The German psyche from A to Z | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 18.04.2012
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Culture

The German psyche from A to Z

From A for Abendbrot (supper) to Z for Zerrissenheit (inner conflict): This spectrum makes up the German identity. In their new book, Thea Dorn and Richard Wagner explain what unites Germany.

Gnomes

Gnomes

"Luckily, in my opinion, the authors have not written about the German psyche, but have allowed the many forms of its expression to speak for themselves." Writer Martin Walser praised the new book "The German Psyche" with these words. The actual alphabet that the authors Richard Wagner and Thea Dorn used to map the history and current state of the German mentality is in no way mystical or kitsch. Moreover, it allows for surprising insights into the origins of German character traits. DW talked to one of the authors, Thea Dorn.

DW: Thea Dorn, what motivated you to write a book about the German psyche?

Thea Dorn

The German psyche is full of contradictions, says Thea Dorn

Thea Dorn: Well I actually grew up feeling that my Germanness didn't really play a role in my life. My parents were born during the Third Reich - 1932 and 1933. After that they were sick of the topic "Germany." I myself have enjoyed traveling around the world and I'm always happy when someone thinks I'm French when I'm in Italy. But when I was a guest professor in the US for a time, I suddenly noticed that I was really homesick. I missed the language; I missed the German tendency to take things seriously, to mull things over. There was actually a colleague who said, "You are so German." And that was the first time that I was able to say that I am actually really German. But I want to look at that more closely.

What did you discover about what makes up the German psyche?

For me, the main characteristic of Germans is this being caught in a severe contradictoriness. One can make it very clear with a small example, which I like. The Germans were world champions at the romantic exaggeration of the forest. Almost all German fairytales take place in the woods. And at the same time, the Germans invented the science of forestry in the 18th century.

Or another contradiction: There is the proverbial love of order and at the same time an attraction to everything that is unfathomable, impermeable, which doesn't fit easily into categories. That is the great divide which runs through the German psyche.

You co-wrote the book with Richard Wagner. Were there differences in your approach?

Richard was born in 1952 as a member of the German-speaking minority in Banat in Romania. That means he has a totally different relationship to the issue of Germanness than myself, having grown up in the heart of the German Republic, where Germanness was viewed with great caution. I noticed that Richard had to overcome far less resistance in order to approach the subject than I did. In a peculiar way, I've looked at Germany with a more alienated view than Richard.

Has the uptightness with which the Germans approach their identity changed over the years?

The breakthrough point was definitely the soccer World Cup in 2006: Suddenly, a sea of black, red and gold flags appears and suddenly people began to join in singing the national anthem. In the beginning, the level of skepticism was immense, that the ugly Germans should show their grotesque faces again. But then during the World Cup, it became clear that such things are part of normality, like they are in other countries which also don't have such rosy histories.

Germany fans at the soccer World Cup in 2006

The Soccer World Cup in 2006 was a breakthrough moment for the expression German identity

You have gathered together very diverse texts in your book, for example poems, fictional letters and personal essays. Why did you opt for this particular selection?

I believe that every term we have described has found a form appropriate to itself. I would've found it very boring if all 64 chapters followed the same structure. With a term like das Unheimliche (wierdness), I thought, for example, that it's really crying out for a weird short story to make the meaning more tangible.

Was there anything that surprised you during your research?

I could have sworn that a term such as Nachhaltigkeit (sustainability), which never fails to appear in politically correct, environmentally orientated debates, is a contemporary invention. That this term was actually used by a Saxon scientist of forestry in 1713 left me practically speechless.

You worked for almost a year on the book. Would you describe yourself a German patriot today?

My heart is more with German cultural history. If I were to describe myself as a patriot, with real conviction, then I would definitely be a German cultural patriot.

Interview: Aygül Cizmecioglu / hw
Editor: Kate Bowen

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