Dolf Sternberger (1907-1989) and the Political Foundations of the German Federal Republic

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by contributing writer Jacob Van de Beeten,

Beyond Weimar

The rise of populism, the election of Trump, Brexit, and illiberal politics in Hungary, Poland and beyond; all these political phenomena express a sense of discontent and instability across Western liberal democracies. The recurring parallels to the Weimar Republic (1918-1933) are the clearest articulation of this sentiment. In the arts, music, and literature alike, the Weimar Era has gained renewed attention, of which the popular Babylon Berlin series on Netflix is but one striking example. “Weimar is vogue”, the Guardian recently concluded. Similarly, there is a renewed attention for the lived experiences of ordinary Germans during the Weimar period, which according to Cass R. Sunstein, offer lessons to people “who live in nations where democratic practices and norms are under severe pressure.”

Rather than focusing on a period of decay, however, it might be more fruitful to turn to the period of the early German Federal Republic, which contains the intellectual resources to better understand the foundations of liberal democracies and to disentangle criticism of “liberalism” from the conscious subversion of the norms, principles, and practices underlying the modern constitutional state. In the aftermath of the Second World War, it was German “engaged democrats” – to borrow the term used by Sean Forner – who provided the morally, economically, and politically destitute German population with new visions and ideas about democracy, politics, and citizenship. In particular, the work of the journalist, academic and publisher Dolf Sternberger (1907-1989) deserves attention, because it contains many of the intellectual roots that transformed the German Federal Republic to the beacon of stability it is today.

Dolf Sternberger: A post-war intellectual

Dolf Sternberger belonged to the generation of German intellectuals, like the philosopher Hannah Arendt, and Karl Jaspers – both of whom he was close friends with – and others such as the historian Sebastian Haffner, who were fundamentally influenced by their lived experience of the Nazi-regime. “He [Hitler] has taught me politics a contrario; or more precisely: ex negativo” Sternberger wrote in 1987. His life was heavily impacted by the reign of National Socialism: being married to the Jewish Ilse Rothschield-Sternberger prevented him from entering academia upon completing his doctorate in 1933. Instead, he became a journalist at the Frankfurter Zeitung, until he was banned from writing by the Nazi-authorities in 1943. After being cautioned it would be better not to return home, Sternberger and his wife spent the rest of the war in hiding, consistently carrying capsules of poison around in case they were arrested.

In post-war Germany, Sternberger emerged as one of the intellectual pillars of the newly found German Federal Republic. In the immediate aftermath of the war, he founded a monthly magazine together with his teacher, the philosopher Karl Jaspers, the sociologist Alfred Weber, and the philologist Werner Krauss. In Die Wandlung, as the magazine was called, they attempted to reconstruct German intellectual life. It was one of the first and leading publications in post-war Germany. Die Wandlung not only figured essays by intellectuals such as Hannah Arendt, Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde, and Gustav Radbruch, but it also made war documents publicly available, such as those relating to the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto and Hitler’s euthanasia program. From his exile in the United States, Thomas Mann wrote that he regarded Die Wandling as “the best, the most unequivocal and the morally bravest, that has come to my attention from the new Germany.”

At the same time, Sternberger developed his political thought at the University of Heidelberg, where he obtained the first academic position in politics. (In Germany he is regarded as one of the founders of post-war political science). Sternberger’s political thought can be seen as a radical break with the past in two ways: firstly, he tried to redefine the German conception of Bürgertum, the designation for the rising bourgeoisie of the 19th century and, secondly, rejected politics based on the idea of Herrschaft, or dominion, that had characterized German political thought in the preceding decades.

Reconfiguring Bürgertum and Herrschaft

In 1970’s Fritz Stern published a classic article where he argued that the rise of National Socialism was the political consequence of the “Unpolitical German”: the German bourgeois who preferred the enjoyments of his private life over civic engagement. This line of argument was also made earlier by many German émigrés in exile, such as Hannah Arendt – a close friend of Sternberger – who wrote in her magnificent essay on Organised Guilt and Universal Responsibility:

“The transformation of the family man from a responsible member of society, interested in all public affairs, to a “bourgeois” concerned only with his private existence and knowing no civic virtue […] enjoyed particularly favorable conditions in Germany. Hardly another country of Occidental culture was so little imbued with the classic virtues of civic behavior.”

This is very close to how Sternberger remembers his years as a student in Heidelberg: an “absolutely happy period” in which he and Arendt were completely absorbed in “Karl Jaspers’ philosophy of existential communication and the intimate life” and in which politics was of no importance: Arendt wrote her doctorate on the concept of love in Augustine; Sternberger on the notion of Death in Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit. Only during the war did Sternberger realize: “if I will survive this war and this regime, we will have to engage with politics and no longer lose ourselves in pure meditations, speculations, and poetry.”

For this reason, Sternberger started advocating bürgerliche Sitte or civic values in an attempt to develop a sense of political responsibility in the German population. His emphasizes on the civic responsibility was also a response to those who claimed that under the Nazi-regime they had been “a-political” and claimed to have only obeyed orders. He asserted that “freedom should be secured through further and different means than the mere laws of the state […] it depends on the explication of the highest, simplest and most elementary political concepts and on ensuring that everyone is familiar with them, not only in his mind, but also in his gestures and conduct, his flesh and his blood.”

