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Rethinking the West: Promise and Crisis of a Concept

This essay corresponds to and builds upon a shorter piece regarding the conference “Rethinking the West: Promise and Crisis of a Concept” that took place on December 15, 2022, at the University of MĂŒnster. In addition to expanded sections, elements of which are the same or similar to those found in the previous iteration, this text includes a reflection on the theme of the West from my perspective as an American working and researching in a transatlantic context, namely as a participant in an international graduate student exchange between the University of Washington’s Department of German Studies and the University of MĂŒnster’s Germanistisches Institut.

By Matthew Childs

Circumstances and Motivations

Even the most casual observers of current events will recognize the immediacy with which a term, whose fortunes and uses had been mixed and uncertain for quite some time, has once more been thrust into to the spotlight: the West. That term has been a useful stand-in for the system of transatlantic economic and educational ties, military and political alliances, and sentiments of a common heritage reaching back to Antiquity and the founding of Christendom. That is, of course, a rather simplistic summary of the term and one which does not take into account what the West has meant for peoples and places elsewhere. Nonetheless, it functions just as well for explaining its discursive function under the present circumstances. »Circumstances« refers euphemistically to two points of conflict in particular. One that is taking place at the West’s geographic periphery and the other within the hearts of Western countries themselves. The former alludes to the sudden and, at least for certain European parties and the Ukrainian government itself, unexpected invasion of Ukraine by the Russian Federation’s attack forces on February 24, 2022. The latter refers to the â€șculture warâ€č that has played a starring role in domestic political theaters, filling up Twitter feeds and opinion pages alike. In its most recent iteration, going back about a decade, centers among other topics on identity politics and, perhaps most importantly, freedom of speech. It is in the face of such crises that many have felt it necessary to examine just what exactly a concept like the West has to offer, if anything, to those who would be inclined to identify themselves with it. On December 15, 2022, a collection of outstanding scholars met in the Heereman’scher Hof of the University of MĂŒnster to offer answers to that question and discuss its many related concerns.

Keyvisual to the Conference »Rethinking the West«

»Rethinking the West: Promise and Crisis of a Concept,« organized by Kai Sina (University of MĂŒnster, Germanistik) and Philipp Pabst (University of MĂŒnster, Germanistik), was an occasion dedicated to teasing out the nuances of the idea of the West in all of its semantic, theoretical, and historical complexity. In search of an apt example with which to bind together the many threads of thought, Kai Sina chose one of the most controversial and important books of recent decades. »The book of the hour is without a doubt Salman Rushdie’s 1988 novel The Satanic Verses,« he announced in his opening remarks for the conference.[i] As justification, he referred both to the knife attack that took place at the Chautauqua Institution on August 12, 2022, which has left the author blind in one eye and unable to use one of his hands, and to the war in the Ukraine, which has left countless dead and devastated the country in such a way that it will take decades to repair, if even possible. The rhetoric employed by the Kremlin, their representatives, and sympathetic parties around the world as well as the symbolism of Rushdie’s attempted assassination, whose cause is inextricably linked with the fatwa issued by the theocrats in Iran so many decades ago, have renewed the idea of a natural counterbalance to the West: the East. And in such matters as East vs. West, there is no better source for a penetrating engagement than Salman Rushdie. »Hardly any other author [Rushdie] of contemporary literature has concerned himself ultimately so emphatically and exhaustedly in his work with the categories of East and West
 Reading his books permits one to recognize the intellectual and political dimensions that are at play.« Whose work could be better suited for discussions that must necessarily traverse a boundary (West|East) that interested parties would have become impermeable than those of an author who has been forced by the pursuit of truth and its consequences to cross both physical and metaphysical borderlines?

To invoke Rushdie and his work, one realizes quickly, is not to endorse simplistic portrayals of West and East. On the contrary, The Satanic Verses is a piece of literature characterized by distinctly non-Manichean portrayals of West and East. In Rushdie’s masterpiece history, myth, and memory break forth from their imagined containers and crash together like great hybrid forces of nature and humanity, and one is left only moments to contemplate the surging mass as best they can before they, too, are swept along in their flows. Bobbing along the surface, trying to keep breath in the lungs, one is admitted glimpses at what is below the surface of a twisting and churning flood. Figures and fragments, always unable to see the whole of the thing, one must speculate as to what does not render itself to observation all the while immersed in the things themselves and trying to stay alive, flapping one’s arms like Saladin Chamcha as he falls from the skies above London. These qualities make Rushdie and his work stand out, Sina indicates, as the ideal model for reflecting on such a nebulous and contentious term as the West.

