Near my flat in Berlin, six cobblestone-sized plaques glint from the pavement. The first reads: “Here lived Maria Witelson, née Zuckermann. Born 1892. Deported 1942. Murdered in Majdanek.” Each of the others commemorates one of her five teenage children, who also died in that Nazi concentration camp near Lublin in German-occupied Poland.
Along the street are similar plaques recalling the Holz family, deported one by one over a six-week period in 1943. Old Ernst died a week afterwards in Theresienstadt; Herbert and Lieselotte (née Cohn) in Auschwitz on unknown dates; young Willy in January 1945 on the death march to Buchenwald. Such Stolpersteine, or “stumbling stones”, have been sprouting from German streets since 1992.
These monuments to the country’s terrible abnormality – and its admirable determination never to forget it – are not isolated examples. Every synagogue in Germany gets police protection. The mainstream media often boycotts far-right politicians. Every school pupil must visit a concentration camp. The forest of tombstone-like pillars constituting the Holocaust memorial in Berlin takes up an entire block.
This is the context in which Finis Germania (“The End of Germany”) recently appeared. Written by Rolf Peter Sieferle, a Heidelberg-based historian who committed suicide last September, this collection of essays asserts that a guilt-stricken Germany has swallowed the lie of its own abnormality and is determined to dissolve its identity through European federalism and open-border immigration. Most offensively, it compares Germans to the Jews; claiming that the former are now being collectively punished for the Holocaust as the latter were once collectively punished for the Crucifixion.
The book would have made little impact without its inclusion on June’s “non-fiction book of the month”, a list drawn up by a jury of broadcasters and writers. Since then, sales have soared. It is now top of Amazon Germany’s bestseller list. Berlin bookshops are out of copies.
Uproar has ensued. Johannes Saltzwedel, the journalist who proposed its recommendation more as provocation than endorsement, has withdrawn from the “non-fiction book of the month” jury. Finis Germania appears to have been excised from some bestseller lists. Dark rumours swirl that establishment forces have frustrated reprints by its publisher (a fringe outfit based in right-wing Saxony).
The saga tells a bigger story about today’s Germany. The country spent the immediate postwar years concentrating on reconstruction. But then the generation of 1968 radicals (including a then-leftist Sieferle) began to ask their parents about the recent past and upbraid them for smothering it; inspired partly by the 1967 book The Inability to Mourn by Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich. This generation dismantled what the Mitscherlichs called Germany’s “manic defences” against its past. It produced a culture of remembrance and guilt that still dominates the political class.
All of this is as welcome as it is visible on my Berlin street. Yet it also poses an unanswerable question that must nonetheless be answered: is Germany a normal country? That arose most urgently in 1990. The new, reunified Germany would be the largest country in the EU and by far the largest European economy. This begged questions about its military, economic and political role; about whether it should seek to lead or defer to others; about where the limits of its power and responsibilities should lie. Yet Helmut Kohl, the then chancellor, engineered no such debate. The philosopher Jürgen Habermas complained that: “Essential questions of political self-understanding – in particular the question of how we should understand the ‘normality’ of the approaching Berlin Republic – have remained open”.
This all marks German politics today. On Trump and Macron, on the environment and on the euro, the reunified country bequeathed by Kohl to successors such as Angela Merkel is increasingly expected to show leadership. Yet there is no consensus among its elites about what form that leadership should take, if any. Some urge idealism. Some advocate a rigorous focus on national interests. Most are for an ill-defined fudge. Few debate how the various imperatives might be balanced. Germany is as unclear as ever about the scope and limits of its own normalcy.
The election campaign proves as much. Merkel and her social democratic rival, Martin Schulz, are competing to be the best friend to Macron, but offer few details of how they might help him. The Chancellor wants Germany to hit Nato’s 2 per cent of GDP target for defence spending; Schulz is opposed but many of his staffers disagree. The most important levers at Berlin’s disposal – eurozone reform, investment, refugee policies – are little-discussed in a country so awkward about its own power.
One thing unites Sieferle and his critics: all perceive a tension between the abnormal Germany of Stolpersteine and the normal Germany lived out on the streets they bespangle. Yet few pause to question this divide. Might the country’s over-idealistic past not make it more pragmatic? Might its guilt not make it more assertive in defence of its own authenticity? Might its unique historical burden not undergird economic and defence policies combining German self-interest with that of Europe as a whole?
Finis Germania is the work of a bitter, disillusioned 68-er who lost faith in his country. Germany helped to destroy Europe. But today Berlin can contribute to the continent’s re-emergence as a united, confident force by seeking a balance: neither forgetting its past, nor succumbing to it.
Jeremy Cliffe is the Berlin bureau chief of the Economist
This article appears in the 26 Jul 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue