Today's date:
Winter 1993

Germany's Identity Crisis

Heiner Müller - Generally considered Germany's leading playwright, Heiner Müller is the artistic director of the renowned Berliner Ensemble. In the theater canteen, Müller smoked his trademark cigar and spoke with NPQ Senior Editor Marilyn Berlin Snell about Kafka, Brecht and the origins of Germany's current crisis. The following is adapted form that conversation. Translation conducted by Catharine Gay.

"The City Coat of Arms" by Franz Kafka is published in English by Martin Secker & Warburg. Reprinted with permission.

After the death of socialism as epitomized by the GDR, Germany's new demon has become neo-Nazi extremism. This should surprise no one. With the demise of socialism, and the German unification, a vacuum was created in Germany. Capitalism no longer had an enemy, which also meant that it was deprived of an alibi when people failed to thrive. In the wake of the discrediting of the left-wing ideologies, right-wing extremism has simply assumed the role of capitalism's harshest critic.

It is a waste of time to talk about the current violence, since solutions to it cannot be found through rational means. There can be no dialogue with the neo-Nazis: They are not interested in dialogue, either with intellectuals or politicians. They are merely following their own logic: logic of the void. And they are filling the void with nationalism.

In the 19th century, radicals sought to appease the "God is dead" trauma through socialism. Today, not only is God dead but utopias are taboo. There are no values left. From this extends freedom, but also longing - to belong to be a part of a group, a community, a nation.

Clearly, Germany is in the throes of an identity crisis, though there has never been a national identity encompassing one Germany. In the past, Germany has been united but only in opposition to some outside force; "Germany" never constituted a natural, self-defined unit.

Today, however, we have no national identity apart from that of the Deutschemark. Now that the Deutschemark is going downhill - and the reality has struck home that unification will cost much more and demand far greater sacrifice than anyone had dreamed - the one unifying feature of our national identity is slipping away, too.

Of course this problem of identity - and the negative, even violent reaction to its absence - is not typically only German. It happens everywhere. But current social and economic conditions here have transformed a national weakness into a national crisis. The unemployment rate in Germany is even higher than in 1933. In the eastern part of the country, the majority of the youth is without jobs or hope for the future. In Rostok, the unemployment rate is more than 60 percent among young men.

One of the best pieces on this subject of identity and nationalism, utopia and distopia, is "The City Coat of Arms" by Franz Kafka. Ten years ago this story was uniquely applicable to the situation in the socialist countries of Eastern Europe but today we are all characters in Kafka's tale. Indeed, the decay of the East is only a prelude to the disintegration of the West.

Art and Apocalypse
The world hasn't really changed much since Kafka, or in the last 3,000 years for that matter. Over and over, the same political and philosophical problems have been discussed and the same solutions have been proposed. The only difference is that technological skill and therefore the scale of violence has increased. Indeed, the greatest danger to humanity has been in the accelerated realization of wishes through technology. We haven't learned that utopias should not be allowed to be realized; or that the scope of politicians should be reduced to the limits set by our dreams.

Due to this failure of vision, catastrophe cannot be avoided. The task of artist and intellectuals then, consists of nothing more than describing the roots of our failures and discontents so that later generations have access to the information, which, of course, they will inevitably disregard.

My views are neither cynical nor pessimistic but realistic. Nothing in history convinces me that there is a way around catastrophe. It's too late for anything.

You may charge me with apocalyptic randiness, and I will respond with the words of Martin Luther, who said that "even I knew the world would go under tomorrow I would still go on watering my apple tree."

That is all the European intellectual can do: water his apple trees.

Ultimately, however, the best attitude to take toward the world is that of Brecht, who said whatever happens after he dies doesn't matter.

Life's Eternal Return
The German writer Gottfried Benn wrote that history took its source from the Niagara Falls and ended in the bathroom sink. By this he meant that there are always new elements, new tributaries into which history can run, new factors that produce change. History, like water, runs a complex, fragmented but ultimately cyclical course.

Therefore it's senseless to say that socialism is dead as an ideology, for example. One attempt to build socialism has gone down the tubes. But socialism is already being born anew elsewhere. Nothing is ever concluded.

A Dangerous Denial of Death
The main problem for humanity is that too many people have not succeeded in incorporating the importance of death into their daily lives.

The Greek tragedians understood the power of theater. We, too, must use this power. When I define the special quality of theater, I describe the presence of the dying actor, not the living. In those moments, the actor and the spectator can die together and thereby realize both unity and empathy. Only in theater can this happen. Only in theater can identity be rescued.

