National Identity or the Art of Being in Control of Everyday Life?
Bernhard Schlink in conversation with Manfred Osten
Societies often do not examine the ties that bind them together until the social coherence is under threat. In all likelihood, the term leitkultur was coined to describe such self-questioning in the face of imagined or actual threats. However, it was instantly and vehemently rejected even before a general consensus on the extent of its meaning had actually been reached. Originally, it was probably applied as a defining benchmark or gauge for successful integration into German society; it may even have been an attempt to provide some sort of conservative self-reassurance with regard to ‘common values’ in uncertain times. However, this still says nothing whatsoever about its deeper meaning. Is leitkultur nothing more than a canon of books and symphonies, or does it refer to the values of the ‘Christian Occident’? Does it refer to certain ‘German virtues’? Does it simply mean a ‘constitutional structure based on the principles of democracy and liberty’? For Bernhard Schlink, the term leitkultur is none of these things but merely encompasses ‘all of the expectations which we assume will be met in our daily interactions with each other’.
Bernhard Schlink was already a successful legal professional and professor for public law when he published his first novel, Self’s Punishment, in 1987 (which was not published English until 2005). He went on to publish more crime stories starring private detective Gerhard Selb in 1992 and 2001, respectively; both of them were also translated into English later on: Self’s Deception (2007) and Self’s Murder (2009). His 1995 novel The Reader was published in English in 1997 and is probably his best known. In September 2017, Bernhard Schlink published a guest article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper entitled Alltagskultur als Leitkultur (‘Everyday cultural practices as leitkultur‘) that attracted much attention. At Neuhardenberg, he will be talking to the experienced discussion host, former diplomat and Goethe expert Manfred Osten about a controversial term in our social discourse.
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