Not far from Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate lies the Holocaust Memorial, a vast grid of nearly 3,000 concrete blocks that span a field of 19,000 square meters and vary in height. Some rise only to the knees; others loom above the head as one descends the sloping plain to its center. The memorial was built only after a protracted debate as to whether such a sobering reminder of the darkest chapter in Germany’s past should stand at the heart of the nation’s newly refounded capital.
Following the memorial’s inauguration in May 2005, a reporter for the weekly Die Zeit took note of a solitary visitor, “a gentleman with snow-white hair” who was standing near an ice-cream van. “His hand is pensively holding his chin. He is looking at the people surging amid the stelae, the catch-me-if-you-can games of the pubescent, the photo-shooting fathers, exhausted pensioners. The man is standing there in silence.” He observes the whole scene “as if he were watching a sociological experiment.” But he has an air of dissatisfaction. “What is he thinking? ‘No comment.’” says the man. “He does not want to talk about it in public, not yet.” As the reporter leaves, the man’s “white hair can still be seen among the crowd.”
The pensive man with the snow-white hair was the philosopher and social theorist Jürgen Habermas, who for more than six decades has played the part of gadfly in modern Germany, just as Socrates did in ancient Athens. Even at his ripe age—he is now 87—Habermas’s passion remains undiminished. As a public intellectual, however, he may seem an unlikely hero. We live in an age when what some of us still fondly call “the public sphere” has grown thick with personalities who prefer the TED Talk to the printed word and the tweet to the rigors of rational argument. For Habermas, it’s clear that without the constant exercise of public deliberation, democracy will collapse, and this means that citizens must be ready to submit their arguments to the acid bath of rational criticism. The debates that preceded the construction of the Holocaust Memorial brought bitter memories to the surface—the novelist Martin Walser complained of “a monumentalization of our disgrace”—but for Habermas, a willingness to engage productively in self-criticism is a prerequisite for democratic consciousness. National pride in the conventional sense leaves him cold: In an essay for Die Zeit, he responded to Walser, emphasizing that “anyone who views Auschwitz as ‘our shame’ is more interested in the image others have of us than in the image German citizens retrospectively form of themselves in view of the breakdown of civilization, in order to be able to look each other in the face and show each other respect.” Habermas argues instead for “constitutional patriotism,” a sense of loyalty to the principles and procedures of the modern democratic state.
The ideal that most animates Habermas is a belief in the possibility of a genuinely critical and self-reflexive form of modern consciousness that can serve as the groundwork for politics. But for this very reason, he is a thinker who embraces complexity over dogma and has little interest in theatrical display. After a recent visit to a philosophy seminar in Munich, Habermas left students with the impression that he “is not a charismatic figure.” The students “never experienced any rhetorically incisive statements or any of the charming tolerance that bends over backwards to achieve compromise and accepts any statement, no matter how absurd, which is so common in the humanities today.” Nor did they observe any “posturing in the style of a grand master.” But they could still recognize the passion in his deliberation: “When Habermas thinks—and, at some point, he thought so intensely that he apologized for his ‘stuttering’—you always get the impression that he is, in fact, entering into an intellectual wrestling match with a problem.”