“Where is the Federal Republic heading?”

by Karl-Jürgen Müller

Berlin in May 2024: at first glance, the gigantic capital of the Federal Republic of Germany is pulsating with life and colourful hustle and bustle. Berlin has a polyglot feel to it; on the buses and trains, which are usually full, you can always hear guests from abroad, English dominates. At first you don’t notice that Germany is at war. But if you take a closer look, a different picture emerges. Some public buildings are not flying the German flag, but the Ukrainian flag. The Social Democratic Party (SPD) is advertising the European Parliament elections on 9 June with large posters. You can see the lead candidate Katarina Barley and the German Chancellor Olaf Scholz with just one word in large letters in the foreground. For example, “Justice” or “Peace”. Alliance 90/The Greens’ election posters also talk about peace. I think of Orwell’s dystopia “1984”: “War is peace! Freedom is slavery! Ignorance is strength!”

Propaganda instead of education

Berlin has numerous museums with exhibitions worth seeing. For example, the anniversary exhibition on Caspar David Friedrich in the Alte Nationalgalerie on Museum Island. People interested in history are invited to the large German Historical Museum, but also to many smaller exhibition centres. I myself visit the museum in the World War II bunker at the train station of Anhalt. The exhibition that interests me is entitled “Hitler – how could it happen?”. The exhibition is extensive, but offers little that is new for the trained historian. On the contrary, it even leaves out important topics. For example, solid facts about the role of the Western powers in the rise of the German National Socialists.
  Instead, there is a wall panel in the room about the German war of aggression against the Soviet Union, which cannot be found in any serious history book. The panel is dedicated to Ukraine (not to Belarus) and shows, among other things, a photo of one of the people responsible for the exhibition. He was in Bucha (Ukraine) in spring 2022 and can be seen there next to a burnt-out tank. It is accompanied by a text by US historian Timothy Snyder, who claims that Putin and Hitler are very similar … and that today’s Russia has “characteristics of fascism”. Timothy Snyder was highly active in the coup d’état in Ukraine in 2014, and I ask myself: Why does a German museum have to resort to US-American hate preachers in its historical judgement?
  Pupils are standing next to me. They are being guided through the exhibition in droves. What should I call the purpose of this? I call it war propaganda of the worst kind. Just before the exit of the museum, there is a “special exhibition” on Ukraine and the war there. A large panel on the right-hand side depicts the heads of Hitler and Putin and quotes Timothy Snyder once again, now in great detail.

Karl Jaspers

Once again, I read Karl Jaspers’ book, published in 1966: “Wohin treibt die Bundesrepublik?” (Where is the Federal Republic heading?) (translated in part by E. B. Ashton as the “The Future of Germany”, Chicago University Press, 1967). Obviously, I’m not the only one who still finds the book worth reading today. In April 2024, the Heidelberg Academy of Sciences and Humanities organised a public lecture on the topic1 … and already wanted to prevent this with the announcement: “The title of this book, published in 1966, sounds surprisingly topical, but the content is less so.” I see it differently – even though almost 60 years have passed since its publication and the book was already heavily attacked at the time.2
  A detailed biography can be read on the website of the Karl Jaspers Foundation3: “Karl Jaspers was born in Oldenburg on 23 February 1883. He came from a liberal-conservative family that had produced merchants, pastors and politicians. His father, himself politically active as a city councillor and member of the state parliament, was the director of a bank. His mother ran a middle-class household with wisdom and warmth, in which the siblings – Jaspers had a sister two years younger and a brother six years younger – grew up in a sheltered environment.”
  This is followed by passages about his lifelong respiratory illness, his medical studies, his work as a doctor in a psychiatric clinic, his publications on questions of psychology, his threat from the National Socialists (teaching ban in 1937, publication ban in 1938), his fear of his Jewish wife being deported to an extermination camp, his inner emigration and his extensive work in the two decades after the war until his death in 1969.

Consistent reappraisal
of the Nazi dictatorship?

Jaspers had already begun to turn to philosophy before the war. Now, after the war, he became one of the most renowned German philosophers, a philosopher who had an impact beyond the university. In the Foundation’s biography we read: After the war “began the period of an intensive journalistic commitment that was maintained until the end of his life. Together with Alfred Weber and Werner Krauss, Jaspers founded the journal Die Wandlung (The conversion), for which he himself wrote numerous articles. He increasingly spoke out in daily newspapers and soon added radio lectures. […] This journalistic commitment was based on the hope of permanently changing the way Germans thought politically. Jaspers believed that a democratic consciousness could be created by consistently coming to terms with the Nazi dictatorship. However, he was soon disappointed to discover that neither the population nor the occupying powers were interested in a serious discussion about the past.”
  In the last years of his life, he was increasingly preoccupied with highly explosive political issues: the question of nuclear armament and the internal state of the Federal Republic of Germany at the time. His book “Wohin treibt die Bundesrepublik?” remained on the bestseller lists for weeks but, according to the Foundation, did not have “the effect he had hoped for”. Jaspers had already accepted a call to Basel and left Germany in 1948, not least out of disappointment with the political developments in the immediate post-war period. Annoyed by current political developments in the Federal Republic of Germany, Jaspers returned his German passport in 1967 and acquired Basel citizenship.

party oligarchy and dictatorship

In its first part, Jasper’s “Wohin treibt die Bundesrepublik?” criticises German politicians’ attempts to draw a legal line under the reappraisal of the Nazi past. Based on this, he takes a closer look at the internal state of the Federal Republic of Germany in a second, more extensive part. The chapter headings from the German edition alone are significant: ‘The structural change of the Federal Republic: From Democracy to an Oligarchy of parties’ and ‘The impending second step: from Party Oligarchy to a Dictatorship’. The headings of the sub-chapters are also informative: ‘The mindset of the authoritarian state and its subjects’, ‘Unreadiness for political responsibility’, ‘Paralysis of political thinking among the people and the government’, ‘Reduction of political control’, ‘Increasing the urge for secrecy’, ‘Minimisation of civil rights’, ‘Devaluation of the mind and Censorship’, ‘All-party government’.

