Education in reality.

Helmuth Plessner’s contribution to the intellectual foundation of the Federal Republic of Germany


  • Carola Dietze



German history, intellectual history, political philosophy, anti-utopian thinking, Helmuth Plessner


To what extent were intellectuals responsible for the Nazi power grab, and how could they contribute to a new beginning in Germany after 1945? Numerous scholars have debated these questions in relation to right-wing academics. This article places the intellectual development of the “half-Jew” and emigrant Helmuth Plessner in the context of such debates. As a man of the political middle who cautioned against political extremism on both the right and left all his life, Plessner was a rare breed in twentieth-century Germany. In contrast to right-wing intellectuals who advocated for the «Third Reich», Plessner did not undergo processes of self-mobilization and disillusionment, nor did he have to deal with the issue of his own guilt. Therefore, in his case the question is rather what conclusions he drew from his experience of National Socialism and the Second World War and what effects this had on his thinking and actions. The article shows there was one goal in Plessner’s political philosophy as a decisive and ever-present concern: the education of the German bourgeoisie to deal with the world as it really was, that is, with reality (Erziehung zur Wirklichkeit) and away from utopian thinking. Apart from that, there were shifts (rather than ruptures or profound revisions) in Plessner’s thinking and actions: Around 1935, Plessner gave up both the idea of a German mission and his elite habits of the years around 1930. Instead, he transformed himself into an internationally effective scholar who consciously took on the role of a public intellectual.