Yesterday was the 65 year anniversary of the German Basic Law, the equivalent of the constitution. When it was signed in 1949, it was supposed to be an interim solution (hence avoiding the word “constitution”), to be replaced by an actual constitution at the time East and West Germany re-united. However, re-unification was so long in coming that politicians were loath to write a new constitution then. The Basic Law had gained fervent admirers in the meantime.
One of these admirers is the Iranian-German author Navid Kermani. He was invited to give the keynote speech in parliament at yesterday’s anniversary festivities. The choice of a non-politician, a Muslim, and one who holds two passports, for this speech wasn’t obvious – Kermani himself acknowledged that even 15 years ago it wouldn’t have been possible – but he did so well that he completely overshadowed President Gauck’s speech. He propagated a love of the Basic Law as opposed to German national pride.
This is going to be a long but very worthwhile blog post partly translating and partly summarizing his speech, so here’s a brief table of contents:
1. The Language of the Basic Law
2. How the Basic Law was unusual for its time
3. Thoughts on Germany’s Dignity and Patriotism
4. Criticism of Germany’s Lack of Cosmopolitan Policy
As an author, Navid Kermani starts with considerations of language:
A paradox is not a typical stylistic device in legal texts, which aim at the greatest possible clarity. [...] And yet the Basic Law starts with a paradox. Because if “Human dignity is inviolable”, as the first sentence proclaims, the state wouldn’t have to respect or even protect it [as the 2nd sentence states]. Dignity exists independently and untouched by power. Using this simple, barely noticeable paradox - dignity is inviolable and still needs protection – the Basic Law inverts the premise of the previous German constitutions into its opposite and declares the State not to be the telos but the servant of the human, that is the servant of all humans, mankind in the emphatic sense. Linguistically, this is – well, you don’t want to call it brilliant because you would be applying aesthetics to an eminently normative text – it is perfect, nothing else.
He goes on to claim that the power and success of the Basic Law cannot be explained without appreciating it’s literary quality – “a remarkably beautiful text”, comparable only to Luther’s translation of the Bible as far as German texts go, the Basic Law created reality through the power of the word.
Unusual for its time
Navid Kermani points out how unlikely the constitution was for the post-war period and how it changed Germany:
“Everyone has the right to the free development of his personality” [follows the paragraph on dignity in the Basic Law] : with most Germans worrying about bare survival in the rubble of their cities and of their world views, how absurd the idea of being able to develop something as airy as their own personality. And yet, at the same time, what an alluring thought!
“All persons are equal before the law” : Jews, Sinti and Roma, homosexuals, disabled people, generally all outsiders, dissenters and strangers, they were not at all equal before the law – so they had to become equal.
“Men and women are equal” : people resisted introducing this paragraph for many weeks and months, which clearly shows that men and women were not at all considered equal in 1949; this sentence only became truth as it started to be applied.
“Death penalty is abolished” : this wasn’t a majority desire of Germans. According to a survey, three quarters of Germans were in favour of keeping death penalty – but nowadays it is widely accepted.
“All Germans enjoy freedom of movement throughout the Federal territory” : members of the parliamentary committee were almost embarassed to include this sentence considering the refugee problems and lack of housing, but now, 65 years later, this sentence is valid not just in reunited Germany but in most of Europe.
Navid Kermani also values the article saying that the federal republic of Germany can agree to have transfer some of its sovereignty, if this will lead to a peaceful and lasting order in Europe – the constitution in 1949 was already planning for a united Europe, a United States of Europe. According to him, the anti-discrimination clause, freedom of religion, freedom of the arts and sciences, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly – all these were intentions rather than reality in the Germany of 1949. But today they are reality.
Germany’s Dignity and Patriotism
“This is a good Germany, the best Germany that we know” is something German president Gauck said recently, and Kermani doesn’t disagree, but wouldn’t say so as easily. One could say that Germans’ discomfort at expressing pride in their country is just self-loathing. But this ignores another paradox…
Germany seemed completely dishonoured after the Holocaust. When and where did it rediscover its dignity? If I had to name a single day, a single event, a single gesture in German post-war history, for which the word “dignity” seems appropriate, then it was [...] Brandt kneeling in Warsaw.
This state regained its dignity through an act of humility. Aren’t heroics generally associated with strength, with virility, so also physical strength and, most importantly, with pride? But here someone showed greatness by suppressing his pride and accepting blame; blame for which he, as an opponent of Hitler and an exilee, was the least responsible. Here someone proved his honour by being publicly ashamed. Here someone understood patriotism as falling to his knees before Germany’s victims.
