‘After us, strictly speaking, there will be nothing’, Theodor Adorno wrote to Max Horkheimer on 17 August 1954, from the Hotel Reber au Lac in Locarno, where he was spending his summer vacation. It was less than a year since Adorno had taken up a permanent professorship at Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt—a position to which he was entitled under the terms of the law governing compensation for acts of National Socialist injustice. The occasion for his pathos was the fact that the young Ralf Dahrendorf—only recently appointed to the Institute for Social Research to oversee a project on the political attitudes of students—had resigned to take up a position in Saarbrücken. Dahrendorf was a significant loss, not only for his academic abilities and interests (he had completed his PhD at Hamburg on Marx’s theory of justice), but also for his anti-fascist pedigree. The son of a Social Democrat deputy in the pre-1933 Reichstag imprisoned towards the end of the war as an underground agitator, Dahrendorf had himself been arrested in late 1944, aged 15, for distributing anti-Nazi pamphlets. He was sent to a concentration camp in Poland. Almost a decade after the war’s end, finding such suitable candidates for a junior position in the Institute was proving difficult.

Eighteen months later, Adorno finally secured a replacement for Dahrendorf: Jürgen Habermas. Habermas was the same age as Dahrendorf, but his family background could not have been more different. As his biographer, Stefan Müller-Doohm, records, his father, Ernst, was the Protestant manager of the local Chamber of Industry and Commerce in Gummersbach in northern Rhineland. A national conservative in political orientation, he had joined the Nazi Party in spring 1933, after an election in which it received almost 50 per cent of the vote in the town, and became the nsdap’s economic adviser for the county. Gummersbach became the seat of the regional headquarters of the Nazi Party, and by 1934 anti-Jewish activities and arrests in the town had begun, intensifying after the pogroms of November 1938. Despite his age (48 in 1939), Habermas’s father volunteered for military service in the Wehrmacht, having taken part in military exercises between 1933 and 1937. During the war, he served in Brest, the largest German submarine base on the Atlantic, as head of the civil administration, with the rank of Captain, later Major.

As a child, Jürgen Habermas was a member of the Deutsches Jungvolk, the section of the Hitler Youth for boys aged 10 to 14 (this was required by law—Dahrendorf was also a member), then the Hitler Youth itself. In August 1944, aged 15, we can see him in a photograph, stern-faced in garlanded uniform, marching in a parade of Hitler Youth shortly to be deployed to the Siegfried Line during the final mobilization. However, he managed to avoid the deployment and then, in February 1945, by chance it seems, his call-up papers for the Wehrmacht. The Americans arrived in the town on 11 April. His father returned later, having been in various prisoner-of-war camps in the usa, categorized as a ‘passive follower’ (Mitläufer) of Nazism, the second lowest of the Allies’ five categories of political involvement, denoting an absence of active collaboration. This allowed him to resume his previous job, after a period of enforced waiting, prior to the founding of the Federal Republic in 1949. The smooth process of ‘rehabilitation’ in postwar Germany, which would come to trouble Adorno, Habermas and Hannah Arendt alike, appears in this case also to have been without hindrance.

Unsurprisingly, given this background, Habermas’s early academic experience was almost as distant from the intellectual traditions that formed the backdrop to the Institute in Frankfurt as his family was distant from the Left. He studied philosophy at undergraduate level first at Göttingen (1949–50) and then Bonn (1950–53)—as had his father initially, if markedly less successfully, at Bonn and then Göttingen—with a term between in Zurich. At Bonn, the main philosophical influences on the son were the two full professors, Erich Rothacker and Oskar Becker, both of whom had been at the heart of the National Socialist movement. Habermas would apparently not come to realize the extent of this until 1956, but nonetheless he still contributed to Rothacker’s 1958 Festschrift, two years after he began working at the Institute. Becker was reinstated as a professor only in 1951, having been banned from teaching in the immediate postwar years. His significance for Habermas, on Müller-Doohm’s account, was that he introduced him to Schelling’s philosophy. Rothacker, who was an active fascist for fifteen years, from before 1933, promoted a philosophical cultural anthropology, and his classes attracted Habermas, we are told, in part for their interdisciplinary outlook. Rothacker conducted a seminar on Humboldt’s philosophy of language that was important for Habermas, and became his doctoral supervisor. Of more long-lasting significance for Habermas’s thought, though, was Karl-Otto Apel, then Rothacker’s assistant, who introduced him to American pragmatism and became a lifelong friend and fellow-thinker in the development of a transcendental pragmatics (the application of Kant’s philosophical method to the linguistic field of pragmatics). Habermas’s own philosophical orientation at the time was broadly Heideggerian. It is described by Müller-Doohm in terms of an emphasis on the primacy of being over thinking and the domination of technical means over practical purposes: those aspects of Heidegger’s early work, in fact, that had been at the fore in Marcuse’s attempt to forge a Heideggerian Marxism in the late 1920s, prior to the publication of Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts in 1932—although Habermas knew nothing of Marcuse’s early writings at this time.

