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The German Problem


This essay appears in the Spring 2019 issue of Modern Age. To subscribe now, go here.

The summer of 2017 was the setting for a minor scandal in the close-knit world of German publishing. Following its appearance on a June survey of “non-fiction books of the month” compiled by a jury of influential editors and writers, a brief volume of historical criticism—what Germans call Zeitkritik—unexpectedly entered the bestseller charts. Within weeks, the book had become a top item on Amazon. Even in Germany, where serious books attract more attention than in the United States, it was an impressive performance.

Too impressive, apparently, for many representatives of Germany’s cultural elite. When the newsmagazine Der Spiegel published its authoritative bestseller list at the end of July, the surprise hit was absent despite sales figures that merited inclusion in the top ten. In a printed statement to justify the omission, culture editor Susanne Beyer explained that it would have been irresponsible for a “medium of enlightenment” to give its imprimatur to such a book. Following Der Spiegel’s lead, many shops refused to include it in promotional displays.

The scandalous volume was Finis Germania by the late Rolf Peter Sieferle. Once associated with the Green movement, Sieferle was best known for work on environmental issues, including The Subterranean Forest, an innovative reconsideration of fossil fuels. In the 1990s he drifted toward other topics, including the philosophy of history and studies of the “conservative revolutionaries”—a loose group of right-wing intellectuals including Ernst Jünger and Carl Schmitt, whose ideas prefigured National Socialism but who kept varying degrees of distance from Hitler. Failing to achieve recognition for these efforts, Sieferle largely withdrew from intellectual and social life. He committed suicide in 2016; the manuscript of Finis Germania was found among his papers.

The book’s contents—really a collection of aphorisms, sketches, and fragments rather than a continuous argument—range through Germany’s troubled twentieth century. Controversy focused on Sieferle’s statements about the Third Reich and the Holocaust. The greatest provocations were his descriptions of Auschwitz as “the last myth of a thoroughly rationalized world” and of Germany’s official commitment to remembrance as a “new state religion” based on the “unforgivable guilt of Adam Hitler.” According to his critics, Sieferle’s statements were tantamount to Holocaust denial. The outrage was compounded by the appearance of Finis Germania with the publishing house Antaios, part of a small empire operated by the far-right activist Götz Kubitschek.

Disputes about the title and the institutional origin of the book are good examples of the allusive, historically tangled style of cultural and political debate in Germany. The Latin phrase finis Germania is suggestively ungrammatical. The most natural reading, the “end of Germany,” would require a genitive ending. That construction, however, has a troubling history. “Finis germaniae” are the last words of Der Sieg des Judenthums über das Germanenthum [The Victory of Judaism Over Germanism], an 1879 manifesto by Wilhelm Marr, who is regarded as the popularizer of the term anti-Semitism. It is not clear whether Sieferle was echoing Marr or somehow rebuking him.

The name of the publishing house also bears elaboration. In Greek myth, Antaeus—literally, “opponent”—was the son of Poseidon and Gaia. A half-giant, Antaeus was invincible so long as he remained in contact with the earth, his mother. Yet Antaeus was overcome by Hercules when the hero realized that he could crush his adversary while holding him aloft in order to deprive him of his power. Antaeus thus symbolizes the defeat that follows removal from one’s native element. In a German context, the name evokes at least three texts by “conservative revolutionary” figures: a 1918 book of the same title by the sociologist Hans Freyer; a journal nominally edited by Jünger in the 1960s; and Schmitt’s 1942 study of naval power, Land and Sea.

With associations like these, it is not surprising that commentaries rained down to denounce Sieferle’s racism and anti-Semitism, sometimes insinuating that Finis Germania was a product of the mental disturbance that led to his death. Yet these charges reveal more about the anxieties of German intellectuals than they do about the book itself. Finis Germania is not a work of madness or Holocaust denial. It is an untimely meditation on a question once raised by Nietzsche and Ernest Renan: whether a political community can survive if it is not permitted to forget some of the deeds committed in its name. Sieferle’s suggestion is that in attempting to annihilate the Jews, Germany secured a paradoxical immortality as the symbol of irredeemable evil. Postwar Germany is founded on memory—but that same memory traps Germany into policies of cultural and institutional self-destruction.

