BJ31 Steinberg

Germany and the USA between Volk and Bevölkerung

By Michael P. Steinberg

To an American observer, there is something fundamentally awkward about “Dem deutschen Volke,” the portentous inscription on the gable of the Reichstag building. Proposed by the building’s architect, Paul Wallot, in 1894, it was initially rejected by the Berliner Lokal-Anzeiger as “naiv, beinah komisch,” because it contradicted the principle that “the people” were already the masters of the house. Implicitly, the inscription suggested that a higher sovereignty had granted authority to the people. A very different rhetoric of authority from “we the people,” the opening words of the United States Constitution, which claim sovereignty and immediately preempt the authority of any higher power: king, emperor, or God.

When the three words “Dem deutschen Volke” were finally installed, in 1916, on a wave of wartime nationalism, their emphasis had shifted. No longer claiming a horizontal sovereignty—the people liberated from higher authority, they now claimed a vertical privilege: the German people before others. A social or class category had been replaced by a national one. Like nationalism itself, the sentiment contradicts itself. Claiming to be inclusive, its function is, in fact, to exclude. As is well known, the völkisch tradition in German politics turned its hostility first on outsiders—principally the French, but soon also on insiders, principally the Jews. Returning to the Reichstagsgebäude in the late 1990s, members of the Bundestag were sensitive to the problem. Not without controversy, they commissioned the courtyard placement of Hans Haacke’s correction of the message in the form of his gravel and earth-filled inscription “Der Bevölkerung.” The word-switch goes back to Bertolt Brecht, who suggested in 1935 that one speak of the Bevölkerung rather than of the Volk, of Landbesitz (property) rather than of Boden (ground/land/soil).

Populism, the political insurgency that currently rages on both sides of the Atlantic, seems also to have abjured the horizontal, social- and class-based understanding of “the people” in favor of the vertical, insider-versus-outsider binary, even when—or, rather, especially when—the “outsiders” are also insiders. The new American populism is perhaps most accurately—and most violently—represented by “We will not be replaced” and “Jews will not replace us”: the cries that accompanied the white supremacists in the ultimately murderous August rampage through the streets and university grounds of Charlottesville, Virginia. This mix of panic and violence is known to Europe, whether in the form of Geert Wilders’s recent tweet, “Our population is being replaced. No more,” to the recent, successful campaign of the AfD. In Europe, Islamophobia is the driving xenophobic emotion, supported by the ever-relevant tools of anti-Semitism. Islamophobia, as sociologist and American Academy in Berlin fellow Nancy Foner explains, is relatively insignificant in the United States, despite the post-9/11 political focus on terrorism and the Trump administration’s proposed ban on immigration from Muslim-majority nations. In the US, color-based racism remains the dominant social trauma. The völkisch tradition in American politics is the racism based on skin color.

In the US, color-based racism remains the dominant social trauma. The völkisch tradition in American politics is the racism based on skin color.

The panic of populism is a panic about cultural identity, and it plays out largely in the area of culture. In the culturally bifurcated US, culture involves, on one side, God and guns. Forty percent of Americans say they go to church weekly. American populists carry—or insist on the right to carry—weapons, including weapons of mass murder, as we have experienced with almost routine regularity, most recently in Las Vegas. On the other side, American culture, as a lead agent of globalization, involves consumerism and the idea that culture and education are products that can be bought and traded. Understood in this way, the only way for “red” culture and “blue” culture to be reconciled in the United States will involve a subtle agenda of secularization, with secularization defined as the acceptance of a social contract that will provide a negotiating space for a diverse and indeed divided population.

In Germany, on the other hand, secularization has proven surprisingly successful as a condition for democratization after 1945. Germany remains religiously divided between Protestants and Catholics, and the rise of political anti-Semitism from the 1870s through the Third Reich can be understood partly as a displacement of the inter-Christian differences that had to be suppressed in order for national unity to function. The combined success of secularization and democratization after 1945 involves both the freedom of religion and the guarantee of a public sphere in which cultural identities—including religious identities—can be negotiated. Understood in this way, the fear of Islam emerges less as the fear that sacred spaces will be undermined than as the fear that secular spaces will be threatened.

