Posted by Torben
In better times, I made it a habit on my frequent trips to Munich to visit one of the many beautiful small towns in the surrounding Bavarian countryside. One such side trip took me to Burghausen, a town nestled, like Salzburg, in the valley of the Salzach river, with a commanding castle straddling the ridge above. If you visit, maybe during the notable Jazz festival in March, be sure to cross the river (into Austria; the river marks the border) and climb up the hill opposite the town. You will be able to take in the whole of Burghausen and the full expanse of its castle. This takes some doing: the castle is 3,448 feet long and is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the longest in the world. However, if you go onto the castle's website, you won't see a banner headline touting the world record. Instead, tucked within a lengthy historical description, it is demurely mentioned that “Burghausen Castle, which has a length of over 1,000 metres, is one of the longest castle complexes in the world.”
As a German citizen who grew up in the United States but who has lived in Europe for twenty years, I have reconciled myself (sometimes I think: resigned myself) to being fully assimilated into German society. But every now and again I feel a twitch of my American upbringing; some negligible occurrence will strike a dissonant note that reminds me that I can't fully shed my cultural apartness. And that was the feeling I had after walking a full two-thirds of a mile from one end of the damn castle to the other only to be told in the museum shop brochure that the castle is indeed quite long and that the “Guinness Book of World Records even claims it is the longest castle anywhere.”
You've got the longest castle in the world – the Guinness Book of World Records says so – and you want to quibble?
This was wrong. This was offensive. This was downright un-American.
I though of this recently after watching German chancellor Angela Merkel deliver an unprecedented televised address about the Corona crisis. Apart from the traditional – and traditionally anodyne – televised new year's speeches our chancellors are expected to give, this was the first time Merkel had chosen this mode of communication in all her nearly fifteen years in office. Here's the part of the address that was most frequently quoted in German media:
I turn to you today in this unusual way because I want to tell you what guides me as chancellor and all my colleagues in the federal government in this situation. This is part and parcel of an open democracy: that we also make political decisions transparent and explain them; that we justify and communicate our actions as well as possible so that they are comprehensible. I firmly believe that we will succeed in this task if all citizens see it as their task. So let me say that this is serious. Take it seriously too. Since German reunification, no, since the Second World War, there has not been a challenge to our country that depends so much on our joint solidarity.
Not exactly soaring rhetoric. Merkel's tone, even while she resorts to a, for her, highly unusual historical analogy to emphasize the severity of the crisis, remains largely sober, matter-of-fact. For a Merkel speech, however, this was a barn-burner: “We have rarely seen the chancellor speak with as much pathos as she did in her televised address,” read a column in one of the country's leading newspapers, the Süddeutsche Zeitung.
In part, this has to do with Merkel specifically. She is not a gifted public speaker and has tried to turn that weakness into a strength, cultivating the image of a pragmatic doer who doesn't waste her time on empty talk. But it's not just her. Before Gustav Heinemann was elected West Germany's president in 1969, he was asked if he loved the Federal Republic whose head of state he was soon to become. He answered, “Oh please, I don't love states, I love my wife; that's it.” We are not used to our politicians stirring the heart-strings or appealing to our patriotism. We tend to be supremely skeptical of superlatives. And we certainly do not couch our response to political challenges in the language of war.
Donald Trump has called himself a “wartime president” in the face of the Corona crisis; the British “war cabinet” meets daily to discuss its response to the pandemic; French president Emmanuel Macron has declared that “we're at war” against the virus. Merkel, though she tells us we haven't faced a challenge of this magnitude since 1945, does not suggest the current challenge is like a war. Of course, there are good reasons why she wouldn't do that. The United States, the UK, and France are rightly proud of their role in what Studs Terkel called “the good war” against an evil, genocidal enemy. It is the hard-won awareness that we were indeed that evil, genocidal enemy that goes some way in explaining the reluctance of German politicians to use martial rhetoric.
And more than that: for good reasons we do not have the avenues open to other countries to commemorate the war and the war dead. To be sure, we have a national memorial for the murdered Jews of Europe and many more memorials across the country reminding us of the horrors of the Holocaust. We also have a memorial commemorating “all victims of war and tyranny.” But we don't have a Veterans' Day, we don't have a Memorial Day, we don't have an Imperial War Museum or memorials to the German soldiers who died in World War II. Those soldiers are certainly remembered – within the family and the community from which they hailed. Local World War I memorials will often have the dates “1939-1945” added to them to allow for such remembrance, obviating the need for separate (and inevitably problematic) World War II equivalents.
