Continental drifters

One of the great cultural shifts of the 20th century was the influx of black American intellectuals

In June 1950, the black American writer James Baldwin wrote a piece entitled "The Negro in Paris" for a journal called the Reporter. He had arrived in the French capital two years earlier, on a one-way ticket and with no intention of returning to the US (though the articles he filed home, especially those published in the Partisan Review, would soon make his name in the country of his birth).

Baldwin had been welcomed in Paris - at Jean-Paul Sartre's favoured café Les Deux Magots, to be precise - by the novelist Richard Wright, who had himself left America for Europe in 1946, a little over half a decade after the publication of his landmark novel Native Son, the tale of a wretched inhabitant of Chicago's "Black Belt" who goes to the electric chair for the murder of a white woman.

Baldwin and Wright would subsequently fall out when the former, in one of the articles that he sent back to the PR, criticised Native Son in the strongest terms for reproducing a debilitating and distinctively American "fantasy" of "Negro life". Because Wright saw novel writing as a form of "social struggle" - rather than a means of transmuting the motley of personal experience into art, as Baldwin regarded it - his protagonist, Bigger Thomas, lacks any "discernible relationship to himself", let alone other people. He is, instead, an entirely "mythic" creature - mythic because Wright abstains from any treatment of the complex reality of African-American life, with its shared traditions as well as its internal differences.

What Wright's portrayal of Bigger misses - because it is smothered by the character's inarticulate rage - is any sense of the endless "paradoxical adjustments" that are required of the black American. The essays that Baldwin wrote in Paris (later collected in an anthology entitled, in deference to his former mentor, Notes of a Native Son) attempt to register the complexities he found so catastrophically lacking in Wright's novel.

In his Parisian exile, Baldwin came to see that he was "a kind of bastard of the west". The monuments of European high culture - Shakespeare, Bach, Rembrandt - were not really his; yet, he wrote, there was "no other heritage which I could possibly hope to use. I had certainly been unfitted for the jungle or the tribe." The predicament wasn't peculiar to Baldwin, however. As a new exhibition at Tate Liverpool shows, it was the situation in which many of the most important artists and writers of the black diaspora found themselves from the early 1900s onwards. "Afro Modern: Journeys through the Black Atlantic" takes its cue from Paul Gilroy's groundbreaking work of cultural history The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness, which argues for the importance of that black diaspora to 20th-century art and literature.

“The Negro in Paris" offers a particularly vivid account of one African American's fraught identification with western modernity. He distinguishes there the situation of "Negro entertainers" (jazz musicians and singers) in Paris from that of their "non-performing coloured countrymen", most of them former servicemen studying abroad thanks to the provisions of the GI Bill. The latter tended not to enjoy the "comradeship" of other black Americans, but lived in a kind of unsplendid isolation. "The American Negro in Paris," Baldwin writes, "is very nearly the invisible man."

On the rare occasions that he is noticed, it is by Frenchmen who see America - and all Americans, black or white - through the prism of its own self-aggrandising myth-making. Thousands of miles from home, the "non-performing" black American "finds himself involved . . . in the same old battle: the battle for his own identity". And it is a battle that is made more intense still by his encounters with black Africans from France's colonies, who, for all their bitterness at their condition, at least have an unambiguous relationship with their homeland. The black American, whose bitterness is more likely to be "turned against himself", feels an alienation from his African counterpart so complete as to induce in him the recognition that he is a "hybrid" - not a "physical hybrid merely [but] in every aspect of his living".

“Someone, someday," Baldwin would write later, "should do a study in depth of the role of the American Negro in the mind and life of Europe." Although he didn't live to see it, his wish came true in 1993, when the The Black Atlantic was published. Gilroy treats the European exile of writers such as Baldwin and Wright, as well as the transatlantic journeys of the father of black nationalism and pan-Africanism, W E B Du Bois, as the crucible of a notion of black identity that renounces the temptations of ethnic separatism and nationalism, and sometimes even the idea of "race" itself.

