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Beyond thalassophobia
Walter Grünzweig
13 June 2022
published in Issue One

On the literary corpus of Robert Habeck, German vice-chancellor and novelist-statesman. How experimental can a literary politician be?

Out with the old, in with the also old. Since Olaf Scholz’s installation as Germany’s political leader, we are now months into to the post-Merkelian age. The Social Democrat managed to break the Conservatives’ sixteen-year hold on power, yet Scholz is not new to the country’s government. As Merkel’s vice chancellor and minister of finance, he paradoxically profited from a widespread desire for calm in German politics. But the coalition did bring a new face to the national political scene, and even a new sort of politician: Robert Habeck, the Vice-Chancellor, who also heads the ministerial powerhouse for Economic Affairs and Climate Action (in German it’s a bit less dynamic: Klimaschutz, meaning climate protection).

The Ampel (« traffic light ») coalition consists of Social Democrats, Liberals, and the Greens, most with traditional backgrounds. Scholz was trained as a lawyer and has been in politics for most of his life. Christian Lindner, who brought his Liberal « Free Democratic » Party out of an existential crisis, was a business consultant before his political career. Annalena Baerbock, the new foreign minister, with whom Habeck has co-chaired the Green Party since 2018, has degrees in law and political science.

But Robert Habeck is a writer, with more than twenty books to his name: fiction, drama, literary criticism, and non-fiction. An author who becomes second-in-command in one of Europe’s most powerful nations is something extraordinary. It is tempting, therefore, to find parallels between his literature and his politics, to read his fiction for glimpses of Green political futures, to chart a literary turn in German politics. It is tempting, too, to read his literary criticism for similar clues. He has pondered aesthetics and genre theory; we wonder which political genres he will fit, and which he might break. He promises newness — but a newness of what? How experimental can a literary politician be?

Consider a novel for adolescents, in which a suicidal, Hegel-reading narrator tilts his dialectical swords at the betrayals of a Green Party politician. That’s at the beginning of Zwei Wege in den Sommer (Two ways into the summer), from 2006. Max, who is depressed because he feels vaguely responsible for the suicide of his sister, wants to end his own life, and do so with a message. Politics, responsible for nuclear power plants and global hunger, offers no way out. Max’s best friend’s father is a member of the German Bundestag for the Green Party, with « the characteristic look of a politician. His hair in dignified gray, goatskin bag under his arm, with a vague expression of I-am-deeply-concerned. » Max’s plan is to buy himself a small boat with the money earned by working on the politician’s website, sail to Scandinavia and never return. But before doing so, he also wants to make the Green parliamentarian realize that « politics made him betray his ideals. »

What is supposed to be a trip with no return becomes a voyage of liberation. Max embarks without specific plans or cash; but the interaction with the caring people he happens to meet lifts him out of his juvenile nihilism. The freedom of the sea helps him find himself (and a girlfriend). No longer suicidally imprisoned in the dialectics of Hegel (whom he has read extensively and with some insight), Max concludes his narrative with Camus: « The only thing of interest is whether a man is free. »

The Habeck corpus includes three mature novels, several works of sophisticated juvenile literature and a historical play. There are also several literary translations (including Ted Hughes and William Butler Yeats) and two published theses, masters and doctoral, in German literature and literary theory. After his full-time entry into politics in 2009, he wrote a series of book-length reflections on public service and on his own political career.

The open sea is the master image in the system of maritime metaphors that permeate his work. His widely-read political autobiography from 2016, Wer wagt, beginnt. Die Politik und ich (Who dares, begins: Politics and me), echoing « Wer wagt, gewinnt, » (the German equivalent to « Nothing ventured, nothing gained »), breaks his life into four sections, each with a watery furnishing: « Prior to politics — On the Beach »; then « Office Holder — Swimming » (with a suggestion of becoming liberated); then « Political Mandate — At Sea »; and finally « Horizon — Dolphin » (the animal’s sentient intelligence suggesting a drift towards the New Age). He likens his political aspirations to a longing for the sea (« The Sea is a pars pro toto for the yearning for new political horizons ») and warns his readers and future voters against thalassophobia, the fear of deep waters and limitless water surfaces. Sea change, he reassures us, is nothing to be afraid of, especially if there is a dolphin to bail you out.

