Political Romanticism

A conference on the problematic relationship between politics and passion

The volatile atmosphere of 1914 which sparked the disastrous events of the early 20th century seems to hang over our world today like an omen. By the time the First World War erupted, youth-driven romanticism and patriotic power politics had joined in a fateful union. Is “political romanticism” a danger? Could history repeat itself? Could the lights in Europe extinguish once again? Who are the “sleepwalkers” (Christopher Clark) of today? One hundred years after the outbreak of World War I, we turn the spotlight to our own political situation.

“Political romanticism“ forms an alliance between two very dissimilar concepts – the political as the centre of mediation and decision-making, and the romantic as the sanctuary of contradiction, of unconditional upheaval and rebellion. On the one hand, “political romanticism” is occasionally used to disparage an intellectual disposition which places wishful thinking and sentimentality above political wisdom. On the other, it is also a term of longing which attacks the modest claims of today’s political domain which achieves only incremental progress and resigns itself to constraints without any apparent alternative. Perhaps in this sense, political romanticism represents an opportunity. Europe needs more than number crunchers and financial wheelers and dealers – what it needs most is passion, imagination and an idea that doesn’t only tie the project of European unity to fiscal cutbacks and historic negativity.

Under the banner of “Political Romanticism”, this conference has probed the degree of political intensity of our times. What constitutes the political case of emergency today? How much passion does the political sphere need? In these times of the “Grand Coalition”, what desires for change are being expressed by the political body?

The congress began on 10 April with a lecture titled “Political Icarism” by the philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, followed by the German premiere of the film “Reports from the Great War” by filmmaker and writer Alexander Kluge. The Ensemble Modern performed “10 Marches to Miss the Victory” by the composer Mauricio Kagel.

The conference was accompanied by tours of the Goethe House on the theme of romanticism and a workshop programme with Helmut Lethen and Almut Linde.

With: René Aguigah, Swetlana Alexijewitsch, Tariq Ali, Armen Avanessian, Franziska Augstein, Jens Balzer, Martin Bauer, Jens Bisky, Karl Heinz Bohrer, Norbert Bolz, Heinz Bude, Julia Encke, Christian Esch, Jenny Friedrich-Freksa, Eva Geulen, Klaus Günther, Dorothea Hauser, Ina Hartwig, Srećko Horvat, Jürgen Kaube, André Kieserling, Gerd Koenen, Per Leo, Helmut Lethen, Almut Linde, Albrecht von Lucke, Michaela Meise, Christoph Möllers, Jan-Werner Müller, Tobi Müller, Herfried Münkler, Joachim Radkau, Juliane Rebentisch, Sven Reichardt, Josef Reichholf, Rüdiger Safranski, Peter Sloterdijk, Cora Stephan, Klaus Theweleit, Andres Veiel, Joseph Vogl, Sahra Wagenknecht und Serhij Zhadan

Political Romanticism is an interdisciplinary conference by the Federal Cultural Foundation in cooperation with Freies Deutsches Hochstift.

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Conference programme

Thursday, 10 April 2014

7 pm – Cantate Room


With Anne Bohnenkamp-Renken, Director of the Goethe House in Frankfurt/Freies Deutsches Hochstift, Hortensia Völckers, Artistic Director of the German Federal Cultural Foundation, Stephan Schlak, Political Romanticism conference director

Followed by:

10 Marches to Miss the Victory - The Ensemble Modern performs Mauricio Kagel

Can one take enjoyment in a musical genre whose effect can only be regarded as questionable at best? This is the central question which composer Mauricio Kagel asks in “10 Marches to Miss the Victory“. Written between 1978 and 1979 as intermezzos for the radio play “The Tribunal”, the composer integrated phrases by political speakers to create a grotesque speech of megalomaniacal dimensions. Friendly Fire. The marches fall out of step and out of spirit, stumble, lose coherence and finally turn on themselves. They undermine the pathos which music – as the most romantic of art forms, is always able to spark in its listeners. Conducted by Benjamin Schneider.

7.45 pm - Cantate-Room

Political Icarism

From the dark depths of the Middle Ages, monstrosities arose which are now shaping modernity. Arrogations, ambitions, aspirations. Political Romanticism? Let us speak of “political Icarism” instead – of the unity of domination and flight. Alexander, Cola di Rienzi, Napoleon. And of the Dadaists who drifted above the ruins of shattered dreams. A speech by Peter Sloterdijk.

Followed by a reception in the lobby (catered by freitagsküche).