Much would change if we were all truly aware of the fact that we could die at any moment. Unfortunately, the whole of civil society today is organized to suppress death. If we are not willing to face death, experience death through the agony of the actor on stage, we will never come to terms with what it means to be alive. This is modern man's main weakness, and it will lead eventually to his downfall.

What one needs is the future, not the eternity of a fleeting moment. We need to dig up the dead again and again, so that someday we can relate with the future. This is what I mean when I say that "necrophelia is love for the future." We must accept the presence of the dead as a partner in dialogue, and understand that the future extends only from this conversation.

Art can help in this process, not only by bridging past and present but by destroying the illusion of personal identity. How can this be achieved? In part, through silence.

Silence is a form of language because it demands interpretation from the audience. Since the audience does not know rationally what is being said, they no longer know who they are. But now the audience, which has lost for a moment its sense of who, what and where it is, is in movement. It has freed itself from and stagnation and paralysis of certainty.

The playwright Samuel Beckett understood this. He needed to present his work in a way that forced the audience to change, forced them out of their habit. He did not believe that the author should ever provide the complete message. The audience must make the effort - they must take some responsibility.

In classic Greek tragedy Oedipus carried the guilt of the world upon his shoulders. Christian Europe hired representatives for that task. But if one has a representative one has a scapegoat: "It wasn't us." This is a basic pattern of European history; and it has found its way into the European political structure.

Pascals Satz wrote that catastrophe arises from the inability to be alone with oneself. This also includes the unwillingness to be alone with ones watchwork which persistently ticks out evidence of our mortality. For that reason we try not to hear time passing. We set up collectives and seek utopias to drown out the sound. We make wars against our neighbors and those who do not look like us, we engage in nationalistic conflicts - all in a feeble attempt to drown out the sound of our impending death.

In 1871 the communists in Paris shot down the clocks as a symbolic gesture: Paradise had finally arrived; immortality had been achieved; time had stopped. The idea of communism may now have disappeared into history but the nationalists are merely replacing the Berlin Wall with one of their making. It is an emergency program - the barricade against death - and of course it will not succeed.

World history and politics - which is a predictable story of violence, ethnic hatreds and war - can be reduced to suppression of mortality. Life stems from and is rooted in communication with the dead. The role of art, and in the end, of culture, is to create a place for the dead.

"The City Coat of Arms" - Frank Kafka
At first all the arrangement for the building the Tower of Babel were characterized by fairly good order; indeed the order was perhaps too perfect, too much thought was given to guides, interpreters, accommodations for the workmen, and roads of communication, as if there were centuries before one to do the work in. In fact, the general opinion at that time was that one simply could not build too slowly; a very little insistence on this would have sufficed to make one hesitate to lay the foundations at all. People argued in this way: The essential thing in the whole business is the idea of building a tower that will reach to heaven. In comparison with that idea everything else is secondary. The idea, once seized in its magnitude, can never vanish again; so long as there are men on the earth there will be also the irresistible desire to complete the building. That being so, however, one need have no anxiety about the future; on the contrary, human knowledge is increasing, the art of building has made progress and will make further progress, apiece of work which takes us a year may perhaps be done in half the time in another hundred years, and better done, too, more enduringly. So why exert oneself to the extreme limit of one's present powers? There would be some sense in doing that only if it were likely that the tower could be completed in one generation. But that is beyond all hope. It is far more likely that the next generation with their perfected knowledge will find the work of their predecessors bad, and tear down what has been build so as to begin anew. Such thoughts paralyzed people's powers, and so they troubled less about the tower than the construction of a city for the workmen. Every nationality wanted the finest quarter for itself and this gave rise to disputes, which developed into bloody conflicts. These conflicts never came to an end; to the leaders they were a new proof that, in the absence of the necessary unity, the building of the tower must be done very slowly, or indeed preferably postponed until universal peace was declared. But the time was not spent only in conflict; the town was embellished in the intervals, and this unfortunately enough evoked fresh envy and fresh conflict . In this fashion age of the first generation went past, but none of the succeeding ones showed any difference' except that technical skill increased and with it occasion for conflict. To this must be added that the second or third generation has already recognized the senselessness of building a heaven-reaching tower; but by that time everybody was too deeply involved to leave the city.

All the legends and songs that came to birth in that city are filled with longing for a prophesied day when the city would be destroyed by five successive blows from a gigantic fist. It is for that reason too that the city has a closed fist on its coat of arms.

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