From Beethoven to Rammstein: How Germany fell out of love with optimism

A region’s most powerful country generally shapes the entire region’s culture. In the age of hegemonic American globalism, this has generally tended to mean that much of the world has become Americanised. These trends however are slowly being scaled back as multi-polarity is allowing the renewed super-powers as well as important regional powers to put their stamp on the identities of their respective spheres of influence.

Typically a country must form before it is able to identify, solidify and export its culture (whether by force or by broad influence). This has certainly been the case with America.

But 19th century Europe was a different story. At the dawn of the 19th century, France was the most powerful European state militarily *, yet a new rising culture was coming to dominate Europe, although for most of the 19th century, it was not represented by a united state.

German culture throughout the 19th century became Europe’s unquestionably dominant political force. German culture was teeming with a particularly Germanic brand of optimism for much of the century.

Beethoven’s 9th Symphony proclaimed a brotherhood of man, set to music wherein Germany helped stake its claim as the culture that would create the ‘new sound’ of European music.

Fichte, Hegel and later Marx, each spoke of an optimistic push for a better world if only certain steps could be taken.

That is indeed the essence of German optimism, the idea that one must diagnose the reason for social, spiritual, intellectual or wider cultural malaise, thereafter solving it by presenting a template which if followed will result in an improvement of conditions.

This is distinct from Anglo-Saxon optimism which is more of a straight forward push towards a supposed ideal of individual freedom, as distinct from a collective push towards striving for an objectively noble and ‘correct goal’. In the Anglo-Saxon world, even the Protestant search for God is highly individuated.

It is also different from the Russian spirit of pious consistency which values tradition and the continuity of community as the best possible means to achieve peace and security.

Put simply, Anglo-Saxon thinkers found freedom in individual sovereignty, Germans found it in state sovereignty, Russians found it in the sovereignty of traditions which were bigger than the individual or any political/philosophical apparatus.

It is this spirit that has allowed Russia to endure in spite of centuries of being attacked in war, it is this spirit which has made the English speaking world so adept at capitalism and it is what has made Germany a nation that represents a series of Hegelian dialectics in geo-politics. A kind of ‘trial and error’ has dominated German thinking for much of Germany’s modern existence. The question is, has this now change and if so how?

The spirit of optimism which guided the great thinkers of late 18th to late 19th century German culture helped give German leaders the impetus to finally forged a united German state (with the exception of German speaking Austria-Hungary) by 1871.

Yet it was at this time that many German thinkers witnessed the triumphalism of German statehood and wondered ‘where do we go from here’. Panic and malaise set into the Germanic mind.

The fraternal, almost lay secular optimism of Beethoven had given way to the stagnation of Wagner’s late works whose triumph was in past glories. Once Germany achieved its present, Wagner came to represent an artist looking to a mythical past.

While vulgar political figures looked to a combination of nationalism, hyper-industrialism and increased state control over the lives of individuals, Germany’s great late 19th and early 20th century thinkers began to witness new problems with this reality.

Schopenhauer and Nietzsche like their predecessors, diagnosed modernity’s problems through the prism of modern Germany, but their solutions reflected deeply un-optimistic and therefore un-Germanic conclusions.

In their own way Schopenhauer and Nietzsche found that modern society had become vulgar, populist and overly legalistic. Their solution was not for a new revolution which could right these wrongs, but rather for a combination of sublimation and revelation.

Schopenhauer recommended music and meditation as a means to escape the violence of the modern world without succumbing to it while Nietzsche recommended living an isolated life of a philosopher king, detached from the politics and ideally the body-politic of society. Attempts to vulgarise Nietzsche after his death, tend to distort Nietzsche’s utter disdain for any kind of popular political movement, such as the fascism that rose after his death.

But for a German state founded on the iron-clad optimism of Fichte, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche’s solution of withdrawal was simply too spiritual and not analytical enough for the German political programme.

The rusty optimism of Wagnerianism would continue until 1918, a spirit of modern means to communicate the ancient ideas of Empire. It was tired rather than vibrant Germanic optimism.

History proved that the Wagnerian medicine to the initial diagnosis of Fiche failed. 1920s Weimar Germany was consequently a long period of self-diagnosis with competing doctors each offering a cure.

Spengler and Freud offered the option of balance as defined both in Spengler’s geo-political model based on deterministic trends and Freud’s notion of the pleasure principle, a kind of conservative yet modern optimism.

