The German Genius By Peter Watson

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?

12 Responses

  1. Fascinating post, Levi. I
    Fascinating post, Levi. I wolfed it down over breakfast—scrambled brains on toast points with a side of (Hannah Arendt’s recipe) for chopped liver. Pure protein.

  2. This sounds like an
    This sounds like an interesting book. You know, one of the best descriptions of the grand German intellectual spirit being consumed from within by the hatred of the Nazis is to be found in Thomas Wolfe’s ‘You Can’t Go Home Again.’

    He really saw the nightmarish horror of what was happening and expressed it clearly well before the war broke out.

  3. I’m a big fan of German
    I’m a big fan of German Expressionism in film, like The Student of Prague (1913), The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), The Golem (1920), Nosferatu (1922), Metropolis (1927), M (1931), and others.

    It’s said that German filmmakers used expressionism to make up for lack of big budgets, but the surreal artistic genius of the sets and backdrops became a genre of its own. The plots were usually of an intellectual nature, albiet rather grim and scary. When the Nazis gained power, several German filmmakers emigrated to Hollywood and had a big influence on American films, especially Film Noir and horror.

  4. To your list I would add
    To your list I would add Wagner. He is a controversial figure because of his anti-semitism, but the dude could compose an opera.

    I would also add the painters Paul Klee, George Grosz, and the Austrians Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt, all of whom painted in the early 20th century (Klee and Klimt also in the latter part of the 19th).

    In philosophy I would add Schopenhauer.

    You’re right Levi, you don’t see many people reading Goethe or even Thomas Mann on public trans. And Mann was a great writer. The Magic Mountain is an excellent novel.

    To concur with Bill Ectric, Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau were giants of the early cinema.

  5. Yeah, his picture of the ’36
    Yeah, his picture of the ’36 Olympics was creepy, he really nailed the cultish nature of national socialism when describing Der Fuehrer proceeding into the stadium like some kind of Buddha. But yeah Wolfe was fearless in highlighting Germany’s virtues while noting the cancer overtaking the country.

  6. At the beginning of the book
    At the beginning of the book when he says that German young people can name living English celebrities but English young people can’t name living German celebrities, surely this is more about Americans and the empire of their language and culture? European teenagers who learn English will often say it is from pop songs and films, “Es klingt”. At first the only German celebrity I could think of was Angela Merkel, and then remembered that I like Tangerine Dream and the genius Edgar Froese, who must owe his beautiful music to his germanic history.

    It is rare to find a book so well-written and without cliches, its style is actually poetic and Rilke would like it, in keeping with its thesis.

  7. I guess you don’t speak or
    I guess you don’t speak or understand German. And so you never heared about – for example – the German tradition of black and bizarre humour from Simplicissimus to Christoph Schlingensief. Because you are not able to understand it.

  8. Levi, I was astonished by how
    Levi, I was astonished by how critical you are about what you call the “boundaries” of the book. As a German-American in my late 30’s, I’ve been searching my whole life (until now in vain) for any book that for once emphasizes the positive traits or accomplishments of Germans — and likewise have vainly sought for even one positive portrayal of a German in a major American film. You say its easy to “get lost among the constantly shifting borders of Germany, Prussia, Austria and the Holy Roman Empire”, but isn’t this question at the very heart of why for centuries Germany felt like such a plaything of England and France, both of which had been consolidated nation-states since the Medieval era? It in fact explains why Germany felt so overly exuberant and boastful about finally escaping the political designs of the colonialist European powers to keep them divided and less powerful. Then you say “It’s never completely clear what ‘German’ means” as if the very idea of someone writing a book such as Watson’s is unthinkable without them first admitting that defining “German” is just too hard for anyone to take on! Finally, you claim “nor is it clear whether Jewish geniuses like Heine, Marx, Freud and Einstein can today be considered German.” Well, were they educated in the Germanophone world? Were they born and raised there, with it’s teachers, culture, and institutions? These people were German, just as I’m American. Are Jewish-Americans not American? No one gets to arrogantly pluck them from their social environment after the fact for their own historical agenda because the nazi era somehow bestows this moral superiority on citizens of the Allied countries of WWII.

  9. Levi,
    This sounds like a

    This sounds like a fascinating book and one I will seek out immediately. As a long time Germanophile, who spent one “Lehrjahr” in Vienna, Austria in the 70’s soaking up German culture and language, I can readily attest to the dis-connect between the reality and the perception. We here in America, as probably in England as well, are doing ourselves no favor in clinging to only the Nazified image of Germany and its cultural legacy. This is hardly a matter of fault though (not that you say otherwise!)
    Even contemporary Germans denigrate their own past achievements. When no one is willing to sing praises, perhaps people will likely conclude–even reasonably, if wrongly–that praise is not warranted. Perhaps this book can do something to change that perception. (Perhaps then I could get a translation of Anzengrüber’s novels published!)
    Great pick, and a fine review; Thank you.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

What We're Up To ...

Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!