Habeck himself is now setting his sails. He has become the politician of that adolescent, meta-political novel, even he doesn’t carry the goatskin bag. His hair has a bit of gray (not quite dignified), yet he hopes to keep the spirit of the juvenile hero and to channel the younger generation. Although politics requires compromises, he wants a new politics: « surprising, open and resistive. » Habeck here uses the German word « widerständig » (all translations from Habeck’s books are mine) suggesting resistance not against a specific development or issue but a principled anti-conformist attitude toward politics itself.

He expresses, too, a new geography: Germany’s open sea is, of course, located in the North. Habeck was born in Lübeck, the city of Thomas Mann and his Buddenbrooks, and eventually settled near Flensburg in Schleswig-Holstein, Germany’s northernmost state, where he made his early political career. He sees himself as a child of the North, a part of the country « which is fairly distant from the rest of the Republic. » Together with Scholz, a former mayor of Hamburg, and Manuela Schwesig, the relatively young but influential Social Democratic leader of the North-Eastern State of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, the new government tips traditional North/South scale of German politics northward. While the South continues to dominate the country economically, on the level of national politics, the conservativism centered in Bavaria or Saxony has, at least for the moment, been thwarted.

Habeck’s Schleswig-Holstein epitomizes the German North and the country’s access to the sea. After a series of political scandals, some still unresolved (for instance, why was Ministerpräsident Uwe Barschel found dead in the bathtub of a hotel room in Geneva in 1987), the state now has a reputation for sound and rational politics. Its handling of the pandemic, for example, was calmer and less controversial than in other parts of Germany. It is there, on the Danish border, in a bilingual, bicultural region looking more towards Scandinavia than to the rest of the country, that Habeck (who speaks Danish fluently) feels at home. Here, Germany borders Europe.

In Wer wagt beginnt he calls himself a « European patriot », thrilling to cross-border multi-ethnicity and riding the Interrail with pride, and frames such Europeanism as compatible with the « leftist patriotism » for which he also calls. The ideological package would thus resolve the long post-68 German riddle of the left and the state: « A leftist commitment to the State is still difficult for some people in my environment, » Habeck writes. « You can hardly assume responsibility for a society or a place if you don’t really want to belong there. » Europe has helped him and his generation to return home.

To those versed in German political rhetoric, 2021 is reminiscent of the late 1960s. In 1965, Günter Grass started a campaign in support of the Social Democratic candidate Willy Brandt using the title of Walt Whitman’s poem « For You, O Democracy » as a motto (« I will make inseparable cities with their arms about each other’s necks / By the love of comrades »). Christian Democrats had been running West Germany since the country’s inception in 1949. When Brandt was finally elected chancellor in 1969, he called for a new Germany that would « dare more democracy » and bring politics closer to the people.

The new Ampel government has echoed Brandt: « Dare more progress », the coalition proclaims. The German title of the coalition agreement, « Mehr Fortschritt wagen, » could be translated less literally as « dare more development » or « dare more change, » but anyway: dare. Brandt’s was an overture to the young 68ers just emerging as a generation; the rhetoric of wagen would inflect German Social Democratic politics as well as the political culture of the Green Party that was founded a decade later. Just as Brandt opened Germany’s leaden post-war society to
the hopes and aspirations of a new generation, the Ampel wants to make Germany ready for the comparatively much more pressing challenges of the present.

Habeck, born in the year of Brandt’s daring democracy speech, has his own stylistic affinity to Walt Whitman. He hopes that a new sense of commonality, a « new res publica, » will emerge out of our era’s radical individualism, a new Us out of the individual Self: « We must find, in our Democracy, a new form of political communication, » he writes in Wer wir sein könnten (Who we could be), a relatively short book from 2018 dealing with the significance of language in society and especially in politics: « One that invites and fascinates, which arouses our passion without turning into passionate hostility against the Other. Then we must dare more openness. A more open sea. » A new language can cure German thalassophobia.

He started out as a poet and novelist in the early 1990s. What he wrote as a young man is mostly out of print. As I started to collect his books, the prices for his earlier works went up by the week. On German Ebay, I finally found his first small novel, published in 1990, when he was 21. Traumblind: Ein Gefühl wie Freiheit (Dream-blind: A Sense of Freedom) is a wild teenage story, the plot of which anticipates Zwei Wege in den Sommer. Max (same name as in later book and vaguely related) yearns for freedom but does not yet reflect on his development philosophically. His voyage is by Interrail rather than on a sailboat. Traumblind is less a book for adolescents than a book by one, but after that quasi-pubertarian debut, Habeck became a professional and successful author, and a very good one at that. His authorship is bound up with his political project.

