Culture & Democracy in West Germany

Michael H Kater

Democracy was vital to a thriving cultural scene in the FRG post war.
Günter Grass
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Culture & Democracy in West Germany

In the dictatorship of the Third Reich, the absence of democracy meant the absence of individual liberties.  For visual artists, musicians, and men and women of letters, film and the stage, next to governmental content criticism and cancellation, this absence meant curtailment in expression and experimentation.  Other consequences were the prevention of collegial interchange, international outreach, publication and reviews, and public exhibitions.

As timid beginnings were made after 1945 in re-creating democracy in those parts of defeated Germany occupied by Western Allies, the dynamics of this relationship were being reversed.  With an established precondition of freedom, culture creators took advantage and newly started production.  The shaping of true democracy, avoiding the pitfalls of the Weimar Republic, was a main goal.  Demonstrating this, the novelist Hans Werner Richter met with, for the first time, like-minded young writers and poets barely back from the fronts of World War II, in September of 1947.  This gathering, which Richter called upon to be repeated most every year, was aptly named Gruppe 47, professing liberal values and democratic government.  At meetings Heinrich Böll read excerpts from early novels criticizing the war and encouraging workable democracy; in 1972 he received the Nobel Prize. Günter Grass composed satire in his famous novel The Tin Drum, an immediate world success, condemning the Nazi Party as an anti-democratic, totalitarian, instrument.  His Nobel Prize came in 1999.  The new freedom of experimentation was enjoyed by painters who took as their model work of New York Abstract Expressionism.  In music, the dodecaphony of Arnold Schoenberg, at the end of the 1940s an expatriate in Los Angeles, served as the basis for new developments for young composers such as Hans Werner Henze and Karlheinz Stockhausen, culminating in electronic music à la John Cage.

Attacks on remnants of National Socialism in West German society in film followed in the next two decades, and on such stages as Bochum’s Peter Zadek, a Jew born in Berlin, was hired from London.  In the 1960s, these progressive endeavours were put to the test by a series of incidents.  In October 1962 the editors of the progressive news magazine Der Spiegel questioned the prioritizing of atomic over conventional weapons, which Konrad Adenauer’s merely reluctantly democratic government wished to pursue.  Thereupon Defense Minister Franz Josef Strauss, a former Nazi officer, searched the Spiegel offices, clapping its editor, Rudolf Augstein, into jail.  But on the political left, this was seen as an attack on press freedom, and Strauss was forced to resign.  Adenauer himself offered his resignation months later.  In 1963 Rolf Hochhuth produced his play The Deputy, which castigated the SS, yet also Pope Pius’s XII perceived collusion with Hitler in the Holocaust.  But in July 1965, Hochhuth and his fellow literati were denounced as “pipsqueaks” by then conservative chancellor Ludwig Erhard.  By that time the Auschwitz Trial in Frankfurt, initiated, over the protests of many of his West German colleagues, by the returned Jewish émigré, State Attorney Fritz Bauer, had almost run its course.  Although its proceedings were reflected in shocked diary entries by observers such as the novelist Martin Walser, the comparatively lenient sentences meted out to former Auschwitz guards were not criticized sufficiently in a long-liberated press, nor were they dramatized in literature, film or on stage.

During the 1970s, a critical point in these developments appears to have been reached.   With the structures of democratic government firmly in place – despite the often-reactionary stance of Adenauer, Strauss and their World War II veteran cohorts – the urgency for reconstruction and reform seemed to have faded.  But even the solidly Social Democratic cabinets of Willi Brandt and Helmut Schmidt could not anticipate, and could not prevent, the onslaught of extreme left-wing terrorists, who charged that former Nazis, their parents or grandparents still active in society, were holding up democratization.  Creators of culture reacted weakly to those challenges, except for Heinrich Böll, who publicly sympathized with terrorist leader Ulrike Meinhof but was not taken seriously even by left-wing Social Democrats.  Günter Grass and Peter Zadek tended to deride them; Martin Walser remained indifferent.  When Gerhard Richter devoted an entire artistic series to the RAF terrorists in his paintings, they were already dead.

Events of the 1980s suggest that to the extent that West Germans were becoming more certain about their newly established democracy, culture creators saw less of a necessity to prop it up in their work.  As early as October 1980 the most prominent literary critic, Marcel Reich-Ranicki, a Polish-German Jew and on the liberal left, lamented a quality decline in new literature.  Indeed, the catalyst Gruppe 47 had already been disbanded fourteen years ago.  In the visual-art world, the pace-setting exhibition documenta in Kassel stagnated, and the Darmstadt New-Music Festival courses showed signs of ossification.  In society, perhaps as a reaction to too much anti-Nazi enlightenment, readers were reading books sympathetic to Hitler and Nazism and embraced a film about Hitler.  In government, Chancellor Helmut Kohl received the right-wing President Ronald Reagan to demonstrate respect at a Waffen-SS cemetery.  However, whatever correlation one may wish to posit between culture and government, West Germany did proceed on a secure democratic path after the 1980s, when unification with East Germany had been achieved, and the arts retained their recovered integrity, even though a critical position towards matters of politics may have become less than a core issue.

Michael H. Kater is the author of After the Nazis: The Story of Culture in West Germany, published by Yale University Press.