U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Culture Wars in Other Countries (Metaphorical and Real)

A couple weeks ago, this image was making its way around the left of the blogosphere (a larger version can be seen here). Hendrik Hertzberg got the ball rolling when he posted it on his New Yorker blog. Identifying it as a political cartoon by Adalbert Volck that “went viral during the 1862 midterm campaign,” Hertzberg compared its attacks on Lincoln to current rightwing attacks on Obama. Matt Yglesias followed up the next day on ThinkProgress with a bit more analysis, noting that the Republicans received “a bit of a shellacking” in those midterm elections and arguing that

the evident similarities between aspects of political rhetoric today and 150 years ago highlights the extent to which the values-and-temperament debate between conservative nationalism and progressive cosmopolitanism is ultimately much more fundamental than the passing controversies over tax rates economic regulation. The basic anxieties provoked by threats to existing status hierarchies haven’t changed, nor have the rhetorical tools of countermobilization.

The following day, Amanda Marcotte of Pandagon echoed Yglesias:

This is the sort of thing that makes claims that Tea Partiers are either some new phenomenon or that they have a specific, policy-based gripe with Obama even more comical. It’s all culture war, all the time.

In fact, Hertzberg, Yglesias, and Marcotte have subtly misidentified this interesting image. It comes not from the election year of 1862, but rather from 1863. Adalbert Volck was a Bavarian-born, Baltimore dentist who, like a lot of his fellow white Marylanders, sympathized with the Confederacy. In 1863, using the pseudonym “V. Blada,” he published a portfolio of thirty prints, collectively entitled Confederate War Etchings, of which the image in question, called “Worship of the North,” was the first. Twenty-nine of the thirty prints (the last has apparently been lost) are available for viewing online as part of the Library of Congress’s American Memory project.*

It’s important that this cartoon comes from 1863 and not 1862 because its context was not a political campaign at all, but rather the Civil War itself (though of course, the War was the central political issue in the 1862 and 1864 campaigns). Interestingly, neither Hertzberg, nor Yglesias, nor Marcotte mentions the Civil War. Though American politics may feature “all culture war, all the time,” it’s certainly not (literally) all civil war, all the time. It is important that the context for this image was something much more wrenching and violent than an election campaign…though noting that arguably makes any similarities we might identify between it and current political rhetoric even more striking. When we see similarities between Volck’s attacks on Lincoln and contemporary conservative attacks on Obama, perhaps we shouldn’t see something as abstract as Yglesias’s “basic anxieties provoked by threats to existing status hierarchies” or even Marcotte’s American conservatives as eternal culture warriors, but rather the enduring legacy of the Civil War in American political culture and rhetoric.

But of course, we’re not the only country with culture wars. Volck’s homeland of Germany, after all, gave us the term “culture war” (Kulturkampf). And Germany is currently having a little culture war of its own.

This past summer, Thilo Sarrazin, an SPD politician and Bundesbank official published a book entitled Deutschland Schafft Sich Ab: Wie wir unser Land aufs Spiel setzen (Germany Does Itself In: How we are putting our country at risk).  Sarrazin’s book argues that his country’s growing Muslim population constitutes a social and cultural threat, especially in light of the very low birthrate among ethnic Germans.  Sarrazin’s argument that Germany’s Muslims are both unassimilable and genetically less intelligent than ethnic Germans caused a scandal in Germany.

In many ways, Sarrazin resembles the right-wing populists who can be found throughout Europe these days, from Geert Wilders in the Netherlands to Barbara Rosenkranz in Austria. But while the book’s tendentious arguments may be old hat in Europe, they obviously strike a particular nerve in Germany, whose post-war national identity was based on a self-conscious rejection of such arguments.  Unsurprisingly the German political and intellectual establishment has nearly universally condemned the book.  Sarrazin was pressured to resign his Bundesbank post.  And though many Germans initially took comfort in the absence of any political party that might empower Sarrazin’s views in Germany, the sheer popularity of the book quickly made clear that, even without such a party, many Germans embraced Sarrazin’s views. Although endorsing the book remained taboo, politicians soon began “demanding that the political elite cease ignoring the fact that many in Germany support Sarrazin,” according to Der Spiegel.


