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’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.
Since returning from a trip to India recently (I’ve been going since I was a kid but this was my first visit in a decade), I’ve been thinking about Subhas Chandra Bose, the Indian nationalist leader who fled to Berlin during World War II in order to form an alliance with the Nazis and later organised and led the Indian National Army (INA), which consisted of Indian prisoners of war who fought alongside the Japanese against the British in Burma and Imphal. I’ve always been interested in Bose, who, it seems to me, went spectacularly wrong because although his own cause was just, he completely failed to see beyond it. In particular, he failed to see the connections between India’s struggle for independence and the struggle against fascism in Europe. But despite his association with Nazism, Bose is still a revered figure in India. Marine Drive, the famous seafront promenade in downtown Bombay – my favourite place in the city – has even been renamed after him.
One of the strangest illusions among Germany’s Achtundsechziger – about whom I write in my book, Utopia or Auschwitz – was the idea that they were the “new Jews”. In the late sixties, as members of the protest movement in West Germany came under increasing attack from their parents’ generation – the so-called “Auschwitz generation” – they began to imagine that they had somehow taken the place of, or were being treated like, the European Jews killed in the Holocaust. (Alain Finkielkraut has written eloquently about this in relation to the soixante-huitards – the French equivalent of the Achtundsechziger. He points out in his book The Imaginary Jew that their slogan “Nous sommes tous des juifs allemands” (“We are all German Jews”) – an expression of solidarity with Daniel Cohn-Bendit – suggested that “Jewish identity was no longer for Jews alone” and that “every child of the post-war era could change places with the outsider and wear a yellow star”.)
Germany is sometimes thought of as a verspätete Nation, or “belated nation”, in other words one that became a nation state much later than comparable European countries like Britain and France. The term, which comes from Helmuth Plessner’s 1935 book of the same name, is closely connected to the idea of a German Sonderweg, or “special path”. But isn’t the ultimate “belated nation” – albeit in a slightly different sense – Israel? Of course, Israel is in the Middle East, not Europe. But although it was realized in the Middle East in the twentieth century, Zionism came out of nineteenth-century Europe: it was conceived by assimilated Jews like Theodor Herzl as a response to European anti-Semitism and was also influenced by European and particularly German nationalism. Israel is thus of Europe even though it is not in Europe – one of the paradoxes of Zionism.
The Guardian recently had a profile of Tony Judt, the author of Postwar, who is battling Lou Gehrig’s disease (a kind of motor neurone disorder) and described the nature of the illness in an extraordinary, moving essay, entitled “Night”, in the New York Review of Books recently. One thing that particularly struck me in Ed Pilkington’s piece was his description of Judt as a “rootless cosmopolitan” – a phrase that Judt has himself used to describe Edward Said. Since reading the piece, I’ve been thinking about that phrase and what it means. In particular, is being a rootless cosmopolitan a good thing?