In this blog, MSc Social and Cultural Psychology alumni Lina Ludwig discusses how young Germans make sense of their national identity. While being German is perceived as associated with collective guilt, ties to the past are also represented as a special responsibility. Ultimately, this allows for a critical, yet positive attachment for their generation and thus, ironically, a source of pride.
A Difficult Identification
More than seventy years after the end of WWII, remembering the atrocities of the national socialist past remains an integral part of German national self-perception (Ezell et al., 2004). Although the state defines itself in clear opposition to the Nazi era, German attitudes towards their nationality remain complicated, with notions of shame, guilt and an ambivalent national attachment prevalent (Miller-Idriss & Rothenberg, 2012).
The current generation of young Germans is the last to learn about the national past directly from family members’ experiences. Focusing on those whose grandparents witnessed the Nazi era and whose nationality is unquestioned, I interviewed young uni-educated Germans to understand their experience of ‘being German’ and how they perceived the consequences of that. Using social representations theory, my research explored how perceptions of guilt and pride remain manifest within the public sphere. This becomes particularly relevant in light of recent debates about German national identity, sparked by the emergence of new right-wing populist groups advocating for a change in Germany’s culture of Holocaust remembrance, even describing the Berlin Holocaust Memorial as “a monument of shame”.
Constructing Guilt and Pride
It is commonly expressed that being German is associated with collective guilt. However, this notion exists side by side with the contradictory statement that defines guilt purely as a consequence of individual action. While the concept of collective guilt is questioned, the idea of an inherent German responsibility as a consequence of the Nazi past is accepted. Responsibility is perceived through a logic of descent, embedded in ancestry leading to a form of a persistent trait, whilst an association with guilt is understood to weaken with each generation. Active remembrance is perceived as necessary to prevent a possible repetition of the past as an omnipresent underlying threat. At the same time, ‘being German’ is understood to include a particular expertise that obliges and allows Germans to take on almost superior watchful functions, to speak out against populism or nationalist tendencies as something that ‘they’ have already overcome.
The notion of national pride is generally perceived as ambivalent or harmful, something to be distinguished from a desire for an easier, more positive national identity. Interestingly, pride is shaped by two contrasting social representations depending on whether it is expressed by the self and for the ‘right’ reasons or by an ‘other’. While participants often offhandedly expressed pride throughout the interviews, it was represented as a critical attachment and appropriate only when further defined through qualifiers or related to specific causes, such as the social system, education or the progressive society.
Not pride per se, but the way that Germany handled the refugee crisis, for example. We can be proud of that, I suppose.
While this form of a perceived ‘good’ pride exists, pride in ‘being German’ is deemed as overwhelmingly problematic by participants when it is expressed by an unknown other. Reacting to other’s pride, participants argued that national pride is irrational because pride is only legitimate when they had actively participated in the source of pride (i.e. pride in the country’s political stability is legitimate and acceptable for those who actively support this by voting or similar civic duties). However, as nationality in this context is predominantly understood as a passive given at birth, it is not seen as a “rationally legitimate” reason. Guilt and pride appear to follow different mechanisms or commonsense logic. For the reflection of guilt, a mere association is enough, whilst pride needs active involvement. Expressing pride without distinct qualifiers is perceived as problematic and so becomes a potential risk leading to a first step towards a national hubris that fuels national populist movements. When participants react to others expressing pride, they imagine them to be right-wing and thus dangerous or uneducated and naïve, distinct from the collective “us”.
Walking a Tightrope
Despite a positive attachment to German citizenship as a privilege due to the country’s civic, economic and political system, personal identification with a national ethos has to be carefully calibrated, much like walking a tightrope. The association of guilt as part of a personal identity appears to be contradictory. Whilst ‘being German’ is associated with guilt, participants distanced themselves from personal guilt. Instead, the association appears as a feature that comes with ‘being German’ by descent, as a common trait, as part of a general German heritage. Personal identity is reimagined as a special German responsibility of preventing a repetition of the past, as a call for agency. Paradoxically, this special responsibility becomes a source of pride, as a badge of honour, despite the horrible past.
To protect the participants’ understanding of what represents ‘us’, threats to these representations are linked to morally deviant others. By positioning expressions of pride as faulty, illogical or dangerous, the core of their representation remains untouched. Semantic barriers can have the effect of limiting any engagement with the alternative representational system: It is the ‘others’’ understanding of national identity that carries the dangers of the Nazi past, while ‘we’ have moved on.
However, there is also a second ‘other’ without the same legacy, those who are not German by descent. By defining belonging partially through an association with guilt or responsibility through ancestry, a logic of ‘being German’ by descent is reinforced. While those who are not directly related to the past have more freedom in expressing pride (and are even expected to), they nevertheless lack resources that are at the core of the representation of German identity: they do not share the same burden or responsible legacy and never will.
Miller-Idriss & Rothenberg, 2012 https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1469-8129.2011.00498.x
The comments here are the authors own, and not of the London School of Economics and Political Science