Wednesday, March 03, 2010

German liberalism

Friedrich Naumann

When thinking of 20th century Germany, the first thing that comes to mind isn't its liberal tradition. Yet not only has a centrist liberal polity emerged from the ashes of the Nazi regime which ruled from 1933 until 1945, but the origins of liberalism in Germany can be traced to a political tradition dating back to the early 1900s.

To hear Prof. Moshe Zimmermann, the 67 year-old-head of the Richard Koebner Minerva Center for German History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem tell it, modern German history could have gone either way; there is nothing metaphysical in the German political character that made the rise of the Nazis inevitable. It was, instead, a matter of circumstances and bad luck framed by economic depression and military defeat in the First World War.

To drive home this point, Zimmerman cited the legacy of Friedrich Naumann (1860-1919) a Lutheran pastor turned politician and Reichstag member who sought to navigate his middle class constituents toward social reform and political tolerance.

Speaking Monday at a seminar on German liberalism at Hebrew University, co-sponsored by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Liberty, Zimmerman insisted that liberalism and emancipation were as much a part of Germany's political legacy as its darker contributions.

Naumann's answer to the Jewish question, Zimmermann told Jewish Ideas Daily, was to proclaim that there really ought to be no Jewish question at all; that anti-Semitism was wrong and counter-productive, and that there was no trans-national or over-arching Jewish problem; that whatever problems Jews faced (or, presumably, were thought to cause) could be solved within the framework of the countries in which they lived.

These progressive views were enunciated in a political environment in which hatred of Jews permeated even democratic movements.

Naumann visited Palestine in 1898 – the same year as did Kaiser Wilhelm II and Theodore Herzl – and returned home with mildly anti-Zionist attitudes. Why? Firstly, because he didn't conceive of the Jews as a nation, people or ethnicity, but as a religious denomination. Nor did he think the Zionist enterprise would take off. And, finally, he worried that Zionism would exacerbate intolerance toward Jews within Germany.

As far as Zimmerman knows, Naumann did not give Zionism further consideration and did not publicly react to the 1917 Balfour Declaration.

GERMAN LIBERALS of the early 1900s have little in common with their 21st century counterparts, Zimmerman said. Though it is doubtful whether the Friedrich Naumann Foundation -- which is affiliated with the Free Democratic Party, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition -- would agree. Germany's foreign minister is FDP chair Guido Westerwelle. He and Merkel currently disagree about taxes (he wants them cut) and nuclear power plans (he wants them built).

In any event, the liberals of old opposed the conservative understanding of civil society (Gesellschaft) as an "organism" which worked best under authoritarian rule. In contrast, the liberals championed individual over group rights.

Definitions of liberalism have evolved over the decades, but at minimum it is an ideology that "considers individuals the seat of moral value and each individual as of equal worth," according to political sociologist John A. Hall.

The German liberals of Naumann's era engaged in political combat against the aristocracy and oligarchy on the one hand, and the working classes on the other.
Their natural constituency was the middle class – the bourgeois – the very strata in which the Jews felt most at home.

THE argument that racism and authoritarianism were not inherently more at home in the pre-WWII German body politic than liberalism is, shall we say, revisionist. But in championing this position, Zimmerman, who wrote his master's thesis on Naumann, is hardly being at his most controversial.

The product of a privileged national-religious Jerusalem home, Zimmerman has established a notorious reputation beyond the sphere of his academic work for having compared IDF soldiers serving in Judea and Samaria to the SS, and Hebron settlers to the Hitler Youth.

All of which goes to show that even agreeable academic, an expert on liberalism, can give voice to intolerance.

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