The Trouble with Being German

In George Mikes’s series of books, carrying titles like How to Be a Brit or How to Be an Alien, a book on How to Be a German is missing. I admit there might be practical reasons for this negligence. But there may also be metaphysical reasons: it is not possible to be a German.1 If it were, hardly anyone would like to be one. The Germans themselves would like it even less. Just imagine a German meeting one of his compatriots on a foreign beach: he would be glad to continue speaking English and be taken for a foreigner. If recognized by his countryman, what he would probably feel is shame. Most Germans are glad to be in any place where there are no other Germans. That is what accounts for their fame as the world’s traveling champions. In his lectures on the World War II bombings, W. G. Sebald saw a continuity between the traumatic flight of our mothers and grandmothers from the burning cities Dresden and Hamburg, carrying their dead babies in suitcases, and today’s tourism. I would add to this the contribution of a community in which neither the perpetration of atrocities nor victimization has ever been discussed and experienced outside of severe political constraints. If it is impossible to be German, this may be because the link between individual experience and political collectivity has been severed. There is no experience of being German, even if German-language college textbooks say there is.

Nowhere does this radical ontological break that occurred in Germany become more visible than in our emotional culture. The image that typifies it is a photograph that appeared in one of Berlin’s major newspapers after Angela Merkel won the recent national elections. It shows her and five of her supporters carrying signs saying “Angie.” All six have bitter and tired faces, and only her nickname on the signs—borrowed by strategists of the conservative party from a Rolling Stones song—signals enthusiasm for a conservative party that has never been more devoid of substance. A lack of vision is understood as authenticity. There is no display of emotion, be it political or private, but the borrowed glitter of an old and all-too-popular tune. Familiarity and fatigue validate the lack of ideas in the face of major problems: slow economic growth despite a booming export economy, high unemployment rates, an aging population whose pension plans and social security benefits may be forcing the state into debt, and immigrants whom Germany needs but can’t integrate into its social fabric.

Of course, a second place where the same deep rupture in the country’s traditions shows is its academic culture. Whereas up to the 1920s students from all over the world came to Germany, searching for knowledge and education in one of the world’s most distinguished university systems, today the German academy, especially in the humanities, has developed into a feudal bureaucracy mostly devoid of courageous thought and pedagogical vision. The break in confidence is manifest in what was once the highest discipline: philosophy. After WWII, the school of Joachim Ritter came to dominate the scene, and, with its historic and philological orientation, a decay was confirmed that had begun with the brain drain of Germany’s most brilliant scholars during the war, from Erich Auerbach to Hannah Arendt. Thinking equaled specializing in the history of thought. Ritter’s achievement was to edit one of the best encyclopedias of the history of philosophical notions.

The return to Germany of Adorno’s Frankfurt School only contributed to the inertia, as it did not provide new theses but faded into the gray of an inflexible social theory kept upright by its moral prestige. And even recent developments like Niklas Luhmann’s sociological constructivism and Friedrich Kittler’s and Bernhard Siegert’s media analysis show clear traces of bureaucratic language and an unequaled fetishism of technology. Is it really technology that makes the world run? Is it courage to leave thinking up to the machines and system because we are afraid of making things happen as men and women?

Lyotard may have been right with his thesis that after the Jewish genocide during WWII, the dialectic of history that forms the basis of experience has been frozen. The period had no positive result—nothing one could point to for redemption—and results are what progress relies on. The consequence in Germany has been the eradication of rich personal experience. Against this backdrop of the ultimate evil, nothing else has real weight. Imagine you come from a country known to many people only through the Holocaust Museum: this country is “Germany.” Is it possible to be German?


The first time I was almost reconciled with being German was at an American university, where I learned to appreciate thinkers of my own tradition. Whereas until recently hardly any but a far-right-wing German intellectual would admit Martin Heidegger to be one of the most original and influential thinkers of the last century, I became aware that generations of Americans (and Argentines!) had never stopped reading Georg Simmel, Max Weber, Heidegger, and even Carl Schmitt—not just Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno. Intellectually, the real heirs to the German tradition live in Buenos Aires today, where the Argentines debate the question of whether socialism is national or international, informed by the controversy at the beginning of the last century between the Austrians Karl Kautsky and Otto Bauer.