There are obviously many interesting aspects of the Sarrazin affair, what it reveals about, and how it may change, post-war German politics.  But I’m blogging about it because of an interesting comment by David Goodhart in his recent review of the book for the British journal Prospect (h/t Arts & Letters Daily):

Nowhere in Europe is the gap between public opinion and published opinion as wide as in Germany. And nowhere has public policy been more influenced by a 1960s generation, post-national, society-is-to-blame kind of liberalism. Yet this “official” liberalism has never reflected the way people live and think, even in the German chattering classes. When I lived in the country, 20 years ago, it felt far more socially conservative than the similar circles I had come from in London.

Goodhart’s observation is, I think, entirely fair. And the recent experience of the German intellectual and cultural elite with the public reception of Sarrazin’s book is further evidence of Goodhart’s point.**

This vast divide between elite and popular opinion raises an interesting issue: why hasn’t Germany experienced a more pronounced populist backlash against the 60s generation and their intellectual heirs? Especially given the taboos surrounding a political discourse that targets ethnic Others in Germany, the German cultural and intellectual elite, which is quite clearly out-of-step with large bits of the German populace would seem an obvious object of political ire.***  And, as we know, in the United States, the equivalent of those official Sixties liberals, despite never achieving the kind of hegemonic position that they have in Germany, have been a constant political target for almost half a century.

All of this suggests to me that there’s a lot of work to be done in comparative culture wars.

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* More information about Adalbert Volck and his Confederate War Etchings can be found on the websites of Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Free Library and the New-York Historical Society, both of which house Volck materials. A question for any 19th-century historians out there: was Volck a Forty-Eighter? He apparently arrived in this country that year. If so, his support of the Confederacy seems unusual to me. We all know about Forty-Eighters like Carl Shurz who fought on the Union side. Were there many Confederate Forty-Eighters?

** Though Goodhart is, I think, ultimately far too kind to Sarrazin (whom he depicts as hardheaded and sensible…and, as a member of the center-left, a very desirable alternative to the emergence of an actual German version of Geert Wilders).

*** Certainly there has been plenty of German criticism of German “official liberalism.”  See, for example, Oliver Hirschbiegel’s 2004 film Der Untergang (Downfall)–most famous on the interwebs for spawning the Hitler Meme.  Hirschbiegel saw his film as an attempt to “get beyond guilt,” and intended it as a criticism of Sixties generation’s views of the past. For their part, 68ers like Wim Wenders lambasted the film for humanizing Hitler.  This was, in many ways, a kind of aftershock of the Historikerstreit of the 1980s, one of whose key players, Joachim Fest, provided much of the material for Downfall.  But the Historikerstreit, as well as Downfall and the reactions to it, were cultural/intellectual debates largely taking place within the German intelligentsia.  Neither of them received any formal expression in electoral politics, as far as I know.  (On the politics of Downfall, see David Bathrick, “Whose Hi/story Is It? The U.S. Reception of Downfall,” New German Critique 102, Vol. 34, No. 3, Fall 2007″)

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. it’s amazing that none of those people mentioned the civil war. doing so would perhaps make our problems today seem insignificant?

    about germany, i don’t know much, but i would suggest that reunification surely plays a major role in shaping generational dynamics. the ’68ers you’re talking about are all from the west. there aren’t just two or three generations, there are four or six (at least). it would be interesting to know about the geographical breakdown of this new racism.

    also, the kind of left-liberalism that we could conceivably trace from the 60s to today (the greens, say), is by no means the far left in germany, while it is arguably the case that the group to which you’re comparing these people in the US does represent the furthest left group of any significance on this side of the Atlantic. although this kind of generalization is…tendentious at best.

    cultural conflict can surely be compared across nations or languages or eras–what specificity is there to the notion of a ‘culture war’?

  2. Adalbert Volck is indeed an unusual figure — a post-1848 German émigré who sides with the Confederacy. Volck is very engaged in these battles — including painting an image of Confederate blockade runners that looks like a direct refutation of Emmanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware. In my new book, The Great Heart of the Republic: St. Louis and the Cultural Civil War, I take a look at the place of Germans, Unionists or not, within the wider cultural civil war, between advocates of the North, South, and West.

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