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The German Genius, By Peter Watson

Reviewed by Edward Timms

To discredit the stereotype that equates Germans with Nazis, this book takes us back beyond Hitler to the period 1780-1830, defined – in the opening collage of quotations – as the German Renaissance.

Early chapters are devoted to the achievements of Lessing, Herder and Winckelmann, Goethe, Kant and Schiller, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. But Peter Watson breaks new ground in his account of the founding of the University of Berlin in 1810, from which he dates the rise of the educated middle class as the basis of unprecedented prosperity.

Germany was already blessed with 50 universities, but the aim of Humboldt and the Prussian reformers was revolutionary: to introduce scientific methods (Wissenschaft) into all branches of learning from the study of antiquity to the observation of nature. Moreover, teaching and research were to be combined, using seminars to encourage students to become proactive. This resulted in a new research culture sustained by libraries, laboratories and journals. The tools of discovery were made available to large numbers of students, who could acquire independent judgment. Thus personal education (Bildung) acquired a moral quality, quite distinct from the religious doctrines of the past. This was followed in the 1830s by an emphasis on pure science that was to make Germany the world leader in many fields. Again, Prussia took the initiative, providing state funding for new scientific disciplines. From Liebig and Clausius to Ehrlich and Heisenberg, we are introduced to a pantheon of scientific and medical innovators.

The outstanding quality of this book is that it places scientific discoveries at the core of cultural history, linking them with dramatic technical and industrial developments. Watson sums up this process in the words of the historian Max Lenz: "The intellectual life cannot be too highly valued. It provides the basis on which the strength of the state can eternally rest."

The "rise – and then the fall" of the educated middle class forms the axis of this compendious volume. Watson's account of the "rise" assembles such a wealth of information, based on an impressive range of sources, that The German Genius will be an essential work of reference for years to come.

We are left in no doubt that for over a century Germany led the world through its scientific, educational and cultural achievements. It is when we come to the "fall" that the argument falters. If things were going so well, how come they turned out so badly?

This question is addressed in chapters on the Abuses of History and the Pathologies of Nationalism, which invoke the idea of the "two Germanies". Running parallel to the elevated sphere of Bildung and Wissenschaft was an increasingly aggressive nationalism. For this Watson blames historians like Theodor Mommsen, Heinrich von Sybel and Heinrich von Treitschke, backed by grassroots organisations like the Pan-German League.

Thus there were two distinct Germanies competing for ascendancy, one highly cultivated, the other crudely nationalistic. Under Bismarck, the Iron Chancellor, militarists led by Alfred Krupp gained the upper hand. Watson argues that when the cultivated realised they were losing, they retreated into an unpolitical "inwardness", leading first to cultural pessimism and then (in Hannah Arendt's words) to "a temporary alliance between the educated elite and the mob".

If there were indeed two Germanies, it might be better to picture them sitting side-by-side within the same seminar room. As the intensely patriotic professor holds forth about the history of civilisation, a liberal minority was doubtless assimilating the idealistic message. Meanwhile, students influenced by the Pan-German movement were responding to the aggressive undertones, for their drinking clubs and duelling corporations tended to be macho, misogynist and anti-semitic. In celebrating German educational attainments, Watson downplays the role of student fraternities as multipliers of anti-democratic and xenophobic attitudes. In 1933 it was the students who instigated the burning of books. For them, "intellectual" had become a term of abuse.

There was also a third Germany, excluded from that seminar room (as it largely is from this book) – the sphere of women. Watson's First XI of Modern History is exclusively male: Kant, Humboldt, Marx, Clausius, Mendel, Nietzsche, Planck, Freud, Einstein, Weber, Hitler. Of course, in the 19th century it was virtually impossible for a woman to gain access to scientific research: nuclear physicist Lisa Meitner is a rare exception.

But in a book that highlights the pioneering Prussian reforms of 1810, we might expect to be introduced to Rahel Varnhagen and the Berlin salons, which encouraged women to participate in the public sphere. Of Dorothea Veit we are merely told she had two sons. There is no indication that (after marriage to Friedrich Schlegel) she became one of the authors of the Schlegel-Tieck translation of Shakespeare, undoubtedly a work of German genius.

Watson ignores achievements that don't fit his model of intellectuality. Hence the omission of Bertha von Suttner, inspiration of the pacifist movement through her novel Die Waffen nieder! (Lay Down Your Arms). And when we reach the 20th century there is no reference to the most famous of all German-born woman authors, Anne Frank (is this because she wrote in Dutch?); nor to Charlotte Salomon, whose series of paintings, Leben? Oder Theater? (Life? Or Theater?) may count as the most creative of all responses to Nazism.

Historians have identified the German reaction to Jewish emancipation as the main cause of the Nazi catastrophe. The exclusion of women from mainstream culture was a further contributory factor. By contrast, when we turn to contemporary Germany, whose thriving democracy Watson rightly celebrates, we might take the fact that the country has a woman Chancellor as conclusive evidence of a new normality. Angela Merkel's achievements are impressive precisely because she is not an Iron Chancellor, but has the flexibility to cope with financial crises and manage successful coalitions. Surprisingly, there is no reference to Merkel. Instead, we have an appreciation of the "glittering" career of Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI), highlighting his message that our access to the divine is through "erotic love". This seems a weird conclusion, given the laxity towards paedophile priests and the continuing exclusion of women from ecclesiastical office.

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