Culture and Crisis: The Case of Germany and Sweden

Culture and Crisis: The Case of Germany and Sweden

Culture and Crisis: The Case of Germany and Sweden

Culture and Crisis: The Case of Germany and Sweden


It is often argued that Germany and Scandinavia stand at two opposite ends of a spectrum with regard to their response to social-economic disruptions and cultural challenges. Though, in many respects, they have a shared cultural inheritance, it is nevertheless the case that they mobilize different mythologies and different modes of coping when faced with breakdown and disorder. The authors argue that it is at these "critical junctures," points of crisis and innovation in the life of communities, that the tradition and identity of national and local communities are formed, polarized, and revalued; it is here that social change takes a particular direction.



Among the many ways to evaluate the achievements of different societies, two are especially striking. For the romantic poet William Blake (as later for Nietzsche) a civilization was to be assessed by the status accorded to genius; for the philosopher Locke by the tolerance extended to mediocrity. The twentieth century has witnessed two exemplary embodiments of these positions and their corresponding myths of the Superman and Everyman. For a long time in the European imagination, Germany was Blakean, Scandinavia was Lockean.

It is tempting to suggest that the first myth produced the Faustian Übermensch, the second the "gray heroism" of the middle way. In the first, self-realization was linked to hate and death (Hitler pronounced happiness to be the domain of cows and Englishmen), in the second, to communal wellbeing. One yielded authoritarian tyranny, the other the gentle despotism of an average Mr. Svensson. The first privileged zaum (an eloquent Russian word meaning "bypassing reason"); the second deified rationality. In one, what might be called the coral reef mentality was of paramount importance; in the other individual autonomy. One pursued revolution, the other rapprochement and consensus. One was Dionysian, the other Apollonian.

Today, of course, such hard and fast oppositions are more and more suspect. If there is such a thing as a "whore with a heart of gold," then Sweden increasingly reveals itself as an ex-virgin with the heart of a whore (cf. Myrdal, Jr's. "whores of reason"). Comparisons of the Swedish system to totalitarian regimes, once incidental and subdued, are now more pronounced, even in fashion. Recently a number of studies have revealed the basic "powerlessness" of the individual in what was once regarded as the most democratic society in the world. There is even talk about a Swedish folkhem variant of "fascism," a notion dramatically reinforced by the recent . . .

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