Published daily by the Lowy Institute

The God in the rubble

Germany’s struggle with morality is not only a concern of history but an animating factor in contemporary politics.

Dresden, Germany, in the aftermath of war (Deutsche Fotothek/Richard Peter jun via Getty Images)
Dresden, Germany, in the aftermath of war (Deutsche Fotothek/Richard Peter jun via Getty Images)
Published 30 Apr 2024 

Book review: Out of the Darkness: The Germans 1942–2022, by Frank Trentmann (Allen Lane, 2023)

On the eve of the First World War, the German theologian Ernst Troeltsch reflected on the terror of a world in which there no longer existed any “unchangeable code of conscience”. Troeltsch was, of course, neither the first nor last thinker to lament the fading hold of traditional values in the face of modernity’s destructive march. What set him apart was that he took as his target nothing less than history itself. If the effect of historical thinking was to reveal the flux and change of human societies, Troeltsch mused, then what would remain of timeless ethical truths, of universals, and of God? To give morality a history was to strip it of its essence, of its eternal validity. History and morality were antagonists.

The crises that engulfed Troeltsch’s homeland over the subsequent years recast the relationship anew. In the ashes of the Third Reich, history and morality became inseparable: the one inevitably informing the other. Even today, nearly 80 years after the end of the Second World War, there are few countries that charge their identity and their activities in the world with such a degree of moral self-reflexion as Germany does. There is not, I am sorry to say, an 80-letter German word to denote “the sense that one’s collective identity is bound up with a moral mission in the world that derives from a historic guilt”. But there is, at least, now an 800-page book that seeks to explain it.

Frank Trentmann’s monumental new volume Out of the Darkness: The Germans 1942-2022 charts the evolution of German moral sentiments, in both East and West, since the Second World War. At first glance, one could well imagine that this is fundamentally a book about political morality: a kind of Wannsee-to-Willkommenskultur coming-of-age tale describing a society that, against all odds, summoned the courage to look itself in the eye and ask itself the most difficult questions of all. But that would not be an entirely accurate portrayal.

Cover of Out of Darkness: The Germans 1942-2022

Instead, Trentmann presents us with a (sometimes terrifyingly) wide spectrum of domains of human life that became infused with moral meaning, moral purpose, and moral conflict: Third World humanitarianism, reproductive rights, care for the elderly, animal welfare, military service, nuclear energy, European integration, family structures, treatment of immigrants, and even that most stereotypical of German characteristics – frugality. None of these, of course, is a uniquely German phenomenon. But each was given a certain moral inflection in its German context.

“What is distinctive is not the particular concerns”, writes Trentmann, “it is the German habit of turning all social, economic and political problems into moral ones.”

Nevertheless, it is the painful reckoning with Nazism, war, and genocide that supplies the book’s spine. Its most critical chapters are dedicated to exploring the clashing sets of values and emotions that Germans collectively navigated when reconstituting their society after the collapse of the Third Reich. Moral reconstruction was a mammoth task.

For one, it was necessary to expunge from German minds the distinctive ethical code that had underlay the Nazi worldview. Trentmann interrogates in some detail the minds of the SS men whose chilling conviction that the survival of the Aryan race constituted the supreme ethical value rendered their genocidal actions, in their eyes, as a morally necessary undertaking.

Compounding the magnitude of the task, after 1945, there was a pervasive sense among Germans that they – their cities flattened, their borders diminished, their compatriots uprooted, and their country divided – had been the war’s victims rather than its culprits.

For the most part, those who really had been persecuted under Nazism struggled for recognition in the postwar world. So, when it came to the matter of moral regeneration, democratic institutions and reparation programs were hardly enough. What was needed was a thorough cleansing of the soul, what the writer Erich Wiechert in November 1945 termed digging “out God from underneath the rubble of the Antichrist”.

Germany’s interminable struggle over its support for Ukraine has ultimately turned not on the external question of what may be best for Ukraine or Europe, but rather on the internal matter of what Germany conceives its own moral responsibility to be.
It was therefore no small feat that (West) Germany managed to reconstitute itself, in a relatively brief span of time, as a stable, functional, and wealthy democracy. The transformation justly became a source of pride. But the thorough suffusion of German public life with moral rhetoric and moral reasoning has also, Trentmann shows, been a source of much hypocrisy and self-righteousness.

And in this respect, Out of the Darkness makes a persuasive case to understand morality as an animating factor in contemporary politics. In an especially critical section, Trentmann attacks the double-standards and seeming lack of self-awareness that drove the moral posture German politicians adopted towards the indebted southern European states (especially Greece) during the Eurozone crisis of the early 2010s. Under Angela Merkel’s leadership, a “global crisis of liquidity and debt became a morality play”, in which the German government’s tough stance towards “profligate southerners” stemmed from “the simple moral conviction that a nation’s economic success mirrored the virtues of its citizens”.

During the refugee influx of 2015, the self-satisfied boast that Germans were the “world champions” of “helping others” (as one leading politician put it) concealed the many years in which the country’s government had simply “outsourced the problem” to Europe’s outer borders. And for the past two years, Germany’s interminable struggle over its support for Ukraine has ultimately turned not on the external question of what may be best for Ukraine or Europe, but rather on the internal matter of what Germany conceives its own moral responsibility to be.

An undertaking of this character and scale presents some difficult conceptual questions. Above all is the thorny matter of how to prevent a moral history from descending into a moralising history. For the most part, it is a temptation that Trentmann skilfully avoids. Out of the Darkness does not follow a single narrative arc charting one long learning process in which Germans collectively stumble towards some kind of preordained ethical benchmark. Instead, it presents us with open futures, deep social conflicts, and the confronting reality that a simple “darkness to light” story cannot capture the true complexities of post-war German life. It is, in short, good history.

There are many books that address the tortuous tale of Germany’s reconstruction and moral regeneration after 1945. Out of the Darkness is one of the very best of them.

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