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A Liberal Intellectual Reflects on "the Burden of Being German" (September 2, 1983)

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Little in Common

Then something is missing. We can hardly pronounce the word “fatherland.” The thought of “dying for Bonn” would sound ridiculous to most of us – a good thing at that. We are citizens of the world, cosmopolitans with excellent competence in foreign languages, and no one travels abroad more than we do.

But if we think about what it really means to be a German today – what it means, where the substance of the statement lies – then the only identifiable common ground we can think of is history, culture, and language. Lots of shaky foundations. We are Hitler’s heirs, like it or not. Mozart the Austrian, Kafka the Czech, and the many other “bearers of culture” for whom we are competing with the GDR – Luther, Schiller, Goethe – are hardly suitable as bearers of a German consciousness specific to the Federal Republic. And the common language leads to rash conclusions of a commonality that East Germans, Austrians, and Swiss, for good reason, will reject.

Curiously, only few Germans consider the question of national identity to be particularly urgent. Most get used to its absence – in the family, in their circle of friends, in the solidarity of the workplace or professional associations, in the neighborhood. And everyone has lots of foreign friends. We almost don’t really care if we come back as Eskimos or as Germans, especially since none of us believe we will come back “in a next life” at all.

If people express their wishes, then a slight pathos is hardly avoidable. Who cares? To us, being German means being aware of German art and science, cultivating our German language, not losing our family, loving the area we come from . . . yes, even here, “love” is allowed, and striving for that “United States of Europe” into which we can bring more than just the Deutschmark that everyone always wants: for instance, the – not totally voluntary – lack of a national consciousness.

Source: Rudolf Walter Leonhardt, “Von der Last, Deutscher zu sein” [“On the Burden of Being German”], Die Zeit, September 2, 1983.

Translation: Allison Brown

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