Groundskeepers hoist the flags of the German states, but forget the German flag itself.

My first taste of German pride came when I visited a friend in deep in Baden-Württemberg: his father glowed as he described the perfection of the machine we drove in, a Mercedes Benz (a recent model whose details now escape memory). Every other spirited display I experienced mapped out into a different context: the local beer, the regional architecture, the neighborhood argot. Finally, a real German who felt his Germanness. But I also dismissed it: this man had, at great cost, brought his family from the DDR to the BDR in the late 1970s.

A report by the Identity Foundation of Düsseldorf describes a declining sense of Germanness. Nationality doesn’t fit into the daily self-perception of Germans. Home(town), neighborhood, and family all take precedent. Of the seven personality types they identify, Germanness seems qualified in one way or other: Kulturdeutsche (cultural accomplishments), Heimatdeutsche (product of the territory), Leistungsdeutsche (innovation and industriousness of the nation), Ordnungsdeutsche (orderly society), Isolationsdeutsche(withdrawal from imperialism), Jammerdeutsche (lamenting past crimes), Globaldeutsche (global citizenship). Strong feelings of Germanness tend to be limited to “neutral territory,” notably the arena of technological achievements and ingenuity.

Two elements are, perhaps, more surprising: the federalism and the absence of history in the construction of identity. Home, neighborhood and family–group associations–are elements that are integrated together in the formation of Germanness. The German psyche comes close to reflecting Catholic concepts of federalism (à Schmittmann), in which the individuals maintain numerous memberships (social, political, cultural, religious, etc.), and the collective representation of those memberships leads to the synthesis of the whole. If home is more important that Germany, it is nonetheless a portal for understanding Germany.

The Germans are also a “people with history,” living with a sense of the past that is not whole or continuous. Those memories bear heavy burdens to the legacies of Imperial and Nazi Germany.

Ein Volk ohne Geschichte(n) und sein systematischer Relativismus:
Die deutsche Identität entwickelt sich in einem Vakuum der gefühlten
Geschichtslosigkeit. Die große Vision einer starken Nation ist den Deutschen über die ahrhunderte hinweg immer fremd geblieben. Die Wurzeln der Stammesgesellschaftennd der Kleinstaaterei prägen dagegen maßgeblich das deutsche Selbstverständnis. Die nationalsozialistische Katastrophe dokumentiert in dieser Hinsicht das Scheitern an einer Allmachtsphantasie. Während sich das Deutsche Reich noch mit einem politischen Rahmen für zahlreiche Partikularidentitäten begnügte, versuchte Hitler nicht nur, eine Identifikation mit der Gesamtnation zu erzwingen, sondern auch, deren Geltungsbereich drastisch zu erweitern. Der daraus resultierende GAU bestätigt im Nachhinein viele Deutsche in ihrer Auffassung, dass die Selbstverortung im Kleinen die bessere Wahl ist als die zwanghafte Suche nach einer nationalen Identität.

Where they recognize the past is in the creation of institutions that Germans currently value, such as Bismarck’s creation of the social insurance system.

Historians approach contemporary Germany identity nonetheless in terms of a continuity with the imperial past. Instead, the perception of history is culled together from parts and pieces, producing a usable memory from fragments. What is valuable can be saved despite negative associations. Consciousness becomes a quilt of German qualities rather than something that is shared by all.

I’m sure that similar trends could be found in other countries (at least in the “west”). National memory is normally culled from positive interpretations of the past. The more that “difficult events” come to light, the more that the public must pick and choose what they think is worthwhile from national history. National memory must inevitably become “patchy”. The nature of German history exaggerates the process, condemning large swaths of the past such that what can be rescued is more important than what must excluded.

[Cartoon: groundskeepers place the flags of the German states next to the European flag, but forget to hoist the German flag itself.]

[Crossposted at Cliopatria]