"Sapere aude," Immanuel Kant advised his contemporaries - "have courage to use your own understanding." The Father of the German Enlightenment, who died two centuries ago, on February 12, 1804, was a quiet wisp of a man, not one given to roaring out his essential insight that man is too lazy and too cowardly to think rationally.
But he would probably raise his voice by several decibels if he came back today and discovered whom Eastern Germans consider the best man in their country's history. Gutenberg? No. Luther? No. Johann Sebastian Bach? No. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe? No. Beethoven? No. Alexander and Wilhelm von Humboldt? No. Albert Einstein? No. Perhaps Kant? No, no, no.
Believe it or not, 14 years after experiencing first-hand the manifest failure of socialism, they tell pollsters they consider Karl Marx the best German ever. Yes, Marx, the author of a twisted system of social and political engineering they had suffered through for more than four decades. Talk about lazy and cowardly thinking! As one who as a schoolboy was literally pounded out of Communist-run Leipzig for the "crime" of belonging to a Christian and non-proletarian clan, I may be forgiven for believing that my fellow-countrymen - at least those in the East - have lost their mind.
I was there as a young Associated Press correspondent when the Marxist-Leninist régime calling itself the German Democratic Republic, or DDR, walled itself in after August 13, 1961, because its subjects kept running away by the hundreds of thousands. I was there when, in late 1989, the DDR finally imploded, leaving behind a foul mess: pollution gnawing away at people's lungs, stunting children's growth; poisoned landscapes; nuclear reactors so rotten that a Chernobyl-type catastrophe seemed imminent; rusty and uncompetitive industries producing trash; crumbling buildings and railroads whose express trains were forced to crawl at 25 miles per hour for woefully long stretches of wobbly track; 15-year waiting lists for a telephone line or one of those absurd little Trabant cars East Germans aptly called Rennpappe, or racing cardboards, which were so tight that they required no heating even in the deepest winter because your knees would always keep your ears warm.
And now these people, who would be shot on the spot if they dared to cross the border visiting relatives, these people who for decades considered bananas a rare delicacy, tell pollsters that there was no better German than Marx. Now that they have one of the best telephone systems in all of Germany; now that they whiz about in 180-mph trains; now that there isn't a pothole and hardly ever a Trabant to be found on their roads; now that West German tax payers have poured $70 billion into their land year after year, they wallow in nostalgia for the clear, albeit prison-like, structure they have lost.
In a sense, this is as if Germany's neighbors had pined for Hitler a dozen or so years after being liberated from Nazi occupation, calling him the best European ever. It is as if they attributed the destruction caused by Hitler in their countries not to him but to their new leaders struggling to rebuild their economies.
True, East Germans have reason to gripe. Almost one fifth of them are now out of work, compared with eight percent of their Western cousins. Most of their industries collapsed after reunification, and the modern plants that replaced them offered not nearly as many jobs. Add to this other insecurities intrinsic to free as opposed to totalitarian societies - crime, for example - and you can empathize with their unhappiness.
Furthermore, East Germans naively allowed themselves to be taken for a ride after reunification. They were overrun by carpetbaggers after 1989. There were crooks and speculators, instantly making and losing millions, just like after the North's victory over the South in the American Civil War. Often the most successful beneficiaries of Communism's demise were former party hacks and Stasi, or secret police officers. There was also some foolish optimism from honest quarters; former chancellor Helmut Kohl predicted that East Germany would soon be transformed into blühende Landschaften, or blossoming landscapes. He would have done better had he not said that; this sort of thing doesn't happen overnight.
Tragically, however, there was after 1989 no equivalent to the "de-nazification" and reeducation programs the United States and Britain imposed on West Germany at the end of World War II. The Eastern German or states were perhaps not sufficiently rigorous in weeding out Communist teachers they had inherited from the old regime. After 1945, the U.S. and British military governments limited publishing licenses for newspapers and magazines to West Germans with a clean anti-Nazi record. But after 1990, West German publishers simply took over Communist party papers in the East, replacing their most senior editors but leaving many of the middle-level journalists in their jobs; as a result, the Marxist-Leninist worldview continued to permeate the Eastern media for the first post-reunification years, albeit in a homeopathic manner.
As a consultant to a Western publishing house, I found former senior intelligence officers, diplomats and party functionaries among the Eastern journalists I was assigned to train. I remember a hair-raising dispute with a board member over an editor-in-chief whom I insisted should be fired because I knew he had been a high-ranking Communist cadre. "But my dear man," the board member said, "Dr…. was simply an honorable academic." Academic, my foot! He had been a "journalism" professor, and under communism that meant instructor in the "science" of Marxist-Leninist agitation and propaganda.
Add to this the ideological affinity between former East German Communists and the Marxist-indoctrinated "1968ers," graduates of 1960s student rebellion some of whom now hold senior cabinet rank in chancellor Gerhard Schröder's government (Schröder himself was part of the movement but is generally not considered a leftist ideologue but rather a political opportunist). The city-state of Berlin, which the Western allies had so faithfully defended for four decades, is now governed by a coalition of Western Social Democrats and Eastern Communists, currently calling themselves the "Party of Democratic Socialism."
In this situation, it's not surprising that, in East Germany, Karl Marx still ranks as the "best of Germans," while, lumped together, Westerners and Easterners rate him as third only after Konrad Adenauer, West Germany's first chancellor, and Martin Luther. Of course, as political scientist Konrad Löw points out, the Left in both parts of Germany has successfully suppressed Marx's most appalling statements, openly supporting terrorism and the "destruction of the state, religion of any kind, the bourgeois society, Judaism, legal order and especially private property, marriage and the family." Neither will you hear in contemporary Germany that Marx, who was of Jewish descent, was a consummate bigot who in his letters to Friedrich Engels labeled Ferdinand Lassalle, Social Democracy's curly-haired founder, a "Jewish nigger."
That Heinrich Heine, also of Jewish descent, condemned Marx and his entourage as "gottlose Selbstgötter" (godless self-gods) is another detail you won't hear in Germany as Marx' image is being built up - still or once again, depending on which side of the former Iron Curtain you live. Given all this, it's probably a good thing Germans are celebrating the bicentenary of Immanuel Kant's death all year long in 2004. Much would be accomplished if the descendants of the "nation of poets and thinkers" would at least remember this much of Kant's wisdom: refusing to think rationally will render you immature.
Uwe Siemon-Netto is UPI's religion editor and lives in Washington and France.