The New Generation: Its Attitudes and Interests



AT TIMES I think we work so doggedly because we do not want to know what our state of mind is. And of course there was plenty of work to do right after the war; Germany was a tabula rasa in more than one sense. In Frankfurt, my home town, we could see from the center of the city across the Main River as far as Sachsenhäuser Mountain. Picture yourself standing in Times Square and looking downtown at the Statue of Liberty — every building in between razed to the ground — and you will understand what our sensations were. It was really an amazing perspective. We might ponder the hows and whys all we liked — but if we cared anything about Frankfurt at all, there was no escaping the necessity for rebuilding. And it was done. The open view is blocked off now, and a virtually new city has arisen. The streets are clean and well planned, wide enough for the heavier traffic of these postwar days. Sometimes, though, when I am waiting for a red light, I ask myself: What was it that used to stand here? And at first I cannot remember. Then a kind of clairvoyance comes over me; I find myself looking through the brand-new walls into a world of the past, and I am astounded that I am still here. I feel like a ghost.

The young people do not feel ghostly in the least. They park their cars adroitly and would be profoundly puzzled if I told them that I had just experienced, while waiting at an intersection, a feeling of having lived through an earthquake, and a general distrust of all earthly stability.

I have lived through two postwar eras. After 1918 we were inspired, for all our misery, by a curious sense of victory. We felt that we had just left behind us a tremendous error, and that now at last our century was going to grant us a new dawn of humanity. After 1945 there was no such élan. We felt at best that we had been marooned on a rather barren island. We began at the beginning again like Robinson Crusoe. A little roofing paper was a miracle, a bag of nails worth their weight in gold. While we patched in the most essential repairs here and there, we found we had a great deal of time for conversation. And conversation took place any time and anywhere. We sat up shivering in cold apartments all night long, discussing everything from beginning to end — where we had come to and what was going to become of ns now.

We have had less time since, but interest in such conversations has not lessened. In fact, they represent a new element of intellectual liveliness within our country. During the first quarter of this century both private and public discussions were uncommon. Political addresses to the nation over the radio did not begin until 1932. The Nazis, of course, came to the fore as popular speakers, but their orations soon congealed into a single demagogic, menacing incitement to hatred; and before long discussion ceased entirely, for it, was no longer possible to disagree.

It was only after 1945 that our people’s tongues were really loosened. Debates have been going on everywhere — in private, in Parliament, on the radio — and people listen to them in fascination. Lectures, which nowadays are held even in small towns, announce as a special attraction: “to be followed by discussion period.” The Station Bookshop in Cologne has held its 250th “Wednesday Forum.” Since 1950 the best minds of Germany have participated in these panel discussions, talking on God and the world; nothing is taboo, no subject too controversial. It is impossible to overestimate how much it means to us Germans to be able to consider the pros and cons of a question before we answer. These debates that go on all over Germany are an important training school for democracy.

In the gilded hall that formerly belonged to the Jesuit College in Augsburg, Reinhold Schneider discusses the degree to which Christian principles still survive in contemporary Russia. In the drabber auditorium of a Frankfurt institute, Max Picard, author of Hitler in Ourselves, conveys his ideas on our contemporary condition through an examination of German colloquial speech; he distinguishes the emptiness of deceptive and worn-out phrases from the vigor of genuine, meaningful language. In Freiburg the Auditorium Maximum was jammed, with students sitting on steps and window sills, when Martin Heidegger delivered his first lecture, years after the end of the war. Young people listen eagerly to this philosopher, even if they cannot wholly understand him. They feel that he is speaking of essentials, of the realities behind appearances, and they enter uncertainly but bravely into the realm of the abstract, as if it were an enchanted forest, frightening but alluring. They are prepared to battle the dragons of confusion and perplexity; they want to bear themselves like men when they plunge into this intellectual adventure.


THIS kind of thinking, still the favorite kind with us Germans, has an element of dreamy introspection. We think a great deal about thinking itself. Such thinking is always searching, and when it finds something, it asks warily whether it may not be mistaken. But beyond our present meditations lie aspirations. We are in movement; we feel ourselves being pushed, and we ourselves are striving. Our aim is to make the Teutonic mists tangible.

