Monday, January 11, 2010

'A German Identity, 1770-1990'

This book review appeared in the New York City Tribune on Wednesday, November 1, 1989, just a few days before the Berlin Wall came down (on November 9 of that year).

The Story of Germany: From Principalities to A Divided Nation

A German Identity, 1770-1990, by Harold James, Routtedge, Chapman and HalL 240 pp.

Talk about the reunification of Germany has been suspended for a while; the recent flood of East German refugees across the border threatens to depopulate the entire country, rendering the whole question moot. Barely 40 years after East Germany was founded by its Soviet overlords, its experiment in German state socialism is proving to be a failure.

The almost panicky desire of East Germans to emigrate and to take up citizenship in West Germany is symptomatic of the German nation’s search for identity, a search that has taken up most of the past 200 years of German history. This is the subject of Harold James’ fascinating book A German Identity, 1770-1990.

James, assistant professor of history at Princeton University and until recently a fellow of Peterhouse, Cambridge, argues that in the 19th century a doctrine emerged among German intellectuals and political leaders that drew its justification for the German nation “primarily by reference to the inexorable logic of economic development.”

As a result, Germany’s national fortunes rose and fell so to speak — with the stock market. In periods of economic decline, people lost faith in the nation entirely, leading to political chaos and eventually giving birth to the Nazi era. This is not to say that cultural, linguistic, religious, and other influences failed to contribute to German nationalism and national identity. James’ assertion is simply that until the advent of massive economic growth in the mid-1800s, German national identity did not coalesce. Similarly, the unification of myriad German states and statelets could not take place until a certain level of economic integration had been reached.

This belief was current among German nationalists in the mid-l9th century; the economic drive toward national unity was a conscious one, not merely coincidental with political developments.

After the German empire was proclaimed in 1871, German national identity had ample opportunity to develop, further. One interesting development was the emergence, in the 1880s and ‘90s, of explicitly anti-semitic political parties.

To those who think Hitler’s attitude toward the Jews was a horrible exaggeration of a deviant strain of German thinking learning about these activities of the last century comes as a surprise. James’ report is chilling in light of what came later:

“[The anti-semitic intellectuals] sought in the first place to mobilize hatred,” he writes. “Max Liebermann von Sonnenberg, who founded the anitsemitic Deutsche Volksverein, did not care about any broader program or indeed any rationale other than simply a violent dislike. ‘first we waht to become a political power,’ be said, ‘then we shall seek the scientific evidence for anti-Semitism.’”

During this period, several parties arose that actually took “anti-semitic” as part of their name; there was no hiding their agenda. Examples included the Antisemitische Deutschsoziale Partei [Anti-Semitic German Social Party] and the Antisemitische Volkspartei [Anti-Semitic People’s Party].

One reason anti-semitism became so important in the German’s search for national identity stems from a longstanding German habit of defining the German nation in terms of other nations. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, Germans adopted the customs, styles, and even languages of others. German intellectuals openly admired English and American systems of government, French philosophy, and Greek civilization. The aristocracy and rising middle classes unashamedly aped styles of dress from Paris.

Of course, some Germans warned against this copycat culturalism. Germaine Necker, better known as Madame de StaĆ«l, wrote that “self-abnegation and esteem for others are qualities in individuals, but the patriotism of nations must be egotistical.” Other critics were harsher.

Still, even in modern times the Germans have seemed obsessed with comparisons to other nations and cultures. At the time of the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, one Nazi newspaper exhorted its readers to show the world Germany’s best side; “We must be more charming than the Parisians, more light-living than the Viennese, more vital than the Russians, more cosmopolitan than Londoners, more practical than New Yorkers.”

The most pressing question of German identity we face today is, of course, the division of Germany into two parts at the end of World War II. German reunification has been a cloud hanging over Europe for more than 40 years. The French and the Russians fear a strong, united Germany, having suffered so much at its hands during the two world wars. There has never been a peace treaty signed to bring World War II to an end, primarily because the German question remains unsettled.

To counteract this precarious situation, West Germany and France pioneered the European Economic Community, which now comprises 12 nations. West German prosperity, tied closely to the fortunes of other Western nations, serves as a palliative against the twin shames of the Nazi heritage and the division of the German nation against the will of the German people.

And, as we see each day on the evening news, East Germans — citizens of the most prosperous Eastern bloc country — are dissatisfied with their lot and are willing to sacrifice everything to move to West Germany.

It is clearly not just material prosperity that draws these refugees to the West. They desire freedom, something that even glasnost and perestroika cannot offer and desire a chance to participate in the German nation unencumbered by Moscow.

Harold James’ book, A German Identity, 1770-1990, helps us to understand what these Germans are looking for. Not just a history book, but an interpretive essay that requires of the reader substantial knowledge of German events (and particularly chronology), it belongs on the shelf alongside Elie Kedourie’s Nationalism and Gordon Craig’s The Germans. Its analysis of nationalism is an important contribution to the theoretical literature, and its specific examination of the German people puts it among the best socio-political studies of modem Germany.

Richard Sincere is a Washington-based policy analyst who writes frequently on African affairs.

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