Death and Resurrection of Germanism

I have lived in German-speaking territory for the past almost 30 years. For most of that time it has felt like living in a shadow culture. The piercing of the Iron Curtain in 1989 might have heralded a resurgent Germany, but the time was nevertheless the highpoint of Anglo-Saxon culture. Most of the music was American and British, most of the literature we talked about, a lot of the art. In Darmstadt, where I lived at the start, the presence of an American military base was an important link to the dominant culture. For God’s sake, we even had a Walmart!

When I grew up in Denmark in the sixties and seventies German culture was the uncoolest, even if Bach and Beethoven were tolerated. Buddenbrooks was feared, and German lessons detested like math, the German language being so rigorous and logical. The anarchy and freedom of English was what we wanted, the music of Jimi Hendrix its artistic apex.

The reason for the rejection of German culture was not only that America was so strong. History, of course, put a shadow over everything German apart from the cars.

Nazism and WWII did not kill German culture but assigned German culture to the margins. After the war Berlin and Vienna by and large became wastelands in terms of cultural innovation. The rest of the world admired the Wirtschaftswunder, but was sceptical about German culture, particularly of recent origin. Why read Durrenmatt if you could read Salinger or Kerouac? Even if Karajan became an icon of popular culture, Kraftwerk was not Beatles, Baselitz not quite Pollock.

But the times they are a-changing. Berlin is a hothouse of creativity and traditional German culture is becoming if not cool then far more accepted. Schiller is gaining on Shakespeare, Love Parade, now shrouded in tragedy, was born in Berlin, not New York. Still, truth be told, German culture will not replace Anglo-Saxon culture in the short term. Things can be expected to become more balanced, however. Austria is still caught in creativity killing nostalgia, but Germany, with its strong cultural orientation and its new preeminent political position, will likely steam ahead and give us new appreciation of how rigour and logic can bring outstanding cultural achievements.

The revival of Germanic culture will, one must hope, also bring a much keener interest in German and Austrian history. The well-educated citizen of the world knows more about the US Civil War than about Bismarck’s unification of Germany, knows more about the Glorious Revolution than about the reign of Frederick the Great, more about the reforms of Napoleon than about those of Joseph II. That is a shame, because there is so much to be learned from the history of the German peoples. At a time of crisis for the European Union few people look at what can be learned from the rise and fall of the Habsburg Empire, can be learned from Bismarck’s iron-willed forcing of German unity, from the nationalist messes of the period between the wars. ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’ George Santayana said. That saying is first and foremost about learning from the mistakes of the past, of course, but implies also that we should learn the salutary lessons. Yet, the conditioning factors of Germany’s remarkable recovery from the depth of despair to affluence within 20 years of WWII is little reflected upon even by Germans themselves although there are crucial lessons to be learned. Economists are enamoured by Adam Smith, but forget that the basis of German broad-based wealth is worker participation in corporate decision-making. Germany’s Willkommenskultur is being bad-mouthed, although it is a triumph of learning from history. Germanism has a long way to go yet.

Germany is critically dependent upon Europe and Europe is critically dependent upon Germany. If we can get our European house in order we can then hope to continue enjoying the fantastic benefits of multicultural exchange. And we can hope to continue to benefit from a German culture that is international, tolerant and humanistic, and that gives lie to the impressions of my youth and is very cool, indeed. Buddenbrooks, here we come!

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