In today’s globalized and increasingly multi- and intercultural world, the concept of tolerance has enjoyed a renaissance as a basic principle for the peaceful coexistence of differing beliefs, practices, and identities. Since the era of Enlightenment, concepts and practices of tolerance have been linked to ideals of justice, equality, and political acceptance. Yet as the German philosopher Rainer Forst has argued in his book Toleranz im Konflikt: Geschichte, Gehalt und Gegenwart eines umstrittenen Begriffs (2003), the history, practices, and definitions of tolerance have always been inextricably beset by conflict. With its growing importance, debates have arisen as to whether tolerance is to be seen as one of the essential pillars of the liberal state, a principle for the peaceful coexistence of differing beliefs, norms, practices, and identities, or whether, as some critics have argued, it may amount to no more than a haughty and tenuous concession from those in power toward those who differ (Berghahn). In 1829, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe gave concise expression to these two contrasting potentials when he wrote: “Toleranz sollte eigentlich nur eine vorübergehende Gesinnung sein: Sie muss zur Anerkennung führen. Dulden heißt beleidigen” (385), and these fundamental disagreements persist within the recent renaissance in “tolerance talk” that has been identified and eloquently argued by American political philosopher Wendy Brown in her much-debated work Regulating Aversion: Tolerance in the Age of Identity and Empire (2006). Both Forst and Brown emphasize that the ideal of tolerance is always and only invoked when a conflict emerges. Yet their analyses differ regarding the consequences of responding to social conflict with a plea for tolerance. For Forst the concept, despite its conflicted meaning and context, holds the promise to address social conflict productively. For Brown, however, tolerance discourse perpetuates social conflict by camouflaging it in tolerance talk. Tolerance is ambiguous at best: On the one hand, it is denounced as an attitude of superiority and a tool of domination; on the other hand, it is imbued, in multicultural discourse, with hope for recognition, emancipation, human rights, equality, and justice.
The question of tolerance has had special resonance in Germany, where history and society over the centuries have provoked and presented paradigms for testing tolerance elsewhere. The present issue examines the contradictions, conflicts, and limits of tolerance through studies of conceptualizations, representations, and social practices of tolerance in German society, culture, [End Page 267] and literature. German culture and history – from medieval representations of ethnic others, struggles over religious tolerance during the early modern period, philosophical and political debates about religious, ethnic, and cultural tolerance in the eighteenth century to Germany’s descent into destructive intolerance of the Third Reich – provide a context that is both especially grim and particularly productive for exploring the conflicts, impossibilities, and potential of tolerance. In 2008, the Universities of Calgary and of Alberta organized an international colloquium, “Testing Tolerance: Acceptance – [In] Tolerance – Exclusion,” which took as its starting point the special oscillation of tolerance in German culture and history and examined this paradigm for “testing tolerance” in societies even beyond Germany. The symposium brought together scholars from a range of disciplines to ask fundamental questions about the insights that a critical view on German cultural history may offer for further debates on tolerance, including in Canadian society. The present collection features articles by a number of the original symposium’s participants whose work focussed on German culture and also adds other scholars’ perspectives on tolerance in German literary and cultural history.
Seen from a twenty-first-century vantage point, the German tradition seems tragically overburdened by the promises of Jewish emancipation and the catastrophes of Nazi persecution, as well as by post-1945 German xenophobia and neo-Nazism. Yet recent research has complicated both ends of this trajectory. Research into medieval and early modern forms and debates of toleration emphasize the ways in which struggles over religious difference and otherness cannot be seen simply as a teleological line of progress towards “more” tolerance, but are marked by both pragmatic and idealistic politics, including tolerance as “authoritarian connotation of mere toleration” and the establishment of toleration as a legal concept in the sixteenth...