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6 December 2023

What it means to be German

Frank Trentmann’s history reveals how modern Germany found a new moral purpose after the horrors of Nazism.

By Brendan Simms

The Germans are never (quite) as bad or as good as they seem. In the 1930s and 1940s, during the Third Reich, the Germans were, of course, very bad. More recently, especially between 2015 and 2020, they seemed rather good. The Germans, John Kampfner’s recent book told us, “did it better”. They made stuff that people actually wanted to buy, were mastering the “energy transition”, did a good job during Covid, and, having admitted a million Middle Eastern refugees, were celebrated as a “moral superpower”.

In fact, as Frank Trentmann shows in his absorbing new book, Out of the Darkness: The Germans 1942-2022, the story was (and is) more complicated. There are, of course, many histories of modern Germany, but the author’s approach is novel. His starting point is “the German habit of turning all social, economic and political problems into moral ones”. He draws on hitherto little-used sources such as diaries, letters and petitions, and his Germans leap vividly off the page, both as archetypes and as complex, multilayered individuals.

Trentmann begins his story in 1942, right in the middle of the nightmare of war and genocide. The extent of the unprecedented German crimes during this period have been extensively documented, of course, but the author reminds us that the Nazis believed they were following their own morality. In his infamous speech to a secret meeting of SS leaders in 1943, Heinrich Himmler spoke of the way in which his men had carried out their brutal tasks and yet remained “decent”. Wanton sadism was not encouraged. Indeed, that same year an SS man was sentenced to ten years in prison for murdering Jews on his own initiative, allowing his unit to indulge in “vile brutalisation” and taking “shameless and disgusting” photographs of his murders. This was a form of morality, just not as we know it.

Out of the Darkness introduces moral light and shade without in any way playing down the enormity of Nazi crimes or the extent of German society’s complicity in them. Trentmann cites the case of the German-Jewish woman Susanne Vogel, whose father took his own life rather than allow the Nazis to take it, yet who refused to later renounce her two Nazi housemates – one of whom was also a devout Christian who sheltered Jews, and both of whom had kept her background a secret.

The reckoning with the Third Reich began well before the end of the war and, as Trentmann writes, was widely discussed. Many Germans saw the Allied bombing raids and the violence meted out against them at the end of the war as punishment, whether deserved or not, for their earlier actions. The author shows how “private guilt” gave way to “public liability” – for example, through compensation payments to Jews and other victims (though not all of them) – and then to “collective shame”. Konrad Adenauer, the first chancellor of the postwar German Federal Republic, knew that this process, agonisingly slow and incomplete though it seems to us, was essential to the moral rebranding of Germany after the Nazi years.

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Another important step in the return of (West) Germany to the club of civilised nations was the embrace of “Europe”. It was no accident that the first president of the German section of the Union of European Federalists was a camp survivor, Eugen Kogon. The cause of European political integration gave Germans a path back to participation and respectability, and genuinely seemed to many the only way of avoiding a repeat of the mid-century traumas.

This was, as Trentmann stresses, an elite project, but it proved an extraordinarily enduring one. From the 1950s to the 1990s, German leaders ritually invoked the idea of European unity. Over the past two decades the specific goal has been less emphasised, but Angela Merkel’s role in shoring up the euro and the EU more generally has been central to Germany’s understanding of itself (and to others’ understanding of Germany, in both the positive and negative sense). If Germany had a purpose after the catastrophic hubris of the Nazi period it was to complete the European project.

[See also: Christmas in Hamburg]

The central arena of moral activity in Germany, though, was and is the economy. Its stupendous performance in the postwar Wirtschaftswunder (economic miracle) was seen as vindication of the moral principles underlying the “ordoliberal” social market economy. More recently, Germany recommended these principles to struggling economies in the eurozone periphery, especially Greece. As chancellor, Merkel told them they should stay within their means and save like the traditional “Swabian hausfrau”. These virtues of thrift and saving, as Trentmann shows, needed to be taught to Germans after 1945: many had completely lost trust in the banks and the system, and lived only for the moment.

