This piece on German conceptions of identity rather struck me:
"Speakers at awards ceremonies and festivals often remind their listeners of the role of literature in the creation of the German nation… But most speakers overlook the fact that by the time Germany finally emerged as an intellectual and later political structure, Germany’s writers had long since begun to think beyond Germany. The great German philosophers and poets of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – be it Goethe or Kant – had their sights not on German but on European unification. In Germany, the Enlightenment was from the very start not a national but a European programme. In literature too, the preferred models were not German, drawing instead on non-German literature from Homer to Shakespeare and Byron. German was something German literature did not want to be – and which is was nonetheless precisely in its appropriation of non-German motifs and structures. “Overview of the European Conditions of German Literature” is the title given by August Wilhelm Schlegel to his 1825 essay on the peculiarities of German intellectual life: “We are, I may confidently claim, the cosmopolitans of European culture”…
This vision put its proponents at odds with the nationalist zeitgeist in Germany, although in retrospect they are often claimed by it. Anti-nationalist opposition intensified in the twentieth century, especially after the experiences of World War II: the dream of a democratic union of European states was what the Mann brothers, Hesse, Hoffmansthal, Tucholsky, Zweig, Roth and Döblin upheld in the face of German nationalism… Germany’s writers have always been characterized among other things by their fraught relationship with Germany. They are Great Germans, despite or precisely in the way they quarrelled with Germany. In other words: Germany can be proud of those who were not proud of Germany… At the end of his lecture on “Germany and the Germans” in May 1945 at the Library of Congress, the same Thomas Mann reminded his listeners that none other than Goethe “went so far as to yearn for a German Diaspora.” The comment by Goethe quoted by Mann here comes from a conversation with Chancellor Müller from 14 December 1808: “Like the Jews, the Germans must be transplanted and scattered over the world […] in order to develop the good that lies in them, fully, and to the good of all nations.”"
This rather reminded me of one of the more striking examples of Germany’s national guilt, WG Sebald:
"After moving to England as a student and deciding to live there permanently, Sebald began to see a connection between his own emigration and the Egelhofer family history of emigration to the United States. Attached through his father’s military career to the legacy of German aggression on the one hand, Sebald imaginatively connected himself through his maternal line to the displaced wanderers and “victims” of history on the other; for instance, his (fictional) great-uncle in the story “Ambros Adelwarth” in The Emigrants (loosely based on his aunt Fanny’s brother-in-law) is the lifelong companion of a wealthy American Jew who dies insane, tormented by visions of the horrific carnage in World War I that also call to mind the later Nazi atrocities.
Readers have sometimes expressed discomfort with this connection, accusing Sebald of inappropriately identifying with the Jewish victims of National Socialism, as if he, too, were an “exile” of history. The objection is misguided, however, for Sebald never forgot the distinction between the forced exile of the Nazi period and his own voluntary postwar emigration; his entire work offers an eloquent tribute to the memory and memorialization of that historical difference. However, his literary imagination naturally sought out points of contact and continuity. For his book about four aging “emigrants,” he deliberately avoided the term exilierte, preferring instead the capacious and somewhat antiquated term ausgewanderte (literally, those who have “wandered” or “gone out”) in order to include his own family history of emigration. The Jewish exiles of National Socialism are but one, admittedly central part of a much broader pattern of modern displacement reaching back to the French Revolution (with an implicit titular reference to Goethe’s Unterhaltungen deutscher Ausgewanderten) and the economic emigrations of both Jews and Germans from Central Europe during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Sebald’s semiautobiographical literary work is thus premised on a dual identity: as the son of a Wehrmacht officer who bears witness to the victims of German violence, but also as a member of his grandfather’s nonmilitary, emigrant family who identifies with these victims existentially."
My interest in this stems from my own ancestry, which although predominantly English, also stems from Saxony in what was once known as East Germany. To be specific, it stems from migration from Germany at the time of the Franco-Prussian war. Equally, the theme of exile is something I feel keenly in that while I now live in the south of England, I grew up in the Midlands, a place of markedly contrasting character and economic fortunes. My relationship with my country of birth is accordingly every bit as difficult as that described above for Germany (particularly since I find easier in a lot of respects to relate to my home region of the Midlands than to a construct called ‘England’). The British do (at least in their better part*) tend to deprecate ideas of national pride, instead emphasising a vision of England of motorways, national decline and high rises. The nation that, to paraphrase Morrissey, they forgot to shut down. In theory, Britain and Germany should have a great deal in common. Both are not so much states as convenient constructs formed to unify a disparate collection of ethnic nations. Since both nations had been constructed rather than having evolved, both tended to exist as essentially an idea. Where Germany has been defined through its diaspora of writers like Sebald and Kafka (as well as the wartime diaspora of figures like Mann, Schoenberg and Lang), Britain has been defined through a cosmpolitan assimilation of foreign artistic techniques and artists, like Joyce, Swift, Marx, Handel, Pevsner and Conrad. Both nations tended to look towards France for their model of civilisation, with Frederick the Great refusing to write or speak German and inviting Voltaire to his estate.
Of course, in practice, I suspect a lot of the above essay reflects a romanticised view of Germany and Britain alike. Both nations invented traditions, based to a large extent on those of Prussia and England and indeed of each other (as with Britain importing the idea of the Christmas tree from Germany along with its royal family), stressing national identity with all the neurosis of countries lacking one in the first place. The preoccupation of both nations with their medieval pasts, from Castell Koch to the Wartburg and from Wagner’s nationalist medievalism, Grimm’s Fairy Tales through to the Pre-Raphaelites is perhaps attributable to this. But, if nothing else, it does provide contrarianism with a pedigree and a heritage.
* I say in their better part as I increasingly feel that this sense of deprectation is being diminished. During the course of our recent military escapades, it has become more common to recast the empire as a mantle we are obliged to take up once more (if only as a means of national pride by association with the United States) rather than as a source of shame and to boastingly compare our economic fortunes with those of European states like Germany on what are typically the flimsiest of grounds. I was rather reminded of that in this piece by imomus, himself a good example of an artist turning his back on his home country in favour of adopted homelands in Germany and Japan:
"British TV seems to be obsessed with the ideology of Social Darwinism. Shows like Big Brother and The Weakest Link are all about the elimination of losers, and involve their audiences in the choice of those losers. It’s all very tally ho, a fox hunt. They’re the result of the transformation of Britain from a society that was at least heading towards horizontality (in other words, low-Gini equality) in the 60s and 70s to one that’s wedded at every level to inequality, unfairness, high-Gini — a “winner takes it all” society where income inequality is seen as something natural and even desireable.
Here in Germany you could never have shows as Social Darwinist as that, I ventured, because there really was the elimination of “the weakest link” here, within living memory, in the form of the extermination of gays, gypsies and Jews. In the same way, the surveillance excesses of the East German secret police have made it much harder to survey Germans. Britain’s ubiquitous citizen surveillance would be unacceptable here.
And this, for me, is why guilt is good. It’s guilt over things like surveillance and eliminating “the weakest link” which keeps the German state more liberal and benign than the UK state. It’s lack of guilt that’s the biggest current political problem in Israel, the UK and the US, and evidence of the return of guilt the most hopeful thing happening right now. "