Beware of Germanophobia

05/29/2013 01:54 pm ET | Updated Jul 29, 2013
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If I were German, I probably wouldn't be favorably inclined towards Angela Merkel and her government.

And it is very likely that Ms Merkel, as much as Germany in general, is responsible to a scarcely negligible degree for the interminable crisis that is rocking Europe.

But there are ways of saying it, and then there are ways of saying it.

And the way it is being expressed these days, in the torrent of simplistic anti-Germanism that has swept through political headquarters and editorial offices in the past few weeks, in this "It's-all-Germany's-fault" tendency one hears here and there (and not only on the far left), in this demonization of Germany itself which, too often, takes the place of political and economic analysis, I, personally, find something terribly unpleasant that can only evoke painful and troubling memories for an ear attuned to the history of ideas and their discussion.

I recall, in the late 19th century, those who first attacked an "intellectual Party" fast becoming the main target of every kind of populism, whose major sin was to have "sold itself to Germany."

I remember Barrès, quite familiar with German culture and author, in 1894, of De Hegel aux cantines du Nord [From Hegel to the Cantines of the North], who at least deserved credit for taking the "adventures of Hegelianism" seriously, making his grand nationalist and prefascist turn and sinking into a politico-ideological frenzy in which German culture was no more than a "harmful" machine destined to turn our lycée students into "citizens of pure reason" and to "fill French heads with Jewish influence."

I recall the barrage of fire of all the great lightweights of the University against not only Hegelianism, but German philosophy in general. (Reread Paul Nizan's Les chiens de garde or Georges Politzer's tract against the "display" of a Bergsonism of which the concept of duration was, from this point of view, no longer anything but a handy and providential substitute for a dialectic no one wanted at any price; here one finds the detailed account, implacable and impassable, of what this lack of comprehension cost our country.)

I remember the school manuals that, for a very long time -- in fact, until the era of those belated and brilliant pioneers Bernard Groethuysen, Jean Hyppolite and others like Alexandre Kojève -- could go on and on for hundreds of pages about the epic of world thought, scarcely mentioning one German name.

I recall those spiritualist thinkers, the most regrettable and often weakest examples of what our national ideology has produced, pronouncing Nietzsche's books "madness written by a madman", works that contained the seed of all "contemporary immorality" (Alfred Fouillée).

I think of Maurras, whose pre-war role in the crafting of fascism à la française and, during the war, of a spirit of collaboration with naziism all are aware of. Few, however, are familiar with the foundation of his thought, which was always, simultaneously, and without the slightest contradiction, based upon a war against "Fichtism" -- in other words, against still another "German thought" whose "harmful reflections," nourished by "Germanic and Judaic abstractions" had to "immediately cede" before the "first action of a strong and salubrious operation of intellectual policing."

And I think of most of the ideologists close, or less close, to the Action Française league, who, ever since Théophile Funck-Brentano denounced the "German sophists and the Russian nihilists," or Henri Vaugeois scathingly attacked the empire of "Kantian moral" at the heart of the "French elites" in 1917, never tired of applying the Master's programme, endeavoring to dispel "with cannon fire," the "German spectres."

I think about -- I must stress the fact -- all of these theoreticians and practitioners of infamy in 1940, going from detesting the boches to adoring the Third Reich, perhaps because it amounted to the same thing. (But was there really a transition? Weren't they all both anti-German nationalists and pro-Nazi? And doesn't the historical paradox lie in the fact that, right down to the ignominy of allegiance to Berlin, weren't they always true to their phobia of the Germany of Goethe and Hegel?)

In a word, I remember this long period of cultural and philosophic obscurantism, then of dishonor and barbarity, of which hatred for German thought served, whether we like it or not, as one of the rallying points. I recall those sombre times, ones that, apparently, are not yet over, when the German bogeyman was the standard.

I do not believe the President of the Assemblée Nationale or the Minister of Industrial Renewal are aware of this history when they invite attacks upon the headquarters of "German Europe" or encourage "torero" tactics against its authorities.

Nor do I think those responsible for the Louvre's grand exhibition on German painting since Romanticism, who present its evolution as a long and turbulent flow ultimately leading, due to an underlying determinism, to Nazi paganism, realize that they are the illegitimate children of those malicious founding fathers.

But I invite each of you to take a second look before returning to paths that, even and especially if they are unknown to us, can only reawaken old demons. In France, you can't play with the fire of Germanophobia without suffering the consequences.