In 1923, a group of young radical German thinkers and intellectuals came together at Victoria Alle 7, Frankfurt, determined to explain the workings of the modern world. Among the most prominent members of what became the Frankfurt School were philosophers Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Herbert Marcuse. Not only would they come to change the way we think, but also the subjects we deem worthy of intellectual investigation. Their lives, like their ideas, profoundly, and sometimes tragically, reflected and shaped the shattering events of the twentieth century.
Grand Hotel Abyss provides a story of unlikely contrasts and paradoxes, embracing a young Herbert Marcuse in Berlin shooting at right-wing snipers; Jürgen Habermas finding a spiritual ally in fellow ex-Hitler Youth member Joseph Ratzinger, better known as Pope Benedict XVI; Marxist thinkers working for the forerunner of the CIA during the Second World War; Adorno playing piano for Charlie Chaplin at Hollywood parties while eviscerating the comedian’s work in his books; the institute erasing the "M" word from its research papers so as not to affront its American hosts and potential sponsors.
Stuart Jeffries' dazzling journey into intellectual Europe becomes a history of the evolution of Marxism in the twentieth century. By taking popular culture seriously as an object of study–whether it was film, music, ideas, or consumerism–the Frankfurt School elaborated upon the nature and crisis of our mass-produced, mechanised society.
In 1940, Max Horkheimer wrote to a friend, "In view of what is now threatening to engulf Europe and perhaps the world, our work is essentially designed to pass things down through the night that is approaching: a kind of message in a bottle." The night he was referring to was, of course, the Holocaust and the Second World War. In an age of increasing global conflict, social media and consumerism, we may yet be out of Horkheimer’s night. Now is a good time to open this message in a bottle.