Christian Kracht’s “pop” novel Faserland, originally published in 1995, has been compared to Brett Easton Ellis’s Less than Zero. The world that Kracht’s unnamed narrator describes – one of rich kids obsessed with designer labels who lead empty lives – is one that could be almost anywhere. But Faserland is also apparently an attempt to say something specific about Germany. The title, which literally means “threadland”, is obviously a play on “Vaterland”, or fatherland. In the novel, the narrator travels, apparently aimlessly, from one end of Germany to the other – from Sylt in the north to Bodensee in the far south (and then, in the final chapter, to Switzerland). He frequently comments on Germany and the Germans. So what, if anything, does Faserland tell us about Germany?

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Japan and “civilian power”

In an essay I wrote in 2011, I argued that Germany should no longer be thought of as a “civilian power” but rather as a “geo-economic power”. I argued that the weakening of the Federal Republic’s commitment to multilateralism during the previous decade and its increasing economic assertiveness, particularly within the eurozone, undermined its claim to be a “civilian power” – that is, one that used multilateral institutions and economic co-operation rather than military power to achieve its foreign policy goals. The concept of “civilian power” was originally used by François Duchêne to describe the European Union and was applied to the Federal Republic by Hanns W. Maull, who, in one of his first essays on the subject in the early 1990s, described Germany and Japan as “new civilian powers” – “prototypes” of “a new type of international power”. So if Germany is no longer a “civilian power”, what about Japan?

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Finland and Russia

Last week I spent a few days in Helsinki, where I took part in a panel discussion about European foreign policy organised by the Finnish Institute of International Affairs. It was an interesting time to be there. The issue on everyone’s minds, just like everywhere else right now, was the Ukraine crisis and in particular the implications of the Russian annexation of Crimea last month. St. Petersburg is less than 200 miles away from Helsinki and Finland was part of the Russian empire for 108 years until it became independent in 1917. Russia still feels very present in Helsinki – for example a statue of Tsar Alexander II stands in front of the neo-classical Lutheran cathedral in the centre of the city. So during my time there, I was particularly interested to hear from officials, analysts and journalists about the complex relationship between Finland and Russia.

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Europe as Utopia

Is the European Union a utopian project? Right-wing Eurosceptics often see it as one. In her book Statecraft (2002), for example, Margaret Thatcher called the EU a “classic Utopian project, a monument to the vanity of intellectuals, a programme whose inevitable destiny is failure.” More recently, left-wing Eurosceptics such as Wolfgang Streeck have also begun to describe the EU as a utopian project. In an influential book published in Germany last year (to be published in English in May as Buying Time: The Delayed Crisis of Democratic Capitalism), Streeck argues that the EU is evolving into (or perhaps revealing itself as) a kind of Hayekian utopian project – a vehicle for endless liberalisation without interference from democratic politics. But is this the right way to think of the EU? Does it really seek to make Utopia a reality?

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Germany, World War I and the euro crisis

As Europe commemorates the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I this year, a re-assessment is taking place in Germany of what is called Europe’s Urkatastrophe, or “original catastrophe” – in other words, the one that led to all the others. In particular, influenced by books such as Christopher Clark’s Sleepwalkers (published in Germany in 2013) and Herfried Münkler’s Der große Krieg (also 2013) – both best sellers in Germany – many are rejecting the once widely held idea that the war was caused above all by German aggression. A poll in January showed that only 19 percent of Germans thought Germany was chiefly responsible for the outbreak of war. It seems to me that this is part of a broader trend in collective memory and national identity in Germany since around the Millennium that I have written about previously: Germans now think of themselves less as “perpetrators” and more as “victims”.

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Size matters (again)

Europeans, particularly “pro-European” Europeans like me, often make the argument that it is only by pooling their collective resources that can they compete in the emerging world of continent-sized powers such as China, India and the US. By jointly pursuing their interests, the 28 member states of the European Union – the world’s largest trading bloc – can have greater impact than any of them can have individually. In particular, this argument is often deployed to show why it would be a mistake for the UK to leave the EU: to do so would commit it to “geopolitical oblivion”, as a French official put it to me. The idea, in short, is that size matters, as Peter Mandelson put it at a dinner I attended a year or so ago. But interestingly (and perhaps slightly worryingly), this discourse about size echoes the one in Europe at the end of the nineteenth century.

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I spent the weekend at a conference at Wiston House in Sussex, where you can’t help think about history. Wiston House is owned by Wilton Park, a foundation set up after the end of World War II that was originally based at an estate near Beaconsfield, where German POWs (including Helmut Schmidt) discussed democracy with British intellectuals. Kingsley Martin, the editor of the New Statesman, called Wilton Park a “prisoners’ university” that was “the nucleus of what might become a new democratic Germany”. It was set up by Heinz Koeppler, a Jewish-German émigré and in 1948 was taken over by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to hold conferences. In 1951 it moved to Wiston House, parts of which date back to the sixteenth century. In such surroundings, it’s hard not to think in historical analogies – especially when it comes to Germany.

Continue reading ‘1894’

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