Politicians, especially in Germany, often emphasize the doable, the realistic. The former Social Democratic chancellor Helmut Schmidt, successor to Brandt, famously said that « those with visions should go to the doctor. » But the potential, the possible, the imaginable is central to Habeck’s rhetoric. Subtitled « Why our Democracy needs an open and diverse language, » Wer wir sein könnten at first resembles a constructivist manifesto: language creates reality and indeed is the world. That is why there is virtually no politics preceding or going beyond language. But the book becomes a warning against the dangerous uses of that theoretical insight, for instance the metaphors of social degeneracy used by enraged citizens (« Wutbürger ») and the nationalist language of the Right.

Habeck extends this reflection on language — reminiscent of the Austrian father of all media criticism, Karl Kraus — to a critique of the category of the nation. Literary history creates a politics, too. In this account, German Klassik and Romantik, their humanist and indeed revolutionary character notwithstanding, led to the notion of a German Kulturnation that deemed itself superior. Old news for literary historians, but not exactly standard fare in everyday political discourse.

Here, at last, is a literary statesman. That would reflect a fantasy many writers, literary critics and cultural historians have, to tell politicians that the world is more complex than a politician’s vision allows; that language is not merely a medium of communication but foundational for consciousness itself, for understanding and questioning « reality »; that literature and culture are not just decorative, but vital for the survival of society. But Habeck, we guess, knows this already, and now he is there, and it must mean something: the promise of an alternative, literary politics? I am skeptical, but I want to believe there is a chance. Or does a fantasy, once fulfilled, become a disappointment?

Of course, many political leaders were also writers. Many, in fact, were poets: Agostinho Neto, Léopold Sédar Senghor, Jimmy Carter, Mao Zedong. But Habeck is atypical: his literary career is not an appendage to his public office; his political activity grew out of the literature. A novelist — a storyteller, let’s say — should understand the discursive, narrative foundation of politics. Traditional politics, he wrote in Wer wagt, beginnt, « is merely an account, and not a story. » In his political autobiographies, he develops a narrative of government:

My first profession as an author has led to my habit of constantly finding the story in events. [...] But events and patterns are only rendered sensible through the design of our narratives. Literature and Art and Culture are modes of self-assurance accessible to the whole society. Therein lies the basic nexus of literature and politics.

What does it mean to dare at such a nexus? His insistence on story, on narrative, has kept him from becoming an experimental writer in the modernist or postmodernist sense; it has also foreclosed a disruptive or radical politics. Post-war experimental literature exploded the linguistic order, the chauvinism of conventional grammar and the oppression of linearity. One doesn’t turn to this corpus for literary experimentation. For Habeck, in both literature and politics, one should dare to change the story rather than break it up.

Almost all of Habeck’s fictional works are co-authored with his wife, Andrea Paluch, whom he met while working on a student theater project at Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg. They raised four sons in an old house in the Danish border and wrote fiction at the same time. It is difficult to separate one voice from the other; their collaboration is genuine and conscious.

Paluch studied English literature and wrote her doctoral thesis about contemporary British poetry, whose German title translates as « Self-Referentiality in Contemporary British Poetry: The Discourse over Postmodernism and Its Specification through Systems Theory. » Proceeding from the observation that contemporary poetry, and especially British poetry, is increasingly characterized by self-referential elements, she deployed an analytic model based on Niklas Luhmann’s system theory to classify, describe and explain various forms of self-referentiality. Rather than « a mere play of forms and trivia », the study concluded that self-referential poetry represents a « consciously pursued and intelligently executed examination of its time and itself » and thereby « reacts to changes in society as a whole. » The poetry she analyzed deals for example with social exclusion and cultural difference. In systemic reaction to « hetero-reference », self-reference also points to the outside world. The thesis thus claims an ethics for post-modern literature.

