Skip to content

US Fulbrighter probes the question of on-going German guilt

The terrorist attacks in Jordan on November 9th were apparently supposed to be a reminder of the 9-11 attacks, because November 9th is written "9.11." in many parts of the world. While 9-11 has shaped US foreign policy and national identity significantly, 9.11. (aka November 9th) has been "Germany's Day of Destiny" according to the Deutsche Welle (Article is in English) and shaped German identity and foreign policy even more than 9-11 did in the US.

On November 9th, 1848 Germany's first revolutionary dreams were killed. Nov 9th 1918 marked the proclamation of the Weimar Republic. Nov 9th 1923 Hitler first attempted to take over the government. Nov 9th 1938 the so-called Reichskristallnacht increased the brutal persecution of Jews that would end in the murder of millions of people. And on Nov 9th 1989 the Berlin Wall fell.

James DeWitt arrived in Berlin on September 11th 2001 and conducted his Fulbright research on the issue of German national identity and the possible role that residual-guilt from World War II may play in forming foreign policy opinions among the staffers of the German Bundestag (parliament). James allowed the Atlantic Review to publish the summary of his survey. It is not a dry and dusted academic paper, but a well written account of doing research as an aspiring US Fulbright grantee in Germany.  

One of his many insightful conclusions was:

The respondents viewed Germany's proper role in the world as "moderate", however they believed Germany should play a "strong role" within the EU, which, in turn, should play a "strong role" in the world.  This apparent contradiction may point to a psychological need for the EU for one to feel comfortable with the expression of their nation’s power.  In this sense, the EU may act as a vehicle which enables Germans to allow their country have influence in Europe.  Without the EU, it is difficult to imagine that the respondents would feel at ease with a powerful Germany.   

His summary, he says, "is not only a look into my research proposal, it tells of the mistakes and difficulties I ran into along the way.  In this sense, I think it could be valuable for future Fulbrighters who set out to conduct such surveys." 

Toward a New National Identity? 
The Legislative Staff of the Bundestag and Their Attitudes Regarding European Integration and Germany's Role in the World:

