Sonderweg: The Closing of the German Mind

Sonderweg: The Closing of the German Mind

Mini Teaser: Germany's September election displayed the effects of its 68ers' "Long March through the institutions." Herewith an assessment and a critique.

by Author(s): Uwe Siemon-Netto

The Germans are always late, wrote Thomas Mann, and the results of Germany's elections this past September surely count as evidence. Most of what used to be called Western Europe during the Cold War has turned its back on the left-wing, high-tax crypto-utopianism that has long stifled its economic development and warped its political culture. But by re-electing Gerhard Schröder's "red-green" coalition, German voters have precluded a long overdue modernization of their economy and society. They may also have saddled themselves with the reigning political elite for another eight years-such is suggested by the pattern of postwar German politics-and the inability of this elite to generate positive change risks leaving the door open for all sorts of demons and derelict ideas to fill a widening vacuum.

What was truly odd about the election campaign was that the leaders of an economy and a society that are widely acknowledged to be stuck in a rut were barely able to discuss any of the serious issues afflicting the country. (The loser, the Christian Democratic Union's standard-bearer, Edmund Stoiber, tried to raise the problems of a rigid labor market and educational decline-just two of at least two dozen such issues-but he did not do so well at it.) This suggests that all of the superficial explanations we have heard to explain the results are not really adequate to the task.

Such explanations are by no means in short supply. Yes, it is true that this election was more media-driven than previous campaigns, and that Schröder is rugged and handsome while Stoiber is gray and somewhat wooden. Yes, many Germans believed that a social-democratic party more disposed to the welfare state ethic was a cushier choice for troubled economic times. Yes, the spd's relative strength in urban areas and among younger voters was magnified slightly by demographic changes. Yes, east Germans provided the margin of the red-green victory, both because of the government's efficient response to the summer floods and because the formerly communist Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) experienced a natural falling off of popularity a dozen years after reunification. Yes, too, Schröder's anti-Bush, antiwar tactics worked at the margin in a close vote, particularly in the east. Some of these theories, perhaps all of them, may be true, yet none of them gets to the meaning of this election for German political culture and Germany's future.

Three other themes that live at a deeper causal level, however, may unearth this meaning. The first of these concerns the pacifist sentiment rooted in Germany's modern history. The second concerns the effect of the 1968 student rebellion and the Left's "Long March through the institutions." The third has to do with a peculiar German susceptibility to utopian fancy, which has bedeviled the country's politics for centuries. It is with these themes, and how they played into the September election, that this essay is concerned.

Haunting Memories

Some Americans find it difficult to grasp the collective nightmare of World War II, the searing memory of its devastation and shame, that still haunts Germans. A significant segment of Germany's 82 million citizens-and here I include myself-is still traumatized by childhood experiences in air-raid shelters: by the blast of blockbuster bombs detonating around them; by basement walls cracking open, allowing waves of fire and smoke to roll into cellars full of women and children. I remember my family taking an aunt's ring finger to its grave because this was the only identifiable part of her body found in the rubble of her Leipzig apartment building. I recall going to school every morning after a bombardment-if indeed the school building was still standing-and learning during roll call that Heinz, Ernst, Helmut or Rudi was dead, killed at age seven or eight. I still have memories of the famine after the war, when we were allowed a mere 700 calories a day in the Soviet zone of occupation, and, worse, the shame that gripped us when we learned of the genocide that our government had committed in our name. It was a shame that made many of us pretend to be something else when we first hitchhiked abroad in the 1950s or 1960s-Luxembourgers, Dutch, Alsatians or Swiss, for example.

