Germany; drawing by David Levine

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 of foreign big business and left-tainted “culture.”

AT A MOMENT like this, Ralf Dahrendorf’s book falls with perfect timing into the hands of the Anglo-Saxon reader. I don’t think there can be any doubt that Society and Democracy in Germany is the best general study of German popular and political opinion which has appeared since the war. It is irresistibly intelligent, easy to read, and not overburdened by the sections of sociological theory it necessarily contains. It is often amusing, and often brilliantly rude. It sweeps together and evaluates most of the important sociological work on Germany since the nineteenth century without becoming a “Doktorarbeit” of outlandish authorities, and defends throughout one consistent point of view.

This point of view is liberalism, what Professor Dahrendorf calls “the constitution of liberty.” His vision of liberalism is distinctly Anglo-Saxon: that settled condition of society which accepts conflict as an effective mode of development, which therefore practices tolerance, and in which the equality of citizenship includes parity of opportunity as well as of titular political rights. Conventional enough in America or Britain, it is just this ordinary middle-class liberalism which has been lacking in Germany. The symptoms and causes of this lack are the subject of his book.

To the question, “Why have so few in Germany embraced the principle of liberal democracy?” Dahrendorf provides and then dismisses two popular answers. It is neither the fault of “Hitler” (short for the influence of individual men or events), nor the fault of “Tacitus” (by which he means all explanations founded on “national and immutable character”). The development of German society is to blame: the industrial revolution which blotted out early liberalism with state capitalism rather than produce a politically conscious bourgeoisie; the survival of an elite with a largely agrarian and feudal outlook; the “cultural pessimism” of the nineteenth century and afterward, which saw Germany as “the late nation” whose young culture was being poisoned in the cradle by jealous neighbors.


In such an “explosive” society, true citizenship does not emerge. Dahrendorf tells us that Germany has devoted herself to national, external preoccupations of a dogmatic kind, while ignoring debates about the quality of German society itself. As a result, the concept of fellow-citizenship is meanly limited: the sick, the weak, the alien tend to be excluded. The idea of society (“Gesellschaft“) is contrasted unfavorably by the Germans with the romantic idea of “Gemeinschaft” or community: “the idea that an original human Gemeinschaft is threatened by an artificial Gesellschaft is part of the folklore of German self-consciousness.”

The idea of Gemeinschaft and the insecurities which lie behind its appeal lead back to the fear of conflict. Any foreign observer in Germany must be struck by the journalese word “Tarifpartner,” which is a wishful way of saying that employers and labor are acting in harmony. After 1918, Dahrendorf argues, the new pluralist society did not produce healthy competition among elites. Instead a cartel mentality was formed, which the author sometimes refers to as “the cartel of anxiety,” an “agreement not to hurt each other but to govern together,” to “alter as little as possible the existing structures.” This situation, which revived after the Second World War in West Germany, Dahrendorf considers as the root of an increasing “authoritarianism without authority.” The nervous cartel, whether Friedrich Ebert and the Reichswehr or Willy Brandt and—say—the Confederation of German Industry, conspires to rob political conflict of its dynamics. This “creates…modern authoritarianism…more insidious in that now it has become impossible to identify (and thus oppose) the centre of authority.”

The most striking chapters of the book are those in which Professor Dahrendorf examines the effects of National Socialist and Communist rule upon German society. He believes that these successive totalitarian systems have in fact initiated—crabwise—a genuine modernization of German society. They have helped to establish the primacy of the “public” over the “private.” Hitler began a social revolution in the sense that he broke the hold of traditions, forced upon the population a certain consciousness of public interests, and even drove the claims of the German family into subordination. It does not need to be said that the purposes of this modernization were evil. It was nonetheless a permanent change, which brought Germany to resemble a little more closely the society of other industrialized nations. The aristocratic resistance of July 20, 1944 was an attempt to reverse this, to return from the totalitarian modern to the authoritarian traditional. It was understandable that largely aristocratic resistance groups like “Kreisauer Kreis” should have planned a return to individualism, to “divine order which alone can overcome the anarchy of a power structure founded on the primacy of the technical.” The Bonn Republic also tried to put the clock back by restoring the sovereignty of the family, for instance, with a positively Victorian degree of control over the lives of adult children. But the “social mobilization” achieved by the Third Reich cannot be entirely reversed. The German Democratic Republic in the East, building onto the changes that occurred in the Hitler period, has carried on the campaign for “public spirit,” given citizenship the content of economic equality it needs to operate, and even accustomed its subjects to constant discussion and expression of opinion—below the purely political level. Professor Dahrendorf, then, is distinctly optimistic. He believes that both Hitler and Ulbricht have contributed, against their wills, to constructing the sort of society in which the “constitution of liberty” would work. Strip off the totalitarian superstructure, alter course, and there is a Germany—or at least an East Germany—in which liberalism might stand a chance. Or so Dahrendorf hopes.

This is a fascinating book, but it has its limits. Professor Dahrendorf would not claim that it was entirely original: many of the sharpest perceptions and definitions are not his own, but have been merely drawn together and critically examined. At times he allows himself a highly subjective gallop. A man who found himself in a concentration camp at the age of sixteen has no doubt the right to state, in a chapter on “how Auschwitz was possible,” that “abandoning others is a social rule in Germany,” and that “the inhumanity of letting the weak…suffer coupled with empty humanistic talk is the recognizable beginning of a chain which does not exclude the mass murder of defenceless people.” But when he goes on in the same chapter to cite as examples of this inhumanity the unannounced power cuts, the indiscretion of bank clerks about customers’ accounts, and the queues at mass X-ray examinations, and suggests that only in Germany are such things tolerated, then his feet leave the ground. He is providing just one more example of the self-obsession, even the cultural pessimism, which he has already analyzed with detachment.


