Politics and Culture in Modern Germany



The first time I went to Germany was during the summer months of 1935. It was a fateful year. In March, Hitler had shocked the international community by making two announcements: first, that Germany now possessed an airforce, although of undisclosed size, and, second, that he no longer intended to abide by the arms clauses of the Versailles Treaty and was proceeding to build an army of forty divisions. Then in September, at the annual party congress in Nuremberg, Hitler proclaimed a new law on mixed marriage, prohibiting marriage or sexual relations between Germans and Jews, and a Reich Citizenship Law which distinguished between citizens and subjects, restricting the political rights of the latter, who included all persons who were classified as full Jews and certain kinds of Mischlinge or half-breeds. The March declarations marked the beginning of a tumultuous rearmament program that greatly contributed to the instability of the international situation and played a major role in precipitating the second World War. The Nuremberg Laws were a signal of the radicalization of the persecution of the Jews that found full and dreadful expression during the war years.

Few people in 1935 had any premonition of that future, and there were no signs of concern or disaffection. Hitler had been the chief beneficiary of Germany’s remarkable recovery from the world depression, although in truth he had played no real role in the measures that effected it, and his first successes in foreign policy, for which the disarray of the Western Powers was largely responsible, brought popular adulation to extraordinary levels. The Führer cult was now established, not only within the party, but throughout state and society, as the very basis of the new Germany. The prevalent mood was one of Führer befehl, wir folgen!, and there seemed to be no doubt in the national consciousness that such submission would be personally gratifying and profitable. In a burlesque Advent litany in his remarkable novel The Tin Drum, Gunther Grass wrote that "an entire credulous nation" believed in a Santa Claus whose promised presents proved in the end to be nonexistent, "although everyone had supposed there would be plenty for all." It was that credulity that sustained Hitler long after hubris had led him to embark upon the course that would destroy him.

After the débacle, I saw Germany for the first time in 1954. It was a far different country from the one I remembered, less self-confident, as well it might be, given the enormity of the military defeat and the postwar division of the old Bismarck Reich into two states, each of which was dependent upon a foreign power for its security, and nervously conscious of the fact that an accident or a provocation might lead to a new conflict. Indeed, within four years, Khrushchev’s Berlin note, threatening to turn that city over to the German Democratic Republic unless the West evacuated it, made that possibility very real, and it was not until the resolution of the Cuban missile crisis that relative security returned to Germany. When I began to teach on a regular basis at the Free University of Berlin in 1962, the shock caused by the building of the Wall during the previous summer was still strong, and at my first meeting with my new colleagues there was much gloomy speculation about how soon it would be before the Russians made a grab at the rest of the city.

The Wall was to stand for another twenty-seven years, but it came down in the end, after the Bonn Republic had demonstrated that it had developed into the strongest and most stable democracy in Europe, while its counterpart in the east had proved itself incapable of sustaining a deteriorating situation and its great patron in Moscow found it inexpedient to prop it up any longer. The new union of the two Germanies that was ushered in by the dramatic events of 1989-90 brought many grievous problems with it, but, as the Bonn Republic gave way to the Berlin Republic, its government did not seem to be daunted by them.

Nor by the ever-present burden of its history. It was not easy to be a German in the first years after the war’s end, when the memory of Nazi crimes and the complicity of ordinary Germans in them was always on the fringes of the mind. As late as 1986, the distinguished historian Christian Meier of the University of Munich wrote: "With every day the number grows of those who had nothing to do with the attrocities of that time, and do not see why they should belong to a stigmatized people. And at the same time, the terrifying, the ghastly nature of the crimes themselves also grows. . . . Even if we busy ourselves with a thousand different things and seem to get through the present quite successfully, this sensitive nerve remains, this wound that festers and aches and demands our attention and absorbs much of our being."

Even so, no serious movement to deny the past developed in post-war Germany, and most Germans followed the advice of Reich President Richard von Weizsäcker that they must face up to the facts, accept the Nazi crimes as part of their history, ask themselves earnestly why they had happened, without taking the easy way out and blaming them all on Hitler, and see to it that they never happened again. That the crimes of Nazi Germany continue to be the subject of sober reflection, instead of rejection or suppression, is evidenced by such incidents as the Historians’ Debate of 1986, which is discussed below, the controversy over the Daniel Goldhagen book on the nature of German anti-semitism and popular complicity in the persecution of the Jews, and the current debate over a Holocaust memorial in Berlin.

The turbulent and tragic course of German history before 1945 and the quieter years of development since then have attracted the talents of the finest historians of our time. It has been a golden period for political biography, with three major biographies of Bismarck and dozens of studies on Hitler. It has been characteristic of these that their subjects are no longer seen as the masters of their own destinies, as Hitler portrayed himself in Mein Kampf, but rather within the context of their time and subject to its vicissitudes. The British historian Ian Kershaw has written recently that in Hitler’s case what is required is an examination of his power—"how he came to get it, what its character was, how he exercised it, why he was allowed to expand it to break all institutional barriers, why resistance to that power was so feeble"—and that these are questions that cannot be answered by focusing exclusively on Hitler, but only by analyzing German society.

Studies of the Holocaust and its background have also proliferated, some of them tendentious, but many, like Saul Friedlander’s ongoing Nazi Germany and the Jews, sober, objective, and rich in enlightening detail. These have been supplemented, moreover, by a number of highly informative accounts of Jewish life in Germany before the age of persecution and of its rich contribution to German culture.

Finally, since historians have miscellaneous minds, they have not neglected other interesting subjects: the attitudes of major artists to the politics of their time, the cultural history of the capital city, the debates of academicians about Germany’s past and how National Socialism was to be reconciled with it, and, as the documents accumulate, the politics of the Bonn Republic and the story of reunification.

The essays in this book are based upon this rich new historical literature. They all appeared in The New York Review of Books, and they all owe much to the advice of Robert B. Silvers, that nonpareil of editors.

July 1999
Gordon A. Craig

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