The German Question

The German Genius: Europe’s Third Renaissance, the Second Scientific Revolution and the Twentieth Century by Peter Watson; Fame by Daniel Kehlmann; The Box by Günter Grass; and Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman by Friedrich Christian Delius

Books Germany Heritage Literature

What is it about the Germans? No nation has risen to such sublime heights and sunk to such hideous depths; no nation has been so creative and so destructive; no nation evokes such admiration and alarm in equal measure. When and why did the Germans come by their uniquely problematic destiny? How could the nation of Kant and Goethe also be the nation of Hitler and Himmler?

In The German Genius: Europe’s Third Renaissance, the Second Scientific Revolution and the Twentieth Century (Simon and Schuster, £30), the British journalist Peter Watson makes a valiant and voluminous attempt to answer what used to be known as the German Question. The German Genius presents a huge corpus of scholarship in easily digestible form, and its range is astonishing. No professor, least of all a German one, would have dared to essay such a synthesis; so much the worse for the professors. 

 A German Genius? Daniel Kehlmann, the enfant terrible of German letters

If, after nearly 1,000 pages, Watson ultimately fails to give a satisfactory answer to the German Question, that may be because none exists. It is not merely that no one scholar can ever hope to master all the material necessary to come to a balanced, definitive conclusion. Rather, the very notion of passing judgment on the Germans is incoherent, for the reason given by Edmund Burke in his plea for conciliation with America: “I do not know the method of drawing up an indictment against a whole people.”

True, in the German case, the two world wars both evoked demands for just such an indictment. The Versailles Treaty laid the whole burden of responsibility for the Great War on “the aggression of Germany and its allies”. The reparations imposed on Germany by the treaty were paid off only last month, almost 90 years later, and just four years after Britain finished paying off wartime loans to the US. That historical curiosity is a reminder that the “war guilt” for which, so it was claimed at the time, the German people was being punished, was a myth. The fact is that wars are expensive, and not only for the losers. After the Second World War, the Nuremberg trials were also seen by some as an indictment of the Germans, but in fact the Western allies consistently distinguished between the Nazi leaders and the German people. Propaganda in occupied Germany based on the concept of collective guilt was briefly tried after the full extent of the Holocaust became clear, but it soon ceased to play any part in Allied policy. Since 1945, a few writers, from A. J. P. Taylor to Daniel Goldhagen, have traced the roots of Nazi ideology throughout German history, but the popular and academic consensus has been overwhelmingly favourable to the Germany that emerged after the war. Even the harshest critics of the Germans’ readiness under Hitler to abandon Western civilisation do not doubt the solidity of the post-war German achievement. 

For Peter Watson, “That is all in the past…such a betrayal could not take place again.” His thesis is that non-Germans in general, and the British in particular, have been unable or unwilling to look “beyond Hitler” and to appreciate the extraordinary ways in which German philosophers, writers, scientists, architects, artists, musicians, theologians and countless other thinkers have altered our “intellectual skyline”. He even has an appendix, “Thirty-five Underrated Germans”, all of whom contributed crucially to our world, but who are unknown to most of us and even to their compatriots. 

Indeed, Watson at times echoes the bombastic nationalism of the past, asserting that the Germans have not only produced “the First XI of modern history” but are still ahead, thanks to their bigger brains and higher IQs (apparently Germans score an average of 107, the British 100 and the French only 94). He falls for the bogus notion that Germans are more “inward” and “unpolitical” than others. This was a theme of German propaganda in the First World War, most notably in Reflections of an Unpolitical Man by the novelist Thomas Mann and The Genius of War by the philosopher Max Scheler, a Jewish convert to Catholicism and a major influence on Pope John Paul II (he is incorrectly described here as the son of a Lutheran pastor). In his self-righteous denunciation of the obsession of the British press with Nazis (Watson has been a senior editor for the Sunday Times, notorious for the “Hitler Diaries”) and his approving citation of dubious American critics of the “Holocaust industry” (such as Norman Finkelstein, who calls Israel “a satanic state”), Watson occasionally crosses the line between apologetics and propaganda.

However, Watson’s enthusiasm for German intellectual history is infectious: from the rediscovery of antiquity in the 18th century, prompted by German classical scholarship (which he elevates to the status of a “third renaissance”) to the “second scientific revolution” in 19th-century Germany (after the first one of the 17th century) and the multifarious German critique of modernity in the 20th century. Watson assembles some impressive statistics to back up his claims, such as the fact that Germany produced more Nobel laureates up to 1933 than any other country, indeed more than America and Britain combined. 

