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German and European experiences in developing national identity and patriotism

Sheer resemblances or mutual inspirations?

©2014 Seminararbeit 21 Seiten


The article briefly describes the most crucial factors of the German identity-constructing process after the World War II and the same process in the European Union. The article focuses on the official documents and legal acts concerning the issue of common identity and stipulates the most significant resemblances between the two phenomena described. It also poses a question if the process of embedding them in the most significant European treaties and acts constitutes a tradition characteristic to the European Union in an attempt to form its own part of a supranational identity. Furthermore, the article contains a comment on the latest debates over the future of both the German and the European identities.


Jakub Gortat

German and European experiences in developing national identity and patriotism - sheer resemblances or mutual inspirations?

The problem of a common European identity and a group of values that are recognizable for the whole European community nowadays seems to be as up-to-date as never before. European Union has lately become a community of a high developed bureaucratic system with special tools to conduct foreign policy in the most rudimentary questions. It has been strengthened after the reforming treaty of Lisbon that came into force in 2009, which rendered it a widely respected organization. The questions of an European identity, however, did not vanish from the public discourse and appear to express the necessity of confirming the group of shared interests and values. Is this European identity a concept held not only by the leading European politicians and bureaucrats, but also by the societies of the member states, or solely an abstract idea that cannot be put into practice considering the fact that many European states still encounter some obstacles to define their own identity? The best example for illustrating such a process seems to be the German experience of constructing national identity after the end of World War II. There are many distinguishing marks that show resemblance between the development of German identity question and the same process in the European Community. The article aims to enumerate and discuss these similarities. It is also an attempt to give an answer to some of the essential questions that pertain to the nature of forming of a national identity, such as confrontation with the past in the contemporary discourse, both in the German and the European context, or the degree of homogenization of the societies mentioned above. The first part of the article will mainly concentrate on the problem of the German identity and will emphasize its uniqueness against a background of the vast majority of other European countries. Following, the attention will be given to the same phenomena in the European discourse including the evident resemblance between two debates.

German national identity after 1945 - a short overview

In respect to almost all discussed countries one term is exceptionally often stressed in the literature on the topic of national identities- the founding myth, considered as a ritual or founding of a city, group presented as a genealogy or a nation with a character of a founding father or a narrative on a belief, an idea or a philosophy of great relevance to the future development of the community. In this context Federal Republic of Germany appears as an unusual country, whose national identity was not determined by any founding myths, especially after the end of World War II when the official and prevailing ideology turned out to be a source of atrocities previously unknown in the civilized world. Denazification and reeducation imposed upon German society in 1945 were to prove how contorted and evil the Nazi ideology had been, and to implement new rules, political models and values that from then on were supposed to mold the social life in the defeated country. Moreover, the shame of what had been done during the Nazi period and the common repudiation of the truth unveiled after the liberation of concentration camps contributed to the emergence of a very deep gap in the discussion of the problem of identity. Any factors that could made Germans take pride in belonging to German nation were put aside and seemed inappropriate after having discovered the scale of the war crimes. Instead of a founding myth typical for many other countries in the Federal Republic of Germany there can be observed various factors that decided for constructing a new, modern national identity. Nevertheless, the second German state, i.e., the German Democratic Republic, is an example of a country with a founding myth that was harmonized shortly after the end of World War and promptly began to function in the official discourse. The socialist republic was supposed to be an antifascist and anti-imperialist stand that has assertively come to terms with the Nazi past, whereas its Western neighbor was perceived as the one who deliberately neglected this process.

