Thursday 19 March 2009

The German Burden- Goethe and Gotterdammerung

I sometimes wonder what it must be like to be German.
I don't mean that in a nasty way.

I mean, I wonder what it must be like to know that is what you are. A German.
And by extension, an Austrian. Austrians now like to emphasise they are Austrian not German, but let's be honest. They're Germans. Who live in a state called Austria.

And the history of Austria, is part of the history of- Germany.

And it's a thought experiment I find- disconcerting.

Pandora's box.

The number of Germans alive today who were alive then, is surely a minority. And they are not responsible for what happened, not responsible for their history. But the problem is, it happened. It carries their name. Like a mark of Cain.

And think what that must do.

It's things the rest of us take for granted. Learning history. Any bit of history. For us over here, history is a story going somewhere. We have Alfred the Great seeing off the Vikings- the birth of England, something to make you feel good, if you're English. Then we have the Middle ages, nasty, dirty, ignorant, but hey, it got better. We get to learn about how things began. How the familiar institutions started that would one day lead to all that was good. Then we have Charles I and his fight with Parliament. All good stirring stuff, it's going somewhere. It's a story with a happy ending. And we know what the happy ending was. Britain became great, taught the world to play cricket, founded America and therefore caused Hollywood films, defeated Napoleon, beat Hitler after winning the Battle of Britain and Churchill's stirring words about our finest hour, but that was yet to come when Bobby Charlton raised the Jules Rimet trophy in 1966.

You can't really knock the story too much. You can criticise bits of it. Point out that some pretty shitty things happened along the way. The slave trade, Catholic burning, child factory labourers, Black and Tans, etc. But the overall thrust of the story is filled with star studded moments which mean that generally, no matter what you feel about Queen and Country, one recognises that as countries go, one happens to be living in one that has a proud history.

People lament that we're not very patriotic in Britain. I don't think that's true. I think we kind of have an uncomfortable attitude to overt patriotism, because so often it represents a kind of national inferiority complex. It marks new countries, young countries, the kind of overt flag waving patriotism. I guess most middle of the road people in Britain have a certain quiet pride in real things. Like Scott, Shackleton, Cook, Faraday, Darwin. It doesn't need to be shouted about; we know. To most of us, the Jingoists have always seemed like embarrassing idiots. They have a childish attitude to their country. Value silly things, symbols, words, metal hats. When what they should admire is that somehow or other, we generally got it right over here. Not always. But more often than anyone else, seemingly.

And that, I guess is what national identity means. Crass Nationalism, based on race is not a good things. National stereotypes aren't helpful, but they can sometimes say something about a culture. These things aren't so often genetic, as memetic. In different countries, certain standards of behaviour have differed. And that has had an overall effect on history. The attitudes people have had.

So what it is that people are REALLY being proud of, is the knowledge that the culture in this country has worked. The culture by which we lived, and to some degree still live. The things that are so stereotypically English, we feel justified in cherishing. Because we feel we can see 'These things are ours. These are things we do. And doing things the way we do has worked. Been a good way of doing things'.

And we can feel secure in saying that, that even someone to whom those ways were not familiar, would take such a statement seriously. They might analyse that way of doing things and say 'No. That's not it. That particular aspect of their culture is neither here nor there'.

For Americans too, history is a happy story. Sure, it has its black spots too. But the point is, the American pupil knows it is leading to a happy ending. The story leads forward, gets better.

We're lucky. I don't think we realise that. We the living didn't earn that. And we don't owe the dead. But we are lucky to live in the cultures they left behind. It really is true that if your flag has the colours red, white and blue in it, it marks you out. The special colours. History's winners.

Imagine approaching history a different way.

Imagine that when you learn about how your country developed, the ending isn't a happy ending.
Every single aspect of it is leading to something. The climax is indeed a time of great power, a time your nation shook the globe.

But not in a way you can be proud of.

Imagine if the culmination of a thousand years of history, was the moment of your greatest shame, a shame that the name of your country could never lose.

Learning about how a culture developed in which it was possible for Hitler to arise. That the culture whose history you are studying was the culture whose psyche Hitler tapped into.
And that culture is the one you belong to.

Imagine studying your important figures of history, like Martin Luther and seeing in his attitudes that shadow, that germ, there it is, there. That little remark there, symbolic of something in German culture that would one day lead to 'Arbeit Mach Frei'.

Your history doesn't have a happy ending. It came to a dark end. And since then, everything has been new. It's not talked about. A New Germany.

Only- it's not. It was your grandparents. It happened in the streets outside. The lovely old chocolate box houses in the town square, people leaned out of those windows shouting 'Sieg Heil' at Hitler's motor cavalcade...
Your grandmother was one of them...

