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Nation Versus Culture?

Jefferson ChaseApril 24, 2008

A three-day Goethe Institute symposium on the "Kulturnation" has kicked off in Berlin. DW talked to historian Konrad Jarausch about why Germans get so worked up about the idea of culture.

Pictures in Dresden Zwinger museum
Does a nation need culture, and does culture need a nation?Image: AP

Jarausch is one of a number of academics, authors, journalists, politicians and cultural VIPs invited to the Kulturnation (literally: culture nation) meeting to debate questions like: Is there such a thing as German music, or does television program Germans' national identity?

Born in 1941 in Magdeburg, Jarausch received his higher education in the US, where he was a professor of German history at various American universities. Until recently he was also the director of the Center for Contemporary Historical Research at the University of Potsdam.

He spoke to DW-WORLD.DE about a symposium that is trying to redefine an old-fashioned, nationalistic idea to accommodate today's Germany.

Conference brochure
The symposium program features a statue of Schiller guarding a fire extinguisherImage: Spohler / Laif

DW-WORLD.DE: The word Kulturnation is basically untranslatable. How would you explain it to non-German speakers?

Konrad Jarausch: It connotes a nation defined by cultural commonality rather than a political system. Culture is, of course, a complex term, ranging all the way from literature, art and -- especially in the German case -- music, down to habits such as what one does at Christmas, what carols do you sing and things like that.

The concept originated in the 18th and 19th centuries amidst German political fragmentation, and it implied that the Prussian-dominated German nation created in 1870 was the necessary culmination of a cultural development.

Yes, as you indicated, its roots really are in the late 18th century in a cultural revival that had to do with the elites and the nobility looking toward France, starting a king of counter-movement emphasizing the commonality of the German language, and creating a high literature in contrast to French culture. The early phase of this cultural revival was cosmopolitan and open. The problem came 100 years later when there was a national state, and the concept was used to reach out to people who were German speaking or had German ancestry or customs in Eastern Europe, Latin America and the Midwest of the United States.

Fatih Akin
Fatih Akin is one of Germany's hottest film directorsImage: picture-alliance / KPA Archival Collection

In the Anglo-American world, culture isn't seen as being so closely connected with the nation-state, and the idea was misused during the Third Reich. Is it time for Germans to give up their obsession with and fetishization of culture?

Language use isn't congruent with political borders. To an English-speaking person this isn't an issue because of England, with all of its former colonies, and because English speakers are used to their language being a kind of lingua franca. But if you go back to Europe, the French made a concerted effort to make everyone in the so-called hexagon, continental France, speak French -- including people like Alsatians who wanted to be French politically, but not culturally. So this is more of a continental European problem, in which the assumption was that language and cultural borders would coincide with political frontiers. This notion created nothing but trouble in the 20th century and was involved in both world wars.

There are German speakers today in Austria, Switzerland, a tiny part of Belgium and some would say Luxembourg. And I think if one understands the difference, the concept doesn't have to have its nasty political overtone. During the German division between 1949 and 1989, progressive writers like Guenter Grass used it to emphasize what East and West Germany still had in common. In that case it served as a kind of a cultural bracket, which made unification possible again in 1990. What it requires is a sophisticated non-nationalist treatment.

University library
Germans have always taken great pride in high-cultural excellenceImage: picture alliance/dpa

A few years ago, there was much talk about Germany needing a "lead culture" or Leitkultur to which immigrants would also have to belong. What's the difference with the notion of a Kulturstaat?

With Leitkultur, there's the assumption that there can also be other cultures. The question is: What do all people have to have in common who live in the shrunken version of the German nation-state that got re-founded in 1990. The assumption on the left was always that it was enough to have an understanding of the constitution. The problem with that is that if you're living in a kind of a different world, let's say a Turkish-speaking neighborhood in Berlin, where you're watching Turkish TV and reading Turkish newspapers, you're sort of extraterritorial. These people lose out. They don't get jobs and form a new underclass. So it's about social stratification and missed chances.

The question there is: What has to be included in the Leitkultur? Do they have to sing "Silent Night" in front of a Christmas tree? Or is it enough if they understand the constitution, treat women like human beings and function sufficiently well in the German language to be integrated into the economic world?

It's difficult to draw boundaries. The conservatives want to extend the concept of Leitkultur in order to Germanize people they consider foreigners. I think the left has begun to understand that there's a cultural dimension of citizenship that has to be added to the question of whether you understand the fundamental rights of the constitution. The battleground, I think, is how far this cultural dimension extends.

Konrad Jarausch
Konrad Jarausch is the author of a number of respected books on German historyImage: ZZF

Can the Goethe Institute symposium achieve any concrete results? Or is it just discussion among cultural VIPs?

(He laughs) That's part of it, but I think a discussion among cultural VIPs has the chance to change what is a common cultural understanding. The Goethe Institute represents German culture aboard, but what that could mean has become ever harder to define. The tourist definition of yodeling, lederhosen and beer is only a regional reflection of Bavarianism and doesn't have a whole lot to do with what Germany is really about.

In the past, the Goethe Institute has had an intelligent strategy of representing Germany's diversity, which is not a homogeneous, easily graspable national culture, but rather a spectrum that ranges all the way from folklore to recent, somewhat abrasive Turkish-German movies by directors like Fatih Akin. They've also tried to represent critical voices in Germany, not just the sort of self-congratulatory stuff one finds in sales brochures about German hi-tech and the German social-welfare state being better than anywhere else.

There's more to Germany than the OktoberfestImage: AP

You have deep connections with both the US and Germany. What does American culture vis-a-vis German culture mean to you personally?

When I left Germany, I felt tremendously liberated in the United States. The fact that not every house had a fence around it, that one lawn flowed into the next, suggested that this was a considerably freer society. This was the understandable misperception of a young foreign student, and I started out in Wyoming with the wide open spaces of the American West, which almost blew my mind. I wanted to get away from German guilt because of the two world wars and the Holocaust, and I wanted to get away from the heavy weight of a couple thousand years of European culture. I felt almost smothered, and easy-going American manners and easily accessible American culture seemed very liberating to me as a young person.

In the meantime, I've come around almost full circle. I've grown to appreciate the existence of American high culture and sophistication, and I think it's very important that many of the best ideas in the world are developed in the context of this culture. But I'm really distressed by some of the things that have happened under the last couple of US administrations and the cultural alienation between the US and Europe.

After Reagan, a good part of the US seemed to want to jump back into a mythical 19th century that never existed -- images which seem to have a lot to do with cowboy movies. I don't think that's really helpful in the early 21st century -- I'm thinking about things like the environment, the death penalty or attitudes toward war. In all those matters, I've become re-Europeanized, and I hope that Americans will not depart from these values altogether. I hope that in another generation there'll be a bit more cultural convergence between the Americans and the Europeans.

The Goethe Institute symposium "Resubmitting the Kulturnation" runs from April 24-26.