A History of Political Ideas in the Federal Republic of Germany

This project is a work in progress. So far, it has resulted in an overview study, "The Federal Republic of Germany as a Concept" (Hamburger Edition, 2009), as well as numerous articles that investigate the work of certain theorists (among them Jürgen Habermas, Dolf Sternberger, Theodor Eschenburg, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Hermann Lübbe, and Karl Jaspers) or that focus on various aspects (liberalism, political thought, civic virtue) of the history of ideas in the Federal Republic of Germany. Research in this area will continue.

The intention of the project is to analyze the political ideas that have shaped the Federal Republic of Germany both in terms of their relevance for the politics of identification and with regard to aspects of political theory.

Of special significance for this analysis is the dynamic development of political discourse in the course of protest movements arising in the 1960s. Although the New Left with its many undercurrents proved incapable of drafting an alternative design for political and social order, it did nevertheless effect decisive changes in West Germany’s political culture. By raising the issue of the legitimacy of Germany’s functioning parliamentary democracy, the left movement served (against its own intentions) as a catalyst for discourse on the intellectual foundations of the West German state. Intellectual and political debates about the state are of more than just historical interest. Various controversies reveal an essential "reservoir of reflection" (Heinz Bude), a previously unused stock of theoretical political thinking that warrants reevaluation addressing issues that range from the future of the welfare state to civil involvement to increasing the efficiency of the political system to political justice or the protection of civil liberties.

The West German "interim arrangement" was long viewed as a "state without an intellectual silhouette" (Altmann). While some in the Adenauer era felt the lack of a culture of political debate, the 1960s and 1970s were interpreted as the period during which the country experienced its breakthrough to modern westernized society.

These perspectives have so far been questioned most often by sociologists and social historians who observed that lifestyles began to exhibit Americanization and liberalization as early as the 1950s. Political ideas and concepts of community remained in the shadow of the social paradigm. Many shared Ernst Forsthoff’s view that modern industrial societies no longer needed "intellectual self-representation" and could do without a normative concept of the state; indeed, that they limited themselves to the functional management of societal and economic ills. But it has turned out that an increasing de-politicization of German society―a development advocated by the political right and warned against by the political left―has in fact not occurred. Instead, the polity continues debating social cohesion and political integration as well as forms of collective identity. Political ideas and perceptions that give structure to and shape discourse are essential to these vital discussions.

The plausibility of the history of the Federal Republic of Germany, asserted with the help of the history of ideas, follows an ideal type situated between two poles. On one side is the abandonment of Germany’s Sonderweg [exceptionalism], a step enforced by the Allies; on the other side is a connection to liberal and democratic German traditions and the successful, autonomous establishment of parliamentary democracy. In this sense, Habermas’ theorem, which perceives the pre-1989 Federal Republic of Germany as having unconditionally opened itself to the West on an intellectual level, and interprets 1968 as the prelude to a fundamental process of liberalization, also in fact calls for a sustainable argumentative base in the history of ideas.

The intellectual substance of the Federal Republic of Germany, its intellectual foundation or legitimation, can be described in many ways―whether from the perspective of its constitution’s founders, in the context of an intellectual history of disputes about the republic, or with an eye to prevailing trends in political theory and philosophy.

Many have observed a shift in ideas accompanying the transition from the Bonn Republic to the Berlin Republic, which the project aims to describe with a view to political thought. The decoding of political thinking and ideas can be guided by various concepts: 1) the examination of images of the state, based here on the intuitive assessment that the state, as a point of reference for political thought, is by no means losing its relevance but remains the decisive element in defining political community, in contrast to long-standing trends; 2) the role and understanding of the public sphere, based here on the intuitive assessment that greatly varying expectations about the public sphere existed during different phases of the history of West German democracy, including the idea that a structural transformation would render it a counter-institution to the state "system", the conceptualization of the public sphere as a correlate to state institutions, or the notion that the public was a sovereign, with its will serving as the basis for changes in institutional arrangements; 3) conceptions of subjectivity based on the assumption that tensions arise between ideal life plans and the proposed role of citizens with participatory rights and civil obligations, and that, drawing on the ideas of A. O. Hirschman, specific trends in the history of ideas that alternate between commitment and disappointment and that each have their own conceptual justifications have an effect on political thought. An astonishing point can also be seen in the fact that the critical analysis of crises and constitutional-patriotic apologias for the Federal Republic of Germany can no longer be clearly ascribed to certain political camps but shift between left and right.

(Last modified August 2012)