Germany’s Newest Intellectual Antihero

After the German historian Rolf Peter Sieferle took his own life last September at age 67, Süddeutsche Zeitung, the country’s progressive paper of record, called his erudition “breathtaking.” For three decades Mr. Sieferle had applied the old traditions of German social science to new preoccupations, from ecological sustainability to social capital. He was among the pioneers of German environmental history. He wrote on Marx, German conservatism around World War I and the end of Communism. He advised Angela Merkel’s government on climate change.

But last month, a posthumous collection of Mr. Sieferle’s observations on Germany’s political culture, “Finis Germania” (the title plays on a phrase meaning “the end of Germany”), hit No. 9 on the prestigious Nonfiction Book of the Month list — and a scandal erupted. Certain passages on Germany’s way of dealing with the Holocaust horrified reviewers. Die Zeit called it a book of “brazen obscenity.” The Berliner Zeitung wrote of Mr. Sieferle’s “intellectual decline.” Süddeutsche Zeitung retracted its earlier praise. The Nonfiction Book of the Month list was suspended until further notice.

The book-buying public reacted otherwise. As critical anger rose, so did sales. Soon the book was selling 250 copies an hour, according to its publisher, and ranked No. 1 on Amazon’s German best-seller list, a position it held for almost two weeks, until the publisher ran out of copies.

What exactly had Mr. Sieferle said? Was this a betrayal of his intellectual legacy, as critics claimed? A vindication of it, as his sales suggested? Or had he simply gone off the rails at a time when public opinion was doing the same?

A socialist in his youth like most German intellectuals of the 1968 generation, Mr. Sieferle was drifting out of sync with that tradition by the 1990s. He came increasingly to aim his sarcasm at naïve idealists. At the height of Germany’s refugee crisis two summers ago, he wrote, “A society that can no longer distinguish between itself and the forces that would dissolve it is living morally beyond its means.” The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung described him as “embittered, humorless, ever more isolated.”

Mr. Sieferle, who had once placed his books with the aristocrats of German publishing (Suhrkamp, Propyläen, Fischer, Beck), became an outsider. “Finis Germania” was brought out by a small rightist press in the eastern German state of Saxony-Anhalt. Another posthumous book, “Das Migrationsproblem” (“The Migration Problem”), which asks whether mass migration is compatible with a built-out welfare state, was published in February by a press that works with the contrarian quarterly Tumult. That book, too, is selling like hot cakes, standing around No. 250 on the German Amazon list.

It is odd that “Finis Germania” was the book that took off. It is little more than a collection of notes on various subjects in the 1990s, some of the most controversial of which were previously published in more polished form.

On the other hand, “Finis Germaniae” (“the end of Germany”) is a familiar and resonant phrase. (Why Mr. Sieferle chose to drop the final “e” in his title has been much discussed.) The phrase captures a fear, or paranoia, about national decline that has been widespread in German history — and explains much about that history. Prosperous though Germany is, one can see reasons such fears might be reviving. Germany is senescent, with a median age of about 46. It is helping construct a European Union meant to supplant the German government in many of its traditional competencies. Germans appear to want to disappear. This, in fact, is the thesis that drives Mr. Sieferle’s passionate book on migration.

In “Finis Germania,” Mr. Sieferle rues that his own country is “tragic,” tangled up in history. He doesn’t just rue it, he resents it. “There are un-tragic peoples,” he writes, “whom history pearls off of like water from a well-polished boot.” He means the English and Americans, who have always tried to pass off their oligarchies as cradles of democracy.

After World War II, the Allied occupiers, as Mr. Sieferle sees it, saddled Germans with a false idea of their own history — the idea that there was something premodern about Germany, a fundamental difference between it and the West. That may describe Russia, but not Germany, and Germany’s modernity is painful for Westerners to face. “If Germany belonged to the most progressive, civilized, cultivated countries,” he writes, “then ‘Auschwitz’ means that, at any moment, the human ‘progress’ of modernity can go into reverse.”

Mr. Sieferle neither denies nor minimizes the Holocaust. He describes it as a “Verbrechen,” or “crime.” Nor does he traffic in any obvious kind of anti-Semitism. In a letter he wrote three weeks before his death to the blogger-novelist Michael Klonovsky, who is close to the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany party, he warned the party to keep its distance from the anti-Semites (“a delusional, irrational and ignorant ideology”) who would inevitably gravitate to it.

But Mr. Sieferle is critical of Germany’s postwar culture of Holocaust memory, which he argues has taken on the traits of a religion. The country’s sins are held to be unique and absolute, beyond either redemption or comparison. “The First Commandment,” he writes, “is ‘Thou shalt have no Holocausts before me.’ ” Hitler, in retrospect, turns out to have done a paradoxical thing: He bound Germans and Jews together in a narrative for all time. In an otherwise relativistic and disenchanted world, Mr. Sieferle writes, Germans appear in this narrative as the absolute enemies of our common humanity, as a scapegoat people. The role is hereditary. There are Germans whose grandparents were not born when the war ended, yet they, too, must take on the role.

In this, Mr. Sieferle sees an “affinity” between Germans now and “the Jew as he was understood in the Christian past.” Specifically, Jews were cast as either indifferent to or responsible for the crucifixion. In the eyes of today’s world, German identity symbolizes a similar rejection of some kind of revelation. “In every city Christianity had built cathedrals to its murdered God,” Mr. Sieferle writes. “Today, the Jews, to whom God himself had promised eternity, build memorials throughout the world to their murdered coreligionists. Not only are the victims ascribed a moral superiority, the wrongdoers and their symbols are ascribed an eternal depravity.”

Mr. Sieferle’s is a complex argument. It is linked to his concern, in “Das Migrationsproblem,” with the challenges of mass migration. He believed that Germany’s self-demonization had left it unable to say anything but yes to a million or so migrants seeking entry to Europe in 2015 and that such a welcome was unsustainable. Whether he was right or wrong, this was a concern shared by many Germans, and not necessarily an idle expression of animus.

But wrested from its context, Mr. Sieferle’s argument can sound thoroughly offensive. The magazine Der Spiegel summed it up as “the Germans are the new Jews.” Critics have mostly denounced rather than engaged Mr. Sieferle’s views. It is worth noting that if the German culture of “Vergangenheitsbewältigung” (or “coming to terms with the past”) limits open discussion, that is because it is meant to. Many Germans, who are often sincerely frightened of themselves, are grateful it did.

Some are not. Rüdiger Safranski, a prominent historian of philosophy, defended Mr. Sieferle’s work as being in the poetic tradition of Heinrich Heine and Edward Young. The Tumult editor Frank Böckelmann predicted on his Facebook page that as Mr. Sieferle’s works come back into print, he will be acknowledged as “one of the great thinkers of our time.” That will depend on whether he is taken for a bigot or a courageous blasphemer.

Whatever becomes of Mr. Sieferle’s reputation, the scandal around him reveals certain unsuspected problems. When the German literary establishment unanimously denounced Mr. Sieferle’s work as an extremist tract, readers did not nod in agreement. They pulled out their wallets and said, “That must be the book for me.” This is a sign that distrust of authority in Germany has reached worrisome levels, possibly American ones.

Christopher Caldwell, a senior editor at The Weekly Standard, is at work on a book about the rise and fall of the post-1960s political order.

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