* * *

As the title suggests, Finis Germania is haunted by melancholy—perhaps to the point of banality. Among other complaints, Sieferle laments the mediocrity of German society since the end of World War II. He blames for this not only the leveling effects of mass media and consumerism but also the separation of political from economic and social power produced by successive episodes of defeat and occupation. “If the ‘political class’ is not rooted in an organic ‘ruling class,’ ” he observes in a Burkean vein, “it cannot be expected to perform with the casual self-understanding that can only be acquired and habituated over generations.” Sieferle sneers that politicians of Germany’s mainstream right can’t shake off the bratwurst fumes from the local festivals where they campaign, while those of the left reek of cigarettes chain-smoked at late-night committee meetings.

Sieferle is equally scathing in his analysis of today’s high culture—or what passes for it. “Where everything is art and everyone can be an artist,” he writes, “the recognition of artistry is a question of charisma.” In the destructive wake of modernisms, avant-gardisms, and postmodernisms, the only surviving object for appreciation is the artist himself. Once an attempt to evoke transcendent standards of beauty and morality, modern art devolves into a species of the will-to-power.

Sieferle’s critics have pointed out precedents for such observations in the old German tradition of Kulturpessimismus. But his fascination with contradictions and inversions owes as much to the Frankfurt School as it does to Oswald Spengler. There is no cyclical theory here. Like Theodor Adorno, Sieferle is fascinated by the way modern life undermines the principles of rationality and freedom that its great initiators were attempting to secure. “The completion of civilization is the cultural animal kingdom,” he concludes in a remark that evokes Adorno’s masterpiece, Dialectic of Enlightenment, “the empire of lower needs and their immediate satisfaction.”

Among his contemporaries, perhaps the closest analogy to Sieferle is the French novelist Michel Houellebecq. Like Houellebecq, Sieferle sees Europe as a kind of vast geriatric home whose population wants only to die in comfort. In Das Migrationsproblem, another of his posthumous works, Sieferle describes this planned obsolescence as “the politics of disappearance.” For Sieferle, it is not only Germany that is in the process of abolishing itself, as the former Bundesbank official Thilo Sarrazin charged in his bestselling Deutschland schafft sich ab. The history of modern Europe is little more than a story of self-destruction.

If the “politics of disappearance” is Continental, however, it has particular intensity in Germany. Germany labors under a burden of guilt that France, for example, does not. Thanks partly to Charles de Gaulle’s talent for mythmaking, the French congratulate themselves on being among the righteous victors of the Second World War. The Germans, by contrast, were not just losers on the battlefield but also cast as the incarnations of human evil. The French might choose cultural and political surrender as a result of exhaustion—a scenario that Houellebecq has explored in Submission and other novels. Many Germans, on the other hand, seem to believe that they deserve to disappear.

Another way of putting it is that Sieferle is not primarily interested in the issue of collective guilt. His preoccupation is generational guilt. Born in 1949, Sieferle asks what responsibility the children of postwar Germany bear for the deeds of their parents, grandparents, and even great-grandparents. What punishments do they deserve to suffer for ancestral crimes?

* * *

Such questions are not new. Although they emerged in diaries and letters almost as soon as the war ended, they were thoroughly aired in public only in the Historikerstreit, the “historians’ controversy” of the 1980s. A complicated dispute that continued for more than a decade, the basic issue was whether the Nazi campaign of extermination against the Jews was a unique event or one dimension of an even larger bloodbath that included Stalin’s murder and intentional starvation of millions, the Allies’ obliteration bombing of German cities, and countless less famous massacres and pogroms conducted throughout Central and Eastern Europe.

Finis Germania is, in part, a late intervention in this debate. Contrary to charges of “revisionism,” Sieferle does not challenge either the occurrence of the Holocaust or the conventional estimate of its casualties. He does, however, suggest that Russians have been permitted a freedom to forget that has been denied to Germans—not least by Germans themselves. In a fable titled “Moral Arithmetic,” Sieferle imagines that “Fritz has stolen ten apples, but Ivan has only stolen four apples.” Fritz is certainly a thief—but how great is his crime? Is he to be blamed for stealing all ten apples? Or only the six by which the magnitude of his theft exceeds Ivan’s?

At this point in the narrative, “a moralist” intervenes. He insists that “this calculation is an attempt to reduce the guilt of Fritz. Considering the extent of Fritz’s crime, it is not permitted to compare guilt to guilt. Every discussion of the four apples that Ivan has stolen must be considered an attempt to whitewash Fritz’s theft.” From this perspective, Ivan’s actions are irrelevant. Between the lines: the millions shot and starved at Stalin’s orders are a distraction from the horrors of the Shoah.