The second time that I was glad to be German was at the start of the Iraq war, when I discovered antiwar demonstrators in New York wearing T-shirts saying “Thank you Schröder” to acknowledge an act of genuine political courage. This courage characterized the generation of politicians that had governed the country since 1998. They were a generation that had confronted its parents with their involvement in the Nazi period; the foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, especially carried this confrontational attitude into office, much to the dismay of the diplomatic corps. Although the final perception of their era was one of stagnation, the Schröder government introduced more reforms than any of its recent predecessors. And it was mostly the resistance of the conservative federal states, blocking important decisions in the second chamber, the Bundesrat, that led to claims of failure. Schröder’s was in fact a generation that came to power after Helmut Kohl’s conservative revolution had immobilized German society for almost two decades. Kohl had been a quite unpopular politician, doomed until the wall came down in 1989 and rescued him from oblivion. In his fourth cabinet, Angela Merkel managed to be a family minister who left no trace.

The Schröder government introduced major changes in German society: the first proper immigration law, for instance. Germany used to understand itself as a nation where blood determined citizenship. Naturalization was not really a legal possibility unless you had German ancestors; that changed. For the first time in its history, Germany also had a kind of culture minister, though he was called a secretary of state; in a structurally conservative state that is not friendly toward intellectuals, this was a big step. Schröder’s government chose to abandon atomic power altogether and invest in wind power. A tax on gas was introduced to protect the environment. His government changed and simplified taxation despite the conservative majority in the Bundesrat.

Yet it was always clear that what made Germany struggle was the reunification. No one says it out loud, but the western part is still doing much better economically than the East, even though the West took over the burden of eastern health, social, and retirement insurance. A lot of money was pumped into the East without leading to any real recovery. Most of those who were able to left the East; those who stayed are not really attractive workers to business (with exceptions, of course); the same businesses, anyway, use the perception of stagnation to justify laying off workers (to stay “globally competitive”) while making record gains in exports.


I remember walking down the boulevard Saint-Michel in Paris the day after the elections of 1998, feeling that finally I could be German without having to be ashamed. When I read the papers a few months ago, the key word was interpretation—because a left majority had to be reinterpreted as a conservative victory. The elections produced an absolute majority of the left parties SPD, the Greens, and Die Linke, but the strongest “single” party—which usually selects a chancellor to form the government—was a compound of CDU and CSU, traditionally accepted as a unified entity at the federal level. Yet the CDU and CSU had suffered one of their worst electoral showings in postwar German history. Following constitutional confusion, a weeklong power vacuum, and a retreat by Schröder followed by his ineffectual protest, a conservative-led coalition government emerged under Merkel—and I was ready to be ashamed again. Of course it was the splitting of the left that led to this situation, and the founding of a new left party by former finance minister Oskar Lafontaine, with which no other party wanted to enter into a coalition. By February, the German media were engaged in a massive TV and print campaign: “Du Bist Deutschland” (“You Are Germany”). You see prominent living Germans, then Albert Einstein; and because not everyone can be an Einstein, also a baker and some “ordinary people.” It’s meant to boost everyone’s positive feeling for being German, since there are certainly no political developments to cling to. It feels as if we are on a sinking ship.

I am ashamed at how little debate has been stirred by the fact that a generation of politicians has disappeared from the political scene, and that without them Germany faces the gray zone of an impoverished political imagination. The one breakthrough has ended; the generation of ’68 ascended to power and was sent back to its room like an unruly child—while the victors play its songs. The surest sign of our loss is the patronizing way the German media greet every minor success of the new chancellor, as if they were afraid of a complete disaster. And this is precisely what characterizes Germany: it lives waiting for disaster.

  1. In fact, when among his 44 books Mikes wrote one on Germany, Über Alles: Germany Explored (1969), he dropped the “How to Be” format that had worked so well for him elsewhere. 

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