National identity and the German intellectuals(2)
In a newspaper article in October 1992 the sociologist Wolf Lepenies wrote:
Des Nachdenkens uber Deutschland sind wir mude geworden. Es ist nicht die verdiente Mudigkeit getaner, sondern die vorschnelle Mudigkeit der unvollendet gebliebenen und der unterschatzten Arbeit. Der Enthusiasmus des Jahres 1989 ist einer Lethargie und einem Pessimismus im Geistlichen gewichen, die bei unseren europaischen Nachbarn mir Besorgnis wahrgenommen werden.(3)
We have become tired of thinking about Germany. But it is not the fatigue which results from work completed. It is that which comes too early, from unfulfilled and underrated work. The enthusiasm of 1989 has turned into a lethargy and a pessimism which is seen by our European neighbours with concern.
The current affairs magazine, Der Spiegel, popularized the term 'Verdrossenheit' for this feeling in 1993. 'Verdrossenheit' implies a sense of unwillingness, reluctance and frustration in undertaking a task which seems hopeless from the beginning. Some years earlier, in 1988, the left-wing writer, Martin Walser, made a similar remark in relation to the problems that arise when thinking about Germany:
Wenn das Gesprach um Deutschland dreht, weiss man aus Erfahrung, dass es ungut verlaufen wird. Egal ob ich mich allein in das Deutschland-Gesprach schicke, ins Selbstgesprach also, ob ich es schreibend oder diskutierend versuche - es verlauft jedesmal ungut: ich gerate in Streit mit mir und anderen. Das Ende ist Trostlosigkeit.(4)
When the conversation turns to Germany you know from experience that it is not going to turn out well. Even if I start thinking about it alone, in dialogue with myself, so to speak - whether in writing or in discussion - it always turns out badly. I get into conflict with myself and with everyone else. The end-result is a sense of inconsolable misery.
Walser relates these feelings to the individual as well as the group. The 'Trostlosigkeit' which results from the discussion of Germany takes the form of a downward spiral from the history to the present, from the group to the individual, from the national to the personal, and from the public to the private. It is the feeling of annihilation of the individual German when confronted with the enormity of Nazi guilt. And as Walser points out, the conflicts involved not only split friends and families, but the self as well. In this depressive state the boundaries of the social and the individual, the public and the private are blurred. The categories become telescoped into each other. Discussion of Germany leads to fragmentation, bitterness and conflict, but also to the inability to distinguish levels of debate:
Allmahlich wird mir klar, dass jeder bei diesem Gesprach eine andere Geschichte aufarbeitet. Seine eigene und oft noch seine ganze Familiengeschichte. Nie bollern aus mir die Schlagworter so unbremsbar heraus wie beim Deutschland-Gesprach. Aber beim Diskussionspartner doch auch. Aber wer hat angefangen? Und schon ist die Kriegsschulddebatte unser eigenster Text ...(5)
Gradually it becomes clear to me that each one of us is working out a different history in these discussions. Both one's own history and that of one's whole family. When I'm talking about Germany the catchwords and slogans shoot out of me without stopping. The same applies for my discussion-partner. But who started first? In no time we're involved in the debate about war guilt. ...
As Lepenies and others have implied, the 'Verdrossenheit' of the critical intelligentsia is related to questions of national identity which have become unavoidable and urgent since the end of the Wall and Unification. Before then, the debate about questions of national identity was dominated by the conservatives and the far right. For the post-war critical intellectuals who overwhelmingly identified in terms of a left-wing universalism, the very category, 'national identity' was at best tainted and at worst fully discredited by the associations with Nazism and the Holocaust. For most members of the intelligentsia who concerned themselves with the past, it seemed no longer morally legitimate to try to resuscitate concepts of German identity.
During the post-war period this seemed confirmed, as the main spokespersons for a revised German identity were the thinkers and politicians of the right. Some others such as Gunter Grass, Iring Fetscher and Jurgen Habermas, recognized that there was a vacuum in left-wing critical thinking about the 'nation', and in response to this tried to resuscitate a set of national values. However, they did so in terms of selective, truncated and problematic categories such as the 'Kulturnation' ('cultural nation') and 'Verfassungspatriotismus' (constitutional patriotism').
