Germany's "Angst" - can they get rid of?

Posted in Europe | 02-Sep-04 | Author: Herbert Kremp

The German Reichstag in Berlin.
The German Reichstag in Berlin.
An unusual disquiet typifies German life at present, including the reformatory pulse of the government, the discourse on the future, the reaction of the citizens. One even feels memories of the turbulent times of great decisions in the fifties and sixties, although something really decisive is missing now, namely the hopes and the successes which formerly smoothed the excitement und paved the way for the great boom.

It is an irrational slump: Never before have the Germans spent so much money on their holiday travels (57 Billion Euro in 2003, rising), and never before was the waiting room of fear more crowded. The country spends four per cent of its gross national income – which represents the budget of the American Defence Ministry – on fortifying the East (90 Billion Euro per year, 1250 Billion since 1990), and never since the unity of the state was the “emotive” division deeper. Never before the German economy pumped more goods into the world markets, and never were the doubts deeper about the State Sacrament of political consensus. Rage grows to the beat of reforms. Trust in the political parties, in the state itself threatens to decay. With gestures of helplessness, but with every right, politicians, politologists and the whole swarm of augurs fear for the inner unity and social peace.

Is Germany the sick central power of Europe? Or is it a hypochondriac à la Molière with a wet compress around its head?

In the past ten years Germany`s critical condition has been analysed so often and so brilliantly that it seems the right time now to draw conclusions from the historical and neurological findings. Let us seek for truth in the facts. The result is simple and impressive.

Dr. Herbert Kremp is member of the WSN International Advisory Board.
Dr. Herbert Kremp is member of the WSN International Advisory Board.
The Economic Republic

Economic and social reforms which cut instead of giving, are popular nowhere in the world. But the German resistance has a specific reason: The affiliation of the Republic to the world, the services to the West in foreign policy and defence were purchased with social donations. Shortly after the general election in 1961 when the Christian Democratic Union lost their absolute majority, Konrad Adenauer said late one evening in the Bonn Press Club, he was aiming at social security “for everybody” in order to prevent the “Germans becoming evil again”. He had experienced Weimar. Weimar “and the aftermath” were before his eyes, he added. The Germans tended to “irrational thrusts”.

Despite all achievements of the young artificial state creation, despite its Western, Eastern and unification policies, it remained essentially an economic republic which drew its stability and consensus from the distribution of a steady growth. “An economy on the search for its political aim in life”, as Henry Kissinger coolly formulated. The affluence of a middle class society was the “idée fixe” that determined the aperture of the imagination, while external security and its expenses counted among the unpopular, weird and always controversial necessities. Nothing was as easily forgotten and nothing as labouriously recalled as the constitutional demand for national re-unification which pointed far beyond the social republic. Because appeasement promised to bring about a solution of the critical German question Willy Brandt won his only election in 1972. It was regarded as “rational” to take this question off the operative agenda in favour “of democratising” the German society.

On that evening in the Bonn Press Club Adenauer knew that the basic idea to push the Soviet Union back and go for a unified Germany integrated into “Europe” and the “West”, had failed in his life span. Only melancholy and the schemes of his CDU-Party grandees filled the remainder of his time. His successor Ludwig Erhard recognized the expense sheet of this policy which ignored his appeals for restraint. In his modest house on the outskirt of Bad Godesberg he complained to his visitor: “The great boom is causing ever higher state expenditure. We are going through a ballistic curve. We are carried high up and then brought down by our own weight.” Melancholy, suffering from schemes and the fulfilment of his own prophecy filled the rest of his time.

The Shrinkage of Time

Konrad Adenauer: The first German chancellor after WW II - critized as "Chancellor of the Allies"
Konrad Adenauer: The first German chancellor after WW II - critized as "Chancellor of the Allies"
The unprecedented shrinkage of the time dimension down to the present point is striking within this republic which has been inseparably fixated right from its beginnings on economics. Probably, it was not just due to the “idée fixe” of expanding social systems and riches which had been declared as a Patrimonium, that the Federal Republic proved itself as historically “forgetful” and saw no future for a unified Germany. There was only a seeming difference between official rhetorics and social consciousness. The country did not follow any destination which would have pointed beyond well being and self-interest; it had no manifest destiny, no history making mission, not even a really convincing reason for its own existence – a defect by the way, which historians believed to detect already in Bismarck´s establishment of the Empire. What were the Germans expected to do, what did they want? It was even doubtful whether they belonged to themselves (Michael Stürmer).

