27 DECEMBER 1963, Page 8


From SARAH GAINHAM BONN SC OMETHING has often bothered me, coming into Germany from any neighbouring country; other people feel it too, and its best description was given me by a German friend who called it 'eine geistige Leere: Literally spiritual emptiness, it means some lack of content, or a gap in consciousness. Perhaps it may be less difficult to describe in relation to another place than in relation to itself.

'Travelling from Manchester to Huddersfield, the cold hard treeless and hilly landscape made a strong impression on me, as of a grim, merciless face. Here is the birthplace of English industry, of world-wide industrial capitalism, and of English radicalism, too. It has a primitive grandeur, grey, lowering, a content of coal-dust and yet with a harsh untamable energy.. . Here at last is England, for everywhere else she wears masks. I don't know when I have been so pierced and impressed by a landscape as by this one; it was like lifting a curtain from a secret that one had always felt to be there but had never really formulated.'

That was Count Kessler in 1925. He knew England well, but the England of diplomacy, London drawing-rooms, theatres, intellectuals and artists. Being a central European formed between Weimar and Berlin, Kessler failed to take into consideration the sea; but he recognised when he saw it something essentially English that is rarely seen and even more rarely expressed.

There is a level, deeper than superficialities, on which it is possible to talk of national character; the group character formed by climate, geo- graphy and history; not absolute, unchangeable, for that would be the idiocy of nationalism, but still fairly constant. Constant enough for cautious guesses to be made as to how people will behave• in given circumstances. This is a subject of fascinating interest and even of importance; the almost impenetrable fog of clichés about Germany, for many of which Germans have been responsible, makes it very difficult to discuss German character—and it is one of the great riddles of our time, that question hardly put and never yet answered as to how it could happen : what happened to the Germans? But that is not what I am now talking about, though I should like to attempt it some day if the Editor will allow me to. I mean now the lack of something that Kessler could express about England, that one occasionally feels in France; the kernel of what Frenchness is, what Englishness is. What- ever this 'feel' may be, it is lacking in Germany. It is not enough to say the Germans are not a nation as France and England are nations, be- cause they were only united in one State from the 1860s to 1945; that is to confuse form with content. Germanness lies in the language and the complex of history and culture expressed in the language, far more than Englishness lies in its language. Not only because of the division of rule in German lands throughout most of their history which has made the language the binding thread between varying social groups with very local patriotisms; but because the language carried a general system of law and administra- tion common to all Germans. This system is a great part of what Germans mean when they use the word 'culture'; not art galleries and music alone and not folk myths and archetypes but the tradition of soundness and scrupulousness that made German engineers and administrators the

main rulers and managers of eastern Europe for many generations. Tsarist Russia was largely run by northern and central Germans, most of the rest" of eastern Europe by Austro-Germans. The Russians, as Tolstoy constantly repeats, did not fail to look down upon the virtues of capability and incorruptibility which they themselves some- what lack, nor did they fail to make use of those virtues. Here is the real cause of the German arrogance of which so much is heard; militarism was a smaller and later part of a feeling of superiority that was real and constantly proved. This widespread system of management by employees, like that other deeply intellectual German culture embodied in central European Jewry, was finally destroyed, together with much else of value, by the Nazis.

If the corporate entity of military units can be destroyed by too high a proportion of casualties, - as Clausewitz said, and there is no doubt that it can, then the corporate entity of cities, towns and villages can be destroyed by a certain proportion of physical destruction. Too many of the build- ings must be replaced with makeshifts, instead of old being replaced by new gradually as the fancy or commercial purpose of owners or the pride of rulers and city fathers dictates. Not parts of Frankfurt or Cologne were ruined but practic- ally the whole of the city centres; what they once were through long growth can be told as hearsay to the young or strangers, who never knew them 'before; to be lived with as intractable realities of stone, narrow streets, inconveniencies and dignities. They are gone, and mean nothing but a tale told. Where small towns are intact they appear as quaint survivals, without connection to larger cities, roads or rivers either in time or space; their boxy suburbs are more real than themselves because they connect with the suburbs and boxes everyone lives in—except the survivals —and are related to autobahns and airports.

Somewhere between the consciousness of the self-destruction of their own superiority, and the enemy's destruction of the cities, the feel of Germanness faded to a shadow very hard to identify. The young appear to exist without it and are to an extraordinary extent spiritually homeless and 'European'; artists explicitly &long nowhere as many modern German novels show in their characters, who live 'between frontiers' and not inside them. One of the great works of German art whose theme is Urdeutschtum. Wagner's Meistersinger, inevitably gat stripped of this quality as far as that was possible without throwing out the music, in its new production by Wagner's heir at Bayreuth in 1963. This is sharply symptomatic and 'Was echt and deutsch 1st', as Sachs sings, has been confused with its corrup- tion into sentimentality and rejected; just as Goethe was■rejected by the distraught nihilists of the Twenties in their rejection of Weimar.

The only place where the feel of Germanness still exists strongly is outside Germany proper— in Austria. Neither the physical nor the moral chaos of Nazism reached into the countryside of Austria, protected as it is by nature. This is certainly the reason why so many thousands of Germans continue to take their holidays there, have bought so much land there (the Austrian authorities are now awake to the dangers of this wholesale buying and are putting a stop to it), and why Germans behave in Austria in a child- ishly nationalist way that is hardly ever seen in Germany itself. It is pathetic but a little frighten- ing to see a group of middle-aged Germans in some village in the mountains, loudly singing old songs and trying to induce in themselves, and in their hosts, the feeling that this is all theirs. They are trying to recover something that they them- selves destroyed. The outside world should not be glad of this loss, as so many strangeEs in Germany ignorantly are. L'oss of identity is always dangerous; the Germans need the future Europe, not to lose themselves in it but to rediscover themselves.