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Germany: a mindset

Germany can be proud of those who were not proud of Germany. Navid Kermani examines this peculiar paradox and singles out Franz Kafka as Germany's most exemplary writer.

I would like to answer the question of what is German about German literature by speaking about an exemplary German writer. For me, this means not Goethe or Schiller, not Thomas Mann or Bert Brecht, but the Prague Jew Franz Kafka.

Kafka? You all know the photograph of the young Kafka, the one that shows him, his face slightly turned, looking with a smile of either uncertainty or mockery at a point just above the photographer's lens. It is a detail from Kafka's engagement photograph with Felice Bauer from the year 1917 and it is the most famous image of the writer, the picture that everyone immediately thinks of, an absolute icon. I remember exactly what went through my head as I took my first steps in Kafka's universe, I must have been fourteen or fifteen, as I looked at his face on the covers every day: he doesn't look German. The dark skin, the thick eyebrows over black eyes, the short black hair reaching so far over his forehead as to hide all trace of his temples, the oriental traits. Today, of course, it would not be politically correct to say so, but at the time it was my immediate impression: he didn't look German, not like the Germans I knew from school, from television, from the German national football team.

At the time, the question of what Kafka really is was of no further concern to me. I devoured his books without thinking about the cultural, social or religious experience from which they emerged. But now, faced with the need to choose which writer embodies the specific quality of German literature for me, I knew immediately that I had to begin with Kafka, with a writer who was not German.

How little Kafka was attached to Germany is evident in his diaries, in which the country of his mother tongue barely gets a mention. When World War I broke out on 2 August 1914, for example, he wrote just two sentences: "Germany has declared war on Russia," reads the first, and then: "Swimming in the afternoon." Four days later, Kafka devotes another small entry to political affairs, mentioning a patriotic procession by German-speaking citizens of Prague: "I stand there with my malignant look." After that – almost nothing. Although he showed an interest in many other events in society, political developments in Germany were of no particular concern to Kafka. In any case, Germany is hardly ever mentioned, neither in his letters nor in his journals, neither before, during or after WWI.

Even when Kafka moved to Berlin in September 1923, he remained an outsider in the land of his mother tongue. In the seclusion of the outlying district of Steglitz, he studied Hebrew, fantasized about plans for Palestine and lived – more as an experiment – according to Jewish law. He was to be found not in theatres and opera houses, but in Jewish houses of learning. Kafka lived in Germany, without living in Germany – in a "parallel society". His few trips to the centre of Berlin appear to have been something of a personal ordeal, not because he despised Berlin but because it was of no concern to him. "Germany has declared war on Russia – Swimming in the afternoon."

Kafka had something from which Germany now actively attempts to protect immigrant children: a pronounced multiple identity. As a citizen, he belonged to the Habsburg Empire, later to the Czech Republic. For the Czechs, Kafka and all of the German-speaking minority in Prague were simply Germans. Among the Prague Germans, on the other hand, someone like Kafka was thought of above all as a Jew. Not even Kafka himself could say with any clarity which collective he belonged to. In a letter of 10 April 1920 to Max Brod, he wrote of his arrival at the sanatorium in Merano:

"After our initial exchange it was noted that I am from Prague. Both the general (sat opposite me) and the colonel knew Prague. A Czech? No. Now explain to these loyal German military eyes what you actually are. Someone said "German Bohemian", someone else "Malá Strana". Then the issue rested and we continued eating. But the general with his sharp ear, philologically trained in the Austrian army, is not content. After the meal, he launches back into his doubts over the sound of my German, and maybe it is more his eye that doubts than his ear. I try to explain by referring to my Jewishness. In academic terms, he is satisfied, but not in human terms."

For Kafka himself, Judaism became increasingly important as a cultural and political point of reference as he got older, although he never took on a purely Jewish identity. "What have I in common with Jews?" he noted on 8 January 1914: "I have hardly anything in common with myself and should stand very quietly in a corner, content that I can breathe." In his youth, as the son of an over- zealously assimilated merchant, Kafka learned little about the faith of his ancestors, not acquiring in-depth knowledge of the Jewish tradition until he reached adulthood. His relationship to this tradition had an artificial, contrived quality, of which he was always well aware and which is probably one of the reasons for the distanced position on Zionism which set him apart from his closest friends. Another was the reality involved: in the actual yeshivas, the schools of Talmudic study, there was an overpowering stench because, as Kafka wrote with noticeable perturbation on 7 January 1912, "the students, who had no proper beds, laid down to sleep in their sweaty clothes wherever they had last been sitting without getting undressed."

