Coming as it did in the final weeks of a precarious re-election campaign, incumbent German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s resolute “No” to German participation in any US-led war on Iraq was a brilliant piece of political theater. As a bold–and for postwar Germany, unprecedented–assertion of national interest, the announcement demonstrated the Social Democratic leader’s readiness to claim the country’s status as a “normal” nation and full-blooded European power. Yet at the same time, in taking a stand against military intervention, Schröder was defending the Federal Republic’s traditional identity as a pacifist, antinationalist country. In the end it became a deciding factor in an otherwise dead-heat election. A record showing by Schröder’s pacifist coalition partner, the Greens, helped him edge out his conservative challenger by a nose.

In fact, Schröder’s skill at having his (Black Forest) cake and eating it too has become something of a trademark for a ruling coalition that has seen Germany transformed from bland Wirtschaftswunder to worldly Berlin Republic. Nowhere has this been more evident than in the sensitive issue of culture. After his initial election four years ago, Schröder appointed a national culture minister–a post that had not existed since Joseph Goebbels led the Nazi propaganda ministry. By giving Germany a cultural face to correspond with its new political face, the decision suggested that it was once again appropriate to assert national identity in an official capacity. But when it came to defining the values and traditions this new office was supposed to promote, the government has increasingly relied on an anti-German definition of German-ness: “world-open” cosmopolitanism of the sort defined by “contemporary avant-garde art” and “international cultural exchange.” In the process, the Schröder regime has rehabilitated the concept of national culture from instrument of fascist demagoguery to symbol of democratic self-confidence.

Although its budget of 925 million Euros represents only a small fraction of public arts funding in Germany, the office of culture minister has taken on responsibilities including supporting cultural revitalization in the former German Democratic Republic; enhancing the German film and publishing industries; promoting tax relief for foreign artists working in Germany and for German philanthropic foundations; and presenting awards for contemporary literature and visual art. Through the culture budget, the government also collects contemporary art, underwrites cultural institutions in Berlin (the city itself is near bankruptcy) and awards grants to foreign writers living in political exile.

“Germany understands itself as a Kulturnation,” argues Julian Nida-Rümelin in a contribution to Cultural Politics in the Berlin Republic, a collection of essays that was timed to come out a few weeks before this fall’s elections. A prominent young philosopher and Social Democrat, Nida-Rümelin was German culture minister from 2000 until his abrupt resignation on October 1. “German culture was and is an essential element of national unity. It is not limited to the sum of the diversity of its constituent states, cities and communities in the cultural field. It is indeed something greater…. That the federal government is responsible for the support of German culture–and thereby the preservation and representation of the spiritual identity and unity of the German Kulturnation–cannot seriously be called into question.”

To almost any other industrialized country, Germany’s recent obsession with culture and the bizarre contortions of its government to defend the concept appear anachronistic and misguided. The creation of a new state culture administration is at odds with both the increasing policy integration of the European Union and, on a national level, widespread reductions in public spending on the arts. France and Italy, for example, countries that have among the most deeply established national cultural traditions in Europe, are now implementing major cutbacks in state involvement. (Although Silvio Berlusconi, the right-leaning television mogul-cum-Italian Prime Minister, controls the greatest Italian media monopoly since Mussolini, he has had no qualms about selling off heritage sites and commercializing museums.) For veterans of the American culture wars of the early 1990s, in turn, the idea of staking cultural policy on challenging contemporary art is tantamount to political suicide.

As Nida-Rümelin’s statement reveals, however, the relation between cultural expression and political authority (Geist and Macht) means far more in Germany than the recognition of a national canon of writers, artists and thinkers. Long before Germany achieved unification under Bismarck, Johann Gottfried von Herder had coined the term Kulturnation to refer to the cultural unity of the German peoples. In invoking this Romantic-nationalist concept, Nida-Rümelin records a dramatic political shift that has occurred over the past four years. Before the last German election, in 1998, Hans Zehetmair, the conservative state culture minister of Bavaria, had argued that “a culture minister is as essential to Germany as a secretary of the navy is to Austria.” Yet now the need for national culture policy is no longer, as Nida-Rümelin says, seriously being questioned: None of the mainstream parties have kept up the call for dismantling the new post.

