The Magazine

The German Problem

It's the conflict between culture and politics.

Jun 19, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 38 • By STEVEN OZMENT
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Having written to this point with a "bang," Lepenies concludes his study of modern German intellectual history with a modest status report on German culture and politics. Disappointingly, he cites, of all possible persons, Günter Grass's dual role as political campaigner for Willy Brandt and novelist to the world as the best illustration of the "normalization" of German culture and politics. Charmed by Grass's ability "to practice everyday politics without a certain disdain and arrogance," he virtually ignores the writer's condemnation of political reunification in 1989-90, which is surely a stunning example of utopian culture impeding vital politics.

Playing Jaspers to Arendt, Lepenies ends his rambling and riveting book with refreshing praise for "small Holocaust monuments" that eschew the brutal aesthetic politics of the ever larger ones. Among his examples is the touching diary of Victor von Klemperer. Here, Lepenies points out, is a personal mirror for "normal ordinary Germans," who may freely and privately behold the "indecency [and] small civil courage" that was shown to Jews and other victims of National Socialism in the everyday life of the past.

Now there's a real normalization of culture and politics!

Steven Ozment, the McLean Professor of Ancient and Modern History at Harvard, is the author, most recently, of A Mighty Fortress: A New History of the German People.