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A pungent joke made the rounds in the autumn of A1989 in response to what the demonstrators in Leipzig had shouted to their West German neighbors, "We are one people!" The joke runs: An Ossi (East German) says to a Wessi (West German), "We are one people!" Whereupon the Wessi replies, "So are we. "
The "great word that sprang from the lips of the people in dramatic times" calls to mind the prayer of the man who would be a "fisherman in the vineyards of his Lord." The quotation captures the mixture of bathos, confusion, diffuse longings, and disappointments in the German Federal Republic's "lack of national consciousness" and the elation that some German intellectuals and politicians--and not just a few, either--summon up when speaking of the nation. This is before they ultimately get caught in the seemingly magic fascination of the word "people" like flies in honey. "People" and "nation" merge into one and become inseparable in their minds. They seem to assume that a nation, in the real sense of the word, only exists when there is a corresponding, unmistakable people.
Whatever else this mental image, or mentality, may be, it is German. Part of a tradition that sanctifies itself, as traditions frequently do, it derives its worth primarily from the notion that something becomes valuable by virtue of having existed for a certain length of time: old customs, religions, legal systems--but also, of course, organized crime, forgery, piracy, influenza, mumps, and gingivitis.
Helmuth Plessner renamed his book, initially titled The Fate of the German Mind in the Outgoing Bourgeois Epoch (published in Zurich in 1935), The Belated Nation. Of the Political Seducibility of the Bourgeois Mind when the second, expanded, edition was published in 1959. Whether there is more than a decayed stump left today in Germany of that bourgeois mind whose roots lie in the eighteenth and nineteenth century is rather doubtful. What cannot be disregarded, however, is the fact that once again, after a hiatus of more than fifty years, a discussion has arisen concerning how the "belated" German nation can catch up. In Germany, the focus is on trying to understand the unforeseen, sudden unification of the divided nation. In France, England, Denmark, Switzerland, and other "old" nations, by contrast, the discussion centers on European unity.
The focus of the discussion in Germany is not on the historically new, such as the working democratic constitution (the Basic Constitutional Law), its conservation and further development. The foremost question is that of people and nation--next to the necessary quest for ways to bring some orderly planning into the so far muddled attempts at solving the socio-economic problems of unification. To the question of people and nation is attached the symptomatic, emotional appendix of the question of the capital city. Speeches are sprinkled with references to the "provincialism" of the former Federal Republic of Germany to be overcome by the reconstitution of a "metropolis"--Berlin--which, historically, had entered the scene just as belatedly as its attendant nation.
The Imagined Metropolis
At issue are symbols, rather than structures. Limping once again after past epochs, one borrows and imitates models that had their heyday in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and that suffer to this day the consequences of their greatness. As Michael Bienert says in Die eingebildete Metropole, the longing for a "center of the classic nation states," expressed by the desire for "squares and buildings, comparable to those in New York (squares!), Madrid, Vienna, Paris, London, and Leningrad" (St. Petersburg), at times overshadows the urgently needed constitutional discussion and search for solutions to social and economic problems. The ideal of "anti-provincialism," which thirsts for greatness and importance, would be "a beautiful architecture surrounding free spaces and collecting a lot of people under the wide sky"--stopping just short of public executions.
In these visions of a pre-industrial, pre-mass media society, the general public moves about in the open air, as can be seen these days at best in a modem, mutant form at the Munich Oktoberfest, the provincial parish fair, open-air festivals, county fairs, and soccer stadiums. These visions are blind to the present. Nor do the more-than-questionable attempts to present "modern" metropolises of New York, Paris or London as structural equivalents heal the romantic hankering after the pre-modernist era of the eighteenth and nineteenth century and its nationalism. What is constitutional patriotism, symbol of the modem heterogeneous nation state, compared to "a lot of people under one big sky" and great words that spring from the lips of the people in dramatic moments? Practically nothing! Evidently, constitutional patriotism does not exude sufficient heat; it does not still the desire that can only satisfied by revering great symbols.
Although Karl-Heinz Bohrer, co-editor of the journal Merkur, avoids contracting, or even confusing, the terms "nation" and "people," other contributors to this journal still use the two terms interchangeably. This usage, a German idiosyncracy, developed in the outgoing eighteenth century, grew to full bloom in the nineteenth century, and sprouted wildly during the Nazi period. This persistence is part and parcel of that German mentality Helmuth Plessner sought to capture in his "history of the mind" of the "belated nation," and is part of an emotional rather than an intellectual attitude. Since the 1970s, this pattern of thought seemed to have been overcome in the Federal Republic of Germany. But now, it has risen again from the ruins of the past, even if in a different guise.
Thanks to the Leipzig demonstrators, the term "Volk" has regained a dubious respectability since 1989. They spoke for the citizens of the German Democratic Republic (GDR)--and, initially, for them alone. The former GDR seemed to have preserved, under the protective wing of socialism, a certain internationalism, and what was termed international solidarity, a piece of that dubious cultural spirit which this, "bulwark of anti-fascism" had been in the habit of uncovering only outside its own walls.
Once again the birth of a concept of nation was determined not by the democratically conceived nation state that lives on the "culture of differences," but by faith in the "inner" community of one people. For Plessner, a principal cause of "Germany's protest against Western Europe's humanism" during the Weimar Republic was an historic constellation that at the time lay three hundred years in the past, in the "missed seventeenth century." Similar to Spain and Italy, albeit with different results, occupied and splintered Germany was not able to develop a politically and economically influential bourgeoisie that forced the estates into balance (as in France), leaving behind the corporate state in the social contract of the bourgeois Enlightenment. Germany was denied the combination of state, law, economy, and nation that evolved through the dominant idea of the social contract because of an "historical accident."
Prussia holds a special position in all this. Up to the founding of the Empire, the German bourgeoisie had no access to political power. Thus "Bismarck's empire is [still] a …