Video Review – German cultural history and socialism
In 2019 the German band Rammstein released a single and video entitled Deutschland and to anyone interested in popular culture and its relationship with politics this has to rate as one of the most powerful and revealing pieces of work. Rather like this band’s relationship with Germany my relationship with their music is very mixed. As a lover of power guitar riffs I find them matchless but the grotesque nature of some of their imagery I could do without. However, the insights into German culture that they provide are interesting and show an understanding of the popular zeitgeist. I searched the internet for English subtitles but failed to find a suitable version but this may be an advantage for English viewers because in the ignorance of the German language we can focus on the imagery – which is primarily the subject of this essay.
Here are some of the visual references used in the video. We had the aftermath of the battle of the Teutoburg Forest where the Roman legions were famously stopped from expanding the empire further into Germany; the knights of the Holy Roman WEmpire and the Teutonic knights; the savage Lutheran monks of the Reformation; the 30 Years War; the Hindenburg disaster; the inflation and decadence of the Weimar republic; the Nazis and the V2 rocket; the East Germans in space; the East German ‘communist’ regime; the Red Army Faction in the West and lastly the birth of a Leonberger puppy. A typically (in the context of this essay) Germanic bleak view of their own ‘history’.
It will be noticed that there are no ‘great men’ like Frederick the Great, Arminius, Bismarck or Hitler but only a succession of disasters with the implication that these were caused by some inherent characteristic of the German culture and people. A nice touch is that ‘Germania’ herself is portrayed by a famous black German actress and is the only woman to make an appearance. I say that there were no actual historical characters portrayed but there was one important exception – Karl Marx. He is identified with the East German Bolshevik puppet regime in the form of a looming statue and this is an anachronism to which I will return. Lastly the closing credits sequence is one of the most poignant I have ever seen with a beautiful piano version of another Rammstein song based on the German fairytale of Snow White.
Many of these myths and images were devised by the nationalist intelligentsia of the new German state in an effort to create a ‘German’ historical identity. Of course Rammstein has subverted this project by rejecting any heroic or romantic elements but there remains an acknowledgement of just how powerful the myth is by their embracing an antithetical version of it. Like the children of abusive parents there is still a need to love them – as they say in the lyrics: ‘Germany, your love is a curse and a blessing. Germany, my love I cannot give you.’ I suspect this is how many Germans feel about themselves and their cultural identity. They suspect that they have a darkness of the soul.
This was not always the case. After unification in the nineteenth century Germans were full of optimism for the future as is evidenced by the mass membership of the Second International. But this was to be fatally undermined by the nationalism that destroyed it and made the descent into the madness of the First World War possible. The socialism of Marx and the First International was lost. Many reasons are given for this including the theory that it was the failure of the German revolution of 1848 that enabled the slide back into autocracy and militarism which was to last, with the exception of the short-lived and failed Weimar Republic, until the Nazi defeat in 1945. With the partition after the war the Bolshevik puppet state of East Germany was identified with socialism and since this is where Rammstein originated it’s not surprising that we see Marx identified with this state in the video.
This identification with a cultural past is one of the main aspects of nationalist politics and is an important obstacle to socialist consciousness. Of course we are all created by the historical context into which we are born and there are many positive aspects of all cultures that should be celebrated but the danger is that political elites use them to create myths of superiority and exclusivity that form the foundations of reactionary nationalist ideology. Cultural development depends on the intersection of human communities and a flourishing delight in the novelty and ingenuity of invention and imagination of other people and their language and myths – it is the enemy of the fear caused by ignorance and the political manipulation and creation of suspicion that elites use to protect their wealth and power when they feel under threat.
There has been a long and celebrated aesthetic contrast between the Europe of the north and that of the south. The Mediterranean cultures of Greece and Rome have represented light, logic and democracy whereas the dark forests of the north represent the brooding aesthetic of the Romantic and the Gothic. It was the Goths who destroyed the Western Roman Empire and inaugurated the European ‘Dark Ages’ where the material culture and intellectual progress of the classical age was lost for hundreds of years until it flickered back into life during the Renaissance. We can enjoy both aesthetic traditions but the political consequences of Romanticism have always been highly problematic. Can we make cultural connections with political evolution? The Enlightenment was the inheritor of the classical tradition of reason and logic but in the hands of the bourgeoisie it became an oppressive and inhuman transition from quality to quantity – everything had to have a numerical equivalent before it was considered to be a ‘science’.
From what cultural inheritance does socialism emerge? Perhaps, like capitalism, socialism has primarily European origins – certainly the Marxian tradition is steeped in the tradition of French politics, German philosophy and British economics. German culture gave birth to both Nietzsche and Marx whose legacies still combat each other today. German nihilism still haunts us and perhaps, after Auschwitz, always will. As socialists we must never ignore cultural myths and realities. As this video shows, such identification still runs deep within the working class.