Searching for Our Identity
by Nils Markwardt
When the 2018 year in books began, the big non-fiction theme already seemed to be settled: 1968. After all, the student revolt of that year was just experiencing its fiftieth anniversary. And a number of titles actually appeared about that period, one which was so critical for the Federal Republic of Germany (Heinz Bude - "Adorno für Ruinenkinder" ["Adorno for Children of the Ruins"], Hanser ; Wolfgang Kraushaar - "Die blinden Flecken der 68er Bewegung" ["The Shortcomings of the 1968 Movement"], Klett-Cotta; Christina von Hodenberg - "Das andere Achtundsechzig" ["The Other 1968"], C.H. Beck; Claus Koch - "1968: Drei Generationen" ["1968: Three Generations"], Gütersloh). However, there was another anniversary which surprisingly dominated the non-fiction market just as intensely: that of Thirty Years' War. If the memory of that great slaughter – one that appeared as if it might never end after it commenced 400 years ago – had already filled many publishing lists in 2017 (Herfried Münkler - „Der dreißigjährige Krieg“ ["The Thirty Years' War"], Rowohlt; Andreas Bähr - „Der grausame Komet“ ["The Cruel Comet"], Rowohlt; Christian Pantle - „Der dreißigjährige Krieg“ ["The Thirty Years' War"], Propyläen), it was a phenomenon that continued into 2018 (Johannes Burkhardt - „Der Krieg der Kriege“ ["The War of Wars"], Klett-Cotta; and Georg Schmidt - „Die Reiter der Apokalypse“ ["Riders of the Apocalypse"], C.H. Beck).
As different as these two anniversaries may at first appear, they have something significant in common: both reflect the search for – a German – identity. While the debates over the legacy of the student movement evaluate our current relationship to the National Socialist past and the possibilities of future liberation, the memory of the Thirty Years' War in turn reveals itself as a deep probing of our cultural history, one likewise in search of the origins of collective identity in these times of total globalized networking.
To some extent, then, the diverse publications on these two historical anniversaries fit in well with what is perhaps the biggest trend on the current German market for non-fiction: the attempt to position oneself culturally in times of crisis. On the one hand, this includes research into the roots of right-wing populism, "fake news", and social polarization. While Germany has now become one of the last European countries with a strong national-authoritarian force (see the Alternative for Germany, or "AfD"), philosophers and social scientists such as Philip Manow („Die politische Ökonomie des Populismus“ ["The Political Economy of Populism"], Suhrkamp), Wilhelm Heitmeyer ("Autoritäre Versuchungen: Signaturen der Bedrohung“ ["Authoritarian Temptations: Signatures of the Threat"], Suhrkamp), and Philipp Hübl („Bullshit-Resistenz“ ["Bullshit Resistance"], Nicolai) have been producing well-founded analyses of how such forces have emerged, analyses that extend far beyond our German context. On the other hand, the search for how to position oneself culturally is also disclosed in a number of titles dealing with an increasingly pluralistic society, specifically in terms that are philosophically insightful (Isolde Charim - „Ich und die Anderen“ ["I and the Others"], Zsolnay), analytical and argument-driven (Thea Dorn - „Deutsch, nicht dumpf“ ["German, not Dull"], Knaus) or indignantly polemical (Max Czollek - „Desintegriert euch“ ["Dis-integrate Yourselves"], Hanser). In the process, these books also continually pursue the question of how enlightened societies might resist the authoritarian temptations of populism.
Indeed, many current publications are shedding light on the question of the significance and prospects for collective identity in an era of increasing individualization and polarization. At the same time, however, what is literally an evergreen of the nonfiction market reveals itself as a counterpoint to inquiries based in the social sciences: works showing an engagement with nature. This trend has persisted in recent years, as illustrated by the surprising and unrelenting success of books by forester Peter Wohlleben („Das geheime Leben der Bäume“ ["The Secret Life of Trees"], „Das Seelenleben der Tiere“ ["The Soul Life of Animals"], „Das geheime Netzwerk der Natur“ ["The Secret Network of Nature"], all published by Ludwig). These titles suggest that a thoroughly rationalized present engenders an intensified yearning for forest and field.
Yet, this (re)turn to nature is by no means a superficial romantic idealization of the natural world. Instead, it is also found in philosophical excursions (Florian Werner – "Der Weg des geringsten Widerstands. Ein Wanderbuch“ ["The Path of Least Resistance: A Hiking Book"], Nagel & Kimche) or in highly-informed, zoological case studies (Josef H. Reichholf - „Schmetterlinge. Warum sie verschwinden uns was das für uns bedeutet“ ["Butterflies: Why They are Disappearing and What That Means for Us"], Hanser). To be precise, however, this circumstance may not stand in complete contrast to the political titles surveyed. For nature in fact can also be a strong component of one's identity – something perhaps even more true of the cultural-historical tradition in Germany than in many other European nations.
Nils Markwardt is managing editor of "Philosophie Magazin" and also writes for "Zeit Online", "FAZ", and "Deutschlandradio Kultur", among others. He is a member of the German-Greek Litrix Jury for 2019-2020.
Translated by David A. Brenner