But even more striking about Nida-Rümelin’s remarks–and about the other contributions to Cultural Politics–is what is left unsaid. The national promotion of culture, the authors variously argue, is a “central responsibility of democratic society,” a “catalyst and means of communication,” a “preventative security policy” and an “investment in the future.” But it is not, apparently, a negative concept evoking National Socialism and Germany’s perpetration of the Holocaust, or even something that is primarily concerned with addressing this legacy (an idea so ingrained in postwar German psychology that it is given a special name, Vergangenheitsbewältigung, or “coming to terms with the past”).

Paradoxically, the Social Democrat-led project for a “normal” national culture has its roots in the work of West German intellectuals who for decades emphasized Germany’s historical burden and hence its special relation to the past. When Nida-Rümelin succeeded in establishing a German national culture foundation in April, he was realizing a project first proposed by Günter Grass, Germany’s leading writer, in the early 1970s. For Grass, such a body was needed to address the cultural legacy of the Holocaust precisely because, left to their own devices, the German people were only capable of forming a nation “in the negative.”

But Germany was not ready for Grass’s foundation at the time, and the country’s divided status during the cold war precluded any serious attempt to institute a national culture policy: Federalist West Germany had become an antinational half-nation, while the Communist East had given culture a new, negative resonance in the form of state-mandated Socialist aesthetics. Some left intellectuals, such as Jürgen Habermas, argued that national identity should be replaced altogether by a minimalist “constitutional patriotism.” But even the Basic Law, West Germany’s Constitution, had come under assault by ’68ers and the more radical movements that followed in the early 1970s. These argued–sometimes violently–that postwar political structures were not democratic enough to prevent blatant continuities with Nazi Germany. (Kurt-Georg Kiesinger, the Christian Democratic leader of West Germany from 1966 to 1969, had been a member of the Nazi Party for the entire twelve years of Hitler’s rule.)

“Auschwitz had long been transformed into the negative symbol of a new, ‘postnational’ West German identity,” wrote the German historian Heinrich August Winkler on the eve of Schröder’s first election, in 1998. “It was used as argument not only against a new German nation-state, but also against the idea of a German nation of any kind.”

Nonetheless, along with the notion of a culture foundation, Grass had revived Herder’s idea of the Kulturnation as a kind of “third way” between the “separatist” tendencies of cold war division and West German federalism, on the one hand, and political nationalism, on the other. By intellectually uniting the two Germanys, Grass argued, writers and thinkers could prevent culture from being usurped for unsavory political ends. (Though an outspoken opponent of the East German regime, Grass himself made a point of nourishing ties with East German writers.) In keeping with this view, Grass strongly opposed the political reunification of Germany after the fall of the Berlin wall, favoring instead what he called a confederacy united by a common cultural experience–including the shared memory of Nazism.

In reality, the rapid 1990 reunification engineered by Christian Democratic Chancellor Helmut Kohl moved in the opposite direction. Kohl’s understated patriarchalism was rooted in the values of West Germany’s successful Mittelstand, the middle classes who liked their hard-earned standard of living and their bratwurst. Turning the East into a West German-style economic powerhouse, not cultural politics, was the top priority. Although Berlin was selected to replace Bonn as the German capital, the move was put off until the end of the decade. Even the plans for a giant Holocaust monument in Berlin’s center–the German cultural debate that defined much of the 1990s–were held up indefinitely (Kohl himself vetoed one prizewinning proposal).

But Schröder’s election in 1998 brought an end to the sixteen-year Kohl dynasty and everything it stood for. Born after World War II, Schröder belonged to a new generation that was not directly connected to the Nazi past. He was the first German leader to go into coalition with the Green Party, and he filled his Cabinet with a combination of former radicals and centrist pragmatists. He began to take on long-overdue reforms of citizenship and immigration policy. And he created the controversial office of culture minister (though without a complementing ministry), arguing that Germany should mean more than high-fat sausages and high-performance sedans.