Despite the lack of a founding myth in the Federal Republic Germany there are some narratives that determined the national identity of the country. The first factor can be described as a victims discourse, in German terminology defined as ‘Opfernarrative’ (narratives of the victims). It stemmed directly from the tremendous defeat Germany suffered in 1945 and precipitated the country into division, territorial losses, hunger, homelessness and forced migrations. The horrifying air raids conducted by the allied armies left hundreds of German cities and towns ruined. Many industrial facilities were reduced to rubble and the obligatory shift from war to piece economy contributed to a deplorable economic situation. Millions of refugees who streamed from the lost Eastern territories of Reich needed to find an accommodation and integrate with the Western part of society. The demographical crisis was also an effect of imprisonment of millions of men, mostly in the Soviet Union, many of whom could not be released until the 1950s.

At the same time, however, the calamities of 1945 marked a new beginning, i.e. the ‘Zero Hour’ (‘Stunde Null’), when Germany turned over a new leaf in its existence. Buildings had to be rebuilt, whole cities had to be reconstructed and apathy had to be managed. Very rapidly the feeling of desolation was replaced by zeal of work determined by the will to survive despite any hardship. Facing these hardships the German society gradually, but still in a short period of time, developed a common consciousness that made only a certain group of Reich’s politicians and military commanders responsible for the war and the atrocities. In this view, ordinary Germans were to be involved involuntarily in the war and needed to suffer because of Hitler and his closest comrades. This impression was additionally forced by the course of the Nuremberg trials, where only the most outstanding politicians had been convicted and also by the inconsequent reeducation which - despite spreading all the layers of the society - turned out to be quite light and was soon aborted. The abolitionary politics of Konrad Adenauer’s government in the 1950s bestowed upon the Germans the conviction of innocence or insignificance of their past as well.

The narratives of victims have their roots both in the political discourse and the cultural trends or models in the first years of FGR. First of the factors comprised most of all the activities of the Federal Ministry for Displaced Persons, Refugees and War Victims that was established in 1949. The ministry represented a great deal of victims and throughout all the years till 1969, when it was resolved, contested the existence of Oder-Neisse-border and endeavored to regain the former Eastern territories’, which in turn permanently hindered German relations with Poland and the Czechoslovakian Republic. There was also a research conducted that focused on German losses during the war and its results were being published from 1958 until the 1960s in five volumes entitled ‘Documents of German War Losses’ (‘Dokumente deutscher Kriegsschäden’). These works presented the losses in a statistical depiction, but also included relations of eye witnesses who faced the destruction of the country. The most manifest trails of commemoration of the air raid victims (and expellees), however, were and are to be found at the local level where the anniversaries of the air attack were present in the press relations and recounts citing, for example, speeches of the town mayors1. Moreover, many of the inflicted towns and cities soon had monuments, commemorative plaques or other memorials founded that honored local victims of bombardments. What is more, the speeches of the officials often highlighted the sacrifices of local people and their willingness to rebuild the buildings, and questioned the sense of legitimacy of allied air raids.

Another political issue that can be found in the public victims’ discourse was the problem of repatriation of the so called Prisoners of War from the Soviet Union. Their unknown and unconfirmed number by the Soviet site led to public outcry exerting pressure on Adenauer’s government. The chancellor’s visit in Moscow in 1955 enabled about 10,000 former German soldiers to return from the prison camps in Russia, and they were then greeted publically as war heroes.

The fate of the expellees, PoWs and victims of air war brought up in the political discourse was reflected in the early German culture after 1945. All of three issues became significant themes in literature, but most of all in cinematography. Two typical German movie directions were born shortly after the war. The first one emerged in 1946 and lasted until 1949 in all occupation zones - the so called ‘rubble films’ (‘Trümmerfilme’) - which had their plot in bombarded cities and presented different damaged lives of their dwellers. Another movie direction that was popular in the 1950s was called ‘Homeland films’ (‘Heimatfilme’). The action of those movies took place usually in small towns or cottages, whose inhabitants often made sad remarks about the lost homeland and the unattainable values and lifestyles combined with it. Ultimately, the theme of a soldier’s suffering, is to be found in some of the works produced since late 1950s. Their main character is an ordinary soldier confronted with strong-minded officers, susceptive to feeling reluctance to killing or even to prove their masculinity and courage. Inflicted wounds, both mental and physical, make them incapable of coping with the war horror and expose his sacrifice in an unjust war.