Habeck’s own doctoral dissertation — Die Natur der Literatur. Zur gattungstheoretischen Begründung literarischer Ästhetizität (The nature of literature: Genre theory and the aesthetics of literature) — was, like his wife’s, a theoretical undertaking with political and socio-cultural implications. It provided an important basis for his Green thinking. Habeck’s journey through Kant, Hegel, Wilhelm von Humboldt, and Johann Georg Hamann, with an interpretation of a Hölderlin poem and a prose text by Celan, « Gespräch im Gebirg » (Conversation in the Mountains), led him to challenge the distinction between culture and nature that had been foundational for traditional ecological politics: « Nature is not the matrix which art needs to follow, but the various media rather create the interpretive patterns of nature. » Media constitute meaning: « Nature assumes full shape only through interpretation. » For an ecological politics, this means that nature should not — and cannot — be separated and saved from human beings, but rather needs to be addressed with them.

Though Habeck’s study used mainly literary examples, he also applied his findings to television, computer art and virtual reality. He differentiated literature from new media by the latter’s spatial rather than temporal dimension, and detected, in a social world saturated by new media, a creeping inability to « understand the changeability » of objects, of human beings, of phenomena. Printed literary texts, even the experimentally postmodern, are sequential: there is a before and after, a causality that connects them, and an implication that things can be changed. The « new, artificial worlds » in electronic media « are described mainly according to the criteria of equivalency and conformity »; they won’t necessarily push us toward a more « progressive » orientation. In fact they may blind us to the world’s potential for change. Literature is thus not an outdated medium but becomes, in the digital present, even more necessary. Both theses, Paluch’s and Habeck’s, have strong theoretical foundations; they make self-referentiality and aesthetics matter for contemporary culture.

In 2017, the German daily Die Welt asked Habeck for a « biography in books. » He replied that some twenty titles immediately came to his mind, of which he listed ten, including Bertolt Brecht (The Threepenny Opera, which he came to know through a school production in which he participated), Albert Camus, Paul Celan (Breathturn, a poetry collection published in 1967), Peter Weiss (The Aesthetics of Resistance), Astrid Lindgren and Peter Høeg (reflecting his Danish and larger Scandinavian bias), and Ian McEwan (Saturday). Two books on his list play a special role in his own work: Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (« a reading experience I can only liken to a hurricane, the best book I know ») and the internationally less known longish novella Der Schimmelreiter (The Rider on the White Horse, 1888), by Theodor Storm, who is both a regional Schleswig-Holstein author and the state’s major contribution to the German national canon.

The protagonist of Der Schimmelreiter is Hauke Haien, a largely though not completely self-made and self-taught man who rises to the position of Deichgraf (dike master), the most important local position one can obtain in his world. As a child, he teaches himself Euclidian mathematics, and dreams of improving and enlarging the local dikes. His vision and his self-assertiveness are admirable, but Storm also created a protagonist whose egotism is morally questionable and ultimately destructive. The old dike breaks in an enormous storm and destroys large parts of the village. Haien and his family die in the calamity but many villagers swear they’ve seen his ghost riding a white horse in stormy nights.

Der Schimmelreiter is Storm’s best-known work; he completed it a few months before his death in 1888. It is an example of 19th-century realism, in which Haien’s modern dike is a triumph of scientific progress. Yet the novella’s literary power is due to its Romantic presentation of nature, as well as the conventions of the ghost story, which drew on local legends. German literary historians call this « Poetic Realism » — the survival of the Romantic style in a non-metaphysical era.

It is unlikely that Storm knew of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, but of course a Melville admirer like Habeck would see the connection between white whale and white horse, and also between Captain Ahab and Hauke Haien. Storm, according to Habeck’s « biography in books », created both a « North German Faust » and a Captain Ahab, « a man who knew loneliness resulting from a situation in which one is obliged only to oneself. » Melville’s and Storm’s books are integrally connected with Habeck’s and Paluch’s debut novel, Hauke Haiens Tod (The Death of Hauke Haien), published in 2001. Their book is a modern-day rewriting of Der Schimmelreiter set in the present, which places one of Storm’s minor characters, Iven Johns, at the narrative center. He is an Ishmael-like survivor who not only tells the story but also attempts to find a place for Haien’s daughter Wienke. In Storm’s novella, Wienke is a « weak-minded » person who dies with her family. In Habeck’s and Paluch’s novel, she survives and, through her very naïveté, becomes a truth-teller. Together with Iven’s investigation into what actually happened before and during the catastrophe, the book turns into a multi-plot detective novel, in which everybody in the village, with the exception of Wienke, is guilty by deed or association.

