The Trouble with Being German

In George Mikes’s series of books, carrying titles like How to Be a Brit or How to Be an Alien, a book on How to Be a German is missing. I admit there might be practical reasons for this negligence. But there may also be metaphysical reasons: it is not possible to be a German.1 If it were, hardly anyone would like to be one. The Germans themselves would like it even less. Just imagine a German meeting one of his compatriots on a foreign beach: he would be glad to continue speaking English and be taken for a foreigner. If recognized by his countryman, what he would probably feel is shame. Most Germans are glad to be in any place where there are no other Germans. That is what accounts for their fame as the world’s traveling champions. In his lectures on the World War II bombings, W. G. Sebald saw a continuity between the traumatic flight of our mothers and grandmothers from the burning cities Dresden and Hamburg, carrying their dead babies in suitcases, and today’s tourism. I would add to this the contribution of a community in which neither the perpetration of atrocities nor victimization has ever been discussed and experienced outside of severe political constraints. If it is impossible to be German, this may be because the link between individual experience and political collectivity has been severed. There is no experience of being German, even if German-language college textbooks say there is.

Nowhere does this radical ontological break that occurred in Germany become more visible than in our emotional culture. The image that typifies it is a photograph that appeared in one of Berlin’s major newspapers after Angela Merkel won the recent national elections. It shows her and five of her supporters carrying signs saying “Angie.” All six have bitter and tired faces, and only her nickname on the signs—borrowed by strategists of the conservative party from a Rolling Stones song—signals enthusiasm for a conservative party that has never been more devoid of substance. A lack of vision is understood as authenticity. There is no display of emotion, be it political or private, but the borrowed glitter of an old and all-too-popular tune. Familiarity and fatigue validate the lack of ideas in the face of major problems: slow economic growth despite a booming export economy, high unemployment rates, an aging population whose pension plans and social security benefits may be forcing the state into debt, and immigrants whom Germany needs but can’t integrate into its social fabric.

Of course, a second place where the same deep rupture in the country’s traditions shows is its academic culture. Whereas up to the 1920s students from all over the world came to Germany, searching for knowledge and education in one of the world’s most distinguished university systems, today the German academy, especially in the humanities, has developed into a feudal bureaucracy mostly devoid of courageous thought and pedagogical vision. The break in confidence is manifest in what was once the highest discipline: philosophy. After WWII, the school of Joachim Ritter came to dominate the scene, and, with its historic and philological orientation, a decay was confirmed that had begun with the brain drain of Germany’s most brilliant scholars during the war, from Erich Auerbach to Hannah Arendt. Thinking equaled specializing in the history of thought. Ritter’s achievement was to edit one of the best encyclopedias of the history of philosophical notions.

The return to Germany of Adorno’s Frankfurt School only contributed to the inertia, as it did not provide new theses but faded into the gray of an inflexible social theory kept upright by its moral prestige. And even recent developments like Niklas Luhmann’s sociological constructivism and Friedrich Kittler’s and Bernhard Siegert’s media analysis show clear traces of bureaucratic language and an unequaled fetishism of technology. Is it really technology that makes the world run? Is it courage to leave thinking up to the machines and system because we are afraid of making things happen as men and women?

Lyotard may have been right with his thesis that after the Jewish genocide during WWII, the dialectic of history that forms the basis of experience has been frozen. The period had no positive result—nothing one could point to for redemption—and results are what progress relies on. The consequence in Germany has been the eradication of rich personal experience. Against this backdrop of the ultimate evil, nothing else has real weight. Imagine you come from a country known to many people only through the Holocaust Museum: this country is “Germany.” Is it possible to be German?

  1. In fact, when among his 44 books Mikes wrote one on Germany, Über Alles: Germany Explored (1969), he dropped the “How to Be” format that had worked so well for him elsewhere. 

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