The Polish ‘Vita’ (2001)

At a meeting in Poland in 2000, Huessy was asked to compose a brief sketch of Rosenstock-Huessy’s life and work for the “Gazeta Wyborcza,” and this essay was the result. It remained the only entry on this page for many years.

Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy was a German soldier who became a dedicated American, a professor who bitterly attacked his academic colleagues for shirking their responsibility to society, and a Christian whose unshakable faith in the power of the word led him beyond the church. Born into a wealthy assimilated Jewish family in Berlin in 1888, Rosenstock-Huessy officially committed himself to Christianity at 18. He was passionately convinced of the truths revealed not only in the New Testament, but in the what grew out of the gospel as the Christian tradition as well. As he wrote in The Christian Future (1946):

The Christian dogma is not an intellectual formula but a record and promise of life. It does not propose ideas for our minds to master; it tells actual events which can master and transform us as they did the first Christians. It is not a mere topic of thought but the presupposition of sanity.

The crucial importance of time and its rhythms, whether it was the periods of one man’s life, the sequence of the generations, or the eras of our common history, was central to Rosenstock-Huessy’s understanding of Christianity; the secret of Christianity’s continual appeal was that it inspired each new generation to do something completely different from what its predecessors had done, and yet allowed it to build on those past achievements in solidarity with their spirit.

Rosenstock-Huessy felt that a proper understanding of this intergenerational role of the spirit laid to rest the old arguments about the supposed disparity between Christ’s teaching and the acts of the apostles: Paul lived Christ’s teachings but taught his life. Rosenstock-Huessy believed that since Christ, any insight obligates the thinker to take action. Rejecting philosophy’s abstract ethics, he emphasized a Christian’s duty to perform the unum necessarium, the one act necessary in any given hour, regardless of moral definitions of right and wrong.

Later in life he wrote that he narrowly avoided becoming a fanatic Catholic; however, while he was convinced that our history was the revelation of the Holy Spirit over time, he was equally convinced that the visible church had ceased to be the carrier of historic change (a view which he finally articulated in The Age of the Church (1927-8), co-authored with the Catholic theologian Joseph Wittig); in the trenches near Verdun in 1917 he had a vision of the unity of Europe’s common past which convinced him that the state had also relinquished that role. Thereafter, he and his friends expected society itself, as heir to the church, to become the new champion of mankind’s future.

In the course of his wartime correspondence with Franz Rosenzweig, Rosenstock-Huessy almost persuaded the young Hegel scholar to convert to Christianity. Rosenzweig did accept his friend’s view of the Christian era as the history of salvation, but in the end chose to reaffirm his own identity as a Jew. The two men found common ground in rejecting idealism and proclaiming that faith was more important than reason, and the spoken word which bound the speaker to act worth more than mere internal thought. For Rosenstock-Huessy, experiencing such unanimity despite fundamental differences was liberating. It enabled him to enter close collaborations with a Marxist lathe operator (Eugen May) and a Catholic theologian (Wittig); the fruitful union of opposites became his program in adult education and social action.

Like many others, Rosenstock-Huessy experienced the war which engulfed Europe in 1914 as the end of an era; what set him apart from his merely observant contemporaries was his belief that his insight obligated him to act. He felt that the old pillars of society (the state, the churches, and the universities) were all fatally compromised by their collaboration in the war effort; he spent the next fifteen years trying to establish new institutions to bridge the class, religious, and ideological barriers that had characterized pre-war society.

Trained as a legal historian, Rosenstock-Huessy had taught at the University of Leipzig before the war; now he abandoned his academic career to work in industry and adult education. He offered his services to the automobile firm Daimler-Benz in Stuttgart, then in the grip of a debilitating strike, and while there, founded and co-edited Germany’s first factory newspaper. He accepted the call to the University of Breslau in 1923 only because the years of inflation had made it impossible for him to support his family any other way. Even then, he managed to express the lessons of his years in industry and adult education in his published work.

Most of the experiments in adult education which arose in the aftermath of the war narrowly addressed one social class or another. Rosenstock-Huessy called for a school based on the knowledge of death, for men ready to move beyond the graveyard of their own dreams. At this “School of Events” the social classes would no longer turn inward on themselves, but toward each other and a common future based on the shared suffering of Germany’s defeat in the war.

He believed that shared suffering or shared joy could break down the barriers between people; in the absence of overwhelming emotion, the minimum required was shared manual labor. All his volunteer-labor experiments were attempts to create a shared space where people who would not otherwise speak to each other could join in conversation as equals. He had experimented with this as early as 1916: when morale was dangerously low at the front, he was given permission to arrange a work project in which officers and men worked side-by side without regard to rank. With the founding of the Academy of Labor in 1921 he sought to bring together people from all levels of industry, from worker to capitalist.