Still, wasn`t there the West, the treaty and Europe? Wasn`t there the world peace idea of the beaten which gained the more support the further it moved away from reality? Wasn`t the Federal Republic to its own surprise very soon regarded as a stronghold of stability, as a model country of re-education, touched by the magic wand of the American genius, almost a “prototype” within the circle of rising powers in the world? Admittedly, this pride was carried forward like a monstrance. “We are somebody again”, Rainer Barzel remarked during his election campaign in 1972. And isn`t it true that German politicians, especially their chancellors, possessed great influence in Washington, in Paris, intermittently in London, even in Moscow? Bonn was not the “political dwarf” as intentional self-irony maintained. On the contrary: Never have the Germans been more wooed than in the happy times of the Cold War.

Still, this does not illuminate the common mentality, the self-image. The Germans (West) privatised. Under the epochal term of the “miracle” the West German society changed into a Safari which tended towards broad hips and well being. They enjoyed the sheltered, cultivated life in individual manners. One got used to living on the point of the day, on the next pay day, the next holiday, the next pay rise, the next social donation. One never looked beyond the rim of the plate. The nation seemed disavowed, reduced to “self-determination”. The constitution offered an antithesis to Weimar, to National Socialism, to the Reich. Dolf Sternberger recommended constitutional patriotism as a substitute for love of the fatherland which everybody refused to know even by its name. German history had begun in 1933 – with a purposeful prelude since Luther`s time - , and it had been freed from itself in 1945 by foreign force. One did not like to hark back and even less to think further.

Take history away from a man, and you can manipulate him. Divide a nation, steal the ringing rhythm of its epochs, and it will fall into an isolationist refusal of emergencies (Hans Jörg Hennecke). Chain a citizen to the memory of guilt, and he will retreat behind the sheltering dam of the day and divide the world in two apparent realities: One is his own private reality in which he can dwell, and the other one is national and global and offers nothing but wrongs. A sharp laser ray into the shaft of the German mentality recognises the reasons why Germany has become a pension seeking society, why it has become and remained iconoclastic and blind to history.

Otto von Bismarck: The first German chancellor - a master in "Balance of power".
Otto von Bismarck: The first German chancellor - a master in "Balance of power".
Klaus von Dohnany detects the central German problem “ in an ever repeated self-accusation with catastrophic consequences on the collective psyche”. He continues: “The feeling we should not be allowed to be Germans any more which had been festered in the West over decades, has of course withdrawn the mental ground of the re-unification. Our country lacks the confidence to believe in our own German future in Europe, as all the other countries do… The inheritance of two dictatorships and a manner of recollection that always circles around the past, lame us and rob us of our determination for the future. This is irresponsible towards ourselves, but also towards Europe. We cannot help being a large country in the middle of the Continent, and we cannot escape either from our past or our future” (DIE WELT, July 24, 2004).

In Deep Oblivion

Several events since 1948 seemed to put the Germans from the point of the day on to the axis of time: the Berlin Blockade, the 17th of June 1953, the erection of the wall in 1961, the 1968 movement, the process of re-unification since 1989. Compared to each other, they partly explain the reaction on global political “shots” into German life, on the duration of remembered German political crises, on specific social movements in the West of the country and on the continuously fomenting difference between the formerly, both ideologically and politically separated parts.

The Berlin Blockade in 1948, the popular uprising in the GDR five years later, finally the erection of the wall in Berlin another seven years later – they all were continued crisis signals of the East-West-conflict on German soil. They alarmed a world divided by Germany about its future course, they sharpened the threatening image, they furthered those fears under the waves of which the appeasement policy won almost undivided acclaim of the private German society while the repression of the issue of re-unification in favour of efforts for peace and balance in Eastern policies was classed among the canon of “correctness”. The “strong” Soviet Union and the “stable” GDR under its recognized leader Erich Honecker belonged to the dominant political genre picture, as seen from the German angle of perception.