10 pm – Cantate Room

Reports from the Great War

Director: Alexander Kluge, Germany 2014, 94 minutes. A film in 33 sequences with much music. German premiere. Starring Hannelore Hoger as Countess Ziegenhahn, director of the German military hospital in Jerusalem in 1917, Helge Schneider as cavalry captain, Count Wronski on 9 November 1918, taxi dancer in Hotel Adlon. With contributions by historians Christopher Clarkand Gerd Krumeich, whose recent publications have shed new light on the Great War – this “laboratory of bitter experiences”.

Friday, 11 April 2014

10 am – Cantate-Saal

Max Weber’s Question

No other philosopher railed so vehemently against political romantic fervour around 1914 as Max Weber, the theorist who advocated objectivity and criticised the intellectual “literati”. And yet he also rebelled against the “disenchantment of the world”. On the occasion of Max Weber’s 150th anniversary, his biographers Jürgen Kaube and Joachim Radkau discuss a life situated between two epochs and the passion of philosophy.

10 am – Seekatz-Room

Sublime Climes

What does romanticism have to do with the weather? Very much, according to the zoologist, evolutionary biologist and environmentalist Josef Reichholf. Following the Little Ice Age, Europe started warming up around 1800. And as the temperatures rose, so did the hearts of the inhabitants. The rapturous odes to nature by the Romanticists were in fact inspired by the warming climate. Are we about to enter a new romantic age?

11:30 am – 1 pm – Cantate Room

Playing Poker for Ukraine
In Ukrainian and German with consecutive translation

Kiev isn’t the only city with a maidan, or Independence Square. The maidan in Ukraine’s second largest city Kharkiv is forming into another battleground between the country’s democratic movement and pro-Russian supporters. This is where Serhij Zhadan had set up camp during the “Orange Revolution”. And it is also where he was brutally beaten last March by a group of thugs who wanted to raise the Russian flag over the parliament building. The high-stakes game for Ukraine continues. “Democracy in the wrong hands is a risky card game – the chances for victory are slim, and it’s very likely you’ll lose everything.” Serhij Zahdan speaks with Jenny Friedrich-Freksa about the latest developments in his home country.

12 am – Arkaden-Room

Praise for Occasionalism

The legal scholar Carl Schmitt claimed that politics which sacrificed opportunities instead of principles represented the liberal, romantic scourge of his times. Karl Heinz Bohrer presents a counter-argument. Against the backdrop of a disintegrating European utopia, Bohrer defends occasionalism as a genuine political style. The lecture is followed by a discussion with Juliane Rebentisch.

2 pm – Cantate-Saal

The Legacy of the Hero

Klaus Theweleit does not believe that the age of heroes is at an end. The demigods are still among us. In his lecture Klaus Theweleitoutlines the career of the hero from the ancient Greeks to pop cultural modernity – and with it the ever-changing forms of violence. Where do we find the heroes of today? And what do they have to say about our thoroughly civilised world? The presentation is followed by a discussion with the literary scholar Eva Geulen.

2 pm – Arkaden-Room

The Process Cult

Constitutional patriotism was once the civic religion of former West Germany. Unity was no longer justified by romantic sentiment, but rather as a matter of formality, law and process. It all comes down to the pivotal question: What holds modern societies together? Common values or processes? A podium discussion with the legal scholar Klaus Günther and the sociologist André Kieserling. Moderated by Martin Bauer.

4 pm – Cantate-Room

Elixirs of Alienation

The year 1968 marked a political romantic renaissance in the post-war period – with all of its fanciful expectations and inevitable disappointments. The historian Sven Reichhardt presents the tumultuous leftist culture of former West Germany from the point of view of a younger generation. A discussion with Helmut Lethen on the romanticism of rebellion, the lessons of cool and heated behaviour, and the abysmal return of historic constellations. Moderated by Dorothea Hauser.

5.30 pm – Arkaden-Room

Leftist Melancholy

The Croatian philosopher Srećko Horvat examines what remains of the romantic-political upheaval of 2011, of the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement, and how we can liberate ourselves from what Alain Badiou calls “our present inability”.

5.30 pm – Cantate-Room

The Demons of Capitalism

In Western “rags-to-riches” tales, we find a central narrative based on faith in the “invisible hand” which favours the good and increases the general profit for all. But this faith is now faltering. Demons and spirits now populate economic literature. How romantic is modern capitalism? A podium discussion with media theorist Norbert Bolz, literary scholar Joseph Vogl and filmmaker Andres Veiel. Moderated by René Aguigah.

