Wolfgang Abendroth was postwar Germany’s most important socialist intellectual. As one of the few socialist jurists and political scientists in his country in this period, he trained a generation of Marxist scholars — as well as cutting a singular figure on the West German public stage.
Abendroth’s adventurous life took him from the ranks of the German Communist Party (KPD) to the deserts of North Africa, East Germany, and back to the West — a personal biography embodying the grand hopes and bitter catastrophes of the century he inhabited.
But this also served as the foundation for Abendroth’s wide-ranging thinking and writing. He made an unforgettable impression on those of us who had the privilege to learn from him, inspiring us to dedicate our academic careers to better understanding and strengthening the workers’ movement.
Thirty-five years after Abendroth’s death, his legacy tends to be overlooked and overshadowed by his more renowned contemporaries. Few outside Germany have heard of the Marburg School he founded, for decades a major center of Marxist scholarship, and his style of unapologetically political social science has fallen out of favor among German academics. Nevertheless, his unity of scholarship and political activism, his personal integrity, and his unflinching commitment to socialism exemplify what a leftist intellectual ought to be.
Fighting for Working-Class Unity
Born in 1906 as the son of a Social Democratic teacher in Wuppertal, he spent his childhood in Frankfurt, where he joined a Communist youth organization. As a young leftist he read the writings of Dutch left communists Herman Gorter and Anton Pannekoek alongside The Communist Manifesto, and soon fell under the influence of KPD leaders August Thalheimer and Heinrich Brandler, advocates of a “united front” of working-class organizations. Devised in opposition to the ultra-left current dominant in the KPD at the time, this approach would serve as Abendroth’s political compass for the rest of his life.
He began studying law in Frankfurt in 1924, driven not by personal interest but instead by a desire to serve the workers’ movement. His thinking was heavily influenced by the legal scholar and Social Democratic Party (SPD) member Hermann Heller, who, in opposition to mainstream opinion at the time, acknowledged the relationship between economic structures and legal forms in society, and tasked the welfare state with restricting capitalists’ power in the interests of the broad majority. Abendroth would view the construction and defense of the welfare state as a central issue for the workers’ movement throughout his career.
Abendroth became active in the KPD’s so-called Red Student Group while still at university in the mid-1920s. This required a great deal of courage on his part, considering that German campuses in the Weimar period — both faculty as well as students — were bastions of reactionary, nationalist, and antisemitic ideas. The group’s national membership numbered only in the hundreds.
While most of the far-left intellectuals at the head of the party — figures like Ruth Fischer, Werner Scholem, and Franz Borkenau — came from middle-class backgrounds and knew little about the struggles of working-class life, Abendroth had been brought up in the socialist youth movement and cultivated a fundamentally different approach. He advocated unity between Communists and Social Democrats, rejecting the leadership’s theory of “social fascism” that conflated the SPD’s crisis-management policies with fascism and declared it to be the KPD’s main enemy. This sectarian attitude deepened the split in the workers’ movement and made it easier for the Nazis to take power.
Abendroth was expelled from the KPD for his criticisms in 1928. He joined the Right Opposition organized in the Communist Party (Opposition), or KPO, and also provided legal counsel to the German Red Aid, which supported leftists facing political repression. Though Abendroth managed to complete his law degree in Germany, the Nazis barred him from actually working as a lawyer. For this reason, he was forced to cancel his dissertation on factory councils and instead continued his studies in Bern, Switzerland with a new dissertation on international law.
Persecution and Perseverance
Abendroth was arrested by the Gestapo in 1937 as a member of the illegal resistance and sentenced to four years in prison for “preparing high treason.” He never spoke publicly about the torture visited upon him, but later, during his otherwise passionate lectures as a professor at the University of Marburg, he would often fall silent mid-sentence.
We students could see on his face as he struggled to win back the ability to speak, yet minutes would go by without him uttering a sound. The auditorium remained utterly silent — not a word, not a whisper, no movement whatsoever could be heard before he resumed his interrupted monologue. We later realized that these intermittent aphasias were a product of the torture he experienced in Nazi captivity.
