November 29, 2008

Germany's Otherness

Last Wednesday, John Laughland argued at Brussels Journal:
... the European Union, far from being inimical to the U.S., is the fulfillment of the "American Idea," the idea that America is--and thus by implication that every other nation should be made into--a universal abstraction embodying universal human rights rather than a particular and concrete country concerned primarily about its own well being. But the Europeans then took this universalizing idea even farther than the Americans had, and thus ended up disliking the actual America, which to their eyes still has too much of traditional nationhood about it. To the rescue comes Barack Obama, whose election gives the Europeans the feeling that the U.S. is now perfectly in tune with them, and so they are very happy.
I do not agree. John Laughland crams all the countries that make up the EU into one pigeonhole, an ever-recurring tendency among anglophone writers that increasingly irritates me. Americans do that in the well-meaning but naive belief that all other people are as clear-cut patriots and dedicated democrats they are themselves and throw away a brotherly hug and a heartfelt "He was a patriot" at any odious neo-Nazi because they don't know any better. For Laughland, an English eurosceptic conservative, Germany isn't on the map. Why that is so, I can only guess and this would be an interesting sunject for a post-doc-seminar, but overstretches the means of a blog post. Wikipedia informs me that Laughland has even spent some time at a German university, but knowledge has never stood in the way of a good prejudice.

I have spent for many years a considerable amount of time in England and know the country and the people well. Personally, I was always received with utter friendliness and polite interest in my German ways. However, the operative word here is "polite". I soon noticed that, for my friends and acquaintances, as for Laughland, Germany isn't on the map. If one is there for a while, one can't help noticing that this is an attitude that permeates many, many aspects of English everyday life. It starts at multilingual printed matter which excludes a German section and doesn't end at buying shoddy derivatives in Belgium, Holland and Denmark when the real thing could have been bought in Germany for less. It is noticeable when watching the news and in almost every book I have read if it happens to mention something German. There isn't any conscious malice behind it, at least I have never sensed it. It just is that way. Whereas Americans admire Germany, although only too often for the wrong reasons, the English love to hate the French, but Germany could as well be an obscure tiny princedom on the Balkan.

That it Is possible to understand that strange country shows Herman Wouk, who has got Germany's number to a "T". The information on Germany he delivers in his WWII-trilogy ist stunningly accurate and even more insightful. I seem to remember that it was in the first volume of this very trilogy, where a discussion based on the writings of one of the early sociologists (Pareto?) occured, saying that Germany had taken a path different from that of other European countries because of Arminius' victory over Varus in 9 AD. The relative absence of the mellowing, civilisatory Roman influence serves here to explain a cruel and ruthless streak in the Germans that seems to be absent, or not so prevalent, in other European people. Whether that is entirely true or not, it is certainly helpful to at least begin to understand Germany's otherness.

As for a more recent assessment, I recommend The German-Israeli historian Dan Diner's book "Feindbild Amerika", in which he outlines the long history of German antiamericanism as a backward-oriented society’s angst-ridden and contemptuous reaction to modernity. Sadly, there is no English translation available, but I am sure that "America in the Eyes of the Germans: An Essay on Anti-Americanism" contains at least the basics of Diner's theory. Here is a review.

Laughland turns the facts upside down. Germany, a not entirely marginal member of the EU, doesn't fit at all in his, otherwise highly intriguing, characterization. If Germany is very happy with Obama (and it is indeed), it has nothing to do with "too much of [America's] traditional nationhood". It is because Germans either sense or recognize this man's deeply anti-American outlook and effect, and, of course, a deeply ingrained envy of that very traditional nationhood and America's right to enjoy it unselfconsciously.

Found at VFR.