appearing – like in Fourier, Marx, or Benjamin – as a possible ‘key to happiness’ for humanity.[38] Heidegger’s observation according to which ‘everywhere we remain unfree and chained to technology[39] could readily have been written by his former pupil. The teaching of the author of Sein und Zeit left an unmistakable trace on Anders’s intellectual formation (as on other German-Jewish philosophers of his generation), but did not become a conceptual cage, nor impede Anders from orienting his philosophical reflections on other paths. Two decisive sources of his thought, the Jewish legacy (rejection of the German mysticism of blood and soil) and the encounter with Marxism (a re-reading of the concept of alienation in relation to the critique of capitalism), helped him to ‘emancipate’ from this Heideggerian matrix, without however abandoning it.

The obsolescence of man

What place did Auschwitz occupy in the context of this dark philosophy of technology which, as Pier Paolo Portinaro emphasised, carries a negative charge on the ontological level (the obsolescence of being), on theanthropological level (the primacy of technology over people) and finally on theeschatological level (the end of history)?[40] If Auschwitz marked a historical turning point, its specificity lay more in its paradigmatic character than in its absolutesingularity. Rather than a historicalunicum, the genocide of the Jews was for Anders a kind of ‘model’, the first attempt at the systematic extermination of a people by means of modern technology, followed by the menace of a systematic destruction of humanity as a whole.[41] Beyond the particular features of the German past, Nazism expressed a tendency intrinsic to modern society, the world war providing a favourable context for displaying the full annihilating potentiality of technology. In the extermination camps, the new subject of history celebrated its triumph: the Nazi death factories involved the dehumanisation both of their victims, degraded to raw material, and of executioners transformed into cogs in an administrative and industrial apparatus. The word ‘killing’ was inadequate for this process, as the gas chambers of Auschwitz and Treblinka functioned simply as death-producing machines.[42]

‘What was true of the everyday business of war’, Anders wrote,

was of course all the more true of those installations which… stood out like the extreme lines of the front of terror; it was in the extermination camps [Vernichtungslager] that the machinery of death [Tötungsmachinerien] worked with such absolute precision that no anti-economic residues of life were left. The respectable proposition ‘all men are mortal’ had definitively lost its significance and become ridiculous. If it had been inscribed above the entrance gates to the extermination devices – instead of the signs indicating ‘showers’ used to ensure more efficient operation – it would have provoked mocking laughter in which the voices of the candidates for death would have been hard to distinguish from those escorting them. The old motto had passed on its truth to a new one that could be formulated more or less as follows: ‘All men are eliminable’ [Alle Menschen sind tötbar].[43]

With Hiroshima, a new threshold was crossed in this process of destruction, its motto now being: ‘The mankind as a whole is eliminable’ [Die Menschheit als ganze ist tötbar].[44] ‘Modern capitalist society thus reached the stage of ‘post-civilised cannibalism’.[45]

Anders continually emphasised this relationship of structural affinity between the gas chambers and the atom bomb, due to a common matrix. In both cases, extermination has gone beyond the contingencies of war; it is no longer a question of suppressing an enemy but of eliminating, by technical means, a mass of individuals for whom any possibility of resistance is excluded a priori. The massacres by which history has been punctuated since ancient times now seem to have a ‘human’ character alongside the cold and technical elimination, without hate and without struggle, practised in Auschwitz and Hiroshima.

In this ‘eradication’ [Vertilgung], Anders wrote in his 1958 journal of Hiroshima and Nagasaki,

war has ceased to be a strategic act, transformed into a purely technical process that removes its character of war. Someone who eliminates flies with insecticide, without encountering or experiencing any kind or resistance, does not make war; they are merely carrying out a technical operation. In the same way, when he herded the Lager prisoners into the gas chambers, Hitler was not waging a war against Jews, Gypsies or other ‘sub-humans’, but simply annihilating them. And this principle has now found a continuation [in Hiroshima and Nagasaki]. There too, no resistance could be expected. Nagasaki and the liquidation apparatuses [Liquidationsanstalten] are crimes that belong to the same category.[46]

The reification of death, implicit in industrialised extermination, could also dispense with an essential attribute of all massacres in history: hatred. The hatred that inspires the killer is no longer needed in an elimination that is planned and carried out like a job of work, like a technical task, in which the victims are stripped of their humanity and reduced to the state of ‘raw material’ (in the Nazi camps) or just a geographically located target (in Hiroshima and Nagasaki). In modern mass exterminations, the victims no longer have a face. ‘It is not only theconcept of “enemy” that is obsolete, but everything that has to do psychologically with “hostility”.’[47]

Of course, it would not be difficult, from a historical point of view, to point out the one-sided aspects of such an approach. We could remember that hatred of the Jews was an essential component of the ‘final solution’ and that, without being a sufficient explanation, it was nevertheless a necessary premise.

The atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, on the other hand, had an essentially political purpose – to bring American military power to bear on the new world balance – a purpose for which hundreds of thousands of Japanese paid with their lives. Historical research in recent years – from the debate around Daniel Goldhagen’s thesis to the hundreds of images in a controversial German exhibition on the crimes of the Wehrmacht[48] – has shown irrefutably that the Holocaust was also, in many respects, an eruption of hate and violence sustained by passion and fanaticism. We could also recall that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not the expression of a genocidal intention, but rather continued, as many analyses have stressed, a geopolitical project defined by the balance of forces between the great powers at the end of the Second World War.[49] And finally, we might add that, as distinct from the extermination camps that put Nazi ideology into practice, the atom bomb was a crime perpetrated against the principles of its creators, scientists – in some cases European exiles – motivated by fear that Nazi Germany could acquire nuclear weapons and determined to counter this menace. Leo Szilard, for instance, had proposed renouncing the manufacture of the atom bomb once it became clear that Germany was not able to produce it before the end of the War, and was opposed to launching it against Japanese cities.[50]

Despite all these considerations, Anders’s interpretation emphasizes certain features shared by the ‘final solution’ and nuclear extermination. If it is obvious that the genocide of the Jews could not have taken place without anti-Semitism, this alone was not enough to eliminate six million people across the whole of Europe. Indispensable to putting the Holocaust into effect was a technical-managerial machinery made up of hundreds of thousands of operators, who often, as Anders stressed, carried out only banal and bureaucratic tasks. The functioning of the exterminatory mechanism was for them simply a ‘job’ that could be done without ever inquiring what its purpose was, freeing them a priori from any questioning of a moral order. The reduction of crime to routine, which Adolf Eichmann made his expertise, needed neither hatred nor passion for its committal, only the rigour and rationality of a job ‘well done’. It took not fanaticism, rather the zeal of bureaucrats shaped by the Weberian ‘ethic of responsibility’. Like the extermination camps, the atom bomb required the ‘moral neutrality’ of its agents. Little mattered, in this case, the difference in mentality, culture or political orientation that separated the pilots of Hiroshima from the functionaries of the German railways who ensured the arrival of convoys to Auschwitz, Treblinka and Sobibor. All of them did their allotted ‘job’. All of them felt ethically and politically not involved in the consequences of their actions.

In his writings, Anders depicted Auschwitz and Hiroshima as ‘two classic examples’ of this reification of death achieved by technology that took the form of ‘a job well done’:

These exterminations, which presented themselves as deeds rather than misdeeds, had been assigned to their executors as jobs of work. The consequence that follows from this mystification – I do not mean here the ultimate consequence, the rubble and ashes, but the penultimate one: the effect on the executors – is well-known. Since they had been taught, as creatures of the industrial age, that work ‘non olet’, that itcannot stink, that it is an activity whose outcome is in principle of no concern to us or to our conscience, they carried out the mass murders entrusted to them [Massenmord-Aufträge] under the label of ‘work’ without opposition, just as if it had been any other work. Without opposition, because they acted in good conscience. In good conscience, because they had no conscience. Without conscience, because the terms of their contract had absolved their conscience. ‘Off limits to conscience.’[51]

To grasp the thread of continuity that links Auschwitz to Hiroshima meant, for Anders, recognising that the impulses unleashed in the extermination camps had not died with the defeat of Nazism but could be reproduced in new forms. The Jewish genocide was the specific form that modern barbarism had taken in the context of Hitler’s Germany, with its victims earmarked by centuries of anti-Semitism and eliminated in the name of racial biology, but the tendency to destroy a now ‘obsolete’ humanity remained at the heart of technological civilisation. The atom bomb proved that industrial mass murder was not a Nazi speciality and that its menace had not disappeared with the liberation of Auschwitz in January 1945. Anders saw the fact that the atom bomb had been dropped on Japan by the victors over Nazi Germany as removing any historical legitimacy from the Nuremberg trial. On 8 August 1945, the Allied agreement establishing the International Military Tribunal charged with judging Nazi ‘crimes against humanity’ had coincided exactly with the atomic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (6th and 9th August respectively). The solemn condemnation of Nazi crimes before the whole world, Anders wrote, had been formulated ‘in the context of other crimes against humanity’.[52]