As Dr. Philipp Pabst noted in his contribution to the conference’s opening remarks, it is Rushdie’s ability to delve into the complexities of East and West that lend him to such discussion. Consider the words of the German historian JĂŒrgen Osterhammel who, in his essay »What was and is â€șthe Westâ€č? On the Ambiguity of a Confrontational Concept,« characterizes the West as a »dynamic construction that exhibits certain historical constants« or, as a further example, those of the Austrian-British philosopher Karl Popper who defines the West as »an international community of values, before all else in parts of Europe, the USA and Asia (Japan) that has, roughly speaking since the end of World War II, dedicated itself to the â€șforward defenseâ€č of â€șan open society against their foesâ€č [
].« Such statements leave one with a distinctly satisfying image of a certain part of the world in comparison to others. Yet, as Pabst points out, alluding to the German historian Reinhart Koselleck, these descriptions lead to an »asymmetrical counter-concept« that is wholly defined by the West itself, a West and not-West, which complicates all attempts at definition and reflection.

The history of â€șthe Westâ€č is plagued by such failures of understanding. Confident—one might say arrogant—in its self-perception as an agent of civilization, the West has perpetrated heinous crimes of slavery, imperialism, and even genocide. The justifications for these acts were built into to the ideological constructions themselves, making them all the more difficult to confront and, thus, to deter (although there were plentiful critics throughout history contesting the claims). An awareness of such shortcoming is, therefore, necessary when trying to understand both the crises and promises of the West in the present moment. At a time when a revanchist Russian Federation has once more appeared on the world stage and a world-famous author who had successfully avoided bodily harm for over three decades is nearly assassinated, it is important that â€șthe Westâ€č as a concept not be rethought only to forego authentic reform that would see preserved the same errant presuppositions that plagued previous iterations. Such a lofty goal can only be achieved through a lengthy process of highly reflective and critical discourse involving a variety of actors.

The conference, »Rethinking the West: Promise and Crisis of a Concept,« began that discursive process by bringing together excellent scholars to address the term from a diversity of viewpoints. The second and final part of this essay is dedicated to the task of providing key takeaways from the day’s proceedings. By necessity, some details and points have been omitted, such as information regarding the intra-panel discussions. Nonetheless, the remainder supplies a great deal of fruitful content for one’s engagement with the conference’s theme. A fact that commends the persons involved. 

Details and Relations

The first panel was dedicated to exploring the Constellations and Imagologiesof the West. Anna Artwinska (University of Leipzig, Slavic Literary and Cultural Studies) started the panel with her paper titled »The West and the Intellectuals of Eastern and East-Central Europe.« In it, she examines the ways that prominent intellectual figures of the countries located in those regions of the world constructed identities for themselves during and towards the end of the Cold War. Pressed, as they were, between competing global powers, they nonetheless sought a form of self-understanding rather than be subsumed by either one entirely. Perhaps most striking was the way in which some came to embrace the idea of a zeitlos (»timeless«) and backwards society to lay claim to the identity of being the »true Europe,« as opposed to the highly modernized and decadent societies that had developed in the postwar West. Demonstrated by Artwinska’s insightful paper is the highly fluid nature of the interactions between West and East, and the ways in which people (particularly in Eastern and East-Central Europe) formed their sense of identity with the cultural means that were available.

The second to speak was Barbara Picht (Leibniz Center for Literary and Cultural Research) on the topic of »â€șWest and Eastâ€č in the Cold War.« The aim of her investigation was to determine, among other things, the positions of the sciences dedicated to the study of history and literature in the postwar period. To what degree did the partition of the European landmass affect the understanding of the place and time of European societies in the postwar constellations of the victorious powers? Focusing on the work of eight scholars from France (Fernand Braudel and Robert Minder), West- (Werner Conze and Robert Curtius) and East Germany (Walter Markov and Werner Krauss), and Poland (Oskar Halecki and CzesƂaw MiƂosz), Picht demonstrates how their work did not follow the same West-East constellation that many have come to assume. Rather, in their diagnoses of their historical context, they displayed a commitment to the idea that what was happening at the time was yet another stage in the development of an all-encompassing crisis whose roots can be traced back to the eighteenth century. A crisis, moreover, that could only be overcome by a Europe that stood alongside the competing forces of the U.S.A. and the Soviet Union as a »third power.«

