Towards Better Democracy

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“I Am German”


“I Am German.” This is the title I have given this afternoon’s address to you. Perhaps a better title would be, “What is it to be German?”, “What does it mean to be German?”

I have never been proud of being German nor apologetic either. You might say I am agnostic.

I grew up in Germany and have so far spent all my life there. I am too young to remember the fall of the Berlin Wall but my husband does. He is from the East which is where I met him when I was studying there. In fact, I have family which are on both sides of what was a divided country. So I have a foot in both camps, though now of course Germany is once again a unified country.

So I am German. I am emphatically German. Yes, I feel German; of that I have no doubt.Yet, I am haunted by the question, “What does it mean to be German?” The answer is I am not sure. I have thought about it a lot, which is what prompted me to write the book. But I still don’t have an answer. Though the book is a bit more definitive than I sound. Since my specialty is German History from 1900 on, you might have thought that is good grounds for finding answer. That in my case is obviously not true. The question has been with me since childhood. My parents got fed up with my constant questions. But there it is.

The questions I have attempted to answer both for myself and my book are, what makes us different, why is that so many people around me ask this question of themselves? Why do they even feel they need to?

I suppose there are other nations which also wonder, question their identity. But I wouldn’t know. I have enough on my plate to answer my own questions.

Does this question of identity extend to Germany as a nation. No, that does not appear to be true. Germany exudes to the rest of the world a confidence it feels. That is a confidence born of the Germany’s abilities, successes. Of both Germany making the best of the Economic Miracle of the early sixties, and of taking a leading role within the EU. But there is a difference between what a nation projects and what its citizens feel as individuals. That national image is based on many more factors than the thoughts and feelings of its inhabitants.

A place to start in this talk might be to consider that we, putting aside the question of who “we” are, were never conquered by the Romans where most of Europe was. At least the west of what Caesar and other Romans, and the Greeks before them, referred to as Germania, and as far as Asia to the South East. This “Gemania” was never conquered and, perhaps even more importantly, was never conolized by the Latin pe0ple. And Germania was large. Depending on at which point in time you wish to choose, much of the north, including what is now Sweden, Norway and Finland and far into the east bordering into the Steppes of Russia. A vast territory.

I think both are central factors in my discussion, which are more thoroughly explored in in detail in my book than we can possibly go into here. On the question of Germania, this rather amorphous territory never in its history, even up to recent times, and by that I mean right up into the sixteen hundreds, that shifted boundaries back and forth across Europe moving at one point to the West, into what is now France and then East well past what are now is regarded as Eastern Europe, and back again, time and time again. This fuzzy region never had a coherent or semi-permanent perimeter such as other regions had in the period before the emergence of Nation States in the late seventeen and early eighteen hundreds. Germany never had an empire in any formal sense but was surrounded by them. One thinks of the Roman Empire itself and its successor states. True, there was up until 1806, the Holy Roman Empire. But, there is a large amount of truth in the old saying in that it was neither Holy, nor Roman nor an Empire. This last is of note and one of the pillars on which I base my discussion in the book. Unlike empires of the time, this German agglomeration, to loosely borrow a word, never had a central court, never had a king who ruled from the centre, never had anything like ruling laws, never had a central economic system, and so on.

Even to this day, Germany is still not a unified state but a federation of states, some of which have retained significant power. One difference, to touch on the point, between this Federation and that of Germany is that some of the German states were tiny amounting to no more than self-ruling towns. I don’t want to go into any further discussion this afternoon.

The next point to consider is that, as mentioned previously, Germany, however you choose to view it, was never, to repeat what has already been said, conquered nor colonized by the Romans. This fact is of enormous significance. The ramifications of this are many, so many, in fact, that the book explores only some of them. The various impacts of not being conquered by the Romans is a subject not sufficiently explored by anyone.

Be that as it may, let’s touch on only a few of these. First is the impact of Latin on the language. It is true that the language of the English, a conquered territory, was not inflected to any degree by the language the Romans spoke. That is not true for much of the Western and Southern parts of Europe. Most of the original languages of those areas conquered by the Romans has been lost, with those surviving being at the periphery. German, on the other hand, has survived as a continuously developing tongue across the region. Better one should speak of German languages. And we will return to this in a moment.

Alongside the influence of Latin upon the conquered territories is the Christianization of those areas. Or should one say, the Roman Christianization. The adoption of Christianity in the German territories was largely voluntary. While it is true that outside them, pagan and Christian beliefs and practices existed alongside one another, in the German territories, that coexistence lasted longer and those same beliefs still, to a certain extent, permeate German culture to this day. Not overtly, that is true. We will touch a little more on this shortly.

