The recent riots at the G20 summit in Hamburg sent shockwaves across Germany. The images of cars burning in bourgeois neighborhoods and the massive deployment of police, whose numbers were bolstered by reinforcements from all over the country, took people here by surprise. One reporter, speaking from the mayhem, spoke of war-like conditions in the city’s streets. President Frank-Walter Steinmeier visited Hamburg in the immediate aftermath of the riots and confessed to being “erschüttert” (shaken) and “fassungslos” (stunned) by the violence. Some in the press began to wonder if it would take Germany “zurück in die 70er” (“back to the 1970s”), when the country was indeed shaken to its roots by left-wing violence associated with the Red Army Faction. But the fear quickly dissipated, and Steinmeier has since expressed what seems to be a firm consensus here: German democracy is strong enough to withstand this challenge. And he is right. German democracy, once the sickly step-child of its American guardian, has come into its own, and now has a thing or two to teach the United States.
For decades after World War II, and to some extent even today, Germany was caricatured in American popular culture as a country of ex-Nazis. Whether half-ironic or not, the image seemed indelible and ineradicable—to the chagrin of many younger Germans of the so-called second and third postwar generations. Decades of public commemoration and self-flagellation have done their part—particularly since Unification in 1990—to dispel that seemingly intractable image. The more serious side of this story, however—unbeknownst to many Americans who uncritically imbibe the popular Germans-as-Nazis image—is the historic failure of German democracy during the Weimar Republic. During the interwar period, Germany’s notoriously weak institutions and casual commitment to democracy—along of course with the economic devastation of World War I—helped make Nazi Germany possible. In the postwar period, too, one sensed pervasive uncertainty about the state of German democracy. Was it good enough? Strong enough? Was it really understood and fully accepted by West Germans?
Up through the 1970s and early ’80s, serious public intellectuals (taken seriously then, perhaps less so today) like Heinrich Böll, Günter Grass, and Herbert Marcuse sided with student protesters in their conviction that postwar German democracy was contaminated by Nazism—through and through. There was then an uneasy sense that true democracy could not come into its own because of the perseverance of allegedly “fascistoid” mental structures, as well as the continued presence of ex-Nazis in public office, the judiciary, and academia. This embarrassing and unmistakable fact—think of ex-Nazis like Hans Filbinger, the long-time governor of Baden-Württemberg, and Kurt-Georg Kiesinger, Chancellor of the Federal Republic from 1966-69—helped to make the students’ case. It stoked anxiety abroad, and at home, about Germany’s inadequate achievement of democracy. But that was then—a time when American democracy, having withstood Nixon’s “imperial presidency” and the constitutional crisis of Watergate, was still a beacon and an inspiration. Tarnished by political scandal and Vietnam, American democracy nevertheless remained an ideal to many. Today it is the Americans who may want to turn to Germany for a lesson on democratic institutions.