Exploding German Identity Politics

Rammstein’s Deutschland

The hysteria was predictable. Posing as both concentration camp inmates and their Nazi executioners, the video for Rammstein’s new song “Deutschland” was destined to infuriate one demographic, just as selecting a black actress, Ruby Commey, to personify Germania, was bound to piss off another.

Ruby Commey as Germania.

But, following over six million views of the video, and critical responses from the likes of German government anti-Semitism czar Felix Klein, and Israel’s Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem, misunderstood or not, “Deutschland” has become a political event in its own right.

Rammstein have been pushing buttons since their debut in the early 1990s. Growing up in the former East Germany, the Neue Deutsche Härte band’s founding members were inundated with totalitarian iconography and developed an irresistible urge to turn it on its head, exploring the perversity hidden in the folds of state propaganda.

Unlike many of their counterparts in the West, who had been brought up under the delusion that it is both possible and desirable to be “post-ideological”, Rammstein had learned to trace all cultural phenomena back to their political underpinnings.

Whereas West Germans saw the years following unification as an occasion to bring their East German brethren up to speed in a world where national pride has been reduced to a function of financial probity, Ossis (‘Easterners’) recognized that they were being trampled underfoot by the victory march of a political system.

Even if both the national government of Germany and the supranational government of a German-dominated European Union were ultimately working on behalf of the ‘globalists’, they still had to exist independently of the marketplace in order to police it successfully.

As many commentators have noted, the simultaneous failure of post-1989 European governments to develop compelling new cultural expressions of nationhood while also suppressing the powerful iconography of fascism and communism alike created a vacuum in which the past eventually rushed in to flood the social imaginary.

Although this return of the repressed was delayed in Germany, thanks largely to its strong economy, it eventually arrived with the force of a dam burst.

As waves of immigration increased anxiety about the preservation of German culture and the machinations of the EU became increasingly criticised by the country’s right, even moderate Germans found themselves drawn to politics that had been either strongly discouraged or outright forbidden, such as that of the neo-fascist PEGIDA and Alternative für Deutschland.

Like Till Lindemann’s lyrics for “Deutschland”, the video does not endorse a particular interpretation of German history. Rather, it seeks to capture the disorienting free-for-all that accompanied the flooding of that cultural vacuum.

If members of the band appear as both working-class labourers and corporate leaders, Comintern bureaucrats and downtrodden peoples, and, yes, Jews and their SS killers, it is in order to testify to the sense that today’s Germans are overwhelmed by identities that seem mutually exclusive, yet coexist in a real world where every sense of belonging has to be cobbled together from spare parts.

Like their forebears in the avant-garde Slovenian band Laibach, Rammstein have long promoted a kind of ironic nationalism. They know better than to reject the often horrific legacy of Germany history in favour of some diluted Eurovision worldview seemingly disconnected from what ordinary people truly care about.

The need to feel a part of something bigger may be too strong to resist. But the desire not to feel like one has been dissolved into a featureless heterogeneity cannot be suppressed either. Something in between is required, no matter how outdated the concept of the nation-state may seem in an era of relentless globalization.

It is surely no accident that Rammstein, one of the most prominent groups to achieve international success singing in German, titled their 2011 greatest hits collection Made in Germany, the English phrase that distils postwar Germany’s imperialism-by-other-means to an essence.

All that time when Germany was suppressing its troubled past, it was selling the idea that nationalism can be reduced to a marketing concept.

Unfortunately, though, people outside of Germany came to identify “Made in Germany” not only with the nation’s industrial commodities like automobiles, electrical equipment, and chemicals, but also its pop music. Rammstein’s tongue-in-cheek take on totalitarianism, so incisive for those who know Germany from the inside, was often perceived as an earnest longing for totalitarianism, its ironic nationalism as utterly sincere.

Now, after an eight-year break, the band is returning to the marketplace at a time when the distorted conception of Germany that the band inadvertently promoted with its musical exports has been internalised by German populists who could not find a coherent national identity close to home.

In this peculiar environment, “Made in Germany” has become the seal for a nationalist authenticity that the country’s government keeps working to suppress. Germans increasingly want to be the Germans that people of other nations perceive them as, even if that means embracing the role of stock villain once more.

Watching the video for “Deutschland”, which becomes both more powerful and more confusing with each viewing, it is abundantly clear that Rammstein want to engage with this paradoxical dynamic without dismantling their capacity to maintain ironic distance from their source material.

The fact that they chose a black actress from Bertolt Brecht’s DDR-era home theatre, to play Germania, makes perfect sense in this regard. Like the great playwright, they want to have it both ways, simultaneously provoking a visceral response while also inspiring cerebral reflection on it.

That kind of double vision is difficult to pull off. But the fact that Rammstein are getting so many people to debate the meaning of “Deutschland” indicates that they may have accomplished their goal.

The deeper question is whether the song’s Moebius-strip like exploration of German identity politics will suffer the same ironic fate as the band’s previous work did on the international stage, flattened into a German-ness that does not do justice to its complexity.

Screenshot courtesy of Rammstein. All rights reserved.