“Through numerous public pronouncements on cultural politics, Social Democratic politicians had strengthened the perception that an SPD-Green government might seek the ever elusive ‘nation-state normality’ and a new ‘uninhibitedness,'” writes the intellectual historian Jan-Werner Müller in his recent book Another Country: German Intellectuals, Unification, and National Identity. Schröder, in his first state-of-the-nation speech, had presented culture as something Germans could be “proud of” and suggested that the new culture policy was designed to show “the self-confidence of a mature nation that is neither superior nor inferior to any other.” Indeed, the comments about pride and self-confidence were particularly uninhibited, given that when conservative politician and onetime chancellor candidate Franz-Josef Strauss had used virtually the same words in the early 1980s, he had been labeled a right-wing apologist.

Germany has come full circle since Strauss’s failed call for “normalization.” By far the clearest sign of the country’s psychological transformation was the new German capital. To many observers, the 1999 move to Berlin from “the federal village” of Bonn–a city that had played no part in world history aside from producing Beethoven–meant taking on all of Germany’s scars at once. As the epicenter of Prussian absolutism, Nazi dictatorship, cold war division and East German misrule, the pockmarked city could only, it seemed, be a symbol of the kind of “negative nationalism” Grass had long warned about. Indeed, Michael Naumann, Schröder’s first culture minister, spent much of the two years before his resignation in late 2000 dealing with the Holocaust Memorial and the restitution of artworks looted by the Nazis. (One exception to this was Naumann’s efforts to prop up the ailing German film industry, an initiative that led Der Spiegel to call his platform “Holocaust, Hohenzollern and Hollywood.”)

But most of all, Berlin has represented a new set of values that have little to do with either Germany or its past: ethnic diversity, cultural eclecticism, bohemian free-spiritedness. Because its center was left an empty no man’s land after the wall came down, the new Berlin is a made-to-order metropolis whose architecture can freely redefine the German state in contemporary, internationalist gestures: the Reichstag was given a glass dome by a Brit, and the most striking feature of the new chancellory’s grand entrance facade is a specially commissioned sculpture by the late Basque artist Eduardo Chillida. Moreover, as the largest Turkish city after Istanbul, Berlin hardly evokes the traditions of the German Volk writ large. Mainly devoid of industry and the established white-collar class that goes with it, the city continues to be best known as its western half had been during the cold war: as a liberated and liberally subsidized Kulturstadt, a place for theater, opera, young art and a good underground scene.

Schröder has emphasized these qualities by calling his centrist platform the “neue Mitte” (new middle), after the Mitte district in the city’s center. “Berlin stands for traditions that are altogether different from the memory of totalitarian terror,” argued the chancellor at the beginning of his first term. “Berlin stands for a world-open atmosphere that the city has created as a center for the young and the cultural avant-garde from all over Europe.”

In short, the “Berlin Republic” has been less about coming to terms with the German past than about confronting it with an alternative present, one that mixes the cosmopolitan myth of the Weimar Republic with a new conception of assertive national leadership. In this sense, by dealing with such urgent issues as the Holocaust Memorial, Naumann was also paving the way for national intervention in contemporary cultural policy, something that had previously been devolved to the individual German states.

“Our federal constitution is above all a reflection of Germans’ angst about themselves,” Naumann wrote in a blunt manifesto titled “Centralism Doesn’t Damage Anything” that was published in late 2000 in the prestigious weekly Die Zeit. Naumann argued that national culture is not only an undeniable reality but also an essential responsibility of the federal government. “The cultural sovereignty of the Länder [the German states],” he asserted, “is constitutional folklore.” (Strictly speaking, Naumann was correct: The Constitution does not specifically give the states “cultural sovereignty,” though in practice they have always maintained such control.)

