Jan 11, 2011

Thinking after Nazis

I'm playing with the idea of putting together a list of questions Americans ask about Germany, most of which are funny, horrible, or uninformed. Americans, including myself, are, of course, notoriously ignorant about other places, and, in my experience, when they go to those other places, they like to ask those questions, uninhibited, in very loud voices.

That's who we are.

At the top of this list of questions, obviously, would be the one about Nazis.

Normally it goes like this: "So ... Nazis?"

It's not really a bad question, actually, as much as it's horribly unformed and vague. Sometimes it's a bad question, which, if worked out a little more, would be something like, "So, titillate me with information about how the people here were Nazis," but normally it's actually meant more as, "So, I don't know what has happened in Germany since the end of Saving Private Ryan: how does a country move on after that?"

The answer to that question is really pretty interesting, too. Culturally, economically, politically, there has been a sustained struggle to move on, after Nazism, without either simply pretending it didn't happen, or getting stuck in endless recriminations, guilt confessions, etc. All these efforts are really complicated, and intriguing, I think, in their attempts to deal with the past but also push forward.

The effort that most interests me -- which most clearly connects with what I think my larger project is -- might be given the title, "Thinking after Nazis." Peter Gordan, at the New Republic, has a good piece out today about Jürgen Habermas, the philosopher, and his attempts to do just that, to, as it were, think up from Stunde Null.

As Gordon writes, by way of review of Habermas: An intellectual biography, Habermas is a "public intellectual who advocated for greater democracy and transparency in contemporary Germany [which] could only succeed if he also plunged deep into the philosophical tradition, in which he could discover the conceptual resources for grounding his own practice of public criticism."

I don't particularly care about Habermas, as a thinker, but it's a good piece about thinking, and trying to think, and about the entanglements with which thinking has had to cope. If you've ever asked, "So ... Nazis?", and are willing to hear how the good answer to that is complicated and actually pretty important, this is a good place to start.