Soon after being released, the Nazis forced him to join the infamous 999th Afrika Brigade, a battalion composed of former and current prisoners forced to endure particularly harsh conditions. He managed to defect to the partisans of the Greek People’s Liberation Army (ELAS) in 1944. Soon thereafter he was imprisoned by the British, who fought the Greek resistance, and taken to Egypt, where he spent nearly one year in a POW camp together with quite a few Nazis.
Following his release from British internment and return to Germany, Abendroth married the historian Lisa Hörmeyer and went to work building an antifascist legal system in the Soviet zone of occupation. He was soon appointed to a professorship of international law and later public law at the University of Jena, but was forced to flee to the West with his wife and their young daughter Elisabeth in 1948 due to his continued membership in the SPD, which the Soviet administration had banned.
Once in the West, he was appointed to a professorship of public law and politics in the city of Wilhelmshaven. His appointment to the University of Marburg as a professor of “scientific politics,” a new academic discipline introduced after the war, followed in 1950.
Building the “Red Bastion”
From 1951 to 1972 Abendroth worked and taught in the conservative provincial university town of Marburg, where fascist-leaning philosopher Martin Heidegger had taught before 1933 and Hannah Arendt once studied. His appointment was only possible with the support of influential Social Democrats in “Red Hessia,” colloquially referred to as such due to the party’s hold over state government at the time.
Despite vicious attacks both within and outside of the university — he was, after all, together with Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno in Frankfurt, the only Marxist tenured professor in the country — his intellectual and political influence grew continuously. He joined the SPD for pragmatic reasons, but criticized its transformation from a workers’ party to a so-called people’s party in the late 1950s and expressed solidarity with its left-leaning student wing, SDS — ultimately leading to his own expulsion, alongside other similarly minded professors.
He also made important contributions in his academic career. Key disputes included his public disagreement with the ex-fascist, now “liberal” legal scholar Ernst Forsthoff, author of the 1933 book The Total State. While Forsthoff rejected the term “legal welfare state” as a legally unacceptable category, Abendroth saw both the possibility and necessity of accomplishing welfare-state objectives — and even initiating a transition to socialism — with the help of a democratic constitution.
Back in Frankfurt, Max Horkheimer refused to allow the “too left” Jürgen Habermas to complete his postdoctoral thesis on The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, leading the young philosopher to ask Abendroth, known for his intellectual courage, to be his supervisor instead. Despite facing a much more hostile political atmosphere than Frankfurt, Abendroth allowed Habermas to complete his thesis in Marburg in 1961. First published in 1962 and now a classic of postwar social theory, Habermas dedicated the volume “to Wolfgang Abendroth in gratitude.”
Abendroth reached the apex of his career as a highly influential public intellectual between the mid-1960s and mid-1970s. His work in this period focused primarily on strengthening the left wing of the workers’ movement and other democratic forces. Together with the sociologist Heinz Maus — a former student and assistant of Horkheimer — and the economist and sociologist Werner Hofmann, he formed the founding “Triumvirate” of the Marburg School, a cluster of Marxist social scientists at the University of Marburg that went on to produce a number of first-rate scholars including Karl Hermann Tjaden, Reinhard Kühnl, Frank Deppe, Georg Fülberth, and Dieter Boris.
The Man Behind the Marxist
Academic achievements and political interventions were not the only things that made Abendroth the most significant “organic” but nevertheless independent-minded, socialist intellectual in West Germany. His notoriety at least as much owed to his singular personality and reputation for absolute integrity and steadfastness.
He always answered phone calls with a lively, practically jubilant “Abendroth!” — though for all he knew, a bitter enemy awaited him on the other end of the line. Because of his reputation for kindness and patience, he attracted a number of peculiar characters to his office hours, seeking to convince him of their unacknowledged genius. They showed him colorful graphic illustrations of the road to a social paradise, or offered him bottles of water promising eternal health. He listened to all of these offers patiently, admired their roads to paradise, and sipped their water without hesitation.
