Exit the Fatherland

Germany became a tolerant nation only by painful, small steps | Aeon Essays
German citizens protest outside the far-Right National Democratic Party of Germany’s 1967 congress in Hanover. The poster reads: ‘Again? Not with us!’ Photo by Wolfgang Kunz/ullstein bild via Getty

Shaking off Nazism was no simple matter: the work to create a plural and peacable Germany was prolonged and painful

Helmut Walser Smith is the Martha Rivers Ingram Chair of History and professor of history at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. His books include The Butcher’s Tale: Murder and Antisemitism in a German Town (2002), The Continuities of German History: Nation, Religion, and Race across the Long 19th Century (2008) and Germany: A Nation in Its Time (2020).

Edited by Sam Haselby

After 12 years of fascism, six years of war, and the concentrated genocidal killing of the Holocaust, nationalism should have been thoroughly discredited. Yet it was not. For decades, nationalist frames of mind continued to hold. They prevailed on both sides of the so-called Iron Curtain and predominated in the Global North as well as in the developing world of the Global South. Even in the Federal Republic of Germany, the turn away from ‘the cage called Fatherland’ – as Keetenheuve, the main character in Wolfgang Koeppen’s novel The Hothouse (1953), called his depressingly nationalistic West Germany – didn’t commence immediately.

When the turn did begin, however, Keetenheuve’s country would set out on a remarkable journey – not one racing down the highway to cosmopolitanism, but rather a slow one that required a series of small steps leading to the gradual creation of a more pacific, diverse and historically honest nation – a better Germany.

After the collapse of the Third Reich, Germans widely blamed other countries for the Second World War. ‘Every German knows that we are not guilty of starting the war,’ asserted the Nazi journalist Hildegarde Roselius in 1946. With ‘every German’, this acquaintance of the American photographer Margaret Bourke-White certainly exaggerated. But in 1952, 68 per cent of Germans polled gave an answer other than ‘Germany’ to the question of who started the Second World War, and it was not until the 1960s that this opinion fell into the minority.

In the mid-1950s, nearly half of all Germans polled said ‘yes’ to the proposition that ‘were it not for the war, Hitler would have been one of the greatest statesmen of the 20th century.’ Until the late 1950s, nearly 90 per cent gave an answer other than ‘yes’ when asked if their country should recognise the Oder-Neisse line, the new border with Poland. Perhaps most revealing of all was their stance on Jews. On 12 June 1946, Hannah Arendt hazarded the opinion to Dolf Sternberger, one of occupied Germany’s most prominent publicists, that ‘Germany has never been more antisemitic than it is now.’ As late as 1959, 90 per cent of Germans polled thought of Jews as belonging to a different race – while only 10 per cent thought of the English in these terms.

The sum of these attitudes suggests that Keetenheuve’s cage called Fatherland remained shut for more than two decades after the fall of the Third Reich.

Like most of Europe and indeed the world, Germany lacked a powerful alternative discourse to nationalism. Until the 1970s, the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights possessed little traction in postwar Europe. Regional affiliations, such as those to Europe (or Pan-Africanism or Pan-Arabism), were more viable but as yet confined to a small number of elites. Strident defences of capitalism also did little to deplete the store of nationalist tropes. And on the western side of the Iron Curtain, anti-Communism supported rather than undermined Nazi-inspired nationalism.

The postwar world was, moreover, awash in new nation-states, especially as it shaded into the postcolonial era. In 1945, there were only 51 independent countries represented at the UN: 30 years later, there were 144. Whether in Jawaharlal Nehru’s India or Kwame Nkrumah’s Ghana, nationalism and promises of self-determination fired anti-colonial independence movements in Asia and Africa. In Europe, nationalism also continued to shape claims to group rights and territorial boundaries. In Germany, divided and not fully sovereign until 1990, it informed discussion over eventual unification, the right of the ethnic German expellees to return to their east European homelands, and the validity of Germany’s eastern borders. Indeed, it wasn’t until 1970, a quarter-century after the war, that the Federal Republic of Germany finally recognised as legitimate the German border (established at the Potsdam Conference in 1945) with Poland. And still nearly half the citizens of West Germany opposed the recognition…

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