Victims other than German ones were either marginalized or remained barely noticed in public and cultural memory. The first work that could be characterized as a breakthrough was Anne Frank’s diary, first published in Netherlands in 1947, then in 1950 in France and Germany where it became a great success. Anne Frank was quickly identified as a cultural figure who represented the destruction of youth and holocaust, and her diary turned into one of the most famous and notable works of literature illustrating holocaust. The most significant breakthrough in German memory took place in the 1960s, though. The SS concentration camp staff trial in Ulm in 1958, followed by the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem in 1961, and finally the Auschwitz Trials in Frankfurt between 1963 and 1968 provoked a wide public debate about German responsibility for the Nazi terror and foreshadowed a significant change in the attitudes towards the parents generation that was perceived as a generation of bystanders who did not demur to Nazi policy and atrocities. The student protests that dominated German developments of the late 1960s, although they had serious negative ramifications in the form of extreme-left terroristic actions, drew public attention from German victims to the victims of the Germans and opened a new chapter in forming national identity.

Commemorating German victims in the early years of FRG does not mean that other groups of victims were utterly omitted in the discourse and the issue of the obliterated crimes. Many intellectuals did appeal to weigh up the question of responsibility more thoroughly and in a more complex manner. At this point Karl Jaspers should be mentioned, whose work ‘Question of guilt’ (‘Die Schuldfrage2 ’) discusses the issue of collective responsibility and bases to some extent on the modern collective memory theory proposed by Maurice Halbwachs3. Another intellectual who made an attempt to answer the question of German culpability was Theodor Adorno, who is well known for his statement that after Auschwitz no poem should be written. Nonetheless, their voices remained usually unnoticed in the 1950s, as the society’s efforts first concentrated on rebuilding the cities and then on enjoying the effects of economic wonder and consumerist lifestyle.

Another important inducement leading to the escape from the past and to the construction of a new identity was the German constitution. The way to its promulgation symbolizes the entire process of democratizing Germany, as the most solemn and essential rules that were supposed to form the new political order derived only partially from Germans. Its origins are to be found in the discord between the former allied powers that began shortly after the end of the world war. The paralysis of the Allied Control Council which became evident in 1946 commenced an entire process of creating a new German state from the Western occupation zones that would gradually obtain independence under strict allied control. The first step of this process was restoration of the political parties system and the elections to Landstags, i.e. local administration bodies. Parliaments of the particular federal states adopted their own constitutions and formed structures of a federal political system. Meanwhile, the former Western zones were converted into one political organism - first in 1946 from the American and the British zones, next in 1947 into Trizone after joining the French zone. After the Berlin crisis in 1948-1949 the signing of a peace treaty that had been provided in the Potsdam Conference Act occurred undeniably impossible. Lengthy negotiations of the shape of the future constitution were launched in London in February 1948 with attendance of the three Western powers and Benelux countries. The final act of the conference, the so called ‘London Recommendations’ was passed on to the governors of the federal states in Frankfurt on 1 July 1948 in Frankfurt. Meeting in Frankfurt was all but a conference with presenting various points of view and a following discussion. It was rather an occurrence when first German representatives were given very important decisions made by the allied powers without their knowledge4. Democracy was to be imposed on the future representatives and the whole society.

The process of imparting the decision to the German local governors, however, would not allow to regard the then future constitution as an imposed document. Nine prime ministers of the states and two mayors of city-states (Bremen and Hamburg) obtained a political act which meant a breakthrough in their way to sovereignty. The document recommended a territory reform, outlined the occupation status and, last but not least, authorized the local administration to sketch out a constitution. The effect of the works on the most important state document were accomplished in spring 1949 and the date of May 23 is considered as the beginning of the Federal Republic of Germany. The constitution, officially named ‘Based Law’ (‘Grundgesetz’), however, acquired a makeshift character and in spite of the usurpation to represent the entire German nation in their rights, it underlined the necessity of a common referendum to receive people’s legitimacy. It is highlighted in the preamble (‘acting in the name of those Germans whom the right to make a joint decision has been refused’) and two articles of ‘Based Law’5.

