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Germanness beyond Germany: Collective Identity in German Diaspora Communities
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Germanness beyond Germany:
Collective Identity in German Diaspora Communities

In this special issue of German Studies Review, we examine how communities in the so called “German diaspora” have imagined and maintained a sense of Germanness in their various host communities. The experience of Germanness in any given immigrant community has followed a different historical trajectory from Germanness in the core German ethnoterritory in Central Europe, a region roughly coterminous with the territory presently administered by the Federal Republic of Germany and the Republic of Austria, but which also encompasses much of Switzerland and various lands directly adjacent to Germany and Austria.

Speaking of “collective identity” or “German identity” poses terminological problems. Inga Scharf argued that “German national identity appears to be too impossibly contradictory or paradoxical to be spoken of with any ease,”1 and the problem lies not only with the complexities of Germanness, but also with the word “identity.” In an influential article, Rogers Brubaker and Frederick Cooper have shown that some scholars use the term to discuss both individuals and collectives; to discuss both something claimed for oneself and something externally attributed; and to discuss both something fluid, contextual, and contingent, and something solid, immutable, and enduring.2 Confusion results from the use of the same word for both halves of so many mutually exclusive binaries, though some scholars apparently underestimate the danger. Hans-Jochen Gamm’s study of “German identities,” for example, declared that “collective identities are apparently natural and for this reason require no further explanation,” though Gamm also offered several “clarifications.”3 While we have used the term “identity,” we take Brubaker and Cooper’s criticism seriously. We treat Germanness as something collective rather than individual. While we and our contributors examine Germanness both as something self-proclaimed and as something externally ascribed, we mostly emphasize self-understandings. Finally, we see Germanness as neither immutable nor ephemeral, but durably constructed within a given social and historical context. Informed by Brubaker’s analysis of “groupism,”4 [End Page 1] we place our emphasis on “Germanness” as a “category of practice,” that is, as historical actors imagined and experienced it.

The content and significance of Germanness gradually evolves over the decades as historical actors contest its meanings, but its flexibility in a specific time and place remains limited. Our ambition is to examine how social practices and institutions help construct or maintain a given understanding of Germanness in particular contexts. Since the putative meaning of Germanness varies over historical time, from place to place, from historical actor to historical actor, and from scholarly observer to scholarly observer, what phenomena should scholars examine to explore the changing meaning of Germanness?

Several scholars analyze Germanness with reference to the state or states governing the core German ethnoterritory. Françoise Knopper and Alain Ruiz, for example, argued that the cold war division of Europe, and particularly the creation of the German Democratic Republic and the Federal Republic of Germany, illustrate “significant difficulties in defining the German identity.”5 Louis Snyder thought Bismarck responsible for the “subservience, discipline, and respect for authority” that “when added to other characteristics, gave the German national character in the late nineteenth century a special quality of its own.” He also declared that postwar West Germany embodied “the new German character.”6 James Sperling similarly suggested that “American, British, and West German policy makers cooperated in forging a new German national identity that was liberal, democratic, irrevocably tied to the West and anti-Communist.”7 Mark Blacksell even claimed that the Kaiserreich (imperial Germany), the Weimar Republic, the Third Reich, the Federal Republic of Germany, and the German Democratic Republic all “purported to represent all Germany and embrace a single national identity,” and thus that all these states “fostered German identity.”8 Others, including Friedrich Meinicke, Jürgen Habermas, and Rogers Brubaker, have explored Germanness in studies of legal citizenship.9

The last few decades have seen a profusion of approaches decentering the German state and problematizing the high political approach. As Geoff Eley has noted, the German state, its territory, citizenship law, and traditions, have experienced a series of ruptures in 1864–1871, 1914–1918, 1918...