Subterranean Heimat Blues
Hans Magnus Enzenberger - A poet, dramatist and essayist, Hans Magnus Enzensberger is one of Germany's most influential writers. He is author of the play The Havana Inquiry, and The Consciousness Industry and Mausoleum: 37 Ballads from the History of Progress.
His most recent collection of essays is entitled Europe, Europe. He was interviewed for NPQ during a visit to Mexico City by Auerlio Asiain of Vuelta. Vuelta will publish this interview in Spanish. Translated by Mario Ojeda-Revah.
NPQ: Several intellectual traditions are alive within German culture. Germany is the land of Kantian rationalism and Hegel's dialectic. There is also an ironic and critical of liberal thought deeply influenced by the French Revolution. This tradition was not only embodied by Heine but also Walter Benjamin, who was interested in French symbolism and Surrealism. You are one of the leading lights of this current Germany today.
Nonetheless, for many intellectuals, and with them much of the public, the German essence is above all defined by Johann Gottfried Hereder's idea of the volkgeist - the language, customs and traditional way of being arising solely from within the collective historical experience of the Germanic people.
In contrast to this German traditionalism, Theodor Adorno referred to modern liberal rationalism as "the jargon of the inauthentic." Indeed, in their common lament German romantics have often opted, at the moment of truth, for the national over the rational.
Isn't it precisely this struggle between the "German essence" and pluralistic, tolerant liberalism that we are witnessing in Germany today?
HANS MAGNUS ENZENSBERGER: It is not very fair to assign all the blame to Herder for what happened in Germany after he lived and wrote. Hereder, after all, not only spoke about German volksgeist, but about the volksgeist of all nations. He felt that each culture, shaped by its own collective experience, was unique. He was not at all a chauvinist.
In any event, volksich thought became anachronistic and marginalized by the turn of the century the rise of the (logical positivist) influence of Ludwig Wittgenstein and others.
The idea of the volkgeist only survived into the 20th century, of course, in the instrumentalized and vulgarized form given to it by the Nazis. But they had no intellectual potential worth mentioning. It was really the rabble, the lumpen intelligentsia, that went for the Nazis.
So, to make a connection between German philosophy and the Nazis is a very precarious undertaking.
In postwar Germany, cultural hegemony has belonged absolutely to a Western-style liberal rationalist intellectual. Jürgen Habermas is a good example. There simply has been no volkisch writer or volkisch philosopher of any influence for the past 40 years.
Indeed one of the problems of the right-wing in Germany now is that it does not have any important voices in the intellectual world, aside from a few historians trying to reinterpret fascism. But such people have no authority at all. They are voices in the wilderness. There is essentially no intellectual culture of the right.
Now, concerning Theodor Adorno and the "jargon of inauthenticity." The lament of authenticity has nothing to do with volkisch or racist thinking. It has to do with the paradox of liberalism everywhere, not just in Germany. As we all know, this debate has been long and unresolved.
We all know that the integrative force of liberalism is weak because its main virtues, such as tolerance, pluralism and human rights, are defensive in character. By definition, liberalism does not positively affirm a system values.
During earlier times in history, there was no doubt a common ground of experience and values shared by the majority of a given population - perhaps this was a time when the idea of volksgeist truly meant something. But whatever we may think of those religious values, the virtues of obedience and authority - no matter how they are cynically manipulated by the established powers - have vanished as the foundation of advanced societies.
So, the question remains, not just for Germany but for all of us: Is it possible to base a society on the weak values of liberalism?
NPQ: The recent crisis over immigrants and the debate about changing the asylum law have raised all the old questions about German nationalism and racism.
What is your assessment of the "balance of mentality" among the public?
ENZENSBERGER: I think the majority of the West German population has accepted and even interiorized democratic values. That is quite an achievement in only 40 years. But at the same time, this was achieved during a period of unprecedented economic success and a fortunate international situation.
Certainly the Cold War had its dangers, costs and risks. But it also worked as a consolidating force.
Now, for the first time, western German democracy is facing a real test, whose challenges are twofold: reunification and immigration.
In terms of immigration, we suddenly must cope with 16 million people who are economically bankrupt, morally broken and politically miseducated by dictatorship. In a certain way, the victims of communism must be resocialized.
This alone would be enough to keep a democratic society busy for 10 or 20 years. It is a very heavy burden. It also means we have to redistribute wealth and convince western Germans of the importance of sacrifice.
At the same time we are facing a new, unprecedented wave of immigration quite unlike the immigration before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Previously, foreign workers were invited to Germany and were more or less integrated, since they were able to find a very precise place in society. They could be absorbed because there was work for them. They could have a normal life.
But now we are facing the challenge of immigrants who haven no chance in the labor market, who have to subsist on welfare, by the black market, or through petty crime or drug smuggling.
