How a nation that loved ruins was itself reduced to rubble—and in its own ashes discovered new, impossible ideals.
A life in a discarded shoe box. A while back, as I was struggling with a text at the Public Library in the hamlet of Bengtsfors, Sweden, I came across the donated remains from a childless couple’s life. Among the pile of artifacts peaked out a shoebox full of photographs taken between 1938 and 1952.
Admittedly eager to be distracted, I pulled out the box and studied the photos. Among the pictures, many featured the couple’s travels through Germany on their way to holiday in Weiz, Austria in the years after World War II. Snaps from Hamburg, Cologne, Nuremberg, and Magdeburg—all in ruins. Hardly a house is left standing.
The husband, Bertil Birgfeldt, stands in the midst of the devastation, a Swedish tourist, bashful in his beige coat. He stands there as our representative. Bertil was not a party to this war. He shared neither in the desperation of defeat nor in the grim satisfaction of victory.
The war never came to Sweden. He had probably read about the destruction in the newspapers. His facial expression hints at the complicated emotions of finding himself amid the wreckage of a once-modern country. In 1945, 4.8 million of Germany’s 18.8 million houses were reduced to rubble.
* * *
Etymologically, the word “ruin” has its roots in the Latin ruere—to fall; to fall apart. Ruins are part of the course of civilizations, their unburied remains. Like bodies, buildings are destined to decay. In Magdeburg, centuries of deterioration happened in 36 minutes.
On January 16, 1945, a thousand tons of bombs fell on the city. The Royal Air Force had by then perfected the bombing of civilian centers. First regular bombs tore off the roofs to expose buildings’ more flammable insides and ripped up the roads to make them impassable for fire trucks. Then the firebombs.
Allied aerial photos show a city without people. Debris piled up between roofless walls. Not since the ravages of the Mongols had defeat been so devastating. There had been destructive wars, yes, but this one scorched every family, every city, every home. It was hard to see any future after this.
The German American political scientist Hans Morgenthau suggested that Germany should be made into “goat pasture.” It seemed a plausible alternative. The East German national anthem was, appropriately, called Auferstanden aus Ruinen—risen from ruins.
In an act of sheer will, the cities were cleared. Women, the Trümmerfrauen, did much of the manual labor. An estimated four million men were dead and an additional four million were in captivity. Temporary railroad tracks were laid so that an entire city could be moved, barrowload by barrowload.
By the time I grew up, there were fewer war ruins in West Germany. My father, who studied medicine in Munich in the late 1960s, spoke somewhat disparagingly of Britain where they were still collecting money the restore their blitzed churches while West Germany smelled of fresh paint.
West Germany did not mention the ruins in its national anthem; removing them became a sort of national obsession. A time traveler could take the case of Germany as a sign of parallel realities, for there are few visible signs of Ragnarök 1945 in 2020. At least not in the cities that tourists visit.
* * *
I don’t know anyone who knows anyone in Magdeburg. When I decided to visit the city, I sent out messages to German friends, asking if they knew anyone in the state capital. For no one knows the peculiarities of a city better than those who live there.
Few of them had ever been to Magdeburg, although the “Maid of the river Elbe” is little more than an hour’s journey from Berlin. My friends are college-educated, they may work in Berlin or Dresden, but they all come from the west. Magdeburg also has a tattered reputation.
When international media mention the city, it is often because of rightwing forces have made electoral gains. In the municipal elections of 2019, the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party captured 14.4 percent of the vote. Historian Jörg Arnold writes that the bombing remains important for the city’s identity. It has allowed citizens to see themselves as victims, despite the crimes of the Nazis’.
On January 16, a dozen or so rightwing radicals held a march to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the victims of the Magdeburg bombing, which they claim numbered 16,000. The real figure is between two and four thousand. The German establishment prefers to eulogize the victims of the local concentration camp, Magda.
The city’s ill repute is also due, in part, to Magdeburg being rather ugly. Before the war, it was different. With its baroque architecture, innumerable inns and narrow streets, Magdeburg was a postcard of pre-industrial Germany, not unlike Dresden. True, the city had burnt down in 1631, but it rose larger and more beautiful than before. On a personal note, I grew up thinking Magdeburg was a primary German city, on par with Berlin, Hamburg, and Munich. In the Lutheran world I grew up in, Magdeburg was “our” German capital.