Against emergency legislation

Jaspers then meticulously examines the emergency laws planned at the time and rejects them fundamentally and decisively: “The emergency legislation project is by far the most important domestic issue we face in the years ahead. It may create an instrument which at some fateful moment will make it possible for a dictatorship to be set up, for the constitution to be abolished, for an irreversible state of political unfreedom to be imposed, all in the same action. Moreover, it may cause the gravest threats to peace and may plunge Germany into a new, final disaster that would mean annihilation.” (p. 35f.; translation slightly altered to bring it closer to the original, the editor) With the last sentence of this passage, Jaspers refers to the German plans for an “external emergency”, i.e. war.

‘Do everything to save the peace’

For Jaspers, even the “planning” of a state of war is fatal. He assumes that the next major war in Europe will be fought with nuclear weapons and therefore states: “In the nuclear age war is total mutual destruction. There are, in fact, no measures against the emergency of such a war.” He concludes: “This emergency must not occur. The consequence is that one must do absolutely everything to save the peace, and nothing that might lead to war.” And he adds: “The only countermeasure to an external emergency is a sincere and unconditional peace policy.” (p. 37; emphasis mine, km)
  However, he also diagnoses that “[f]or all the protest marches [for example, at the end of the 1950s against German nuclear armament being considered by the government], it has not yet sunk into the minds of our people, of our politicians, of our military men what it means that war can and should no longer be the last resort, the ‘continuation of diplomacy by other means’ – and what the consequences are.” (p. 37f.) And he adds: “Emergency legislation for such a war will spur false hopes that even in that case we might not be beyond help. Such soothing will weaken the impulse to do everything to keep the situation from occurring.” (p. 38) Moreover, “[t]he new conditions have completely changed the point of the old military emergency measures. They would no longer save the fatherland, or the people’s homes, or the people. What they would do for the moment – though only for a short time – is to permit a small number of politicians and officers to save themselves. […] We ask: what chosen few shall thus – how long? – be spared? The emergency laws give the people into the hands of that small group. The people themselves are in fact left to perish.” (p. 38f.)
  Today, German Minister Pistorius (SPD) says Germany must “become fit for war”.

The people must be able
to revolt against the war

According to Jaspers, the emergency legislation plans to expose the population to the arbitrariness of the military once again, as was the case during the First World War. As a consequence, he asks: “Do we want emergency laws to make a popular uprising against war impossible? Do we want a terroristic control mechanism to exclude the chance that people might resist everywhere?” (p. 40) Jaspers considered such ‘resistance’ to be ‘magnificent’ and ‘possible’: “A rational people’s hearts and minds can defy the irresponsibility of government and military. The police can rise against the government, the soldiers against the generals.” (p. 40)
  “A people unwilling to go to war”, he continues, “must have the right and the chance to revolt – by strikes, by disobedience, by resistance against all those powers which cannot save us but would have us lose our liberty along with our lives”. (p. 41) The people must be given a “chance of salvation”: “This chance does not lie in suspending freedom in emergencies. It lies, before an emergency, in the policy of a government that does not threaten other countries and so acts that no other country need feel threatened. And in an emergency, it lies in the possibility of joint disobedience by the armies and people that are being spurred against each other.” (p. 42)
  Otherwise, “[t]he enforcement of the projected emergency laws in case of war would turn the people into a flock of sheep driven to slaughter, led by the last politicians of the nationalist, absolutist brand […] as power-mad as they are stupid […].” (p. 41)

What would Jaspers have said
about German politics today?

According to Jaspers the planned emergency order is “to terrorise people into making an orderly end” and this serves only to “increase its inhumanity”. This kind of order “lets a man evade the seriousness of the situation; it makes him unfree and keeps him from being himself. However rationalised, it is irrational and stupid. A people with a sense of dignity must rise in outrage against the men and the measures to be imposed upon it, and against the blind fools who will do such a thing and not see it. Total militarisation robs a people of its soul.” (p. 42)
  My question here is, what Karl Jaspers, if still alive today, would have said about German politics. To the German politicians as Ms Strack-Zimmermann and Mr Kiesewetter, Mr Merz and Mr Hofreiter? To Ms Baerbock and Ms Lang? To Mr Habeck? To Ms Faeser and Mr Haldenwang? To the senior Bundeswehr officers who are planning the deployment of German Taurus cruise missiles? … Unfortunately, the list of names is too long to mention them all.  •

1 https://www.hadw-bw.de/news/events/karl-jaspers-wohin-treibt-die-bundesrepublik
2 For example: https://www.bpb.de/shop/zeitschriften/apuz/archiv/528017/wer-treibt-die-bundesrepublik-wohin-das-treibenlassen-unbehagen-ueber-die-pluralistische-gesellschaft/ in: Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung (Hrsg.). Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte, 31/1968
3 https://jaspers-stiftung.ch/de/karl-jaspers/leben/leben


“A friend said this book was one of the sharpest attacks on the Federal Republic of Germany by a German. I don’t think that’s right. The existence of the Federal Republic is our good fortune as an opportunity for a new German state. Criticism is levelled at the paths that the Federal Republic is taking today. The intention is not negation, but help, however small, through reflection.”

Karl Jaspers. Wohin treibt die Bundesrepublik? Munich 1966, from the foreword
(Translation  Current Concerns)

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