Riccardo Bavaj, Martina Steber. Germany and ’The West’: The History of a Modern Concept. Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2015. IX, 317 S. ISBN 978-1-78238-598-1.
Reviewed by Gregor Thum
Published on H-Soz-u-Kult (April, 2017)
R. Bavaj u.a. (Hrsg.): Germany and ’The West’
In November 2016, the New York Times declared Angela Merkel “the Liberal West’s Last Defender.” It is an irony of history that it was Germany’s fight against the West and its liberal democracy that can be credited more than any other factor with creating ‘the West’ as we know it today. The authors of this excellent volume explore in 17 chapters how the German discourse about the West evolved from the era of the Enlightenment to the end of the GDR, guided by the question of how politicians, scholars, and intellectuals – depending on their own time and political orientation – understood the nature of “the West” and Germany’s relationship to it. Their focus is “the very process of Western identity-shaping” (S. 4), which they describe with an eye for the complexities, contradictions, and contingencies of this process.
The belief that Europe’s nations (and later the world at large) can be grouped into politically meaningful macroregions labeled “West” and “East” is according to Bernhard Struck a product of the early 19th century. At least the German travelogues he analyzed give little evidence to Larry Wolff’s thesis that “the East” was a construct of the Enlightenment. Larry Wolff, Inventing Eastern Europe. The Map of Civilization on the Mind of the Enlightenment, Stanford 1994. If German travelers around 1800 conceived of European macroregions at all, they divided the continent in North and South based on differences in climate, but without ascribing much meaning to it. It was only at the end of the Sattelzeit in the 1820s and 1830s that the normative East-West division emerged. Ever since the West tended to be associated with progress and civilization, whereas the East was identified with the counter-image of backwardness and despotism.
Most of the authors in this volume stress, however, that the idea that the nations of Western Europe were unified by shared values and similarities of their political systems did not take hold before 1914. As Franz Lorenz Müller shows for the Prussian legal scholar Eduard von Gneist and Stefan Berger for the Social Democrats, a sharp distinction was drawn between revolutionary France and evolutionary England, with only the latter being praised as model for Germany. As much as “the West” would eventually become a key theme in cultural criticism, before 1914, as Thomas Rohkrämer claims, “the Jew” rather than “the West” was presented as the negative “Other”. Neither does Mark Hewitson, who explores the notion of the Kulturländer in Wilhelmine Germany, see evidence for a widespread perception of a Western bloc. To strong was the belief in the independence of the nation state.
Things took a dramatic turn with the outbreak of the First World War. The culturalization of the war camps by German intellectuals (and their counterparts on the side of the trench) pitted the Central Powers against an imagined West, claiming that the war constituted a clash between civilizations. Parliamentary democracy, as Marcus Llanque shows, was from now on considered a feature of the West, whereas Germany would be supposed to follow its own political traditions. The belief in this cultural division did not disappear after 1918. Anselm Doering-Manteuffel even argues that it hardened during the Weimar years, and that Germany’s opposition to the West between 1914 and 1945 played a greater role in unifying the West than the latter’s enmity to the Soviet Union. Philipp Gassert is more cautious in this regard, as he doubts that anti-Westernism was a dominant feature of National Socialism. Nazi thought and propaganda gave too little relevance to the notion of “the West.” Hitler understood the world primarily in categories of race and space and would have been eager to enlist England in the war against Bolshevism.
Germany’s defeat in 1945 was the second watershed moment after 1914, as it was followed by a reconceptualization of Germany’s relationship with the West. Emigres returning from their western exile played a crucial role in persuading German society of the values of “western democracy.” One of them was the political scientist Ernst Fraenkel, whose story is told by Riccardo Bavaj. Fraenkel reluctantly returned from his American exile to West Berlin, but once appointed professor at the Freie Universität, he became an ardent and influential promoter of the concept of “western democracy.” Even conservatives began to accept its values, albeit grudgingly. The rediscovery of Alexis de Tocqueville and his “Democracy in America” in the late 1940 did a lot to ease that transition, as Martina Steber demonstrates. Not only did Tocqueville’s prophecy of a future global conflict between Russia and America help them to bow to the inevitable, but they also identified with Tocqueville’s critical view of American democracy. The GDR, as Katherine Pence shows, experienced its own, schizophrenic form of westernization. While the communist leadership kept condemning Western consumerism, it cherished its privileged access to western consumer products. This only fueled the longing for western products among GDR citizens, resulting in a rebellion in 1989 that can be labelled a “consumer revolution.”
Several authors point out that Germany was believed to have more options than choosing between East and West. Benjamin Schröder shows that the Liberals of the Vormärz and the 1848 revolution tended to place Germany in a middling position between revolutionary France and the conservative monarchies of the east. The liberals of the Weimar Republic, as Austin Harrington suggests, continued this tradition by searching for a third way between the industrial-commercial modernity of the Atlantic West and the bureaucratic-paternalist modernity of the Soviet Union. After 1945, it was the so-called homeless Left, Marxists in opposition to both Communism and Social Democracy, who, according to Dominik Geppert, hoped for a Germany that would build a bridge between American capitalism and Soviet-style socialism.
As the authors of this volume keep reminding their readers, the idea of “the West” required the contrasting image of “an East.” This binary model was volatile, though. In following the discourse of German Orientalists from the 1790 to the 1930s, Douglas McGetchin demonstrates the oscillating nature of the Orient-Occident constructions. Around 1800, when anti-western resentments peaked in Germany, an emotional identification with the Orient occurred. It disappeared with a stronger identification with the western world after 1820, only to resurface with the cultural criticism around 1900. Stefan Vogt highlights a similar mechanism in his chapter on German Jews. During the 19th century, when they strongly identified with the ideas of the Enlightenment and emancipation, they subscribed to the negative stereotypes of a backward East and distanced themselves from East European Jewry. The rise of cultural criticism and the disappointing experience with Jewish emancipation in the West led to a reversal of his East-West dichotomy around 1900. The Jews of the East were now presented as models to westernized Jews, who allegedly shared all the shallowness and materialism of the West. German Jews thus reflected an overall trend within German society. The critique of western modernity, as Denis Szdvižkov shows, brought many German intellectuals to overcome negative stereotypes about the East and turn to Russian culture in their search for spiritual rejuvenation. Hence the subtext of “Germany and ‘the West’” is Germany and the East.
The editors of this volume deserve praise for the fine balance they found between thematic breadth and focus, and the authors for the exceptional quality of the individual chapters. A volume of this size cannot claim comprehensiveness. But it is this book’s great accomplishment to provide a rich picture of the complexity and ever changing nature of German perceptions of “the West.” Whoever engages with this field is well advised to start with this insightful volume.
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Gregor Thum. Review of Bavaj, Riccardo; Steber, Martina, Germany and ’The West’: The History of a Modern Concept.
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