Liberals offered the option of becoming Anglo-Saxon in respect of lurid individualism.

Old conservatives offered the corpse of Wagner and Hitler offered a strange combination of a Wagnerian mythological past combined with a Marxist-industrialist futurism that was exorcised of both the spiritual tendencies of Russianness (as best defined by Pushkin and Dostoevsky) and the individualism of Anglo-Saxon liberalism.

Hitler’s catch all failed miserably when his mythology combined with futurism came in contact with a Russian spirit which in spite of its political adoption of Marxist-Leninism, was still greatly governed by the spirit of actual tradition and an aversion to wild mythology as well as futuristic histrionics.

In spite of Russia’s military victory, the Russians did not become anything else after the war, they remained Russian. America by contrast was ready to adopt elements of Germany. America’s Operation Paperclip which saw some of Germany’s top Nazi minds move to the states after a pseudo-rehabilitation, was perhaps the most famous example of capitalistic reverse engineering in modern history.

Post-1945 Germany was a great deal like post-1918 Germany with one exception. Self-examination through anger and resentment became self-examination through contrition and attempts at atonement.

West Germany adopted liberalism in order to become more Anglo-Saxon and consequently atone for its Nazi sins whilst East Germany adopted Marxist-Leninism as a sign of contrition which amounted to, ‘since our attempts at choosing our own destiny failed, we shall become loyalists in the cause of a Germanic philosophy as adopted by a Russian Soviet Union. This was German optimism through collective psycho-analysis.

When Germany reunited in the 1990s, there was a brief moment of new-old optimism that resembled the spirit of the pre-1871 Germanic lands. Beethoven was back, Wagner was a relic, Richard Strauss who represented both the early triumphs and ultimate failures of self-examination was pushed to the side.

The political manifestation of this was the Maastricht Treaty creating the modern European Union, complete with Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ from the 9th symphony as its anthem.

But then something happened. The 1990s was an era when all of Europe fell totally under America’s hegemonic rule. Germany dominated Europe once again, but only as a geo-political tributary of America. The only exceptions to this have generally been the Hellenic, Southern Slavic and Turkic parts of Europe which have never truly been part of a ‘central European mindset’.

Germany today finds herself caught between the resurgent Orthodox Russia whose unbreakable tradition remains a guiding force. Likewise, America’s individualism has become so great that it leaves little room for German collectivism to have its own individual voice (however ironically).

Today, Germany and consequently Europe is struggling. East Germany could take solace in the fact that Russia had adopted Marxism which is a thoroughly Germanic ideology and then reintroduced it back to Germany. West Germany, was too busy atoning for its sins to notice creeping Americanism.

Now though that Americanism is in Germany and Europe with a vengeance, many Germans are finding themselves doing one thing they hadn’t ever done: succumbing to complete pessimism.

To borrow terms from Spengler, Germany has gone from culture to civilisation with one of the shortest interim summers in all of history. Europe is now the grey shadow of America sitting beside the timeless Orthodox spirit of Russia that is as foreign to Europe as obedience is to Americans.

Russia maintains its stability, America maintains its hyper-individualism that the rest of the English speaking world has adopted without question and with total ease. German dominated Europe has lost its ability to be optimistic. They are simply second class Americans.

This is one of the reasons why a German dominated Europe has now welcomed the anti-Russian rhetoric that was once largely confined to Poland and the Baltic states. Latent anti-Orthodox sentiments have become a catalyst for Europe to try and bring Russia to its knees. Russia, however can not be brought to the same post-modern levels of nihilism  as Europe without first breaking the indelible link between Orthodoxy and the Russian national spirit, something which is nearly impossible as history has shown.

America has given Europe the tools of ideological warfare with which to voice age old hatreds.

In an age of pragmatism, waging war on Orthodoxy would be unacceptable. In an ago of ideology, it is perfectly acceptable so long as the war on Orthodoxy is defined as a war for liberalism rather than a war against  Orthodoxy. That’s the American opportunism doing the talking for the silent minds of Europe.

As such Raamstein’s bleak post-industrial sound is the new ‘sound of Germany’ a country whose open borders represent something other than a failed policy. It represents a political manifestation of a nation and region that is no longer aware of how to exist. It is pessimism as policy.


* For the purposes of this discussion and more generally Russia is considered Eurasian and Britain considered outside of continental Europe’s political and cultural influence.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Duran.

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