Thus, the Berlin blockade and the popular uprising in 1953 sank into the sediments of memory, the public holiday on June 17th caused embarrassement. The wall caused suffering in separated families, but as it looked ugly more than anything else it was painted over. When the “old Deutschlandpolitik” was declared to be an “existential lie” this was an expression of the wish to dismiss “at last” all illusions and instead concentrate on the main issue, the democratisation of the West German society in accordance with the measures of justice and peace. Never again should a war start from German soil. The 1968 movement chose the radical Mahayana way. They resolved to dispossess the civic society which was incorporated into Western-American capitalism, and prescribe a sort of time axis one side of which was dominated by the indelible crime of the past and the other one by an utopian escape to the future. The matter ended in uproar and terrorism, but one thing is for sure: Since then the resistance to Hitler grows daily (Johannes Gross).

Germany`s re-unification was the result of a global tectonic earthquake that had long before announced itself in the fundamental weaknesses of the Soviet Union and its satraps, although not reaching the selective German imagination. For the government of Helmut Kohl, for the complete political class which had settled down comfortably in the shaft of German mentality, the downfall of the wall and the erosion of the Communist power structures came as a surprise. The politicians knew the scenery of the counter-world, but not its ruined interior. Observers of events at the decisive places registered official bewilderment, an unprecedented pain of change. The politics and the whole society of West Germany found themselves put on the realistic, in fact never vanished axis of time – on the axis of the forgotten German history. It was Helmut Kohl who composed himself first and acted professionally, using the accumulated trust in the West. Yet, one must not forget the moment of surprise, of historical injury which dominated the first hour. The lack of inner mental preparation, even of willingness were to overshadow the whole process of unification – up to the present day.

Helmut Kohl´s biggest error was to expect an economic miracle in the incorporated Central German part of the country like the one the Western Zones had experienced after the establishment of the Federal Republic. Therefore he (and not he alone) disregarded the fact that the people of this region had been impaired in the development of their lives and talents not only by Socialist dictatorship and mismanagement, but that they had lived since 1933 for almost 60 uninterrupted years in supervising states which demanded all sorts of sacrifices from their individuality and delivered at the same time complete social maintenance as an enticing bonus of the system – both National Socialism and SED-Socialism.

Back to the Old Century

The people rise when reformatory demands approach the collective of individuals, but no storm breaks loose. When the demonstrators walk home with their tear-drenched protest posters, they are filled with discontent and probably a little ashamed of their lamentations on a still high social level. This is a precarious finding to which the 1968 movement had to bow long before when in a totally different situation one of their columns turned towards the institutions and the other towards terrorism. A sign of impotence: the course follows the basic neurasthenic pattern of ambition instead of ability, of nervous weakness. It seeks release in criticism: snorting it rides in circles, talk-shows tire after the first round, suggestive media announcements blur the border between reality and fiction like in a virtual electronic strategy game. The voter tends towards the quick handspring in opposite directions, the back flip. Does all this reflect a phenomenon of our time? If so, it would be more than a simple failure of the political class and more than just an excessive strain on the state parties, but rather an historical exhaustion, perhaps even a contrecoup of history which rewards the memory and punishes oblivion.

Let us avoid historical metaphysics. It is not needed to explain why so many Germans – after their short millennium vista – would love to return to the 20th century which richly rewarded one part of them after the “original catastrophes” and gave the other part the fairy-promise of compensations to follow later. Both rested on an unpolitical and unhistorical halluzination which resulted in such a fear of the future that “German angst” became a loan-word from the otherwise lagging German language. Angst is the formative German emotion, fear of change is its most concrete form of expression, nervosity its constituent component. A TV-advertisement for a coffee brand reflects this psychic complex: A motor boat docks on to a yacht. A young lady takes a seat on the sun deck, wreathed by admirers. She sips the brew and somebody asks her what she wished for. The beauty lisps: that everything should remain as it is.