The subtitle of The Black Atlantic emphasises the influence exercised on Gilroy by Du Bois's theory, developed in his magnum opus, The Souls of Black Folk (1903), of "double consciousness" - the "unreconciled striving" inside the breast of every black American that Baldwin had felt so keenly by the banks of the Seine. In Gilroy's account, Du Bois's work is a complex, sometimes incoherent, skein of racial particularism, black nationalism and something at once richer and more unresolved. And one of the vehicles for this latter mode of black self-assertion was the work of art, now understood not as a kind of compensation for the African American's "internal exile from modernity", but rather as a privileged form of his engagement with it.

This is borne out by one of the rooms in the Tate Liverpool exhibition, whose curators, Tanya Barson and Peter Gorschlüter, have used the theoretical framework of Gilroy's book as a prism through which to consider an extra­ordinary parade of 80 years of art from the black diaspora (not to mention work by non-black giants of modernism such as Picasso and Brancusi, who themselves explored the "transcultural space" that Gilroy would later scrutinise in his book). Under the banner of "Black Atlantic Avant-Gardes", visitors encounter the work of the painter Aaron Douglas, one of the prime movers of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s and a protégé of Du Bois.

In the murals that Douglas painted for Fisk University in Nashville, as well as in the gorgeous, delicate relief prints he made for Du Bois's journal The Crisis, forms derived from African art collide with a sensibility informed by European modernism. The Guyanese-born painter Frank Bowling, who contributes a red, gold and green slab of abstract expressionism to the show, once said, perhaps with half an eye on Du Bois, that the "black soul, if there is such a thing, belongs in modernism".

This remark is as cogent a summary of Gilroy's outlook as one could wish for - not least because it tells us something new about modernism, as well as about black identity. It resonates, too, with the work of the "post-black artists" displayed in the final room of the exhibition - for instance, with Glen Ligon's Gold Nobody Knew Me #1, on which is reproduced a line of Richard Pryor's with which, you suspect, Baldwin would have sympathised: "I went to Africa. I went to the motherland to find my roots! Right? Seven million black people! Not one of those motherfuckers knew me."

“Afro Modern: Journeys through the Black Atlantic" is at Tate Liverpool until 25 April (tate.org.uk/liverpool)

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 February 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Nightmare on Cameron Street

Photo: STEFAN BONESS/PANOS
Show Hide image

What Britain needs to understand about the profound and ancient divisions in Germany

As Angela Merkel campaigns for re-election, the balance of power in Europe is changing.

On 24 September, Angela Merkel will be re-elected chancellor of Germany and that, we might think, will be that. With Merkel and France’s Emmanuel Macron in control of the European project, populism will surely be vanquished and the old Franco-German core of the EU restored. Yet things are changing, and if western Europe wants Germany to keep singing “Ode to Joy” as enthusiastically as “Deutschlandlied”, it will have some work to do. Our Brexit negotiators need to see how important this is to Macron, to other European leaders and, above all, to thinking Germans.

For we may all soon miss the old, self-effacing Germany. Despite having such economic power, it always seemed to have no greater wish than to exist as part of a larger whole. Konrad Adenauer, its first postwar chancellor and founding father, made Westbindung (“binding to the West”) the heart of West German politics. Adenauer came from the deeply Catholic Rhineland, “amid the vineyards” as he put it, “where Germany’s windows are open to the West”. His instinctive cultural sympathy was with France, but he knew that West Germany’s existence depended on keeping America in Europe. France he courted out of profound conviction, the US out of clear-eyed necessity, and he was worried that after him this twin course might be abandoned. His demands for reassurance during his final year in office led to John F Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech of 1963. Every West German knew about that, and about the Berlin Airlift: these became locations of national memory from which West Germany triangulated its sense of self.

There were some Germans for whom this was too much. Anti-Americanism was ingrained among West Germany’s hard left, the early Green Party and the tiny hard right. But even Germans who were suspicious of America had no fear of tying themselves closer to Europe. On the contrary, that was exactly what they wanted. The standard explanation of this is guilt. West Germans, in this argument, felt so remorseful about the horrors of the Second World War that they wanted to make amends. This idea fitted with others’ belief that Germany did indeed have much to feel guilty about.