We can't describe ourselves as the biggest or the best. We tried that and the results were disastrous. Germany's is a political culture trying to escape its exceptionalism, because that exceptionalism (let's leave a more nuanced historical discussion aside for a moment) led to Auschwitz. Germany is a country that doesn't want to be special; it's a country that, sometimes desperately, wants to be like everybody else.
But as Heinemann's “I love my wife” answer suggests, the sobriety of our public and political discourse goes beyond an effort to eschew the language of war. Overt displays of patriotism are generally frowned upon, as are sentimentality and pathos and exaggeration. This is true for political speeches, it's true for newspapers and the TV news, and it's true for weather reports. In Germany, we have snowstorms, not snowmageddons, snowpocalypses, snowzillas, or any of the other delightful meteorological portmanteaus a cursory Google search turns up. When a plane crashes or people are displaced from their homes by river floods, evening news programs will focus on the facts and figures, not on the emotional impact of the tragedy, not on the loss.
Perhaps this too has to do with the experience of the Nazi period and the Second World War. In 1967, the psychoanalysts Margarete and Alexander Mitscherlich published a famous study called The Inability to Mourn. In it, the authors suggest that postwar West German society was deeply informed by the loss many Germans felt at the defeat of the Third Reich. This was a regime that people had been emotionally invested in. As perverse as it seems, its collapse was experienced by many as a betrayal of a promise. And this loss, this betrayal, could not be mourned after the war in the face of a burgeoning acceptance (or at least the expectation of acceptance) that this regime was deeply evil. In short, the Mitscherlichs argued that Germans felt the need to mourn Hitler but couldn't. And how did they cope with this inability to mourn? They focused on rebuilding the country, on economic recovery. They gave precedence to the material over the spiritual.
Most contemporary scholars do not give much credence to the Mitscherlichs' analysis. But when their book was published, it clearly touched a nerve. There is a price we pay for banishing pathos and emotion from the public square, for our lack of a civil religion. A news report that doesn't address the horror of a plane crash or a flood or a pandemic just isn't commensurate with what we're feeling in a moment of uncertainty or loss. We may long at those times for our political leaders to signal to us – not just on an intellectual, but on an emotional level – that we're all in this together.
But then, it seems, we don't always know how. When pathos does venture into the public realm in Germany, the result is often awkward or it devolves into kitsch – at least from the perspective of non-Germans. If you ever watch the movie The Miracle of Bern about Germany's first soccer World Cup championship in 1954, you'll be forgiven for thinking that even the Hallmark Channel would have given it a pass. But the former chancellor Gerhard Schröder admits to having wept as he watched the dramatic depiction of underdog West Germany defeating mighty Hungary in the final.
That a 21st century movie celebrating a German triumph would look to a soccer tournament is no accident. Soccer is one area where over-the-top emotion, irrational exuberance, and patriotism can all come together. It has become a tradition to fly the German flag from cars and balconies when a major tournament involving the national team is going on. The chants at games are often wannabe poetic: “We'll go anywhere – just not home” or “We haven't seen anything as beautiful in a long, long time.” (Remarkably, they're pithier in German.) And when it comes to chants supporting your local club, exceptionalism, not to mention chauvinistic bravado, is encouraged: “Everyone but Frankfurt is shit.” (This, by the way, happens to be true.)
Soccer is the exception – albeit perhaps not entirely. Germans are, of course, attuned to American politics and American pop culture. And it rubs off. We now have presidential style debates between our candidates for chancellor, although the less-than-stellar production values and weedsy policy questions don't exactly make for riveting television. Germany produces a seemingly never-ending stream of overwrought made-for-TV romances and tear-jerkers, although often they are set in places outside of Germany that are considered more romantic, like Italy or Ireland. We also have a tabloid newspaper culture that isn't known for its reserve. After Joseph Ratzinger was elected Pope Benedict XVI, the headline in the Bild-Zeitung famously read, “We're the Pope!” And while the foundation that is responsible for the castle in Burghausen is reluctant to lay claim to its world record status, the town of Burghausen plasters “world's longest castle” on anything it can.
In short, we should be very reluctant to present cultural or political norms as immutable – or the product of something as dubious as a “national character.” Instead, they are – in Germany as anywhere – complicated, ever-changing, and ambivalent. But whatever the reasons for the sobriety of our public discourse, in times of Corona, it can be comforting to have political leaders present relevant facts in a straightforward way. And to know that, in order to communicate the gravity of the current situation, they need not resort to superlatives, war metaphors, or pomp and circumstance. They can just tell us.