German Fictions: An Exchange

The National Interest, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

German Fictions: An Exchange


Jan-Werner Mueller, Center for European Studies, Harvard University:

FOUR years ago, Jacob Heilbrunn, writing in Foreign Affairs' November/December 1996 issue, advanced the notion that Germany was turning more nationalist with the rise of a "New Right" of young conservative intellectuals. Josef Joffe famously dismissed this diagnosis in a subsequent issue and complained about the fact that American observers simply could not accept a Germany that was ultimately "boring."

Now Mr. Heilbrunn has found something exciting again: German writers are illiberal, anti-American and, to boot, actually have a large influence over the German public ("Germany's Illiberal Fictions", Summer 2000). Alas, much of the argument repeats what conservatives said in Germany ten years ago, when intellectuals like Gunter Grass and Jurgen Habermas were wrong-footed by unification and, almost by default, resorted to a rather crude anti-nationalism. Grass in particular subscribed to a bizarre historical determinism--according to Germany's most famous writer, a united German nation-state would automatically lead to "another Auschwitz."

But the real story is not that German writers often get it wrong--though much less often than intellectuals before 1945, a historical break that Mr. Heilbrunn seriously underestimates--but that, by and large, German intellectuals from the late 1950s onwards consciously sought to act as "democratic citizens" and advocate both the democratization and Westernization of the country. Their overreaction to unification does not detract from this achievement, but instead only proves that it was their very concerns about Westernization and democracy that made them so wary about the accession of an East Germany that seemed both anti-Western and undemocratic. Instead of idealizing East Germany, as Mr. Heilbrunn claims, they were dead scared of a Germany that seemed so much more German. But how did they get to this point, where, instead of celebrating unification, German intellectuals would suspect other Germans of being too German?

Figures like Habermas, Grass, Hans Magnus Enzensberger and Ralf Dahrendorf, to name but a few first defined their peculiar role at the end of the 1950s and the early 1960s, and it is no accident that Habermas once called himself a member of the "generation of 1958." During this period, the building blocks for the role of the Left-liberal intellectual in West Germany were put into place. Most important, in the late 1950s the attitude toward dealing with the past slowly began to change, from the extremes of silence and defiant self-righteousness of the immediate postwar period to a new critical awareness prompted by a succession of scandals, in particular a number of anti-Semitic attacks--such as the desecration of the Cologne synagogue on Christmas Day 1959--and the increasingly apparent failings of the judiciary in dealing with the perpetrators. At the same time, the conviction gained ground among intellectuals that Germany had been a "belated nation" in comparison with Western Europe and the United States, and that the pathologies of its history could be explained by its Sonderweg--a special, anti-democratic path diverging from the West.

The advocacy both of an active engagement with the past and of the Westernization of Germany became central to the role of the intellectual in the Federal Republic. Of course, this did not exclude the possibility of German intellectuals often criticizing the West themselves de haut en has, which, however, stood in marked contrast to the fact that political leaders--in both East and West Germany--were overeager to please their respective superpowers. In other words, German intellectuals could still fall victim to the very anti-Western cultural pessimism that they sought to escape. But in contrast to older academics who had still dominated the early and mid-1950s, younger scholars tried consciously to define themselves in opposition to the tradition of the conservative "German mandarins" and to the illiberal Weimar intellectuals in particular. …

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