The book provides an ecological reading of two works of world literature, Storm’s and Melville’s, and draws from them an allegory for contemporary environmental politics. The huge storm and its ensuing deluge — as well as the slow death of a huge Melvillian sperm whale that perishes on the beach (not in Storm’s book) — re-semble our era’s contemporary apocalyptic scenarios. The book even involves a conspiratorial evangelical sect trying to rewrite the story of the catastrophe in their own interest. But Habeck’s vision of the open sea survives the catastrophic flood. In the end, the novel (a film is in the works, too) rejects this end-of-time perspective in favor of a sometimes humorous, sometimes bitter social criticism. To deal with climate change, politics must come to terms with the horizons of « the next-door neighbors. »

Maritime catastrophe also kicks off Habeck’s and Paluch’s third novel, though the story is mostly land-bound. In Der Tag an dem ich meinen toten Mann traf (The day I met my dead husband, 2005), the ich is Helene, whose husband Robert (!) supposedly drowns in the Mediterranean, but his body is never found. When she later meets a look-alike of her husband in the Hamburg opera house, with the quasi-anagrammatic name of Torben, the book turns from tragic love story to thriller. The novel carefully leaves open the possibility that Torben is Robert, who either cannot or does not want to reveal the truth. Helene continues the relationship anyway and ultimately rejects genetic testing to find out for sure. She opts, in effect, for a constructivist, and maybe also pragmatic approach to companionship, marriage and love. Helene and Robert/ Torben, it so happens, collaborate in an environmentalmental consultancy, a business (not an NGO) that will survive in their strange new relational constellation — a « new life which will incorporate the identity of the old life. »

It is a curious and perhaps impolitic plot for a future vice-chancellor to have conjured. While the self-reinvention of one’s own life when holding on to the essence of one’s personality is a major theme in Habeck’s biography, and while it is true that all politicians invent themselves, very few write curiously self-referential novels about faking their own deaths and re-marrying their widows. Drawing parallels between fictional plots and author’s biographies is something we scholars of literature try to prevent students from doing, but this novel invites us to play that game. Written as Habeck was making his first steps into local politics, it anticipates a metamorphosis from writer to politician; it can be read as an allegorical vision of so perilous a transformation. The allegory works in two very different ways. While the Torben that steps in for Robert is unheimlich, even Hitchcockian, the non-resolution of his two identities may be a sign of hopefulness. Habeck’s two identities as writer and politician, that is to say, may also meaningfully complement rather than sabotage each other.

All politicians invent themselves, very few write curiously self-referential novels about faking their own deaths and re-marrying their widows

Other works spell out ecological politics more explicitly. In one of Habeck’s and Paluch’s adolescent novels, Flug der Falken (Flight of the Falcons, 2010), a wildlife conservationist supposedly trying to save Germany’s falcons turns out to be a fraud and a criminal. The teenage detectives, Clara and Felix, who start out as idealistic Green activists, must learn that the ecological movement may be as corrupt as other, less idealistic sectors of life. « Nature » will not be saved by attempting to return it to a pristine state in which it never existed; those trying to advocate such a policy may even turn out to be crooks.

Habeck’s fiction reflects and interrogates notions of Greenness by investigating and criticizing naïve fantasies of an original, untouched nature. Felix knows about falcons from a popular video game, itself influenced by ancient Egyptian falcon-mythology. When they first enter the forest, Felix notes: « It smells like pine needle bubble bath. » It is okay, salutary even, to bring your own conceptions of the natural into nature and then ironize those conceptions. Environmental activism requires such a reflection of one’s media experience, and in the end the teenage detectives do succeed in changing their destructive world: the villain using the ecological movement for his private gain is exposed. Clara and Felix thus undergo a political initiation, coming to understand that environmental dogmatism is counterproductive.

These juvenile books are didactic, of course, but the didacticism is done well, without a raised finger. His protagonists learn by experience and his readers learn along with them. « Ecologism in its utmost purity, » an « Eco-Fundamentalism, » Habeck will warn in Wer wagt, beginnt, « leads to an arch-conservative Weltbild consisting of Regionalism, Anti-Capitalism, a rejection of the welfare state, division of labor and education — in the end, it promotes inequality. » The novels explore the motivations and actors in the Green movement and even self-critically question them. They steer readers toward rational change, rational activism. « Politics, » Habeck says, must find « concrete ways towards noble goals, knowing that one cannot immediately realize them, but reach important milestones. » In the end, « this is the only way to realize utopian ideals — step by step. » Dare ... to compromise?

Given Habeck’s insistence on the anthropogenic versions of nature, the historiographical dimension of several texts is not surprising. Human beings are actors. In 2008, the Theater Kiel in Schleswig-Holstein’s capital city premiered Habeck’s and Paluch’s play 1918: Revolution in Kiel, a drama dealing with the Kiel mutiny, the sailors’ rebellion against the Imperial German Navy in November 1918 that eventually led to the abdication of the German Emperor. « The power is in the hands of the Kiel Soviets, » a character pronounces. « Kiel will be the origin of fundamental change. The working class has emerged victorious. The Empire is a thing of the past. » An accurate pronouncement. Yet the authors put an unlikely character at the center of the plot: the Social Democratic politician Gustav Noske. In leftist German historiography, Noske is infamous for his friendly connection with Prussian militarism and for his probable involvement in the murder of two saints of the German Left, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, shortly after the events of the play. Noske also agreed to war loans in 1914 rather than lead an international anti-war coalition, and he actively subverted a potential revolutionary turn in Germany that had been so urgently awaited by Lenin.

But this play does not introduce Noske as a villain; he is part of a dramatis personae who are trying their best. Noske’s attitude could be taken out of Habeck’s political autobiographies: « Responsibility. It is strange, but when one assumes responsibility, it changes one’s personality. One does things one would previously have thought impossible. I experienced this right at the beginning of the war when we raised our hands for the war loans. It seemed responsible. Then. » One wonders whether the murders of Luxemburg and Liebknecht seemed responsible.

Noske’s opponent is Fritz, the young ringleader of the radical revolutionaries, vaguely reminiscent of two historical revolutionary leaders of the Kiel revolution, Lothar Popp and Karl Artelt. Fritz’s strategy of violence, however, is counteracted by his fiancée Luise, a fictional character inserted into this historical. (A feminist sigh escapes in the middle of this drama of class struggle: « My father locked me up and I broke out and have been running ever since but I’m not getting anywhere. There is always one who is sending me to the next. Always men. Am I responsible for what others see in me? ») This simple but astute young woman attempts to keep open channels of communication — between the radical leftist, the compromise-seeking Social Democrat, the Prussian military, and indeed even the Emperor’s brother who happens to be in Kiel — all to prevent bloodshed.

1918 is the only play in the couple’s broad literary repertoire. It is hard not to read it as a script for Green politics, especially in crisis situations. The behavior of individual characters is shown, but ultimately not individually judged. Characters’ interactions, their dialogues, provide a model of behavior that lead to a gradual understanding of the issues rather than a quick or tidy resolution. Noske’s emphasis on responsibility thus anticipates Habeck, the future vice-chancellor.

War in Ukraine has forced the Habeck to make compromises. In various interviews in March, and in his inaugural visit in the U.S., one could see the difficulty with which he refused to stop importing oil from Russia, which meant keeping Putin’s war chest full. And one sensed a humiliation of Canossa when Habeck went to various Arab countries to negotiate long-term energy deals with governments not known for the respect of basic human rights. The professional politician — the politician of Max Weber’s « Politics as a Vocation », for whom the imperative of responsibility will tragically clash with moral or ethical commitments — may be anathema to Green idealists. Weber delivered his lecture in 1919, in the context of the short-lived Bavarian Soviet Republic; with 1918, Habeck seems to have anticipated the impossible predicaments of the Ukrainian crisis that have confronted him now.

Another historical fiction — and Paluch’s and Habeck’s most ambitious novel — deals with Germany’s colonial presence in Southwest Africa and its trajectory in the 20th century, up to and beyond the creation of the independent state of Namibia. Der Schrei der Hyänen (The cry of the hyenas), published in 2004, exactly a century after the anticolonial Herero rebellion, is told as a family saga of four generations of women. In the first, a poor female colonist marries a farmer who turns out to be a ruthless and violent racist. After he dies fighting the Herero rebels, she marries into high-level Prussian military aristocracy, but an intermittent affair with a rebel leader results in pregnancy. In an unusual genetic co-incidence, her daughter, born in 1905, is white, and the interracial relationship is not discovered until decades later when, skipping another generation, her granddaughter gives birth to a black child in the mid-1950s, in the period of the German economic miracle. African blood has thus been a part of the German body politic for two generations before it became visible.