A nuanced version of this held that the western Germans thought they had somehow “got away with it”, compared with their brethren in the east, who had felt the weight of Soviet vengeance: rape, pillage, occupation. Accordingly, Germany’s willingness to subsume itself so thoroughly, even as it footed the bills for the European Economic Community and later the European Union, was accepted with little gratitude, almost as an ongoing war debt repayment.

This guilt thesis is based on a misunderstanding of German history, especially of the experience of western Germans. The most graphic illustration of this comes from Adenauer. In 1955, he privately informed the British that while he was obliged to act in public as though he wished for reunification, he intended to devote his remaining years to blocking it. In 1961, he secretly proposed to the Americans that they offer the Russians a swap: they and he should, he said, give up West Berlin in return for Thuringia (the region containing Leipzig and Weimar). He wanted, in effect, to make the River Elbe the eastern border of Germany.

Why did Adenauer dislike the eastern Germans, think Berlin was expendable and consider the River Elbe to be the natural frontier? Simple: he knew that the Elbe was Germany’s Mason-Dixon line. Beyond it lay the flat, grim Prussian heartlands, which until 1945 stretched into present-day Russia. This vast region was known to Germans as “Ostelbien” – East Elbia. Adenauer viewed the “unification” of Germany in 1871 as East Elbia’s annexation of the west. That’s why in 1919, as mayor of Cologne, and again in 1923, he tried to get Britain and France to back a breakaway western German state. Having failed, he is said to have muttered, “Here we go, Asia again,” and closed the blinds every time his train crossed east over the Elbe.

Prussia was a different country. The victorious Allies agreed. On 25 February 1947, they declared: “The Prussian state, which from early days has been a bearer of militarism and reaction in Germany… together with its central government and all its agencies are abolished.” The name Prussia was eradicated. The Prussian hegemony of 1871-1945, an anomaly in the two millennia of German history, was over.

If we understand this, we understand what West Germany really was and why it acted as it did; why the “reunification” of 1990 – or, at least, the way it was handled – was such a mistake; why we may all have to stop taking Germany quite so much for granted now that East Elbia is back; and why our Brexit negotiators are on a hiding to nothing if they believe that the Germans have no more urgent business to consider than their car exports to us. Far more important to liberal Germans is keeping safe the western soul of Germany.

***

West Germany was anything but an artificial construct. It was the historical Germany, being almost geographically identical to what was, for almost 1,200 years, the only Germany. Julius Caesar named the land, together with its people, in 58 BC; 49 years later, Drusus, the greatest commander of the infant Roman empire, is said to have been supernaturally advised that after defeating every tribe he met in Germania, he should halt at the River Elbe. By 100 AD, Roman rule was shown by a fortified border, the Limes Germanicus. You can still walk large stretches of it; it encompasses most of the richest land in modern Germany and all of the great cities except Hamburg, Berlin and the 19th-century industrial monocultures of the Ruhr. Even these last were born as trading posts or forward bases within what archaeologists call the “market region” of Germania – the lands beyond the limes where commerce with the Roman empire defined the whole culture. Southern and western Germany’s cultural roots are almost as Roman as France’s.

But what about 9 AD and the destruction of three Roman legions by the German tribes under Arminius? There is a popular myth that this kept all Germany free and different. We owe this idea to Martin Luther and his supporters: Luther claimed from 1520 onwards to be a German, anti-Roman hero and identified himself with the newly rediscovered tale of Arminius. More decisively, the events of 9 AD were an obsession of later Prussian historians, who had an interest in claiming that the real Germany was one that was pure and un-Romanised. Yet the reverse is true. Under the Romans, then the Merovingians, then the Franks, the Rhine/Danube super-region of Germany remained politically and culturally a part of western Europe. After Charlemagne, a Rhineland German, “restored the Roman empire” (as his seals put it) in 800 AD, western Germany was the very centre of things. It was never a nation state, but always the key part of a greater whole, the Holy Roman empire.

Along the Elbe, things were different. Charlemagne extracted tribute from the pagan Slavs across the river, and his successors tried to build on this, but the German conquest and settlement of East Elbia only really began with the Wendish Crusade of 1147, the northern arm of the Second Crusade. Three centuries later, the entire region was still hotly disputed by Balts and Slavs, with German supremacy threatened by major defeats at Tannenberg (1410) and in the Hussite Wars (1419-34).