Drawing a universal lesson from the breakdown of civilisation that had been consummated at Auschwitz meant, in the first place, recognising the persistence of its causes within industrial-capitalist modernity itself. Anders shared this view with Herbert Marcuse. In his introduction to Eros and Civilization, published in 1955, a year before Anders’sDie Antiquiertheit des Menschen, the Berlin philosopher had written:

Throughout the world of industrial civilization, the domination of man by man is growing in scope and efficiency. Nor does this trend appear as an incidental, transitory regression on the road to progress. Concentration camps, mass exterminations, world wars and atom bombs are no ‘relapse into barbarism’, but the unrepressed implementation of the achievements of modern science, technology, and domination. And the most effective subjugation and destruction of man by man takes place at the height of civilisation, when the material and intellectual attainments of mankind seem to allow the creation of a truly free world.[53]

Marcuse was undoubtedly the Frankfurt School philosopher who had the greatest affinity with Anders, both having undergone their intellectual formation in Germany in the shadow of Heidegger. For both, it was no longer possible to limit oneself to criticising the use of modern technology under capitalism. The experience of the twentieth century, in particular the violence of the two world wars, had brought technology as such into question. For Marcuse, a finality of domination was intrinsically bound up with the rationality of modern societies: ‘Today, domination perpetuates and extends itself not only through technology butas technology, and the latter provides the great legitimisation of the expanding political power, which absorbs all spheres of culture.’[54] Like Anders, Marcuse held that ‘the danger that threatens us is not due to a misuse of technology, it is inherent in the very essence of technology.’[55]

Anders and Marcuse were clearly lucid in their denunciation and critique of a myth, that of the ‘neutrality’ of science and of science and technology. Just as German medicine and biology had yielded to Nazi ideology and thus contributed to the work of extermination, physics had shown, in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that it could become a tool for the destruction of humanity. Taken to its extreme, however, such a conception could come close to the Heideggerian thesis that Nazism was merely the product of ‘the encounter between global technology and modern humanity.[56] If technology has replaced man as the subject of history, then it would be pointless to seek human responsibility for the wars, crimes, and violence of the twentieth century. Auschwitz and Hiroshima would be simply a consequence of technology, not of human choices and actions. Humanity would be relegated to an ontologically subaltern role in which notions of responsibility and guilt would have lost their meaning. Yet, despite being made possible by technical development, Auschwitz and Hiroshima were the products of human choices, in a historical context, in anthropological and cultural conditions, and in a well-defined balance of social and political forces. As in his correspondence with Claude Eatherly, which we shall go on to consider, Anders succeeded in avoiding this extreme drift, which nevertheless remained an outcome potentially inscribed in his philosophy of technology. Similar considerations could be made about Marcuse who was obliged to conclude, in two severe and bitter letters of this time, that any dialogue with Heidegger had become impossible.[57] Like Marcuse, Anders understood that there was no longer a ‘dimension of logos’ and avoided any new contact with his former mentor. Neither Marcuse nor Anders, however, questioned the aporias that the Heideggerian legacy had left in their own thinking.

Anders’s distinctive philosophy was the result of a synthesis of two formative elements: a critique of technical and industrial modernity with a romantic savour, inspired by Heidegger but remodelled by a strong ethical-political sensibility, and a Marxist critique of capitalism conceived as a system of domination and alienation. Modern civilisation did not limit itself, as in the past, to excluding the Jews; it made them the designated victims of its technology of death. This sombre reflection on modernity as a catastrophe without redemption reveals the traces left on Anders’s thought by a certain Jewish tradition and gives his theses a ‘prophetic’ character. As Gershom Scholem wrote, ‘the authors of the Apocalypse always had a pessimistic view of the world. History, in their eyes, deserved only to perish’.[58] For Anders, however, as distinct from prophets of the Apocalypse, Auschwitz and Hiroshima did not seem to announce any salvation, rather the end of messianic hope. His own apocalypse had lost any eschatological dimension. All that remained was to live ‘without hope’.[59]

