After fascism, ideological waste disposal,but what now?

August 18, 2000

Jan-Werner Muller asks if intellectuals in unified Germany are as powerful as their predecessors.

Reports about the "crisis" or even the "death" of the intellectual tend to be greatly exaggerated and have a way of being refuted almost as soon as they are made. But in Germany there is a sense that an era is drawing to a close in which intellectuals - or, more precisely, West German intellectuals - played a special role as what they themselves conceived as "suspicious" and "sceptical" democratic citizens. This self-conception contributed much to the prominence - and success - of a particular generation of postwar intellectuals who are now departing from the public stage. But it also contained paradoxes and limits that have become increasingly apparent in recent years.

Germans do not take their intellectuals lightly. Nowhere else - with the possible exception of France - has the same set of intellectuals commanded such attention for close on 40 years. Only in Germany could intellectuals such as social philosopher Jurgen Habermas claim the first two pages of major newspapers; only in Germany could a critic tearing apart the latest book by Gunter Grass make the title page of Der Spiegel; only in Germany does one find political scientists regularly publishing popular books on the state of the nation, often with pictures of themselves looking angst-ridden on the cover; and only in Germany would a random flicking through TV channels inevitably lead the viewer to one of the numerous daily talk shows in which intellectuals earnestly debate political-cum-philosophical topics. None of this is to say that intellectuals actually "lead public opinion", as the German concept of Meinungsfuhrer would suggest. In fact, as is becoming clearer with hindsight, German writers and thinkers were at their best when reacting against firmly entrenched, but morally compromised, authority, rather than acting as moral "leaders" - an ideal by which friend and foe have nevertheless tended to measure them.

Figures such as Habermas, Grass, Hans Magnus Enzensberger and Ralf Dahrendorf, to name but a few, are all part of a generation born at the end of the 1920s and in the early 1930s - old enough to have been part of the Hitler Youth or even the regular Wehrmacht, but too young to have been directly implicated in Nazi crimes. This generation has rightly been labelled as "sceptical" on account of its early disillusionment with grand ideological promises - and it was members of this generation who dominated public debates throughout the history of the old West Germany and even the first decade of the unified country.

These intellectuals first defined their peculiar role at the end of the 1950s and the early 1960s. During this period, the building blocks for the role of the left-liberal intellectual in West Germany were put into place. In the late 1950s, attitudes towards dealing with the past slowly began to change, from the extremes of silence and defiant self-righteousness of the immediate postwar period to a new critical awareness prompted by a succession of scandals, in particular a number of anti-Semitic attacks - such as the desecration of the Cologne synagogue on Christmas Day 1959 - and the failings of the judiciary in dealing with the perpetrators. At the same time, the conviction gained ground among intellectuals that Germany had been a "belated nation" in comparison with Western Europe and the United States, and that the pathologies of its history could be explained by its Sonderweg - a special, antidemocratic path diverging from the West.

Advocacy both of an active engagement with the past and of the westernisation of Germany became central for the role of the intellectual in the Federal Republic. In contrast to older academics, with their traditionally German cultural pessimism, who had dominated the early and mid-1950s, younger scholars tried to define themselves in opposition to the tradition of conservative "German mandarins" and to illiberal Weimar intellectuals, in particular. Enzensberger famously described their task as "the sanitary chore of the intellectuals after the end of fascism, the whole ideological waste disposal, a very wearisome and protracted job".

Intellectuals, while often complaining of being "homeless" or even seeing Germany as a "country of enemies", as Enzensberger put it in the early 1960s, in fact were never quite as alienated from the politics of the Federal Republic as such rhetoric suggested. While they attempted to foster what one might call a "culture of suspicion" vis-a-vis the new state and its representatives, they did, by and large, subscribe to the West German constitution. As Enzensberger admitted in retrospect, they were "latter-day liberals, good Social Democrats, moralists and socialists without clearly defined aims, anti-fascists without a programme for the future". Still, for all their programmatic vagueness, the intellectuals were able to do what was indispensable for intellectuals in order to have any coherent stance at all, namely to define one general interest, in this case democratisation, to which particular criticisms could then be related.