A Survey  

by James W. DeWitt


My arrival set the tone for much of the year. I arrived in Berlin on September 11, 2001 to spend a year as a Fulbright Grantee conducting research among the legislative staff of the Bundestag. The Germans I was around (some were friends from previous visits to Germany and some I had just met) were largely very supportive of the United States in the wake of the terrorist attacks. A huge demonstration was held in front of the Brandenburg Gate where 200,000 Berliners showed their solidarity with Americans.  This all changed when the US-led coalition began dropping bombs on Afghanistan. It seemed as though many Germans had done a complete 180-degree turn. All of a sudden, for many of them, the US had become the aggressor. I asked myself if the findings of my study would offer any insight into what I had observed during those first weeks in Berlin.
I had received a Fulbright Grant from the U.S. Department of State for the following proposal: To find out how Germans’ feelings about their national identity (and all that goes along with it - including residual guilt from World War II) has affected their attitudes regarding the European Union and Germany's role in world affairs.
During a previous stay in Germany as a student at the Universität Osnabrück it had become quite apparent that the notion of national pride was seen quite differently in Germany than in the US. I had also observed that Germans, particularly the 20 to 30 year-olds with whom I was most acquainted, were largely supportive of the EU. Furthermore, whereas the citizens of other European countries had been more hesitant about EU membership and had expressed concerns about retaining their unique identities, this discussion seemed largely absent from Germany. My quest was to see if residual guilt played any role in fostering German enthusiasm for the EU. Perhaps, I theorized, an explanation for this apparent enthusiasm lay in the German desire to adopt a new national (or in this case, supranational) identity as citizens of the EU, which would supplant their identity as Germans (which it seemed so many of them loathed).
Further sparking my interest in this subject was a trend in German politics suggesting that the country might be bucking the shackles of shame that had kept it (at least politically speaking) less active than it could have been on the international scene since World War II. Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder had become less guarded than his predecessors when talking about German national interests. Characterizing himself as the "the first chancellor without complexes," [1] he said that Germany "has every interest in considering itself a great power in Europe." [2]
Germany had also broken a long-standing self-imposed rule regarding the use of its military. For the first time since World War II, German troops were deployed to participate in the NATO air raids on Yugoslavia in 1999. Was this evidence that the guilt that had hindered Germany for the last fifty years was subsiding? And if so, was Germany’s membership in the EU critical in allowing this to take place? 
Unfortunately, I didn’t have the resources to answer these questions based on a study of the entire German population. Instead, I first considered interviewing German politicians, but this idea seemed also problematic. Access was one concern, but to a greater degree I had strong doubts that I could get candid answers from elected officials. Politicians, after all, are more accustomed to doing interviews with members of the media (with whom they would tend to be guarded) rather than with researchers like myself. 
The next logical possibility was to focus on the legislative staff of the Bundestag. Having been a legislative staff member myself in the US for some 5 years, I imagined that I could build some rapport with these individuals, give them the feeling that we had something in common, and hopefully, gain their trust. While the significance of staff opinions can be debated, it became clear to me during the course of my study that office staff often play a crucial role in the policy making process in the Bundestag. This population was also attractive for study because among its ranks are some of the most politically astute Germans in the country. For all of these reasons, ultimately I decided to focus my study on the staff of the Bundestag.
I had, however, not yet chosen a research method and was considering conducting interviews. I started with three interviews with staff from the ruling center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD). Although in the end, I chose to use surveys as the basis for my study, these initial interviews proved valuable in that they allowed me to test many of the questions that would later appear in my survey. I ultimately chose to use surveys because they were much more conducive than interviews to uniformly comparing answers of individual respondents. 
I sought out a number of highly respected German political scientists to advise me during my research. In hindsight, while it was by no means a mistake to seek guidance, it was a mistake to limit my advisors to political scientists. Ultimately, I realized I needed a sociologist or a social psychologist. Although the setting for my study was indeed political, the questions I would ask were largely psychological, as was the conclusion I hoped to draw from the data. Ultimately, I was fortunate enough to meet with Dr. Michael Bamberg, a visiting professor of psychology at the Technische Universität Berlin, who assisted in solidifying my survey questions.