Eichmann and the Hiroshima pilot

Towards the end of the 1950s, Anders began a fertile correspondence with Claude Eatherly, one of the pilots who had participated in the operation leading to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Anders was now living in Vienna and becoming known for his role in the movement against nuclear weapons, when he read in an American magazine about Eatherly’s mental illness and suicide attempt. What struck him most – because it revealed the ‘moral fault’ of the United States in the face of a crime for which it bore sole historical responsibility – was the fact that no one thought to establish any connection between the pilot’s psychological state and the experience he had undergone. Experts put forward various hypotheses but never mentioned Hiroshima. Anders decided then to write to Eatherly, and began a correspondence with him whose therapeutic effects were subsequently verified. The sense of moral guilt felt by the pilot after becoming aware of the consequences of his ‘fault’ – in other words the ‘symbolic function’ to which he had been ‘condemned’ without having been conscious of it[60] – indicated to Anders that Eatherly had ‘remained’ or again ‘become’ a human being. He too was, Anders wrote, ‘a victim of Hiroshima’.[61] The case of this young American perfectly illustrated the paradox of technological massacres, and their perpetrators could themselves be ‘innocent culprits’. This was acknowledged by the ‘girls of Hiroshima’, survivors of the nuclear devastation now suffering from radiation, who, after having heard of Eatherly’s situation, wrote him a moving letter that contained the following sentence: ‘We have come to feel a sense of friendship and believe that you are a victim of war like ourselves.’[62]

In 1961, when the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem focused the attention of international public opinion, Anders presented the Hiroshima pilot as the ‘living antithesis’ of the SS lieutenant-colonel responsible for the ‘final solution’. During the trial, Eichmann had defended himself by claiming that he had acted as a mere cog in the Nazi machine of extermination, limiting himself to following orders that could not be questioned. He had not shown the least sign of remorse either during the War, or in Argentina, before his capture by the Israeli secret service. During the trial, he limited himself to expressing his regrets, without admitting any guilt. Eatherly, on the contrary, had been unaware of the power of the weapon that would be released during his flight, and the consequences that he would produce. He felt oppressed by an overwhelming sense of guilt despite no one having accused him, and he declared himself devastated by the terrible massacre of which he had been an involuntary agent. Certainly, he had acted as a mere cog in a machine of death whose magnitude he did not suspect, but that did not ease his conscience or become a pretext for absolution. He had understood that it was necessary to refuse to ‘follow orders’, and that it was dangerous to act as a disciplined and obedient ‘pawn’. In short, if Eichmann embodied the ‘banality of evil’, in Arendt’s celebrated phrase, Eatherly personified the ‘innocence of evil’ (Unschuld des Bösen’).[63]

The correspondence between the militant philosopher and the pilot, in which, as the letters proceeded, feelings of understanding, respect and even friendship sprang up between two men whose experience and culture were diametrically opposed, not only had a likely therapeutic and liberating effect on Eatherly, but also a strong impact on Anders’s thought. ‘You and Eichmann,’ he wrote, ‘are two emblematic figures of our time. If there were no men like you as opposed to Eichmann, we would have every reason to despair.’[64] Twenty years later, he remembered with gratitude how Eatherly had made him understand that ‘Eichmann cannot be the only embodiment of our time’.[65]

This passage seems to suggest that Anders’s ‘desperation principle’ was not so radically incompatible with Ernest Bloch’s ‘principle of hope’. Despite accusing Bloch of nursing an ingenuous and dangerous optimism, Anders did not intend to deny any possibility of human and social emancipation, only to point out the extent to which the margin for liberating action had been narrowed and, above all, the basis on which liberating action must now be conceived. In other words, the classical alternative ‘socialism or barbarism’ was not posed to a still virgin humanity, but rather questioned a civilisation that had already entered an era of barbarism and begun to experience the concrete possibility of its own self-destruction. This barbarism had to be fought – as Anders did throughout his life – in the knowledge that hope was not a wide-open door to a bright future but a weak ray of light that filtered through the cracks of an edifice called progress, once imposing and glorious, but now crumbling under the weight of its own contradictions. This faint glimmer of hope began with the understanding that Auschwitz and Hiroshima had already been, and that, even if all nuclear weapons were destroyed, the possibility of building new ones could not be ruled out. To Bloch’s ontology, based on the utopian category of the ‘not-yet’, Anders opposed the lucid observation that an ‘anticipating’ consciousness could not avoid the possibility of a ‘no more’.[66] Any utopian prefiguration of a different reality could not fail to take into account our condition as ‘inverted utopians’ whose boldest projections remained beneath an absolutely unimaginable horror, potentially already inscribed in the present.