The World War II bombing of Magdeburg was as thorough as the destruction of Dresden a month later. Ninety percent of the houses in the city center were destroyed. And with that, old Magdeburg perished. Its remains are buried in the hillocks east and west of the city, mountains of ruins.
* * *
Once, Germans adored ruins. For Goethe, ruins were aesthetic triggers for the refined mind. He even built a few new ruins in his park in Weimar. “The Abbey in the Oakwood,” Germany’s perhaps best-loved painting, portrays a ruin. In 1924, Kurt Krause’s guide to “German ruins” was a bestseller. Be careful of what you cherish, some might say.
“The ruin bears witness to two cosmic forces, nature and (human) spirit, working against each other,” wrote German sociologist Georg Simmel in 1911. He saw ruins as being “permeated with a disturbing melancholic charge,” an insistent reminder of the short span of your own existence. The ruin predicts a future when also our world will decay. Simmel writes that “Architecture is an extension of the human soul—the same conflict between upward striving and being cast downwards that happens in the ruin also occurs continuously in the human soul.”
On my way into Magdeburg, I stop at a ruin. The Crystal Palace was Magdeburg’s most fashionable dance hall. After jumping the fence and climbing in through a gap in one of the wardrobe wings, I enter the main hall. The roof had caved in between me and the podium, an insurmountable obstacle. For the first time, I understood what Simmel spoke of. It is as if a hundred years of music, laughter, and joy echoed on the outer edge of consciousness as I wandered from floor to floor and finally found myself on a bar stool by an infinitely long and moldy hardwood counter.
The Crystal Palace burned in the bombing but reopened in 1949. It shares the fate of many buildings that apparently survived the war in East Germany. Shoddy repairs only postponed its final deterioration. In 1986, the city authorities left the grand hall to decay.
Now that it is too late, posters outside announce that the Crystal Palace should be saved. Unfortunately, there is not much left to salvage. The masonry crumbles with water-laden rot. This is the case with many buildings in former East Germany. An estimated 1.3 trillion euros have so far been directed from western to eastern Germany, but it has not been enough.
* * *
“I tell my friends in Bavaria: Imagine that BMW, Airbus, and Bayer all closed down tomorrow. That’s what happened in the GDR. Magdeburg was known as the Stadt des Schwermaschinenbaus, the city of heavy industry. The loss of jobs still reverberates, but people in the West seem to have run out of solidarity.”
Historian Michael Stöneberg is an expert on Magdeburg’s recent history at the Kulturhistorisches Museum Magdeburg. He takes me through the museum’s exhibition, which includes the chapters of the city’s demise—first “The Bloody Magdeburg Wedding” in 1631, one of the great war-crimes of history.
He explains that Magd is another word for a maiden, and the memory of the killings, rapes, lootings, and burning of the Protestants’ main city was used in both Catholic and Protestant propaganda. “Blood Wedding” was meant to evoke the kind of love Protestants could expect from Catholics. The city’s name was even turned into a verb—magdeburgisieren meant to destroy a city.
“The GDR wanted to rebuild Magdeburg. The city was one of few cities designated to be rebuilt in the ‘national tradition,’ reminiscent of what used to be there, in a centrally planned reconstruction program. The destruction of the city center gave the architects the opportunity for a tabula rasa which was realized by a very thorough clearing of the remains. Room was created for communist aesthetics.”
This was most clearly manifested in Großer Platz, a giant open square in the very center, meant for public rallies. But it was never finished; it, and a number of other city spaces in Magdeburg remained empty. The GDR did not have the cash to realize all its planned projects. The idea of rebuilding representative structures with bricks recycled from the ruins, as attempted with the Grosser Platz, was abandoned in the 1960s, and Magdeburg was instead given rows of prefabricated buildings, without any obvious plan for what the result should look like. “Many people feel Magdeburg was treated poorly,” Stöneberg says.
In addition, the industrialists who had largely financed the city’s beautification, cultural life, and famous museum collections had no place under communism. As they say, Stöhneberg chuckles, “the first generation creates wealth, the next manages it, and the third studies art history.” The urban population was anyway not the same after the war. Many were immigrants displaced from the lost German provinces in the east. Today there is surprisingly little will for Magdeburg to rebuild the ruins that are still standing.