Once the survey was finally ready, I decided that recruiting 50 respondents would be a realistic number considering I was gathering the information alone and had a limited time period to complete the study. I originally planned on surveying a certain amount from each parliamentary faction in proportion to its representation in the Bundestag. However, this proved problematic for several reasons. Firstly, the free market-based Free Democratic Party (FDP), the formerly communist Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), and Alliance '90/the Greens (hereafter referred to as "the Greens") all had very small representation in the Bundestag. With a total number of 50 staffers in my sample, the FDP and PDS would be represented by merely three respondents respectively, and the Greens by only four. With such small samples, it would be easy for me to receive inaccurate data. In addition, the approaching parliamentary election of September 22, 2002 posed a problem. Even if I were to sample proportionately, the numbers were likely to change after the election and my data would be less valuable. For these reasons, I decided to sample equally taking 10 staff members from each of the five factions.
I selected the names of the participants randomly from staff directories. I also utilized some contacts I had established in the Bundestag and many of them were kind enough to ask their co-workers if they would volunteer to fill out a survey. I "cold called" most of the individuals whose names I had selected to ask them to participate.  Surprisingly, I usually got a very positive response that was much better than I had anticipated. Over the telephone, I explained that I was an American who had been a legislative staff member for a number of years in the US, that I was conducting a survey, and that their name had been selected. In the end, I was able to collect more than enough surveys to conduct the study. The surveys were completed during April and May 2002. I met personally with most of the participants one-on-one in their offices.
Once the surveys were collected and the data analyzed, perhaps the most notable result was the degree of enthusiasm the staff shared for the EU. Forty-seven out of the fifty respondents answered that they had either a "positive" or "very positive" attitude towards the European Union (the three remaining answers came from a respondent from the center-right Christian Democratic Union/Christian Socialist Union (CDU/CSU) who answered that their attitude was "neutral", and two PDS respondents, one who also replied "neutral" and one "very negative").
Although the virtual unanimity among staff on the question of support for the EU was on its own a very interesting finding, this discovery made it very difficult to examine my original research question: What is the relationship between national identity and attitudes towards the EU? On matters concerning one’s national identity, degree of national pride, and feelings of guilt, answers were varied. However, as I stated, virtually all respondents answered positively regarding their attitude towards the EU. For this reason, using the data I had collected it was not possible to conclude that a correlation existed between national identity and attitudes towards the EU. In addition, the age, sex, and geographic origin of the respondents did not appear to play a significant role in the results.    
However, there were many other interesting findings. On the issue of national pride, when asked to what degree they felt proud to be German, a noteworthy 52 percent of the respondents answered that they were either "not very proud" or "not proud at all" to be German. Twenty-four percent of the respondents were "somewhat proud" and only two percent (one respondent) answered that he was "very proud" to be German. Perhaps alluding to the sensitivity of the question, 22 percent of the respondents skipped this question entirely.
Some of those who skipped the question commented that they rejected my use of the German word for pride (Stolz). Some suggested that I should have phrased the question, "are you happy to be German" rather than "are you proud to be German". For many, the word Stolz had a negative connotation because it reminded them of neo-Nazis or the Third Reich. By not answering the question, they avoided giving the appearance that they identified in any way with Nazis. 
Based on the 39 respondents who did answer the question, the CDU/CSU respondents showed the most national pride, followed by the FDP. The Greens came in third and the SPD and PDS tied for fourth place.
In a set of follow-up questions the respondents were given the opportunity to specify what individual aspects of being German (if any) made them proud. They were given a list of possibilities and were also given the option of adding their own categories. Many of those who had skipped the earlier question regarding pride answered these questions and the overall number of responses expressing pride increased significantly. For example, approximately 80 percent of respondents answered that they were at least "a little proud" of the following: "German Political System and Constitution," "Achievements of German Social System," and "German Art and Literature." The category "Accomplishments of German Science" received 72 percent and 66 percent were at least "a little proud" of "German Reunification," the "German Economic System and Its Successes," and the "Democratic Influence of Germany" in the world. Fifty-six percent expressed pride in the "Achievements of German Athletes" and even 54 percent responded positively to the category of the "German Nation and its Strength." 
Thus, when the questions were phrased in a way that did not leave them open to meaning "national pride" in terms of National Socialism, most of the respondents showed that they did indeed feel patriotism in some form or another. Similar conclusions were made by Dr. Thomas Blank (Universität Münster) and Dr. Peter Schmidt (Universität Giessen) in a 1993 study regarding German national pride. [3]  
Perhaps pointing to the country's ever-growing focus on the EU, most respondents identified themselves more strongly as Europeans than as Germans. Not surprisingly, the survey results also suggested that the staff felt much more comfortable with a Germany which worked within the institutions of the EU. The respondents viewed Germany's proper role in the world as "moderate", however they believed Germany should play a "strong role" within the EU, which, in turn, should play a "strong role" in the world. This apparent contradiction may point to a psychological need for the EU for one to feel comfortable with the expression of their nation’s power. In this sense, the EU may act as a vehicle which enables Germans to allow their country have influence in Europe. Without the EU, it is difficult to imagine that the respondents would feel at ease with a powerful Germany. 