Bookending the panel was the work of Jens Hacke (University of the German Armed Forces Munich, Comparative Socio-Political Research), who delivered a talk titled »Dolf Sternberger and Thomas Mann After 1945.« In it, he traces Thomas Mann’s reception in the writings of Dolf Sternberger, with particular attention paid to the rather curious way in which the latter did not perceive him as a political intellectual. Seeking to address this point, Hacke speculates that, among other possibilities, Sternberger may have been concerned about what he knew to be Mann’s rather troubled past in regard to political thought. A younger Mann had been far less Western, far less democratic. Sternberger, whose own project was dedicated to the creation of a Western, open, democratic, and free Germany, wished perhaps to avoid the association of such thoughts with the older Thomas Mann, whose voice and words had come to embody the promise of civilization against the barbarism of Nazi ideology, and upon whose reputation much could be seen in those regards to have been staked.

The second panel focused on the Institutions and Concepts that define the West and demonstrate how it has operated and continues to operate today. Heike Paul (Friedrich-Alexander-University, English and American Studies) introduced her audience to many of the internal and transnational aspects of re-education efforts that took place in postwar Germany. »Re-Education and the Western Ties of the Germans after 1945« retraces the implementation and reception of re-education campaigns following the war that endeavored to bring Germany into the Western orbit by establishing in the German population the values of democracy and the nuclear family for the creation of a new society. The examples for such a way of life were frequently American, abundant with images of the woman as a doting housewife or an American soldier fighting for democracy against its foes. What Paul does so well is to show how these efforts were received by their intended audience, sometimes critically. The messages concerning the equal and democratic treatment of members of society clashed in striking fashion with the mistreatment of black soldiers by their white brothers-in-arms. Such examples of glaring hypocrisy show how fraught such attempts at social engineering could become when the ideals of â€șthe Westâ€č clashed with their realities.

Carsten Dutt (President of the Hans Georg Gadamer Society for Hermeneutic Philosophy) continued with his talk »The West: open, contentious, indispensable,« in which he addressed a vitally important question posed by JĂŒrgen Osterhammel, »Is the West a term of arrogance?« The thrust of this question returns to themes covered elsewhere, namely in the concern about asymmetrical formations of identities that lead to the sort of prejudice and self-delusion that permeates the colonial and imperial histories of most Western nations. The consequences of those discourses have led frequently to very critical receptions of words and actions by the West in other areas of the world, deteriorating the possibility for global partnership and, in some cases, impeding the advancement of the very ideals whose benefits would be most acutely felt in the countries that have been historically damaged by their faulty implementation. Dutt carefully explicates the development of the West Germans’ self-identification with the West first through an examination of the artistic group Junger Westen (»Young West«). In addition to their professed goal of continuing the development of modern art that had been arrested under Nazi Germany, the group embodied the process of self-identification with Western concepts whose understanding was affected by the denial of civil liberties and the ravages of history. Moving from the space of artistic aesthetics, Dutt then traces the development of West Germany’s western orientation by looking at political speeches from Konrad Adenauer, in which the West becomes synonymous with the idea of personal freedoms—but always in contention with the Germany’s own history. In so doing, Dutt provides an example of a distinctly non-asymmetrical process of self-identification, whose consequence is significant, as it opens the door to the adoption of Western values in a manner separate from those imposed during ages of imperialism and colonialism. His conclusion, which includes an extended quotation from a speech by the current Chancellor of Germany, Olaf Scholz, makes the case for the communication of the ideas and values of the West in a self-critical way that reconciles them with their historical shortcomings.

