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For many Germans in the immediate postwar period, all that remained of their country was its art. Subjugation, destruction, the pain of unfathomable guilt: these had ripped away at the national psyche, severing nation from nationalism, person from people, the present from the past. “We are,” wrote Wolfgang Borchert in 1946, “a generation without a homecoming, because we have nothing to which we can return.” Nation: what would that word now mean? An occupied state no longer possessing statehood, a conquered people starved even of the moral strength that might come from resisting. Even if the institutions of national governance could be recreated, they could have no historical legitimacy; if Bonn were not to be Weimar, it would equally not be the kaisers’ or the Führer’s Berlin. For many, refuge from the shaming of the nation lay, as Theodor Heuss reflected, in a “decentralizing of the emotions,” in a “flight” to those fields “where the violence of the great political world shake-up is not felt so directly.” This drove literate Germans back to Goethe and music lovers to the endlessly-performed postwar symphonic cycles of Brahms and Beethoven. And yet, escaping into what Jost Hermand aptly termed “the protective wall of self-absorption” did not completely preclude connection to the national community of Germans. In fact, a powerful communion with the whole might still come through the personal enjoyment of a shared art or culture. In art might reside the essence of the national community, a stateless collectivity, without territories perhaps, but with borders and guardians nonetheless.


This article was originally published in Central European History, 33(3): 339-368. (c) 2000 Conference Group for Central European History of the American Historical Association

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