German Fictions

December 1, 2000 Topic: Society Regions: Central EuropeEurope Tags: AcademiaBusinessIntellectual

German Fictions

Mini Teaser: An exchange on Jacob Heilbrunn's recent portrait of Germany's new literary Right.

by Author(s): Jan-Werner MuellerJames DavisStefan SullivanJacob Heilbrunn

Jan-Werner Mueller:

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 JŸrgen 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 bas, 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. Enzensberger famously described their task as "the sanitary chore of the intellectuals after the end of fascism, the whole ideological waste disposal, a very wearisome and protracted job."

Moreover, it is simply not true historically that major West German intellectuals became fellow-travelers of East Germany. Grass, for instance, was one of the most outspoken critics of the East German regime; his only -- though major -- fault was that he often sought to balance criticism of the East with criticism of the West, when such a balance was misconceived in the first place. Intellectuals, while often complaining of being "homeless" or even seeing Germany as a "country of enemies", as Enzensberger put it in the early 1960s, in fact were never quite as alienated from the politics of the Federal Republic as such rhetoric suggested. While they attempted to foster what one might call a "culture of suspicion" vis-ˆ-vis the new state and its representatives, they by and large did subscribe to the West German constitution -- even if it was sometimes a logic of the lesser evil that led them to this stance. As Enzensberger admitted in retrospect, they were "latter-day liberals, good Social Democrats, moralists and socialists without clearly defined aims, anti-fascists without a programme for the future." Still, for all their programmatic vagueness, West German intellectuals were able to do what was indispensable for intellectuals in order to have any coherent stance at all, namely, to define one general interest, in this case democratization, to which particular criticisms could then be related.

Conceiving of themselves as a "democratic elite" or even a "democratic fire brigade", they sought to substitute for a broader critical public that was yet to develop. They aimed at fostering what they quite openly called the "re-education of the masses", as well as a sober, so-called "Anglo-Saxon model" of debate, as the very Hans Werner Richter, whom Mr. Heilbrunn maligns, put it -- a model that in particular sought to avoid the polemical German tendency of turning political argument into a matter of mutual moral destruction.

Ironically, rather than unification discrediting left-wing and liberal intellectuals due to their extreme skepticism about the nation-state -- as was so often predicted ten years ago -- it arguably gave the "usual intellectual suspects" another lease on public life. With the addition of East Germany, the questions of democratization and Westernization that intellectuals like Habermas and Grass had made it their specialty to answer were back on the agenda.

Ten years after unification, however, there is a widespread sense that, while it was crucial for intellectuals to detect and denounce continuities after 1945, the old model of intellectual intervention has itself become anachronistic -- due ironically to its very success in helping to make Germany a democratic Western country. It is no accident that Mr. Heilbrunn cannot name any younger writers as examples of the supposed tendencies he describes -- everyone in the Walser debate, for instance, was at least sixty-five. Younger intellectuals remain conspicuously suspicious of a public role and any kind of littérature engagée. This is not a matter of wider "postmodern" predilections, as some observers have claimed. A fundamental dilemma is the lack of any clearly identifiable "general interest" that intellectuals could responsibly advocate -- and, for all the rhetorical excesses and misguided political judgments of intellectuals after 1945, the democratization of West Germany was such an interest to which intellectuals could subscribe -- as citizens, not as experts.

Like democrats in general, the democratic intellectual does not need any particular expertise. There are no "experts" in democracy, and the intellectuals' lack of expertise only proved the point that citizens needed the right attitudes, rather than particular elite knowledge. Arguably, all of this is much less true with moral disagreements about bioethics and technology, or instances of international conflict that are less ideologized than the Cold War. In these areas, which are of course also hotly debated in Germany and in urgent need of moral clarification, it is easy for a philosophical agent provocateur like Peter Sloterdijk to cause a storm in a teacup. But in the more serious discussions, the experts (and Sloterdijk is hardly one of them) and even the old-style cultural pessimists are back with a vengeance, while the past and ideas about "Westernization" hardly illuminate the moral and political stakes. No doubt, younger German intellectuals will have to think again -- but not about Mr. Heilbrunn's periodical predictions.

James W. Davis:

My friend Jacob Heilbrunn reads German and has a number of German friends, but as his recent contribution to this journal makes clear, he neither knows nor understands contemporary Germany.