Completing the panel was the talk entitled »The International Criminal Court: An Instrument of the West?« by Moritz Vormbaum (University of MĂŒnster, Criminal Law, Criminal Procedural Law, and International Criminal Law). In the course of his talk, Vormbaum covered the history of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and its critical reception by figures and nations in the global south, Russia, and by certain parties in the United States. Established with the intention of fighting against genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and offensive wars, the ICC’s position is both laudable and contentious. On the one hand, it has successfully persecuted figures who have perpetrated exactly the sorts of crimes the court’s charter was meant to deter. On the other hand, who is persecuted and for what reasons has come under sharp criticism, in particular by figures who did not live in the West. Examples, such as the court’s inability to pursue charges against alleged criminals in the United States, would appear to display something of a power imbalance in the court’s priorities, which has likewise led to claims that the court, far from being an institution of universal human values, is merely another instrument of the West in its attempts to maintain hegemony over countries elsewhere. Vormbaum addresses this and other points with great insight, distinguishing between valid and poor-quality objections, and ultimately making the case that the ICC is one of the more apt tools for countries across the world to settle, in a civil and peaceful process, their disagreements.

The third panel, Chances, Promises, and Debates, started with a POP! Moritz Baßler (University of MĂŒnster, Germanistik), in his paper »Western Promises: Realms of Possibility in Pop and Brands,« attended to one of the more, if not the most, identifiable aspects of the West: its cultural power. Ranging from Elvis Presley to Rock’ n’ Roll and Coca-Cola, Baßler expertly lays out the way in which pop culture and brand recognition operate in culture to create spaces for new possibilities. Most remarkable is his account of a moment in the so-called Cola-wars of the 1970s: Coca-Cola, aiming to win back its market share from its rival Pepsi, overhauled its drink with a new formula that had undergone extensive development and tasting. It had, according to the taste studies, been considered more delicious than the previous version of the drink. To the company’s great surprise, upon distribution there was great outrage from fans of the beverage, who demanded that Coca-Cola change back to its original formula at once. Consequently, Coca-Cola regained and indeed expanded its market share, beating out its rival. Baßler highlights this as a moment when the fiction of brands overcomes reality. The means by which that occurs can be traced to the phenomenon of a RĂŒckkoppelung (»feedback loop«), which Baßler highlights in his concluding remarks as a process that proponents of the West—which in this context takes on the form of a brand name—ought to take into consideration when discussing its meaning and form.

From pop music and brand names the theme then shifted to »The West and the Construct of a global sisterhood,« delivered by Silvia Schultermandl (University of MĂŒnster, American Studies). Schultermandl begins with a brief history of the idea of a transnational feminist movement (a »global sisterhood«), which first developed in North America as part of second wave feminism, and the reasons for its critical reception. The concept as it was then constructed, Schultermandl recounts, was based in a position that was for many women around the world untenable: that of a middle-class white woman living in the West, predominantly in America. That particular positionality entails certain privileges that are far from universal and, in some cases, in direct conflict with the promises and aspirations of feminisms developing elsewhere in the world. To expound on these points of contention, Schultermandl examines the work of the Nigerian American writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, namely her book We Should All Be Feminists (2014). Appreciating many components of the author’s work, Schultermandl nonetheless identifies many of the same problems that were once the basis for critiques of that second wave transnational feminism. Yet, one could hardly say that Adichie experiences life as a middle-class white American woman. Instead, Schultermandl pinpoints the problem in what she calls a Western feminism, which she defines as a feminism that erases the more radical intersectional elements of female experience in favor of personal, individualized life stories, an idea that, she notes, does appear in Adichie’s literary texts, but not in her theoretical writings on feminism.

Isabel Heinemann (University of MĂŒnster, Contemporary History) closed the panel with a talk about »â€șWesternization, Liberalization, Democratizationâ€č: Chances und Limitations of Historiographic Concepts from a Gender-Historical Viewpoint.« Heinemann stakes the claim that the conflicts over gender equality were integral to the processes of westernization, liberalization, and democratization in postwar West Germany. Moreover, she examines the ways in which gender equality, in spite of its contributions to those process and the fact that it had been (and still is) guaranteed by the German constitution since its creation in the postwar period, was forced to conform to patriarchal and heteronormative social norms in the early years of the Federal Republic of Germany, the effects of which are still measurable today. Following a detailed overview of traditional (i.e., male historian) accounts of these conflicts, Heinemann elucidates the crucial intervention that a historical perspective informed by gender critical theoretical frameworks has to offer in their analyses of the historical record. In the case of westernization et al, it is to demonstrate the presence and contributions of non-male, non-heteronormative persons to the furtherance of those causes, essentially making the case that those characteristics of which Western societies are so proud are precisely the results of the actions of these historically marginalized groups.

