Friedrich Gunkel Die Hermannsschlacht 1862–1864
A spectre is haunting central Europe – the spectre of das Volk. This concept died at the end of the Second World War but was resurrected in 1989 when citizens of East Germany proclaimed their sovereignty as a nation chanting Wir sind das Volk. They later switched to Wir sind ein Volk, to express their desire to be united with their Western brethren. Now Wir sind das Volk is again being chanted by those who oppose Chancellor Angela Merkel’s liberal policy towards refugees, or Willkommenskultur.
The concept of das Volk is of Romantic provenience. It is peculiar to Germany and central Europe. Curiously enough, it has no proper equivalent neither in the English nor French language. France, Great Britain and the United States were established as modern states during the Enlightenment. Montesquieu and Locke are their patron-saints. Germany was still divided at that time into kingdoms, principalities, duchies, bishoprics, and free cities. As a nation without a unified state, Germany was an anachronism. The Enlightenment was rather weak in Germany and failed to provide an impulse strong enough to initiate national coalescence. Fichte and Herder provided it with a political culture that was alternative to a rational political arrangement. German national consciousness was built on irrationalism of the volkisch community rather than a society that embodied common sense and reason. It was die Gemeinschaft rather than der Gesellschaft, die Kultur rather than die Zivilisation, blood ties rather than common interest, and organic growth rather than progress through the political process.
US historian Koppel Pinson writes in Modern Germany : Its history and Civilisation that the Volk-based state was
… a living organism, a macroanthropos, a living individuality which was not merely a sum of individuals bound together by a rational contract but organically related by blood, by descent, by tradition and by history.
While the Englishmen were engaged in industry and commerce, Germans busied themselves with speculative philosophy and poetry as das Land der Dichter und Denker.
The adjective German had to be added to almost every noun. Heinrich Heine mocks this attitude in Deutschland. Ein Wintermärchen in Caput XI:
Das ist der Teutoburger Wald,
Den Tacitus beschrieben,
Das ist der klassische Morast,
Wo Varus steckengeblieben.
Hier schlug ihn der Cheruskerfürst,
Der Hermann, der edle Recke;
Die deutsche Nationalität,
Die siegte in diesem Drecke.
Wenn Hermann nicht die Schlacht gewann,
Mit seinen blonden Horden,
So gäb es deutsche Freiheit nicht mehr,
Wir wären römisch geworden!
Gottlob! Der Hermann gewann die Schlacht,
Die Römer wurden vertrieben,
Varus mit seinen Legionen erlag,
Und wir sind Deutsche geblieben!
Wir blieben deutsch, wir sprechen deutsch,
Wie wir es gesprochen haben;
Der Esel heißt Esel, nicht asinus,
Die Schwaben blieben Schwaben.
No wonder Heine was a bete noire for National Socialists.
Jan Matejko Rejtan, or the Fall of Poland, 1866
At the end of the eighteenth century, another central European country Poland had a chance to develop as an enlightened constitutional monarchy. These aspirations were quickly quashed by its neighbours – Prussia, Austria and Russia. An attempt to reform its anachronistic structure failed because Poland was a colossus with feet of clay – too large as a country to be ruled as a cohesive whole and too weak as a state to resist external pressure. It was also handicapped by the egoism of its ruling class, szlachta, whose motto was: anarchy is the guarantee of Poland’s existence.
It seemed for a short period of time during the early 1790s that Poland would join the family of nations built on Lockean principles but the modernising project alarmed Russia. Armed intervention followed and the Polish Commonwealth was partitioned by its neighbours. The country disappeared from the map of Europe and Poles had no other choice but to accept that they are, too, das Volk (narod). They were ein Volk while being subjects of foreign kings and emperors. Polish national consciousness is Romantic par excellence.
