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The German Genius
By Peter Watson
Harpercollins, 964 pages, $35

What went wrong in Germany? How did the country with the world’s best universities produce the worst political regime in human history? It’s a question many have asked. Peter Watson, however, wants to recall what was right in Germany during the modern era and should be preserved.

Watson’s sprawling survey of German culture fills an important gap for American readers. Allan Bloom in his bestseller The Closing of the American Mind (1988) complained that American intellectuals were singing from a cheat sheet, with bad English translations of German originals. As Watson writes, “The United States and Great Britain may speak English, but, more than they know, they think German.”

American intellectual life has soaked up German thought, and few American university graduates appreciate the provenance of ideas they take for granted, including the identity politics that Bloom deplored. Bloom’s antagonists, Nietzsche and Heidegger, represent one side of German thought.

Gauss, Riemann, Weierstrass, Cantor, Hilbert, and Gödel gave us modern mathematics, while Planck and Einstein transformed modern physics. In music, German composers dominated from the early adulthood of J.S. Bach to the death of Johannes Brahms. Poetry? Non-German speakers will have to take my word for it that J.W. Goethe occupies a lonely summit in lyric poetry.

Germany fermented the best as well as the worst of human thinking. If Nietzsche showed us the abyss, his Christian and Jewish opponents opened our eyes to Revelation in a fresh way. Catholic New Theology, Protestant neoorthodoxy, and Jewish Modern Orthodoxy all matured in the tumult of German intellectual life. Germany’s great religious minds included the Catholic Hans Urs von Balthasar (whom Watson does not mention), the Protestants Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and the Jews Samson Raphael Hirsch and Franz Rosenzweig. That is not to mention Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, who in 1932 earned a doctorate in philosophy at Berlin and whose encounter with Kant and Kierkegaard enriched his authoritative presentation of Jewish Orthodoxy. It is no accident that the present pope is German, nor that his predecessor learned German philosophy.

A journalist rather than a scholar, Watson tries to do justice to the variety of achievements of German culture. He condenses a vast amount of material into a single volume covering German achievements in the arts, in science and mathematics, in philosophy, and in literature and music. He does so, moreover, against the backdrop of the country’s tragic political history. German dominance in so many fields is astonishing in retrospect, and Watson’s account refreshes the sense of wonder even for readers familiar with much of the history. Few, if any, know all of it.

Of course, a project so ambitious would tax the capacity of a polymath, which Watson is not. The book is full of errors, including a few howlers. He misreports the content of Faust’s famous bet with the Devil, a fixture of the German imagination. He appears to think that Richard Strauss was a “dissonant” composer on par with the atonal Arnold Schoenberg. And he recounts the ravings of a certain Paul Anton Bötticher about national will and collective soul without mentioning Bötticher’s inspiration, the very non-German Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Inevitably, readers will find least satisfying the parts about which they know most. Sadly, the chapter on theologians is among the weakest.

These are quibbles, though. On the whole, Watson’s effort is creditable. The larger question is how much Watson contributes to our understanding of the German conundrum, the odd fact that great cultural achievements failed to protect Germany from political barbarism.

In the main, Watson reiterates the view of Fritz Stern and other liberal historians that “in the run-up to World War I, there were not one but two Germanies,” the nice Germany of poetry and music and science and the naughty Germany of nationalism and racism. The difficulty is that these two Germanies cannot be so easily separated, for they inhabited the hearts of the same people: “two souls in one breast,” as Faust said.

What were these “two souls,” and why were they there? No historian speaks of “two souls” for England, France, Russia, or Italy. What made Germany different? The liberal interpretation dwells on missed opportunities: the failed parliament of 1848, the fractious Weimar republic, and other aborted efforts to bring what Watson calls “bourgeois democracy” to Germany.

This approach is unsatisfying because it tends to retail symptoms as diagnosis. Moreover, to explain the enervation of German liberalism, liberal historians often fall back on objective circumstances”the division of Germany into dozens of petty monarchies after the Thirty Years’ War and the predominance of an aristocratic-military caste”and thus veer uncomfortably close to the materialism and historicism that they deplore. After wading through Watson’s treasure of material, we feel like Faust, who complained that after a lifetime of study he knew as much as he did before.

Watson makes no mention of the self-diagnosis of German thinkers who well understood the nature of the tragedy as it played out. Not surprisingly, many of them were Jews. Heinrich Heine, Franz Rosenzweig, and Siegmund Freud offered a clearer characterization of the “two Germanies.” They agreed that Germany had a pagan as well as a Christian soul.