I do not at all mean this ironically; I merely want to point out a certain seriousness for which our youth have a craving, and which perhaps was and has remained their best quality. I am thinking of the young people who came to us during the war for advice on what attitude to take toward the oath that had been demanded of them when they entered the army. They did not want to vow fidelity lo Hitler, whom they hated, but what about their oath as soldiers? Was it right for them to break their pledge to the Flag? No one really knows Germany who has not read the letters of students who were killed in the war; they saw through the deceptions of the regime and went to their deaths strangely without illusions, because it was inconceivable to them to desert their comrades in the face of the enemy. In the tremendous confusion of emotions produced by the systematic mendacity of a totalitarian state, many of them died unknown and unsung without ever having betrayed, in themselves, the standards of decent behavior. We of the older generation must still lament our inability to be of much help to these young men when they come to us seeking spiritual authority.

Our young men and women are still hoping to find such authority. This year, at the Evangelische Kirchentag, the great gathering of some half a million members of the Protestant churches at Frankfurt, the young people listened with intense concentration to a sermon on marriage under contemporary labor and social conditions. One could see that they were pondering their own destiny within the framework of general conditions.

Should they, perhaps, not read and listen quite so much? Some people hold that, if they did not, they would act more forthrightly, more decisively. It is astonishing to see the size of the pocket-book editions of works of world literature from Plato (125,000 copies within half a year) to Pascal. The distribution of readership has not been determined, but undoubtedly a large number of these readers are young people. These low-price volumes mark the beginnings of a new era. I am optimistic enough to maintain that our present age should not take its name from the unlocking of atomic energy. The determining factor may rather be a universality of the things of the mind.

I am not talking wildly. I know very well that the great majority of people in our country do not have an easy time of it satisfying their genuine desire to read and to learn. I know that eighty-four per cent of our youth still receive no more than elementary education. But I believe that the potentialities for a more general culture among our people have not yet been remotely realized. The rush into the schools and adult-education institutions proves, at the very least, that culture is necessary in the struggle for existence these days. Parents, who of course always want their children to be better equipped than they were, may well be guided more than the children themselves by the old but still highly contemporary maxim: Knowledge is power.

Here in Germany, to be sure, we are participating in a world-wide development. The unskilled worker is needed less and less, while higher and higher qualifications are demanded of the skilled worker — the kind of skills, in fact, that used to be required only of toolmakers. A higher level of intelligence is now expected of both industrial and white-collar workers. These new vocational requirements are being paralleled by a growing independence in our younger generation. Their ability to distinguish between the genuine and the false has sharpened; our present eighteen-year-olds would not succumb so easily to slogans as did their elder brothers during the Nazi era.

More than that, the young people seem to me wiser in the ways of the world than we were before 1914. They have solid, clearly outlined life goals in mind, and know how these are to be attained. They want to know precisely what’s in it for them, what they are being offered, and they have not the slightest intention of lying in the bed their fathers’ generation made for them. Naturally, there are still passed on from father to son inherited allegiances to social groups and even to political parties. But the elections show clearly that the youth are making decisions on their own, are thinking critically and not dogmatically, whether they vote for the opposition or the government. That is especially true nowadays since the question of conscription has become one of the principal issues of politics and has aroused great excitement .

In itself it would be only natural for the young men to be ready to take up arms to defend the freedom of their country (although the majority of the people would probably consider a militia system more acceptable than a formal army). But those outside our borders who criticize young Germans these days ought to remember that they now thoroughly distrust war as an instrument of policy, especially since at present a war for Germany would involve a civil war. Moreover, these same young Germans were taught, in the course of the so-called “re-education,” that power politics is profitless and reprehensible. It is a miracle that these young people have not succumbed to cynicism. They have not, indeed, but they have demonstrated that they are a critical group who examine the rights and wrongs of proposals in terms of the things that lie closest to hand, in terms of wages and taxes and their own futures. They want to get ahead, and they do not want to be interfered with, least of all by excitable old souls who would like to tell them where to look for the values in life. In this respect our young people have become very pigheaded.


A NEW slogan which at the moment is being belabored in Germany is “Organization of Leisure.” Now that automation is shortening the labor process and giving the worker more free time than ever before, some are beginning to wonder what a sizable part of the nation is going to do with this time. But only dull mentalities, which seek always to routinize whatever is inherently alive, are capable of such a complete misunderstanding of our youth. As if young people did not know what to do about the good things of life! The young are not going to take instructions on the pursuit of happiness.