Naumann’s challenge to the Constitution suggested just how far the Schröder regime intended to take its Kulturkampf. Outraged by what they saw as “Wilhelminism of the left,” the opposition blocked Naumann’s attempt to give his post a true administrative profile, and he left it to become co-editor of Die Zeit. According to a policy statement issued by the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian party run by Edmund Stoiber (Schröder’s conservative challenger and runner-up in September’s federal elections), “German art and culture derive their strength and vitality…from the regional diversity of our fatherland. Therefore, the CSU stands by the basic principles of regionalization and decentralization of cultural politics.”

But the conservatives are far less concerned that the “Berlin virus,” as they have called Schröder’s cultural and social agenda, will result in the nationalization of cultural politics than that it poses a threat to the very foundations of German identity. Diversity, they imply, is not about letting in more immigrants and offering tax breaks to foreign artists in Germany; it stands for Bavaria’s Lederhosen (which Stoiber often wears), Rhenish wines and the Platt Deutsch spoken in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein. Beginning in the fall of 2000, the Christian Democratic Union (or CDU, the national sister party of the Bavarian CSU) went on the attack with its own version of national culture policy. Centered on the vague idea of German Leitkultur, or “guiding culture,” this counterplatform argued that Germany needed to assert its roots in native, “Western Christian” traditions if it was going to integrate immigrants and avoid disintegrating into “parallel societies.” The following spring, Laurenz Meyer, general secretary of the CDU, took this campaign one step further by making the taboo-breaking declaration, “I’m proud to be a German.”

Germans were not ready for this unabashedly positive statement of German identity. Disturbingly reminiscent of master-race ideology, the term Leitkultur became so controversial that it was dropped by the CDU (though the party has continued to endorse the concept in other language). As to Meyer’s patriotism, although Schröder had stated in 1998 that he was “proud of our country and its culture,” it had been a formulation that ambiguously referred to the achievements of the Federal Republic without explicit reference to German-ness. Meyer’s was considered something else. The nonpartisan German Federal President, Johannes Rau, responded that “one can be content, or thankful, for being German, but one cannot be proud of it.” Schröder’s own outspoken environment minister, Jürgen Trittin, even accused the CDU leader of “having the mentality of a skinhead.”

For the Social Democrats, these developments have made the realization of Grass’s thirty-year-old plan for a National Culture Foundation all the more urgent. “It is the responsibility of the left to engage the theme of ‘Nation,'” Grass explained earlier this year. “If that doesn’t happen, then there is a vacuum. And [then] we have these terrible discussions about Leitkultur from the right.” For Grass it is not so much a question of coming to terms with the Nazi past but rather acknowledging that there are many sensitive historical issues, in addition to the Holocaust, that remain to be dealt with: the repressed pre-Nazi heritage of East Prussia, where Grass was born; the question of German civilian casualties during World War II; the problem of Germany’s “belated nationhood”; the country’s forced unification under Bismarck and the national insecurities that have reigned ever since. The protagonist in Grass’s new novel, Im Krebsgang (“Crabwalk”), says “[German] history is a stopped-up toilet. We flush and flush, but the shit still comes back to the surface.”

But there have also been indications that the Schröder regime has had enough of flushing history’s toilet. Already in 1998, shortly after Schröder’s election, the novelist Martin Walser, longtime bête noire of the German left, had argued in a notorious speech that Germany could not spend all its time thinking about its past and that it might be time to deal with the Holocaust as private individuals rather than as a state. The writer’s views were implicitly endorsed this past spring when Schröder, despite vehement protests, invited Walser to give another address, titled “Nation. Patriotism. Democratic Culture,” on the anniversary of Hitler’s defeat in 1945. Living up to his reputation for provocation, Walser suggested that “Versailles was one of the reasons for Hitler’s success,” and that “long before our nationhood we were a German nation.” Coincidentally, only a few weeks later Walser became embroiled in an unrelated dispute when his new novel, Death of a Critic, was branded anti-Semitic. Intended as a satire, the novel tells the story of a writer who appears to have murdered a famous Jewish literary critic. The “victim” (who in the end is not dead, after all) is a recognizable caricature of Marcel Reich-Ranicki, a Warsaw ghetto survivor and éminence grise of German criticism. Before the book’s publication, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, of which Reich-Ranicki is a former editor, denounced it as a “document of hate,” which set off a violent debate in the German press about the bounds of speech. Not surprisingly, these comments were as controversial as the conservatives’ Leitkultur. Michel Friedman, a leader of the German Jewish community, argued that in sponsoring the event Schröder was turning the Hitler anniversary into “Liberation From German Responsibility” day.

