Sometimes looking back into the past can seem like looking into a mirror. Or like a distorting mirror at a carnival that makes today’s problems seem greater than they are. A line from a 1932 Kurt Tucholsky poem sums up this idea in a roundabout way: "Germans, buy German lemons!" The absurd line gives us a glimpse into the times in which bigoted nationalism was also the latest trend. With this revealing quote, Rainer Pörtner - head of the political section of the Stuttgarter Zeitung - opened a debate on Sunday morning at the sold-out theater in Stuttgart that the two main characters would never have thought they would have to have again. "How German are the Germans?" was the main question of the matinee, which was held jointly by the Robert Bosch Stiftung and the theater company in the Theater X Wirklichkeit series. Cultural identity was also a necessary part of the debate, but it only played a supporting role in the answers to that main question.
For Herfried Münkler, political scientist from Berlin, this question is rooted in a "need for provinciality" that is evidence of a tragedy: the waning willingness to invest in greater ideas such as mutual values and legal concepts, which form the foundation of the European Union. For too long now, Europe has been misinterpreted as a project for the elite. The hate felt for the elite and the fear of the collateral damage stemming from an economy that does not center on national borders are currently gaining steam - all while being due to "the greatest possible stupidity," as described by Martin Roth, Münkler’s counterpart in the discussion. He has seen the results of this stupidity up close and personally; since 2011, Roth has been the head of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. In 2017, he will assume the office of president of the Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen (ifa) in Stuttgart.
"Fears Have Probably Been Ignored for Far Too Long"
The "need for provinciality" has grown to unimaginable proportions in light of the refugee crisis. However, Roth sees any fears associated with this as a bugaboo and the policies that play on these fears as pure propaganda. What he thinks we really need to show is mercy, an old-fashioned word. "We need plenty of old-fashioned characteristics to deal with it," adds the Stuttgart-born cosmopolite. On the other hand, Münkler muses, "You cannot alleviate people’s fears by telling them to be quiet about them." At the end of the nearly two-hour debate, and following objections from the audience, Roth also has to concede: "Fears have probably been ignored for far too long."
Neither of the gentlemen was willing to summarize what makes the Germans German under the title of cultural identity. For Roth, the quest for this cultural identity is absurd - just like the command to follow its principles. Münkler, on the other hand, rejects this pattern of expression because it is exclusive - in the preclusive sense - all while advocating for an inclusive identity, a sort of list of minimum requirements regarding commonalities. In his book on "the new Germany," he defines what he includes in this list in the form of five characteristics, none of which has anything to do with nationality. Münkler’s German identity has no heritage, cultural canon, or genealogy. For him, the willingness to provide for oneself, a willingness to contribute, patriotism for the constitution, and the conviction that religion and lifestyle are private matters are sufficient. "The specifically German attribute," he says, with a mixture of sympathy and vagueness, "is the determination to maintain an open society." He states that many Germans have based their identity on wheat beer, sauerkraut, and ribs. "I cannot simply tell them to go home and read Faust," Münkler says.
Not Resigning to the Problems of the World
The two advocates for tolerance and liberty on stage face matter-of-fact accusations from the audience of seeing the societal situation through rose-colored glasses. Some people see refugees as competition for jobs and affordable living space. Münkler responds: "There is a dangerous tendency to oversubscribe so severely to the problems of the world that all we can do is resign ourselves to them."
A young Syrian from the audience fits Münkler’s description of a postnational, nonracial German identity. He came to Germany in 2015 as a refugee and speaks German better than most people could learn to speak Arabic in the same amount of time. His plea: Germany should "offer more help so that we can integrate better."
(December 2016, Armin Käfer, Stuttgarter Zeitung)