Archive for November, 2014

At the victory banquet

November 9, 2014

George Steiner in 1959 on the bureaucratic degeneration of language in Adenauer’s Federal Republic, breeding ‘a profound deadness of spirit, such an inescapable sense of triviality and dissimulation’:

The thing that has gone dead is the German language. Open the daily papers, the magazines, the flood of popular and learned books pouring off the new printing presses; go to hear a new German play; listen to the language as it is spoken over the radio or in the Bundestag.

It is no longer the language of Goethe, Heine and Nietzsche. It is not even that of Thomas Mann.

Something immensely destructive has happened to it. It makes noise. It even communicates, but it creates no sense of communion…

[Languages] can decay and they can die…

Actions of the mind that were once spontaneous become mechanical; frozen habits (dead metaphors, stock similes, slogans). Words grow longer and more ambiguous. Instead of style, there is rhetoric. Instead of precise common usage, there is jargon…

All these technical failures accumulate to the essential failure: the language no longer sharpens thought but blurs it.


Languages have great reserves of life. They can absorb masses of hysteria, illiteracy, and cheapness (George Orwell showed how English is doing so today).

But there comes a breaking point. Use a language to conceive, organize, and justify Belsen; use it to make out specifications for gas ovens; use it to dehumanize man during twelve years of calculated bestiality. Something will happen to it.

Make of words what Hitler and Goebbels and the hundred thousand Untersturmführer made: conveyors of terror and falsehood. Something will happen to the words. Something of the lies and sadism will settle in the marrow of the language.

The Axel Springer tabloid, though newly sober in tone and respectful of NATO and Tel Aviv, was no less ‘ossified with cliché, unexamined definitions, and leftover words.’

Bild inaugural

Indeed the mannered, inhibited civility of postwar German politics, its well-stocked armoury of polite euphemisms and vacuous consensus — a bland unanimity given philosophical respectability by Jürgen Habermas — was unmatched.

Conventional opinion, official as well as media and scholarly, had acquired a chronic slackness, a ceremonious refusal of straightforwardness, which couldn’t easily be shaken off.

Thus the term used by contemporary German newspapers to describe privatization of state assets (a common story since 1990) is abwickeln (‘wind up’ or ‘settle’), a task accomplished after reunification by the Treuhand (‘trust’).

Political speech, ‘like that used to sell a new detergent, was intended neither to communicate the critical truths of national life nor to quicken the mind of the hearer. It was designed to evade or gloss over the demands of meaning.’

Meanwhile the ‘arrogant obscurities of German philosophic speech’ (a reference to Heidegger) damaged the mind, impairing ‘its ability to think or speak clearly.’

The linguistic rot began, said Steiner, when Bismark’s new state usurped the German language from Goethe, Schiller, Heine and Kleist: ‘citizens of Europe’ who had been alien to the narrow ’emotions of nationalism.’

Henceforth the property of provincial Junkers and Wilhelmine functionaries, the German tongue spoken by ‘university, officialdom, army and court’ after 1871 would become a byword for ponderous and evasive.

After collapse of the Hohenzollern Empire there intervened ‘a brilliant, mutinous period’:

Brecht gave back to German prose its Lutheran simplicity and Thomas Mann brought into his style the supple, luminous elegance of the classical and Mediterranean traditions. These years, 1920-30, were the anni mirabiles of the modern German spirit.

This was followed by the long fascist era, its depredations and barbarisms recorded by Victor Klemperer, in which German became ‘half nebulous jargon, half obscenity.’

Their language threatened by Hitler’s mix of atavism and bureaucratic leadenness, its literary custodians preserved the contents of the German cultural ark by fleeing into exile.

The most capable of them, far from being deracinated, were artistically renewed. Thomas Mann was ‘a citizen of the world, receptive to the genius of other languages and cultures.’ Brecht, ‘being a Marxist, felt himself a citizen of a community larger than Germany and a participant in the forward march of history.’

In the postwar Bundesrepublik, however, no anti-fascist lustration occurred:

On the court benches sit some of the judges who meted out Hitler’s blood laws. On many professorial chairs sit scholars who were first promoted when their Jewish or Socialist teachers had been done to death. In a number of German and Austrian universities, the bullies swagger again with their caps, ribbons, duelling scars, and “pure Germanic” ideals.

The consequences for language, said Steiner, were dire:

[The] major part of what is published as serious literature is flat and shoddy. It has in it no flame of life. Compare the best of current journalism with an average number of the Frankfurter Zeitung of pre-Hitler days; it is at times difficult to believe that both are written in German…

And so far, in history, it is language that has been the vessel of human grace and the prime carrier of civilization.

Until 1989 the preeminent West German writers evaded this narrow philistinism and provincial mediocrity of the Bonn republic by living in West Berlin or, like Peter Weiss, remained abroad.

After the DDR’s collapse and annexation, Günter Grass would compare the unification of 1990 to that of 1871. The contemporary Anschluss, he said, promised little more than the first for German cultural heritage.