7 pm – Cantate-Room

Faust’s Shadow

Rüdiger Safranski’s Goethe biography has reaped praise from many attentive, critical readers, including Sahra Wagenknecht. The master biographer of the 68er generation and the leading politician of the German Left Party engage in a discussion on capitalism and the pursuit of a successful life in the past and present. Moderated by Jens Bisky.

8 pm – Seekatz-Room

The Theory of Political Colour

Per Leo’s debut novel “Flut und Boden” [Flood and Soil]is a story of German family. At its centre are two brothers who are of a very different cast. Friedrich, the narrator’s grandfather, failed to meet the standards of bourgeois life and chose instead a career with the SS. His older brother Martin, who lives in the GDR after the war, embodies the Goethian cultural and academic ideal. The author speaks with historian Gerd Koenen about the morality of the generation of Nazi grandchildren, their life stories and German restlessness.

9 pm – Cantate-Foyer

Faith, Love, Pop Music

The journalists Jens Balzer and Tobi Müller host the fine artist and musician Michaela Meise in a pop salon featuring audio excerpts and video clips. The trio aims to explore the continuities between the light-hearted folk music of the sixties, the dark electronic sounds of the eighties and their revenant spirits of today. A ride through the romantic styles of pop music. Followed by a party.


Saturday, 12 April 2014

12 pm – Cantate-Room

The Post-Soviet Soul

The Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexievich captures the seismic tremors of the post-Soviet soul. Twenty-years after gaining freedom, uncertainty abounds in the country today. People live in a “second-hand age” with hackneyed ideals and overused words from the Soviet era which are now coming back into fashion. While Alexievich’s books are banned in her home country, they continue to garner awards abroad, most recently the Peace Price of the German Book Trade. The Russia correspondent Christian Esch speaks with the writer. The German texts are read by Michael Quast.

12 pm – Arkaden-Room

Politics as Passion

One hundred days after the start of the Grand Coalition and several weeks ahead of the European parliament elections, it is time to assess the present political situation. Is the political sphere in danger if all utopian energies are sacrificed to cutbacks? How necessary are charismatic visionaries in our political system today with its many technocrats? The sociologist Heinz Bude, journalist Julia Enckeand idea historian Jan-Werner Müller discuss the spirit of a new “leaden” age and the demons of “full-tilt governing”. Moderated by Albrecht von Lucke.

2 pm – Cantate-Room

Utopia Banished

Tariq Ali – the “Street Fighting Man” of the student revolts – never participated in the ideological recasting and liberal turnarounds of his generation. He continues to passionately advocate a democratic, revolutionary transformation both here in the West and in the Middle East, where bright hopes in the Arab Spring have been dashed. A lecture on the new world disorder and the blind, fundamentalist macula of the West and Europe’s authoritarian temptation.

ca. 3 pm – Cantate-Room

Europe, August 2014

The First World War remains a political challenge. What kind of mirror are we gazing into when we cast our view 100 years back? What can this war teach us about our present-day crisis? How much political-romantic imagination and new ideas does Europe need? Tariq Ali, political theorist Herfried Münkler, constitutional legal scholar Christoph Möllers and journalist Cora Stephan discuss our historically distant, but politically close relationship to 1914. Moderated by Franziska Augstein.


Friday, 11 April 2014, 11 am
Reality at a Second Glance
The cultural studies scholar Helmut Lethen discussed the romanticism of appearances and the reality of images.

Saturday, 12 April 2014, 10 am
Radical Romanticism
The artist Almut Linde discussed the questions: What is a romantic artwork today? What is a political artwork?

Programme "Political Romanticism"

"Sacrificial Animals Have Become Rare"

Is the First World War still a political challenge? The Federal Cultural Foundation highlights the 100th anniversary of the First World War in Magazine #21 with an interview titled “Sacrificial Animals Have Become Rare” with Herfried Münkler and Stephan Schlak.

Herfried Münkler teaches Political Theory at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. His book "Der Große Krieg. Die Welt 1914 bis 1918" [The Great War. The World from 1914 to 1918] was published by Rowohlt Berlin in December 2013.Stephan Schlak, historian and political scholar, is the managing editor of the journal “Zeitschrift für Ideengeschichte”.

Read the article "Sacrificial Animals Have Become Rare“

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Dr. Alexander Klose

Kulturstiftung des Bundes
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