In the 1980s and early 1990s, one could be forgiven for getting the impression that Germans had a monopoly on self-obsessed debates about their “identity.” When the country was still divided, politicians and intellectuals joined in what seemed to be an interminable series of ceremonies, conferences, and televised discussions about the meaning of Germany. Today, a united Germany has hardly found consensus on its ever elusive national identity; and yet, both the tone and the parameters of the debate have changed profoundly, and not just because of unification. Slowly, there is convergence on a definition of “Germanness” that is no longer ethnic, that is more accepting of immigrants, and that implies a less tortuous, though not complacent relation to its own past. This new self-conception might even hold lessons for the pan-European discussion about the integration of minorities and the future of the welfare state—a discussion in which it is often assumed that there has to be a trade-off between “solidarity” and “diversity.”
During the Bonn Republic, arguably the most successful—and morally most attractive—self-description of the country was the concept of “constitutional patriotism.” Initially coined by the political scientist Dolf Sternberger, a disciple of Hannah Arendt, and then adopted by Jürgen Habermas in the mid-1980s, constitutional patriotism referred to a form of political belonging centered on democratic principles and, more concretely, the achievements of the West German constitution. Critics charged that such a concept was merely temporary compensation for a proper national identity with a richer sense of history—which was supposedly available to other, undivided nation-states. Skeptics also charged that, in itself, constitutional patriotism was too abstract and, as a particularly inappropriate metaphor went, “bloodless.” The writer Martin Walser, apparently taking poetic license, went furthest when he called it a typical product of the fashionable “political masturbation” of the 1980s.
After unification in 1990, many expected talk of constitutional patriotism to disappear. The dream of “post-nationalism,” the hope to show other European countries how to transcend traditional nationalism, appeared to be lost. A self-styled New Right sought a return to an unashamed defense of the national interest. Moderate voices like the Social Democrat historian Heinrich August Winkler—later to become an adviser to Gerhard Schröder—asked that Germans accept their status as a “post-classical nation-state.” In practice, pragmatism reigned, but unease lingered.
It was only ten years after unification that a less self-involved and less abstract debate finally began. No doubt, the timing had something to do with the fact that a red-green government had, at last, amended German citizenship law, privileging jus soli over jus sanguinis and finally abandoning the purely b...
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