Long-contested frontier lands breed a special kind of society. The German incomers cowed the natives, such as the pagan Pruscie from whom they ultimately borrowed their name, through brute force. Where they couldn’t, they had to make armed deals with local elites. In this new sort-of-Germany, the Junkers, an aggressive landowning caste, lorded it over the Slavs and Balts – as well as poorer Germans, who knew that the locals would cut their throats if the Junker castles fell, so were loyal and subservient to their masters. East Prussia remained like this within living memory.

In 1525, Prussia named itself and declared itself the first Protestant state. From then on, it had absolute rulers, the Hohenzollern dynasty, backed by a quiescent Lutheran state church. The Junkers swore loyalty in return for exclusive access to all officer-level jobs in the army and the administration. By the mid-18th century, Voltaire quipped that while other states had armies, the Prussian army had a state. The overriding strategic concern of Prussia was always with the east. In his 1758-59 campaigns, Frederick the Great was shocked to find the Russians extremely hard to beat. He bequeathed to his successors a policy of keeping the tsars onside. Partitioning Poland between them was the sticking plaster that masked this Russian-Prussian rivalry, right until 1941.

This thoroughly east-facing power was, by the normal standards of European statehood – history, social structures, religion, geography – a different country from the Rhineland, Swabia or Bavaria. It defeated them all in 1866, laying the ground for the “unification” of 1871. The Prussian empire (for that is what it was) could now enlist the wealth, industry and manpower of Germany in pursuit of its ancient goal: hegemony over north-eastern Europe. By 1887, the future imperial chancellor Bernhard von Bülow was already musing on how to destroy Russia “for a generation”, cleanse Prussia of its Poles, set up a puppet Ukrainian state and take the Prussian armies to the banks of the Volga. This is the bloody Prussian – not German – thread that leads directly to the Nazi onslaught of 1941. In 1945, that centuries-long struggle was settled, in almost inconceivable violence. Half of East Elbia was ruthlessly stripped of Germans and handed over to Poles or Russians; the rump became the German Democratic Republic (GDR), a mere satrap of the Red Army.

So while it is easy and comfortable to say that the otherness of eastern Germany today is the result of that 40-year Soviet occupation, history says otherwise. East Elbia has always been different. Take the voting patterns: from 1871 to 1933, East Elbia outside Berlin (always a left-liberal political island) was the main electoral reservoir for the authoritarian right. The Prussian Conservative Party under the empire, the Deutschnationale Volkspartei until 1928 and the Nazis from 1930 depended on rural and small-town East Elbian voters. It was they who (just) swung things in 1933, by going 50-60 per cent for the “Hitler coalition”. Had all Germany voted like the Rhineland or Bavaria, Hitler and his Junker allies would have got nowhere close to a majority. Small wonder that Adenauer didn’t want East Elbia back and was secretly delighted to have it safely fenced off behind the Iron Curtain.

***

West Germany (1949-90) – Germany shorn of Prussia – was, then, no historical fluke, and nor was the supra­national way it acted. This was the real Germany. But the hasty reunification of 1990 (there was no referendum or election on the issue) changed things. Why should the inhabitants of the former GDR, rather than Poles and Czechs, get immediate access to the wealth and benefits of the West? Because they were Germans. With that, the chancellor Helmut Kohl embraced the notion that being German overrode all considerations of social, economic or historical difference. He also subliminally revived the idea, common to the Second Empire and the Third Reich, that East Elbia was special and needed subsidising by the rich west of Germany. The director of the Bundesbank, Germany’s central bank, resigned in 1991 over this abandoning of economic sanity for political nationalism.

Since 1990, the former East Germany has received more than €2trn from the old West Germany, for a fast-ageing, shrinking and disproportionately male population of only 16 million, including Berlin. That’s the equivalent of a Greek bailout every year since 1990, and as a straight gift, not a loan. This represents a huge shift in financial priorities, overshadowing Germany’s annual net EU budget contribution (currently €15.5bn). In 1990, Kohl promised that western German aid would soon turn the new states into “blooming” areas, but they have become, instead, proof that age-old differences resist even the most gigantic subsidies.

