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Back to the Politics of Cultural Despair

Some years ago the historian Fritz Stern wrote a book about Germany entitled The Politics of Cultural Despair. He used the example of three (now forgotten) bestselling authors of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to show the deep aversion of many Germans to the modern world, notably to market economics and democratic politics. For Stern, this was part of the cultural soil in which National Socialism flourished.

Much has changed since the Nazi era. The murderous triumph and bloody defeat of the politics of cultural despair was followed by an economic miracle that made Germany one of the world’s most prosperous countries, with nearly six decades of increasingly stable democracy.

Yet there are still traces within Germany of an attitude that finds modern economics distasteful and the opening of all frontiers to a globalized world frightening. “Pure capitalism” and “globalization” evoke horrific images. Swarms of capitalist “locusts” threaten to descend on defenseless, hardworking people, to quote the unfortunate metaphor used in a recent speech by Franz Müntefering, the chairman of the governing Social Democrats.

Of course, revulsion for liberal economies and global markets is not confined to Germany. A similar sentiment formed one of the motives for the French and perhaps even the Dutch to reject the European Union’s Constitutional Treaty, which some regarded as too “Anglo-Saxon” in its economic liberalism.