In his essay, Heilbrunn argues: 1) that the postwar intellectual Left had a "decisive influence [on] German political culture"; 2) that important members of this group have shifted to the Right, are now promoting a nationalist agenda, and have "shamelessly misused the Nazi past"; and 3) that public opinion will follow the lead of the praeceptor Germaniae, the literary vanguard of German identity and interests, in rejecting taboos of the past in favor of a Germany unshackled by the burdens of history. The argument is provocative and resonates well with the latent anti-German sentiments prevalent among many whose images of Germany and Germans were formed in an earlier era and prove remarkably resistant to change. It is, however, wrong.

First, the political program espoused by the Left -- a neutralist, anti-capitalist and pacifist Sonderweg, was rejected both during and after the Cold War. From the Stalin Note and the Berlin Crisis to intermediate-range nuclear forces and finally reunification within NATO, Germany's political leadership rejected the calls of the intellectual Left and firmly opted for Westbindung (attachment to the West). Moreover, in the wake of these crucial decisions, the German citizenry repeatedly returned conservative governments to power with healthy majorities. Where is the evidence for the Left's "decisive influence"?

Mr. Heilbrunn is correct to note that Martin Walser's 1998 speech in the Paulskirche ignited a controversy among the literary class. Perhaps he even struck "a responsive chord" among some in the German population who resent "Jewish demands for German reparations." But such controversies are the stuff of healthy democracies, and, Walser's arguments notwithstanding, Germans have once again acknowledged the misdeeds of their grandparents and agreed to compensate survivors of Nazi Germany's slave and forced labor economy.

Heilbrunn's ignorance of the workings of contemporary German society is most apparent when he argues that the internecine feuds of the intelligentsia are harbingers of a return to earlier patterns (even if he never brings himself to tell us just which patterns he has in mind) in society at large. The days when Gymnasium graduates (bildungs BŸrgertum) avidly followed the musings of the heirs to Germany's great literary and philosophical tradition are long gone. True, there are some who lament the fact that the youth no longer learn Greek and Latin and appear ignorant of the literary canon. But these voices are akin to those remnants of an earlier American epoch, people who today spend their evenings together over cocktails discussing the fact that even the "good clubs" are letting in Jews and Catholics.

The average German neither knows nor cares about the Walser affair. Indeed, if one were interested in future political or social trends in Germany, one would do better to follow the thinking of such figures as Ron Sommer of Deutsche Telekom or JŸrgen Schremp of DaimlerChrysler. Not only do they have the ear of a Socialist chancellor, but they are also role models for the new generation of German youth who are thoroughly Americanized and profit-oriented.

All of this is not to say that post-unification Germany is without problems. There is widespread disillusionment in the population of the former East Germany and some potential for political instability. But the sources of this discontent are not found in the writings of former Leftists turned Rightists, nor are they likely to there be assuaged.

Stefan Sullivan:

By claiming that German writers have "shamelessly misused the Nazi past", Jacob Heilbrunn unfortunately recycles many of the tired themes of the Holocaust Industry, that collection of observers who frame the German wartime experience as one of, and only of, complicity with Nazism and aggression toward the Jews. For example, in an otherwise sympathetic summary of Gunter Grass' novel, The Tin Drum, Heilbrunn mocks the author's nostalgia for his native Danzig, his lapse into "sheer bathos" in describing the surrounding landscape, and his overall "elegy for German links to the East." Must every German expression of warmth toward his native landscape betray some dormant zeal for Lebensraum?

True, the Nazis transformed the traditional German love of nature into an anti-modernist utopia of agrarian kitsch. But this sentimentalism for landscape and Heimat, whether inspired by the grandeur of the Alps or the melancholy lyricism of the eastern plains, is genuine, deeply rooted in German culture, and far transcends the twelve-year Nazi legacy. If Germany is to organically reconnect to its past and not to some sterile, if harmless, concept of "constitutional patriotism", it must also reconnect to this past. Attempts by German writers to do so should be lauded, not subjected to facile derision.