Again, Habermas’s youthful Heideggerianism is not surprising, since Heidegger’s thought was dominant in German universities in the period. But it was also a result of a literary and theatrical interest in Sartre. As Habermas would put it later, in his disillusioned 1959 essay ‘Heidegger: The Great Influence’: ‘The return of his influence from beyond the Rhine after World War ii almost made Heidegger into a reimport; at that time, Being and Time reached most students by way of Being and Nothingness via Sartre’s The Flies. A Heidegger renaissance born of the spirit of the Resistance—what a source of misunderstandings!’ Habermas’s (still unpublished) 1954 doctoral dissertation, completed with little supervision, aged 24, in the nine-month period immediately following his graduation—‘The Absolute and History: On the Ambivalence in Schelling’s Thought’—is recorded as a systematic study of mid-period Schelling, focused on The Ages of the World. Schelling is taken to task for the ahistorical character of what he posits as the primordial ground of finite historical being, in his mystical history of creation. Conceived as a Heideggerian critique of Schelling, the argumentative structure here nonetheless evokes something of Adorno’s critique of Heidegger.

How, then, did it come about that two years after the completion of this thesis Habermas should have been Adorno’s chosen replacement for Dahrendorf? And later, according to a time-honoured but problematic generational narrative, heir to the tradition of Frankfurt Critical Theory itself? The story is an intriguing one, with far more twists and turns, identifications, self-assertions, dis-identifications and disavowals than are suggested by the schematic version familiar from the synoptic history of ideas. Müller-Doohm recounts it in documentary fashion, eschewing the vocabulary (and insights) of psychoanalysis. Indeed, he tends to shy away from judgement in general, except when citing Habermas’s own retrospective reflections, though his narrative carries some subterranean verdicts of its own, ironizing its subject’s standpoint to a greater or lesser extent. This reticence is in part the consequence of writing a biography of a still-living, culturally powerful figure, who is cooperating not only through consent for interviews, but by providing otherwise inaccessible documents, including, intriguingly, the draft of an autobiography. ‘Everything purely private and intimate is excluded’, Müller-Doohm assures us at the outset. As a result, Habermas often seems absent from his own life story, in a manner not unlike the ‘concealing unconcealment’ suffered by Being in Heidegger’s history of metaphysics. In Müller-Doohm’s words, it is ‘distinct types of texts’ that are at ‘the centre’ of the study: the book, he writes, is ‘in the first instance about deeds and only in the second instance about the doer’. Texts as deeds then, in the context of public debates. And there are certainly enough of these to keep the biographer busy: twelve volumes of the Kleine Politische Schriften (Short Political Writings) alone.

Habermas: A Biography is a chronicle of Habermas’s dual career as an academic philosopher and sociologist, on the one hand, and a cultural and political journalist (‘a public intellectual’), on the other. It engages with the thorny issue of Habermas’s place within (or without) Frankfurt Critical Theory only occasionally, and with circumspection. It is keen to displace the issue to the margins of its narrative at the outset, in its prologue, as a kind of anachronistic red herring that had no meaning for Habermas himself in his early Frankfurt years and should be considered a distraction, at best, from his individual position in postwar German thought. Given the dependence of that position on the idea of a transformation of critical theory, however, this might be said to involve a certain amount of wishful thinking on Müller-Doohm’s part, not unconnected to a pervasive anxiety about Habermas being linked with anything to the left of liberal-democratic thought. Rather, the book’s dual optic presents Habermas’s life as a prism through which the political history of postwar Germany is refracted, not just objectively (as in Matthew Specter’s contextual history of ideas, Habermas: An Intellectual Biography, 2010), but as that life’s main self-conscious preoccupation. There is a personal identification with ‘Germany’ here, leading to what Habermas’s critics and opponents came to experience, at key moments, at its limit, as a self-righteous political moralism—though that is not Müller-Doohm’s standpoint. While taking care to report the main dissenting opinions on record, his book is predictably appreciative; it is especially celebratory of Habermas’s significance and achievements at the levels of publishing and established public institutions.