Germans saw themselves not only as economic champions but also increasingly as a moral vanguard. It was only seven years after the war that the prominent Social Democrat Carlo Schmid suggested, during a discussion about whether rearmament was necessary to deter the Soviet Union, that without weapons Germany might “exercise a moral pull on the rest of the world”.

From the 1960s onwards, German moral discourses took a new turn. The country was shaken by a student revolt against universities and what they saw as a conformist society and a repressive “system” more generally, the left-wing terrorism of the Baader-Meinhof Group, and the decline of traditional morality in the shape of widespread use of birth control and the erosion of traditional family values. Trentmann shows this to have been less of a generational clash than often assumed because many older Germans welcomed, for example, their children’s refusal to serve in the new German army, the Bundeswehr. There were also many who demanded that Germany do more for the developing world and challenge the Western military-industrial complex. This sentiment, which was greatly energised by anger at American policies during the Vietnam War, took off in the 1980s during the debates over the deployment of nuclear weapons in Germany. Huge protests mobilised wide sections of civil society, from students and the churches to politicians and activists.

Over the past 40 years, the environment and energy have emerged as key battlefields in the moral discourse. West Germans felt their natural world was being sacrificed for material gain, though, as Trentmann reminds us, things were much worse in the East German Democratic Republic. For a time, it was possible to imagine a new form of German leadership based on its position leading the Energiewende, or energy transition, one of the few recent German phrases to make it into the global vocabulary.

The decision by Merkel’s government in 2015-16 to admit about a million refugees from the war-torn Middle East marked the apotheosis of Germany’s moral transformation. After a prolonged period of dealing with “difference” – beginning with the arrival of Italian, Yugoslav and Turkish guest workers in the 1960s, and continuing through the increase in asylum seekers from the 1980s – Germany claimed the title of Willkommensgesellschaft, a “welcome society”. The speed with which the German authorities and civil society received, housed and began to integrate these immigrants was indeed impressive.

Trentmann is sympathetic to the demands for a more environmentally conscious society, but he gently skewers some of the myths underpinning them. The author tells us that the German forest did not “die”, as many warned in the 1980s, that Germans spend very little on “fair trade” goods, and that despite all the rhetoric they are, thanks to their industrial base and addiction to air travel and the automobile, among Europe’s worst offenders in terms of emissions – even though they have “outsourced” much of their production to other countries. Moreover, recent events in Ukraine have completely discredited an energy policy based largely on the steady supply of Russian gas. Despite Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s famous Zeitenwende (“turning point”)speech shortly after Vladimir Putin launched his attack on Ukraine, in which he promised a more politically and militarily engaged Germany, not enough has been done. Neither under Merkel nor her successor has the Federal Republic taken on the European leadership role that many on the continent, not least the former Polish foreign minister Radek Sikorski, implored them to adopt. In this sense, Germany is a country whose time came but went again.

One criticism of Trentmann’s excellent book is that its structure is heavily front-loaded, thinner in the middle and thick again towards the end. Important phenomena such as the complicated reaction to the Polish Solidarity movement, domestic terrorism and the first Gulf War are dealt with too quickly or not at all.

In the end, a note of exasperation creeps in to Trentmann’s account, as well it might. The subtitle to his epilogue asks: “What is Germany for?” He notes that despite benefiting so much from the global order, Germany has contributed little militarily to its upkeep. What is the point, one might also ask, of producing such good tanks if one does not send them – or only sends them late and very grudgingly – to where they are most needed, as happened with Ukraine? What is the point of a Germany that is no longer leading Europe towards political unity? These are the questions that will shape Germany for the next 80 years.

Out of the Darkness: The Germans 1942-2022
Frank Trentmann
Allen Lane, 880pp, £40

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[See also: All roads lead to Thaxted]

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This article appears in the 07 Dec 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special