Conceiving of themselves as a "democratic elite", they sought to provide a substitute for a broader critical public that was yet to develop. They aimed at fostering what they called the "re-education of the masses", as well as a sober, so-called "Anglo-Saxon model" of debate, which avoided the supposed German tendency of polemically turning political argument into a matter of mutual moral destruction.

A culture of suspicion, then, and a catalogue of categorical, negative imperatives to avoid the mistakes of Weimar-guided intellectuals' interventions. The advantage of this culture of suspicion was its essentially egalitarian and democratic nature. Nobody was beyond accountability; the downside was that it could lead - and often did - to a primary concern, even an obsession, with unmasking politicians and other intellectuals, and with ascertaining their motivations.

Every generation, it seemed, had to criticise the previous generation's attempts at "coming to terms with the past" as somehow deficient. Already in the late 1950s, observers such as Man s Sperber were struck by how freely angry young intellectuals labelled anybody whom they politically disliked as "fascist" - and how much this label seemed to serve their self-image more than any discernible political agenda.

The rebellious student generation of 1968 accused their country of fascism, and were themselves subject to the suspicion of "leftwing fascism" by liberals and conservatives; the terrorists of the 1970s radicalised the reproach of fascism, and were themselves portrayed as "Hitler's children"; and in 1990, the left saw a reincarnation of the aggressive nation-state of the past, just as much as the right saw the left continuing a fateful romantic German "special path' by refusing to be a "normal country".

Ironically, rather than unification discrediting the intellectuals of the sceptical generation due to their extreme scepticism about a German nation-state, it arguably gave them another lease of public life. With the addition of East Germany, back on the agenda were the questions of democratisation and westernisation.

Ten years after unification, however, there is a sense that, while it was crucial for intellectuals to detect and denounce continuities after 1945, the old model of intellectual intervention has itself become anachronistic, due to its very success in helping to make Germany a democratic western country. Even leftwing and liberal intellectuals feel that the past can serve less as a direct yardstick for the present than it did for the "generation of 1958" - which is not to say that they want to draw the infamous "thick line" under the Nazi era. Whether the Germans were able to deal openly with their past had once been the clear standard applied by the left (but also by the American occupiers) as to whether Germany had yet become another democratic country. Now remembrance has undoubtedly become a much more differentiated and decentralised process, especially among the young. Many also feel that the old gestures of suspicion - so effective in consolidating the old Federal Republic and in casting out one's political opponents - will no longer do.

Paradoxically, the culture of suspicion, criticism and questioning created trust for the country, both domestically and abroad, rather than undermining the stability of the Federal Republic, as conservatives claimed - a fact that became obvious not least last year when Grass, Germany's premier suspicious citizen, appeared at the Nobel prize ceremony in Stockholm. But at the same time, this culture encouraged a kind of collective exorcism and even ostracism, and made it difficult for many intellectuals genuinely to accept civilised conflict within liberal-democratic boundaries.

While many older intellectuals continue to make prominent public interventions, there is evidence that younger writers remain suspicious of a litterature engagee and the role of the intellectual in politics. This is not a matter of wider "postmodern" predilections, as some have claimed. A dilemma is the lack of any identifiable "general interest" that intellectuals could responsibly advocate. The democratisation of West Germany after 1945 was such an interest. There is, after all, an important theoretical and practical link between democracy and what intellectuals tend to do best - deliberation. In that sense, the effectiveness of the sceptical generation has been not least due to the fact that they promoted a goal to which intellectuals - as intellectuals - could make a genuine contribution by acting as "prototypes" of democratic citizens. Like democrats in general, the democratic intellectual does not need any particular expertise. There are no "experts" in a democracy and the intellectuals' lack of expertise only proved the point that citizens needed the right attitudes, rather than particular knowledge. Arguably, all of this is much less true with moral disagreements about bioethics and technology, or instances of international conflict that are less ideologised than the cold war. In these areas, which are also hotly debated in Germany and in urgent need of clarification, the experts and even the old-style cultural pessimists are back with a vengeance, while the past and ideas about "westernisation" hardly illuminate the moral and political stakes. Younger German intellectuals will have to think again.

Jan-Werner Muller is a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford. His book Another Country: German Intellectuals, Unification and National Identity will be published by Yale University Press in October, Pounds 20.00.

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments