The Seduction of Culture in German History
by Wolf Lepenies
Princeton University Press, 270 pages, $24.95
In September 1939, while the Nazi war machine smashed its way through Poland, Berliners acted as if nothing unusual was happening. As David Clay Large points out in his history of Berlin, “Theaters, operas, and cinemas all stayed open, and all were jammed.” In fact, the State Opera was showing Tannhäuser and Madama Butterfly.
Less than six years later, that same Berlin was standing on the brink of annihilation. Since 1943, Allied bombers had pummeled the city with 65,000 tons of explosives. In mid-April 1945, the Red Army would begin its final assault on the capital, deploying 2.5 million soldiers and more than forty thousand pieces of artillery.
And yet, on the night of April 12, the Berlin Philharmonic was busy performing Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony, and the finale of Wagner’s Götterdmmerung. “It is said,” writes Antony Beevor in The Fall of Berlin 1945, “that, after the performance, the Nazi Party had organized Hitler Youth members to stand in uniform with baskets of cyanide capsules and offer them to members of the audience as they left.” It was, after all, the philharmonic’s final show.
So what is it about Germans and their reverence for Kultur? And did this reverence turn into an unhealthy obsession that, for better and for worse, has impacted the history of Germany from the age of Goethe to the present?
These are just some of the questions that impelled Wolf Lepenies to write The Seduction of Culture in German History. “This book describes an intellectual attitude that can be observed throughout German history: the overrating of culture at the expense of politics, especially in the sense of parliamentary politics,” says Lepenies in his introduction. “One cannot understand German history by talking solely about German intellectual life, but one can understand German history more fully by taking intellectual life into account.”
This he does extensively—though not exclusively. There are, in fact, plenty of detours along the way, almost all swipes at American conservatives. Lepenies, “one of Germany’s foremost intellectuals” according to his own author’s biography, spends several pages, for instance, criticizing Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, which “should not be read as an empirically valid description of the influence of German thinkers in the United States.” Lepenies is annoyed that Bloom only mentions Thomas Mann as having written two stories, “Death in Venice” and “Tonio Krger,” as though “the rest of his work does not exist.” And later, “That The Closing of the American Mind was displayed on the coffee tables of hundreds of thousands of American homes does not yet prove that Allan Bloom changed the worldview of his readers or was able to influence the course of American politics.”
The author claims that Reinhold Niebuhr’s 1952 volume, The Irony of American History, “could be called the best book on the war against terror and the second Iraq war,” since Niebuhr quotes one European as saying, “American power in the service of American idealism could create a situation in which we would be too impotent to correct you when you are wrong and you would be too idealistic to correct yourself.”
But even this has to be turned against American conservatives: “To avoid the danger of overestimating the purity of one’s own wisdom one had to understand ‘the ironic tendency of virtues to turn into vices when too complacently relied upon.’” Lepenies disappoints by making no mention of Abu Ghraib, wiretapping, or the Supreme Court’s involvement in the outcome of the 2000 presidential election.
To be fair, while Lepenies occasionally gets carried away, he does have a point to make—namely, the profound impact of German intellectuals on the United States, including Thomas Mann and the “Jewish-German émigré” Leo Strauss. He also gives a thorough treatment of the culture wars between France and Germany, Émile Durkheim and Max Weber, the role culture played behind the Iron Curtain, and how the intellectuals triumphed over the communists throughout much of Eastern Europe but not in the German Democratic Republic.
Where Lepenies excels, however, is in his examination of German society and its embrace of culture while shunning politics because of the “high premium” on “cultural preeminence and on the illiberal elitism that had prevailed in Germany since the time of Weimar classicism.” Prominent thinkers such as Friedrich Nietzsche saw a choice between culture and politics: “One lives off the other, one prospers at the expense of the other. All the great ages of culture are ages of decline, politically speaking: what is great in the cultural sense has been unpolitical, even anti-political.” Lepenies also cites Fritz Stern, who described culture as “the arena of the absolute, a realm without compromise. Its exaltation nourished the illusion that culture could be a substitute for power and therefore a substitute for politics.” Consequently, “when culture was accepted as a substitute for politics, the absence of morality in the public sphere was easily accepted as well.” Such was the attitude, even among ordinary citizens, that paved the way for the rise of Hitler’s National Socialism in Germany and the horrors that followed.
