Germany’s Return of the Repressed 

The country’s far-right wants to revive ethnic nationalism. The left must come up with its own alternative.

Kotryna Zukauskaite illustration for Foreign Policy
Kotryna Zukauskaite illustration for Foreign Policy

When I arrived at Cambridge University in the early 2000s, students from different parts of Europe flocked to national clubs for a taste of home and an opportunity to speak their native tongues. Most of the events these clubs organized took the form of benign clichés: The Italian Society hosted pasta nights, and the French Society served up artsy movies with a side of wine and cheese. Only one nationality was conspicuously absent. Instead of founding their own club, students who, like me, had grown up in Germany flocked to the European Union Society.

The European Union Society was not an exclusively German affair. It included a few students from countries too small to sustain their own social life at the university, as well as the odd Brit or Spaniard who aspired to a career in Brussels. But no matter how hard we pretended, it was clear to all that this was a German Society dressed up in the colors of the EU flag. “I guess it’s a little strange that nearly all of the officers of the club are German,” an acquaintance of mine once said. “But things are just so much more efficient that way.”

My experience with the European Union Society offers a glimpse into a sensibility of which few outside Germany are fully conscious: the dogged determination of many Germans to distance themselves from overtly patriotic sentiment. In the wake of World War II, Germany’s elites associated any form of nationalism with the Nazis. As they worked to create a new identity for their country, they consistently abjured most displays of patriotism.

These same elites have now been caught off guard by the recent resurgence of more sinister expressions of German nationalism. Last year, the far-right Alternative for Germany (known by its German acronym, AfD) established itself as a major player in the political system, entering the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament, and taking second place in several polls. A big source of the party’s appeal lies in its adamant opposition to the way the country memorializes the Holocaust and avoids aggressive displays of Vaterlandsliebe, or nationalism. As the AfD urges in one of its most popular slogans, Germans should finally find Mut zu Deutschland—roughly, “the courage to stand by Germany.”

Some German thinkers have responded by simply digging in their heels: The party’s rise, they argue, offers yet more evidence that nationalism is but a gateway drug to extremism. Other thinkers, meanwhile, have responded to the changes of the past years by taking on a new role as the intellectual face of far-right ethnonationalism. Writers such as Botho Strauss and Peter Sloterdijk now openly flirt with the irredentist thought that has always festered on the margins of German intellectual life.

Summing up the country’s increasingly polarized debate about patriotism in a recent book—which amounts to an extended, though lively, literary essay— the German novelist Thea Dorn offers a pithy description of the two dominant camps:

“From the depths, dim voices call us to battle: ‘Take back our people and country,’ they exhort. From the heights, a choir drunk on worries instructs us to stay away from the people and the country so that all humans can finally become brothers—and sisters, of course.”

The aim of Deutsch, nicht dumpf (Knaus Verlag, 336 pp., $27.85)—in English, “German, Not Dim”—is to provide a third option. Germans, Dorn argues, can embrace a robust form of patriotism without running the risk of emboldening the far-right. In fact, doing so might just be the country’s best hope to defang the growing appeal of extremism. Even as Germans should continue to reject the first verse of their national anthem, which places the fatherland “above all else” and has forever become associated with the Nazis, they should proudly intone its third one (as Dorn herself does at the book’s end):

Unity and rights and freedom

for the German fatherland.

Let us strive for it together,

brotherly with heart and hand.

Unity and rights and freedom

are the basis of good fortune.

Flower in the light of this good fortune,

flower German fatherland.

Debates about nationalism can helpfully be split into two parallel questions. The most obvious concerns the extent to which nationalism is desirable in a modern liberal democracy. The other—equally important but frequently overlooked—concerns nationalism’s object: If it is just fine to be proud to be German, as Dorn argues, what exactly is it that Germans should be proud of?

Germany’s far-right offers a deceptively simple answer: According to the AfD and its fellow travelers, a true German is somebody descended from a particular Volk, or people, and German nationalists should primarily care about the well-being of their extended kinship group. The problem with this approach is twofold. First, it is unclear why one should have a greater allegiance to a specific set of people just because they are descended from the same ethnic stock. Second, it is unclear how ethnic nationalism can be reconciled with a lived reality in which immigrants and minorities play a very large role, in the absence of much more drastic actions than those for which far-right populists openly advocate. If a true German must be descended from a particular ethnic stock, immigrants will either have to be thrown out of the country or relegated to the status of second-class citizens.

Deeply aware of the pitfalls of ethnic nationalism, those German leftists who concede the need for patriotism at all usually offer a diametrically opposed account of its currency. According to the public intellectual Jürgen Habermas, for example, Germans should embrace a form of constitutional patriotism—instead of attaching significance to a morally neutral fact such as ethnicity, he argues, true patriots should celebrate the laws and norms that bind them into a shared, liberal polity.

While that notion may be much more appealing on theoretical grounds, it suffers from two shortcomings that render it impractical. First, the constitutions and norms of modern liberal states don’t differ from each other sufficiently to provide a basis for the kind of attachment that underwrites patriotism. Second, most citizens know far too little about their specific constitutions for them to serve as the objects of popular devotion. Constitutional patriotism might offer a neat way for political philosophers to reconcile their concerns about the dark side of nationalism with their surreptitious love for their native lands. But it is unlikely to hold its own in an all-out political battle with the ethnonationalism of the right.

Dorn enters this debate by charting a new path that circumnavigates the existing camps. Rather than taking the object of patriotism to be either something as immutable as ethnicity or something as abstract as the Grundgesetz—Germany’s constitution—she focuses her attention on culture, both high and low. What defines Germany, she argues, are both the great cultural treasures of the past and the mundane habits of the present day. Her patriotism, she avows, is animated both by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the country’s most famous poet, and by Fack ju Göhte, a popular—and rather lowbrow—comic movie trilogy set at a high school.

