25 Following


Currently reading

How the World Works
Noam Chomsky
The English Auden: Poems, Essays and Dramatic Writings, 1927-1939
W.H. Auden
Auden Generation: Literature and Politics in England in the 1930's
Samuel Hynes
Collected Poems
W.H. Auden

The German Genius: Europe's Third Renaissance, the Second Scientific Revolution, and the Twentieth Century

The German Genius: Europe's Third Renaissance, the Second Scientific Revolution, and the Twentieth Century - Peter Watson Watson’s enormous book is bracketed by an introduction where he defines the problem he wants to solve and a concluding chapter setting out his findings. The vast quantity of material in between is not conducive to a rational judgement. I would have preferred a much more selective and economic presentation, in order to pin down just what is being claimed and establish if the evidence supports the arguments.

The body of this book is filled with accounts of German culture from the end of the Thirty Years War to the end of the 20th Century. This is broadly defined to include theology and philosophy, history and archaeology, literature, music, the visual arts, science and technology, even aspects of economics and military science, as well as the institutions within which all these developments arose. It is easy enough to enjoy this compendium of so many great names, to have an explanation of their main contributions and to see a big picture in which they all relate each other in time, in place and in their ideas. That is, I think, the major attraction of all Watson’s big, heavy books. On the other hand, the accounts are so brief and sketchy that in most cases they are more helpful in placing different thinkers into a wider context than actually explaining their ideas in any useful detail. To be honest, when scrutinised, some of the descriptions seem pretty inadequate and unreliable. The more I know about the subject, the more likely I am to dislike Watson’s description and evaluation. He is most convincing where I know least, which to be fair gives him a lot of ground.

If Watson was indeed merely reviewing German culture in modern history then I would have no difficulty enjoying the book for what it does best and moving on to my next reading challenge. However, the book presents itself as an argument with a very specific theme. Watson’s problem is that Germany is defined by the brief history of Nazism but that seems to him unsatisfactory and unfair. As a result, the entire book really has to be read in relation to this over-riding question: can German culture be separated from its Nazi experience?

Watson accepts the claim that Germany was quite unlike its neighbours and that the achievements of individual Germans were made possible – even produced – by distinctive institutions in German life. He investigates what these were and runs through many examples of individual genius to justify the claim of German greatness. He notes that German nationalism and the move to German unity was at first a progressive force, emerging in opposition to the authoritarian regimes of the many petty German states. But as it happens, the 1848 revolutions failed across Germany, Germany was united in 1871 under the Prussian monarchy, and the cult of German nationalism was built on the destruction and eventual wreckage of everything that made Germany great. He points out repeatedly that Hitler’s rise to power resulted in the removal from German life of tens of thousands of excellent, sometimes exceptionally brilliant, scientists, artists, musicians and writers. Germany was a remarkable country in 1932 and the Nazis destroyed that achievement. The wreckage was not immediately obvious only because the removal of so many Jewish and other leading figures created openings and opportunities for compliant Germans to fill their places, some of whom were reasonably competent and even talented in their own right. Many such figures retained or recovered their positions after 1945. Only with the student movement of the late 1960s did West Germans demonstrate the will to engage positively with democratic politics, while for East Germans, the move away from autocratic government only began with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

Watson’s definition of cultural history seems to exclude political history. I agree that it is reasonable to expect readers to know European history in outline and it is not where he wants to make his contribution. I don’t agree that cultural history can be apolitical or free of ideological commitment. Watson makes no such claim, naturally, but my interest is that his decisions shape the material that he excludes from his review as much as what he includes. Where he is obliged to include a few people on the Left, like Marx and Engels, they are given rather weak presentations.
This defect becomes more clear when we notice that his definition of ‘German’ – in relation to German culture or German history or just defining who is German – is decidedly open to question. It does not suit him to discuss the contribution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire to German cultural history, but it does suit him to claim for German cultural history many achievements of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The point about Germany which he does not ignore but somehow refuses to confront is that that before 1871, there was no Germany, and before the Anschluss Germany most certainly did not include Austria. As Gertrude Stein said about her birthplace, which was not in Germany but in Oaklands, California, “there is no there there.”

This is not a trivial disagreement. German nationalism sought to embrace all German speaking people, while the Austro-Hungarian Empire sought to embrace a great diversity of people with various ethnic, religious and cultural affiliations. The two value systems are incompatible and it is shamefully dishonest to place all the achievements in the nationalist basket, long before the relevant nations came into being, while tipping into the imperial basket the evils [specifically, racism and communal violence] which broke out across all empires but were caused by nationalism. Nationalism excludes people who could belong under imperialism, and from Turkey to Finland, all across Europe, nationalism produced the forced migrations of millions of people during the 20th century, and the Germans had no monopoly of nationalist ideology. Nationalism and ethnic pride not only brings people together but also creates outsiders and excludes significant parts of the population who were previously included. That was never a specifically German phenomenon. In other words, the problem is not Germans, but nationalists.

Generally, a focus on cultural history and not politics sometimes leaves the discussion hanging in mid-air. Indeed, it brings into focus the surprising reality that this seemingly comprehensive review is nevertheless selective both in its choices and its emphasis. Even though there is an awful lot of material in this book, the book quietly omits a lot more information that is essential if we are to seriously investigate the questions presented in the introduction. If the argument is a comparative one – that Germans were different to other Europeans – then it is not valid to rely exclusively on information about Germans. I don’t see anything uniquely or specifically German about racism, nationalism, authoritarianism, militarism or a compliant, supposedly apolitical middle class or bourgeoisie. I appreciate how important German influence has been for other cultures, but I would like more recognition of external influences shaping German culture, both negatively and positively.

But the most useful comparison to my mind would be between German nationalism and the values of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and a key event, in my opinion, could be the date when the language of administration in the empire was switched from Latin to German. I can see no serious way for example to identify Wittgenstein or Freud as German. They were Austrian, products of a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic empire in which nationalism was anathema. I completely agree that we cannot allow the Nazi experience to blind us to the positive legacies of German cultural history. One step towards separating the one from the other must be to set aside the entire concept of German culture as our organising principle. I don’t accept that many of the German achievements in this book were German at all and I don’t find it helpful to label them that way.

If the Nazis were the product of a uniquely German cultural history, then we can conveniently disregard the evidence of Nazi borrowings from the policies of the USA or Great Britain, from racism, eugenics and even genocide to techniques of totalitarianism based on persuasion, manipulation, militarism and fear. The Germans were treating Slavs and fellow Europeans, after all, in ways not unlike the vicious ways the British, French or Belgians treated Africans or the USA had treated native Americans and imported Black Africans. Every single one of the European nations has been able to behave in that way to the tune of the most beautiful music and the most touching poetry.