How German Is It
HOW GERMAN IS IT
Novel by Walter Abish, 1980
How German Is It could be termed a postmodern novel about historical amnesia—more precisely, the amnesia post-World War II Germany chose to affect about its Nazi years and their political and psychological implications. While not overtly a book about the Holocaust, Walter Abish's novel nonetheless unfolds against the backdrop of the Holocaust: the newly constructed town of Brumholdstein rises from the location that used to house the concentration camp of Durst and a mass grave is discovered in the center of town. Tellingly, the epigraph of How German Is It is taken from Jean-Luc Godard and reads, "What is really at stake is one's image of oneself," perfectly characterizing the Germans' intent to develop a new communal and cultural identity for a new, postwar Germany. While criticizing these German attempts at self-reinvention, however, the novel can also be read as a critique on the dynamics of identity formation, both personal and societal.
In How German Is It Abish creates a German reality characterized by copies that seemingly repeat themselves in endless succession, while the originals have been destroyed:
Next. Essentially a pleasant aimless stroll, looking—as if for the first time—at Würtenburg's buildings, at the war memorial, the churches, the objects in the shopwindows: lamp shades, silverware, carpets, radio, furniture, food, all attractively displayed—although not with the French flair to which he had, after only a six-month absence from Germany, grown so attached. It was something that his fellow countrymen, despite all their theories on aesthetics, their determined search for perfection, seemed to lack. In any event, it was difficult to believe that life could ever have been different here. And that these buildings were all recently constructed.
Evident in the casually laconic, truncated last sentence of this paragraph is a societal tendency to attempt normalization, to persuade the casual observer that the solaces inherent in pleasing displays reflect harmlessness and quotidian ordinariness. In the case of postwar Germany, this rhetoric of promulgating an innocuous self-image, of course, involves erasing 12 years of Nazi terror and, in the case of the buildings mentioned in the paragraph above, replacing all the structures that were destroyed with virtual replicas.
Thus, How German Is It constructs a kind of Germany less dependent on empirical truth that would be verifiable or falsifiable than on clichés about Germany that reveal as much—if not more—about the "real" Germany as any putatively objective documentary would. In this methodological approach, answering questions is less important than consecutively asking the right ones. Abish addresses this asymptotic relationship of the text to the events it depicts: "I sense that what I invent will become 'real'… that writing can and frequently does construct what is imminently about to take place. The question is, how free are we to invent? To embrace the 'real' events is to remain innocent. For it is to embrace the answers. That is, essentially, what the institutions in Western society churn out. A great many answers that authenticate the 'real' and 'familiar' world." Abish does not choose Germany (the nation or geographic entity) for mimetic reasons (for example, in order to write a novel "about" Germany) but for the paradigmatic quality this linguistic referent encloses with reference to the weight of historical embeddedness and transmission that is being born by signs. "Germany" is an example, says Abish: "For the most part, novels about Germany, or those simply located in Germany, without having to raise the question of 'How German is it?' resolve the unspoken question by explaining Germany… They explain Germany away and thereby provide satisfaction." Not providing satisfaction is one way of foregrounding the impossibility of escaping history, especially when underwritten by a focus on the German desire to escape the specters of the past through the projected blessings of the future.
In its accumulation of detail and its simultaneous refusal to interpret for the reader (while, however, insinuating that meaning does accrue from these details), the novel does not display what could traditionally be called a unified narrative or a protagonist. Its main character—besides the ever-questioning and unreliable narrator—is Ulrich Hargenau, a writer and former student of Brumhold (modeled on the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, whose writings became entangled with Nazi ideology). Ulrich's father is executed by the Nazis due to his opposition to Adolf Hitler, and Ulrich lives in Paris after the war (as opposed to his brother Helmuth, who has become a nationally known architect). Ulrich's former wife, Paula, features as a member of the left-wing Einzieh group (possibly modeled after the Red Army Faction of the 1970s and '80s), which is engaged in a bombing campaign (that, incidentally, also affects one of Helmuth's buildings). It is this force field of German Nazi past, postwar reactions of the Germans to their history (different as they may be for Ulrich and the other Germans depicted), and the political fallout of both of these features (the novel insinuates that there is a causal link between the emergence of the Einzieh group and Germany's relationship to its past) that characterizes the novel's narrative situation.