In addition, the study showed that a large amount of staff were not concerned about protecting their national identity from an ever-increasingly integrated EU. Ninety-six percent of respondents said that they had no concerns regarding the loss of German autonomy during the integration process. In fact, one CDU/CSU respondent remarked that he not only had no concerns about the loss of German autonomy, he welcomed it.
 The data also showed that 82 percent believed that the adoption of the Euro in place of the once-cherished Deutsche Mark was the right decision for Germany. The result might have been higher if I had gathered the data several months earlier. Around April and May of 2002 (when the data was collected) many complaints were being voiced in the German news media that the adoption of the Euro had made goods and services more expensive.
Eighty-six percent of the respondents answered affirmatively when asked if Germany has a special responsibility in the world based on its history. Forty percent of those who held this opinion also said that they had personally experienced guilt at one time or another for events in German history. In addition, 37 percent of those who believed Germany had a special responsibility also believed, in general, that Germans (including those who were born after 1945) still felt guilt stemming from World War II. (Out of all 50 respondents, 36 percent said that they had experienced such guilt and 42 percent believed that their fellow Germans still felt guilt related to the war.)
The notion that Germany bears a unique responsibility in the world was also demonstrated in the answers to several questions regarding peacekeeping missions. Seventy-two percent approved of the participation of German troops as peacekeepers in Afghanistan and 68 percent approved of German participation in the peacekeeping mission in Macedonia. However, when the topic turned away from peacekeeping to war making, the answers were quite different. Only forty-eight percent approved of the use of German soldiers in the NATO air raids on Yugoslavia in 1999 and just 34 percent approved of German participation in the US-led attack on Afghanistan in 2001.
This study, while inconclusive, revealed compelling information about these 50 staff members and possibly about German politicos in general. Patterns emerged that give us a glimpse into how this group sees themselves as Germans and their country's proper role in world affairs. 
A significant portion of the respondents had strong personal objections to expressing national pride. Many found the notion of national pride itself somewhat questionable. "How can I be proud of being German?" they asked. "My being German has nothing to do with me. I was just born here. Why should I be proud about something over which I have no control?" The defensive tone I often heard during the course of my research sometimes made it sound as if these respondents really meant, "It’s not my fault I’m German."  
However, when questions were phrased in a more palatable way I found that pride did indeed exist. One may not discover it on the surface, however, the way one could in perhaps in the US or elsewhere. 
In a conversation with Dr. Ekhard Haack, Professor of Philology at the Freie Universität Berlin, this breed of patriotism was described to me as Anderspatriotismus or "other patriotism." It is characterized by a strong wariness for nationalism (and even patriotism), but nonetheless an appreciation for many of the things which define a nation. This duality forms the fine line that allows many Germans to love and loathe their country simultaneously.
These findings were consistent with a country that appears to be growing in confidence and losing many of its inhibitions, while working multilaterally through the EU. Germany's membership in the EU appeared to be a source of comfort (if not pride) when issues were raised regarding Germany’s influence in the world. EU membership has meant a decrease in political and economic autonomy, but it has also led to the adoption of an identity that many Germans can embrace without reservation. 
Lastly, the data revealed that a large number of staff have at one time or another felt guilty for events in German history over which they had no control. Has supporting the European cause provided a means for them to reduce this guilt? Certainly, Germans are not the only people in Europe (or in world for that matter) who are haunted by their collective past. I asked myself, "What would the results of this study be if it were conducted in other countries? Would Germany stand out as the rule or the exception?"
The ability of Europeans to maintain their many national identities harmoniously within a common European identity will likely prove a challenge as integration continues (it has clearly been a stumbling block in the case of the United Kingdom). By recognizing not only the economic and political but also the cultural sacrifices that the citizens of neighboring countries make for the benefit of the whole, Europeans could do much to help ensure the long-term success of the union.
In future research I intend to examine many of the questions that were left unanswered by this study. At the very least, I hope the research I conducted in the Bundestag will contribute to a better understanding of the possible relationship between national identity, guilt, foreign policy, and the creation of international organizations like the EU.
Gail Edmondson, "Paris May Not Toast Schroeder for Long", Business Week,12 October ,12 October
   1998, p. 20
"My Continent, Right or Wrong." The Economist: A Survey of Europe,23 October 1999, p. 3,23 October 1999, p. 3
Blank, T., & Schmidt, P. (1993). Verletzte oder verletzende Nation? Empirische Befunde
   zum Stolz auf Deutschland. Journal für Sozialforschung, 33, 391-415

