Germany and the West

The German historian Heinrich August Winkler delivered the first Ralf Dahrendorf lecture at the LSE yesterday on the West as an “incomplete project”. Winkler, who was himself deeply influenced by Dahrendorf, skilfully sketched the history of  the “normative project of the West”, which he said did not begin with the Enlightenment but instead had much older roots. Challenging Max Weber’s “very German point of view” in the preface to his writings on the sociology of religion, he argued that what makes the West unique is its political rather than economic or cultural achievements – above all the separation of powers and secularisation. Winkler also made some interesting remarks about Germany’s “deviations” from the West – the theme of his magnum opus, Der lange Weg nach Westen (The Long Road West). Germany, he said, was a paradox: it played a central role in developing the normative project of the West (e.g. Immanuel Kant – who like Winkler came from Königsberg) but also produced the most radical European rejection of it: Nazism.

It was only after the catastrophe of 1945, Winkler said, that Germany – or at least half of it – was fully  integrated into the West. This somewhat triumphalist narrative is supposed to end in 1990, when Germany was reunified – its equivalent of Fukuyama’s ‘end of history’. It seems to me, however, that in the last decade some in Germany have once again begun to subtly question the so-called Westbindung. The man who is probably more responsible for this than anyone else is Gerhard Schröder, who as chancellor spoke of a “deutscher Weg” (a term that stands in direct contrast not just to the ‘American way’ but also to Winkler’s “Weg nach Westen”) and pursued a “special relationship” with Russia that undermined the EU. Funnily enough, when I interviewed Schröder for my book in Berlin in 2008, he praised Der lange Weg nach Westen. So, listening to Winkler speak last night, I wondered what he made of developments in Germany in the last decade. Was he not worried by the apparent shift in German foreign policy and by the phrase “deutscher Weg” in particular?

When I put this to Winkler in the Q&A after the lecture, he rejected the idea that Schröder’s invocation of a “deutscher Weg” – which was made in the context of his opposition to the Iraq war – represented a “deviation” from western traditions. In fact, he said, it was the opposite: Schröder criticised the Iraq war – and the United States – in the name of western values (interestingly, however, he said this was one point on which he and Dahrendorf – who died last year – disagreed). Winkler conceded that the phrase had “nationalist undertones”, but he attributed them to the SPD general-secretary Franz Müntefering (whose spin doctor Kajo Wasserhövel coined the term, as I show in my book) rather than to Schröder. I must admit I wasn’t quite convinced by Winkler’s answer. Although Schröder may not have conceived the phrase, he used it to launch his re-election campaign in August 2002. Moreover, it seems to me that the reason the phrase is so significant is that it stands for a much deeper shift of Germany foreign policy away from the United States – which guaranteed the security of the Federal Republic for its first fifty years – towards what Schröder regarded as more appropriate allies like France but also Russia.

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3 thoughts on “Germany and the West

  1. Pingback: Ordinary men or ordinary Germans? « Hans Kundnani

  2. Pingback: The world without the idea of the West « Hans Kundnani

  3. Pingback: German ideology and pathology « Hans Kundnani

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