Commentary / World

What has Rammstein revealed about Germany's soul?

by Leonid Bershidsky

Bloomberg

There are few rock bands that can get millions of people to listen to a song about their love-hate relationship with their native country. But Germany may be the only nation where such a tune can ignite a serious debate about national identity and freedom of speech.

Last week, the hard rock outfit Rammstein released the official video to its first new song since 2011. Titled “Deutschland,” the nine-minute clip has been watched 20 million times on YouTube by the time of this writing. I won’t try to describe the contents in detail: Readers should see for themselves. Suffice it to say that it’s a condensed, violence-filled version of German history from the Romans’ defeat by Germanic tribes in the Teutoburg Forest in 9 A.D. to the East German police state, all overseen by Queen Germania (played by a black actress in a calculated affront to German nationalists). She strides through battlefields in shining armor and is seen being devoured by cannibals and giving birth to a dog. The members of Rammstein themselves appear both as concentration camp inmates and as Nazi executioners.

As this jaw-dropping spectacle unrolls, Rammstein frontman Till Lindemann, a published poet, snarls,

“Overpowering, superfluous

Ubermenschen-weary

Who rises high, will fall low

Deutschland, Deutschland uber allen

The last line is a cheeky modification of the first line of the discarded first verse of the German national anthem: “Deutschland, Deutschland uber alles,” or “Germany above all else”; Lindemann changed it to “Germany above everyone,” making the line about totalitarianism rather than patriotism.

And then,

“Germany, your love is both a curse and blessing,

Germany, my love I cannot give you.”

Rammstein is known for its mastery of attention-getting tactics and for peddling an intentionally scary export version of the Teutonic soul. It’s hard to find a German, especially in cosmopolitan Berlin or outside the band’s native eastern states, who’ll admit to liking them. Yet when they announced a tour for this summer, with stops all over Europe, the German shows sold out first; all 800,000 tickets were gone within four hours. Clearly, there’s a love-hate relationship there, too.

The new video, however, went beyond the usual Rammstein provocation. “The band has crossed a line,” Charlotte Knobloch, a Holocaust survivor and the former president of Germany’s Central Jewish Council, told the daily Bild. “It’s frivolous and repulsive how Rammstein abuses the suffering and death of millions for entertainment purposes.”

Felix Klein, the German government official in charge of combating anti-Semitism, said, “Rammstein musicians representing concentration camp prisoners sentenced to death crosses a red line.” There was criticism in a similar vein from Jewish organizations and Holocaust memorials, and the Israeli Foreign Ministry Spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon demanded its “immediate removal.”

But some German commentators rushed to the defense of the band, pointing out that Rammstein’s song isn’t a glorification of Germany’s past but rather a complaint about how hard it is to love a country with such a history. “With ‘Deutschland’, Rammstein descend into the German soul, torn between contempt for itself and its history and the need to construct an identity from the history,” Philipp Luther wrote in Focus-Online.

In the conservative daily Die Welt, Henryk Broder pointed out that the video could initially look like “grist for the German nationalists’ mill, oil for the right-wing populist fire,” but it was actually about the rejection of self-replicating violence, making the work a “provocative masterpiece in the service of elucidation.”

Yet other commentators wouldn’t buy any of this, accusing Rammstein of “puberty-age crypto-Nationalism.”

There is little new about this discussion: Rammstein are provocateurs, Jewish organizations want everyone to be careful with memories of the Holocaust, German identity is not easy to live with. Yet something has actually changed.

In 2016, the popular satirist Jan Boehmermann released a Rammstein-esque music video called “Be Deutsch” — a humorous attempt to get at the new, nice, multicultural, politically correct, compassionate German identity. In that clip, Germans are the Birkenstock-wearing saviors of a world gone mad, though they’re still pretty Teutonic about it and thus still threatening. It rang true after the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom and with Donald Trump’s campaign for the U.S. presidency. Then, German Chancellor Angela Merkel still rode high as one of the most progressive global leaders, and Germany was still the world soccer champion.

But two years have passed, the championship has been lost, Merkel is a lame duck, and the vision of a “nice” Germany is dissipating. Rammstein were silent during that vision’s brief heyday. Now they are back with a darker vision of where the country is, “divided in spirit and united at heart,” as the new song goes. The old demons haven’t been exorcised.

Rammstein, which have been described as a left-wing band with a lot of right-wing followers, knows better than most others that the export version of the German self-image runs deeper than album marketing. People aren’t just arguing about it because they’re easily provoked these days: The violent side of the national psyche makes many uncomfortable when it’s stirred, even by a mere rock video — but others like what they feel.

“Deutschland” is a funhouse mirror but a mirror nonetheless. I, for one, am grateful to Rammstein for holding it up to the country I live in. The discussion about the video is really about what’s bubbling close to the surface here — and about the importance of awareness, and bitter irony, in keeping the lid on.

Based in Berlin, Russian writer Leonid Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion columnist.

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