The recent terror attack in Berlin has heightened concern within Germany and beyond over that country’s liberal immigration policies and soft policing of potential terrorists. It is not uncommon to hear Western and especially American pundits declare that German actions will be suicidal if not reversed. While such hyperbole is understandable, it also misrepresents the German national psyche and skews analysis accordingly. The Germans are not suicidal, but they are a fatalistic culture that is still trying to settle on a national ethos. How they resolve the current crisis with Islamic immigrants will probably be grand and defining, regardless of whether it results in a dramatic governmental reversal or a doubling down on current policies.
There is an important distinction between fatalism and being suicidal. The former describes an outlook in which one’s fate is passively accepted, as opposed to the latter which actively seeks self-destruction. Europeans in general, and particularly Germans tend to be fatalistic to a degree that Americans find unusual and often unsettling. We marvel that millions of young men went “over the top” in World War I into almost certain death or injury. Sure eventually Americans did that too, but it was much less a matter of fatalism than misplaced optimism that sent them on the way.
Gunnery Sergeant Dan Daley’s words to his Marines at Belleau Wood “C’mon you sons-of-bitches do you want to live forever!” shock even today because for most Americans the answer would probably be “Yes indeed Sergeant I do -- or at least a long, long time.” Daley’s men went on not because they were fatalists but because he shamed them into it -- they were not cowards and wouldn’t be seen that way.
George Patton put the American mindset more clearly yet: “No dumb bastard ever won a war by going out and dying for his country. He won it by making some other dumb bastard die for his country.”
The Germans don’t think that way, then or now. A German soldier set off for war with the expectation, (held by his family as well) that he would not return. Such fatalism allowed the Germans to endure enormous losses in World War I and then be willing to have at it again twenty years later. Even the famously fatalistic Russians paled in comparison to the Germans at the start of World War II when millions of Soviet soldiers surrendered in the first months of fighting. Only when it became clear that surrender to the Nazis still meant death or slavery did Russian soldiers stiffen, and even then, often had to be brutally coerced into fighting by their commissars.
This attitude is reflected as well in modern German philosophers, a sober list if there ever was one: Hegel, Marx, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Spengler, Heidegger. A parade of inevitable dialectics, existential dread, and the death of Western civilization. Who wouldn’t be fatalistic in such a culture?
German culture is one thing, a German national ethos another. The idea of the German Volk, a word with important connotations that means more than the sum of its parts (people, language, and culture) goes back at least two millennia. The idea of a German nation is much newer, and still unsettled.
Until 1870 there was no German nation. A late arrival to the idea of a united modern nation-state, the Germans suffered for it and have been trying to figure out what to do since. The first idea was to be like most of their chief rivals, an imperialistic, at least partly monarchal colonial power, as befitted Germany’s military and industrial strength. But late to the stately party, the pickings were slim, with even small countries like Holland, Belgium, and Portugal getting bigger and better slices of the imperial pie.
German resentment over this was a major cause of World War I, which ended the imperial period. Without much delay, the Germans then did a “180” and tried their hand at liberal and libertine democracy with the Weimar government. That disaster led to National Socialism, a bizarre political and social experiment combining militarism, traditional imperialism, racism, socialism, crony capitalism, and dictatorship. This might have given a more experienced polity pause, but the Germans went all in for it, leading to an incredible national calamity -- virtually complete ruin and Germany once again divided.
Germany’s fourth incarnation was of a federated, sober, hardworking, peaceful, and optimistic industrial powerhouse. Not by accident this sounds a lot like Western Germany’s conqueror and eventual benevolent benefactor, the United States. Eastern Germany remained a police state, though under foreign Soviet domination.
Unification ended Germany’s dependence on the United States and set the stage for yet another national incarnation. This time the Germans decided to be a progressive exemplar, at the forefront of cutting-edge environmentalism, open borders, and multiculturalism. In one fell swoop the Germans, with hardly a serious thought, gave up on nuclear power, a quarter of their electric generating capacity, in a public panic following the Fukushima disaster in Japan. They opened their borders to millions of Middle Eastern refugees, to demonstrate to the world their progressive multicultural bona fides. Ironically, and perhaps inevitably, this coincided with a sharp turn in German public opinion against Israel, both to assuage any guilt the newly virtuous Germans may have had for past crimes, and to establish themselves as the new “light among nations.”
Notice that in all cases, the Germans don’t go into things half-heartedly. While individually Germans tend to be reserved and cautious, as a group they enjoy the grand gesture. There are then only two ways for the Germans to go should the country’s millions of Muslim residents continue to attack and disrupt the German state.
The most obvious solution (at least to an American mindset) would be to end open borders and aggressively police problematic non-assimilating immigrants. Many Germans now want this, particularly those supporting nationalistic anti-immigration parties largely based in the former East. Polls also show that up to two-thirds of Germans want an end to the open border policy. Should this group prevail, the German reversal would probably be sudden and dramatic as befits the German national way of doing things.
But don’t be surprised if that doesn’t happen. Germans -- including the current government -- who like the idea of being a progressive light among nations, are also presumably willing to fatalistically suffer the consequences of their endeavor should it come to that. German Chancellor Angela Merkel stood firm by her policy after previous attacks this summer. She is under great pressure now, but it remains to be seen whether she will back down. Should she maintain (or mostly maintain) current policy, the consequence would likely be a social and political disaster as a growing Muslim population infiltrated by violent and fanatical Islamists undermines the very foundations of the modern German state. In which case the Germans will again have to cast about for a new identity, perhaps an Islamic one.