In this respect, the situation is much the same throughout Europe: there is an identity of aims among the younger people who are entering their vocations. Sober calculation is the prevailing mood; there is no romanticism, rather a candid exploitation of opportunities. Moreover, the order of young people’s desires can be set down with a fair degree of accuracy. Young married couples want first to furnish their homes. They save less than their parents did because a good part of their income is taken by the government in taxes — a form of compulsory savings for social benefits. They are moderate in their demands — but well aware of how useful a refrigerator or a washing machine can be. The home comes first, then, and the nation as a whole has demonstrated the intensity of this drive in an amazing way since 1949. Germany now leads the world in new construction.

Two new phenomena illuminate the German situation. The first is a general urbanization. Over ten million refugees have poured into the cities of the Federal Republic, and the cities themselves are steadily expanding in concentric circles, reaching out into the country, penetrating the village localities which were, until 1930, relatively intact. Innumerable commuters travel back and forth daily to work from their suburban homes.

The second new phenomenon is the urgent desire of the people for their own homes. Those who rent prefer co-operative or government housing to private landlords. Everything points to a growing self-assertiveness on the part of individuals, and an increasing sense of familial cohesiveness. I cannot go into the subject here, but I should mention that it is scarcely possible to speak of a proletariat in Germany any longer; rather, there are various levels of the middle class. Middle-class ideas about rising in the world, and middle-class conventions, are spreading throughout the population. Practicality is sought; originality is less in evidence. Houses are in the modern style, but the most old-fashioned paintings can still be seen on their walls. The buildings themselves tend to be somewhat stereotyped, and it has not yet proved possible for the public to express its wishes in the arena of supply and demand — because there is still a seller’s market in housing.

In second place in the scale of desires, once the household has been established and fairly decently furnished, comes traveling. In the nineteenth century Germans traveled to acquire culture or to give themselves a sense of self-importance. Today I think they travel primarily because they crave wider horizons and a sense of independence. Compared to the past, traveling has become inconceivably cheap, especially in groups; tours through Europe and across the seas are being undertaken by enormous numbers. The Germans have thrown themselves passionately into this mass movement, and in 1956 alone it is estimated that three and a half millions took holiday trips. They went in hordes to Italy—the time-honored yearning to take the road over the Alps to the southland seems to have lived on in spite of wars and political changes. The mobility provided by automobiles and motorcycles since 1949 has contributed greatly to the travel impulse.

All four lanes of our Autobahnen will be crowded on a good day in summer, and in an hour’s driving you may pass a hundred couples touring on motorcycles — the wife behind the husband (both dressed in leather or rubber suits, with goggles and often crash helmets), and behind her the suitcases. In this way, despite the rigors of the rainy European climate, many will go as far as Spain or Scandinavia.

Motorization in itself broadens horizons. It is easy to reach foreign places — the territory of the Federal Republic can be crossed in a single day in any direction, and from west to east in only a few hours, so that we remain acutely conscious of the tension at the borders. But in addition, motorization opens up the personal horizon of increased speed. Quite aside from practical utility, there seems to be an almost irresistible attraction in sheer speed. Our young people are more and more giving up alcoholic beverages, but they are giving themselves all the more eagerly to the intoxication of speed. Speed in itself transports them into a state of tension of elemental force. I would not be surprised if this new equation between great distances and short time-intervals were some day to incise new and bolder lines upon the features of future generations. There is an essential difference between the person who has spent his life in a village, matching his pace to that of oxen, and one who from childhood on has fell what it means to be whisked along at sixty miles an hour.

Everything I have spoken of here— the desire for housing, travel, motorization — is also applicable to other nations. The specifically German aspect of it is that village and city still stand side by side, that we can experience simultaneously the most modern and almost medieval conditions. The leap into the future, at least in the technical sense, is being carried out from the villages with the greatest matter-of-factness. Rustic isolation is disappearing. Young village people have a freedom their parents could scarcely have imagined.

These young working people, skilled and disciplined in practical and technical matters, endowed with a natural comradeliness, a strong sense of teamwork, are a generation almost unburdened by traditions; they live active lives, developing new standards of their own, and consciously shaping their lives accordingly. What about their future? Even the near future is hard to describe. By “future” most individuals probably understand chiefly their personal destiny, as though they stood with their backs turned to history, to the past altogether, and were closing their eyes to the historical future. One virtue of this practical and personal attitude is a lessened susceptibility to the fickle shifts of mass opinion which demagogues exploit.

