Germany Gingerly Re-Examines the Meaning of Nationalism

April 10, 1995|By WILLIAM PFAFF

PARIS — Paris. -- On March 29 Ernst Juenger celebrated his 100th birthday. German Chancellor Helmut Kohl was in attendance. Few Americans will have heard of Ernst Juenger, but he is a major figure in modern German literature and today, as for many years, a cause of political controversy.

A romantic young man from a middle-class family, he ran away from home in 1912 and joined the French Foreign Legion. His father went after him and got him released. Two years later the war came and he joined the German army. He was wounded 14 times, and was given the highest decoration the German army offered, the ''Pour le Merite,'' an order created by Frederick the Great.

In 1920 he published a novel glorifying war, called (in English) ''The Storm of Steel,'' which was an international sensation. He became active in the nationalist movement and opposed the liberal Weimar republic. His ideal was of a Nietzschian natural aristocracy of sacrifice.

Later, he rejected this militarism, and his 1939 novel, ''On the Marble Cliffs,'' was an allegorical attack upon Nazism and on the totalitarian state. He also made himself an entomologist of international distinction.

In the Second World War he served briefly with combat forces and then joined the German general staff in Paris where he frequented French literary and intellectual circles, and was involved with the German mil

itary conspiracy to kill Hitler. Hitler himself was said to have ruled out Juenger's arrest because of his First World War record. Juenger's meticulous journal of the war years provides an unparalleled record of Paris under the Occupation.

After the war he remained -- as he remains today -- an impenitent German nationalist, although a pacifist. In 1982 he described himself as a ''loyal but unenthusiastic citizen of the Federal Republic,'' adding that for him, ''reality'' was the German Reich, or Empire.

Germans after the war mostly found him an encumbrant reminder of a nationalism and a period they preferred to forget. He has, himself, preferred his writing and his entomology to politics. (His collection of 40,000 examples of beetles is one of the world's most important).

The French, on the other hand, particularly since the publication of his wartime journals, have been fascinated by him. His reputation in Germany has chiefly revived because of his new French fame. President Francois Mitterrand has several times invited him to ceremonies commemorating the two wars, or marking Franco-German friendship.

There has always been a taste for romantic abstractions in German intellectual life

and German politics, and Ernst Juenger -- the younger Juenger, certainly -- was representative of this. Since the war, on the left, in reaction against Nazism, an unrealistic glorification of socialist revolution and of Marxism was often put forward. The idea of nationalism was abhorred because nationalism in the past had been appropriated by the Nazis.

The totalitarianism of the East German regime was ignored or rationalized by many intellectuals. The leftist terrorism of the 1970s reproduced the rightist terrorism of the 1920s, but nonetheless found many defenders. However this leftist romanticism was dissolved in the reality of communism's collapse and the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Now there is a new rightist romanticism, whose supporters include some disillusioned leftists from the 1960s, such as the playwright Botho Strauss. This new right deplores Germany's ''loss of values'' and cultural ''Americanization,'' and asks for the revival of what it calls a ''normal nationalism.'' Some question the pro-Western orientation of postwar Germany, without making it very clear what alternative they have in mind.

There is nothing wrong with the notion of a ''normal nationalism.'' It is hard to see that Germany can permanently make its (unde

niably real) commitment to European unification a substitute for ''normal'' national feelings and loyalties. Nazism in any case was not a form of German nationalism. It made use of the apparatus and symbolism of nationalism, but its ideology was racism. It wanted the global domination of ''Nordic'' or ''Aryan'' man over everyone else, considered inferior or degenerate. That is not nationalism.

Nonetheless a true German nationalism, which Ernst Juenger represents, has always proved to be vulnerable to German romanticism, which has been the most important, or at least the most persistent, force in German political life since early in the 19th century. It has tended to produce notions of national superiority and unique destiny.

This debate over nationalism in Germany is necessary, and the centenary of Ernst Juenger's birth has simply provided an occasion for its renewal. It is an important debate. Nonetheless there is reason to be glad that, unlike in France (as noted by a French commentator, in Le Monde), what intellectuals in Germany think and say does not count for much in political life.

The ordinary German gives no sign of interest in any destiny other than to be a sober good citizen of Europe. The important question -- for Germans, as for the rest of us -- is what this Europe will turn out to be.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.