The division of the nation into two separate political bodies created very awkward conditions to support a process of identity-building based on a classical conception that assumes a deliberate and conscious activity of a larger community of people engaged in defining their distinctive features, values and eventually self-determined structures with a firm intention to confirm their independence. It is identity that legitimates creation of a state and allows its citizens to consider themselves as members of the nation. The case of the Federal Republic of Germany varies from the classical model at all levels. Accroding to Helmut Plessner’s theory, Germany has always been a ‘belated nation’ (‘verspätete Nation’), inapt to form its national identity even in the modern times and even despite the role the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation and several particular principalities had played in the European politics for ages6. As Plessner points out, precipitate political changes in the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century - downfall after Napoleon’s conquest, establishing of Prussian hegemony afterwards and a humongous defeat in the World War I that led to inner instability and crisis - were not the appropriate conditions to render German community a conscious, modern nation. The disgrace of the Third Reich when all the ideas revoking national spirit were not based on patriotism and pride of belonging, but on aggressive nationalism and chauvinism meant a real Zero Hour in every sense of the word and it were the foreign powers that took responsibility for the formation of a state with its conscious habitants.

Therefore, the state-formation process after 1945 was everything but a community initiative, aware of its uniqueness and bound by its affiliation to a German nation. The process was set already after the efforts of the Western powers who confirmed the right of existence of a new, federal state. Democracy, state of law, social state were terms common for Western political systems, but totally unfamiliar to the vast majority of Germans accustomed to a dictatorship. New models were implemented as a tool to replace the old ones, to replace totalitarian form with a democratic one, to replace breaking of human-rights laws with their firm guarantee. Thus, the first articles of ‘Based Law’ refer to such a guarantee of all basic rights, including very complex articles of social and labor rights. The pragmatic character of the constitution marks a shift in the German consciousness - the shift from a ‘nation’ into a ‘liberal community of equal rights’.

When it comes to the character of German ‘Based Law’, a theory of a new kind of patriotism was elaborated and it appears to have played crucial role in its influence on the identity-creation process in the FRG, at least in its early years. The concept usually called ‘constitutional patriotism’ was formulated by Dolf Sternberger in 1947, even before of the passing the constitution, although the expression ‘Verfassungspatriotismus’ was not used at that time. In his work ‘Notion of Homeland (‘Begriff des Vaterlands’) Sternberger clearly separates two different notions of homelands that are hardly interpretable into English.


1 See: Arnold, J., Süß, D., Thiessen, M. (ed.), Luftkrieg. Erinnerungen in Deutschland und Europa, Göttingen: Wallstein Verlag, 2009.

2 Jaspers, K., Die Schuldfrage, Heidelberg/Zurich: Schneider, 1946.

3 Halbwachs, M., Les cadres sociaux de la mémoire, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1925.

4 Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung, Weichenstellungen für den Weststaat , 1 Sep 2008, < schritte?p=1>.

5 Article 116 reads that a German is understood as a person with German citizenship or a refugee from German territory before the state of 1937, or their descendant. Article 146, though, states precisely the temporary character of ‘Based Law’: This Basic Law, which since the achievement of the unity and freedom of Germany applies to the entire German people, shall cease to apply on the day on which a constitution freely adopted by the German people takes effect.

6 Plessner, H., Die verspätete Nation.über die politische Verführbarkeit bürgerlichen Geistes, Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1959.


ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Paperback)
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Uniwersytet Łódzki
2014 (April)
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German identity European identity Deutsche Identität Nationalidentität Verfassungspatriotismus Constitutional patriotism



Titel: German and European experiences in developing national identity and patriotism