2010-07-18 15:11:56 UTC
book describing the "German genius", ie the seeming overall cultural
superiority of Germany and the German people at the turn of the 19th
to the 20th century. Taking the review as accurate, or adding your own
interpretation of the facts as given, describe a way to "cure" Germany
of its overbearing sense of that superiority and create a useful
instrument for a modern society without Germany's two world wars. In
many ways I feel that requires the removal or alteration of a figure
not mentioned in the review, Kaiser Wilhelm II. The problem extends to
the fact that his whole family seems to have been as certain of the
need for an overbearing Germany as he was.
July 9, 2010
Made in Germany
By BRIAN LADD
THE GERMAN GENIUS
Europe’s Third Renaissance, the Second Scientific Revolution, and the
By Peter Watson
964 pp. Harper/HarperCollins Publishers. $35.
By 1900, nearly everyone agreed that there was something special about
the Germans. Their philosophy was more profound — to a fault. So was
their music. Their scientists and engineers were clearly the best.
Their soldiers were unmatched.
Did this German superiority bode well or ill for the new century? Some
foreigners served up dire warnings, but others were rapt admirers.
Richard Wagner’s English son-in-law, Houston Stewart Chamberlain, even
wrote a weighty tome arguing that the Germans were the only true heirs
of classical Greece and Rome. Many Germans were happy to agree.
After world war broke out in 1914, German intellectuals rallied in
indignant defense of a superior culture besieged by barbarians. Thomas
Mann, for one, was anything but a flaming nationalist, but he wrote at
length about the need to defend Germany’s unique cultural profundity.
Mann came to regret his fulminations long before 1933, when a more
noxious band of German chauvinists drove him into exile. And in early
1945, in California, he read Joseph Goebbels’s defiant proclamation
that the Germans’ national greatness was the reason an envious world
had united against them. Mann was honest enough to confess to his
diary that this was “more or less what I wrote 30 years ago.”
It is, of course, the Nazis who have made it hard for us to appreciate
what Peter Watson calls “the German genius.” Goebbels spoiled the
brand when he marketed Hitler as the apotheosis of German culture. Too
many Germans and (for opposite reasons) plenty of foreigners readily
agreed with Goebbels. Watson, a British journalist and the author of
several books of cultural history, would like us to leave the Nazis
aside and appreciate that our modern world — at least the world of
ideas — is largely a German creation. But as he might have learned
from his fictional fellow Englishman Basil Fawlty, it is futile to
insist that we “don’t mention the war!”
“The German Genius” is a lengthy compilation of essential German
contributions to philosophy, theology, mathematics, natural and social
science and the arts since 1750. Watson enshrines a vast pantheon of
creative thinkers, not dwelling very long on any of them. Perhaps the
single most important figure is Immanuel Kant, who explored the limits
of Enlightenment rationality without handing any authority back to
revealed religion. Ever since, Watson argues, the Germans have led the
way in plumbing the depths of the human mind and body in search of
truth and meaning.
Watson reminds us that the age of Kant produced (among much else)
Haydn’s symphonies, Goethe’s poetry, Herder’s discovery of national
history and Winckelmann’s archaeology of ancient art — the last in
particular ushering in what Watson, in his subtitle, calls the “third
renaissance” (after those of the 12th and 15th centuries). Long before
Darwin, Germans showed that the natural world was a place of restless
change. So, too, was human society: we owe them our sense of history.
German Romanticism and German erudition placed truth and creativity
firmly inside the human mind. Later, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche and Freud
sought meaning in a world in flux, while lesser lights concocted their
racial theories out of a fatal mixture of biology and philology.
“The German Genius” is a great baggy monster of a book, mixing
passionate advocacy with biographical trivia amid compressed summaries
of some exceedingly difficult ideas. The range of subjects is
impressive, from painters to physicists, and includes important names
most of us may recognize only from science class, and then only as
units of measurement: Hertz, Mach, Röntgen. (Before Hitler, Nobel
Prize ceremonies were in large part a German affair.)
In some ways this is also a very German book: long, earnest, plodding.
Yet it is not really up to the exacting standards of German
scholarship (or of English narrative sparkle), relying, as it does,
largely on other scholars’ accounts of the great thinkers in question,
and quoting the secondary sources far more than the original works of
“genius.” Too often Watson urges us to revere people or books “now
recognized,” “widely viewed” or “generally regarded” as brilliant.
Readers may grow weary of being told what to think.
In effect, Watson has given us a kind of Dictionary of German
Biography, along with a great deal of name-dropping. There were many
German geniuses. But what was “the German genius”? To understand what
was special about Germany, we need to know more than Watson tells us
about the world that produced these thinkers. He does offer some
valuable hints, insisting, for example, on the importanceof the 17th-
and 18th-century religious revival known as Pietism, which urged
believers to devote themselves to improving life on earth. Certainly
he is right to emphasize Germany’s Protestant heritage (and the many
preachers’ sons who populate his pages), but secularized Protestantism
shaped other lands as well — notably Britain, where Catholics and Jews
played smaller roles than in Germany.
More helpful is his emphasis on the role of universities in creating
new knowledge and a new class defined by education. At Göttingen and
Halle in the 18th century, and at Berlin and Bonn in the 19th, Germany
invented the modern university, combining teaching with research in
both humanities and science — at a time when Harvard and Oxford were
conservative and theology-centered. University grads staffed a new
bureaucracy of experts, and their work in laboratories and archives
made research “a rival form of authority in the world.” The
universities also enshrined a new ideal of individual cultivation (the
fetishized German word is “Bildung”). Germans from Kant to Mann
embraced this “secular form of Pietism,” turning inward to find truths
not anchored in reason or revelation — and often, like Mann in 1915,
choosing mystical wholeness over messy liberal politics.
This is modern subjective individuality, as expounded by philosophers
like Martin Heidegger. Even if Heidegger hadn’t been a Nazi, we would
still face the question of whether Hitler was the nemesis or the
culmination of German genius. Just as Mann had to acknowledge Goebbels
as his bastard child, Watson knows that Germany cannot disown the
Nazis. He borrows many different and contradictory theories of the
German catastrophe, variously suggesting that the educated middle
class was too weak to stop Hitler, that it abdicated its
responsibility to do so and that its antipolitical ideals taught a
nation to welcome a charlatan’s promises of a redemptive community.
Yet no history of ideas can explain the tragedy of German genius.
Hitler may have fancied himself a great thinker, but his success came
from his brilliance as a political tactician in a troubled time.
Intellectuals admired (or feared) him for his ability to seduce
millions of voters who knew nothing of Kant or Heidegger. Watson gives
us a compilation of German ideas; a history of the German genius would
be a different and dicier matter.
Watson’s chapters on the anguish of postwar German intellectuals
remind us that he is a world away from the mystical nonsense of his
countryman Houston Stewart Chamberlain. Nonetheless, his attempt to
exalt a national character suggests that he is offering something not
altogether different for our chastened time.