Elias Canetti on Germany’s “crowd symbol”

From Crowds and Power.

This is the explanation of what a “national crowd symbol” is.

In the book, Canetti discusses what he sees to be the “national crowd symbols” of 8 countries. Here is what he has to say about his own country, Germany. Now remember – this book was written through the 1950s, published in 1960. He knew the horror his country was capable of. In this book, though, he does not seek to condemn. Not exactly. He seeks to figure out WHY.

He looks at Spain, Italy, the Swiss, the Dutch, the English … and a couple of other nations … deciding on what their “crowd symbol” might be, how the Dutch use THIS symbol, subconsciously, to cohere into a crowd, etc.

Here is Canetti’s discussion on Germany.

The Germans

The crowd symbol of the Germans was the army. But the army was more than just the army; it was the marching forest. In no other modern country has the forest-feeling remained as alive as it has in Germany. The parallel rigidity of the upright trees and their density and number fill the heart of the German with a deep and mysterious delight. To this day he lvoes to go deep into the forest where his forefathers lived; he feels at one with the trees.

Their orderly separation and the stress on the vertical distinguish this forest from the tropical kind where creepers grow in all directions. In tropical forests the eye loses itself in the foreground; there is a chaotic and unarticulated mass of growth, full of colour and life, which effectively precludes any sensation of order, or even of repetition. The forests of the temperate zone, on the other hand, have a conspicuous rhythm. The eye moves along lines of clearly visible trees into a uniform distance. Each individual tree is always taller than a man and goes on growing until it becomes a giant. Its steadfastness has much in common with the same virtue in a warrior. In a single tree the bark resembles a coat of mail; in a whole forest, where there are many trees of the same kind growing together, it suggests rather the uniforms of an army. For the German, without his being clearly aware of it, army and forest transfused each other in every possible way. What to others might seem the army’s dreariness and barrenness kept for the German the life and glow of the forest. He was never afraid in it; he felt protected, one amongst many others. He took the rigidity and straightness of trees for his own law.

The boy who escaped into the forest from the confinement of home, thinking to be alone there and able to dream, actually anticipated his entry into the army. In the forest he found the others waiting for him, true, faithful, and upright as he himself wanted to be; each like every other, for each grows straight, and yet quite different in height and strength. The effect of this early forest romanticism on the German must never be underrated. He absorbed it from countless poems and songs and the forest which appears in these is often called “German”.

The Englishman likes to imagine himself at sea, the German in a forest. It is impossible to express the difference of their national feeling more concisely.

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