In 1957, Heinrich Böll published his famous travel book Irisches Tagebuch, which was later translated as Irish Journal. The Irish hated it and the Germans loved it. For the Irish it had too many donkeys and stone walls, too much dreaming and backward innocence. For the Germans, however, it was precisely these simple things that became so attractive. They carried the book with them in their rucksacks, searching for a kind of emotional connection to the people and the landscape. It gave them a sense of innocence and belonging, an inner life of feelings that was denied to them in their own country.
In fact, it was not a book about Ireland at all, but a book about all the things that were missing in Germany. Ireland was abundant with elusive qualities such as soul, sadness, longing, timelessness, all the romance of liberation and freedom. The Irish lived like there was no tomorrow. There was music everywhere and drinking. And maybe it is exactly this intoxicating naturalism, this idealism of uncomplicated life, which appealed so much to the German mind. Ireland had the same iconic value as the Che Guevara poster on the bedroom wall.
Had Böll written the same book about Germany, it would no doubt have been shunned as fascist. On the cliffs of Moher, the German could find a sense of home that had no ideological associations. They could learn to play the tin whistle and even sing songs about freedom. Unlike the Irish, Germans abroad tend to forget where they come from. There is no German enclave in New York as there used to be. Where the Irish and the Italians always longed to be on the map, to he heard and not forgotten, the Germans longed to be invisible.
The emotional attachment to home, to the land, to the place in which you are born, is something hereditary that lies deep in the human psyche, which is why it could be so abused by Nazi ideology. The result of this abuse is the systematic denial ever since of any feelings of belonging, a denial that has become so pervasive in German consciousness that it has erased these human instincts almost completely.
Of course the Germans have feelings. They fall in love, they have desires like everyone else, they feel passionate about football and you can hear the odd person proclaim "I love Berlin" or "I love Bavaria". Of course they feel sadness and grief, compassion, friendship, the entire spectrum of human emotions. But there was always something missing too. They had no dream-life, at least not until the Wim Wenders movie Himmel über Berlin came out. Or maybe it started again when the Berlin wall came down, with people crying and embracing each other on the streets.
Up to now, Germans have trained themselves to feel no pain, no sense of loss, no compassion for themselves. Nowhere in the world was the father and son gap so wide as it was in Germany. From the late 60s, young people prosecuted their parents and reshaped the German conscience. All this was essential for German renewal, but it also led to a dislocation, a kind of orphaned state. In the process of exorcising the Nazi crimes, generations of Germans also denied their own heritage and severed an emotional link with their own people.
The hidden agony of this discontinuity has never been fully explored. In effect, they became a homeless people, and still are. The physical destruction of German cities, the occupation by foreign armies, was overcome by adapting and rebuilding. But the intellectual homelessness was more profound, and included a ruthless defection from anything that had a spiritual link with the German soul. There is an unacknowledged loneliness in being German.
It is right that Germans have turned their back on the arrogance of nationalism. They are the only people in the world who have so comprehensively examined their own past. They have been to hell and back with guilt, and their overriding sense of duty towards their victims is unheard of in any other society. Remembering the Holocaust has replaced the crucifixion of Christ as a leading icon in our society. Memorials have become religious sites that provide a new kind of holiness and guide us towards a fair and racially tolerant society. If there is such a thing as absolution, it is only by remembering and revisiting these sites.
But there is sometimes also the perception that the Germans are born with their heads turned backwards, that there is something which prevents emotional thought and forces them to be forever rational and watchful. There is a feeling that everything you say as a German has to be passed by the legal team first, that German expression is devoid of recklessness, that it lacks the essential ingredients of mischief and spontaneity.
Perhaps this is the great strength of German writing. Writers like such as Peter Handke and Thomas Bernhard were admired for the way they rebuilt the language from the foundations, while Boell re-examined the Germans in a series of moral case histories. No German can easily express mother-love, least of all writers.
