We live in a civilized society

Summary of About the process of civilization

Emigration under National Socialism

In the 1920s, the city of Frankfurt experienced an intellectual heyday. Cultural and social life flourished in a liberal atmosphere. The Institute for Social Research at Johann Wolfgang Goethe University, founded in 1923, attracted scientists from all over the country, including Max Horkheimer, Theodor W. Adorno and Erich Fromm. In the same building as the famous institute was the sociological seminar, where Norbert Elias worked as Karl Mannheimer's assistant and looked after students.

After the National Socialists came to power in 1933, around a third of the teaching staff at Frankfurt University was dismissed for racist and political reasons. The institute for social research and with it the sociological seminar was closed. Many Jewish intellectuals had to leave Germany. Under the influence of anti-Semitic propaganda and anti-Jewish legislation, around 37,000 Jews turned their backs on Germany in 1933. The first place of refuge for the emigrants was not infrequently Paris, where a “German colony” emerged. A large part of the Jewish emigrants tried to move on to the USA. In Europe, Great Britain took in the largest proportion of German-Jewish emigrants with around 75,000 people. Many humanities scholars such as Adorno, Karl Popper and Norbert Elias found a new home here temporarily or permanently. Economic conditions, however, were difficult, especially for those who did not have a perfect command of the English language.


In his habilitation thesis The Courtly Man, Elias examined the courtly absolutist society of France in the 17th and 18th centuries. In it he recognized the bridge that connected the medieval feudal society with the bourgeois society of his own present. In 1933 he submitted his habilitation thesis to the Sociological Seminar of the University of Frankfurt. But after the Nazis seized power, he was refused the inaugural lecture because of his Jewish origins.

In French and later in British exile, Elias worked out his habilitation thesis on a major theory about the origin of Western civilization. With a grant from a Jewish refugee organization, he was able to do research in the library of the British Museum - in the same place as Karl Marx 80 years earlier.

The influences of Marx, Auguste Comte, Sigmund Freud and Max Weber can be felt, and yet Elias did not come from any sociological school. He wanted to combine the specialist knowledge of various disciplines - from history to philosophy and psychology to economics - into a general, overarching “human science”. In 1937 a preprint of the first volume appeared in Prague, but the entire publication failed because of the invasion of German troops into Czechoslovakia. Finally, in 1939, a small Swiss publisher brought out the book.

Impact history

For a long time Elias ’work was denied much attention even in professional circles. Due to the author's Jewish origins, the book was not allowed to appear in Germany or Austria. And abroad during the Second World War there was no interest in the writing of an unknown German author. Despite his teaching activities, first at the London School of Economics and later at the University of Leicester, Elias lacked the necessary contacts to the professional world while in exile in Britain. He could not be assigned to any academic direction or specialty and always remained an outsider in English university operations.

It wasn't until the mid-1970s that On the Process of Civilization was translated into English. However, the book, which did not fit into the sociological mainstream of those years, initially remained an insider tip among social historians. With the publication of the German paperback edition in 1976, the work finally experienced its breakthrough. In the first year alone, 20,000 copies were sold.

In the 1980s, a wealth of scientific papers appeared on the social history of childhood and adolescence, family and sexuality, which were based on Elias' theory. About the process of civilization has been part of the canon for historians, psychologists, sociologists and educators since the 1990s at the latest. The work became a scientific bestseller and has been translated into many languages.