After fascism, ideological waste disposal,but what now?

Figures such as Habermas, Grass, Hans Magnus Enzensberger and Ralf Dahrendorf, to name but a few, are all part of a generation born at the end of the 1920s and in the early 1930s – old enough to have been part of the Hitler Youth or even the regular Wehrmacht, but too young to have been directly implicated in Nazi crimes.

This generation has rightly been labelled as “sceptical” on account of its early disillusionment with grand ideological promises – and it was members of this generation who dominated public debates throughout the history of the old West Germany and even the first decade of the unified country.

These intellectuals first defined their peculiar role at the end of the 1950s and the early 1960s. During this period, the building blocks for the role of the left-liberal intellectual in West Germany were put into place.

In the late 1950s, attitudes towards dealing with the past slowly began to change, from the extremes of silence and defiant self-righteousness of the immediate postwar period to a new critical awareness prompted by a succession of scandals, in particular a number of anti-Semitic attacks – such as the desecration of the Cologne synagogue on Christmas Day 1959 – and the failings of the judiciary in dealing with the perpetrators.

“belated nation”

At the same time, the conviction gained ground among intellectuals that Germany had been a “belated nation” in comparison with Western Europe and the United States, and that the pathologies of its history could be explained by its Sonderweg – a special, antidemocratic path diverging from the West.

the sanitary chore of the intellectuals after the end of fascism

  “country of enemies”

 Enzensberger famously described their task as “the sanitary chore of the intellectuals after the end of fascism, the whole ideological waste disposal, a very wearisome and protracted job”.

Intellectuals, while often complaining of being “homeless” or even seeing Germany as a “country of enemies”, as Enzensberger put it in the early 1960s, in fact were never quite as alienated from the politics of the Federal Republic as such rhetoric suggested.

a "culture of suspicion" vis-a-vis the new state and its representatives

"latter-day liberals, good Social Democrats, moralists and socialists without clearly defined aims, anti-fascists without a programme for the future".

define one general interest, in this case democratisation, to which particular criticisms could then be related.

Conceiving of themselves as a “democratic elite”,

they sought to provide a substitute for a broader critical public that was yet to develop.

fostering what they called the “re-education of the masses”

a sober, so-called “Anglo-Saxon model” of debate, which avoided the supposed German tendency of polemically turning political argument into a matter of mutual moral destruction.

A culture of suspicion

A culture of suspicion, then, and a catalogue of categorical, negative imperatives to avoid the mistakes

of Weimar-guided intellectuals’ interventions.

The advantage of this culture of suspicion was its essentially egalitarian and democratic nature.

Nobody was beyond accountability; the downside was that it could lead – and often did – to a primary concern, even an obsession, with unmasking politicians and other intellectuals, and with ascertaining their motivations. Every generation, it seemed, had to criticise the previous generation’s attempts at “coming to terms with the past” as somehow deficient.

...intellectuals labelled anybody whom they politically disliked as "fascist" - and how much this label seemed to serve their self-image more than any discernible political agenda.

The rebellious student generation of 1968 accused their country of fascism, and were themselves subject to the suspicion of "leftwing fascism" by liberals and conservatives;

the terrorists of the 1970s radicalised the reproach of fascism, and were themselves portrayed as "Hitler's children";

and in 1990, the left saw a reincarnation of the aggressive nation-state of the past, just as much as the right saw the left continuing a fateful romantic German "special path' by refusing to be a "normal country".

it arguably gave them another lease of public life. With the addition of East Germany, back on the agenda were the questions of democratisation and westernisation.

while it was crucial for intellectuals to detect and denounce continuities after 1945, the old model of intellectual intervention has itself become anachronistic, 

Whether the Germans were able to deal openly with their past had once been the clear standard applied by the left (but also by the American occupiers) as to whether Germany had yet become another democratic country.

…remembrance has undoubtedly become a much more differentiated and decentralised process, especially among the young.

the old gestures of suspicion

Paradoxically, the culture of suspicion, criticism and questioning created trust for the country, both domestically and abroad, rather than undermining the stability of the Federal Republic

this culture encouraged a kind of collective exorcism and even ostracism,


…this culture encouraged a kind of collective exorcism and even ostracism, and made it difficult for many intellectuals genuinely to accept civilised conflict within liberal-democratic boundaries.

A dilemma is the lack of any identifiable “general interest” that intellectuals could responsibly advocate.
The democratisation of West Germany after 1945 was such an interest.

…the effectiveness of the sceptical generation has been not least due to the fact that they promoted a goal to which intellectuals – as intellectuals – could make a genuine contribution by acting as “prototypes” of democratic citizens.

a genuine contribution by acting as “prototypes” of democratic citizens.

the intellectuals’ lack of expertise only proved the point that citizens needed the right attitudes, rather than particular knowledge.

…the experts and even the old-style cultural pessimists are back with a vengeance, while the past and ideas about “westernisation” hardly illuminate the moral and political stakes.



Author: charlesburchfield

I am an artist working primarily with collage.

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