It is said that after the 1966 World Cup, one of the German players made a remark out of pique. 'Yes, but England should have won more World Cups! Football is your national game!'
To which one of the England squad replied 'Yes, but so far we've beat you at YOUR national game twice'.

To which I guess there was no reply. When I was younger I used to smile at that story. Now I don't.
It has a taint. It's actually much the same as emphasising someone's skin colour. Calling someone a white bastard can't hurt a white person. Calling someone a black bastard can. Because of what is being implied. White people were never told by black people they were inferior. So being called a white bastard doesn't have the implication 'You are a bastard AND inferior'.

How can Germans not feel it? Looking at football crowds. The Inger-land fans. Able to sing 'Rule Britannia' with pride. Because what are those fans really telling the Germans? They're saying 'Yes, we're proud of that. We DID rule the waves. And we don't have to be ashamed'.

And the Germans can't answer back. They cannot show that exuberation, that joy, they have to remember. Remember that their pride can only go so far.

Because Germans remember that bad things happen in Germany when Germans get too proud of being German.

Because when Germans take pride in things that are special about Germany, the question always arises 'Was that a factor?'

Because even the things they CAN take pride in, like making good cars, people still think; 'They were just as good at making gas ovens'.

Because everything, everything a German ever said, or ever did, is judged by the rest of the world by the question 'Is this related to the Third Reich?'

What Germans have to live with is actually pretty terrible, when one thinks about it.

And it is this.

The entirity of German history leads up to the greatest perversion of science, philosophy and human instinct we have yet seen. One can argue that Stalin was just as bad as Hitler, but that's not quite the point. The Nazis fascinate not so much because they killed the most people, but because of how warped their worldview was. And to say it could have happened anywhere, is not true. It could only have happened in Germany. Only German history made it possible. The climate and the culture that created the National Socialist movement is already to be seen in the Second Reich. And to say that every Nazi party member was evil and it's that simple, is escaping the more disturbing reality. I don't think even most of the LEADING Nazis were evil, per se. Forty percent of Germans voted for them, and I doubt they were all evil, as individuals.

The scary reality is that Nazism came out of German culture. Nazism was a home grown mass ideology that captured the German soul. That is the scary horror of it.

One can look at Countries like the Soviet Union and we can point to what went wrong. It's obvious.

But with Nazi Germany, the problem is deeper. Working out how the psyche of Germany produced it.

And when we start to look back, we can say that psyche rearing its head before. I guess it had been spotted in the Second Reich, but no one paid it much attention till they faced the Germans in the trenches. But the genocide of the Herero in 1905 and other such incidents stand out, ghostly whispers of a culture which had scant regard for human life that was not German life. And nihilistic.

There as so much that if one looks at it, one realises now, in post-Nazi Europe, was disturbing. A culture at once great, poetic, philosophical and thoughtful. And yet one in which the spirits of the old Gods, Thor and Odin lived on. Ragnarok. The Ride of the Valkyries. The rabid Anti-Semitism of Luther. The witch burning craze, the atrocities of the thirty years war, perhaps the most brutal conflict of its time. And then the fact that its driving force was Prussia, that army with a state attached to it, built on the back of crusading knights, on brutal junkers and oppressed slavic peasants, add to that the sorts of lunacy which produced lunatic rulers such as the Emperor Rudolf II and Mad King Ludwig of Bavaria and nobody seemingly batted an eyelid.

And what is it? What is it in the history, in the history of this culture? Deep, in it's psyche.
It's something, something we can't quite identify. Which is why we keep morbidly obsessing about the Nazis. WHAT was it, what ultimately is it in German culture? And is it still there?
The world asks that- and surely Germans themselves ask that, uneasily. Is it suppressed but still under the surface? Whatever it is, it is not tangible.

And can we separate it, separate it from the uniquely German intensity of passion and thought that brought us Mozart and Beethoven, the pathos of Schopenhauer, the incisive conceptualism of Nietzche and Marx, the profundities of Kant? Could any culture BUT the German culture have given us those jewels of mankind?
Do not these great minds resonate a certain dark and bleak background, they stand out as enlightened genii cast forth by a dark and turbulent undercurrent.

Nietzche once referred to Socrates as being absurdly rational. Rational to the degree of absurdity. A curious concept, perhaps. But perhaps it has a resonance to German culture. Grotesquely logical, the heights of civilisation with the primal instincts of pre-Christian human sacrifice thrown in. A culture that could march human beings into chambers full of Zyklon B whilst playing them Mozart.

And perhaps we, us Brits have more reason than ever to look with fascination at this culture. Much as humanity looks at the Chimpanzee. Because England, England is Germany's closest cousin.
The English came from Germany. Not so very long ago. Recently enough for it to have been written about as it happened.

