'A Presence.Called Germany': Personal History in the Construction of National Identity by Post-War German Intellectuals: Three Case-Studies

By Morgan, Peter | Journal of European Studies, September 1996 | Go to article overview

'A Presence.Called Germany': Personal History in the Construction of National Identity by Post-War German Intellectuals: Three Case-Studies


Morgan, Peter, Journal of European Studies


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. …

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