Even as baleful oracle of an apocalypse without redemption, Anders did not want to abandon the Marxist tradition but worked for its critical renovation. At a time when there seemed to be no boundary between ontology and ethics, the priority task of revolution was necessarily ‘conservative’. To ‘change the world’, as Marx put it in his eleventh thesis on Feuerbach, it had first to be preserved. Therefore Anders, a revolutionary intellectual born and bred in the tradition of the German left, did not hesitate to define himself as an ‘ontological conservative’.[67] His message is closely reminiscent of Benjamin’s theses: there is only a thread of hope left, but this thread has not yet been cut. It can be grasped, provided that a ‘desperate’ philosophical attitude is adopted, aware that humanity is on the brink of a precipice, in a twilight of civilisation, on the eve of a true Endzeit, for all that its noisy, arrogant and opulent outward aspect seems to indicate the contrary.

After Auschwitz and Hiroshima, concrete signs of the fact that all humanity is now exposed to the danger of its destruction, the only ethically and philosophically permissible posture is to consider the people of the atomic age as ‘survivors’. In essence, this view merely generalised, in a universal spirit, the subjective experience of the Jew Günther Anders. On a visit to Auschwitz in July 1966, the philosophy had the clear sensation of being a ‘survivor’. Looking at the possessions of the victims, the only remaining traces of the millions of Jews deported to the extermination camps, he had the feeling that he had survived only by chance, being himself targeted as a victim. Mute in front of these mute objects – ‘their suitcases, mountains of suitcases; their glasses, mountains of glasses; their hair, mountains of hair: their shoes, mountains of shoes’[68] – he felt overcome by the shame, natural and spontaneous, of a Jewish survivor of the genocide. The shame of knowing that his own suitcase, his own glasses, his own hair and his own shoes did not form part of the pile despite having been destined for this. The privilege of survival was a source not of pride but of shame. A shame that in many ways was similar to that experienced by Primo Levi, who maintained that the survivors were neither heroes nor the best among those deported; the same shame that surfaced in confronting the dignified look of two Japanese boys suffering from radiation whom Anders had visited in a Nagasaki hospital. The shame of humanity in the face of a century of barbarism was one of the roots of the thought of this philosopher without homeland and militant without party, who made desperation into a spark of revolt.


At the end of his life, Anders gave a new dimension to his philosophy of despair. The threat to humanity did not mean exclusively a potential nuclear extermination; it also meant the destruction of nature and ecological catastrophes: exploited by fossil capitalism and enchained by a voracious technological octopus, earth is condemned to die with its inhabitants. Without abandoning his commitment against nuclear weapons, Anders included ecology into his political philosophy. Whereas his Marxism was a dialectical Aufhebung of Heidegger’s existentialism, his politics meant a radical break with Heidegger’s ‘politics of being’.Heimatlos and ‘non-Jewish Jew’, he thought that in a global age any liberation project had to be post-national. Like Adorno and Horkheimer, he viewed the relationship between productive forces and relations of property as a negative dialectic that reinforced domination and oppression, but his attachment to apocalyptic messianism prevented him from embracing the Frankfurt School’s resignation to a reified world. With Benjamin and Marcuse, he shared the idea of revolution as a change of civilisation, as the restoration of a fruitful and harmonic relationship between nature and human beings, exactly the opposite of an acceleration of history along the lines of industrialism and productivism. Till the end, Anders remained a rebel, a left-wing Cassandra who considered despair as a political weapon against the demons of oppression and death. His critical thought can fuel the struggles of our own century.


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Anders, Günther 1986 [1980], Die Antiquiertheit des Menschen. II. Über die Zerstörung des Lebens im Zeitalter der dritten industriellen Revolution, Munich: C. H. Beck.

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[1]. Anders 1984a, pp. 313–4.

[2]. Cf. Anders 1984b.

[3]. Anders 1984c, p. 237.

[4]. Anders 1984c, p. 242. On Anders’s relationship to Jewishness, see also Le Rider 1992, pp. 87–99.

[5]. Cited in Young-Bruehl 1982, p. 60.

[6]. Cf. the correspondence between Adorno and Anders, in Adorno 2003, pp. 276–84.

[7]. Stern 1934, pp. 65–80, and Stern 1936, pp. 22–54.