MORE SERIOUS are the questions which have been raised against him by the young Left, the “extra-parliamentary opposition” which founds itself in part on the writings of Herbert Marcuse. If he agrees with them in seeing a certain return toward authoritarianism in West Germany, involving the Social Democrats as much as the Christian Democrats, is the remedy really to engage in liberal politics (which Dahrendorf has now formally done)? No doubt this book would have been rather different had it been written after the coming of the Grand Coalition. But prophets of the leftist “Berlin movement,” orators like Rudi Dutschke, and theorists like Ekke-hard Krippendorf, will have nothing to do with liberal reformists of Dahrendorf’s stamp in any case, seeing tolerance in this situation as a surrender to the insidious intolerance fostered by the establishment. Nor would they accept his notion that the development of a settled and secure elite is a desirable kind of modernization. Today it could, in their view, only nourish the kind of bureaucratic power colossus they see swelling in East and West. Down with elites, they say, and all power to the soviets—to a new social form based on workers’ councils and continuous democratic decision.

Their criticism can also be used against Kurt Tauber’s huge work on postwar rightist nationalism in West Germany. The New Left looks with irritation and alarm on the foreign fuss about the National Democrats. Bad the National Democrats may be, but it is a deception to see the right-wing radicals as the source of reemerging nationalism and authoritarianism. The real danger is the extent to which the major parties have been infected with these elements, always present in Germany society, in part through their response to such splinter groups. Professor Tauber does not go into this, but it is a formidable argument. It is generally supported by the Grand Coalition’s mania for internal security and by the conservative revivals in the Springer press. Particular examples abound in the recent Land elections in Bavaria, where Herr Strauss dealt with the National Democrats by simply outbidding them in nationalist-conservative fervor. This is a point which has not escaped Professor Dahrendorf, and after reading Society and Democracy in Germany one wonders further how Professor Tauber can produce a monumental history of a political movement without a sociological analysis of its representatives and its support.

As a reference book and a chronicle, however, Beyond Eagle and Swastika is absorbing. Professor Tauber tells in his Introduction that he intended at first to produce a general study, but found that the very data about rightist parties and movements in the postwar period were missing. With saintly dedication he then turned over ten years of his life to producing the facts, and with them many sound and illuminating conclusions. If a book whose writing was almost completed in 1963 appears only now, thus missing almost entirely the rise of the National Democrats, that is perhaps not his fault.

Tauber distinguishes successive attempts at nationalist revival. At first came the wave of would-be mass parties capitalizing on destitution and misery, whose programs were often openly National-Socialist. These culminated in the Sozialistische Reichspartei (SRP), which won 11 percent in the Lower Saxony polls of 1951 and was banned at Adenauer’s request in 1952. As conditions improved, a new phase of secret infiltration of existing parties began. Tauber recounts the forgotten but appalling story of how a ring of old Nazis under Werner Naumann, Goebbels’s lieutenant, gained control of the North-Rhine West-phalia organization of the Free Democrats, only to be arrested by British military police in January 1953.

There followed efforts to canalize in nationalist-neutralist directions the discontent against German rearmament in the Fifties. Traditional anti-Western ideas reappeared in this curious period where rightist fanatics were constantly involved in secret contacts with East Germany and the Soviet Union. The “Tauroggen” complex, historical memories of a Russo-German war of national liberation against the West, glowed into renewed life. But by the mid-Fifties ideas of a “national opposition” were dead. The split between anti-Western neutralists and anti-communist “Birchites” was fatal, and there began the very slow rise of more moderate nationalist-conservative parties, strongly encouraged by Gaullism, which are now represented by the National Democrats.

“More moderate” is a relative term. Professor Tauber insists that it is wrong to call such parties neo-Nazi (as Naziism was never a monolith but a conglomerate, it was a once-for all creature of its moment), but he exposes the appalling irrationality of German conservative nationalism on either side of the “brown chasm” in German history. The apocalyptic yearning for rebirth, the terror of cultural “poisons,” the straining toward the pagan sun and the abasement to blood, soil, and “fate,” the cult of the dead, are only crystallizations. Underneath lies the general tradition of the exclusive “Gemeinschaft,” the sense of misunderstanding, the cultural pessimism, the nervous cartel of anxiety. Professor Tauber is surely right to point out that the ruthless and sometimes unscrupulous methods by which Adenauer rid himself of rightist plagues did not help to make the Bonn republic seem more legitimate. It is also true that Adenauer’s Mithridatic policy of sucking such groups dry by adopting their policies and some of their men in order to steal their votes did no good to his own party (the SRP voters went almost entirely over to the CDU).

Professor Tauber predicts that as Germany “resumes the burden of world history,” with all its movement and stress, “the cry for unity, imposed order and direction in perilous times will arise again.” This prophecy has already come true. Although no national-conservative party is likely to win power, the great parties of the middle are already entrenching their own designs for unity, order, and direction. Against them advance a new Left, with red banners and Mao buttons, an elaborate Utopia of direct democracy and a resolute intolerance. Do they seem old-fashioned? In Dahrendorf’s “land of unmodern men in a modern world,” there may be no other way to fight.

This Issue

February 1, 1968