A German journalist recently accused me of not being hard enough on my own father, saying that a German writer would be critically lynched for showing such sympathy towards his own parents. It is clear that the openness with which Irish writers such as Colm Toibin and John McGahern engage with family, with home, with nature and landscape, is quite different. Irish writers talk about their sense of place. Seamus Heaney's exploration of digging, for instance, would mean something else altogether in Germany. In Ireland, the bog reveals things that connect us to the past, whereas the German forests are full of self-accusing landmines.
On a visit to Dublin some time ago, Bernhard Schlink was asked if he could explain what was so special about the German concept of Heimat, or home, to which he answered simply that he was born in Hamburg and went to school there. Maybe it is not a priority for German writers, and his extraordinary book The Reader demonstrates this contemporary German view best of all, a book in which the main character's parents are unseen.
Could it be that the Germans are way ahead of other pre-modern societies where nationalism and homeland are still seen as virtues? Could the use of dreaming simply be obsolete in Germany? Artists such as Joseph Beuys famously mocked the German sense of home and home furnishings. But the intensity of German longing for Ireland also suggests that they still possess the same homing instinct as anyone else, only that they have trained themselves to suppress any potential patriotic links to their own origins. It's a rear-view blind spot which has erased their country from the emotional map.
Maybe that's a progression. Maybe German humility and remorse have become the new German virtues to replace love of your country and your people. Maybe this is what it means to be German, to have a clear, patriotism-free conscience. In Berlin's Potsdamer Platz, the ambitious new architectural plans were scaled down deliberately for fear of appearing too arrogant and mighty. With time, this quiet code of humility may have become the emotional core of the new German being. A sense of place no longer applies to the ground where you have your feet, but to a collection of books you've read, films you go to, people you meet, and what you remember.
On a reading tour in Germany, I recently asked students at a secondary school in the southern town of Otterberg if it meant anything to be German. Was there anything the Germans could be proud of? The students and teachers stared back in shock. Nobody knew what to say. I had explained to them that my German-Irish childhood in had been plagued by these questions of nationalism, the ebbing Irish nationalism on my father's side and the legacy of German nationalism which my mother experienced under nazism. I had outlined the language war into which I had been conscripted as a child, forced to speak only Irish and German, wearing Aran sweaters and lederhosen, forbidden from speaking English.
Maybe there is no such thing as a German national consciousness. Maybe the whole question of sovereignty is an anachronism and that the Germans have become the first true internationalists, with global tastes, speaking fluent English, at home everywhere in the world. But if nationhood is obsolete then so is identity. It would mean that there is no such thing as being German and that they possess no individuality, only the surrogate identities of Guinness T-shirts and being Irish in Irish pubs. Perhaps the Germans are in the process of going into exile, emigrating into a new global identity.
I felt like I had thrown a grenade into the school at Otterberg. Being German was not something they had thought much about before, it seemed, apart from the fact that they all had a German history and German postal addresses. I told them that I had been called a Kraut and a Nazi as a child, that I had been put on trial by other children and that I had also denied being German. I told them I had the feeling that being German was a forbidden identity, that I still have difficulty saying "we Germans" and would rather just say I was Irish. I asked them what they would say if they went on holiday and people called them Krauts and Nazis. Do you ignore it? Or do you make a joke of it and say "I'm a Kraut, and I'm proud", like the great moment in the film of Roddy Doyle's The Commitments.
Nobody could say a thing, until one young student finally stood up and said: "I'm a German-Israeli-Palestinian." She wore no headscarf and said she felt that she had a sense of belonging in all three places, but that she also felt homeless. Another student stood up and said he was Argentinian born, but living in Germany. He said the Germans could feel proud because their history had taught them to become the most tolerant nation in Europe. As an immigrant, he was in a position to say that Germans were welcoming and took in more immigrants than any other country. A teacher added that she felt proud that the Germans had not joined in with the war of occupation in Iraq.Could this be something that would give Germans a sense of identity and make them less invisible, the fact that they have not entered into a war? Can the German conscience be seen as an achievement, a source of leadership in the world? Is this new global conscience something that will stop the loneliness of being German?