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”.
I’ve always been fascinated by Walter Rathenau, the German foreign minister who was assassinated by anti-Semitic nationalists in Berlin in 1922. The son of Emil Rathenau, the founder of the groundbreaking Berlin-based electrical company AEG, he had run the German ministry of war’s crucial raw materials department during World War I and created what some see as the first planned economy. However, after the war, he and other leading Jewish figures were blamed by the right for the German defeat as part of the so-called Dolchstoßlegende – the myth of a “stab in the back”. In particular, as foreign minister, Rathenau became fatally associated with the humiliating terms of the Treaty of Versailles. In a sense, his assassination symbolises the beginning of the end of the dream of Jewish assimilation in Germany.
I was pleased to see a review of Utopia or Auschwitz in the journal Holocaust and Genocide Studies, which is published by the United States Holocaust Museum. The reviewer, Philip Spencer, raises the interesting question of whether the West German student movement misunderstood Theodor Adorno and the Frankfurt School’s interpretation of the Nazi past. Spencer says the Frankfurt School had a “sophisticated” view of the Holocaust as a “radical break” whereas the student movement “over-generalized” the Holocaust so that it became “only one case of genocide among many”. I think this is basically right. But it also seems to me, though perhaps I didn’t bring this out clearly enough in the book, that the tension between these two views of the Holocaust existed within the work of Adorno himself. So perhaps the student movement didn’t so much distort Adorno as read him selectively.
I’ve been fascinated by Horst Mahler – who, it has just emerged, may have been a Stasi informant in the 1960s – since I wrote a profile of him for The Times in 2003. The son of a Nazi, he became a socialist lawyer in the 1960s and represented leaders of the West German student movement such as Rudi Dutschke. After its collapse, he founded the Red Army Faction (RAF), the West German left-wing terrorist group, and spent the whole of the 1970s in prison until he was released with the help of another young left-wing lawyer named Gerhard Schröder. Just after Schröder became Germany’s Social Democrat chancellor in 1998, Mahler became a neo-Nazi and represented the far-right NPD. He is now in prison serving a seven-year sentence for denying the Holocaust – a criminal offence in Germany. But what, if anything, does his strange political journey tell us?
I’m very interested in the influence of German ideas and in particular German nationalism on early political Zionism. In previous posts, I’ve written about how the Utopia that Theodor Herzl imagined in his novel Altneuland was in some ways a very German one and how Max Nordau’s ideas were strikingly similar to those of German nationalists. I’ve just finished reading Amos Elon’s excellent biography of Herzl (1975), which (in contrast to Alex Bein’s earlier biography) emphasises how thoroughly German Herzl was in his ideas and aspirations. But the really interesting thing that emerges is how Herzl’s affinity for German culture influenced the political strategy that he followed in order to try to realise his dream of a Jewish state. It seems that Herzl saw it not just as a solution to the “Jewish question” but also as an outpost of German influence in the Orient.
In my last post, I talked about the backlash against Germany’s culture of memory. In a sense, this development is historically inevitable. But is it also somehow built in to the way Germans think about guilt and in particular in the etymology of the terms that Germans use to describe dealing with the Nazi past? For example, the German word for guilt, Schuld, is also the word for a debt – which can by definition be paid off. (Nietzsche famously uses this etymological connection in On the Genealogy of Morals to argue that that the concept of guilt ultimately derives from the idea of debt.) Perhaps the most striking illustration of the idea of guilt as a debt that can be paid off is the restitution – in German Wiedergutmachung (literally, “making good again”) – that West Germany paid to Israel after World War II. So is there something specific about the way Germans think about guilt that has influenced the way they deal with the Nazi past and in particular created a desire to draw a line under it?
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.