The dimension of the problem can be seen in the numbers: Germany has absorbed more foreigners that the entire population of Dresden.
For a society that has lived a soft and protected life, for a society that has been, so to speak, historically voided, this all comes as quite a shock. And no one was less surprised for this shock than the German political class. Rather than face the truth, our politicians peddled lies and self-deceit, exacerbating the problem. I fail to see why.
NPQ: The asylum law is being tightened in the face of widespread neo-Nazi violence against foreigners. Isn't changing the asylum law under such conditions caving in to the worst elements of German society?
ENZENSBERGER: Let me put it this way: The Germans have learned very well that they hold the world record in evil for what happened during the fascist period. So the reactive tendency has been to want to become the world champions in doing good.
That is the reason we had the famous Article 16 in our constitution, which granted asylum to anyone who sought it. No other nation on earth has such a law. And the original idea had nothing to do with mass immigration. It was meant for individuals who might face the same kind of persecution in other countries that the Nazis perpetrated in Germany. It was meant for the noble asylum seeker, the Garibaldi's of the world.
Germany, in my view, should stop trying to be the world champions in doing good and just try to be normal like our civilized neighbors. We must look to Britain, the Netherlands or Denmark, see how they coped, and cope accordingly. That would be good enough for me.
At the same time, Germany must stop denying that it is an immigrant country. Our leading politicians maintain that it is not, which is a patent lie. We are de facto an immigrant country and will remain one for the foreseeable future.
NPQ: Lest we forget the recent riots in Los Angeles, racial intolerance is not a German problem alone, but a global phenomenon. What is the difference between German intolerance and that of other countries?
ENZENSBERGER: America was founded on a dual basis: immigration and the elimination of the native population. Then it imported slaves. Such historical facts exist nowhere in Europe; the black problem in America thus has no analogy in Europe. No doubt Germany can learn from U.S. immigration and naturalization practices, and also from Canada's enlightened policies.
Questions of race and tolerance have an entirely different historical context in Germany. It is an irony that the German ever hit upon the idea of racial purity. If ever there were a cultural mix in one geographical spot, it is Germany. A long list of Central European peoples have come our way. We have had Huguenots from France and Polish workers who went to the Ruhr basin.
That is why the mythology of race in Germany is something really divorced from reality. And until the fall of the Berlin Wall, we had absorbed millions of foreign workers, mainly Turks. That is not a bad record at all.
Despite this success, however, the echoes of past myths are straining Germany today. They stir like subterranean rivers under the desert.
As we know, it is very rare in history that strong currents can be forever diverted or dessicated. So, today, we may indeed be feeling the hidden undertow of the German past. I don't deny it.
But the undertow is the backward motion of a forward moving stream. The silent majority of the Germans are moving with the forward flow. There is a civil society that is going to react, and I believe, ultimately quell all the present fervor and fear. Look at the enormous demonstrations of 300,000 in Munich, Berlin, and Hamburg.
So, I am dismayed by all the right-wing violence that is going on. I am furious! But I am not in a panic.
NPQ: German president Richard von Weizsäcker has said the Weimar Republic fell not because there were too many Nazis, but too few democrats for too long. Ralf Dahrendorf has made the point that Germany may have at last become a nation, but it has not become a liberal society - meaning that, like Japan, Germany never "organically" developed a civil society and a democratic mentality. It was forced to "swallow" it by the occupation authorities after World War II.
Thus, while the rule of law is firmly anchored in the German constitution, it is not bolstered, as it is in the Anglo-Saxon world, by the individual citizen's commitment to the virtue of tolerance.
ENZENSBERGER: A few things must be pointed out about the comparison with Weimar.
Weimar was heavily loaded down with historical baggage. It tried to survive amidst depressive economic conditions on top of the very unwise Versailles Treaty which caused perceived humiliation in Germany.
The second time around, we were much more fortunate because the peace formulated by the Western allies was an intelligent one. And, of course, Germany had great economic fortune during the postwar period.
Additionally, the German militarism that existed at the time of Weimar has been totally eliminated. The Reichswehr was very strong. The present day Bundeswehr is not a political force.
Dahrendorf, who is half English, has become, well, half an Englishman in his perspective. There is no denying that democracy in England is more deeply rooted in Germany. That cannot come as a surprise. But it is not just Anglo-Saxon traditions that can be our reference, but Scandanavia as well. They too, have very old democracies.
In the end, for Germany, a little more than 40
years is a very short time for a people to build democratic institutions,
no less adopt a democratic mentality. In 1948, I would not have thought
it possible for German society to become democratic to the extent it has
in such a short time. I was very pessimistic at the end of World War II.
Now I admit I was wrong.