The German Summer 2012

By Christian Kohlross

So what happened this past summer in Germany? Anything other then the persistent crisis of the Euro and the European Union? Is there something hovering in the shadow of an ongoing economic crisis? Or could the EU crisis also be an expression of something else?

According to a German-American type of sociology known as the system theory (invented by an American and a German sociologist, Talcott Parsons and Niklas Luhmann), modern societies are divided into social subsystems  such as politics, economy, law, religion, art, science, etc. Each of these systems establishes a specific way of communication, its own language so to say, and its own values or criteria to create and judge convictions. Thus each of these systems is responsible for and emerging through the usage of a specific distinction. Broadly spoken, the economy deals with the decision to pay or not to pay, the political system with the distinction  between power and the absence of power, religion with the difference between immanent and transcendent, art with the distinction of beauty and ugliness, and law with the difference between justice and injustice.  Therefore,  for instance, it seems to be pure nonsense to expect a decision from the economic system about what could be called ugly or beautiful.

Consequently, what follows from these sociological teachings is that systems might irritate or confound each other but could never communicate; mutual understanding is not possible. Different languages and values that cannot be translated into each other prevent communication. So, resulting from the German-American joint venture in sociological theory is the image of a modern or postmodern Western society, which is divided into a plurality of hermetic social spheres or systems.

Now, looking at what has happened in Germany this summer, we find a prevalent economic crisis and a string of scandals in the cultural scene. The scandals all try to prove the very same, namely that something is wrong with the sociological self portrait that (post)modern Western societies believe in. What exactly could be wrong?

Well, this summer, like every summer, Germany celebrated the famous Richard Wagner festival in Bayreuth, and there was bound to be at least one minor scandal in the happening. This year, it was a major one. The Russian bass baritone Jewgeni Nikitin was supposed to perform the title part in Wagner’s Flying Dutchman. However, some days ahead of the premiere, German TV broadcasted images showing a younger Nikitin as a percussionist of a Russian hard rock band, drumming without a T-shirt on, making clearly visible a Hakenkreuz tattoo on his naked torso. Of course, Nikitin had to resign the day after and was replaced by another singer.

What does this demonstrate? For one, that in Germany one is still capable of celebrating an ingenious composer, despite his having been an Anti-Semite. But celebrating Wagner is only possible by stressing the general distance between the artistic and the political realm (Richard Wagner was without doubt a great composer, but a failure as a political analyst). Yet, Nikitins performance as Flying Dutchman would have undermined this distinction; by his pure existence on stage he would have made it impossible to ignore Wagner’s Anti-Semitism for the sake of his art.  Therefore, Nikitin was unbearable and had to resign.

Following the Nikitin incident was another, much bigger festival, a celebration not of a certain kind of music but oft the omnipotence of the self − the Olympics.  Despite the fact that German athletes generally underperformed by gaining half the amount of medals they were expected to achieve, the real scandal was the case of Nadja Drygalla, a young German sculler. She had to leave the German rowing team after media coverage showed that her partner was and still might be a neo-Nazi. While this decision by the German Olympic Sports Committee has been questioned in public, what was also questionable was once more the difference or distance between the private and the public realm, i.e. sports and politics. It is this distinction that was almost undermined by the existence of an athlete who fell in love with a Nazi. Or, to put it more symbolically and ideal-typically,  a young, innocent goddess whose fiancé is the devil.

Unfortunately, this summer’s scandals in Germany did not end there. Despite the fact that the German society has for decades been very careful to consider Jewish sensitivities as a result of the Holocaust, a German District court in Cologne ruled in a singular case that circumcising young boys would represent grievous bodily harm and would in fact be illegal. It was a decision that provoked an outcry, especially, but not only, in the Jewish community since it is interpreted as a threat to religious freedom. A discussion about how much religiously motivated violence against children should be tolerated by the German law has already begun, which in itself is considered to be a scandal by some religious communities. And once more, what is questioned here on a general scale are again the limits and boundaries of social subsystems: the religious and the legal sphere.

So what follows?

Three things: Firstly, that the supremacy of the economic system is now being accompanied by hegemonial demands of other social subsystems. Social spheres − not only the economic one − attempt to extend or even destroy their boundaries and confinements. At least they do not accept these boundaries anymore; Secondly, since this development appears in the form of scandals it becomes clear that it happens in and is triggered by the media. In other words, now social change seems to be triggered neither by individuals nor by theories (like Marxism) but by the media; The third and potentially most important consequence: If the depiction of modern Western society as one partitioned in autonomous sub-systems is no longer adequate, then what this summer showed to be at stake in Germany is nothing  less than the shape and appearance of modernity.

We will see.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.