He would nimbly grab the microphone at public meetings, arguing knowledgeably and verbosely and pulling the audience into his orbit. Once, as a young student, I remarked that we all admired our teacher Wolfgang Abendroth. “No,” one of my classmates corrected, “we don’t admire him, we love him.” We worried about him quite a bit, as he was a terrible driver, and often enough on Sundays we came across a Volkswagen Beetle tilting curiously as it drove with two wheels on the curb. The person behind the wheel was invariably Abendroth.
He smoked constantly during his seminars, while an assistant struggled to catch his falling cigarette ash. Students hung on every word of his endless sentences, throughout which he never lost his train of thought.
He intervened in all of the major political issues of his time: the development of the trade unions, the threat of a new fascism, the looming Emergency Acts, higher education policy, relations between East and West Germany, and the student movement. In doing so he was guided by an “operative” understanding of Marxist theory, that is to say he understood better than most that Marxism could only find legitimation in political practice. More so than most German intellectuals, he had internalized the famous formulation from Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach: “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”
Talking the Talk, Walking the Walk
Academically, Abendroth cemented his reputation with studies like the classic A Short History of the European Working Class, published in 1965 and translated into English several years later. He taught classes on the Weimar Republic, fascism, constitutional law, the workers’ movement, and Marxist theory to name but a few. Other professors of his time may have had comparatively extensive stores of knowledge, but none evinced such a profound unity between that which they thought, said, and did.
Toward his students he was always understanding and open-minded — even when the student movement occupied the Institute for Scientific Politics in January 1969. Of course, our occupation was not directed against Abendroth himself, but rather was motivated by more ritualistic purposes. Nevertheless, whereas Adorno called the police to haul protesting students out of his renowned Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt, Abendroth simply admonished us to “not lose contact with the masses.” Calling the police never crossed his mind.
Though all three had faced persecution under the Nazis, no long-term cooperation ever came to pass between Horkheimer, Adorno, and Abendroth. They all invoked Marxism, but their respective understandings of science were simply too opposed to one another. The Frankfurters conducted what Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello would call “artistic critique,” the study of the subjective coercions of capitalism, alienation, and objectification. Abendroth, by contrast, conducted “social critique”: the analysis of economic, social, and political conditions for transforming capitalist society through a socialist workers’ movement allied with the left-leaning intelligentsia.
Abendroth’s “operative” understanding of science also led him to sympathize with the German Communist Party (DKP), refounded in 1968, albeit without sacrificing his independence or accepting its line uncritically. He opposed the Warsaw Pact states’ march into Czechoslovakia in 1968, which the DKP defended as a necessary step to protect socialism. Despite its shortcomings, Abendroth defended the DKP as a party that organized class-conscious workers and thus played an important role in pulling the workers’ movement to the left.
A Partisan Professor
After Abendroth retired in 1972, a number of his former students were able to continue the Marburg School he founded, now in the guise of professors. Beyond Marburg, former Abendroth students taught in Paderborn, Kassel, Hamburg, and Bremen, where they continued the tradition. Abendroth spent his retirement in Frankfurt, where he continued to hold lectures at the “Academy of Labor” and speak up whenever he thought necessary.
Only a few months before his death, he held an impressive lecture at the University of Frankfurt together with Professor Josef Schleifstein, a Communist, former Gestapo prisoner, and director of the DKP’s research institute from 1968–1981, along with the left-wing doctor and journalist Hans Brender. He spoke impressively to one thousand listeners about his experiences as an intellectual in the workers’ movement during the Weimar Republic, the Nazi dictatorship, and the period after 1945.
Wolfgang Abendroth died in 1985 and was interred in Frankfurt am Main. Twenty years earlier, Jürgen Habermas had described him as a “partisan professor in the country of followers” — an apt summary of the man’s extraordinary personality and monumental importance for the anti-capitalist political and trade-union movements in West Germany.