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 ‘culture war’ that has played a starring role in domestic political theaters, filling up Twitter feeds and opinion pages alike. Its most recent iteration, going back about a decade, centers 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 scholars met in the Heereman’scher Hof of the University of Münster to offer answers to that question and discuss its many related concerns.
“Rethinking the West: Promise and Crisis of a Concept” was an occasion dedicated to teasing out the nuances of the idea of the West in all of its semantic, theoretical, and historical complexity. Consisting of four panels, the conference delved into a variety of subjects ranging from Thomas Mann’s reception in postwar Germany to the reeducation campaigns that were implemented by the Allies to bring Germany into the Western orbit of values. Provided here is a brief summary of the day’s events and discussions.
The conference began with introductory remarks from Kai Sina and Philipp Pabst that disclosed the reasons behind the conference’s inception as well as reference points for an entry into the topic at hand. Kai Sina began with reference to Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses and his story collection East, West, how it succeeds in depicting the complex and contentious relations that exist between West and East, and what such a depiction has to offer for contemporary discourse.
Philipp Pabst continued these same thoughts with a review of previous definitions of the West from Jürgen Osterhammel, Karl Popper, and Reinhart Koselleck, emphasizing the need for care and caution in addressing the topic at hand.
The first panel was dedicated to exploring the Constellations and Imagologies of the West with presentations from Anna Artwinska, Barbara Picht, and Jens Hacke. Anna Artwinska guided the audience on a journey through the minds of eastern- and east-central European intellectuals as they formed their identities in the postwar order, reacting to and constructing their own understanding of the West. Barbara Picht examined the Cold War’s influence on the fields of history and literary studies in Europe, revealing that more often than not they saw ongoing events as yet one more stage in an unfolding historical crisis stemming from the inception of modernity. Jens Hacke closed the panel by discussing Thomas Mann’s reception after 1945 in the works of Dolf Sternberger, and how that was emblematic of the postwar project to democratize and liberalize West Germany.
In the second panel, Institutions and Concepts, Heike Paul, Carsten Dutt, and Moritz Vormbaum came together to discuss what defines the West and demonstrates how it has operated and continues to operate today. Heike Paul spoke about the re-education campaigns that were implemented by the Allies in postwar West Germany, and how it was received (both positively and negatively) by the society at the time. Carsten Dutt addressed the matter of whether the West is a term of arrogance by considering examples of both symmetrical and asymmetrical constructions of its meaning in West Germany. The panel ended with a presentation by Moritz Vormbaum about the role of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in a globalized world, responding to accusations that it is merely a judicial arm of Western imperialism.
Chances, Promises, and Debates, the third panel, included contributions from Moritz Baßler, Silvia Schultermandl, and Isabel Heinemann. Moritz Baßler delivered a talk on pop culture’s and brands’ influence on the development of the West’s image, and what that process can tell us about how the idea of the West looks and functions today. Silvia Schultermandl delved into the concept of global sisterhood, its roots in second wave feminism, and the problems with how it obscured radical intersectional feminist approaches. Isabel Heinemann completed the panel with a revision of West Germany’s postwar Westernization through the lens of a feminist historiography, revealing non-male and non-heteronormative groups’ centrality in that liberalizing and democratizing process.
The fourth and final panel was unique in that it consisted of literary contributions to the topic of the West. Following readings from their respective works, Slata Roschal and Dirk von Petersdorff discussed their experiences of East and West in present-day Germany and how they explored the conceptual divide in their fiction. Slata Roschal’s 153 formen des nichtseins, 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. Dirk von Petersdorff’s Gewittergäste is a novelle dedicated to reflections on West-East conflicts in a small formerly East German town to which a young couple from the West of the country have just moved. 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.
With the completion of the author’s panel, the conference “Rethinking the West: Promises and Crisis of a Concept” came to a close.