Since the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States, I have been reading a lot about the American Civil War, which suddenly feels extremely relevant – especially after Charlottesville. In my last post, I mentioned David Blight’s Race and Reunion, a study of the memory of the Civil War in the fifty years following the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. It brilliantly shows how, during that period, a sectional reconciliation took place that was based on Southern terms and thus entrenched racism in America. But as a foreign policy analyst, I was particularly interested in Blight’s discussion of American imperialism at a time of worsening race relations in 1890s, which it seemed to me raises difficult questions about the relationship between U.S. foreign policy and race relations in America.
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 begun to describe the EU as a different kind of 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?
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”.
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?
For a while now, I’ve wondered whether there is a shift taking place in Germany’s attitude to the Nazi past. It seems to me, although it is of course diffcult to prove this in a scientific way, that, rightly or wrongly, Germany increasingly sees itself as a “normal” country for which Nazism and in particular the Holocaust is no longer of special relevance. So when I was in Berlin this week, I was interested to see the cover story in the magazine of the weekly newspaper Die Zeit about attitudes to the Nazi past among German teenagers. The headline was: “Was geht das mich noch an?” or “What’s it got to do with me?” The analysis was based on an attitude survey of 14-19 year-olds, most of whom affirmed the importance of ongoing remembrance. But, more worryingly, teachers interviewed for the article also said their students were often uninterested in the Holocaust or even, when shown photos of mass executions, expressed sympathy for the perpetrators rather than the victims.
I finally got around to reading George Packer’s great piece on Dresden that appeared in The New Yorker in February. Entitled “Embers”, it astutely discusses the way that Dresden, which was bombed in a famous Allied air raid on February 13, 1945, has been turned into, as Packer puts it, “the German Hiroshima – an outrage that reversed the roles of aggressors and victims, exposing the horror of Total War and, even, Anglo-American barbarism”. He points out that it was Joseph Goebbels, in what he calls his “last successful act of media manipulation”, who began the mythologisation of Dresden as the beautiful Baroque city inexplicably and immorally destroyed by the Allies. The myth was reinforced by David Irving’s 1963 book The Destruction of Dresden and, more recently, by Jörg Friedrich’s 2002 book Der Brand (The Fire). As a result, Dresden has become “the epicenter of German victimhood” on which neo-Nazis converge in order to “repeat a mendacious equation: Auschwitz + Dresden = 0”.