NYT: Germany's Newest Intellectual Anti-Hero

According to Christopher Caldwell in the New York Times, Rolf Peter Sieferle was a highly respected German historian before his death last September. After his death, a collection of his observations on Germany called "Finis Germania" was published and he seems to have become a pariah in intellectual circles. However, his book has become a best-seller in Germany.

Sieferle sounds like an interesting man:

A socialist in his youth like most German intellectuals of the 1968 generation, Mr. Sieferle was drifting out of sync with that tradition by the 1990s. He came increasingly to aim his sarcasm at naïve idealists. At the height of Germany’s refugee crisis two summers ago, he wrote, “A society that can no longer distinguish between itself and the forces that would dissolve it is living morally beyond its means.” The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung described him as “embittered, humorless, ever more isolated.” 
On the other hand, “Finis Germaniae” (“the end of Germany”) is a familiar and resonant phrase. (Why Mr. Sieferle chose to drop the final “e” in his title has been much discussed.) The phrase captures a fear, or paranoia, about national decline that has been widespread in German history — and explains much about that history. Prosperous though Germany is, one can see reasons such fears might be reviving. Germany is senescent, with a median age of about 46. It is helping construct a European Union meant to supplant the German government in many of its traditional competencies. Germans appear to want to disappear. This, in fact, is the thesis that drives Mr. Sieferle’s passionate book on migration. 
After World War II, the Allied occupiers, as Mr. Sieferle sees it, saddled Germans with a false idea of their own history — the idea that there was something premodern about Germany, a fundamental difference between it and the West. That may describe Russia, but not Germany, and Germany’s modernity is painful for Westerners to face. “If Germany belonged to the most progressive, civilized, cultivated countries,” he writes, “then ‘Auschwitz’ means that, at any moment, the human ‘progress’ of modernity can go into reverse.” 
Mr. Sieferle neither denies nor minimizes the Holocaust. ... But Mr. Sieferle is critical of Germany’s postwar culture of Holocaust memory, which he argues has taken on the traits of a religion. The country’s sins are held to be unique and absolute, beyond either redemption or comparison. “The First Commandment,” he writes, “is ‘Thou shalt have no Holocausts before me.’ ” Hitler, in retrospect, turns out to have done a paradoxical thing: He bound Germans and Jews together in a narrative for all time. In an otherwise relativistic and disenchanted world, Mr. Sieferle writes, Germans appear in this narrative as the absolute enemies of our common humanity, as a scapegoat people. The role is hereditary. There are Germans whose grandparents were not born when the war ended, yet they, too, must take on the role. 
Mr. Sieferle’s is a complex argument. It is linked to his concern, in “Das Migrationsproblem,” with the challenges of mass migration. He believed that Germany’s self-demonization had left it unable to say anything but yes to a million or so migrants seeking entry to Europe in 2015 and that such a welcome was unsustainable. Whether he was right or wrong, this was a concern shared by many Germans, and not necessarily an idle expression of animus.

I am always wary of commenting on intellectual works from other cultures published in languages I can't read, so please take my comments as tentative.

First, I had not heard the idea that there was something premodern about Germany, but it would make sense that Progressives would claim that. But Germany was instrumental in shaping modernity; if anything, it has been one of the most modern of nations.

I think Japan, too, suffers from the way it handles the memory and history of WWII, and they, too, seem to have a desire to disappear. Japan and Germany both seem to have developed a sense that their nations have done uniquely evil things. However, that seems to be SOP for Progressives: I feel they want us to believe that about the US as well. I think it's part of destroying the soul of the nation so they can take over the body.

I think it would be healthy for both Germany and Japan to develop a new sense of patriotism. I can't say nationalism, because for both nationalism is tied to a "blood and soil" idea of the nation that I believe leads to racism. But a love and appreciation for all of the good things their nation has done would be a good thing, I think, along with a desire to see their nations continue. That's healthy, whereas ongoing, generations-long self-flagellation is not.


Anonymous said...

Sounds like an interesting argument. I have some research books in the queue first, but I may see if I can order the book. If I do, I'll let you know in more detail what his arguments and evidence are.


Grim said...

Germany was among the most modern of nations at the start of WWI. It may however be too strong to say that Auschwitz can happen at a moment's notice to any modern nation. The history between the start of WWI and the rise of Nazism could be important -- certainly Eric Blair reminds me regularly of the powerful effects to be expected from that trauma.

Tom said...

Well, I don't think the argument is that Auschwitz can happen at any moment, but rather that Progress can reverse at any moment. I think it goes back to the original Hegelian / Marxist idea that progress is inevitable, even if messy and bloody.

Grim said...