Our cultures started the same. But our histories took different paths. Not obviously at first. But a different series of events. Very different. And whatever it was that meant that German culture took the route it did and English culture did not, it happened in historical times. And it can't have been just one thing, it must have been a series of turns.

And this is what leads to the German problem.

Look at Germany now. Rich, prosperous, civilised. Brilliant, in so many ways. A success story. As always. Kick the Germans down, they just get up again. Their culture is resilient. Admirable in so many ways. With much to give the world and much to show the world.
But- the rest of the world still doesn't quite trust them.

That's a terrible thing to say. But it's why everyone else is apprehensive about letting Germany rearm, why US and British troops remain in Germany.
And it's why Germany needs Europe. So she can be trusted. Within Europe, protected by a framework of interdependence, Germany isn't to be feared. And Germany herself seems to accept this. Europe gives Germany respectability. It has allowed Germany to become an economic powerhouse again.
Because France has nurtured it. That has been the deal. The Franco-German axis has been about the German economy propping up the country who has the clout in the UN and on the world military power stage, to get Germany access back into the big boys club.

And- as long as they don't have weapons of their own- we've been happy to let them in.

I remember hearing somewhere about a contributer, I think it was to the Encyclopedia Britannica, in the nineteenth century. He sent in many articles, well written, scientifically accurate, etc. So the editor went to visit him. And found he was a resident of a hospital for the criminally insane.

The idea that these things are genetic, as I say, is ridiculous. These things are memetic. But the point is, nobody agrees on what caused Nazism. But we can all see it wasn't just something totally out of character. Culture essentially, is people living together and sharing ideas and values and passing on those ideas. Certain values take hold and flourish, others don't. The Germans know that Nazism was a terrible thing and they are thoroughly ashamed. And on an individual level, a German is no more evil than an English person.

But the point is, in 1932, if you gathered a load of English people together on mass, they would never have voted for Hitler. The Germans did. It's one thing todays Germans knowing NOT to vote for people with raised arm salutes, silly moustaches and Swastika flags. It's another to know what it was made their grandparents think it such a good idea.

In other words, we know that something had developed in German culture which led to Nazism. And as yet, we can't agree on exactly what that was. However hard both us and the Germans tried to erase what it was in German culture created it, we don't really know for sure. And since then, both us and the German themselves have lived in funny kind of place.
The only way to describe it, is as a culture which under extreme stress in the past brought out all the darkest aspects of humanity, coupled with some of their greatest.

And we don't know if the culture has been, for want of a better word, 'cured'. We don't know that. And more importantly, nor do the Germans.

Since then, Germany's reappearance in international affairs has been like the return of a valued colleague to work after a nervous breakdown. No one really knows if it could happen again.

The Germans themselves are right, I think, to see their salvation in a United Europe. But Germany needs to be able to have an easy role in it, to be able to blend into it properly. It's hard for Germany to do that when it is such an economic power house, but it is condemned to remain a non player in international relations.

The failure of a United Europe would have devastating repercussions on Germany, because it's only way to be able to influence international affairs in accordance with its economic strength is through Europe. The failure of the European vision, could cause old monsters to stir in their sleep.

Chancellor Kohl once contrasted the aims of himself to those of Hitler 'He wanted to put a German roof over Europe, we want to put a European roof over Germany'.

Germans really do feel, I think, that the second will prevent the first from happening. That a European roof STOPS German culture from ever going down that route that Germans don't now want it to go down, but feel in their guts that yes, it could happen again.

And this, this is an unspoken issue that not only Germany, not only Europe, but everyone has to come to terms with.

Human intelligence HAS to solve the German question.

One major difference between Marxist thought and non Marxist thought, is that Marxists believe history CAN be turned into a science.

We have to solve the puzzle of what caused Nazism. Not just go over and over film footage of the holocaust. We know what happened. We need to get to grips with the thousand years before.
Why in that steady march forward throughout history things got blended into the cultural psyche of Germany that allowed a whole culture to let it happen.

It could just be that it COULD have happened anywhere. That might actually be the answer. But our gut feeling tells us otherwise. And I don't think we're wrong.

And this is the bit which I concede might seem unduly nationalistic. But historians and sociologists can only really tackle this one way. There is a starting point.

When Hengest and Horsa landed in Kent. Because back then, they were Germans.

It's a hard fact to face perhaps, because it actually involves judging the worth of cultures. But we shouldn't see it like that. No one is saying that the German culture is valueless- look at all it has given. What we need to acknowledge is that the Germans who stayed progressed into cultural developments resonating down to the individual level which resulted in a society developing which had elements we do not want humanity to carry forward. Whereas those who colonised this windswept isle progressed into developments resonating down to an individual level which resulted in a society developing that led the way in promoting the ideals we DO want humanity to carry forward.