Between 30 and 40 per cent of voters in East Elbia have declared over the past two years that at the general election, they intend to support either Alternative für Deutschland (Germany’s Ukip), Die Linke (heirs to the old East German Communist Party) or the all but openly neo-Nazi National Democratic Party (the NPD, currently represented in the Mecklenburg-Vorpommern state parliament). Though theoretical enemies, these three parties are united by cultural affinities: all despise economic liberalism, oppose Nato and the EU and want closer relations with Russia.

East Elbia no longer has the population to swing the entire German electorate of more than 61 million but many liberal western Germans are nervous. They recoil at the sight of anti-asylum-seeker attacks, which are proportionally far more common in East Elbia than in the west, or when they see Merkel heckled by right-wingers. They call East Elbia Dunkeldeutschland (“Dark Germany”) and joke bitterly that if Britain can have a Brexit, why can’t the old East Germans, whom they lump together under the name of Saxons, have a “Säxit”? But it’s no laughing matter. They know there are those only too aware of any anti-western drift in Germany and eager to give succour to it.

Alexander Saldostanov, the rabid leader of Russia’s “Night Wolves” bikers and a public friend of Vladimir Putin, recently told Germany’s bestselling daily, Bild, that he dreams of a grand union between Germany and Russia: “We have so much in common. You simply have to free yourself at last from America, that scourge of humanity. Together, we can, should and must take power.”

There’s no danger of that, but there is a sense in which eastern Europe is, to Germans, no longer “the other”. It’s the place whence natural gas flows from Russia, where labour is cheap but skilled and where the people are keen to work with Germany on setting up new sites of joint national memory. From Kaliningrad to Prague, museums and projects are springing up in which the horrors of the past are neither denied nor used as ammunition in today’s negotiations. In eastern Europe, perhaps because Russia is so close, the Germans are rarely made to feel guilty for their grandfathers’ sins. Meanwhile in the west, from Greece to Britain, people can’t resist mentioning the war whenever the Germans don’t act as desired.

***

Germany’s resources are not infinite. Nor is the patience of the 40 per cent of Germans who “have net worths of essentially zero”, as Die Welt reported last year – largely because German home ownership rates are the lowest in the EU. They are disproportionately concentrated in the old east, the region that never had supranational, western European connections. From them come ever-louder voices saying that Germany’s EU contribution is too high. And with Britain out, the maths will look even worse to such voters. If south-western Germany’s taxes have to keep bailing out the country’s east, while also helping out the old and new EU lands, what is left for, say, the post-industrial Ruhr, which has financial and social problems of its own? There are tough choices ahead, and it’s not hard to imagine a day when Germany decides to aim its subsidies and investments where they seem most welcome. The old idea of Mitteleuropa – a multi-ethnic, German-centred Middle Europe, neither of the West nor of the East – no longer seems so antiquarian. Nothing would gladden Putin’s heart more.

So, yes, Merkel will win the election and will have a chance to revive the EU’s Franco-­German core. Yet the relative strengths of France and Germany are different now. As for their leaders, while Adenauer was a devoted Catholic Rhinelander, Merkel is a Lutheran vicar’s daughter from the east. Bonn was physically close to Paris, Brussels, The Hague, even London; Berlin is closer to Prague and Warsaw.

With Donald Trump’s wavering on Nato and his noisy anti-German protectionism, along with Brexit, the West may no longer seem vital to Germany’s future. During Merkel’s election debate with her main challenger, Martin Schulz, on 3 September, Brexit was not even mentioned. The old EU core will have to work to keep Germany anchored, resisting any new call from the east. Macron and German liberals know that; that’s why there will be no Franco-German split over Brexit just to sell us a few more Audis. The sooner David Davis and Liam Fox realise that the Germans have far bigger issues to deal with, the better.

James Hawes is the author of “The Shortest History of Germany” (Old Street Publishing)

This article first appeared in the 08 February 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Nightmare on Cameron Street