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  • Is Normal Neutral? Performing Tolerance in the Berlin Republic
  • Marike Janzen (bio)

Berlin’s reinstatement as Germany’s capital city in 1999 heightened public debates about whether the nation that had committed the atrocities of Nazism could now be considered “normal.” One of the most visible assertions of Germany’s normalization was the construction of the publicly accessible glass dome on the newly renovated Reichstagsgebäude, which offers citizens a view of their elected representatives at work. This “opening” of the federal parliamentary building represented the inclusive and transparent democratic process that was to be the basis of the liberal Federal Republic, a new normality that marked past unjust political practices of the German state as aberrant. By suggesting that no barrier exists to citizens’ participation in the nation’s public life, the glass dome symbolized Germany’s embrace of tolerant political norms and the Federal Republic’s emergence as a normal state.

Beyond the Reichstagskuppel, this normalization of German political culture was both performed and contested in multiple venues in the restored capital. This article examines how a literary event staged in Berlin in February 2002 both articulated and revealed the limitations of tolerant normality as a national ideal. Specifically, the event laid bare how a specific understanding of a tolerant, normal state requires conformity to a particular political subjectivity based in the Enlightenment, a requisite that implicitly excludes “others.” The literary event, which featured the writer Peter Schneider and then-chancellor Gerhard Schröder, was the culmination of a series of four meetings between writers and politicians organized by the author Hans-Christoph Buch in 2001 and 2002. According to Buch, the aim of these encounters was to foster dialogue between representatives of Germany’s literary and political capital. As Buch explained in a personal interview conducted on 10 April 2002, he thought these meetings were an important way to bring together writers with politicians who had just moved to Berlin from Bonn. According to Buch, “die Schriftsteller und die Politiker [sind] in der Hauptstadt Berlin jetzt zusammen … aber [treffen sich nie]” (Buch). At all these meetings, readings from recently published works were the basis for dialogue between authors and politicians. Buch arranged conversations between Bundestag president Wolfgang Thierse and Günter Grass; culture minister Julian Nida-Rümelin and Ingo Schulze; Bundestag vice-president Antje Vollmer and Buch himself, with the Schneider-Schröder discussion as the final event. At that last meeting, Schneider read [End Page 365] from his recently published nonfictional work, “Und wenn wir nur eine Stunde gewinnen ...”: Wie ein jüdischer Musiker die Nazi-Jahre überlebte (2001) and then engaged in conversation with Schröder. All ticket proceeds were donated to the nonprofit organization “Courage gegen Fremdenhass.”

This article identifies how this high-profile public event in the young Berlin Republic failed to live up to the model it presented for democratic participation in a “normal” Germany. In multiple instances, the “Treffen” between Schneider and Schröder performed an understanding of the public sphere as neutral ground in which all could participate, a normative vision of free debate inherent in Jürgen Habermas’s description of civil discourse in the public sphere. Consistent with critiques of Habermas’s account, this vision of German civic participation in fact depended on bracketing out conceptions of the individual or the public that would call into question whether the public sphere was accessible to all. Specifically, the events of the evening suggested that the tolerant practice advocated by the content and staging of the “Treffen” required that political space and the individual participating in it be freed from the constraints imposed by their imbrication within historical, political relations.

Among the “dis-imbricating” processes in evidence was the work that Schneider read, which documents German and Jewish resistance to Nazi persecution to show that social structures do not necessarily impede human agency. Likewise, the ensuing discussion, as well as the audience’s critical response to it, made clear the refusal of the participants to recognize the fact that the men in dialogue that evening occupied specific relationships to that public forum and thus did not speak in politically neutral voices. Finally, even the explicit promotion of tolerance advanced...


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pp. 365-378
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