To those areas which the Romans extended their empire they brought writing. The development of writing in the Germanys  was late in the history of its development in Europe. And literacy, which meant, prior to the adoption of vernaculars, Latin among the educated in Europe was slower to enter these same areas. The Roman Catholic church was the vehicle for the transmission and sustenance of the literate, largely churchmen until the late or middle fourteenth centuries. Roman Catholic churchmen. The first university in Germany was established three hundred years after the first in Bologna in 1088.

Whereas in the Early Chritianized parts of Europe the use of Latin as a daily means of scholarship began with the establishment of the early churches. Latin as a vehicle for scholarship did not begin until the late eight hundreds in Germany whereas the language had been used elsewhere from the time of its inception.

The point is that Germany’s pagan and tribal beliefs survived longer than in the other main European countries.

The point should be made that with the revival of learning which led to what we refer to as the Renaissance, in Europe, Germany quickly established itself as a centre. One need only mention Erasmus as one of the better known scholars who established himself in Germany in recognition of its importance.

Yet, if you look at German culture, as defined by Goethe, Kant, Beethoven and so on, you don’t see the question arising there. There is, in their works, as there is in the works of many others, a self-confidence  that belies what I am talking about. Did this question of what it is to be German work on them privately? None of their diaries that I have looked at bear any trace of such a preoccupation. Why not?

Is this a question that has arisen among Germans only in recent times? Again, I don’t think so. What conclusion can I point to as to where I am headed in this talk.

I go back to what I said at the beginning of this talk with what I said, I feel neither proud of nor apologetic for being German. I just am. It is my identity. Yet I still question it. I don’t think that guilt is a significant factor, but there again I may be wrong.

Here again is a topic which few German writers have attempted to address without much success.

Without argument, Germany has more that its share of, deserved or undeserved, skeletons in the closet, and one can say that without any prevarication  whatsoever //

I might stress this fact, the horrors of, and the guilt associated with, the Nazi policy of the extermination of whole peoples does absolutely and unquestionably play a part in the individual and collective part of the German psyche. However, my topic of the question of German identity predates those events and .//… Is there an inter-connectedness? There may be. Let us not get sidetracked //

It might be thought that I am suggesting the question of Germanic identity connects to its tribal roots. On the contrary, I think that the question arises because Germans don’t feel connected to their roots, don’t feel connected to their history.

Now, this at first glance, seems counter-intuitive. German culture is steeped, full of its folklore, the love of forest, the adherence to an outdoor life. Really too many aspects to mention. Perhaps, it suffices to give an example which captures this adherence and love of the past, Wagner’s operas. No other culture in Europe has produced such works. We are touching, in my mind, the roots of what it is that creates, what I call the identity issue, though most Germans would think that too strong a term.

Within the confines of the time allotted to to this talk I cannot for now go much deeper. Were I to be invited back, I will take the opportunity to enlarge on the question, ” Are Germans both connected to and disconnected from their German past?” It is this very tension between these poles which, in my view, gives rise the question I asked at the beginning, “What is it to be German.”

 Before I close and come front of stage to sign my book, let me just add.

In 1963, at the height of the Cold War, John F Kennedy stood on a stage in the heart of West Berlin and said, “Ich bin ein Berliner.” He was saying this as the head of the leading power in the West indicating a strong stand against the Soviet Union, of the West’s determination to stand up to Soviet threats, and as an indication of his and his country’s support for West Germany and West Germans. No doubt this identification was sincere. As similarly were the Tweets which went out earlier this year, “I am Charlie Hebdo.” Identification with a country, as in Kennedy’s case, is not the same as a native of that country’s identification with it. John F Kennedy made his statement with clear stated confidence. I cannot say that when I state, “I am German,” I have a similar confidence.

Let me thank the Dr Drew Faust, President of Harvard University and fellow historian, and the faculty  and staff or inviting me to lead a series of Seminars on German 20th and 21th Century History. Thank you to the Department of German Culture, Language and Literature, and the Goethe Institute of United Stages for hosting me, and thank you to my American publisher, Harper Row, for making available copies of my book.

***

This is a collation of talks given by Dr Margit Hilnersger over the three days, 15, 16, 17 December, 2015.

Margit Hilnersger obtained her BA at Die Johannes Gutenberg-Universität, Mainz, MA the Friedrich-Schiller-Universität, Jena and PhD at Eberhard Karls Universität, Tübingen where she teaches and leads seminars in German Historical Culture and Ethnicities. She has won numerous prizes, including the prestigious Erasmus Prize. She is has published many papers with the leading scholars in her field and has published four books, including “I am German,” 2015, Harper and Row. She is married with three children.

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