Over the last quarter of a century, the deflation of the radical agendas of the 68 generation has in many quarters generated a nervous sensibility, jumpy at any hint of large hypotheses. But in the wider movement away from epic theories of historical development, the German scene has exhibited persistently distinctive features. One of these has been the local variant of microhistory, which has sought to refurbish the traditional craft pretensions of the discipline, while avoiding older positivist obsessions: a typical research agenda involves anthropological decipherment of enormous quantities of variegated documents, often with the objective of recapturing concealed textures of daily experience. The concluding formulations to these exercises typically call into question the value of writing histories organized around misleading canonical categories: capitalism, industrialization, the state—all construed as residues of discredited philosophies. Much of this work exhibits a populist temper that has earned its authors the affectionate local sobriquet of ‘barefoot historians’.

Within this field, the contributions of Lutz Niethammer have been distinguished by both range and originality. A prolific oral historian, in cohort and sensibility Niethammer might in some ways be compared to Raphael Samuel, though the national differences are as significant as the methodological similarities. Most notably, Niethammer’s version of history from below has been shadowed by a wary respect, even fascination, for the imperious theorizations he rejects in the name of a critical empiricism. His best-known work, Posthistoire, published in English in 1994, is an intellectual study of a theme which, in his judgement, brought to a head the follies of this whole genre: the End of History. It is a taut masterpiece, a 160-page excavation of an uncanny, yet sharply delineated topos.

Niethammer’s latest enterprise is a sprawling genealogy of a term which, by contrast, designates no coherent theme: ‘collective identity’, traced from its obscure origins to its present status as the signature master category of our times. The initial focus is on a cluster of writings from the first half of the twentieth century. Niethammer’s methodological premise here is that ‘collective identity’ eludes any stringent conceptual determination: prevailing definitions, invariably vague, oscillate meaninglessly between essentialism and constructivism, alleged facts and spurious norms. The conventional methods of the historian cannot take us into the murky underside of intellectual life where this floating signifier acquired its first, sundry meanings; here, research has to take its cue from shrewd guesswork and quirky intuitions. For Niethammer the original locutions of ‘identity’ in the works of some of the leading intellectuals of this period are to be read as symptoms of an attempt to conceal an uncanny alterity haunting their life projects. This traumatic layer of experience running through their works can be brought to light only by psychoanalysing their politico-intellectual commitments. Niethammer suggests that an inquiry into the incipient connotations of this terminological cipher, in formulations from Carl Schmitt, Georg Lukács, Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud, Maurice Halbwachs and Aldous Huxley, reveals the range of its later ideological functions across the political spectrum of the post-war era. For the micro-historian attuned to the irreducible manifold of human experience, the inflation of such a blatantly homogenizing discourse at a time of ongoing social fragmentation and dissolution of traditional modes of life is deeply puzzling.

The narrative Niethammer offers is intended to counter what he sees as the German legend of the origin of the contemporary preoccupation with identity. According to this account, the democratic project of American ego psychology was re-imported back into Germany after the Second World War. The founder of this school, Erik Erikson, famously upheld the ideal of a well-balanced personal identity—an anodyne image of modern subjectivity, well suited to the Adenauer era. Subsequently, so the fable goes, its range was extended into the theorization of collectives, at a time in which its origins in German idealism were rediscovered. Niethammer directly challenges the progressive credentials implied by this account by tracing the inception of the term ‘collective identity’ back to the interwar era, when it made its first flickering appearance, in his view, as a token signalling the psychopathologies of an age of extremes.

This is not a genealogy in the Nietzschean sense. Indeed the claim that ‘the origin of a thing and its eventual utility, its employment in a system of purposes, lie worlds apart’, is diametrically opposed to the methodological maxim of this book. Niethammer unabashedly defends what he calls the prejudice of the historian: that the origin invariably reveals the structure and meaning of a phenomenon and contains the secret of its subsequent development. Not all historians have shared this conviction, of course, but here it is firmly upheld, even as one suspects it is leading the author to questionable conclusions. With many of the inter-war figures he discusses, the term appears only once or twice in their entire œuvre, often in the remote margins of a little-known text. Acknowledging the often tenuous status of his interpretations, Niethammer suggests that the difficulties encountered in taking this approach to the origins of ‘collective identity’ reveal no flaw in the method, but rather that there is something constitutively indeterminable about the meaning of the term. As he puts it, what is essential about the term, is that the essential—or what he imputes it to be—is concealed. For Niethammer the bare presence of the word ‘identity’ provides the occasion for ingenious symptomatic readings: the burden of his argument is that it is the neuralgic point at which the writer under consideration attempted to exorcize the disconcerting implications of his own conception of the nature and boundaries of a particular collective, at a time in which these were radically called into question by civil war, the erosion of traditional religion and the catastrophic resolution of the Jewish Question.

The interrogation begins with Carl Schmitt, in what seems an arbitrary choice to establish the ominous valences of identity language. Born on the eve of the Wilhelmine era into a Catholic provincial milieu, Schmitt made his debut on the Weimar intellectual scene with a series of startling diagnoses of the post-war meltdown of the German state. Niethammer accepts the conventional characterization of Schmitt as a counter-revolutionary, an anti-semitic Catholic nationalist who made opportunistic adjustments to the Weimar order, while persistently labouring to discredit it, before throwing in his lot with the Nazis in 1933. Schmitt’s enigmatic claim from 1922 that democracy should be understood as a relationship of identity between rulers and ruled is interpreted as a nationalist metaphysics licensing violent exclusions of racially defined enemies. Niethammer’s suggestion that, for Schmitt, the enigmatic heterogeneity of the Jewish diaspora disrupted the possibility of imagining a smooth identity of rulers and ruled is intriguing, but implausible: there are no discernable traces of anti-semitism in Schmitt’s works prior to 1932, and the term ‘identity’ is simply absent in his authentically anti-semitic formulations from the Nazi era. There is considerable textual evidence to suggest that Niethammer’s portrait is a caricature, which leads him to drastically misinterpret Schmitt’s earlier use of the word. Leaving aside the portrait, the fact that Schmitt explicitly rejected ethnic conceptions of nationhood in his Weimar era texts is simply not acknowledged. Normally discriminating and sensitive, Niethammer here reveals the dangers of unfalsifiable symptomatic reading. More persuasive is the claim that Schmitt’s definition of democracy as identity points to the coercion and mystification inherent in a mass mobilization of the general will. In this register, the difference between direct democracy and plebiscitary dictatorship is eclipsed by the frontal antithesis of each to parliamentary liberalism.

A recognizable semantics of collective identity only emerges in the post-war decades of affluent capitalism. The sixties’ revival of political life in West Germany set off an apparent diffusion of Schmittian definitions of democracy across the political spectrum, from the far right to moderate conservatives, social-democracy to the far left. Paradoxically, it now assumed a salience in public discourse that it never occupied in Schmitt’s work, though how deep this went is another matter. But it is possible that it was the resonance of a formula in a political milieu oblivious to its origins which prompted Niethammer to explore the possibility that identity jargon, in all its variants, entered into post-war German intellectual life with false papers, covering up a shady past. In fact, Schmitt is in many respects the paradigmatic case for Niethammer’s claim that ‘collective identity’ is the negation of the democratic project, a featureless emblem of its capture and neutralization. The appropriation of this elastic formulation by the Left, according to Niethammer, resulted in a dulled awareness of the real predicaments of post-war democracy, and provided a handy idiom for the conservative backlash that followed.