The final panel of the conference departed somewhat from its predecessors. Up until that point, the day’s talks and discussion had been committed to addressing the topics through the lens of scholarship. The presentation of work by highly qualified scholars presents an enormous advantage for furthering one’s understanding of the manifold complex topics that can be organized under an umbrella term such as â€șthe Westâ€č (and its counterpart â€șthe Eastâ€č). Nonetheless, it was to the benefit of all when two literary examples, provided by Slata Roschal and Dirk von Petersdorff, were brought forth for discussion. Roschal’s 153 formen des nichtseins (»153 forms of not-being«), which was nominated for the Deutschen Buchpreis, is a novel whose very form speaks to its content. 153 sections of varying kinds of texts converge one moment to form an image of something or someone only to break the next moment upon the rocks of a contravening perception. The many aspects of one’s being that may contribute to identity—religion, language, geography, stereotypes—are treated with a great care, drawing the reader’s attention to the experience of a young female protagonist undergoing the difficult process of establishing who she is and is not. GewittergĂ€ste (»Tempest Guests«), the most recent work from von Petersdorff, is a novelle dedicated to reflections on West-East conflicts in a small formerly East German town where a young couple from the West of the country have lived for some years while raising their children. The story displays the encounters between West and East through the pair’s interactions with their new neighbors, the many things big and small that have informed and disrupted their identities up to the present moment and which have been forgotten all too quickly in the aftermath of reunification. Each author read a selection of excerpts from their texts before opening a dialogue about their respective understandings of the West and the East, and how one goes about capturing those distinctions in literary form.

With the completion of the author’s panel, the conference »Rethinking the West: Promises and Crisis of a Concept« came to a close. What is recounted here is but a cursory summation of much deeper and astute work on the topic of â€șthe West.â€č Nonetheless, I hope to have rendered some of the more fundamental observations from the day’s speakers in an acceptable manner. Any shortcomings one might detect in the ideas provided here are most certainly due to me.

It cannot be forgotten, naturally, that the conference would not have been so successful without its supporting cast, in this case the moderators who guided the discussions that took place at the end of each panel, and which could not be covered here. Thus, the following persons should most certainly be thanked: Matthias Löwe (University of Jena, Germanistik), Eric Achermann (University of MĂŒnster, Germanistik), Joana van de Löcht (University of MĂŒnster, now University of Freiburg, Germanistik), and Eva Tanita Kraaz (University of MĂŒnster, Germanistik). A final thanks as well to the Volkswagen Stiftung for its generous support of the conference.

Reflections: Crisis and the Promise of the West

The conference I have described in great detail above introduces four vital terms for consideration: rethinking, the West, crisis, and promise. The papers that were delivered as well as the subsequent discussions did much to elucidate what the West has, does, and might mean, whereas the very process in which they were participating demonstrated what it means to rethink. Yet, I found that far less was said about crisis and promise. The introductory remarks delivered by Kai Sina and Philipp Pabst undertook some of this work, referring to contemporary geopolitical developments and literary meditations on the West as a concept vis-Ă -vis the work of Salman Rushdie and JĂŒrgen Osterhammel. Beyond those reference points, however, both terms seemed to fade into the background, subsumed into the historical frames of World Wars I and II, and the Cold War. That this occurred is entirely sensible. By accepting common historical frameworks, the participants were free to probe more deeply into their respective subjects. Nonetheless, I would like to use the remaining space here to reintroduce crisis and promise and to examine them more closely in the context of a discussion of the West. Essentially, I would like to make the case that, far from describing an exceptional state of affairs, crisis has a normative function in the West that has contributed to its success. You cannot talk about the West and its future, in other words, without simultaneously speaking of crisis and taking it into account.