What Watson does not tell us is the proportion of those Nobel laureates who were Jewish. In fact, a great deal of the credit for the “German genius” must go to the tiny Jewish minority, which never made up more than one per cent of the population of the German-speaking lands, but contributed a huge percentage of the talent in almost every field of endeavour. Watson is so eager to be fair to the Germans that he underplays the decisive role of the German Jews in assimilating and thereby transforming Germany from a provincial backwater in the late-18th century to become the cultural powerhouse of Europe. In philosophy, for example, Watson ignores such major Jewish thinkers as Hermann Cohen and Franz Rosenzweig; likewise, Jewish converts to Christianity: he mentions Karl Marx, of course, but not his contemporary Friedrich Julius Stahl, the ideologist of German conservatism, or Edith Stein, who died in Auschwitz but was canonised by John Paul II. Jews are not the only category to get short shrift in this book: women are virtually invisible. Female emancipation came late to Germany, and again it was led by Jewish bluestockings such as Rahel Varnhagen and Dorothea Schlegel. The Catholic contribution, too, is as usual underplayed compared to the Protestant one, reflecting the Lutheran bias of the German historical profession. To take just one example: what would German music be minus the Catholics, from Mozart and Beethoven to Bruckner and Berg?

But the most serious flaw in Watson’s book is his underrating of the Jewish factor. That Germans benefited so hugely from Jewish  genius right up to 1933 and beyond makes their anti-Semitism all the more perverse, indeed masochistic. Watson tells us that by 1938 Germany (including Austria) had lost 39 per cent of its academic elite. He shows how the mainly Jewish exiles transformed Britain and America, just as they had Germany. But he does not really tell us why the most educated, cultured and sophisticated middle class in the world, the German Bildungsbürgertum, threw its moral and intellectual virtues to the winds in order to embrace Hitler. Why did the German genius commit suicide? 

I actually agree with Watson’s argument that we have underrated the German achievement before 1933, though I would not go as far as Norman Cantor, the eccentric American historian he quotes approvingly to the effect that “the 20th century should have been the German century”. Between 1688 and 1914, the emergence of the Anglosphere was a truly global phenomenon that dwarfed the simultaneous flowering of German intellectual life, and even without the two world wars the rise of the United States would have been irresistible. Moreover, if one is to play the counterfactual game by writing Hitler out of the script, why not also postulate a world without Lenin, Stalin and Mao, in which Russia and China had been able to develop into democracies and the rest of the world had not been blighted by communism? It was the two world wars that undermined Europe’s pre-eminence, denying many of their colonies the institutions that might have anchored them in the Western world. And which nation bears the heaviest responsibility for both wars? You cannot answer the German Question by pronouncing the Nazis “un-German”. That, my dear Watson, is too elementary.

“The German genius is alive and well,” he declares. But is it? Three new works of fiction by major German writers have just appeared, and two of the three go some way to justify Watson’s confidence. Fame by Daniel Kehlmann (Quercus, £12.99) is a virtuoso performance by the enfant terrible of German letters. After making his mark with a first novel while still a student, the prodigious Kehlmann had written another five books by the age of 30 when he hit the jackpot five years ago with Measuring the World, which has a fair claim to be the most important and successful German novel since Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum appeared half a century ago. It stars two of Watson’s prime exhibits in The German Genius: the mathematician Christian Gauss and the explorer-scientist Alexander von Humboldt. Kehlmann, however, has his own take on German genius and portrays his titans as all too human. In Fame, he returns to the theme of celebrity but in a contemporary setting, with nine “episodes” in which the fates of seemingly unrelated individuals become entangled. Some of them protest against the author’s arbitrary edicts, but all are at the mercy of this “second-class God”. This is a sophisticated, quietly subversive work, which cruelly mocks the self-satisfied “culture” of the Bildungsbürgertum whom Watson so admires. It is to his credit that Kehlmann has upset the German and Austrian literary establishments sufficiently to be sneered at as “cosmopolitan”. Appropriately, his books are translated (excellently) by his US publisher, Carol Brown Janeway, and he feels at least as comfortable in New York or London as he does in Berlin or Vienna.

So much for the enfant terrible; what of the grand old man? Günter Grass has just celebrated his 83rd birthday and the sequel to his 2006 memoir Peeling the Onion is hot off the press. Alas, The Box (Harvill Secker, £16.99) will do little to revive a reputation severely tarnished, at least in the English-speaking world, by Grass’s belated admission that he had been a member of the Waffen SS during the last year of the war. It was not only the fact that he had served in a criminal organisation that caused dismay, but the manner in which he glossed over an entire career spent denouncing other former cogs in the Nazi machine for their hypocrisies and evasions. Grass, however, chose to brazen it out and even to pose as a victim of the anti-German prejudice of which Watson makes so much. The Box is a transparent and somewhat clumsy attempt to change the subject by focusing on Grass’s later career, through the narrative device of an old Agfa box camera, which records the writer’s life, while the story of each photograph is told in the imaginary voices of his eight children by various wives and mistresses. The camera is wielded by Marie, yet another of the women in Grass’s life, whom the children think of as a kind of family retainer and their father as a devoted “assistant” and occasional lover.

