Olga Grjasnowa on why Germany still wrangles with the concept of nation

Olga Grjasnowa on why “Germany still wrangles with the Concept of Nation”

Writer Olga Grjasnowa asks: “Who has the right to belong to the German nation and who does not?”

Thomas Mann held his famous speech Germany and the Germans only weeks after Germany’s surrender in World War II. He spoke about the Germans’ character and the “hysterical barbarism, into a spree and paroxysm of arrogance and crime, which now finds its horrible end in a national catastrophe.” Mann is hard on Germany—and how could he not? Of course, it is a great speech, but what fascinates me is how abstractly Mann constructed it. In the face of German crimes, the murder of six million Jews, Sinti and Roma, queer people, political enemies, people with sickness, a world war, the Shoah, forced laborers, displacement, Mann first talks about Luther and attempts to understand the country by its intellectual history. But precisely this is also a strength of the text.

Germany and the Germans is still alarmingly relevant today. According to Thomas Mann the German interpretation of the term “freedom” is mistaken. Right now, some people in Germany believe that they are taking to the streets for the sake of freedom. They rally against the federal government’s corona policies and think, they are doing so for liberty. Masks equal muzzles. A young woman even compared herself to Sophie Scholl at one of these demonstrations. A child, allowed to invite less guests than usual to a birthday party, felt persecuted like Anne Frank.

Another impulse consists of defending the freedom to be allowed to say anything. Anything in this context however is not an uncomfortable or courageous political opinion, but simply an opportunity to continue to insult minorities, use barbaric language, and to think it is funny. But pogroms, violence, and even the Shoah originated from violent language.  At work here are the same mechanisms that Thomas Mann described when analyzing National Socialism. According to Thomas Mann this is because Germany never experienced a revolution and hence never managed to connect the idea of a nation with the notion of freedom.

Today, Germany still wrangles with the concept of the nation. The term “nation” is always referring to the national and not the citizens who might make up a nation. Who has the right to belong to the German nation and who does not, who is allowed to live in this country—most battles in this country are fought along the lines of this discussion. Only the German “inwardness” that Mann adjured is lost.

Photo: German Reichstag in 1945, the year of Germany and the Germans. ETH-Bibliothek Zürich, Thomas-Mann-Archiv

1 thought on “Olga Grjasnowa on why Germany still wrangles with the concept of nation”

  1. Thank you, Olga Grjasnowa, for your contribution. I agree: Germany still wrangles with the concept of the nation. How could it be different after all that has happened in the name of it. In other countries (e.g. the US) the concept of the nation seems to be more than the sum of the identities of the citizens living in such unit and what these countries derive from such concept is to my perception something which was tried some years ago to be established in Germany as well. I do not want to use the misleading term “Leitkultur” (dominant, guiding, leading, defining? culture). But, don’t you agree that something of the kind of (national) guiding principles or ideals could help to find orientation which today is needed not less than 1945? “Inwardness”, as the term is used by Thomas Mann, certainly couldn’t be part of such guiding principles or ideals but what makes you thinking that it is lost in nowadays Germany?

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