And there is a highly active and contentious discourse taking place on the future (or rather doom) of the West that frequently invokes the term crisis in a purely negative sense. In the years since the financial crisis of 2007–2008 and the European migrant crisis of 2015, a steady flow of publications has emphasized the inevitable decline and fall of the West, often using the history of past empires, such as the Roman Empire, to draw parallels between the present and the past to accentuate their historically determined view of the world. As a former Classicist and a lover of Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (whose title often finds its way into this discourse in some form or another), I am both exhausted and exasperated by the naïve and wrongful appropriation of that history for the furtherance of contemporary political discourse by such figures as Steve Bannon and Douglas Murray, the latter of whose 2017 book The Strange Death of Europe, which presents a myopic and modestly informed case that the end of the West is nigh and likely the result of both mass migration and the dissolution of the population’s bond to the Christian faith, was a Sunday Times bestseller. Not only are such historical comparisons inherently problematic on account of their persistent anachronisms, but they also tend to distort many of the lessons that are being made, a notion complicated by the fact that Gibbon himself was writing many centuries after the Roman Empire had already fallen. Steve Bannon and Douglas Murray are but two figures in a larger movement of public intellectuals whose sole focus it has been to predict the catastrophic finale of the Western world and to diagnose its causes. What makes their particular brand of writing so amusing is their nigh pathological hatred of Leftist politics upon whom they heap a great deal of the blame for the destruction of their beloved institutions and society. So enamored are they by this narrative, they cannot see the irony of prophesying the demise of the present era in language not at all dissimilar to what one witnesses in leftist intellectual circles, which have been distributing the message of capitalism’s end and the coming revolution for over a century. If only they had read Walter Benjamin, whose clever comparison of historical materialism to the mechanical Turk revealed the theological tendencies of orthodox Marxist thought (Benjamin)! Then again, one might speculate they ignore such contradictions as a preventative measure. By avoiding any admission of their own theological presuppositions, those actors are able avert their own crisis and keep writing the same book.

All of which is not to say, however, that there do not exist difficult tasks with which the West today must struggle. But as a historical review of the very concept of crisis clarifies, there is no great and pressing novelty in that confrontation. In the Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe, German historian Reinhart Koselleck traces the word crisis (ÎșÏÎŻÏƒÎčς) as far back as Ancient Greece, when the term was associated with the verbs scheiden (»to part« or »sever«) and entscheiden (“to decide« or »determine«) (Koselleck 617–650). All of these terms share in their insistence, conceptually speaking, on space between a subject and object. It is no surprise, therefore, that crisis and critique should derive from the same word, and that their separation, Koselleck notes, generated two areas of meaning based on »subjective critique« and »objective crisis (Koselleck 618).« The interaction of these two concepts, according to Koselleck, led to the formation of the judgement, process, and finding of justice. Although crisis was neither a positive nor desirable thing, it can be said that it was acknowledged as a contributor to the development of civil society. Indeed, it was not until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that crisis would be used in a manner similar to how one uses it today. By the time of the War of the Austrian Succession (1740–1748) and later the French Revolution (1789–1799), crisis had become enmeshed in a system of political metaphor (Koselleck 624–625). One example Koselleck likewise cites comes from Christoph Martin Wieland in his correspondence with one Professor Eggers, where the former describes the situation of the French Revolution in 1791. As he closes the letter, he lays out the challenges facing the revolutionaries in the following terms:

Everything, it seems to me, depends on how the nation will look in the present moment as the eyes of all Europe fall upon it. The friends of freedom, the advocates of the rights of the people, have been driven to the most extreme; it concerns life or death; the dangers from within and without have never been greater than they are now.[ii]

The nation and its people are seen as a bodily whole, but one which is threatened from outside and inside by forces that would see the revolution come to an end. The enemies of freedom and those undertaking to curb the rights of the people (i.e., the aristocrats and clergymen) have pushed the revolutionaries into an unenviable position in which they will have to make hard choices about life and death—indeed, Wieland uses the term »entscheidenden Krisis« (»deciding crisis«) to define that moment (Wieland 162). And in doing so, Wieland brings together two terms that resonate with their roots in Ancient Greece, a striking recurrence that reifies the centrality of crisis during two defining moments for the West: its ancient and modern founding. 

