Society and Democracy in Germany
Between Eagle and Swastika: German Nationalism Since 1945
Political extremism in West Germany these days bears the aspect of time travel. But it is travel in one direction—backwards. In the past weeks, I assisted at two hallucinatory scenes in which, from hour’ to hour, it was necessary to pull out the daily newspaper and greedily drink in the information that in the outside world the year remained 1967.
One was the left-wing students’ demonstration in West Berlin, as the trial opened against the young communard Fritz Teufel. It was a dark day, with driving snow: the awful Wilhelmine outlines of the “palais de justice” at Moabit hung behind the squadrons of mounted police. Wearing the ancient shako and cloak, on fat mares bred from the tundras of the Mark Brandenburg, they rode against half-seen mobs waving the red flag. Afterward, I sought out in yellow-lit bars and the back rooms of left-wing bookshops the stragglers returning from the affair: drenched, but satisfied that once again they had provoked the city government into revealing the authoritarian nature of a late-capitalist bourgeoisie.
The other scene was the congress of the right-wing National Democrats in Hanover. At long wooden tables, the apostles of a clean and virile German folk crouched over marshes of goulash and ruined towers of cream cake. They had a look of injury. They bore the marks of war and imprisonment: many had wedged their crutches behind the radiators. On the platform Adolf von Thadden, the undefiled Peter Pan of squalid causes, developed his program to eradicate cultural Bolshevism, to treat the teaching of state-consciousness as a department of public health, to raise physical fitness to the status of book-learning. Germany, he said, was the plaything of foreign armies, and of foreign powers conspiring to poison her culture and debilitate her folk. The lost East and the Sudetenland must rejoin the nation. The South Tyrol, with its German population, could not be recovered until the German folk itself recovered its sense of “blood-heritage.”
They say, though, that “Bonn is not Weimar,” and they are right. But the sense of being lost in a newsreel archive persists. Something is beginning in West Germany now which is both new and old. It is new, in that the climate of pragmatism, skepticism, and internationalist detachment which has prevailed since 1945, and especially through the years of the “Wirtschaftswunder” is drawing to a close, and being gradually replaced by an age of faith. I have myself seen young men, in the space of two years, transform themselves from cultural consumers into orators of absolute belief, blazing with confidence that “their system” can interpret every phenomenon on the face of the earth. It is old, in that this represents a return to authentically German pessimism in political thought. The young Left is anything but nationalist, but it believes in the decrepitude of parliamentary democracy and in its replacement by revolutionary rule through workers’ councils. The Right also regards the system as corrupt, and the Bonn regime as the funnel for decadent influences …
Breakdown August 22, 1968