Yet a prohibition on moral equivalency has apparently immoral consequences. If the four apples that Ivan stole cannot be mentioned in order to prevent any exoneration of Fritz, then they disappear from memory. It might be thought that these apples, too, should count in the reckoning. “But the moralist is not at a loss for an answer here,” Sieferle writes. “Fritz’s crime is infinitely great. One can subtract any given amount from an infinite quantity and yet it remains infinite. Thus Ivan’s guilt is, in practice, erased by silence, while Fritz’s guilt is sustained for all time.”

Despite the moralist’s insistence on the equal value of every human life, then, some lives are deemed worthy of eternal remembrance, while others are virtually forgotten. What turns out to be unique in the “moral arithmetic” of the Holocaust is not its Jewish victims, whose individual identities are subsumed by a numerical abstraction—what Sieferle calls “the ominous six million”—nor the millions of others slaughtered by Hitler’s men for other reasons. It is the event itself.

If “moral arithmetic” is incapable of expressing the significance of the Holocaust, by what means is its significance to be understood? Numerical reckoning is possible only when dealing with commensurable objects, but here is an event that must not be relativized or compared. Rather than arithmetic, the science proper to the singular is theology. That is why Sieferle insists that the Shoah and its legacy belong to the domain of religion.

* * *

Excluding front matter and a personal statement by the editor, Sieferle’s friend Raimund Kolb, Finis Germania contains just ninety-two small pages—probably not more than twenty thousand words. Of these pages, twenty-two make up a section titled “Mythos VB,” which has been the focus of most of the debate surrounding the book. The term “mythos” alludes to Sieferle’s claim that “Nationalism Socialism, more precisely Auschwitz, has become the last myth of a thoroughly rationalized world.” The abbreviation “VB” stands for Vergangenheitsbewältigung—a semiofficial process of “coming to terms with the past.”

Again, Sieferle is not a Holocaust denier. “Myth” in this context does not mean false or imaginary. Rather, as Sieferle states several times, the Third Reich and its crimes were real. Paradoxically, it is their horrifying reality that makes them “mythical.” “A myth,” he writes, “is a truth that stands beyond discussion.” For many radicals in the early twentieth century, by contrast, a myth was an idea that exercised properties of collective motivation, whether true or not. It was in this sense, first articulated by the French syndicalist Georges Sorel, that Mussolini spoke of the myths of Rome or the Nazi ideologist Alfred Rosenberg wrote of race as the “myth of the twentieth century.”

A definition of myth as a truth beyond discussion does suggest that Sieferle is justifying challenges to the received history of the Shoah. In a similar vein, “historical revisionist” writers claim they are merely raising questions about the number of Nazi victims and the circumstances under which they died. It is impossible, needless to say, to take such coy explanations seriously. No one raises such questions without having some idea of the answer—and those of so-called revisionists always tend toward minimization.

But Sieferle’s point is less about the facts of the matter than about their moral significance. The myth is not that the Holocaust happened. It is that it was absolutely unique and imposes an inexpiable burden of generational guilt. For Sieferle, these claims are among the last echoes of theology in an otherwise secular society. He asks: “Doesn’t the old fear of every revealed religion, that it is lost as it enters the enlightened business of historical comparison and justification, stand behind the insistence on ‘incommensurability’?”

There is another echo of the Frankfurt School here. The claim that revealed religion is grounded on the prohibition of representation of the divine is among the key claims in Dialectic of Enlightenment. For Adorno and his coauthor, Max Horkheimer, the Bilderverbot of the Hebrew Bible was at the same time liberating and potentially oppressive. On the one hand, the Bilderverbot exposed as human creations all the false gods of paganism. In this respect, it not only freed human beings from the burden of propitiating the products of their own imagination, but also cleared a space for inquiry that could later be occupied by modern science. Whether they knew it or not, Adorno and Horkheimer were pursuing an idea much earlier proposed by Maimonides: that revelation, specifically the revelation of the Torah, is rational not because its content can be verified by independent human reflection but because it opposes idolatry.

Yet the rationalizing freedom of religion was only partial, insofar as it depended on ruling certain truths—particularly concerning the nature of God—off-limits to inquiry. Freedom to act and to know in this world was secured by the uniqueness and inaccessibility of the divine. In practice, this new “myth” of divine transcendence often empowered priests and prophets to manipulate and even to rule the public. Thus the historic fear to which Sieferle alludes—that unrestricted philosophical and historical inquiry, that is, “enlightenment,” poses a threat to the social authority.

