The history of “German Angst” could serve as a lesson for today’s democratic societiesRoundup
tags: German history, reunification
Frank Biess is a history professor at the University of California San Diego. His book Republik der Angst. Eine andere Geschichte der Bundesrepublik (Republic of Fear. An alternative history of the Federal Republic) was published by Rowohlt Verlag in February 2019. An English version is due to appear in 2020.
In May, the Federal Republic turned 70, making it by far the longest-lasting political formation in the history of modern Germany. It will soon have outlived the German Empire (1871–1918), the interwar Weimar Republic (1918–1933) and the Third Reich (1933–1945) combined.
The Federal Republic is a remarkable democratic success story and the only such story in German history. Built on the ashes of the Nazi dictatorship, it has become a stable, prosperous and pluralistic democracy. With the collapse of Communism and German Reunification in 1990, the West German state absorbed the territory of the former German Democratic Republic in the East.
Post-unification fears among Germany’s neighbors of an unpredictable and dangerous enlarged country at the center of Europe have proven unfounded. Instead, the country that perpetrated the worst genocide in human history – the murder of European Jews in World War II – now ranks among the “best” countries in the world, according to the annual study by the U.S. News & World Report.
Amidst the celebration, it is important to remember that it could have turned out differently.
In fact, postwar Germans always feared that democracy might fail again. Surprisingly, the Federal Republic has owed its success in no small part to an unpleasant emotion: fear. While liberal philosophers from Montesquieu to Martha Nussbaum have associated fear with tyrannical forms of government, describing it as antithetical to democratic societies, fear has also played a positive and productive role in creating and preserving democracy in postwar Germany.
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