These memories, passed on to subsequent generations, have become a fixture of the German national soul. They explain our discomfort with our history-not only the recent Nazi past, but also more benign periods that preceded it. Walk through Germany's towns and villages and you see at every step unsightly architectural testimonies to this phenomenon. Once beautiful apartment blocks built after the Franco-Prussian War now resemble grim casernes because the state paid their owners to hack away at the stucco to make them look "modern." Many medieval town centers that had survived the air war were razed and replaced by soulless concrete structures. Farmers plastered over the Tudor-style exterior walls of their homes to make them look "contemporary." By destroying witnesses to their history and turning "progressive", postwar Germans had hoped, in effect, to get rid of Hitler. As it turned out, we got rid of much of our history while Hitler's shadow nevertheless remained.

Germany, then, is still not a "normal" country like France. In a sense, it resembles Hans im Schnokeloch, the caricature of its Alsatian cousin west of the Rhine. Schnokeloch is a hole in the ground in which Hans hides from mosquitoes. Occasionally he sticks his head out, spots the advancing beasts-meaning German or French forces-and quickly ducks again. Germany has become one large Alsace. The mere mention of an American-led war against Iraq sent us down into our hole, and while this cannot explain in any simple or direct way recent German behavior at the polls, it shows how easy it is for a populist of Schröder's stripe to exploit the country's trauma for selfish purposes.

So here we are, 82 million people on a Wyoming-sized plot of land, peering anxiously across ten open borders and pretending that we live by ourselves, fighting our nightmares out of consciousness through our near manic pursuit of the post-historical, of the modern. And Germany is nothing if not modern. We have "gay pride parades" like the Americans, bourgeois teens pimp-walking around town in grunge garments like ghetto kids in the United States, and we outdo any American social engineer in sheer folly. We have been known, for example, to send juvenile felons on "therapeutic" adventure trips to New Zealand, accompanied by a social worker, at taxpayers' expense. Like the Americans, too, we bastardize our language with politically-correct neologisms; we call this Dummdeutsch ("dumb German"). We no longer say "Guten Morgen", but "Hi, Brigitte, wow", not knowing what this signifies; it just sounded good last night on television. Our feminists can out-snarl their American counterparts, as well, and we have guitar-strumming pastors blessing same-sex unions and experimenting liturgically with heavy metal clamor in the vain hope of filling their empty churches.

Yet these superficial attributes of modern cosmopolitanism notwithstanding, Germany is parochial. It is because its parochialism is so deep, in fact, that its expressions of cosmopolitan modernism are so over-the-top. Few of its most modern, progressive leaders speak a foreign language competently; the current chancellor certainly doesn't, and so it is fitting that during his successful election campaign he stressed a new-a modern-German Sonderweg, a new autonomous national path. He did this even though Germany is utterly dependent on foreign trade, especially with the United States, which he so crassly offended. And most of those around him helping to govern Germany thought all this not the least bit odd.

The 68ers' Long March

Those who now run this not-yet-normal Germany are mostly "graduates" of a student protest movement that, to hear their own chroniclers describe it, rebelled against the stuffiness and authoritarianism of the Adenauer years. Actually, most other Germans remember this era as a pleasant one, filled with optimism and opportunity. They remember it that way because it was filled with optimism and opportunity, but also because, unlike those born after 1939, say, they could remember a pre-1945 reality with which to compare it.

The real reasons for the alienation of the German generation of 1968-the 68ers as they are called-has less to do with anything stuffy about the Adenauer era and more to do with what it has in common with youth revolts in other affluent liberal democratic cultures after World War II (though this is not the place to rehearse the literature). Germany is not unique among the non-U.S. cases in that its anti-Vietnam War sentiment was imported and wore very second-handed.1 It is unique, however, in that the German youth revolt played into a culture in which adult authority figures possessed scant moral capital. It is not that many men and women of the Adenauer-era elite did not deserve to claim such capital; they chose not to claim it, however, for it did not match their contrition and genuine sense of humility as leaders among the nations. Therefore, while in other Western societies authority and tradition pushed back against the excesses of youthful alienation, in Germany student rebels were able to seize virtually an entire culture as if walking through an open door. The consequences of their subsequent Long March through the institutions have gone far to define the country ever since.

Essay Types: Essay