The discussion of categories such as national identity and ethnicity in the USA, England, France and the post-colonial countries did not take place in Germany. National identity meaning a 'package' of aspects of individual and group identity resulting from belonging to a national community, has received little discussion. There has been little exposure to concepts of national identity as a 'repertoire of shared values, symbols and traditions',(6) a broad spectrum of culturally influenced individual, attitudinal and situational stereotypes, which are not morally and ethically predetermined, but occupy a range of moral positions modulated by humour and modes of ambivalence such as irony and satire. By and large the term 'national identity' was used with scepticism and suspicion as a narrowly political category, strongly associated with goals such as the reunification of the two post-war German states, or the aims of particular political parties. Many writers still reject it as a legitimate term of social analysis.(7)
During the eighties in particular, as conservative thinkers and politicians began to press new interpretations of 'German identity' into the service of the social profiling of the Federal Republic (FRG), the scornful rejection of these categories by the left began to sound hollow.(8) As the belief in Marxism-Leninism and 'real existing Socialism' waned, and with them the most influential structures for group-identification of the 'sixty-eight' intelligentsia, increasing numbers of critical intellectuals found themselves in a grey area regarding their attitudes to concepts of German identity. At the same time as they lost their Marxism and their belief in GDR socialism, the Oedipal aggressiveness of the 'sixty-eighters'' rejection of their fathers waned, as they themselves became parents and took over positions of social dominance. They found themselves in a world of 'new ethnicity' in the West, a world where national and/or ethnic identity was becoming again the predominant mode of self-identification in group terms.(9) As Peter Schneider and others have observed, the student-generation on their travels overseas experienced the frustrating paradox of being identified as German precisely in their self-presentation as cosmopolitan, that is, in their deliberate and exaggerated rejection of a national habitus.(10)
In spite of the world-wide revaluing of the categories of national and ethnic identity in the formulation of group identities, and despite the increasingly self-confident occupation of these categories by the right in Germany, the critical intelligentsia still did not take up the topic of national identity. The reason for this was far from simply intellectual. It was the result of deeply internalized taboos stemming from the Nazi period. The concept of national identity was a threatening conduit for a generation which had determined and defined itself in terms of the rejection of the fathers and what they stood for, namely Nazism. The re-utilization of this category, it was felt, would allow the flow of discredited and inherently flawed material between the generations. To rethink the past in terms of national identity would allow the 'Stunde Null' of the post-war generation to be reset in terms of the continuity of a fatal German history.
The taboos, the unresolved conflicts in generational identity, the well-established political fronts, and the absence of non-negative paradigms made it difficult for these intellectuals to even begin to come to terms with the stirrings of national consciousness as the post-war era was drawing to a close. And then, in 1989, the Wall came down and in the following year the two Germanies were united. The left-wing intellectuals had little time to make up the lost ground in rethinking the terms 'Germany', 'nation', 'national identity' and 'nationalism'. In 1990, Rudiger Bubner still could refer to the 'deafening silence' of the intellectuals.(11)
Up until mid-1992 it was widely accepted that the racist violence which surfaced in Hoyerswerda, Rostock and elsewhere after November 1989 was an 'East German' phenomenon. With the attacks in Molln in November 1992 and then Solingen in 1993, however, it could no longer be maintained that violence against foreigners was located 'predominantly in the new Federal States'.(12) In this climate the sociologist Ulrich Beck identified the interrelationships between national insecurity, racial hatred and the identity problems introduced with unification and concluded: 'The homicidal attacks on foreigners are a form of displaced civil war.'(13)
Most recently, Jochen Vogt has related the depression and disorientation of the 'sixty-eighters' to the loss of their idealized hopes for socialism after 1989.(14) However, this is only a part of the story. The current malaise is by no means merely the result of ideological shock. It arises from deeper well-springs of individual and social identity for this generation. The Marxist utopianism of the 'sixty-eighters' represented a form of group-identification for a generation whose nation was discredited, whose history had generated the very opposite of a democratic civil society and whose families had failed to provide the foundations for a sense of individual integrity. Marxism represented a new basis for group identity, and, most importantly, enabled the post-war intellectuals of the FRG to halt the annihilating downward spiral from present to past. It provided an avenue of escape from the 'maelstrom' of German history which sooner or later dragged everything from the surface of the present into the depths of the Nazi past.(15)
Jochen Vogt writes that the '"sixty-eighters" failed to criticize the GDR', and asks:
How is it possible that a movement that reacted so sensitively ... to authoritarian structures in human relationships and universities, in national theaters and kindergartens - how is it possible that precisely this movement failed to recognize and attack repression in the GDR ...?(16)
His response is hardly credible but nevertheless indicates the extent to which the Marxism of the sixty-eighters provided solutions to individual and group identity problems:
Sixty-eighters did not want to reject completely and from the very beginning a political system which called itself socialist ... We were guilty of massive repression ... not because we saw anything remotely worthy of imitation in the GDR model, but rather precisely because we sensed that the GDR was all wrong.(17)
The socialist utopia was the key-stone of …