Today's date:
Winter 1993

Heimat EC: Germany as Alias Nation

Germany is not itself these days. Of course, no one knows what Germany is anymore, not even the Germans. Is it the hundreds of thousands marching by day in Hamburg, Munich and Berlin against racial violence? Or it is the hateful young gangs firebombing the homes of immigrants by night? Now that the long postwar parole is over, will Germany prove to be a reformed or a repeat offender?

Unable to face itself, Germany has for decades assumed an identity for the benefit of others in the hopes of absolving its crimes. Germany has become an alias nation, hiding its soiled soul under the bushel of NATO, the CSCE or the European Community, which, above all else, institutionalizes the liberal ideal of a rational order over a national one.

"The thought of the future torments us and the past holds us back," Flaubert once said. "And that is why the present is slipping from our grasp." This paralysis is the curse of Germany today, as the highly controversial filmmaker Hans Jurgen Syberg notes in this NPQ.

Teetering between guilt over a vilified past and anxiety over the menacing times to come, Germany has lost its balance in the new world order. Too terrified by memory to seek shelter in its cultural heritage, Germany clings to the only source of stability and identity it allows itself to trust: the Deutschemark.

But a reliable currency does not make a nation any more than a well-managed Bundesbank can make European unity. Today, though united, Germany is still only half a nation, an economic power that cannot inhabit its own culture.

The answer for what ails Germany, and what may ail the rest of Europe if things get out of hand, cannot be found in European unity alone. As Carlos, Salinas, the Mexican president, has pointed out time and again in his own context of the North American Free Trade Agreement, integration can only succeed if the various parts of the whole retain sovereignty in their homeland.

Like everyone else in today's world, Germany too must be allowed its heimat, or homeland - the right to cherish the way sunlight falls on the trees of the Black Forest, "the way the heavens look at night from a particular plot of land." If the world wants a normalized Germany, then it must treat Germany normally. Its longing for a volksgeist should be treated no differently than the longing of the Baltic states, Mexico or Kazhakhstan in this age seized by the fever of cultural self-determination.

Syberberg is not wrong to argue that "democratic repression" associated with rational liberalism cannot forever bury the soul. If the cool head allows the passions of the soil no expression, then those underground passions will surface in the ugliest form time and again. The neo-Nazi street gangs are the children of parents afraid to say their own name.

A culture made to live by an alias will inevitably revert to the identity that was repressed instead of evolve a new identity based on the open experience of new realities. Until it can recover for itself a name other than Hitler, Germany cannot shed its modern alias. And without a sovereign identity for Germany, European unity will never have a solid foundation. It will be a contract signed in someone else's name.

But a new identity for Germany cannot just mean a recovery of the spiritual homeland compromised by Hitler. It must also mean an opening to the future of postmodern pluralism, which has already transformed Germany into a land of immigrants. Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the Deputy Mayor of Frankfurt for Multicultural Affairs, reports that 25 percent of that city's population is of foreign origin, mainly Turkish.

It is in this real Germany of today, where heimat meets Babylon, that a name other than Hitler can be found.

The forging of this new identity ultimately depends not on European integration, or even the formal rule of law, but on the strength of civil society developed in the Western part of Germany during its Cold War meld to the Anglo-Saxon mentality of American hegemony.

As German president Richard Von Weizsäcker has repeatedly reminded his people in troubled times, Germany yielded to fascism not because there were so many Nazis, but because there were too few democrats for too long. The constitution may rule in Germany today, but without the active culture of tolerance among the citizenry, that rule of law will not survive.

Civil society in authoritarian German culture did not develop well on its own during the state-sponsored industrialization before World War II. As in Japan after the war, the Germans were forced to "swallow" the Anglo-Saxon recipe for tolerance by the victorious occupiers.

Because Germany was divided during the Cold War, the half-nation has only half-digested a tolerant mentality. The question for Germany is whether that is enough to nourish an open culture as the nation becomes whole again. It is on that hope that heimat without Hitler rests.

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