If I consider the German as such, as a national individual contrasted with the individuals of other nations, I should hesitate to expect any special genius or anything extraordinary from the contemporary German personality. Not in comparison to other nations, but rather in comparison to earlier epochs in the history of the nation itself, contemporary Germany is, in its intellectual productions, distinctly tame. At best we can say that since 1945 we have been in a period of incubation whose results no one can yet predict. The restoration of economic life, the much-admired production miracle, has not engendered any intellectual novelties, let alone a genuine style. We know that very well. In a levelheaded, unsensat ional way a kind of excellence is being sought and even attained in many fields, but nobody can guess what may be germinating beneath the soil of the nation which is lying fallow. We must realize that, to choose a ready example from the field of literature, nowhere among the writers who are now in their thirties do we see any who promise to equal, by the end of the century, the stature the late Thomas Mann had attained when he died at eighty. But why should we doubt that the nation, like the individual, is capable of regeneration, of a surprising new spurt of creative activity? We have long since left behind us Spengler’s rigid schematization of the youth, maturity, and old age of a nation.

I have used the term “we Germans" because I cannot reply to questions on our thinking, our desires, our dreams, our state of mind, in an objective or dispassionate way. Even the sociologist and the historian must depend to a certain extent on personal impressions. Our history hardly gives ground for complete optimism. My generation is well aware of the mortgage that the recent past has laid upon us. The fact remains that, in spite of the wealth of German history lying behind the young German state, the state itself is so diffuse in its outlines that the inhabitants must make an effort in order to feel themselves citizens of it.

But the question with which General Marshall once closed an Allied conference on the fate of the defeated nation, “First we must know what Germany really is,” still applies to us today. We Germans are critical toward our state, while at the same time we do not really come to its aid by creating our own way of life. And at times, as is only natural in view of our mutilated territory, we are overcome as if by an illness with the sense of how temporary the present situation may be. Our native land and our state cannot be identified with one another; the result is a very strange division of mind, much like the mood produced in us by Heimweh and Fernweh, that longing for home and that urge to break out of the narrow confines of home, which seem to operate simultaneously in us.

I do not believe that the desire to be a Great Power, let alone a World Power, seriously influences us at the moment. Few among the younger generation even raise the question of Germany’s being a Great Power any more. In so far as this generation is thinking politically at all, it has set its sights rather upon a convincing framework of law, and an international institution able to command everyone’s respect, and whose decisions would not be contested. The youth feel that this is the primary task, and that when this is accomplished a basis for their own state will have been established. At any rate, the generation of thirty-year-olds would agree, though with some surprise, that they do not know what Germany really is. They would want to see this question placed as a permanent point on the agenda of German politics. It is evident that certain matters which other nations can happily take for granted have been, and for the time being are going to remain, problems for us.

There is an underground connection between this and another uncertainty. The youth are scarcely conscious of it; but at times they look up at their parents in astonishment, if they chance to hear their parents thinking aloud, and ask themselves: What attitude are we to take toward the events of our recent past? They were mere children during the darkest epoch of German history; they simply did not know and, thank God, cannot imagine what took place. In general, about, all we can say to them is that true patriotism does not mean self-praise, but rather an effort on each person’s part to contribute to decency and order in his native land. But the parents do know what frightful excesses of disorder were possible. Although we rightly hesitate to burden our children with our terrible memories, we are sometimes seized by the feeling that it must not seem as if every trace were already wiped out. We feel that something is needed, something which takes place quietly, without making any stir, almost without attracting the nation’s attention: a communing with ourselves, what the French call re– cueillem merit. This is not a matter of will, but it is something that must happen; there is an almost organic necessity for it.

When, after the war, we joined with friends to perform some work in common, the fact of our doing so in itself filled us with an unwonted gaiety. One afternoon we were sitting together and someone told an anecdote about Goethe and Schiller: how people in the streets of Jena would hear roars of laughter coming from the study where the two poets were composing those witty satirical verses they called the Xenien. Then one of us said, with a sudden mental leap that we all instantly understood: “But of course you realize that we survivors can never again be truly gay.”

Translated by Richard and Clara Winston