So apparently Elon Musk is a fan of German punk-metal-electronica band Rammstein. Who knew? Whilst often appearing to be on the edge of decency, and sometimes over, Rammstein’s most prominent songs reflect an almost exclusive trait of German popular culture; a desire to examine, expose and critique the nation’s past acts of violence, injustice and imperialism.
Mein Herz Brennt. Best boss battle song ever. https://t.co/JIl6vzhQAx
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 30, 2020
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 30, 2020
Rammstein’s early work in the mid 1990s didn’t shy away from provocative themes, adult content, lurid behaviour and a degree of outrage. All part of the recipe for grabbing attention, for a punk-metal band.
Due to reactions to some of Rammstein’s more provocative behaviour, the band sought to clarify their politics in 2000 with the performance and subsequent release of the song Links 2-3-4. The song, including the lyrics “”my heart beats to the left, 2-3-4″” alludes to the explicitly anti-Nazi revolutionary song Einheitsfrontliedon, written for the German communist party by Bertolt Brecht in the 1930s. In subsequent interviews, the band have explicitly said they hate Nazism, and that “we come from the East [East Germany] and grew up as socialists.”
Rammstein’s clearest statements of their politics is arguably found in their music, perhaps most notably their 2019 song (and music video) “Deutschland”, the song Musk’s second tweet above refers to (due warning, there are some adult themes here, and depictions of violence):
The song is self-evidently a critical examination of Germanic nationalism, violence and imperialism, culminating of course in the atrocities of Nazism. Alongside various characters in the video played by members of the band, Germania is played by stage actress Ruby Commey.
What’s striking is not so much the historical narrative portrayed, the broad strokes of which are hardly news to serious students of history, and critical thinkers everywhere, but the mere fact that a slice of popular culture in a European nation is so explicitly critical of its nation’s history. Rammstein’s song reached number one in Germany.
We simply don’t see this kind of truth telling and self-critique entering mainstream cultural narratives in most other European nations, or elsewhere.
Reflexive critiques of their own social history being part of popular culture is in fact nothing new in Germany. The society has been engaging in critical thinking about its own national identity, and surrounding narratives, since the early post-war period.
Germany’s Unique Self-Critique – Vergangenheitsbewältigung
It’s impossible to understand contemporary German culture without recognising the process of vergangenheitsbewältigung that the country has engaged in during the post-war period. The term refers to the societal process of “struggle to work through the negatives of the past.”
It stands in stark contrast to more typical national narratives that construct a proud and glorious history; and in doing so, bury, and erase from consciousness, violence and all manner of injustices, both past and ongoing.
Of course, in Germany’s case, losing the second world war, and experiencing guilt and remorse around complicity in the atrocities of Nazism and the Holocaust made deep reflection across the whole society essentially inevitable (though axis ally Japan’s cultural response stands as a counterpoint).
After the Nuremberg trials for war crimes, and the denazification process, initially overseen by victorious allied forces and gradually transferred to German administrators, the social task of coming to terms with the atrocities and preventing further recurrence became the responsibility of the German people themselves.
Vergangenheitsbewältigung is most simply learning from the past. This necessarily consists of full awareness of historical events, wrongs, and atrocities, having them out in the open, and facing up to them. Then, admitting that such wrongs were committed, in public statements and accounts that become the widespread narrative currency of the whole society, and an intrinsic part of the social identity. Beyond concepts, symbols and conversations, vergangenheitsbewältigung also consists of attempting to make amends, implementing restorative justice, reparations, and reconciliation, wherever possible.
Holocaust Memorial, Berlin. Image Courtesy: Andrea Nardi via Unsplash
Germany has implemented the process throughout the country’s education system, with students aged 10 and older taught repeated lessons in school about the atrocities of Nazism. Visits to concentration camps and cultural-memory sites recording the holocaust are also part of the curriculum.
Beyond the education system, the ongoing open discussion of past wrongs features in German literature and theatre, philosophy and academic research, film and television, as well as in music and other cultural forms. None of this is to say that contemporary Germany is free from social ills, injustice and examples of persistent racism and even instances of neo-Nazism. But these problems are widely discussed, and the wrongs of the past are firmly present in the mainstream cultural and social identity of contemporary Germany.
Self reflection by other Nations?