This can not be a patriotic venture, that is the point. It could only be a study done impartially by international experts. It would help if some of those were British, some German and some from other corners of the globe that were totally impartial.

If history is ever to truly be a science and deliver useful answers that tell us things that are useful in taking us forward, this surely should be it.

Until we truly diagnose the psyche of German history, we can never come to terms with the past, acknowledge the present, or face the future.

It's simple. We know the results. And we know that nations in themselves aren't good or evil. So the fact that one culture produced constitutional government and the other the Gas chambers, is down to centuries of differential systematic development. But we need to know what differences mattered. We need to be able to pinpoint the crucial points that led to such different results.

So we can say 'This was it. This was the inherent poison hidden away in German culture. It was this'.

And when we can finally agree on what that is, we can all breath a sigh of relief. Not least amongst us, the Germans themselves. Who after all are only the victims of some flaw somewhere in how their national culture developed that we can't agree on.

Until then, Germany will always to some degree, be treated as a care in the community patient. Politely. No one will talk of it. No one ever does. Make cars, make chocolate, run banks. But you want to get involved in UN security council decisions- er, how about not, remember what happened last time you had guns? That's how it will always be.

And that does no one any good.


Welshcakes Limoncello said...

I think it was Fania Fenelon who said, of Nazism, "We know something new about human nature and it's not good news." What happened in Germany in that era was human nature at its worst. Perhaps it did not or could not happen in Britain because we are a cynical nation. How do we explain that fascism happened in Italy, whose people have a reputation as being among the kindest in the world?

Moggs Tigerpaw said...

Crushed, You make a mistake in how you see German history. You seem to see it ending in WWII and the Nazis. Like that was the end of a story. But it isn't. It is an ongoing process. In 50 years time the story will end somewhere else.

Yes many Germans may feel a bit defensive over Hitler/the Nazis. But that is not all there is, though you might think so getting a UK education. It is not like most Germans alive today were involved.

It's not as if the Germans have not had great thinkers and scientists either. Would we be in space without German scientists, Would we have atomic theory? relativity, quantum mechanics?

As for only in Germany. Don't kid yourself. There were black shirts in the UK. The French had some enthusiastic co-operators as well as resistance fighters.

It was probably circumstances came together better for Nazism in Germany, but if things had been otherwise it could have been somewhere else.

Hopefully that it did happen within western civilisation has changed the way most of us think about such things on a permanent basis. All of us.

Anonymous said...

The banality of evil. It's everywhere Crushed. I don't agree that Nazism could only have flourished in Germany. It was a race-hate war in many respects and we only just saw the Serbs and Croats play out the same thing a decade or more ago.

Just to add some lightness to this discussion my Dad's favourite expression, "those pesky germans!"

Chris Benjamin said...

What Kate said.


I think you are right that it is important to understand why it happened, not just how Nazism flourished, but how some Germans resisted, how many Jews also resisted, how the Jews that resisted surprisingly had a higher survival rate that those who did not. Derrick Jensen writes extensively and very well about all this and it's well worth a read.

To me, Nazism did not exist in a German engineered vaccuum. I see a lot of parallels between that era of German history and the United States under the Bush administration. We're lucky he was only allowed 2 terms.

Welshcakes' quote is also interesting, but I would replace 'human nature' with 'our culture'. Nazism was not some inate endgame of humanity. It was a result of a long-time culture of domination and control, in which we see ourselves as gods of this earth. With that assumption, it's not so much of a stretch to see aryans as the ultimate of our species.

Gledwood said...

I'd love to go live in Germany for a while...

I did German A level and fair enough all this came through the filter of a lefty teacher who'd once been in the (Wset German) Kommunistische Partei but she used to bang on and on about the post-Nazi guilt. It was just before the Wall came down and neoNazism was but a fledgling force...

Sue said...

OK seeing as you are such a sweetie, I will let you into a secret now. I am half German. My grandfather was exempt from the war as he was in a "required industry" but he was with the resistance against the Nazi's.

My great uncle was in the SS and knew Hitler personally. He was viewed with caution by the family. The German side of my family are Lutherans (that doesn't mean anything to me, but it did to my mum).

My dad met my mum when he was a British soldier stationed in Germany about 10 years after the war ended and my mum's family loved him to bits, infact they had a great deal of respect for
the British.

I lived in Germany for 6 years as a child and spent every summer holiday with my "Oma and Opa" and heard all about the war.. stories I will never forget.... :)

Sue said...

Ich kann auch Deutsch sprechen :)