Postcolonial theory arrived late to German political discourse. Written some fifteen years ago, Der Schrei der Hyänen is an early entry in the relatively recent and ongoing reassessment of Germany’s colonial past. In 2021, Germany recognized the « war » against rebellious ethnic groups in its former colony as a genocide; the question of neocolonialism has surfaced in the discussion over the « Humboldt-Forum » in Berlin. But there is more here: Der Schrei der Hyänen allegorizes a genetic intrusion into the imagined purity of the German people, moving past arguments for or against a multicultural and multi-racial society, moving beyond those who, while they « welcome » African refugees, still relegate them to the position of « other »: its premise is the inherent diversity that is already there.

Unsuspected African roots in German families are also revealed in a second book, published only in 2020. In a series of read-aloud stories, a 92-year-old great-grandmother inspires her great-grandson, Per, to take an interest in her past, which is at first radically alien to him. The book departs from traditional German children’s literature’s depiction of Africa as an exotic Other; it offers, instead, postcolonial bedtime stories. By finding out that his German family has roots in Africa, Germany’s colonial history becomes part of a 21st-century child’s imagination.

As important as such a literary interrogation may be for a comprehensive understanding of a political culture, the more pressing question is how the literary background of a major political German leader could influence the country’s politics. This is not about more governmental support for literature and culture, although a remarkable passage in the coalition agreement calls for culture to become an official national goal, a Staatsziel. (The Green politician Claudia Roth, who has a theater background, has become Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media. As I write, she is attempting to create opportunities for Ukrainian authors and artists in Germany.) It is about the political prospects of a rhetorical thalassophilia. In looking at the distribution of power in the new government, many observers have declared the Liberals victorious, especially as they managed to claim the ministries of finance and transportation. Habeck might not in fact see this as a loss. To sell concrete power for the more transcendent narrative — perhaps a mark of distinction for a literary politician — may even be his strategy for future success. By having succeeded in making « the climate protection goals of Paris our uppermost priority, » as the coalition agreement prominently states, the Greens may have a stronger longer-term political influence. After all, the climate is the dominant narrative in the coalition agreement and it continues to figure prominently in the self-projection of the new government. Nominating the executive director of Greenpeace, Jennifer Morgan, for the position of undersecretary and special representative for international climate policy in Annalena Baerboeck’s foreign ministry (for which she needed to be furnished with a German passport) is, in that sense, a concrete outcome of a narrative strategy.

At the same time, politics’ most brilliant storytellers can fail. Many of us welcomed Barack Obama, American Narrator in Chief, simply because we could no longer tolerate George W. Bush’s stammer and splutter. But the dismal denouement of Obama’s presidency led to a deep disillusionment about rhetorical promises writ large. One hopes Habeck’s literary promise won’t meet a similar fate.

From narrator to voices. The main task of politics, to turn diversity into a workable social and cultural whole, can be much better served by a polyphonous coalition like the Ampel than by a grand coalition that always tends to share the spoils equally, or by a government by Liberals and Conservatives who merely argue over the meaning of a free market society. In a commentary on Habeck’s and Paluch’s play 1918, the German dramaturg and artistic director Marcus Grube emphasizes that « the dramatist is able to make different plot lines collide into each other, by placing them into a mutually critical discourse, by having his characters speak to and encounter each other. » A literary text is not determined by the « intention of the author », as students, alas, are often still led to believe. Rather, a novel (and even more so, a play) depends on the different voices of its characters and what happens when they interact — a process that the author frequently needs to watch from the sidelines. Writers, and indeed narrators, are never in complete control over their books; the same is true of politicians and the societies in which they operate.

What is true for the play also applies to politics, and especially Habeck’s: « The singular voice », Grube states, « is relativized in the canon of other voices; monologue and monophony become dialog and polyphony of the characters — finally a multilayered story whose evaluation is up to the audience ». This figures the voting-public-as-readers. Creative writing requires a creative reader to make the work of literature a reality. The creative politician will engage the imagination of the creative citizen so that the latter feels invited to participate in realizing the oeuvre of state. The open sea is a metaphor for politics, not a symbol. Symbols merely symbolize; metaphors transform. They teach us to act, not to shudder.

This essay was amended on 29 June 2022 to correct the first name of Uwe Barschel, which was earlier stated as Rainer.