Britain of course was another major player in European imperialism. It’s not possible to understand the conflicts between European nations that to came to a head in the first world war (and by historical extension, in the second world war), without acknowledging that the violent imperial ambitions of the various players in the region constructed the context within which wars and other conflicts were played out. Live by the sword, die by the sword, as they say.
These imperial rivalries ultimately played out both within the European region itself, but over a much longer and more sustained period, were also played out in distant parts of the world, in regions where these European empires never belonged in the first place.
Since Britain (along with recruits from its colonies) was on the winning side in both world wars, the historical moment to reflect upon and address the injustices and atrocities of British imperialism never arose. Britain’s violent past was never presented as a pressing question to reflect upon in the nation’s conversations and its social and cultural identity.
In 2013, British Prime Minister David Cameron – uncontroversially from the point of view of most Brits – stated that:
“I think there’s an enormous amount to be proud of in what the British Empire did and was responsible for.”
“I don’t think the right thing is to reach back into history and to seek out things that you should apologise for.”
As of the latest (2016) YouGov polling on the subject of Britain’s imperial past, the British public agreed with former Prime Minister Cameron:
2016 YouGov survey results (image used with permission of YouGov), for source see link in text
Britain’s current Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, is more blunt. Writing in 2002 about Britain’s history in Africa, he declared that;
“The [African] continent may be a blot, but it is not a blot upon our conscience. The problem is not that we were once in charge, but that we are not in charge any more.”
Nothing to be Proud of
Nowhere in the consciousness of British social identity is an acknowledgment of the horrors and atrocities of the British empire. And that’s not for any lack of atrocities to acknowledge.
Atrocities are far too numerous to begin to account for adequately here, but include the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of Indian civilians by the British army 1919, where 379 defenseless civilians killed outright, and at least a 1000 others injured. Another moral nadir were the Opium wars between the British state and southern China in the 19th century, where Britain – with the help of the British East India company – essentially acted as a drug dealer to profit from the supply thousands of tons of opium per year into China. Chinese attempts to curb this activity eventually led to military conflicts, and the forced ceding of the Hong Kong territory to the British for a period of 150 years.
More obviously, but seemingly even more important to submerge from contemporary debate, the British empire is additionally directly or indirectly responsible for the massacre and genocide of indigenous peoples in the settler colonies that remain extant today (including, to differing extents, the United States of America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa).
These include at least 270 recorded massacres of indigenous peoples in Australia, and the genocide and killing of millions of indigenous peoples in North America. Massacre of children and rape and killing of women was all part and parcel of Britain’s “glorious” empire.
Reflections on these atrocities are unwelcome today, both by the British and by these settler colony nations themselves. The 2018 film, The Nightingale, which addressed some of the historical atrocities in Tasmania, caused some members of the theatre audience to walk out during screenings, at the 2019 Sidney film festival in Australia.
Let’s be frank. That the British public, and British prime ministers, declare themselves to be proud of the British empire right up to the present day is a moral disgrace. It’s made possible by an almost complete vacuum of critical historical facts with British culture and society surrounding the realities of British imperialism. Whilst TV costume dramas and rosy cultural narratives about Britain’s history overflow in the country’s popular culture today, the realities of organized violence, racism, atrocities and genocides are simply not taught in schools, not discussed in mainstream narratives, and not debated in any detail. All of it is instead buried and submerged.
The striking collective brainwashing and denialism has obvious parallels with the support that the Nazi regime gained throughout the society in contemporary Germany.
There is a thin glimmer of hope that past injustices, that in many cases still have economic and political repercussions today, can be brought out into the open. The 2016 YouGov survey, mentioned above, found that the British public held significant differences in opinion about the British empire according to age group.
48% of survey participants over the age of 60 said the British Empire was “a good thing” and only 17% definitively called it “a bad thing” (the remainder were neutral or “didn’t know”). For the 18-24 age group, the “good thing” vs. “bad thing” was balanced at 32% each.
Perhaps now that another 4 years has passed since that 2016 survey, and awareness of racial injustice has undergone a recent resurgence (even within the British music industry), a majority of the current young generation in Britain might be more critical of the horrors of British imperial history. Rather than ignorantly glorifying it.
Born British, I for one can’t wait for a time when seeing something like Rammstein’s critical stance show up and become popular in the UK music scene has somehow become normal.
For folks in America feeling the same way about their own culture, check out Ezra Klein’s recent conversation with Bryan Stevenson on how America can heal, and – whilst you’re waiting – maybe this other Rammstein song will provide you some light relief: