Anew/old spectre is haunting Europe—the spectre of nationalism. Everyone underestimated its force and potential before 1989, and in the post-Cold War world, almost everyone is struggling to come to terms with it. There is a long history of the Left, in Germany in particular, being accused of a lack of understanding of that powerful ethos. In the 1870s, Bismarck attacked the Social-Democrats as ‘fellows without a fatherland’ (vaterlandslose Gesellen). The prominent role that the spd played in the International before 1914 continued to make German nationalists suspect it of treachery and unreliability. The party continued to be treated as the ‘enemy within’. After the First World War the Socialists were once again accused of stabbing the heroic German army in the back—thus depriving it of its well-deserved victory. The Communists and Socialists were the first victims of the ‘national revolution’ of the Nazis. In the Cold War, after 1947, the spd found itself accused of acting as Moscow’s fifth column. And the Neue Ostpolitik of the Brandt governments after 1969 was denounced by its conservative opponents as a national sell-out. The latest of these attacks on the spd’s (and the Greens’) unreliability in national affairs came with the reunification of the country in 1990.

Not only conservative critics argued that the Left suffered from a lack of patriotism. Some of the most savage criticism came from left-wing activists like Brigitte Seebacher-Brandt, widow of the late chancellor, Tilman Fichter, a party official at the spd headquarters in Bonn, responsible for educational activity, Wolfang Kowalsky, a full-time political adviser of ig Metall, Wolfgang Templin, former civil-rights movement activist in the gdr and a Green party member, and Klaus Hartung, a journalist with the German weekly Die Zeit.footnote1 The neo-nationalists in the spd criticize the post-reunification spd for what they see as the party’s failure to develop a patriotic identity. Instead, they argue, the spd underestimated and continues to underestimate the force of nationalism in the postmodern world, whilst it still nurtures internationalist illusions. Its history is allegedly littered with instances where it has shown itself unable to develop a positive relationship to the nation state. Allegedly this has often been combined with a tendency to shrink from power and retire to the more comfortable opposition benches.

Seebacher-Brandt in particular has argued that the disturbed relationship between spd and nation state can be traced back to Bismarck’s AntiSocialist Law of 1878–90. Isolated and discriminated against politically and socially, Social-Democrats formed tight ‘communities of solidarity’. A state within a state, the Social-Democratic subculture took care of its members ‘from the cradle to the grave’. This institutionalized counter-world to Imperial Germany (and in certain respects its mirror image) survived the revolution of 1918 largely intact. In fact the SocialDemocratic subculture reached its zenith only in 1928. The persecution of the Left under German fascism demonstrated to labour movement activists how little integrated into the nation state the Left actually was. Despite his national agenda Kurt Schumacher’s leadership of the spd after 1945 was, according to Seebacher-Brandt, principally committed to the values and Marxist rhetoric of the Weimar spd. Only the generation of Willy Brandt, Herbert Wehner and Fritz Erler allegedly found a more positive relationship to the nation state in the late 1950s and 1960s. Seebacher-Brandt cites as evidence Wehner’s endorsement of Adenauer’s policy of Western integration in his famous Bundestag speech of 30 June 1960 as well as Brandt’s and Erler’s agreement to the government’s proposals for arming the Bundeswehr with atomic weapons at the spd’s Hanover party conference in the autumn of that year. The same party conference also ended, for the first time ever, with the singing of the national anthem—for Seebacher-Brandt a highly significant symbol. At this juncture in the spd’s history nationalism allegedly became also connected to the will to power, ‘not only to theorize about power, but to take power’.footnote2 It is this legacy of her late husband that the widow is anxious to preserve. She sees it endangered by the so-called generation of grandchildren (Enkel) who lead the party today.

Fichter also sees it as of paramount importance for the future of the spd that the party should develop a more positive attitude to the nation state. His whole book is written in search of a ‘modern social-democratic understanding of the fatherland’.footnote3 The only substantive difference from Seebacher-Brandt lies in his defence of the ’68 generation. For Fichter, the true anti-national villains are not Rudi Dutschke and other comrades of student protest fame. They were still aware of the importance and relevance of the national question. For him, the villains are those spd politicians, Egon Bahr in particular, who were shaping the party’s Ostpolitik in the 1970s and 1980s. By nurturing illusions about binationalism and a post-national identity developing in the Federal Republic, the spd’s Ostpolitik politicians developed a type of anti-nationalism which made the nation state the source of all evil in German history. According to Fichter this kind of anti-nationalism is at the very heart of the party’s difficulties with reunification in 1990 and with its continuing failure to develop a truly patriotic stance.

Now, one can certainly criticize leading spd politicians, especially in the second phase of Ostpolitik in the 1980s, for cooperating all too closely with the Communist regime in the gdr, ignoring its dissidents and turning a blind eye to human-rights abuses. This has been done forcefully by that upright cold warrior of the 1980s, Timothy Garton Ash.footnote4 However, neither Fichter nor Garton Ash adequately stresses the achievements and successes of Ostpolitik in the 1980s, especially the important contribution that spd policies towards the East made to strengthening the climate of glasnost and perestroika within the ruling parties of various Eastern-bloc countries. Ultimately, it was this change in climate which allowed movements for reform in Eastern Europe to successfully challenge and overthrow the established Communist regimes. Despite a familiar, rather one-sided, condemnation of Ostpolitik, Garton Ash’s account lacks the menacing connection between a critique of the spd’s rationale (‘change through growing closer’) and its responsibility for undermining a so-called healthy patriotism, which is at the bottom of Fichter’s argument. No doubt, Ostpolitik did not help the opposition behind the Iron Curtain in the 1980s, but the alleged abandonment of patriotism is a completely different matter. After all, it should not be forgotten that most of the gdr opposition was by no means pro-reunification. Rather than adopting any kind of new stab-in-the-back theory, with the Social-Democrats as traitors to the fatherland once again, it should probably be acknowledged that the national issue had at long last simply lost its earlier relevance to almost everyone concerned with politics by the mid 1980s, including the mainstream of the cdu/csu.