Kafka's relationship with Judaism was not naïve. But it was a relationship, which is more than can be said of his ties with the Hapsburg monarchy or the German Reich. After a soirée with the "Yiddish Troupe" at Café Savoy, Kafka wrote in initial delight on 5 October 1911: "Some songs, the expression ‘yiddische kinderlach,' some of this woman's acting (who, on the stage, because she is a Jew, draws us listeners to her because we are Jews, without any longing for or curiosity about Christians) made my cheeks tremble."

This kind of emotion is never displayed in Kafka's rare entries on Germany and German issues – with one exception: when he mentions Goethe, Kleist or Stifter, then not only knowledgeably, but with an enthusiasm of a kind rarely found anywhere else in his entire oeuvre. When Kafka reflects in his journals and notebooks on individual expressions and problems in the German language, then he does so with a precision from which today's guardians of the language could learn a thing or two. The motifs and narrative strategies from the Jewish tradition that contemporary exegetes are so keen on tracking down, are not nearly as important for Kafka's oeuvre as his stated role models in German literature. Rather than standing at the beginning of Kafka's biography as a writer, Judaism was a frame of reference which he acquired and consciously used later, as an adult. Kafka's intellectual home is in German literature.

Speakers at awards ceremonies and festivals often remind their listeners of the role of literature in the creation of the German nation. And indeed, in the late eighteenth century it was literature that helped the various principalities and mini-states to achieve a shared specifically "German" self-image. But most speakers overlook the fact that by the time Germany finally emerged as an intellectual and later political structure, Germany's writers had long since begun to think beyond Germany. The great German philosophers and poets of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – be it Goethe or Kant – had their sights not on German but on European unification. In Germany, the Enlightenment was from the very start not a national but a European programme. In literature too, the preferred models were not German, drawing instead on non-German literature from Homer to Shakespeare and Byron. German was something German literature did not want to be – and which is was nonetheless precisely in its appropriation of non-German motifs and structures. "Overview of the European Conditions of German Literature" is the title given by August Wilhelm Schlegel to his 1825 essay on the peculiarities of German intellectual life: "We are, I may confidently claim, the cosmopolitans of European culture".

As both a literary and a political project, Europe was not meant to level out regional and national peculiarities, but it was supposed to dissolve the political borders between the nations. This vision put its proponents at odds with the nationalist zeitgeist in Germany, although in retrospect they are often claimed by it. Anti-nationalist opposition intensified in the twentieth century, especially after the experiences of World War II: the dream of a democratic union of European states was what the Mann brothers, Hesse, Hoffmansthal, Tucholsky, Zweig, Roth and Döblin upheld in the face of German nationalism.

Certainly not all, but a striking number of those writers trivialized by television today as Great Germans were outsiders and dissidents in their own time. They were persecuted, driven into exile, or, at best, had a difficult relationship with their fatherland. When flag-waving patriotic bestsellers today cite even Heinrich Heine, author of "Germany: A Winter's Tale" as a reason for their national pride, then it is absurd. Heine loved Germany, yes – but this love was outweighed by his shame for Germany. And let us run down a list of eminent German writers: Gotthold Lessing with his appeal for tolerance in the play "Nathan The Wise", performances of which were banned until his death, and the closing remarks from his essays on the principles of drama outlined in the "Hamburg Dramaturgy"; Schiller with the tirades of Karl Moor in "The Robbers"; Heine and Hölderlin, Büchner and Börne. In their own time, many of today's Great Germans were anti-Germans or at least had a notion of patriotism that was immune to any German self-glorification or arrogant delusions of superiority and cultural leadership. In the twentieth century, the criticism voiced by the cleverest and most truthful representatives of German literature even turned to fantasies of destruction. When, after the end of World War II, Albert Einstein stated his view that Germany should not only be deindustrialised, but that it should also have its population reduced as a punishment for genocide, his fellow German-in-exile Thomas Mann write: "I can think of little that one might say against this."

On closer study, even Germany's national poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is hardly suited for national edification. At the end of his lecture on "Germany and the Germans" in May 1945 at the Library of Congress, the same Thomas Mann reminded his listeners that none other than Goethe "went so far as to yearn for a German Diaspora." The comment by Goethe quoted by Mann here comes from a conversation with Chancellor Müller from 14 December 1808: "Like the Jews, the Germans must be transplanted and scattered over the world […] in order to develop the good that lies in them, fully, and to the good of all nations." Someone who, speaking at the end of the war in the capital of the country that defeated Germany, cites this of all sentences is as unsuited as the man he quotes to be a source of cheerful patriotism.