Rejecting attempts to reduce it to atavism or irrationality, Adorno and Horkheimer proposed that enlightenment lay at the heart of National Socialism. Without any recognition of the transcendent, the Nazis logically concluded that human beings are raw material to be used or disposed of, rather than unique beings created in the image of God. Rather than a survival of Asiatic barbarism, as the Soviet Union could be interpreted, the Third Reich was distinctively Western and hyper-modern—a product of rationalization at the expense of the mysterious and divine. Enlightenment, as Adorno and Horkheimer put it in a characteristic formulation, had turned into its opposite. Absolute freedom to think and to act in a disenchanted world meant slavery and terror.

To the extent that they shared a goal, the unifying project among postwar theorists of totalitarianism was to recover inviolable limits to human action. What Sieferle calls the “myth” of the Holocaust is its employment as shorthand for the very worst that man can do to man. To place “Auschwitz” beyond question or comparison is to say that there is a hard boundary on what human beings can accept from each other or from themselves. It is to say, in another popular phrase, “never again.”

To a degree that can be difficult for Americans to appreciate, the legitimacy of today’s German political and cultural establishment is based on its commitment to this project. At least since the 1960s, when the issues of wartime complicity began to dominate the public life of the West German federal republic, civic ceremonies, school curricula, and political rhetoric have revolved around remembrance and atonement. Rather than affirming alternative virtues, though, the official cult of the Holocaust emphasizes prohibition over prescription. It enjoins Germans “thou shalt not be a Nazi,” but tells them little about who they are—or who they ought to become.

The priests of old worried that unfettered inquiry into the nature of God would shake the order of human things. The priests of the German “state religion” of the Shoah fear that any challenge to the “myth” of Auschwitz will undermine their authority over a population in constant danger of backsliding into fascism. That is why figures like Beyer insist that it would be inappropriate even to include a book like Finis Germania on the bestseller list. They believe—no doubt sincerely—that the wolves of tyranny and atrocity are always at the door.

There is another aspect of mythical thinking at work here, one that may be grounded on the deep residuum of paganism more than on monotheistic theology. That is the idea that names have magical power, that by invoking a force or event we can control its occurrence in the world. It is difficult to avoid observing that while ritual invocations of the Holocaust have become, if anything, more frequent as we move further from the event itself, tangible action to prevent genocide remains elusive. As has occasionally been pointed out, “never again” turns out to mean “never again shall Nazis exterminate Europe’s Jews,” not never again shall human beings attempt to wipe out people whose existence offends them.

That is why Vergangenheitsbewältigung degenerates so easily into the kitsch to which Sieferle alludes with the derisive acronym VB. Pronouncing Finis Germania to be verboten does nothing to stop its circulation or influence. The erection of ever more conspicuous and elaborate monuments to the dead does little for the living—except provide opportunities for politicians and cultural eminences to luxuriate in their moral superiority.

The most visually imposing symbol of this tendency is the Holocaust memorial in Berlin, which was completed at great expense in 2004. After initial controversies regarding its design—particularly the lack of references to non-Jewish victims of the Nazis—the enormous site in the center of Berlin became best known as a location for tourists to take selfies and as a meeting place for users of hookup apps. Perhaps the most hopeful use of the site is by local children who treat it as a vast playground. Lacking real memories of National Socialism, children see the symbolic arrangement of concrete stelae as obstacles for climbing.

* * *

There is an element of special pleading in Sieferle’s critique, which is also found in the laments of former conservative revolutionaries. Probably the most vivid example is that of Carl Schmitt, whose personal documents reveal in considerable detail the moral dwarf that dwelled within the intellectual giant. It may seem unfair to be the object of moral condemnation by victors who are permitted to forget or ignore their own crimes. That unfairness is not very distressing, though, in light of the merciful policy that the Western Allies pursued toward not only the German population at large but also toward many active participants in the Third Reich.

The East, where Soviet forces reopened the Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen concentration camps for purposes of internal control, is a different story. Unlike smug Wessis, East Germans have a history that might lead a reasonable observer to conclude that they’ve suffered enough. It is not coincidental that the greatest strongholds of right-wing parties, including most recently the AfD, have been in areas that were formerly part of the German Democratic Republic.

Even so, the prosperity and stability of Germany today provide little justification for abandoning the “myth.” In his essay In Praise of Forgetting, the journalist David Rieff argues that historical commemoration and moral responsibility have to be balanced against the demands of the current situation. Where fixation on the past is more likely to inflame than to reduce violence, it may be better to leave the past behind than to evoke it. But Rieff is thinking of places like the Balkans, where the mention of the Battle of Kosovo fought in 1389 can cause blood to be shed. There is no such risk in modern Germany.

