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The Long Journey West


The German historian Heinrich August Winkler, best known for his historical survey The Long Journey West (Der lange Weg nach Westen), has just published the first volume of a planned two-volume work modestly entitled The History of the West. Marking the occasion, this week he gave an interesting interview to the newsweekly Der Spiegel. In it, Winkler presents his vision of what constitutes the “West,” namely a series of social values that focus on human rights, the separation of powers, and the rule of law. Winkler portrays the postwar period as a steady process of German assimilation to the West and its values, a process which was essential to the construction of the modern Europe.

A couple of the most interesting questions put to Winkler go to the geographic description of the West. Historically, it has been seen as North America and Western Europe. Of course, Australia and New Zealand are closely identified with the West even though they are far removed geographically. What about Japan? The country satisfies all the criteria that Winkler establishes for the West, but few would call it Western. (My translations):

Yes, there is an essential difference with Western societies: how they approach the problem of accountability in their own history. A sense of guilt belongs to the Christian influences in the West. There are societies that focus on shame and those that focus on guilt. I believe that the political culture of the West is in great measure shaped by such pre-political precepts.

What about the use of “Western values” as a battle cry—against whom is this directed?

Against no one. This connection arose in the George W. Bush era. He radically challenged the concept of a “community of Western values.” If we look more closely, we find that all the controversies between the Europeans and the Americans arose from differing understandings of common values. The debate is not over, but perhaps we can see Obama as the man who will clear the way for a recasting of the West.

Why did Germany only come to associate itself with the West at a very late date?

The First World War was waged by the Germans as a war of the ideas of 1914 against those of 1789. Order, Breeding, and Inwardness (Ordnung, Zucht und Innerlichkeit) against Freedom, Equality, and Fraternity (Liberté, égalité, fraternité). Parliamentary democracy came to Germany in 1918 as a consequence of military defeat, and consequently in the twenties and early thirties it appeared to many as an un-German form of governance. The “West” was a negative battle concept for the conservative elites that acquired cultural hegemony in the late Weimar Republic. And National Socialism was the catastrophic high point of the rejection of the West as a political project.

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