Exactly that, the clinging on to the 20th century leads the observer who attempts to fathom this obviously invested nervosity, back to notions like “time phenomenon” and “social condition” the vagueness of which increases the unrest instead of diminishing it. In this neuronal environment state politics appear powerless and helpless rather than irresponsible, somehow neurasthenically infected, like exactly one hundred years ago Wilhelm II. was regarded as the “incarnation of those electric tendencies that work in all of us”, according to the diagnosis of Friedrich Naumann. The only difference being that after Bismarck`s dismissal, even in his last years of office, the diffusion of aims in foreign politics caused irritations while today the social compass seems to have lost its power of direction. The zig-zag-course and the rockings of the “Reichspolitik”, the perplexity which found expression in a nervous weakness and in verbal aggression, have been transferred inwardly in the course of which not only classical subjects of the interior national order mattered, but also the condition of our “station” within the European and global areas of competition.

The policy makers know exactly that they are moving in blue waters, on unpredictable high seas, like the “Reichspolitik” one hundred years ago – whereby today one must and wants to compete in market politics and not imperially. The pressure to conform works from the outside to the inside. The society of citizens has to adapt its claims and life plans to the norms of global efficiency which lacks all the pathos and all the glorious gestures that were still offered in the “Kaiser`s Empire”. There are no great emotions left which would ennoble toil and sacrifice.

Thomas Mann: One of the most famous German writers - living in exile USA from 1938 - 1952.
Thomas Mann: One of the most famous German writers - living in exile USA from 1938 - 1952.
The loss of national sovereignty and sociality, the discontent which manifests itself tangibly in the areas of profession and labour and of the immensely growing old age, causes a flaring discontent, a continuous mood of change in the political arenas. It fits into the neurasthenic finding that in spite of the discontent nobody dares to blast the building of foreign determination. If you look into the convoluted criticism of the (“neoliberal”) globalisation, you will find the familiar Wilhelmine fear of being encircled, the fear of the defeat of German, “Rhinish” social culture by the dictates of a cold world civilisation. Thomas Mann expressed this fear even more pointedly in his “Cogitations of an Unpolitical Man” where amid the repercussions of the war result in 1918 he wrote of the “German spirit” and the “spirit and cultural enmity” of Western democracies. What Georg Lukacs called a “spasmodic attempt” to come to terms with “the justification of German decadence”, is turning today in the German renaissance of the 20th century against the “erosion of social values” by alien flexibility, against the American, anti-European system. It even ends in the indirect appeal, to “counteract the pressure of adaptation by the global economy with reducing labour and social relations” (quotations from a paper written by Lafontaine and Schröder in 1998).

The holiest goods are threatened, the place in the sun is withdrawn, the world is full of enemies, mammon conspiring: The defensive-aggressive topics of the time of the “Kaiser” all are here, but there is no shining armour. Therefore, in accordance with neurasthenic usage, we are delivered to fear, to the feeling of over-taxation, to hypochondria which all of them grow freely and result in excesses of holidays, travels, medicine consumption, genuine mistrust against the atom, against biotechnology, art exhibitions, egg noodles and fish. Delving into the national guilt syndrome procures some of the warmth of the old century which contained two aggregates that seemed to revive the German trust in life: stability (the motto was: The Germans don`t believe in God, but in the Federal Bank) and security of the kind which Jean Girodoux described with these immortal words: “We want eternal security. We wish for a century of security so that we can go to the end of the world and the final judgement in security.”

The wish was refused at the time, it will always be refused. It is an “idée fixe”, wrapped in a delusion of the imagination. Does German policy possess the means to tame the fear of change which underlies the reform crisis? Does a possibly converted chancellor or a more stable successor suffice to reach this aim? Or will German policy, bitterly disappointed by the early new century, pay homage to deceleration, to less mobility, to anti-flexibility, to securing established possessions under the label of traditional distribution sanctified ethically on the European level?

Nervous weakness and aggression are two sides not only of the Germans but of the century, as the historian Joachim Radkau remarks – two sides of the last century to which the “feeling” struggles to return, like into the barricade of a wagon train. It calls itself “cultural”, in order to heighten the inadequacy in the true old sense of Thomas Mann. The question is: Will the nomadic world, moved by the ingression of billions of Indians and Chinese, follow the example of the cunning settled forces? The answer is no! The settled forces will have to prepare the wagon train for the march, because it has always been the case that the immobile one will suffer by “over-migration” (Jean Gebser) if he does not manage to slay the nomad.