GHDI logo

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

In a typical column, an editor of the liberal weekly Die Zeit muses about intellectuals’ lack of pride in their German identity, notes their weak attachments to the Federal Republic, and pleads for an appreciation of German culture, language, and region within a European context – thereby renouncing a national consciousness.

print version     return to document list previous document      next document

page 1 of 4

On the Burden of Being German

A German I shall never be – this sentence appears in John le Carré’s new international bestseller The Little Drummer Girl (see p. 27). The “spy novel” genre is not very high on our literary hierarchy here. Yet an author of the international standing of David Cornwell (alias John le Carré) should not be skimmed through, but rather read sentence for sentence. The German reader might be taken aback upon reading that Alexis, the German, decides, “In my next life I shall be a Jew or a Spaniard or an Eskimo or just a fully committed anarchist like everybody else. But a German I shall never be – you do it once as a penance and that’s it.”

This sentence must be both fascinating and disturbing to a German. Not so much because it is being circulated in millions of copies, but more so because the author, who spent a long time living among Germans and has some German friends, cannot be accused of having an “anti-German” attitude. And mostly because David Cornwell came up with a catchy formula to express the prevailing opinion of us Germans throughout the world – and what some of us sometimes think ourselves. We shouldn’t deceive ourselves just because our French friends or American colleagues are polite, if not downright friendly and willing to grant one or another of us special status. The fact that many of us consider it a compliment when we are told “You don’t seem at all like a German,” says more than we would like to admit.

We Germans spend too much time thinking about ourselves and wanting to be loved. Since people say that about us anyway, why shouldn’t I wallow a bit in this national vice? Actually, who – except for J.R. Ewing* – has not wanted to be loved? And we have good reason to think about ourselves.

Like Dr. Alexis, so many of us are drawn to Spain, from the Condor Legion to the villa owners on the Costa Brava, that there seems to be some kind of affinity – even if, in the end, it turns out to be a longing for sun and affordable prices. Whether just as many Germans would like to be Jews, just as Jews liked being Germans before the horror, is subject to doubt and evades pithy explanation in any case. The Eskimos are a literary gag of John le Carré: “Negroes” would have been better, if only in memory of Kurt Tucholsky, who could imagine an Eskimo who sings Italian arias, but not a Negro who speaks with a Saxon dialect.**

* The anti-hero of the popular prime-time drama, Dallas – eds.
** This is a reference to the text “Nationales” (1924) by the German-Jewish satirist Kurt Tucholsky (1890–1935) – trans.

first page < previous   |   next > last page