[This pioneer effort foundered on the ideologies of the participants; in his 1924 work The People of Industry (Industrievolk), Rosenstock-Huessy reviewed the state of the German workers’ movement and saw that it was collapsing as socialism (which he called “the dictatorship of theory over the proletariat” and “the last poisonous flower of German idealism”) was sapped by the growing strength of both Fascism and Communism. In later years he wrote that it was wrong to attempt to distinguish too precisely between the two; both operated by applying military rule to society’s peacetime economy.]

In 1928, he helped organize the volunteer labor camps in Loewenberg which brought together young men from farms, factories, and the universities. Work was recognized as the prerequisite for real conversation: the subject to be discussed in the afternoon was presented at breakfast, and three or four hours of shared manual labor bound the mixed work-teams together before they gathered again to take part in the discussions. (Many of those who participated in the camps were later reunited in the resistance to Hitler, especially in the group which formed around Helmuth von Moltke and which the Gestapo named the “Kreisau circle”.) The Silesian experiment was repeated in the United States in 1940-42, at Camp William James in Tunbridge, Vermont. These early efforts at volunteer work-service have been hailed as the fore-runners of the American Peace Corps and Aktion Sühnezeichen in Germany.

In 1920 Rosenstock-Huessy had published a book pleading for German society to recognize the changes made irreversible by the war, and prophesied an attempt to re-establish a “pseudo-empire” (“Luegenkaisertum”) and a second war if society tried to go back to its pre-war ways. The night that Hitler came to power he resigned his post at the University of Breslau and made arrangements to immigrate to the United States. Even after his immigration, he hoped that a common project for the nations of Europe might open the way to peace; he proposed that they replace the old colonial regimes in Africa with a joint administration for the entire continent.

The collapse of the old European order had opened his eyes to the need for a common future; he had responded with a vision of Europe’s common past. The need of the churches to find a common future, made visible in the ecclesiastical injustice of his friend Wittig’s 20-year excommunication, inspired him to express the end of the “Age of the Church”; he and Wittig documented the essential unity of the Christian tradition despite the changing role of the church in history.

Although Rosenstock-Huessy had foreseen and worked to forestall a second war, its outbreak in 1939 came as a devastating blow. Convinced that a common future was the only bearable prospect for the peoples of the earth, he responded by attempting to show the unity of their past; he developed a universal spiritual history of mankind linking the tribes, the astrological empires (such as Egypt and China), the Greeks, the Jews, and the peoples of the Christian era in one great chain of the spirit with the incarnation of Christ as its hinge and center-point. He attempted to show how the truths made articulate in Christianity had been recognized from mankind’s earliest awareness of God; he proposed that in the future every man would have to be able to act at any given moment as a pagan (in the inspired moment), as a Jew (living in the face of eternity), and as a Christian (knowing the one deed called for by the present hour).

Rosenstock-Huessy saw the task of coming generations as one of returning a sense of the rhythms of time to a world tyrannized by the time-clock and the ever-accelerating pace of life brought about by technological change. Denying the presupposition that technological change is neutral or indeed even positive, he formulated a law of technological change which made clear the costs and dangers such change brought with it: technological change not only shortens the time necessary for a particular task, but widens the space in which it takes place, and destroys the social group that had served the old technology. (Oil heat, for instance, connects the consumer to an international distribution network and puts woodcutters out of work.)

The recognition of the importance of time was vital to mankind’s survival. In 1925 he had proposed shifts in industrial organization to recognize the achievements of a worker’s lifelong experience (specifically, setting up experienced foremen with independent “colony” shops which would have a contractual obligation to produce a certain amount for the parent company, but otherwise be independent and free to take on other work; over the course of years, ownership of the shop could pass to the former worker and give him something to bequeath to another, although the contractual links to the parent company would remain). Rosenstock-Huessy called for some form of “industrial feudalism” as a way to decentralize industry while still retaining the benefits of large-scale organization.

He felt that if the unemployment unavoidable in a free economy were only recognized and made the lynch-pin of economic theory, it could be turned from a curse into a blessing. Rosenstock-Huessy saw the unemployed as the last great untapped resource of the industrialized economies, and work-service as the means to re-integrate them into society. As long as they were no longer isolated, but grouped together with volunteers to provide the necessary but unprofitable services which could re-weave society’s raveled fabric, the unemployed could become a force for regenerating social order. The readiness of the volunteer to simply work side-by-side with people of other backgrounds and cultures was the sacrifice necessary to avoid future conflict. After the end of what he regarded as one thirty-year war interrupted by a twenty-year ceasefire, Rosenstock-Huessy called increasingly for international work-service efforts. The peoples of the earth had to get to know each other without ideologies, programs, or preconditions, in order to find a way to a common future.

As he wrote towards the end of his life, he

had been searching for modern forms to replace mission and imperialism ever since 1912. I knew that I would have to look for them in my own backyard rather than in Africa or in China.

Rosenstock-Huessy saw himself as one link in a chain which stretched back nearly two thousand years: a chain of men who had tried, in their lives and work, to create new forms of expression for the One Spirit which had inspired them.