The nineteenth century witnessed the expansion of the term to yet more spheres of life. While the end of the Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815), consecrated by the Bourbon Restoration, would see a brief period of relatively peaceful relations between European neighbors, a sense of crisis nevertheless permeated the economic, technological, and, subsequently, social spheres of human activity. Adam Smith’s publication of The Wealth of Nations (1776) was followed by the formation of a global capitalist system of political economy powered by the innovation and productivity that were the hallmarks of the Industrial Revolution, which by the 1840s and 1850s had finally reached Germany. That led to expansive growth in both population and wealth, the latter of which was also assisted by the exploitation and plunder of colonized lands around the world. By the time of German unification under Otto von Bismarck in 1871, an event whose arrival had long been feared by France and the United Kingdom, the landscapes of Europe had been so changed that they would have been unrecognizable to someone born one-hundred or even just fifty years earlier. It is no wonder that the German historian JĂŒrgen Osterhammel chose to title his history of the nineteenth century as Die Verwandlung der Welt (»The Transformation of the World«). That process of rapid transformation impacted the social psyche of Europe’s populations. The German writer and playwright Gerhart Hauptmann was just one of many artists to capture the negative effects of society’s rapid adoption of industrial capitalism in works like BahnwĂ€rter Thiel (»Lineman Thiel,« 1888) and Die Weber (»The Weavers,« 1892). While both narratives are distinct in their content, the former centering on a lineman’s descent into madness and the latter fictionalizing the events of the 1844 Silesian Weavers’ Uprising, they are connected by a modern aesthetic in which both background and foreground are permeated by novel forces such as the noise and sight of trains upon once remote rural landscapes and sudden economic crashes resulting from stock market speculation. Over the course of the nineteenth century, the world had become loud, fast, small, and increasingly uncertain. A world in which crisis had spread to every nook and cranny of life.

The twentieth century would witness the apotheosis of that crisis in events such as World War I, the Russian Revolution, the Great Depression, World War II, the development of the Atom Bomb and nuclear proliferation, and the Cold War. There is not nearly enough space to discuss the intricacies of these dreadful and savage events here. Yet, I hope my sketch of the term crisis from its origins in Ancient Greece to its role in several defining periods of the West has at least aroused some curiosity in the reader’s mind about crisis’s place in discussions and reflections on the West. I do not mean to cast the concept as something positive; I would insist, rather, on the idea that is not entirely negative. That is to say, it simply is. Crises occur. The West, far from attempting to hide these crises behind the delusions of strongmen or the illusions of ideology, places them front and center as part of social and political debate. As long as the West continues to engage in this process, to think and rethink, in the face of occurring and recurring crises, it will maintain its ability to adapt to changing circumstances. That dynamism is the promise of the West, and one which must be defended.

[i] All German-to-English translations of presenters’ work are my own. Furthermore, the primary sources for these quotes are not publicly disclosed and thus lack a proper citation here. 

[ii] »Alles, dĂŒnkt mich, kommt darauf an, wie sich die Nation in dem gegenwĂ€rtigen Moment, der von neuem die Augen von ganz Europa auf sie heftet, zeigen wird. Die Freunde der Freiheit, die Verfechter der Rechte des Volks, sind aufs Äußerste getrieben; es gilt um Leben oder Tod; noch nie ist die Gefahr von innen und von außen grĂ¶ĂŸer gewesen als jetzt« (, 162, English translation is mine). See Wieland, 134–169.

Matthew Childs is a PhD candidate in the Department of German Studies of the University of Washington. His research focusses on 18th, 19th, and 20th century German literature and Crisis Studies. His dissertation project about Heinrich von Kleist, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Wilhelm Raabe und Theodor Storm is titled Era of Uncertainty: Catastrophe in Nineteenth-Century German Literature. For the past academic year 2022/23 he studied and taught at the University of MĂŒnster in Germany.


Benjamin, Walter. Über den Begriff der Geschichte. Suhrkamp Verlag, 2010.

Koselleck, Reinhart. “Krise.” In Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe; historisches Lexikon zur politisch-sozialen Sprache in Deutschland. E. Klett. 1972, 617–650.

Wieland, Martin. »Sendschreiben an Herrn Professor Eggers in Kiel (Jan. 1792).« In C.M. Wielands SĂ€mtliche Werke, G.J. Göschen Verlagshandlung, 1857, 134–169.


Ill. 1: Key Visual for the Conference »Rethinking the West«, ©Studio Pandan.

Recommended Citation

Childs, Matthew. “Rethinking the West: Promise and Crisis of a Concept.” Transatlanticism. Aug. 07, 2023. URL:  DOI:

Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Lizenziert unter der Creative Commons Namensnennung 4.0 International Lizenz.




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