Fear itself

The history of “German Angst” could serve as a lesson for today’s democratic societies

Fear, remembrance, hope: the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin.
Fear, remembrance, hope: the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. picture alliance

In May, the Federal Republic turned 70, making it by far the longest-lasting political formation in the history of modern Germany. It will soon have outlived the German Empire (1871–1918), the interwar Weimar Republic (1918–1933) and the Third Reich (1933–1945) combined.

A remarkable democratic success story

The Federal Republic is a remarkable democratic success story and the only such story in German history. Built on the ashes of the Nazi dictatorship, it has become a stable, prosperous and pluralistic democracy. With the collapse of Communism and German Reunification in 1990, the West German state absorbed the territory of the former German Democratic Republic in the East.

Fear as a positive and productive role

Post-unification fears among Germany’s neighbors of an unpredictable and dangerous enlarged country at the center of Europe have proven unfounded. Instead, the country that perpetrated the worst genocide in human history – the murder of European Jews in World War II – now ranks among the “best” countries in the world, according to the annual study by the U.S. News & World Report.

Amidst the celebration, it is important to remember that it could have turned out differently.

In fact, postwar Germans always feared that democracy might fail again. Surprisingly, the Federal Republic has owed its success in no small part to an unpleasant emotion: fear. While liberal philosophers from Montesquieu to Martha Nussbaum have associated fear with tyrannical forms of government, describing it as antithetical to democratic societies, fear has also played a positive and productive role in creating and preserving democracy in postwar Germany.

The fear of repeating the Nazi past

The main source of trepidation for postwar Germans was the fear of repeating the Nazi past, a specter that retained a powerful presence over the Federal Republic, as any visitor to the many memorials in Berlin can attest. Yet the centrality of commemorative culture not only helped Germans make sense of their past; it also defined their anticipation of possible futures.

In the immediate postwar period, Germans perceived themselves as victims of war and fascism, and they feared being victimized again in a nuclear war at the forefront of the Cold War.

In the 1960s, Germans began to grapple with their role as perpetrators, such as during the trial of former concentration camp guards at Auschwitz (1963–65). A more critical memory of the Nazi past mobilized fear of a possible authoritarian transformation of the Federal Republic. It sensitized West Germans to powerful authoritarian tendencies within their society that had remained hidden, just like former Nazi perpetrators, beneath the surface of democracy.

Activists feared a new 1933

Such fears for the demise of democracy also influenced the West German student movement, the “68ers.” This movement arose in response to new “emergency laws” that made it possible to rescind democratic rights during a national emergency.

Student activists feared that this would lead to a new 1933, the year Hitler came to power. These protests ensured that the final draft of the laws passed in May 1968 by the first grand coalition of Christian and Social Democrats had important democratic safeguards built into them. The feared “emergency” has never been invoked.

Read the whole text on The German Times website.

Frank Biess is a history professor at the University of California San Diego. His book „Republik der Angst. Eine andere Geschichte der Bundesrepublik“ (Republic of Fear. An alternative history of the Federal Republic) was published by Rowohlt Berlin in February 2019. An English version is due to appear in 2020.

© The German Times