Well, there's an even bigger question of just what constitutes progress. Technical progress is easy to mark; moral progress is often just 'we now act more like ourselves than our ancestors did, thus meaning we've progressed.' I'm not convinced that it's a sensible thing to discuss outside of a metaphysical understanding of morality. If you don't have a standard independent of human desire, that kind of progress is just people liking people like themselves more than they like different kinds of people.

Tom said...

Sure. That's why I'm not a Progressive.

But I think true Progressives are terrified that progress might not be inevitable, which is one reason I think President Trump frightens them so much. Trump's on the "wrong side of history," so he cannot happen, but he did. That's one big loud-mouthed anomaly in their paradigm.

LittleRed1, that would be cool. I would be very interested in that.

Anonymous said...

I can order it, it will just take a while to get here. Once it odes, I'll bump it to the top of the pile.


Anonymous said...

I'm glad this subject is being broached.

My thoughts on the German people are they have been traumatized twice/thrice. A never ending litany of world guilt tripping that they must suffer endlessly in silence. There modern laws are framed such that state security forces can't interact with local (as I understand it) and I am by no means an authority on Germany. Just my perception.

At some point one would think penance had been paid to the world and the German people allowed to rise and defend their nation and culture again. Russia, Italy, Japan and China have.

Just my two cents.

Eric Blair said...

The Germans are still trying to figure out what happened--And unfortunately, they aren't likely to come out of their funk anytime soon--although it remains to be seen how all this actually plays out. Writers like Spengler and Steyn seem to think that demographics rule all, but that is just sloppy history, IMHO.

I note that the Japanese more than the Germans have retained a pretty strong sense of national identity--which is still promoted by the government (just watch the English language NHK broadcasts if your local cable company has it). This may be because the Japanese didn't commit the wholesale atrocities that the Germans did, although they were plenty bloodthirsty, and that combined with the nuclear bombing, which gets played up at every opportunity--may have put the Japanese in the mindset of "well, ok, we started it, but we got thoroughly beat, so there. We're good global citizens now."

I'll note that in the case of Germany, anti-semitism was a thing in pre-WW1 Germany (and Europe, for that matter), so the frankly weird turn into Nazi racial madness isn't perhaps so weird.

Grim said...

To Nmewn's point, I've long argued that patriotism is necessary to health in the same way that it is unhealthy not to love your mother or father. There may be good and valid reasons not to love your mother or father, but it hurts you all the same.

I wonder if the demographics aren't being driven by the history, rather than the other way around. Japan has its sense of national identity, but also a sense of national shame at having been defeated by Americans and still not having recovered their independence. To what degree does that influence Japan's culture such that reproducing doesn't seem like a good choice or a desirable option?

There are other pressures too -- demographic increases are down among the victors of WWII and the Cold War, too -- but I sometimes wonder if there isn't a connection. If their cultures are to survive, maybe they need to forgive their mother'land' (or 'fatherland,' in Germany's case) so that it once again feels good to contribute to Japan or Germany by providing children and teaching them to be proud of their heritage and culture.

Gringo said...

Eric Blair
This may be because the Japanese didn't commit the wholesale atrocities that the Germans did, although they were plenty bloodthirsty, and that combined with the nuclear bombing, which gets played up at every opportunity--may have put the Japanese in the mindset of "well, ok, we started it, but we got thoroughly beat, so there. We're good global citizens now."

The Japanese were not as systematic as the Germans, but were bad enough. World War II casualties: 15-20 million Chinese, 3-4 million in Dutch East Indies (Indonesia).Not to mention germ warfare research and application.

The Japanese have issued apologies for their WW2 conduct. The bomb gets played up in Japan- we're victims, too.

I wonder if Japan's demographic collapse is at least in part a loss of cultural confidence resulting from World War II.

Gringo said...

Well, there's an even bigger question of just what constitutes progress.

One of my high school classmates had parents who had fled Austria after Hitler took over the country. Her father was, surprisingly to me, both Jewish and conservative. I finally figured it out. Austria and Germany before 1933 may not have been perfect for Jewish people, but for the most part they could lead satisfying lives. The Nazis took power, shouting from the rooftops that they were going to CHANGE things. Which they did.

Which helps explain why a Jewish person turned conservative. He saw from first hand experience that not all change is good.

Eric Blair said...

Aaaaaand I'm still not buying the "dempgraphic collapse'. Maybe, Maybe there are not enough solvent people to be taxed for the insolvent people, but that's easily solved by not doing that. And we will see that, eventually.

But there are 310 million+ people right now in the USA. In 1940, it was 132 million. Right now in Japan there are 126 million+ people. In 1940 it was 71 million.

Doesn't look like a collapse to me.