[1] Gail Edmondson, "Paris May Not Toast Schroeder for Long", Business Week,12 October 1998, p. 20
[2] "My Continent, Right or Wrong." The Economist: A Survey of Europe,23 October 1999, p. 3
[3] Blank, T., & Schmidt, P. (1993). Verletzte oder verletzende Nation? Empirische Befunde zum Stolz auf Deutschland. Journal für Sozialforschung, 33, 391-415

Trackbacks on : Atlantic Review

Show preview
This might be interesting for the English-language visitors:Toward a New National Identity?(It's not my fault I'm German.)

Atlantic Review on : Bad News from Germany

Show preview
November 9th is Germany's "Day of Destiny." Great and horrible events happened on that day in German history. Today a shocking survey was released that reminds us of the horrible events. DW World reports:Approximately 5,000 Germans were question


Display comments as Linear | Threaded

George W. Bush on :

On World Freedom Day, we commemorate the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of the German people. We honor the men and women who fought against communist oppression and all those who continue to fight against tyranny. We also renew our commitment to advancing liberty, democracy, and human rights. NOW, THEREFORE, I, GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim November 9, 2005, as World Freedom Day. I call upon the people of the United States to observe this day with appropriate ceremonies and activities and to reaffirm their dedication to freedom and democracy.

Gregory Kelly on :

Is the “guilt’ self imposed or does it come from the outside global community? Are the Russians host to the same phenomena from the killing and torture of millions under the communist such as Stalin? China’s Cultural Revolution? Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, Is it there as well? North Korean “education camps” and starving its millions to feed the military complex? Do we (the US) have the same “guilt” phenomena from its corporations for example Ford supporting the Nazi’s or selling raw materials to Japan that supported their war machine? What about all the military dictators that we have supported during our path of history that have been responsible for the slaughter of millions. Does anyone remember our support of Sadam Hussein while he used chemical weapons on the Iranians and the Kurds? The methods may have been different, Germany had concentration camps and the U.S. had (still does by the way) ‘Indian Reservations’ for the Native American populations with pretty much the same results. Look deep enough into any country or peoples and you will find THEIR dark spots in history. Is a twenty something German today responsible for what took place before he/she was even born? I think not. National Pride and ethnic identity is an inherently positive force. It is however susceptible to manipulation for bad. President Bush used National Pride in the war on terror and we ended up in Iraq. You decide if this manipulation was good or bad. If guilt is still an albatross around the necks of German society and politics then it is up to the German people to transform the guilt into a healthy remembrance and a call for vigilance and participation in society and in particular the political system. I believe the Fulbright’s can be of great assistance to German society and politics by being the engine that moves the transformation from guilt to a healthy remembrance of what can go wrong in any country or culture without due diligence and participation of the citizenry.

Thomas on :

The guilt is primarily self imposed. Sometimes politicians or the media of other countries make certain statements about the darkest chapters of Germany's history to further their own interest. Most young Germans do not feel guilt or responsibility for the crimes committed by the generation of their grand-parents, but most Germans feel a responsibility for the future because of Germany's history. It would be great if more Americans would pay tribute to those who suffered as a result of recent US policies, like the support for Saddam you mentioned. Most people living in the US today are descendants of families who immigrated to the US before the genocide of the native Americans took place. Should they identify with this part of US history? Should they feel responsibility? If you immigrate to another country, do you have to identify with the history of that country?

James DeWitt on :

Thomas and Gregory, I enjoyed reading your comments. I know the questions that you both raised may have been hypothetical, but after reading them I find myself wanting to reiterate something if I may: Personally I do not believe that anyone (regardless of nationality) should feel guilty for actions over which they had (or have) no control. I think the case is all the more clear when the action(s) in question took place before one was even born. Thomas, I’m glad you pointed out the different ways in which you view the concepts of “guilt” and “responsibility”. Before I conducted the above study, I probably used these words synonymously and I may still do this from time to time if I’m not being careful. Despite my verbal inadequacies, if I learned anything from my Fulbright year it is that it’s essential to make sure you know how the person with whom you are trying to communicate defines such concepts (especially, if they play such a central role in one’s research - like the terms “guilt” and “responsibility” did in mine.) Naturally this task gets all the more complicated when you’re dealing with a foreign language. When I started collecting data for the above study, I often made the mistake of assuming that when I said the word, “schuld”, the participants in my study understood this as “guilt” as I defined it at the time. This sounds terribly presumptuous to me now, but I must admit, it’s true. What can I say? Live and learn. If anyone is interested in reading a very well written account of the role of guilt in politics around the world (including references to some of the events raised by Gregory above, I would highly recommend Gesine Schwan’s, Politics and Guilt: The Destructive Power of Silence (Politik und Schuld: Die zerstörische Macht des Schweigens). It really helped me put things in perspective. Thank you.

Add Comment

E-Mail addresses will not be displayed and will only be used for E-Mail notifications.

To prevent automated Bots from commentspamming, please enter the string you see in the image below in the appropriate input box. Your comment will only be submitted if the strings match. Please ensure that your browser supports and accepts cookies, or your comment cannot be verified correctly.

Form options