Criticism and even rejection of Germany is a leitmotif in German literary history. This national self-criticism is of harshness and thoroughness unparalleled in world literature. And it is by no means a product of the post-war era, having characterized German literature since long before National Socialism. However often the call is repeated to finally achieve a "normal", relaxed relationship with Germany – Germany's writers have always been characterized among other things by their fraught relationship with Germany. They are Great Germans, despite or precisely in the way they quarrelled with Germany. In other words: Germany can be proud of those who were not proud of Germany.

This paradox is perhaps most precisely described by Sebastian Haffner in"Defying Hitler. A Memoir", written in 1939 in exile in England. The "nationalism of the sports clubs," writes Haffner, "the bombastic national self-praise in the style of the 'Meistersingers', the hysteria about 'German' thought, 'German' feeling, 'German' constancy," had all been "abhorrent and repugnant" to him long before the Nazis came to power – "It was no sacrifice to forego it." Nonetheless, Haffner continues, he had always seen himself as "a fairly good German" – "if only for the shame I felt for the excesses of German nationalism." This sentence is worth paraphrasing, because it underlines the distance that can lie between patriotism and affirmation: it is precisely in his shame over Germany that Haffner considers himself a good German.

When the Nazis came to power, the German patriot Haffner was left with no choice – he had to sever his ties with Germany. The Germany to which Haffner proved his loyalty by leaving was not a coloured shape on the map. It was an intellectual construct with specific traits. These included humanity, openness in all directions, pensiveness, discontent with the world and with oneself, courage to try things and reject them again and again, self-criticism, a love of truth, objectivity, a demanding nature, unconditionality, many-sidedness, a certain ponderousness together with a pleasure in free improvisation, slowness and seriousness together with a playful wealth of production that was always throwing out new forms and withdrawing them again as failed attempts, respect for the individual and the peculiar, good-naturedness, generosity, sentimentality, musicality, and above all a great freedom – something unchained and unbounded.

Today's Federal Republic of Germany is not identical with the Germany Haffner carried in his heart when he left the country, that is for sure. But it speaks in favour of today's Germany that its collective memory prefers to honour Haffner's Germany than the "German Reich". The battle-hungry intellectuals of World War I have also been almost entirely forgotten, and those great German intellectuals who were involved in the patriotic mania were all the more vehement in their opposition to national self-glorification in the 1920s and '30s. Gottfried Benn and Martin Heidegger may still be read and, in places, treated with quasi-religious reverence. But streets and commemorative awards are far more likely to be named after those Germans who resisted nationalism and National Socialism, often risking their lives.

This has by no means always been the case in the history of this state, and certainly not in the history of Germany's parliament, the Bundestag. In the 1960s, politicians and intellectuals who had returned to Germany from exile were still considered as traitors in conservative circles. Today, no one would dare to publicly condemn Willy Brandt or Sebastian Haffner for fleeing Germany. On the contrary: the address of the Federal Chancellery is 1, Willy-Brandt-Allee. Whatever one thinks of Brandt's politics, is it not literally wonderful – i.e. miraculous! – that the street from which Germany is governed bears the name of a German emigrant?

It would be wrong, however, to simply attribute the music, the philosophy and the literature to Haffner's Germany and the ignorance and lack of culture to the "German Reich". There is not one cultured Germany and one barbaric Germany. The barbaric Germany too, like every German nationalism before and since, claimed culture as its own, claimed Goethe and Schiller, Mozart and Beethoven. What resisted Nazi Germany was not German culture in general but precisely those German values which the Nazis despised and which Haffner emphasized: humanity, openness in all directions, pensiveness, self-criticism, respect for the individual and the peculiar, good-naturedness, generosity, freedom. As a result, the Nazis co-opting of literature had its limits wherever the motifs of self-criticism, openness to the world, the European idea, and humanism began. Goethe's cosmopolitanism, for example, was deeply at odds with Nazi ideology. And few have insulted Germany in harsher terms than, of all people, Friedrich Nietzsche: "Whenever I picture to myself a type of man that goes against all my instincts it always turns into a German".

