Those crazy Germans

They love ideals more than reality – perhaps because in actual reality you have to come to terms with stubborn facts, while you may easily settle with your ideals in any cloud cuckoo land. They love thinking much more than being considerate towards their neighbors, for thinking knows no boundaries other than those it determines itself. Perhaps that is why the unfortunate clairvoyant Dietrich Schwanitz held a certain rudeness to be a salient German characteristic. They certainly don’t like to make a secret of their thoughts and judgments regardless of whether others want to hear them or not.

In the eyes of their neighbors, they were always a people of extremes,

feared because of their unpredictability. In the first half of the nineteenth century most of them still lived in hamlets. Goethe’s Weimar counted not more than 6200 souls in 1786, of which a whole third belonged to the princely administration, that is to say, that these people lived happily on taxes. At that time German intellectuals were dreamy romantics and genuine idealists who lived in a world of corny miniature states. Their indulgence in the pleasures of inwardness shielded them from the onrushing thrust of modernity that just began to attack them from across the Channel where it manifested itself as that new hype of trade and factories which they hated.

But things completely changed in the second half of the century. All of a sudden, the realists came to power. In no time at all, the bureaucratic calculating spirit of victorious industrialization turned Germans from wildly speculating dreamers into people obsessed with hard facts and statistics. Already towards the end of the century, Germany had developed into an industrial power, even a leading one, as she was rapidly getting ahead of her former master, Great-Britain. Inwardness was no longer fashionable – it had no place in the office or in the factory. Instead, it was outsourced in ivory towers: that is in all those classical concert halls and theaters of classicist style, of which the Germans boast more than any other people – the Germans over sixty, as one should realistically add in view of the present situation.

This rejection of romantic idealism

in favor of a calculating economism, which in the hands of the extreme political left was even further transformed into militant materialism, made of brave subjects of the powers that be (had not the Germans been said to be unfit for revolution?) a nation of nationalists, which soon derived its own importance chiefly from the production of butter and cannons. The enlightened cosmopolitanism of its great poets and philosophers, including Nietzsche (who, however, had to endure falsifications by his own sister and later on by the Nazis) was turned into militant chauvinism. That sinister race of nations, which, as was then universally believed, would allow only the strongest to survive, found in Germany a resounding echo, though it was born in Darwin’s and Spencer’s England.

From cosmopolitanism to nationalism

The extremes not only followed each other in chronological order, sometimes they even confronted each other at the same time. Before the outbreak of the First World War, Germany was home to the largest and most lively peace movement in Europe – headed chiefly by Bertha von Suttner. At the same time, however, a majority of Germans admired their Kaiser and all those ubiquitous militarists with their spiked helmets who saw in war the most important means in order to achieve the hoped for grandeur.

Up to the present day, the extremes and the extremists fight each other in Germany perhaps more doggedly than anywhere else. Whoever takes a look at all those shitstorms fought with mindboggling verbal violence on Internet forums, easily convinces himself that extremism has definitely gained momentum in the new century. A peculiar blindness with regard to the near and immediate combines with a curious craving for the far and the abstract. When I was a student in Hamburg, the food offered at the University Mensa used to be rather bad, but nobody ever protested against it. Instead, large protests were staged against the Vietnam War on the other side of the globe.

How come that for many Germans what is near seems to be void of interest while what is far exercises such an uncanny fascination? Few seem aware that in a healthy society the opposite should be true. Before protesting against evils in the rest of the world, we should try to make the best of our own society, even if the evil only pertains to miserable food served in a University Mensa.

A penchant for self-flagellation

But such observations are likely to fall on deaf ears. Many German intellectuals affirm that it would be pointless anyhow to aim for a role model, since our past history has long since got all of us into a mess. Did not Germany, they say, and the rest of Europe exploit poorer and weaker countries in the worst possible way, and continue to do so even at present? In his various books Jean Ziegler has presented the list of past and present sins committed by Western countries. All this is true but meanwhile such self-incrimination has turned into a new kind of extremism: self denigration – a passion diametrically opposed to that former one when Germans believed that foreign nations could not do better than adopt their own, the German way.

I do not want to dispute that self-incriminations are morally more acceptable than inflating one’s ego. But they do not necessarily testify to a higher degree of realism. The expert of history will inform us that he doesn’t know of any strong states which did not act with equal ruthlessness against weaker ones whenever this could be done without too much risk. A whole continent, Africa used to be very weak in the past. When plantations craved for weak labor, Europe and America did what Rome and Greece had done in the past. They enslaved millions of black people. This remains a blemish in European history, but it certainly does not make saints out of the victims. After all, it were black African rulers who sold their own fellows en masse to Arab and European merchants.

That’s history, of course, but the biggest crime is happening right now: climate change. It is through industrialization that the West has brought this disaster to the world – with all the consequences for much of present-day Africa. Nobody can deny these facts, but self-incrimination would nevertheless be out of the place. How could anybody have anticipated the consequences from a process that promised to make people rich – and actually did so to a large degree. All countries, including Africa, are on the path to industrialization and some of them have, like China, become the worst polluters.

With a wave of the hand, such arguments

are likely to be brushed aside by those who seek a morally higher viewpoint in self-incrimination. Their attitude has definite consequences for practical politics. I know not a few well-meaning idealists around me who have no objections to future mass migration from Africa and Asia, if those millions will be affected by climate change. We will have to open our borders whether we want or not, because borders can not be closed anyway. Doing this, they say, we merely act according to justice. With all climate-damaged people migrating towards Europe – our continent will receive the punishment for its past sins.