The Troelfth Cake, first partition of Poland on the 26th September 1772, engraved by Noel Le Mire
Volkisch nationalism was not necessarily a bad idea. It allowed smaller nations to survive even when they had no states. The role of language was crucial in national survival. However, when modern nationalism emerged in the second half of the nineteenth century, nations built on the concept of das Volk degenerated into communities engaged in the Darwinian struggle of one nation against another. Central Europe became a battleground of competing nationalisms of Germans against Poles, Czechs against Germans, Poles against Jews, Lithuanians and Ukrainians against Poles, Slovaks and Romanians against Hungarians, and Poles against Russians. These conflicts were often expressed in racial terms as national characteristics ossified into supposedly biological traits. Individuals became willing prisoners of their respective ethnic groups. This process reached the climax when National Socialists decided that the German Volk was a “race” superior to all other “races”. As das Herrenvolk, Germans usurped the right to decide who could live as a slave and who had to die as der Untermensch. They understood the concept of das Volk in purely biological terms.
The Second World War was such a shock to Europe that, when the war ended, the Western part of the continent entered a path of mutual understanding, renunciation of violence, co-operation and progress through compromise. Germany started from die Stunde Null. Germans no longer perceived themselves as an ethnic community but rather as members of a society and citizens whose loyalty was primarily to the constitution.
Paradoxically, the fact that the eastern part of Germany was under Russian control allowed the western part of the country to free itself quicker from chauvinistic nationalism than would otherwise be possible. Konrad Adenauer was a Catholic, the provisionary capital of Bonn had a Catholic majority and Rheinland, where Bonn is situated, has had strong historical ties with France. The beginning of West Germany was effectively a Catholic takeover of Germany and, arguably, it was easier for Catholics (katholicos – universal) to abandon the notion of being members of the ethnic community and to begin reconciliation with the French.
Germany opted for constitutional patriotism (Verfassungspatriotismus) rather than solidarity based on ethnicity. This type of patriotism could not develop in the DDR because the communist system hindered the process of evolution in the relationship between citizens and the state. When Germans in Leipzig chanted Wir sind das Volk in 1989, a fundamental change occurred in the post-war history of Germany. Das Volk reappeared on the political scene in central Europe. Germans in the West perceived themselves as der Nation while Germans in the East saw themselves as members of das Volk. Even 25 years after the reunification many Germans still see themselves as Ossies and Wessies.
Recent developments in Germany have deepened this division. Germans in Leipzig and Dresden are again chanting Wir sind das Volk when they want to express their opposition to the arrival of refugees or illegal immigrants, with the usage of these terms depending on one’s political perspective. The phrase is used as a political weapon and chanted by members of the radical right when they want to frighten the refugees. Germany is deeply divided and there is no consensus as to what it means to be German.
Similar processes occurred in other countries in central Europe. Poland, with 38 million inhabitants, is particularly important. In late 2015, a fundamental shift occurred on the Polish political scene when the populist-nationalist Law and Justice party gained the majority in Parliament. The new government promptly initiated a program of moulding Poland into a second Hungary. Aggressive political discourse, vindictiveness, populism, illiberalism and electoral bribery reign now in Poland. Chauvinism is being encouraged by the ruling party and also by the Catholic Church. Poland is apparently for Poles only. If the appellation of national socialists were not debased by National Socialists, the Law and Justice party could have been called just that.
Poles are becoming das Volk, too, although a sizeable part of the society is deeply concerned about the path chosen by the ruling party. Liberal Poles were alarmed by the words of Kornel Morawiecki, interim speaker of Parliament, who pontificated to MPs that “the good of the nation is above the law. If the law conflicts with that good, then we ought not to treat it as something that we can’t break or change.” This is quite a shift for someone who was one of the leaders of the Solidarity movement under the communist rule. Obviously, Morawiecki was not aware of the sinister connotation of his words. The concept of the will of the people being above the law was one of the pillars of fascism. Morawiecki received standing ovation from people who should have known better.
Poland and Germany have entered unchartered waters. Right-wind radicalism could lead to violence on the continental scale.
Paradoxically, the volkisch disease is now spreading to societies in which das Volk was an alien concept. The French and the English have rediscovered respectively their essential Frenchness and Englishness. Terrorist attacks by Muslim extremists triggered the re-examination of laicite in France and multiculturalism in Great Britain.
Georg Buchner writes in Dantons Tod:
Erster Bürger: Was ist das Gesetz?
Robespierre: Der Wille des Volks.
Erster Bürger: Wir sind das Volk, und wir wollen, daß kein Gesetz sei; ergo ist dieser Wille das Gesetz, ergo im Namen des Gesetzes gibt’s kein Gesetz mehr, ergo totgeschlagen!