BERLIN— The Volk is back in its tribal sense. That was the message of Alexander Gauland, a leading politician of the extremist Alternative for Germany (or AfD) party, when he vowed on election night to “take back our country and our Volk!”
Volk means people. Sure it does. It’s a simple little word. Sure it is. Gauland was just feeling giddy because his party had won 94 seats in Parliament, a breakthrough that has reshaped German postwar politics. Sure he was.
I would like to believe in the inoffensive nature of this four-letter word. I can’t, not in Gauland’s mouth. His statement raises the question: Take back Germany from whom? The immigrant rabble, I assume, and the half-breed hordes, and the Muslims who, for the AfD, serve as today’s Jews.
The clamor of Hitler was for “Fuhrer, Volk und Vaterland.” Only membership of the Aryan Volk assured non-inclusion among the doomed masses. They, the others, were the “untermenschen,” or sub-humans: the Jews destined for annihilation, the Slavs destined for slavery.
In 1933, Victor Klemperer, the diarist of the Nazi era, wrote: “Yet again a new opportunity for celebration, a new national holiday for the people: Hitler’s birthday. The term Volk (people) is now as customary in spoken and written language as salt at table, everything is spiced with a soupçon of Volk: Volksfest (festival of the people), Volksgenosse (comrade of the people), Volksgemeinschaft (community of the people.)”
The Federal Republic has journeyed, with detours, from this exclusionary “völkisch” identity to one that is open and inclusive. German identity can never be a simple thing; history dictates that. But Germans, with each post-1945 generation, have grown more comfortable with themselves. Chancellor Angela Merkel has said flatly: “The Volk is everyone who lives in this country.”
That would include, in a population of 82 million, more than one million recent immigrants (many of them Syrian). Last year, the Federal Statistical Office said that roughly 18.6 million people in Germany had a migrant background, or 23 percent of the population.
There is a word in German for the population: “Bevölkerung.” It is as flat, straightforward and bland as “Volk” is charged, emotive and tribal. Between “Volk” and “Bevölkerung,” myth and migration, Germany has sought itself. On the whole it has done well.
And yet, as the election this month showed, even a country with a strong economy and low unemployment is not immune to the anger and fear that feeds the AfD. Looking at the world today I hear Bob Dylan’s words: “Something is happening here but you don’t know what it is.”
The something is a violent, reactionary current. It is a rightist, nativist, nationalist and, yes, “völkisch” reaction against globalization, against migration, against miscegenation, against the disappearance of borders and the blurring of genders, against the half-tones of political correctness, against Babel, against the stranger and the other, against the smug self-interested consensus of the urban, global elite.
The indecipherable swirl and cacophony of the modern world feeds unease. Technology is a wonderful thing if you are putting it to use, less so if it is putting an end to your usefulness.
Gauland wants Germany back but the Germany of his fantasy is gone, baby, gone. The British wanted their country back — and got the disaster of Brexit, a delusional act of irreparable self-harm.
Enough Americans wanted something back — a weird, white-dominated pastiche of the 1950s utterly removed from the United States today — to elect Donald Trump, who keeps referring to the need to defend “our people.”
As in: “We need a travel ban for certain dangerous countries, not some politically correct term that won’t help us protect our people.”
Now, “our people,” in the American case, refers to a nation of immigrants (including Trump’s grandfather from Germany), but Trump’s “defense,” like Gauland’s, targets immigrant hordes. As Marx observed, history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.
Still, the most dangerous thing would be to fail to take these rightist, xenophobic currents seriously, to assume they will go away because logically they should; after all, the world has moved on.
But not all the world: wired metropolises yes, vast peripheries no. The worst form of liberal arrogance is to dismiss the forces that brought Trump to power and are feeding resurgent nationalism around the world. Nobody was ever persuaded by being made to feel stupid.
On the western façade of the Reichstag, which houses the Parliament, is an old inscription: “Dem Deutschen Volke” — “To the German People.” When I lived in Germany, in 2000, there was a furor over a proposal to install in the building a work by the artist Hans Haacke with the illuminated words “Der Bevölkerung” — “To the Population.” Some Germans thought it was insulting. Today, the dedications to people and population are both there.
That’s appropriate. The slogan of the protesting East Germans who brought down the Berlin Wall was “Wir sind das Volk” (“We are the People.”) Words, like history, are many-shaded. It depends how they are used.
The great danger is when they lose their meaning entirely, as with Trump; or are deployed to raise W. B. Yeats’s “blood-dimmed tide,” as with Gauland. When both happen at once, beware.
(The New York Times)