The trouble is that writing about oneself in the third person is inherently problematic and the novelty rapidly palls. The effect is a curious inversion of Frederick the Great, who habitually addressed servants in the third person. The absolute author, like the absolute monarch, puts his readers in their place by distancing himself from his own actions and thereby evading responsibility for them. So Grass, who has spent his life preaching to the Germans that they must face up to their past, never confronts his own. And by privileging the private paterfamilias over the public intellectual, he dodges potential criticism. Even as a husband and a father, Grass is constantly on the run, pursued by the consequences of his own deeds. Only when he reverts to speaking in his own voice does he speak candidly: “Yes, children, I know: being a father is only an assertion, one that constantly has to be corroborated. That is why, to make you believe me, I must lie.”

If Kehlmann represents the future of the German genius and Grass its past, where do we place Friedrich Christian Delius? Now in his late sixties, Delius belongs to the 1968 generation, which Watson insists was “a much bigger set of events [in West Germany] than anywhere else”. Whether or not Watson is exaggerating again — and I suspect that the Czechs, the French and the Americans might say that he was — it is certainly true that the “68ers” left a permanent mark on the German political and cultural landscape, which indeed they dominated until recently. They were, of course, the children of the Nazi generation and they romanticised their rebellion as the resistance that should have happened but didn’t — a posthumous revenge on Hitler. They caricatured their parents as a generation “incapable of mourning”, in the famous phrase of the psychologists Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich, and mythologised themselves as the true liberators of a still “authoritarian” Germany, ignoring the existence on the other side of the Berlin Wall of a real German dictatorship — of the Left. This self-apotheosis did little harm as long as the rebellion took the form of student antics, but in the 1970s it mutated into terrorism and came close to destabilising the Federal Republic. The older generation took fright and, led by Helmut Schmidt and Helmut Kohl, fought a successful rearguard action. Not until 1998 did the lunatics take over the asylum, by which time their leaders — the former 68ers Otto Schily and Joschka Fischer, plus the slightly younger Gerhard Schröder — had become conventional politicians in three-piece suits. Even Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the former Danny le Rouge, is a well-heeled MEP, while those artists who survived the lethally self-indulgent lifestyle of a Rainer Werner Fassbinder have become pillars of the German cultural establishment. 

Delius, too, has matured into a novelist and poet of considerable stature, but the first of his books to be translated is his 2006 novella Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman. This is the kind of reckoning with the past that could happen only with the passing of time. A young German woman, heavily pregnant, finds herself in Rome in 1943. Separated from her adored husband, Gert, a corporal in North Africa, she has little to do but await the birth of her child. She decides to walk to a concert in the Lutheran church on the other side of Rome. Her stream of consciousness, a single 125-page sentence, takes about as long to read as the urban stroll that she describes. Reading Portrait is in fact anything but an arduous experience. There is nothing ponderously Germanic about the delicacy with which Delius recreates the longings and fears of the expectant Margarete (her name is revealed only indirectly, when she crosses the Ponte Margharita). The unfolding drama lies in the tension between her sense of patriotic duty and her realisation that this duty stands between her and happiness. Delius gives us an insight into the mind of a typical German of the Third Reich, in whose conscience Nazi indoctrination vies for supremacy with faith, hope and love. In the final pages she listens to a Bach cantata, and the conflict between her Führer and her God comes into focus. She imagines the whole of Europe intoning a mighty chorale against the war, praising God and bringing peace on earth. The reader knows that this not going to happen, that the worst is yet to come, and that, even if they survive the war, mother and child will suffer the just retribution which they, as part of the German people, have brought upon themselves. Heavier than the burden that the mother carries across the Eternal City is the burden of guilt that not only this woman but her child must bear for the crimes committed in their name. Still, at least they have a future, however bleak. If she had been Jewish, she and her baby would have been extremely fortunate to survive at all.

What gives this novella even greater poignancy is the fact that the unborn child is actually Delius himself. He was born in Rome in that same year, 1943, and we must assume that he is here describing the predicament of his parents. Rather than condemning them outright, he tries to grasp their deformations, their illusions and their humanity. In doing so, Delius achieves some kind of closure: if not peace with the past, then at least a truce that he can bequeath to his own children (among them the Standpoint columnist Mara Delius). All passion spent, the old 68er has finally learnt the lesson that Goethe, the original German genius, tried to teach nearly two centuries ago. In conversation with his friend Eckermann in 1828, the sage contrasted “the blessings of personal freedom” that he perceived among his young English visitors in Weimar with the oppressive German atmosphere in which “no sooner does a little boy dare to crack his whip or sing or shout than the policeman is there to forbid him”. The German genius is more genial now — Gott sei Dank