Sketch for a novel on Neville Chamberlain (1942)

In autumn 1942, while working with T.W. Adorno on Dialectic of Enlightenment, Max Horkheimer began to write a novel. Its lead character was the English prime minister Neville Chamberlain (1869–1940), who, in September 1938, after several meetings with Hitler and along with France’s Edouard Daladier, agreed not to oppose Germany’s demand to annex the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia. Horkheimer regarded Chamberlain’s willingness to appease Hitler as evidence of the complicity of the ruling classes with fascism, as well as a significant test case of what counted as a ‘reasonable’ demand in modern political life. Indeed, the concurrent work on Dialectic of Enlightenment insisted that fascism was an extension of bourgeois domination with its means–end rationality, even if it commonly relied more explicitly on ‘unreasonable’ brute force, rather than mediately, via exchange and the market. 1 A satirical work, the novel was to have followed Chamberlain’s afterlife and his encounter with God, who against his assumptions is a woman, but in line with his fears has democratic and socialist sympathies. Horkheimer had an overview typed up and had drafted a couple of versions of the novel’s first few pages.

Stimulus and research material for the novel came from books and newspaper articles sent to Horkheimer in California by Herbert Marcuse, who in autumn 1942 was living in New York, before moving to Washington DC. From time to time, the novel was discussed in their letters. One letter from Horkheimer to Marcuse reveals, for example, that Chamberlain was to be led into the Realm of the Souls not only by Duns Scotus, who appears in the following translated extract, but also by the poet Dante and the statesmen Michel de l’Hôpital and Klemens von Metternich. In a letter to Horkheimer on 8 November 1942, Marcuse observed that the use of Metternich ‘would give you a good opportunity to show your theory on the true significance of “reactionary” and “popular” movements. A closer study of his personality and work would furthermore provide excellent material for our analysis of enlightenment, romanticism and domination.’


Horkheimer abandoned the novel for unknown reasons. The last mention of it is in a letter from Horkheimer to Marcuse on 4 December 1942: ‘Thank you for the excerpts. Please don’t use too much time for this problem. I have not yet started since I used all time for the main thing.’ 3 He also assured Marcuse in this letter that he should accept a position in the US intelligence bureau of the Office of War Information in Washington DC, arguing that it would not impede his future collaboration with the Institute for Social Research, but might indeed be a means of furthering their shared interests, such as their critical attention to German chauvinism.

The sketch for a novel is included in Volume 12 of Horkheimer’s Collected Works, appearing in a very short section titled ‘Poetic Efforts’, in which the only other piece is a two-page skit from 1946, ‘Declaration of Independence by Dogs’. It is translated here with the permission of the German publisher, Fischer.

Esther Leslie


  1. Adorno and Horkheimer briefly contrast Hitler’s and Chamberlain’s versions of reason in relation to exchange in Dialectic of Enlightenment, Stanford University Press, Stanford CA, 2002, p. 174.
  2. Cited in the editorial prefatory note, Max Horkheimer, Gesammelte Schriften, Volume 12: Nachgelassene Schriften, 1931–1949, ed. Gunzelin Schmid Noerr, Fischer Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, 1985.
  3. Ibid.

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