[8]. Mannheim 1969. Anders wrote a review of Mannheim’s Ideology and Utopia (1929) for theBerliner Börsen-Curier.

[9]. Anders 1984d, p. 96.

[10]. Anders 1984d, p. 99.

[11]. Anders 1984d, p. 112.

[12]. Cf. Anders 1982a, p. 334.

[13]. Anders 1992.

[14]. Cf. Liessmann 1993, p. 125.

[15]. Anders 1984b, p. xxxiii.

[16]. Anders 1984a, p. 310. On the mobilisation of German exiles by the Office of War Information, cf. Katz 1987.

[17]. Anders 1985a, p. 23.

[18]. Anders 1985a, p. 16, and Anders 1986, p. 67.

[19]. Anders 1981, p. 96.

[20]. Cf. Portinaro 2003, p. 64.

[21]. Anders 1986, pp. 273, 279–80. On the concept of Endzeit, see G. Anders 1982b, p. 393.

[22]. Benjamin 2003, p. 392

[23]. Anders 1985a, p. 239; Anders 1986, p. 404.

[24]. Cf. Schubert 1992, p. 80.

[25]. Anders 1985a, p. 239; Anders 1986, p. 404.

[26]. Heidegger 1954, p. 20; Heidegger 1993, p. 324.

[27]. Anders 1984a, p. 291.

[28]. Anders 1984a, p. 292.

[29]. Stern 1948, p. 355.

[30]. Stern 1948, p. 370.

[31]. Stern 1948, p. 259.

[32]. Stern 1948, p. 356. Anders’s writings on Heidegger are now collected in Anders 2001. On the relationship between Anders and Heidegger, cf. Hildebrandt 1990.

[33]. Marcuse 1998, pp. 41–2. Useful introductions to this subject are Kellner 1998a and Müller 2002.

[34]. Anders 1986, p. 439.

[35]. The filiation from Heidegger to Marcuse has been analysed in highly critical terms by Wolin 2001. Chapter 6 of this book deals with Marcuse; Anders is strangely ignored. The relationship of Anders to Heidegger is focused on more closely by Sarfanski 1994. Portinaro pertinently observed that ‘the shadow that looms, enigmatic and insurmountable, over the whole of Anders’s philosophical production… is the shadow of Heidegger (Portinaro 2003, p. 50).

[36]. Heidegger 1953a, p. 386.

[37]. Cf. Wolin 1990, p. 165.

[38]. Benjamin 1999, p. 321.

[39]. Heidegger 1954, p. 13; Heidegger 1993, p. 311.

[40]. Cf. Portinaro 2003, pp. 41–5. Also Brumlik 1988, p. 116.

[41]. Anders 1986, pp. 98–99.

[42]. Anders 1986, p. 33.

[43]. Anders 1985a, pp. 242–3.

[44]. Anders 1985a, p. 243.

[45]. Anders 1986, pp. 25–6.

[46]. Anders 1982c, p. 113.

[47]. Ibid.

[48]. Goldhagen 1996. On the debate aroused by this controversial book, cf. Schoeps 1995 and Institut für Sozialforschung 2002.

[49]. Cf. Alperovitz 1965.

[50]. Cf. Greco 1995, p. 210.

[51]. Anders 1986, p. 168.

[52]. Anders 1982d, p. 168.

[53]. Marcuse 1962, p. 4.

[54]. Marcuse 1964, p. 130.

[55]. Anders 1986, p. 126.

[56]. Heidegger 1953b, p. 152; Heidegger 2014, p. 222.

[57]. Kellner 1998b, pp. 261–8.

[58]. Scholem 1963, p. 25.

[59]. Anders 1984c, p. 244. Cf. among others Adunka 1992, p. 75.

[60]. Anders 1982e, p. 208.

[61]. Anders 1982e, p. 213.

[62]. Anders 1982e, p. 232 (letter from the ‘Girls of Hiroshima’ to Eatherley of 24 July 1959).

[63]. Anders 1985b, p. 205.

[64]. Anders 1982e, p. 346. See also on this subject Anders 1964, his essay on the occasion of the Eichmann trial.

[65]. Anders 1982f, p. xxvi.

[66]. Cf. Bloch 1985, vol. 1, p. 258, and Anders 1986, p. 278. On the Bloch/Anders relationship, cf. Liessmann 1993, pp. 91–4, and Schmidt 1993, pp. 49–56.

[67]. Anders 1984a, p. 319.

[68]. Anders 1985c, pp. 7–8.