Their cosmopolitanism and their contempt for German conditions and sensibilities saved neither Goethe nor Nietzsche from being pressed into service by the Nazis. They were unable to resist. But the German language itself did escape the lure of Nazism. Not only was there no National Socialist literature of any standing. Even the few major writers, such as Gottfried Benn, who initially sympathised with the Nazis instantly experienced a waning of their literary powers, as if cursed. The German language was watched over by exiles, and thus especially by German Jews. As their belonging to German culture had always been called into question, Jewish writers since the nineteenth century had always been strikingly meticulous concerning the correctness and integrity of their use of German. In the twentieth century, a time that saw the rise of a broadly anti-Semitic chauvinism, it was above all Jews who not only wrote German exquisitely but who also saw themselves as the guardians of the language. With a precision barely conceivable for us today, authors like Karl Kraus, Walter Benjamin, Franz Kafka and Victor Klemperer scoured linguistic usage for mistakes, inaccuracies and instances of clumsiness.

But it was not only the wish to secure their ties with German culture that caused Jews to become the most exacting guardians of the German language. For Prague Jews like Karl Kraus and Franz Kafka, there was also the factor of bilingualism to sensitise them to the use of German. The world in which Kafka and Kraus lived, and especially the common people, spoke Czech. One reason for their linguistic purism was that within the German minority, correct use of German could no longer be taken for granted. Kafka himself described his everyday experience of two languages in a letter to Milena Jesenská, who used to answer his letters, written in German, in Czech: "I have never lived among German people, German is my mother tongue and therefore comes naturally to me, but I find Czech much warmer".

The possibility of hearing one's own language from a distance, which also undermines the naturalness of speech, has enriched the German language. More still, it has helped the German language to accomplish itself, in Kafka's oeuvre and in the work of so many other mainly Jewish writers. They gave German literature a cultural, religious and biographical archive which contributed decisively to its world renown. Heinz Schlaffer has pointed out that although the Jews in Germany and Austria counted for less than one percent of the total population, roughly half of the most respected German writers of the twentieth century were Jews. "If one grasps 'German' not as an ethnic species, but as a cultural mindset, then the emancipated Jews can be considered the more serious Germans", he writes in his "Kurze Geschichte der deutschen Literatur" (short history of German literature): "With their expulsion and extermination, German literature logically forfeited its standing and lost its character." We will see, not today, not tomorrow, but in twenty or fifty years, how the foreignness currently entering German literature again as a result of immigration will impact on its orientation and its quality – whether the descendents of immigrants from Eastern Europe and the Middle East will give German literature back some of the worldliness, the external perspective and the metaphysical grounding which characterised it up to World War II.

Germany as a culture does not correspond to the German nation. Which means that the much-quoted truth that the Germans were united by their literature or their language has always also been a lie. Often enough, what characterised the best examples of German culture has been totally at odds with that which characterized Germany as a state and as a society, as a people and an ethnic group. One only has to read Ludwig Börne's memoir from the Jewish ghetto (short excerpt) in Frankfurt to remind oneself that discrimination and social ostracism were a shaping experience for large sections of German literature long before Hitler's time. "I have been spending every afternoon outside on the streets, wallowing in anti-Semitic hate", wrote Kafka in mid-November 1920. Kafka himself might have died early, but not one of his friends, if I've got my information correct – survived in Germany. Unless they escaped to safety in time – most of them to what was then Palestine – they suffered the miseries of political refugees, stranded in cheap hotels, ekeing out a living with odd jobs as illegal immigrants in foreign cities, standing in front of embassies waiting for visas. Or they ended like Kafka's non-Jewish love, Milena Jesenska, in German concentration camps. Certainly the Germans are united by their literature, but they are not united as Germans. And thus I find myself closest to German literature where it is furthest away from the Germans, whether this involves opposition as in Haffner's case, or indifference in Kafka's.

Am I a German? During the World Cup, I have always supported Iran, back when I first discovered Kafka, and today, when I still read him. At the same time, I am committed to nothing more than belonging to the same literature as the Prague Jew Franz Kafka. His Germany unites us.


This article originally appeared in the Süddeutsche Zeitung on 21 December, 2006 and was also delivered as a lecture in the series "Was eint uns?" (What unites us?) on 13 December 2006 at the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Berlin.

Navid Kermani is a writer living in Cologne. In February, his new novel "Kurzmitteilung" (Short Message) will be published by Ammann, Zurich.

Translation: Nicholas Grindell - let's talk european