Who’s afraid of Germany? (3): Goethe, in technocrat’s clothing
23 November 2011
What Germany’s leadership of the EU means isn’t very clear – least of all to the Germans themselves. A Spiegel columnist looks for the answer in two books, wandering between the lost soul and the genius of the country.
Germany has finally won the Second World War. Oops! What have I just blurted out? Of course, not with weapons, and not even with the Germans of that time. We good new Germans have won it with our billions.
The old EU is no more. The one they told you about in school and in the comment pages. The one that promised cappuccino for all and a view of the Mediterranean for German pensioners. The one that was supposed to have incorporated or dominated or whatever else it was supposed to have done with Germany – and in any case was why Helmut Kohl and François Mitterrand held each other’s little hands and everyone was looking at them.
What we have now is the good German. Or so say the Swiss I’ve spoken to. They want to know how he feels, what he thinks, what he wants, this good German who has paid for the other failing states, the Greeks, the Portuguese, and perhaps soon the Italians. “And next France,” headlines Le Monde. Who can still talk about a Merkel-Sarkozy “duo”?
Angela Merkel is home alone
Germany has got to a place it should never have got to – and the Germans haven’t grasped it yet. It’s a bit like with the war in Afghanistan: as long as you couldn’t say “war”, you didn’t have to think of it as a war. Now everyone is talking about figures and bailouts, etc., in order not to talk about what has happened: Europe is dependent on Germany, and on Germany alone.
Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble rushes to give an interview to the Financial Times in which he sets out his plan for a centralised fiscal policy – made to a German standard, naturally.
And so Angela Merkel is home alone, in a German EU, and the only thing we know about it so far is that Italians should stop being Italians. But what exactly a German EU means isn’t too clear – least of all to the Germans themselves, who still have no idea who they are or what their soul is or whether they have one or even want to have one.
"A growing longing for Germanness"
And that’s why we now have, as a touchstone of wisdom in the crisis, a thick book, titled in gold lettering: “The German Soul”. It aims to help us grasp what’s so German about us – from Abendbrot [dinner], Abgrund [abyss], Arbeitswut [work-mania] all the way to Winnetou [Indian character of German author Karl May], Wurst [sausage] and Zerrissenheit [inner turmoil].
At almost 600 pages, here is contemplation metamorphosised into a coffee-table book. The look and feel of the thing suggests struggle, laboriousness, doing one’s duty. Clichés are dealt with sometimes grumpily, sometimes in an earnest spirit of intellectual self-improvement.
The authors, Thea Dorn and Richard Wagner, wade knee-deep in the Romantic era, only occasionally touching on the present. The German soul must have got lost in the woods some way through the 19th century. Today however, Dorn and Wagner write, they detect a “growing longing for Germanness” among “drunken bums” of Hartz-IV [a 2005 reform of Germany’s labour laws, now a synonym for the non-working poor] and the uncool bourgeois philistines of ‘68. Germany, they say, is “run down”.
Our EU cultural triumph
Seen from the outside, the country looks very different. “The German Genius”, at nearly 1,000-page, is a much lighter and quite fantastic book by the British writer Peter Watson. In it the author explores his reverence for German culture without coming out in goose bumps.
Cleverly and coolly, he describes how the present was made in Germany’s image. Boom! Revolution, disenchantment, the Cosmos, the soul, the present stripped bare! The world in which we live is, to put it succinctly, a German creation.
So is it books that we need to muffle our EU cultural triumph? Sinister soul on the inside, all-knowing genius on the outside? It helps, of course, that we are no longer the Fearsome Germans, the Dumb Germans, the Naive Germans. But nevertheless, who are we then? We’re the technocrats with Goethe tucked under our arms.
Translated from the German by Anton Baer