Recently, there was a referendum on whether the Abbey of St. Ulrich should be rebuilt. The Citizens of Magdeburg narrowly voted no. “War ruins were not romantic ruins,” says Stöneberg, “they bore memories of something people would rather forget, or they stood for a present age that is lacking the will to rebuild.”
* * *
Germany not only chose to forget but was also forced to. The actor and politician Arnold Schwarzenegger, born in Thal in 1947 where Birkenfeldt vacationed, writes in his autobiography Total Recall (2012): “How could we relate to the incredible drama when nobody wanted to talk about it?”
“The Third Reich was being officially erased. [….] Everything having to do with the Nazi era was confiscated. Books, films, posters, even personal journals and photographs. You had to give over everything. The war was supposed to be erased from your mind.” The war became a non-topic for the war generation.
The Allied approach was reasonable, given that German militarism had started two world wars, and that the militaristic mindset therefore should be discouraged. West Germany was demilitarized before belatedly joining Nato in 1955. Both German states hosted occupying foreign forces until 1989.
To the extent that the war was discussed, it was in biographical works such as Ernst von Solomon’s Die Fragebogen (The questionnaire, 1951). The questionnaire was an Allied standard form where Germans were ordered to disclose their relationship with Nazism. Solomon’s answer is a 500 pages long book.
In short, this conservative author’s answer can be summarized as follows: We Germans tried to be patriotic and supported our country under the Nazi regime by complying with the law, supporting the military and carrying out our duties while trying to avoid being involved in atrocities.
There is an element of self-pardon to this argument. The Second World War was not “just another war”, it was a collapse in civilization. The “I just followed orders”-logic enabled Nazis to make stellar careers in West Germany and quickly put the gas chambers and war crimes behind them.
The reckoning first came with the children of the war generation. Many felt disgust when confronted with the crimes of the Third Reich and their parents’ selective memory. The sins of the fathers haunted the children and countless books were written to disown the parents.
Meanwhile, the academics were eagerly discussing whether Germany’s sins were due to taking a wrong turn, or whether Germans are especially bad. The idea of Germany as a ‘Täternation’ (abusive nation) became a source of identity among German elites, suggests sociologist Bernhard Giesen.
This is perhaps illustrated in no historical figure or event can be celebrated or commemorated in Germany – be it Frederik the Great or the 68th generation – without it ending in a discussion about how the object remembered relates to Nazism.
The Jewish author Jean Améry offered a wry comment on this pathology: “Such is the German post-war despair. The German feels like a victim of a Kafka-esque trial. Mysterious forces have transformed him into an insect. He is simply continuing the mechanism that have been put in place.”
A similar identity evolution did not occur in the GDR. This was partly because the bombed-out East Germany was forced to pay war reparations. Entire factories were dismantled and transported to the Soviet Union. An example is Zinkhütte Magdeburg, which is still operating in Kazakhstan.
Germany’s reunification was not only a meeting between communism and capitalism, but also a confrontation between two different national identities. East Germany defined itself as anti-fascist, a “better Germany”. It didn’t have the same need for a self-recrimination forty years later.
* * *
In February 1993, the renowned playwright Botho Strauss sent shockwaves through Germany’s cultural elite with an essay in Der Spiegel with the cryptic title “The Swelling Song of the Billy Goat” (Anschwellender Bocksgesang). In it, he attacked left-liberal logic, attacked Germany’s modern self-image, and spoke out in favor of the nation.
It’s hard to exaggerate just how controversial this was. German intellectuals enjoy a degree of popular respect unheard of in most Western countries. And the country’s modern self-image as a post-national nation-state was at the same time universally accepted and self-contradictory.
Suddenly, here was a citizen in good standing shamelessly declaring himself to be of the Right. According to Strauss, widely shared (and seldom-heard) skepticism towards Germany’s open-door immigration policies was not the result of xenophobia, as it was nearly always portrayed. Rather, it was a positive impulse, a protection of the collective self.
