Enzensberger on German Democracy

Hans Magnus Enzensberger writes lucid, witty prose, which can’t be said of some other contemporary German writers (who may or may not nevertheless be worth reading).

Here’s an excerpt from an speech he gave in New York in 1979, called "A Valiant Attempt to Explain the Secrets of German Democracy to a New York Audience." The whole thing deserves to be translated, and I’ll try to get around to that someday. But for now, you’ll have to content yourself with the following: 

When you get out of your airplane in Hamburg or Munich, you will notice that German society, 35 years after the end of Nazi rule, makes quite a civilized impression. Generally, you won’t have to worry about anyone screaming at you. In the tax offices and savings banks, you will see long-haired, casually-dressed young people, just as you would in New York and other places. Nobody is standing ramrod-straight. A certain politeness is now all the rage. Army officers don’t look as if they could be named Erich von Stroheim. In government offices, you will be greeted with easygoing, petty-bourgeois manners, as long as you’re not a Turk or a Communist – and sometimes even then. German democracy, you might possibly say, is a success; and your opinion will be reinforced when you read our constitution. It is, namely, an absolutely first-class constitution, and it’s by no means a dead letter. Quite the contrary: the task of protecting, obeying, and realizing it is being contested downright ferociously by all sides. The newspapers and the politicians go on about this subject endlessly; ‘constitution’ is one of the most common German words.  Perhaps you know that our language has a tendency to word-combinations; and thus the most diverse word-combinations crop up in talk about the constitution: protection of the constitution (Verfassungsschutz), loyalty to the constitution (Verfassungstreue), constitutional complaints (Verfassungsklagen), enemies of the constitution (Verfassungsfeinden), conformity to the constitution (Verfassungsmäßigkeit), and unconstitutionality (Verfassungswidrigkeit).

All this eagerness may surprise you. You may ask yourself “since when have Germans taken democracy to heart so enthusiastically?” Now, aside from isolated, brave, but quickly-defeated attempts to bring about democracy in the nineteenth century, our country hasn’t had much success with this form of government. The Weimar republic existed for only fourteen years, and it’s pretty well-known how precarious its short life was. Our current Basic Law came about while Germany was under allied occupation; malicious tongues even claim that democracy was imposed on the Germans as a punishment for the lost war. However, this outside pressure can’t explain why democracy has taken root in the last decades, and why it’s become a familiar habit to West Germans. Alongside the previous attempts just mentioned, one should also mention the strong role played by Germany’s federalist traditions. But most importantly, democracy was encouraged by the political and economic conditions of the period of post-war reconstruction: The Federal Republic of Germany needed to foster widespread, decentralized initiatives, integrate with western Europe, find a place in the world market, disperse suspicions of fascism, encourage mobility, and allow a free flow of information. The old model of the authoritarian state had to retreat under the pressure of external and internal circumstances.  Anyone who gives a child a toy and then tries to take it back after a while will have to brace himself for stiff resistance.  Certain German politicians are facing exactly this resistance right now, in fact, it’s even more awkward; since that considerable portion of the population which has convinced itself of the advantages of democracy over many years doesn’t regard it as a toy in any way, and also won’t satisfy itself with merely defending its rights. In the sixties, Germany saw something like a democratic offensve, it even went so far that a West German Chancellor got a bit carried away and endorsed the governing slogan “Dare More Democracy.”

[Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Unentwegter Versuch, einem New Yorker Publikum die Geheimnisse der deutschen Demokratie zu erklaeren, Kursbuch No. 56 (1979), pp. 1-2]

One thought on “Enzensberger on German Democracy

  1. Frolicking around, we are? Innocent banter? Enough of that. While googling for the cheesy Wagner quote, that lingered in my memory’s hinterlands, “Deutsch sein heißt, eine Sache um ihrer selbst willen tun!” (To be German is to do something for its own sake!), I found this in the Marxistische Bibliothek: “Was ist das hohe Charakterliche an einer Persönlichkeit? … daß sie wirklich “jede Sache um ihrer selbst willen tut” – bolding by me, cheesiness by Ernst Thälmann, the good guy who didn’t live to become evil.

    Isn’t that spooky? If punctuality and loyalty are two of those Sekundärtugenden (secondary, ie. inferior virtues), that according to Oskar Lafontaine come in handy, when a concentration camp is to be managed effectively, then what is a thing that is done explicitly and exclusively for its own sake? Kadavergehorsam’s autistic metaphysical exaltation? And why do my compatriots, both left and right, past and present, feel compelled to end thoroughly whatever it be, once it got started?

    So… three cheers for the Marshall-funded “economic conditions,” that made our allied reeducationeers’ Ludovico Techniques so painlessly effective – we had our eastern kin do the boot-licking stuff. We’ll live to see if it holds.

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