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There’s No Place Like Heimat

The Jewish interpretation of the world followed upon the Christian, just as the Christian one followed Roman and Greek culture. So now Jewish analyses, images, definitions of art, science, sociology, literature, politics, the information media, dominate. Marx and Freud are the pillars that mark the road from East to West. Neither are imaginable without Jewishness. Their systems are defined by it. The axis USA-Israel guarantees the parameters. That is the way people think now, the way they feel, act and disseminate information. We live in the Jewish epoch of European cultural history. And we can only wait, at the pinnacle of our technological power, for our last judgment at the edge of the apocalypse…. So that’s the way it looks, for all of us, suffocating in unprecedented technological prosperity, without spirit, without meaning.

The indictment continues in Syberberg’s strange, ungrammatical, baroque style: “Those who want to have good careers go along with Jews and leftists,” and “the race of superior men [Rasse der Herrenmenschen] has been seduced, the land of poets and thinkers has become the fat booty of corruption, of business, of lazy comfort.” Over and over, the message is banged home: the real winners of the last war are the Jews, who have regained their motherland, their ancient Heimat, the very thing the Germans have lost. And the Jews had their revenge for Auschwitz by dropping the atom bomb and atomizing the Kultur of Europe through their barren, rationalist, rootless philosophy.

The old man who stood up in the East Berlin Academy was wrong, of course: Syberberg does not like Hitler. Like Ernst Jünger, an author he often quotes, he sees Hitler as a megalomaniac, who vulgarized and distorted ideals that should have been kept pure, beautiful, in the custodianship either of rough and simple peasants, the purest representatives of the old Volk, or of aristocratic Feingeister, such as Jünger and Syberberg, the true heirs of Hölderlin, Kleist, and Wagner. Hitler’s greatest crime was not to kill six million Jews—an act of which Syberberg does not approve—but to destroy the Herrenvolk, or rather, the culture of the Herrenvolk, by tainting it with his name, by making, as Syberberg often puts it, Blood and Soil a taboo.

Syberberg is not so much a crypto- or neo-Nazi as a reactionary dandy, of the type found before the war in the Action Française, or in certain British aristocratic circles (whose spirit lives on in The Salisbury Review today). Like T.S. Eliot, Ernst Jünger, Charles Maurras, and Curzio Malaparte, he is a self-appointed savior of European Kultur from the corrupt forces of alien, often Semitic, barbarism. And culture, in his mind, is associated with an ideal community, always in the past, before the expulsion from Eden, a Gemeinschaft, where the Volk was united, rooted, organic, hierarchic. “German unity, Silesia, beauty, feeling, enthusiasm. Perhaps we should rethink Hitler. Perhaps we should rethink ourselves.”

As the examples of Malaparte and even Jünger show, this is not a matter of being left or right: it can be both. It is certainly antidemocratic, for the institutionalized conflict of interests, without which democracy cannot exist, is deeply offensive to those who dream of organic communities. In Syberberg’s case, his politics are in fact as Green as they are tinged with Brown. He worships nature in a way only a man who holds people, as opposed to the People, in contempt. His ideal view of the Naturgemeinschaft Deutschland, comprises “plants, animals, and people,” in that order.

Yet, for this most dandified of aesthetes, it is not so much nature itself as the idea of nature that appeals, the anti-urban ideal of a natural order. His work in theater and cinema is anything but natural, or organic, or raw, but, on the contrary, highly artificial. If Syberberg had a sense of humor his art would be camp. When Edith Clever ends her monologue in the recent Berlin stage production of Kleist’s The Marquise of O, (directed by Syberberg), she turns around, and in a gesture that is supposed to denote deep melancholy, stretches her arm and releases a dead oak leaf, which flutters slowly, like an arid butterfly, to the ground. She just, but only just, gets away with it because she is a great actress. In lesser hands this moment of supreme “beauty” would be more like something out of Charles Ludlam’s Theater of the Ridiculous.

It is not for his aesthetics, however, that Syberberg has been attacked, but for his politics. The strongest criticism of his book was published in Der Spiegel, the liberal weekly magazine.5 Syberberg’s views, wrote the critic, were precisely those that led to the book burning in 1933, and prepared the way for the Final Solution of 1942. In fact, he went on, they are worse, for “now we know that they are caked with blood…. They are not just abstruse nonsense, they are criminal.” The Spiegel critic compared Syberberg to the young Hitler, the failed art student in Vienna, who rationalized his failure by blaming it on a conspiracy of left-wing Jews. Syberberg feels he is an unappreciated genius, and he too blames it on the same forces.

Frank Schirrmacher, the young literary editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, and the scourge of woolly thinkers of all political persuasions, is equally opposed to Syberberg and draws similar parallels with the Twenties and Thirties. And like the critic in Der Spiegel, he singles out for special censure an interview with Die Zeit in which Syberberg claimed that he “could understand” the feeling of the SS man on the railway ramp of Auschwitz, who, in Himmler’s words, “made himself hard” for the sake of fulfilling his mission to the end. He did not admire this feeling, but he could understand it. Just as he could understand its opposite, the rejection of principles to act humanely.

