By Riccardo Bavaj
I have a background in 20th-century German intellectual history, and ‘the West’ has played an important part in the history of modern Germany. For many decades, Germans had a rather troubled relationship with ‘the West’. Obviously, German anti-Westernism soared in the First World War: ‘Western civilization’ was perceived as shallow, artificial, corrupt, and decadent, whereas ‘German culture’ was seen as innately meaningful, deep, authentic, and true to life. The outcome of the First World War did not change much in this regard. Some Germans now thought more than ever that Germany’s future should take a path very different from that of ‘the West’, and that it was good to be special – until it was not.
After 1945, the thesis of a German special path was turned on its head – the central question now was: ‘How did this happen?’ How did the Nazis come to power, and what were the causes that led to the Holocaust? People now came up with various theories about when German history had taken a wrong turn, i.e. when it had started to deviate from what was assumed to be the ‘Western’ path of normality (for instance, with supposedly ‘failed’ or ‘half-hearted’ revolutions in 1848-49 or 1918-19). The key reference point of this German soul-searching was ‘the West’, which as an idea was hardly ever really explained and instead worked like a cipher for a liberal-democratic, pluralist future – a progressive, modern society. The emerging hegemonic narrative in the Federal Republic of Germany was that in order to prevent something like this from happening again Germany had to ‘Westernize’; it had to return to the ‘Western path of normality’ that it once had left.
And so it came. Increasingly, German intellectuals would praise the ‘opening up of the Federal Republic to the political culture of the West’ (Jürgen Habermas) – ‘1968’ was taken to play a key part in this – and while access to the ‘Western haven’ was still closed to Germans east of the border, after reunification the whole of Germany was said to have ‘arrived in the West’ eventually (Heinrich August Winkler). After centuries of fateful deviation from the Western norm, climaxing in Nazism’s ‘revolt against the West’, Germans were to be congratulated that they had finally arrived in the Western haven.
The great irony was that Germany seemed to have ‘arrived in the West’ at a time when – at least in academic circles – the concept of ‘the West’ was losing intellectual purchase; it was losing much of its intellectual plausibility. There was a growing uncertainty about its political contours, cultural identity, and epistemological status (is there actually such a thing as ‘the West’?), and people started to wonder whether this longed-for point of perspective – this beacon of promise that ‘the West’ had once been – was in fact a mirage.
There are various reasons behind the waning appeal of formerly unquestioned assumptions about what ‘the West’ stands for, but the end of the Cold War certainly looms large. Seemingly, the end of the Cold War had brought victory to ‘the West’, but it did much to destabilize und undermine it semantically, not least because the key antonym, Soviet Communism, was now gone. Had Germany’s vanishing point vanished? Where actually was Germany located (politically, culturally, intellectually) if it had ‘arrived in the West’? To some it seemed that, ironically, Germans had arrived in ‘the West’ only as its ‘twilight’ fell.
My own perspective on the subject of the West is very much informed by the history of concepts (Begriffsgeschichte), which looks at the shifting meanings of concepts over time, both as a mirror and driver of social change. While in academia the status of the West as an ‘intelligible unit of historical study’ (Arnold Toynbee) has become increasingly contested, ‘the West’ is still a prominent point of reference in current political debate and the wider public sphere. It is most commonly used in situations of international conflicts, crises, and wars, and there has been no shortage of those in recent years. Current debates demonstrate, in fact, that the concept of ‘the West’ proves useful even, and perhaps especially, when commentators lament its ‘crisis’, ‘decline’, ‘twilight’, or ‘end’. Indeed, one could argue that the greatest threat to ‘the West’ as a socio-political concept is the lack of any threat – it does tend to be in fashion when confronted with ‘internal’ or ‘external’ threats that are considered anti-‘Western’.
I would argue that the alleged ‘twilight of the West’ (both politically and epistemologically) goes hand-in-hand with a remarkable resilience of ‘the West’ as a socio-political concept: firstly, ‘the West’ continues to be a highly popular and effective framing device, and secondly, there is a perseverance of notions of ‘the West’ that have a long tradition and reach far back in time, at least until the early nineteenth century. ‘Western hegemonies’ may have ended in various areas of life, but ‘the West’ as a rhetorical pattern is very much alive. After all, the history of ‘the West’ has always also been the story of a never-ending end.
Riccardo Bavaj is Professor of Modern History at the University of St Andrews and Director of the Institute for Transnational and Spatial History. His research focuses primarily on the twentieth century and is situated at the intersection of intellectual, conceptual and spatial history. It is particularly concerned with the history of radicalism, liberalism, modernity, academia, and the idea of the West.
My View of the West is a series of short posts by members of The West Network about their research or perspectives of ‘the West’.