The essay was a metapolitical act, a “rebellion: against the total rule of the present, which wants to rob and rid the individual of all presence of an unenlightened past, of what has come about historically, of mythical time.” Strauss advocated an attitude that would seek “to re-establish contact with prolonged and unmoved time, […] being essentially a deep recollection and in that sense a religious or protopolitical initiation.”
This might sound impenetrable to Anglo-American ears, but there is a logic. The German conservative tradition is distinct when it comes to the importance of culture. Strauss echoes Johann G. Herder’s view (1744-1803) that cultures are seen to grow and wither according to their own internal logic. To sever a nation from its historical roots is, in this view, unpardonable.
Strauss criticized not only the cultural pathology of liberalism; he also criticized the entire system as a failure—as a false liberation. Germany’s modern self-image was a romantic fiction: self-denying and thereby self-effacing. Among the flourishes of the German intellectual were salvos like, “We are challenged to be compassionate and obliging to the hordes of starving and homeless, we are committed to goodness by law.” [and] “Intellectuals embrace the unfamiliar, not for its own sake, but because they hate our own and welcome that which destroys it.”
The debate that followed was venomous. Strauss was skewered by most of the German elite in a flurry of op-eds. They said he was out of touch with the new Europe, that he was a nationalist, and that his criticism of the liberal society could legitimize (in countless euphemisms) Nazism.
The essay was published amidst tension between East and West in the wake of the reunification and the rise of rightwing radicalism in the East. What identity should Germany embrace now that it had become united and powerful? What about the war? Was it OK to be proud to be German?
Strauss essay was a conservative cri du coeur: “To be of the right, not by cheap beliefs or by low intentions, but of one’s entire being, is to experience the overwhelming power of memory; which sees the human rather than the citizen, rouses him and makes him feel lonely [in the modern world].”
One of the country’s most celebrated writers, Martin Walser, later called it: “Perhaps the wisest, clearest and most far-reaching text that has been published by a German intellectual since 1945.” The essay sparked a debate, but it did not lead to any national awakening. Rather, the debate seemed to shrink the corridor of opinion by making conservatism intellectually suspicious. Even today, Strauss’ name rarely appears in print without an asterisk.
* * *
The man behind the “New Right” think-tank Institut für Staatspolitik, Götz Kubitschek, thinks Strauss was ahead of his time: “The debate at that time was ultimately settled by the power imbalance between the editors and the public—with suffocation as a result.”
“What followed, however, was a whole new generation, influenced by the ‘goat debate’, and which today operates in a changed political reality.” This is a veiled reference to the rise of the AfD,where Kubitschek plays the role of a Steve Bannon. The weekly magazine Der Spiegel has called Kubitschek “the most important intellectual on the New Right in Germany”. Die Zeit calls his knight’s estate in the village of Schnellroda, a long hour’s drive south of Magdeburg, “the nucleus of a new rightwing empire.”
One afternoon in March, as the one-pub village is bathing in the spring sun, I meet Kubitschek in his study. He is dressed in a blue wool sweater and work pants with the mud stains of a farmer. In the German fashion, he first proposes a walk around the farm, parts of which date back to the 13th century.
Kubitschek hails from Ravensburg on Lake Constance. He looked for a long time for a home in the east. “We had to look at forty different estates before we found this one”. I ask what the manor had cost? “You won’t believe me, under $10,000,” he answers with an embarrassed shrug. He prefers to live in the countryside, where “life has the right proportions”. He has furnished a library on the second floor. The books range widely from the Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci, via Carl Schmitt, to the revolutionary conservative philosopher Ernst von Salomon, who is Kubitschek’s intellectual hero.
Before the interview, Göts invites me to supper with the family. We are nine around the table and the meal begins with lowered heads and a prayer. While we talk about world events, dishes are passed around with dark homemade bread, eggs from the farm, and goat sausage from the farm’s flock.
The living room has a curious aura, not unlike the entire property. Framed posters of classic-style paintings hang on the walls, along with a lot of Catholic paraphernalia. On the toilet door is a humorous sign that reads Goethe war hier with the word nie (never) in a tiny font below.
