A civilised society is one that is confident enough to tolerate the idiosyncrasies of its constituent communities and individuals. This may seem an obvious point. After all, democracies tend to teach their children values of tolerance and diversity. But in practice, it isn’t easy for societies to bear the tensions that come with conflicting views and lifestyles, especially in times of crisis.
As a historian of Germany, I have come to the conclusion that there is a clear correlation between how confident a society is in its own existence and how easy it finds it to tolerate plurality of thought.
When Germany was unified as a country in 1871 from a patchwork of 39 individual states, its founding father, the Prussian Prime Minister Otto von Bismarck, was not overly concerned about an imminent political breakdown of the newly gained unity. So he allowed regional diversity to persist in legal, military and cultural matters. This proved a successful model, and Germany remains a federal state to this day.
Yet Bismarck was less sure that he had created a stable society. Thus, he introduced aggressive measures against the new country’s religious, political and national minorities, whom he accused of subverting unity. Most historians today consider these measures unnecessary, insensitive and ineffective. Some outright backfired. All were born out of the concern that society might disintegrate if the idiosyncrasies of its members aren’t brought into line.
The First World War compounded German society in shared bloodshed, grief and sacrifice, but it divided it on how to move forward. On paper, the Weimar Republic that followed was one of the most tolerant systems on earth, with strong regional plurality and legally enshrined equality for all, regardless of gender, religion or social status. In practice, however, an ugly battle for Germany’s soul ensued, creating a society that was far from civil. The tone of public debate became toxic, political violence normalised and hatred between different parts of society spiralled out of control.
When Hitler took over in 1933, he did so promising unity and embarking on a programme of ‘Gleichschaltung’ – making everything the same. By centralising culture and politics, silencing opponents, censoring voices and seeking to extinguish the Jewish population, he established the most radical form of a society that is terminally assured its own downfall will come if it doesn’t march in unison.
After the war, both East and West Germany were run by people who had suffered under this system but couldn’t quite move away from the idea that Germans must be forced upon the right path and those suspected of straying in the wrong direction must be contained. This inherent insecurity was more pronounced in the East, where initially former Nazi concentration camps were repurposed to house suspected subversive individuals and a highly invasive security system, the Stasi, was set up.
But in the West political parties and organisations were also banned if they were deemed unconstitutional, and a comprehensive security apparatus was set up under the auspices of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution. But West Germany quickly became more sure-footed given its economic success and the widespread popular support the government enjoyed in the 1950s. This allowed for the evolution of a mature civil society that was happy to argue, challenge and be challenged without moral panic.
More recently, I fear the renewed sense of crisis has eroded many Germans’ confidence in the resilience of their own society. The rise of extremist parties and the refusal of the centrists to counter this with arguments have led to a radicalisation on all sides. Talk of party bans is accompanied by finger-pointing and name-calling, making civilised debate and disagreement increasingly difficult. With neither side willing to even enter into dialogue with the other, a prerequisite for a civilised society is being hollowed out.
Of course this isn’t a problem unique to Germany, which happens to be the lens through which I observe recent history and current events. But as one of the youngest European nation states, it has often proved particularly vulnerable to the kind of collective insecurity that leads to a breakdown of civilised society. Such patterns can also be observed in Italy, for instance, which has been plagued by similar fears and inner tensions.
The key to uphold civilised societies is to maintain dialogue even when the urge to silence becomes stronger as perceptions of crisis intensify. If we lose the ability to tolerate diversity of thought, we lose the ability to live side by side with one another, the very thing we seek to protect.