Heilbrunn also takes issue with the writer Martin Walser's supposed attempt to "conflate the suffering of the German Jews with the calamities that ordinary Germans experienced during the war." But, in fact, Walser is doing just the opposite, making the basic -- but to outside observers still hard to grasp -- point that the ground-level German wartime experience had little to do with the Holocaust or the Jews. It was about food shortages, mind-numbing toil in armaments factories, and terrifying gossip about the Eastern front. Then, when the bombings began, civilian life descended into a surreal subterranea of darkened shelters and mounds of rubble, of digging for lost relatives and grieving for fallen sons, of simply surviving in a land of hallowed-eyed walking dead. No one would suggest that this mass destruction matches Nazi genocide, that Dresden, so to speak, counterbalances Auschwitz. But it is equally nonsensical to suggest something else entirely, that any honest attempt to convey a civilian experience independent of the Holocaust smacks of right-wing subterfuge.

Finally, Heilbrunn would have a difficult time believing Walser's memories of his wartime past -- i.e., that people were largely unaware of Nazi crimes. But they ring quite true. I cannot speak for all Germans, but my mother, born during the war in a small Bavarian village, did not learn about the Holocaust until the mid-1950s, when the local bakery acquired a television. This may reflect the ignorance of the provincial, but to impute to this ignorance -- one shared by many Germans of that generation -- a deliberate and self-serving amnesia is quite wide of the mark.

Heilbrunn replies:

Jan-Werner Mueller's and James Davis' letters faithfully recapitulate Josef Joffe's overwrought attack against me in Foreign Affairs in 1997, entitled "Mr. Heilbrunn's Planet." Both Mueller and Davis revive Joffe's claim that no intellectual Right exists and that Germany is boring. But Joffe's response was wrong then -- and, in light of recent developments, it is even more fanciful now.

Far from being a placid place, the Federal Republic is currently in an uproar. Battling resurgent anti-Semitic and anti-foreigner violence has become the number one German problem. Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has proposed banning the National Democratic Party and, in the wake of the firebombing of a synagogue in DŸsseldorf, pledged to use "all available means" to protect German Jews. Bundestag President Wolfgang Thierse recently declared, "At this time the greatest danger comes from the right and we have to confront it -- now. Right-wing extremism has become a cultural phenomenon. . . . It exists not just in East Germany." Jewish community leader Paul Spiegel has assailed Martin Walser for legitimizing the Right, stating, "I think I simply couldn't imagine that fifty-five years after the Holocaust so much secret and open aggression could exist." Are Schroeder, Thierse and Spiegel displaying, to borrow James Davis' words, their "ignorance of the workings of contemporary German society"?

Unlike Davis, Mueller recognizes that intellectuals have played a key role in shaping the political culture of the Federal Republic. He quite rightly notes that figures such as JŸrgen Habermas sought to promote a democratic Germany and were apprehensive that unification might result in a reversion to the bad old days. But that is not the entire story. Many others were very bad eggs, both anti-American and soft on East Germany. In his novels set in the 1950s, the novelist Wolfgang Koeppen, who I probably should have mentioned in my article, portrayed American GIs as occupying thugs. GŸnter Grass' solicitude for East Germany only increased after unification; his 1993 novel, A Wide Field, is a prolonged lamentation for Honecker & Co. And admiration for East Germany's accomplishments was scarcely confined to novelists: Theo Sommer, then publisher of Die Zeit, traveled across the Berlin Wall in 1986 to report that "in fact a social system has been developed over there which in many ways puts ours into the shadow."

In response to such political correctness, a vanguard of "extremists in pinstripes", as the German phrase has it, is now championing assertiveness and challenging the legacy of guilt and shame promoted and, it must be said, instrumentalized by the Left. Some of these nationalists, for example, Martin Walser, are shamelessly misusing the past; others are raising legitimate questions about a Bonn consensus culture that saw patriotism and a healthy German national identity as boo words. (Stefan Sullivan's letter shows how easily the attempts to construct a national identity can go awry. He seems to think that the Holocaust was an incidental part of the Second World War, when it was in fact the raison d'tre of the Nazi state. Moreover, by drawing a distinction between the German and Jewish experience, he assumes that Jews were not German citizens.)

The latest spate of right-wing violence has set off a new round of fireworks. Now, it could be argued that Germany is too complacent in the face of these developments, or that it likes nothing better than to lash itself into an emotional frenzy. The one claim that seems untenable, however, is that Germany is quiescent. Yet this is what Mueller and, above all, Davis would apparently have us believe. Such tommyrot brings to mind Lord Palmerston's remark: "When I wish to be misinformed about a country I ask the man who has lived there thirty years."

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