The old German pagan religion persisted under the veneer of Christianity in the form of folklore and superstition, wrote Heine in Religion and Philosophy in Germany . The trouble with the Germans, quipped Rosenzweig in The Star of Redemption , is that they can’t tell Jesus Christ from Siegfried. And Freud noted in his last book, Moses and Monotheism: “ We must not forget that all the peoples who now excel in the practice of anti-Semitism became Christians only in relatively recent times, sometimes forced to it by bloody compulsion. One might say they are all ‘badly christened’; under the thin veneer of Christianity they have remained what their ancestors were, barbarically polytheistic.”

Watson writes dutifully about Nazi neo-paganism, but his secular bias obscures its origins. The remarkable development of culture and learning in Germany”a process that overran the supply lines of stable Christian self-understanding”is a place to start. Watson notes that German literacy surpassed that of the rest of Europe at the turn of the nineteenth century, but he does not mention that parts of Protestant Germany began universal, compulsory elementary education late in the seventeenth century. In the Saxony where J.S. Bach was born, primary instruction in reading, arithmetic, and music was compulsory. The doctrine of sola scriptora demanded literacy, and the evangelical use of music required a population that could sing four-part hymns. In Bach’s Germany, most middling towns had a church composer; and most town pastors were aspiring scholars.

As Goethe’s biographer Nicholas Boyle explains, Germany’s small Protestant states turned the clergy into civil servants and built universities to train them. That is why Germany had more universities than anyplace else. By the nineteenth century, ambitious young Germans were earning doctorates while their English counterparts were taking regimental commissions or East India Company posts. Germany’s academic elite joined the political class along with the military; in nineteenth-century Prussia, a university professor had a social rank equal to that of a major general in the army.

Germans, moreover, looked at the world with the inquiring eyes of newcomers to civilization. Goethe complained early in his career that he could be a great poet if only he wrote in a less barbarous language. He solved the problem by creating modern literary German, an achievement comparable to Dante’s invention of modern Italian. Kant set aside the ontological debates of millennia and asked why we should not think of knowledge in terms of inborn faculties of perception rather than an ultimate reality we will never grasp. Innovation seems to come to those who inherit a relatively light legacy.

The problem was that Germany exalted its cultural achievements to the point of idolatry. The only prayer Goethe could utter in earnest, Rosenzweig comments, was Psalm 90’s “Establish thou the work of our hands.” Kultur became Germany’s national religion, with terrible consequences. The intellectual achievements of the professors were bloodless, offering only a fragile line of resistance against the neopagan impulse that long lurked underneath the official Christianity of German society. Yoked to the state, Protestantism eventually became the instrument of German nationalism, fostering rather than resisting national self-worship.

“On October 4, 1914, two months into the Great War, ninety-three German intellectuals published . . . the Manifesto of the Ninety-Three, addressed ‘An die Kulturwelt’ (To the Civilized World), in which they . . . made it clear they viewed the war not as a campaign against German militarism but above all as an assault on German culture,” Watson reports. Among the ninety-three were Max Planck, the painter Max Liebermann, and William Wundt, the founder of experimental psychology. This exaggerated sense of cultural importance”and affliction”has a long history. In 1914, Thomas Mann enthused about Germany’s “indispensable role as missionary,” defending German Kultur against the superficial Zivilisation of the West. Two years later Max Weber wrote, “It would be shameful if we lacked the courage to ensure that neither Russian barbarism nor French grandiloquence ruled the world. That is why this war is being fought.”

This sad conflation of Kultur with national greatness condemned German intellectuals to perdition. In a 1933 play, the future Nazi poet laureate Hans Johst had his stage protagonist declare, “When I hear Kultur I release the safety catch on my Browning.” Once Kultur had become an ersatz religion, the way was clear for the Nazis to substitute the idolatry of blood for the idolatry of mind.

The catastrophe of Germany was and remains the dominant memory of the postmodern West. To a great degree, the main intellectual movements of the postwar years can be understood as efforts to purge idolatries of blood and mind from our collective imaginations. Germany has all but abjured the Kultur it once worshiped; it is hard to find a German schoolchild today who can quote four lines of Goethe from memory. And at present fertility rates, the German population will shrink by 98 percent over the next two centuries.

That is not only Germany’s tragedy, but ours. The great project of German theologians such as Barth, Urs von Balthasar, and Rosenzweig”to restore religious orthodoxy in the modern world after Kant and Nietzsche”was a work in progress when Hitler took power. We are still picking up the pieces they bequeathed us. No other venue could have educated a Joseph Ratzinger; it remains to be seen whether he is the last of a great line, or a new beginning. If what was good in Germany is lost along with the ill, it will be all the harder for us and for our children to find our bearings.

David P. Goldman is a senior editor at First Things .