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Freed from Fear and Sadness: The New Germany

Michael Meng and Adam R. Seipp

The writing of German history since 1945 has often, if not excessively, been shaped by critical and negative attitudes; or, as Baruch Spinoza would put it, by excessive fear and sadness in the face of human suffering. Ruination, mourning, absence, destruction, and failure are the leitmotifs of postwar German historiography. Amid this chorus of negativity, however, a few exceptions stand out. One of whom is our mentor, Konrad Jarausch, who over the past decade or so has written several books on Germany’s transformation into a rational democratic society––the very society that Spinoza suggests can achieve peace insofar as it frees people from the negative and divisive emotions of sadness and fear.

A democratic society, says Spinoza, must not only be dedicated to enhancing the life of every individual but it must also be dedicated to reason. What is reason for Spinoza? Reason is the collective, human power to understand the world shorn of the various fantasies that arise from sadness and fear. If sadness and fear divide us––keep us in the dark and render us resentful, angry, and hateful––reason brings us together, enlightens us, and empowers us with joy. Reason unifies us to understand nature so as to develop practical solutions for the enhancement of all.

While the power of reason might be clear, the countering power of negative emotions makes it difficult to be rational, especially when something new and dangerous suddenly happens such as a novel virus. In some places in the world people have responded to the novel coronavirus COVID-19 with fear, anger, and despair: those who have sought to blame China or immigrants for the disease and those who have protested social distancing restrictions come to mind. In other places, people have responded to COVID-19 with rational prudence: those who have sought to contain the virus, protect the vulnerable, and stymie the growing economic crisis it has unleashed fall into this group.

Federal Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel

A specific example of the latter is Angela Merkel who has proven to be a highly effective leader of Germany during the current health and economic crisis. That she has proven to be so effective obviously owes much to her own individual strengths as a leader and rationalist who has intelligently and calmly urged her country to limit the spread of COVID-19. Yet it also owes much to the strengths of the society that she leads, of the new Germany that emerged in the wake of Nazism. For, it goes without saying that the Germany of the past, the Germany of blaming its problems on others and succumbing to conspiracies, would have been seized by the same emotions of fear and anger that are currently dividing the Western power that helped to transform it into the society that it is today.

Germany has changed. To say that is not to suggest that Germany has freed itself entirely of its past. The old Germany of fear and hatred has reappeared at various moments since 1945, even quite recently with the rise of Alternative for Germany. But that old Germany has not reared its ugly face in the current crisis; if anything, it has been weakened by the crisis as Germans have turned to the power of rational thought to confront a common threat.

The German response to the COVID-19 crisis has been so dramatically different from that of the United States that it has led to a case of “Merkelmania” among some influential pundits in this country. There is no question that the Chancellor’s firm, calm, and rational public statements, including a televised address to the country on March 18 and a layman’s explanation of basic statistics at a press conference on April 15, are a jarring juxtaposition to the partisan braying of the American public sphere. Polls in Germany find public approval for Merkel’s government and its handling of the COVID-19 crisis at nearly 80%, something unthinkable in Trump’s America.

It would be a mistake, though, to give too much credit to Merkel as an individual, no matter how capable she is. The Federal Republic of Germany has a complex federal system in which the Chancellor has to operate amidst competing interests and rival parties. The Federal Republic, which emerged from the moral, political, and military collapse of the Third Reich, owes its shape and structure partly to the fear among its early leaders that tyranny and militarism could reemerge in Germany. The result was an imperfect and sometimes boring consensus-driven political economy that nonetheless produced an export-led economy some observers termed “Modell Deutschland.” This German Model fared badly in the wake of the costly and divisive reunification between East and West after 1990, leading to anxieties in Germany that the country had lost its way.

In the past two weeks, one particular feature of the German consensus model has garnered international attention. The policy of “short-term work,” or Kurzarbeit, in which the government offers firms financial assistance to allow them to retain workers rather than lay them off, stands in marked contrast to an American economy in which firms must dismiss employees before those workers can receive benefits. Kurzarbeit is garnering favorable coverage in the American press in large part because it seems to offer a better way to prepare the economy and workforce for a post-COVID-19 recovery.

Kurzarbeit is not new. It emerged in the 1950s when the Federal Republic attempted to craft a model of labor relations so as to hinder the far right from exploiting the frustrations of the unemployed and the socialist left from attracting workers by its various blandishments. It was used when key firms or sectors faced layoffs that might threaten social stability. Some outside of Germany took notice of Kurzarbeit after the 2008 Great Recession, when unemployment in the country actually declined slightly as some other major European economies hemorrhaged jobs.

As students of Konrad Jarausch and co-editors of a Festschrift in his honor, we have long debated the many ways that Germany’s relationship to its past shapes its political and social policies, most obviously in its long-standing and understandable reluctance to take on the role of serving as a model of governance for other parts of the world to observe and, possibly, emulate. But the world is watching Germany now as it carefully attempts to re-open its economy while ensuring the health of its citizens and residents in the face of a virus that could resurge if Germany does not remain highly vigilant and cautious. The fact that the world is watching Germany can only be welcomed by supporters of democracy, peace, and cooperation since it demonstrates that Germany has emerged from the shadow of its past and from the tutelage of the United States by building a rational and responsible democratic society. Thus, for all of its many problems and challenges, the Federal Republic of Germany confirms the virtues of rational consensus and cooperation in a world that seems to be moving in the direction of nationalistic division, of “my country first.” If it continues on its current path and avoids the angry, resentful passions of nationalism, then Germany might very well emerge from the current crisis as one of the strongest voices of democracy and reason in the world.


Michael Meng is an Associate Professor of History at Clemson University. He is the author of Shattered Spaces: Encountering Jewish Ruins in Postwar Germany and Poland

Adam R. Seipp is a Professor of History at Texas A&M University and author of Strangers in the Wild Place: Refugees, Americans, and a German Town, 1945-1952.

Michael Meng and Adam R. Seipp are also the editors of MODERN GERMANY IN TRANSATLANTIC PERSPECTIVE.

Bringing together incisive contributions from an international group of colleagues and former students, Modern Germany in Transatlantic Perspective takes stock of the field of German history as exemplified by the extraordinary scholarly career of Konrad H. Jarausch. Through fascinating reflections on the discipline’s theoretical, professional, and methodological dimensions, it explores Jarausch’s monumental work as a teacher and a builder of scholarly institutions. In this way, it provides not merely a look back at the last fifty years of German history, but a path forward as new ideas and methods infuse the study of Germany’s past. Read the introduction here.