In his radio-lectures on politics and freedom, which were broadcasted in the occupied German territories, Sternberger emphasized that “all of us, every day and every hour are involved with politics” and it would be a mistake “to believe that politics starts with the state, or that the state is the real subject of politics.” Rather, politics starts with the citizen; it concerns the human person living in a human society. An insight he borrowed from Aristotle, who had designated man as a political animal, zoon politikon, and civil society as the natural condition of living together.

Likewise, he dismissed the conception of the political that had prevailed before the war. As Karl Jaspers emphasized, post-war Germany should be animated by “a new political mode of thought,” which could not be “the continuation of Prussian political thinking.” Sternberger specifically took distance from the typical German focus on Herrschaft, on power and rule, which stems from the Prussian and imperial traditions that for a long time dominated German political thought and which was best represented in the works of Carl Schmitt and Max Weber.

The objections to the former are well known. The latter had classified legitimate authority as traditional, charismatic or rational-legal authority. Sternberger explicitly rejected this classification because, he argued, it obscured the fact that the source of legitimacy of the modern constitutional state is not to be found in the rule of one group of people over another, not even of the people themselves. Rather, it is founded on bürgerlicher Vereinbarung, on civic agreement, on the agreement amongst citizens about the rules, institutions, and practices, which they use to settle their disputes. It is for this reason that Sternberger characterized the modern constitutional state by the absence of ruling because governing is not he same as ruling; “Regieren ist nicht herrschen.” He understood the modern constitutional state as a political community in which the seat of the ruler remains empty — a striking anticipation of what Claude Lefort would later call the ‘empty space of power’. (“In der Tat bleibt bei parlamentarischer Parteiregierung der Platz der Herrschaft leer.”)

Lebende Verfassung and the institutional character of the state

Clearly positioning himself within the republican tradition, ranging from Aristotle to Marsilius of Padua and John Locke, Sternberger characterized the nature and empirical reality of politics as a plurality rather than unity. Any attempt to realize unity necessarily ends in dictatorship and despotism (as the German example had taught). Sternberger did not only condemn the past, but also remained very critical of those who strived to create true democracy and as such strongly opposed the student activists movements in the 60’ and their aspirations for radical democracy.

In Sternberger’s view, excessive emphasis on “democracy” overshadows and obscures the institutional character of representative democracy. He describes this as the “lebende Verfassung,” the living constitution, by which he means the actual power-relations between the different institutional actors such as parliament, government, opposition, and the public opinion that created and sustained a political community in the first place. In this community, the antagonistic relation between government and opposition, but also between the political class – consisting of the different political parties – and the general electorate as a whole, animated the constitution and guaranteed the continued existence of political freedom – that is, as long as the rules of the game are respected. For this reason, he especially praised the recognition, legitimation, and institutionalisation of political opposition, which he rightly regarded as one of the highest expressions of political culture.

State-order depends on the loyalty and trust that citizens have in their political institutions and these institutions also deserve loyalty and trust from their citizens, because they guarantee political freedom. This is what Sternberger meant with the term Verfassungspatriotismus (constitutional-patriotism), with which he tried to express that patriotism, as conceived in European thought, essentially concerns the constitution of the political community: “Law and freedom – that is the essence of the constitutional state.” This original meaning of Verfassungspatrotimus has since been remodelled by Habermas to fit his cosmopolitan, post-national democratic project, and as a consequence lost much of its original, republican connotations.

Contemporary relevance

Nonetheless, returning to the original meaning of the term and Sternberger’s initial emphasis on the institutional preconditions for political freedom could be a fruitful exercise to better understand the political conditions of our time. Much of the contemporary critique from both the left and the right on representative democracy concerns the disjunction between democratic norms and theory, on the one hand, and the actual political and constitutional configurations of the modern constitutional state, on the other. Put simply, the criticism boils down to the claim that our democracies are not democratic enough.

This critique is often framed as an attack on liberal democracy and a rejection of independent and technocratic institutions, such as courts, national banks, and supranational organisations, on the grounds that these do not represent but rather counteract the will of the people. In this way “democracy” is stripped of its statist and institutional form, and a meta-physical and imaginary ‘people’ becomes the stick wielded by populists to use against whomever disagrees with them.

Focusing on the institutional character of our political communities can serve as a critique of the populists and nationalist who neglect the institutional character of democracy by claiming to represent the people-as-one. At the same time, it can also serve as a critique of those cosmopolitan theorists, such as Habermas, who in their attachment to abstract principles – and the presupposed consensus about the meaning of those principles – neglect the concrete institutional structures and practices that precede, and are a prerequisite for, the realisation of those values and allow for peaceful strife about the meaning of those values. It other words, Sternberger’s institutional agonism moves beyond the opposition between populism and technocratic governance that dominated contemporary political debates.

In one of his letters to Sternberger, Karl Jaspers once critically praised him for his political insights while simultaneously lamenting his “lack of radicalness.” In times of institutional distrust and political extremism, this might well be the best argument to return to Sternberger’s thought.

Jacob van de Beeten will start a PhD in Law at the London School of Economics in September 2019.

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