As Dorn chronicles, many leftists in the country argue that it would be impossible to build a healthy patriotism around pride in German culture because there’s nothing essentially distinct about it: While educated Germans, for example, like to define themselves as a Volk der Dichter und Denker—a people of poets and thinkers—the French have also produced their fair share of writers and philosophers. But this, she points out, is too demanding a conception of what makes cultures distinct:

“Nothing is more foreign to me than wanting to separate different cultures from each other with walls. I’m just trying to show that we can meaningfully identify them even if we cannot hermetically seal them. Despite their porousness and plasticity, they are not arbitrary.”

As former British Prime Minister John Major found out when he waxed poetic about “warm beer” and “invincible green suburbs,” anybody who seeks to define a culture by drawing attention to specific objects is liable to be mocked. But while it will always sound absurd to define France by the baguette (or New York by the bagel), Dorn is right that the totality of a city’s or a nation’s culture nevertheless adds up to something meaningful: It’s the combination of cultural ingredients, some high and some low, some silly and some magnificent, that marks the difference between New York and Los Angeles—or that between France and Germany.

Illustration by Kotryna Zukauskaite.

Even if all her compatriots followed Dorn’s lead in investing their patriotic energy into an open-minded interpretation of German culture, an important set of questions would remain: To what degree would true belonging in German society depend on active participation in this culture? And what should happen to people who don’t embrace it?

As Dorn mentions, Germany’s attempts to foster this debate have mostly been fruitless, in part because its stakes have never been clear. Would what Germans have come to call a Leitkultur, or guiding culture, require immigrants to adhere to the basic rules of society—in which case it is a misleadingly controversial way to put a rather obvious point? Or would it ask immigrants to listen to Bach rather than Jay-Z and eat schnitzel rather than döner kebab—in which case it is a misleadingly anodyne way to describe a very far-reaching call for cultural homogeneity?

To answer these questions, Dorn carefully distinguishes among three different issues that might be in question. First, she argues that the state should obviously take all necessary measures to ensure that people who live within its territory respect its basic laws, including ones protecting the practices of sexual, religious, and ethnic minorities. Second, she argues that individual citizens should be free to decide on their own what food they cook or what music they listen to, without those choices having any bearing on which nation they can be said to belong to. And third, she acknowledges that there is a lot at stake for every society, and certainly for Germany, in what sort of consensus is reached about the vast cultural space between statutory law and citizens’ dinner tables: things such as being willing to shake a compatriot’s hand or accepting a child’s sexual orientation.

While Dorn recognizes that it would be wrong for the state to enforce those latter kinds of norms, she believes that it is entirely appropriate for civil society to create strong incentives for compliance with them. While Germany should reject the idea of a guiding culture, ordinary citizens should not hesitate to insist in their daily interactions on this more universal set of norms, which she dubs a Leitzivilität, or guiding civilization.

Dorn’s prose has an unfortunate tendency to meander. She seems to feel the need to cite, often at great length, every thinker who has previously written something about a related topic, and her book features frustratingly frequent passages in which she baits the very members of the cultural left she most needs to convince for her mission to succeed. Yet the basic argument of her book is convincing.

As I’ve previously argued in my own book The People vs. Democracy, the right way to domesticate nationalism is not to fight it root and branch but rather to put its energy to more inclusive use. To accomplish this fiendishly difficult task, we need to assure citizens of all backgrounds—native as well as immigrant, majority as well as minority—that they can continue to indulge in the cultural practices that are closest to their hearts. And to manage the conflicts that will inevitably arise without descending into civic strife, we need to make it amply evident that society can punish those who violate its most basic rules. It is indeed possible to construct a smart, inclusive, even cosmopolitan version of German patriotism. And if that is true of Germany, it should be true of just about any other country in the world as well.

In the years since I was at Cambridge, German students have abandoned the European Union Society, now called the European Society, en masse. Its current committee appears to comprise an Italian, a Spaniard, a few Dutch people, and—in what is, no doubt, an unintended side effect of Brexit—a surprising number of Brits.

Meanwhile, the university now boasts a thriving German Society, with a predominantly German steering committee that presumably runs with great efficiency. Dorn would, I imagine, be pleased by its activities. In the past academic year, it has held serious literary readings and high-minded political discussions. But the big event of the year is an annual Oktoberfest. For about $50 a head, celebrants get to enjoy a “Jägermeister reception” and a variety of “German specialities directly imported from Bavaria.” The dress code stipulates “Lederhosen and Dirndl” are “strongly encouraged.”

Learning about this “immensely successful tradition,” as the society describes it, did, I must admit, fill me with a certain degree of longing for the studiedly anti-patriotic Germany I grew up with. The tradition in question, I noted grumpily, is completely invented—it didn’t even exist when I was at Cambridge 15 years ago! But when I looked at photos from the event, my resistance rapidly dwindled. Everyone seemed to be having a good time. And what could better encapsulate inclusive patriotism than the Asian and Middle Eastern students trying to acclimate to the traditional German clothes they had faithfully donned?

Clearly the idea of Germany’s culture propagated by the students who run the Cambridge University German Society includes a number of clichés—as indeed does Dorn’s defense of cultural nationalism. But the same is true of the Italian pasta nights and the French movie showings I remember so fondly from my days as an undergraduate. While it will always be easy for intellectuals to gripe about nationalism, it would be silly either to embrace or to condemn all forms of it on theoretical grounds. Instead of trying to vanquish nationalism altogether, those of us who believe in a liberal, multiethnic democracy would do well to shape its nature as best we can.

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2018 issue of Foreign Policy magazine.

Yascha Mounk is an executive director at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change and the author of The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It.

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