”The Holocaust was not only a political crime,” says Lepenies, “it was also a moral failure of a magnitude that could no longer be
compensated for by any artistic achievement.” Shortly after the end of the war in Europe, Thomas Mann (whom Lepenies returns to time and again) spoke of his country’s “seclusiveness and melancholy unfitness for the world.” He “reminded his audience of how inwardness and the romantic counterrevolution had led to the disastrous separation of the speculative from the sociopolitical sphere that made the Germans unfit for democracy.”
Sixty years later, it seems perfectly normal to see Germany as a well-respected democracy in Europe (not to mention the largest economy on the continent). But for Mann, it was far from certain that his country could ever function properly under democratic institutions.
The years 1933 to 1945 also posed a serious dilemma for intellectuals living in the Reich. Some, like Thomas Mann, chose exile, hoping it would be brief. Lepenies points to Mann’s particular exile as quintessentially German: “no political outburst, no cry for revenge, just a quiet retreat into inwardness.” The nation as a whole had also turned inward. “Ethically dignified and aesthetically appealing, solitude (Einsamkeit) had always been a preferred German state of mind. The more passionate Germany became, the more it isolated itself.”
Those intellectuals who stayed behind claimed to have experienced an “inner emigration,” withdrawing but helping to preserve the Kulturstaat: “They had prevented the worst possible catastrophe-the demise of German culture.” According to Lepenies, these exiles “reiterated their belief in the sanctity of the cultural realm that had prevented them from becoming tainted with the crimes of the Nazi regime.” Needless to say, relations between the inner and the outer exiles were not the friendliest.
Lepenies rightly turns to Henry Pachter, another migr, who spoke not of a line separating right from left, but rather “between decent people and political gangsters, between tolerant people and totalitarians. Not between those who stayed in Germany (and perhaps had to be involved in the daily life of the Third Reich) and those who emigrated for whatever reason, but between those who enjoyed the atmosphere of the Third Reich and profited from it, and those who lived as aliens either in their own country or in another.”
The fall of the Third Reich led many German intellectuals to believe their country would never again be a major political force but that, alternatively, its culture would flourish. Lepenies notes that for migr intellectuals such as Theodor Adorno, loss of political sovereignty was the price to be paid for resurrecting German culture. And Johann Wolfgang von Goethe himself, writes Lepenies, “anticipated that German culture, and with it the whole civilized world, would profit more from a German Diaspora than from a successful German nation-building that was only a remote possibility in his own time.”
This was still a possibility more than a hundred years after Goethe’s death, when the Allies divided Germany, apparently guaranteeing it would never again pose a threat to the rest of the world. But with the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the end of the Cold War, would a united Germany once again achieve political success at the expense of its culture?
As Goethe and Schiller famously advised in a poem to their fellow Germans: To learn to form a nation, you hope, Germans, in vain / learn instead, you can do it, more freely to become human. Germany is now a solidly democratic nation at the center of Europe and (as far as one can tell) harbors no desire to reoccupy the Sudetenland. To be sure, Germans continue to grapple with their past-Lepenies writes at length about the ongoing debate over monuments to victims of the war. But the Kulturstaat continues to thrive, contrary to what Robert Ley, head of the German Labor Front, said in February 1945. Dresden had just been obliterated, and Ley announced: “We [can] almost heave a sigh of relief. It is over. Now we will no longer be distracted by the monuments of German culture!”
Victorino Matus is an assistant managing editor at the Weekly Standard.