Günter Grass spoke of the extinction of Germans

The explosive population increase in many parts of the globe – besides climate change a further cause of migration – coincides with a declining birth rate in Middle Europe. It does not seem plucked out of thin air when we consider ourselves as a threatened species on the red list of ethnic groups. Historians thinking in eons rather than looking at the coming decades will not be frightened by such a perspective. Nor will enlightened intellectuals adopt the chauvinist stance that Germans – or any other people, for that matter! – have produced the perfect type of man worth to be preserved for all eternity. As far as I am concerned, I certainly feel the greatest admiration for some of those German giants in music and literature who embody in their works the epitome of everything worthy of preservation. To the same degree, however, I feel repelled by other compatriots – and this remains just as true when I consider our neighbors beyond the border. Seen in this perspective, it would certainly not be a tragedy for the history of mankind – sub specie aeternitatis, as it were – if completely different people will one day live on our soil – no matter what the color of their skin may be like.

Nevertheless, there are objections to such a position,

which embodies nothing less than a new kind of extremism, even if usually upheld by the morally most sensitive persons. You may admire such a lofty cosmopolitan stance and those who profess it, but it turns out to be rather dangerous on closer inspection. These upright defenders of the people beyond the borders fail to see that they may turn into the enemies of their own people. The overwhelming majority does not accept such an invasion and will certainly never do so. Unwittingly, the moral extremists also make themselves the enemies of the migrants they want to help. After all, one does not need a special prophetic gift in order to foresee how they will be treated by the native majority if they come in ever swelling numbers. They will be treated, first with growing mistrust, then with open hatred.

For all depends on the right measure. Leaving aside the unfortunate thirteen years of dictatorship under the Nazis, Germans were always a people of openness and curiosity with regard to foreign countries and strangers. As long as the flow of immigrants was limited, so that absorption and finally equality with the local population was possible, Germany remained a successful immigration country, as proved by a mere glance at the telephone books of all major German cities. Even the assimilation of the Jews – with notable participation of Jews themselves – succeeded earlier in Germany than in the neighboring countries. Until Hitler’s murderous extermination policy, anti-Semitism was far less pronounced in Germany than in Eastern Europe and Russia, and probably it was by no means more notable than in France.

A successful immigration policy

must be moderate if it aims at being acceptable to the majority. This should be a condition sine qua non unless, of course, you want to dump these people into ghettos and no-go areas instead of transforming them within the shortest possible time into citizens with equal rights and opportunities.

The ethical extremist, who, for the sake of moral purity – which he wrongly identifies with moral superiority – opens his arms wide and would rather like to tear down all boundaries, may do something for the doping of his own soul – it gives such a good feeling to embrace the ideal! – but his disregard for recalcitrant reality comes at a very high price. In Germany, enraged do-gooders made it possible for a camp of neo-chauvinist do-evilers to get constantly stronger.

At its beginning, the AfD was nothing more than an association of professors outraged against the euro – not because they were against Europe, but because the euro was likely to hurt the Union (which, unfortunately, could still turn out to be true if Italy should not be able to pay for its debt once the ECB as ended its zero interest policy). The party would never have become a neo-chauvinist camp without an immigration policy that was no longer supported by a majority of German citizens. Seen in this perspective, much dishonesty is to be found in the indignation with which it is treated. Without the moral extremism of one camp the opposite camp would not have become so powerful.

Certainly, you don’t need strangers in order to be xenophobic

Some of Germany’s new federal states are rife with hatred against strangers al­though hardly any of them can be found in their territory. Some therefore tend to believe that xenophobia is born from some mysterious mental illness without any foundation in real facts. But there are definite reasons for hatred. In the new federal states men no longer find wives because young women run away in order to find jobs and mates in West-Germany. Some eastern backyards are dominated by hopelessness to the point of real misery (I know that’s a relative term). There the losers of capitalism are looking for hate objects in order to find a reason for their misery. If anyone tells them that strangers are to blame for it: Jews, Muslims, Freemasons or capitalists, for instance, they are ready to believe it.

But beware of simplification! It is too easy to only blame the narrow-mindedness of these people when explaining their hatred, prejudice and chauvinism. Part of the responsibilities lies on the shoulders of those who readily offer their help to any people coming from faraway countries, but do not think of relieving misery when it happens in their own country in front of their doors. But that’s exactly what should be done. It is here, in your own country, in your city, your house where all political life begins – this basic truth should always be emphasized. One’s sympathy and help should extend beyond borders only when everything is reasonably cared for at home.

Sometimes I feel overpowered by bouts of pessimism,

because I suspect that there exists a sort of mutual dependency between extremes. People who indulge in uncompromising morals feel really high only if they can fight against those they consider morally contemptible. All happens just as if the opposing camps need each other in order to fix their own identity. Where such extremism leads to should be obvious: it leads to a progressive division and dissolution of society, a progress already pushed very far in the United States. There extremism has become even more rampant than among Germans. Mind you, they are at least as crazy.

Extremist reason – the so-called ‘folie raisonnante’ – is subject to its own particular dialectic. Regularly, it breeds the exact opposite, namely irrational foolishness. „La razon produce mostros“, as Goya said. But moral extremism is prone to exactly the same kind of corruption: it gives birth to the antithesis of immorality. The middle way of measure, in which classical Greece once saw the highest ideal, is always the most difficult to follow, because it means that when dealing with recalcitrant reality you have to make deductions and compromises. Is there any fault in failing to realize the ideal if this means that what is possible can be achieved?