Since the German states subsidize cultural institutions, it follows that cultural institutions accrue real importance for the negotiation of identities and differences. From the mid-eighteenth century onward, no institution has played a more important role in the negotiation of German identities than the theater. G.E. Lessing’s dramas and the general theory of the theater he advanced in his Hamburgische Dramaturgie (1767-69) combined a revival of Aristotle’s theory of tragedy, updated for relevance to the bourgeois world, with an argument about the secular application of the basic Protestant idea of the primacy of the word and the text. In Catholic Germany and Austria, on the other hand, theatrical practice focused much more on the image, and therefore on the spectacle, as earthly representations of divine grace.

Since the German states subsidize cultural institutions, it follows that cultural institutions accrue real importance for the negotiation of identities and differences.

Two leading examples show how this Protestant-Catholic divide, now secularized into the world of the theater, made its way through the nineteenth century and remains relevant today. When Richard Wagner inaugurated his Bayreuth Festival, in 1876, he established a secular pilgrimage site to a new fount of German national culture. Dedicated to the performance solely of his own music dramas, the Bayreuth idea also drew from the Aristotelian idea of the theater as the place where the polis—now recast as the nation—would gather not only to understand itself, but also to form itself. And the music in music drama, Wagner claimed, had nothing to do with opera (which he claimed was both Italian and trivial), but rather with the complete realization of the symphonic legacy and importance of Beethoven—the word become music, music become the word. To this day, the only work other than Wagner’s that has ever been performed in the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth is Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, understood to perform the unity of music and word by the introduction of text into the last movement.

The Salzburg Festival can stand for the other side of the question. Inaugurated in 1920 by Hugo von Hofmannsthal and a few others, Salzburg claimed to elevate the “Austrian idea” as the redemptive carrier of German culture following the defeat of the central powers in World War I. The aesthetic here was to be Catholic, baroque, and visual, and to make these points Hofmannsthal revised his earlier play Jedermann (still performed every year on the Domplatz in front of the cathedral), and added to it Das große salzburger Welttheater, which has generally not survived.

In the German and Austrian press of the fin-de-siecle, debates about theatrical practices and values raged. Readers of Vienna’s great Neue Freie Presse famously bypassed the political news on the top of the broadsheet to dive “unter dem Strich” to the Feuilleton and the debates about the theater: die kleine Welt,” in Friedrich Hebbel’s words, “in der die große ihre Probe hält.” The theater as the place where cultural identity is formed and fought over? No recent example is more interesting than the controversy around Chris Dercon’s arrival at Berlin’s Volksbühne, where all the cultural and political concerns I have described so far seem to come together.

The theater as the place where cultural identity is formed and fought over? No recent example is more interesting than the controversy around Chris Dercon’s arrival at Berlin’s Volksbühne, where all the cultural and political concerns I have described so far seem to come together.

The Volk in the Volksbühne is both horizontal and vertical: it is a class indicator (the theater of the people) but also a national indicator (the theater of the German people), with reference to the “theater of the word,” from Lessing to Brecht. Berlin’s loyalty to Frank Casdorf involves a commitment to his fusion of canonic texts (from Goethe’s Faust to Wagner’s Ring) with the avant-garde practice often referred to as the post-dramatic, in which the integrity of the text is up for negotiation. Though it might be an exaggeration to claim that Chris Dercon completely disavows this legacy (his mounting, early in his first season, of Mohammad Al Attar’s Iphigenia is at least in some way in line with it), his challenges to it have been aggressive. Dercon has moved away from both German traditions—theater-as-word and theater-as-spectacle—in favor of an experiment of theater-as-event.

More significantly, perhaps, Chris Dercon and his initial plans for the Volksbühne have refocused from the Volk to the Bevölkerung. Indeed, it would not be inappropriate to refer to this institution in its current experimental phase as Berlin’s Bevölkerungstheater. Its stages mirror the global city that Berlin has become. Is this a new promise of inclusion, or a dissipation of local and national culture? We can call it the Dercon/Haacke question, and it may be the most important question facing both Europe and the United States now.


Michael P. Steinberg is president of the American Academy in Berlin and a professor for history, music, and German Studies at Brown University. Between 2009 and 2013, he served as dramaturg on a joint production of Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung for the Berlin State Opera and the Teatro alla Scala, Milan.

This article appeared in German in the Sunday, November 5, 2017, print edition of Der Tagesspiegel (p. 25).