No doubt Syberberg, who genuinely does not regard himself as a Nazi sympathizer, sees such attacks as further proof of his claim that a taboo is blocking an honest appraisal of German history. As soon as one talks about anything that smacks of mystical ties with the German soil, or anything that suggests identification with certain aspects or people of the Nazi period, out pops the Nazi bogeyman, and one is immediately called a fascist or a Nazi. There are, of course, some good reasons for this.

Nonetheless, Syberberg, despite his self-aggrandizing paranoia as a persecuted genius, has a point. It is true that it is difficult to be an admirer of German Romanticism these days without being reminded of its perversions. To talk seriously about the ties of Blood and Soil in Germany is impossible without thinking of the consequences of such ideas in the past. It is also true, however, that antifascism has become reified, to use the phrase invented by the great Jewish leftist himself, Karl Marx. It was not something you could argue about. Antifascism was the state religion and historical alibi of the ancien régime in the eastern half of Germany, and it gave the leftist intellectuals of the Federal Republic a kind of moral stick with which to beat off all challenges from the right.

One can easily understand why antifascism should have become an obsessive concern of the liberal German intelligentsia, and why the more prominent “antifa” spokesmen have cloaked themselves in the moral mantles of a higher priesthood. It has to do with collective guilt, with the fact that many collaborators with Nazism continued to occupy important positions in the West German judiciary, in business, even at the universities. It is also because until the 1960s Nazism was a guilty national secret in the Federal Republic, something one didn’t discuss in polite circles. Those that did were often precisely the people Syberberg accused of robbing the Germans of their precious identity: returned refugees from Hitler, such as Theodor Adorno and Ernst Bloch.

A reaction was bound to come and it emerged in the 1980s, when historical revisionism and neoconservatism became popular everywhere, from Chicago to Frankfurt to Tokyo. Some of the reaction, not only in Germany, came in the form of a neo-Romantic critique of rationalism and liberalism. Syberberg’s publisher, Matthes & Seitz, played a part in this. One of its authors, Gerd Börgfleth, launched an attack on “the cynical Englightenment.” Like Syberberg he blamed the “returned Jewish left-wing intelligentsia” for “wishing to remodel Germany according to their own cosmopolitan standards. In this they have succeeded so well that for two decades there has been no independent German spirit at all.”6

At the same time several British writers in the Salisbury Review began to celebrate a mystical reverence for the English spirit, and historians cast doubt on left-liberal interpretations of recent history. As anti-anticommunism went out of fashion, anti-antifascism gained respectability. But it was one thing for, say, Roger Scruton to celebrate the Blood and Soil of England; it was quite another for Germans and Japanese to behave in a similar way; they could not respectably get around the war. Anti-Semitism, an old tradition in European nationalism everywhere, cannot possibly be separated from German Blut und Boden. Hence the acrimonious tone of the “Historians’ Debate” in Germany, which has been discussed at length in these pages,7 hence the bitter controversy around Syberberg. And hence the strong emotions unleashed by the chauvinistic aspects of the 1989 revolt and the process of unification that followed.

Earlier this year a radical right-wing journal published a tract by Börgfleth, entitled Deutsches Manifest. Like Syberberg’s essays, it was inspired by the 1989 revolt in East Germany: “The people’s movement in the GDR was the real Germany, which the West Germans have betrayed—betrayed to a capitalist-liberal economic epidemic, which devoured the body of the Volk, betrayed to the cult of technology, which is destroying the land, and to cosmopolitan lies, which are intended to complete the destruction of the German national character.”8

This is more or less identical to Syberberg’s view, but what is more remarkable is its similarity to some of the opinions held by such “antifa” prophets of the left as Günter Grass, or the East German playwright Heiner Müller. They, too, have a horrific vision of the destruction of the Volk by D-Marks and technology. They also believe that the People have been betrayed by the West. It is indeed an old conceit of both right-wing and left-wing romantics to believe that the soul of the people was preserved in a purer and more innocent state under the old Communist regime. Which brings me to Christa Wolf.


Like Günter Grass and Hans-Jürgen Syberberg, Christa Wolf grew up in a part of the old Reich that is now Poland. Like them, she lost her Heimat, and has been haunted by that loss ever since. She was born in Landsberg, now Gorzow, in 1929, in time to be a member of the BDM, the girls’ equivalent of the Hitler Youth. In her most interesting book, Patterns of Childhood, she tries to deal with her sense of guilt, about having been a participant, albeit a rather passive and innocent one, in the Nazi state:

  1. 5

    The review in Der Spiegel was by Hellmuth Karasek.

  2. 6

    Konkret, October 10, 1990.

  3. 7

    See Gordon Craig, “After the Reich,” The New York Review, October 8, 1987 and “A New, New Reich,” January 18, 1990; István Deák, “The Incomprehensible Holocaust,” The New York Review, September 28, 1989.

  4. 8

    Konkret, October 10, 1990.

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