In the end, the answer for the culture foundation has been to avoid history and national symbolism. The new administration (under the toothless name of Federal Cultural Foundation) is based in the former East German city of Halle rather than Berlin. It devotes its resources to promoting “international exchange and the funding of the contemporary arts.” As the foundation’s website explains in German and English,

There is an increasing requirement to recognise a multiplicity of cultures…. “Culture” should be understood not only as what is characteristic of a nation or its entire cultural heritage, but also as a process oriented towards the future, in which national culture is linked to foreign culture.

In practice this has meant endorsing an aesthetic version of the Berlin Republic: the twenty-nine initial grants awarded this fall deal with such themes as artists’ depictions of slums in Mexico City, hip-hop, ventriloquism, biotech art and land art. More than half go to international projects; and among the German projects, only three deal with historical subjects.

For Grass, the foundation’s grant program is a “minimal solution” to the national culture debate; arguably, its calculated internationalism only reaffirms Germany’s inability to achieve a positive national identity. But the trendy jargon about “multiplicity of cultures” and “global interconnections” has obscured a real accomplishment of the Schröder administration: By reviving the appealing rhetoric of the Kulturnation but defining the concept in a way that can only be criticized as not German enough, the ruling coalition has shifted the debate from whether or not to have a national culture policy to how such a policy should be defined.

By this year’s election season, even Zehetmair, the erstwhile conservative federalist, could argue that Germans lack national pride precisely because there is not enough national culture in Germany: “In spite of the good fortune of German unification, we have not succeeded in developing a self-confident, resolute patriotism in Germany. ‘Constitutional patriotism’ is important, but in the end only a helpful notion. It lacks the emotional association, that historical cultural foundation, that makes a nation.”

It remains to be seen where all this will lead. Paradoxically, Schröder’s success at re-establishing culture as a national issue has not helped him avoid instability at the helm. Barely a week after the elections, incumbent culture minister Nida-Rümelin announced his resignation to return to a philosophy professorship. (In an apparent confirmation that German culture and politics have not been entirely reconciled, Nida-Rümelin explained that the university would not extend his leave for what was essentially a political job.) On October 10 he was replaced by former Hamburg culture senator Christina Weiss, who became the third culture minister in four years. Considered more of a technocrat than her predecessors, Weiss is likely to concentrate on reinforcing the existing activities of her office rather than charting new territory. Still, as Germany comes under increasing pressure for its role in harboring Al-Qaeda cells, Zehetmair’s appeal to base culture policy on “German values” may gain further clout.

In the meantime, it appears quite the opposite. This summer, the second Nationalgalerie Prize for Young Art, an award designed to be for Germany what the Tate Prize is to Britain, was presented at a gala dinner in Berlin. But though the 50,000-euro prize was presented by Nida-Rümelin, there was nothing very national or German about the prizewinning work, a conceptual piece by Danish-Norwegian artists Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset. (Titled Temporarily Placed, it consisted of a middle-aged patient in a hospital bed on wheels, a kind of metaphor for the critical condition of contemporary art.) In their acceptance speech, one of the artists said in English–he explained that their German was very poor–“This is a great acknowledgment of the big foreign art scene in Berlin. Maybe next time the prize will go to someone from Africa, or South America, or let’s see…”