The Magazine

The German Question

Where did they come from, where are they going?

Dec 24, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 15 • By THOMAS A. KOHUT
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This second epoch identified by Hagen was the nationalistic and liberal life world of the 19th century that came to an end with the outbreak of war in 1914. With nationalism and liberalism brought together in the concept of national self-determination, ethnic identity was assumed to be the natural basis of political nationhood. This second epoch saw the halting and incomplete establishment of a unified Germany. Although the German Empire established under Prussian auspices in 1871 contained many ethnic Germans, it also included non-German speakers and excluded many ethnic Germans, particularly those living in Austria. And, in contrast to the expectation of German nationalists, it was decidedly illiberal. 

The multiethnic Austro-Hungarian empire, for its part, was challenged by ethnic nationalism, the expectation and demand that the nation-state include all the members of a single ethnic group. The impossibility of founding ethnically pure nation-states in central Europe, the increasingly obvious fact that liberalism and nationalism were not (as had been assumed) synonymous, the growing power of the industrial working class, and with it the emergence of international socialism led to increasing internal and international tensions that came to a head in August 1914 with the outbreak of World War I.  

The year 1914 thus brought the second epoch to an end and ushered in Hagen’s third epoch—the years of crisis between 1914 and 1945—which saw the German nations and national ideologies of the previous epoch destroy themselves in orgies of violence and death. Imperial Germany and Austria-Hungary both collapsed in 1918 to be replaced by the weak democratic national governments of the Austrian and German republics. These republics, in turn, did not survive the economic and political turmoil of the 1920s, and were ultimately replaced by Adolf Hitler’s dictatorial state, which sought to unify Germans along racial, rather than ethnic, lines. The Third Reich lasted a mere 12 years before its catastrophic collapse in a genocidal world war launched to secure living space and a vast European empire for racially suitable Aryans.  

Nazi Germany’s defeat in 1945 gave rise to the final epoch defined by Hagen—the period lasting until the present day. Unlike their 19th- and early 20th-century predecessors, the two postwar Germanys were not based on ethnicity or race but on their economic, social, and political systems and on their alliances with the United States (in the case of the Federal Republic of Germany) and the Soviet Union (in the case of the German Democratic Republic). With the reunification of Germany in 1990, a new Germany emerged—not a nation defined by ethnicity, but “a citizen’s community,” with multiethnic and even post-ethnic identities. With the partial and not unproblematic integration of Germany into Europe, contemporary Germany can be characterized, according to Hagen, as something of a post-national polity.

A historical narrative that has a clear end goal, whether it be the nation-state or the Third Reich and the Holocaust, has the advantage of being consistent and coherent, and readers know where they are heading from the start. By eschewing that consistent and coherent story, and presenting contradiction and conflict in each of his four German life worlds, Hagen may frustrate readers who seek the power and clarity of traditional historical narrative. Instead of linear, inevitable history, he presents a polycentric, multiethnic, and contingent history. Coherence is provided more impressionistically, through the interrelationship of the various aspects of political, social, economic, and cultural life in each epoch.  

Hagen presents readers with a historical mosaic. Indeed, his epochs are brought to visual life in the countless images that make up nearly half of the book. Through text and images, Hagen re-creates worlds of experience and does so in a dispassionate, reasonable, and readable way.

In part, perhaps, because the Third Reich is not treated as the inevitable outcome of the course of German history, but as one of several possible outcomes, Hagen’s treatment of National Socialist Germany is particularly fine. Indeed, I cannot think of a better brief account of the nature of the Nazi state and society—of the appeal of the racial community of the Volk, of the war to secure living space in Eastern Europe and its attendant genocide.