As the Ode to Joy played, this scandalous attempt to discredit the festivities prompted a literary critic to tear up Grass’s novel on TV:

Apparently I had disturbed the victors at their victory banquet. According to the official reports then flickering throughout the land, German unification had been a rousing success, one for the history books (despite minor flaws)…

Where is the bright side in all this? Indeed, where? Should I count off the billions that have flowed from West to East and, on balance, trickled back to the West with interest?… Were you expecting an encomium on Dresden’s brilliantly restored Baroque façades?…

The disaster of German unification has been accepted without dissent, however blatantly social injustice divides this country again…

Telegenic twaddle has won the day.


In 1997, with Kohl’s decrepit corruption yet to give way to the vigorous SPD-Greens government of Schröder, the federal capital still unmoved from Bonn, Grass could detect diffidence and hesitation in the German ruling elite:

[These] victors of history have no idea what to do with their putative victory. They’re already a little embarrassed about holding it up like a trophy while the cameras are rolling. They’ve been left sitting on their victory as though it were a slow-selling product — a “white elephant,” as the expression has it…

If you hold your hand up to your ear, you can hear the triumphant ideologies of capitalism rasping their demands into a vacuum, wagering now on globalization. They crave an echo…

I picture the victorious capitalist of just yesterday — in most un-Marxist fashion — as a person abandoned by fate, an individual: a middle-aged gentleman, properly attired, except that he just can’t seem to get his tie straight. So there he stands — no, he’s stuck to a stool — the lonely, lonesome capitalist.

He is still feared, it’s true, and probably hated as well, yet no one ever talks back to him.

Whatever comes out of his mouth is considered sacrosanct — be it the most fatuous nonsense, such as that mantra of his: “the market takes care of everything.” He has acquired, in spite of himself, an odour of infallibility, like the Pope.

Poor guy, I say to myself, without pity, and begin to make literary capital out of him.

Few writers besides Grass have since bothered to make much of the old DDR’s destruction, though Uwe Tellkamp’s The Tower has just been published in English.

It is striking that the dissolution of European Stalinism, so often compared heroically to the revolutions of 1848, was for German literature a comparative dead letter. Whereas the original featured Heine, Manzoni, Petöfi and Mickiewicz in starring roles, its pastiche summoned only the Scorpions, David Hasselhoff and David Bowie. Rudolf Bahro had contributed the opus of the DDR dissidents in the late 1970s, before retreating into mysticism by the early 1980s.

Contemplating all this, and yesterday’s tawdry revelries at the Brandenburg Gate, brings to mind Fredric Jameson’s remarks on the historical novels of Peter Weiss:

Such a confrontation with the past must also necessarily include the resistance to it and disgust with which West German readers today greet the older political literature of the West German Gruppe 47 writers, as well as that which postmodern readers in general bring to the now dead past of the interwar years and of World War II — a boredom sometimes mingled with curious stabs of nostalgia, and strengthened by consumerist habits for which the outmoded and old-fashioned are somehow more intolerable than the palpable shoddiness of much of what is truly contemporary.

In today’s Restoration Germany, the population flow has reversed direction: carpetbaggers, tourists and real-estate developers flood into unified Berlin.

The local propertied classes, too, have recovered their composure and sense of mission. At officially consecrated ceremonies of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, state officials are no longer so gun-shy as in days past.

Yesterday Angela Merkel, herself an ornament to the Stalinist bureaucracy’s deft assimilation to the capitalist West, delivered a solemn, canting speech in Berlin.

Collapse of the DDR, in which the Chancellor began her political rise, was saluted as evidence that ‘dreams can come true’:

Nothing has to stay the way it is, however big the hurdles are. We can change things for the better.

This is the message… especially for the people in Ukraine, Syria, Iraq and in many, many other regions of the world where liberty and human rights are threatened or being trampled.

It is a message of confidence in our ability to tear down walls today and in future, walls of dictatorship, violence, ideology and hostility…

We have the power to create, we can turn things to the good: That is the message of the fall of the wall.

German public language is now approaching the semantic nullity of its US counterpart. It is as portentous as it is substantively empty. Like ‘change we can believe in,’ its sleekness is born of the abstract rule of capital: profit and private property unencumbered by cultural tradition or institutional barrier, heedless of logic or meaning.

Such language, rudimentary and therefore infinitely capacious, is perfectly suited to statecraft by a newly ambitious and forthright imperial power. It may be directed at once towards two audiences, listeners at home and abroad, articulating domestic concerns in their own idiom, while being palatable to international audiences, catering to the needs of international diplomacy and power-projection.

Delivered with the appropriate sombreness at one of the country’s many architectural Denkmäler, memorial sites and museums, the televisual effect is striking.

Note that foregrounding 1989 in such a fashion allows Germans to celebrate themselves as historical authors of their own liberal redemption, wresting some of that honour from the United States and other Western Allies (the role of the Red Army in creating conditions for the postwar Rechtsstaat is naturally best ignored). Washington’s ownership since 1945 of the symbol ‘Bringer of salvation from Hitler’ has been a useful useful ideological tool of US hegemony.

The chance to present a similarly feelgood popular symbol of Berlin’s own — German good triumphing over Russified evil, bleached of any political content — is most welcome in the Foreign Office.

Its price — a further debauching of German language, public discourse and historical knowledge — is, for those tendering the currency, well worth it.