The cost of Vergangenheitsbewältigung should not be counted only in affronts to German sensitivity, though. There is also a political consequence, as the outcome of Angela Merkel’s decision to open the gates of the Federal Republic to refugees from Syria and elsewhere demonstrates. In addition to foreseeable problems of integration, German policy has undermined the European Union and provided unintentional support to nationalists and populists around the world. Brexit might not have passed without images of migrant caravans flowing into Germany. Criticisms of the German experience are staples of the rhetoric of the National Front in France, Five Star and Northern League movements in Italy, and kindred parties around the Continent. What was supposed to be an expression of humility and contrition turned out to be an act of arrogant interference. Part of the burden that Germans bear is that almost whatever they do, for good motives or bad ones, turns out to be destabilizing and resented.

* * *

The question Sieferle raises, then, is what relationship to the Nazi past would be preferable. Without providing a direct answer, he gestures toward the possibility of turning back from the ersatz religion of commemoration to a genuine religion of atonement and grace. “The drama retains an Old Testament rigor,” Sieferle writes. “Adam Hitler is reconciled by no Jesus; and one would probably crucify such a Jesus as quickly as possible. The guilt thus remains total; it is compensated by no grace.”

In suggesting that only the ultimate mercy offered by the God of the New Testament can resolve the ultimate sin of National Socialism, Sieferle follows the course of Ernst Jünger, whom he honors as an “educator” in a fragment that appears at the end of the book. As early as 1943, Jünger argued in a pamphlet titled Der Friede (“The Peace”) that Europe could survive culturally and morally only through the establishment of a kind of modern Christendom. The pamphlet, which was later published by the Allied forces and distributed to German POWs, played a role in Jünger’s avoidance of serious penalties for his refusal to participate in the denazification process and his eventual rehabilitation as a titan of German letters. In his diaries, the envious Schmitt, who was permanently banned from academic employment in Germany, accused Jünger of toadying to the Allies and plotting to acquire a Nobel Prize.

Sieferle’s proposal that the Shoah might be superseded by a Christian reconciliation is superficially more plausible than the gestures toward paganism that characterize other currents on the European far right. There is no way to regard hopes for a revival of the old gods as anything but ludicrous. Yet appeals to Christian grace are hardly less offensive to the memory of murdered Jews than denial or minimization of their suffering. After all, the Jews’ fundamental crime, the transgression that placed them at the center of gentile history, was the rejection of divine redemption in the person of Jesus. What Sieferle is insinuating is that, yet again, the Jews are refusing to show mercy to a martyr for human sin. Only this time, the martyr is the German nation, which becomes a kind of collective sacrifice to Jewish pride.

What appears to be an exercise in moral theology turns out to be a version of Nietzsche’s argument that the Jews foisted Christianity on their gentile conquerors, compensating for their inferiority in political power with eternal moral superiority. In a similar manner, Sieferle indicates, the state religion of Germany requires endless groveling of the powerful before the weak and helpless. The irony is heightened by the fact that Germany actually lost the war, while the Jews went on to found their own powerful state.

This is not anti-Semitism in the racial version espoused by the Nazis. Nor is it exactly the anti-Judaism that characterized much of Western Christianity. As with Jünger, Sieferle’s invocations of theology seem, if not merely instrumental, then illustrative and rhetorical rather than based on authentic faith. Instead, it is a bitter protest against not only the events of the twentieth century but also the probability that these events will define Germany for all time. “After the real Germany has gone under,” he writes, “it will survive eternally as a myth.”

In yet another example of strategic misreading, Sieferle has been attacked for contrasting the “real,” innocent Germany to the “myth” of its guilt. That is not at all the point of the remark. On the contrary, Sieferle is noting the irony that Germany seems destined to be remembered long after it has ceased to exist as a political and cultural community. In a world that no longer believes in devil or god, there is no other symbolic expression of the possibility of human evil.

These dialectics of sin and redemption, mortality and eternity, are what Sieferle intends to evoke with another much denounced statement: that “there are tragic people, like the Russians, the Jews, and the Germans, in which the paradoxes of historical processes complete themselves in all their sharpness. On the other hand, there are untragic peoples, from whom history rolls away like the water from a well-oiled boot.” Preeminent among the latter are the “Anglo-Saxons,” for whom historical memory is always someone else’s problem. Rather than an expression of moral equivalency, Sieferle’s observation is more like a statement of sociological fact. Forgiveness is not a problem if you have already forgotten.♦

Samuel Goldman is literary editor of Modern Age.

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