I am not prone to sentimentality in front of the TV, but, like so many, when I watched the video again on occasion of his 100th birthday [...] – to this day I still cannot watch it without tears in my eyes. And the strange thing is: these are tears of being moved, of remembering the atrocities, of being amazed anew every single time, but these are also tears of pride, tears of a very quiet and yet determined pride in such a Federal Republic of Germany.
It’s the Germany that I love. Not the boasting Germany, not the proud-to-be-German-and-Europe-finally-speaks-German kind of Germany, but a nation that despairs in its history, that wrestles with itself even accusing itself, at the same time a Germany that matured because of its failure, that will never again need pomp, that humbly calls its constitution “Basic Law” and prefers to meet foreigners in a too friendly and too naive way rather than risk becoming xenophobic and arrogant ever again.
It is often said – and I heard speakers say the same where I stand now – that Germans should finally have a normal, relaxed attitude to their nation, now that Nazism has been overcome long enough. I always ask myself what these speakers mean: such a normal and relaxed attitude never existed, not before Nazism either. There was overdrawn, aggressive nationalism and there was a counter-movement of German self-criticism, pro-Europeanism, cosmopolitanism and also love of world literature, which was unique here in the 19th century.
“A good German cannot be a nationalist.” – this is what Willy Brandt said in his Nobel Prize speech full of self-confidence.
Navid Kermani traces anti-patriotism in German culture to great authors and philosophers such as Lessing, Goethe, Schiller, Kant, Schopenhauer, Hölderlin, Büchner, Heine, Nietzsche, Hesse and Mann – all of these saw themselves as cosmopolitans, citizens of the world, and believed in European unification long before the first world war.
Criticism of Germany
Next, Kermani criticizes that this spirit of cosmopolitanism is not continued in German politics. In particular, he criticizes:
- Political debates on TV hardly discuss foreign policy
- Certain politicians calling the European elections unimportant
- Germany providing less development aid than the OECD average
- Granting asylum to only 10,000 out of 9 million Syrian civil war refugees
- Changing the interpretation of paragraph 16 of the Basic Law (“Persons persecuted for political reasons enjoy the right of asylum”) so that asylum is essentially impossible to get.
This last point is one of his key take-aways for the evenings. He reminds MPs that Willy Brandt was a refugee and that today also many people depend on the openness of democratic countries for their lives.
And Edward Snowden, whom we owe a lot for the protection of our basic rights, is one of those.
He criticizes that thousands of asylum seekers are drowning in the Mediterranean Sea, probably even during this festive hour. He criticizes that there should be a legal way to apply for immigration so that people don’t need to call on the right of asylum.
The right of asylum was deprived of its content, article 16 of the Basic Law was deprived of its dignity.
Honoured MPs, may the Basic Law be cleaned of this ugly, heartless stain by the 70th anniversary!
As a country where almost half of the population can be traced to recent (post-1945) immigrants or German refugees from the East, Germany has done an amazing feat in integrating all. There is still some xenophobia, and cultural/religious/social conflicts in the big cities, but on the whole Germany is a peaceful and much more tolerant society than even in the 1990s.
Maybe Germany should have better acknowledged the hard work of Guest Workers (invited immigrants) such as his parents, but also immigrants haven’t always shown how grateful they are for the freedoms and opportunities they have in Germany. Because of this, Navid Kermani ends his speech with a symbolic bow in the name of the many successful immigrants and their children, in the name of his writer colleagues, “in the name of the German national soccer team, who will give their all for Germany at the World Cup, even if they won’t sing the national anthem“, in the name of the less successful, even the criminals, who are also part of Germany, in the name of Muslims, who enjoy rights in Germany that Christians don’t have in many Islamic countries, in the name of his devout Muslim parents and an immigrant family numbering 26 people now: Danke, Deutschland!
Standing ovations for Navid Kermani, though his speech also displeased some. As an invitee of the CDU government, he took a truly SPD stance and completely skipped Germany’s Christian foundation and the work of Konrad Adenauer. A few CDU MPs left during the speech. MP Kauder has particular reason to feel attacked as he was the one who said “Now Europe becomes German“, who said “Islam is not part of Germany” and who proposed stricter immigration laws. There is very nearly a commotion, but Kauder shakes Kermani’s hand and says “Thank you very much for this festive speech. I share a lot. Not everything“. After adding an explanation about the Christian inspirations of the Basic Law, he even thanks Kermani for his criticisms of him, using a Christian saying: “Too much incense blackens the statue of the saint“. It’s clear that left and right have different understandings of how much patriotism is good for Germany, as well as practical disagreements on immigration law, but that’s for another day, today we celebrate the Basic Law.
English text of the Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany
Full German text of Navid Kermani’s speech
Video of Navid Kermani’s speech