In the staircase up to the study, there is an old school map of Germany from the interwar period, soiled with red paint along the edge from when Antifa attacked the home of its former owner, a professor. A 9 mm pistol lies on Kubitschek’s work desk. Kubitschek is reviled by the radical Left and he fears for his family’s safety. It nevertheless makes me feel uneasy.
* * *
The wooden ceiling and the ancient stone walls seem to creep closer as darkness falls outside the narrow windowpanes as we finally get to the point. I ask him why a people who had a romantic relationship with ruins are now most concerned with getting rid of them?
Kubitschek disagrees with the broader premise. “There are memorial ruins in most German cities, such as the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin. And in the east, there are industrial ruins after the GDR in every town.” But he takes the point: “The war was a disaster. It is a German trait that we wanted to return to tidy orderliness.”
“It is also about optics. The medieval ruin evokes a sense of past greatness. The romantics forgot all the pain that characterized life back then. This room,” he says with a sweeping gesture, “has seen joy, weddings—but also suffering. People have probably died here, in this room. What we have inherited from past generations grounds us, connects us.”
I mention the Swedish photographs that set me on this quest. Kubitschek is most interested in the fact that they were discarded. “The same is true in Germany. People do not want to inherit objects, not even their parents’ books. That’s not how I see things. I don’t even like museums; they display objects what are no longer useful. What I like is to see is an ancient water post that is still in use.”
“What about Magdeburg?” I ask. He takes a sip of beer. “Magdeburg is grisly. The destruction of our cities is a loss that cannot be repaired. Magdeburg was shaped by a 1950s view of modernity that rebels against the 1,000 years that preceded it and is today reviled. But people still have to live in it.”
“What does this say about Germany?” I venture. “Germany may be beyond redemption. In the eagerness to break with the Third Reich—which is fair and reasonable—we have disowned all our history, saddled ourselves us an impossible identity that lacks grounding, but is stipulated from elites.”
I ask if this is also not a sort of romanticism—to espouse an identity one cannot possibly live up to? Kubitschek disagrees. “Germans’ willful amnesia of our past—who we are and who we were—can only lead to ruin. Much like individuals, nations are most beneficial to others when they have a realistic and positive sense of self.” Far away, in a cold distance, a goat bleats.
* * *
On my way back to Berlin, I notice derelict old buildings in every town. Chancellor Angela Merkel has argued that “Germany needs to come to terms with itself”. Germans need “to get over themselves” is more often heard in NATO circles where they are tired of German self-recriminations.
The question of Germany identity is vital to the future of Europe. A new bout of patriotism could trigger pathologies in neighboring states that could derail the European project. And, yet, the selfless impulse that triggered the migration crisis of 2015 could do the same.
In the wake of the Goat-debate, Angela Merkel shifted the Christian Conservative Union in a socially liberal direction. It is hard to pinpoint a single clear conservative victory during her fourteen years in power. This helps explain why conservative voters are flocking to the rightwing AfD. Merkel views the AfD as untouchables, which has contributed to the ongoing German culture war between liberal and national conservative forces.
German academics and journalists effectively stigmatize rightwing views. A quote from Joshka Fischer, former Foreign Minister of the Green Party, help explain: “Germany doesn’t need nationalism,” he said, “because nothing has ruined Germany as much. When I hear AfD’s slogan, I see the cities I grew up in. Cities where we played in the ruins. Our toys were the remnants of the war. It is a very strong memory for me.”
To this, Götz Kubitschek says, “We do not want to go back to the past, all we want is for Germany to become a normal country. We need to stop instrumentalizing the past. We must break out of this collective psychosis. There is no moral world championship to be won, it’s an illusion.”
Arnold Schwarzenegger ends his biography, with a piece of advice that could offer a way out of this deadlock: “Don’t blame your parents. They have done their best for you and if you have been left with problems, those problems are now yours to solve.” The German debate is not there yet.
All of this makes any redeeming agreement on identity and past unlikely. While Merkel is on her way out, her appointed ideological successor in the CDU, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer bowed out. The Corona crisis may give the more conservative Jens Spahn a chance to shine as health minister.
Taken all together, we can at minimum conclude that while the future is unknowable, we can still hope that Germany’s future may yet be shaped by a kind of conservatism that is less national and less romantic than what the AfD represents.
Published in The American Interest on 29 Mar 2020