Has anyone misplaced a renaissance? Say, a Germanic one, about two centuries old?
We all might have, according to cultural historian Peter Watson’s thick new book The German Genius: Europe’s Third Renaissance, the Second Scientific Revolution, and the Twentieth Century. It’s a big thesis, but the evidence is surprisingly strong. A summary on the book’s back cover states the case:
From the end of the Baroque era and the death of Bach to the rise of Hitler in 1933, Germany was transformed from a poor relation among Western nations into a dominant intellectual and cultural force — more creative and influential than France, Britain, Italy, Holland, and the United States. In the early decades of the twentieth century, German artists, writers, scholars, philosophers, scientists, and engineers were leading their freshly unified country to new and unimagined heights. By 1933, Germans had won more Nobel Prizes than any other nationals, and more than the British and Americans combined. Yet this remarkable genius was cut down in its prime by Adolf Hitler and his disastrous Third Reich—a brutal legacy that has overshadowed the nation’s achievements ever since.
“More creative and influential than France, Britain, the United States”? I was eager to read this book as soon as I heard about it, because I ran into German idealism several years ago when I was going through a big phase of reading about Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Bronson Alcott and the whole New England Transcendentalist movement. I’d originally thought of this movement as quintessentially American, but it turned out that transcendentalism was born in Germany, and all the folks in New England knew it at the time. It was to Germany, not England or France, that many of the top intellectuals of the 19th Century looked for inspiration.
Today, there are few Germans in the high ranks of our literary canon, and we don’t learn much about Germany’s intellectual past in school. But between the glory days of Prussia’s political rise and the psychotic painful years of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich, the Germanic countries gave us Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Friedrich Schiller, Johann Wolfgang von Geothe, Freidrich Schelling, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Immanuel Kant, Heinrich Heine, Johann Gottfried Herder, Jacob Burckhardt, Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, Heinrich Schliemann, Thomas Mann, Albert Einstein (not to mention a few composers like Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, who set Schiller’s verses to music in his Ninth Symphony). As Peter Watson notes in The German Genius, there were frequent breakouts of popular “German fever” at various places and times during the 18th and 19th centuries. Until Hitler, it was widely understood around the world that the German spirit was intellectual, idealistic and cultured to the core.
Peter Watson’s book has an ambitious goal, and often adopts a forceful and insistent tone, like a kid pulling on an arm: “Germans invented modern education — see? Germans invented the study of history — see?” It’s also easy to question the book’s chosen boundaries, or to get lost among the constantly shifting borders of Germany, Prussia, Austria and the Holy Roman Empire. It’s never completely clear what “German” means, nor would most people today feel comfortable referring to Jewish geniuses like Heine, Marx, Freud and Einstein as German, though they all considered themselves proud representatives of the German spirit.
But that’s exactly where the important intellectual legacy of Germany’s golden age gets lost — in the transposition onto our post-World-War-II view of Germany, and in the dark knowledge of the militarism, repression and sadistic violence unleashed in the country’s last war. But Geothe and Schiller and Kant were not Nazis.
Despite a heavy-handed tone, Watson’s book seals its case. The evidence speaks for itself: there was a German enlightenment (though there isn’t even a good Wikipedia page for it today). It was tremendously important in its time. When was the last time you saw somebody reading Geothe or Lessing on a bus or train?