"It is to those who find it difficult to move beyond Hitler that 'The German Genius' is dedicated." With these words, Peter Watson sums up the point and purpose of this study. It is an attempt to redraw the balance, for the English-speaking reader, between the pariah Germany that perpetrated atrocities during the first half of the twentieth century and the brilliant Germany that was for some two centuries before - and even during - that period the intellectual and cultural engine first of continental Europe and later of the whole of the developed world. In Britain in particular, knowledge of the German intellectual inheritance - the degree to which contemporary thinking on a host of subjects is in its origins German thinking - has been lost sight of. Watson seeks to correct that oversight and, more importantly, to move the debate 'beyond Hitler' by drawing attention to developments in Germany since 1945 that demonstrate both continuity with the Germany of Bach and Beethoven, Kant and Goethe, Marx and Weber, Helmholtz and Boltmann, and a new German spirit that has emerged since the events of 1968.
The story is extremely rich, and Watson is pressed to do justice to it in a single volume, even so large a volume as this. He is required to trace developments across a very wide range of fields - history, philology, philosophy, economics, physics, engineering, chemistry, biology, mathematics, music, painting, architecture, literature, theology, psychology, the university - while at the same time attempting to demonstrate in what sense the idea of specifically 'German genius' is meaningful.
This means that the book is at root a study of a culture rather than a chronological compendium of instances of exceptional achievement. Watson builds his analysis around the historical development of key concepts - the division between 'Kultur' and 'Zivilisation': the peculiarly German notions of 'Bildung' and 'Innerlichkeit' - to draw a picture of a nation in which extreme refinements of cultural and spiritual development can co-exist with political and civil underdevelopment, a deep anxiety about the nature and meaning of scientific progress, and a profound cultural pessimism. It is a measure of his success that by the time he is obliged to speak directly of the deformations of German culture in the first half of the twentieth century - and he is unsparing when he does so - the reader understands not just how that failure came about but how mighty the preceding achievement had been and how much was lost in its disintegration.
Watson's culminating argument is that as a result both of the earlier achievement and the direct influence of the German liberal and Jewish intellectual diaspora of the 1930s and '40s 'the German genius' continues to condition contemporary thinking in the West across a whole range of disciplines. To this extent 'German' problems and modes of thought have become our own. More importantly, the story is not over. The forty years since 1968 has seen the rise of a generation that has nothing to do with German imperialism or Nazi totalitarianism, and that has confronted the sins of that period in a way that was impossible for the implicated survivors of the postwar years. Taken together, the richness of the German heritage and the potential for continuing contribution by the current and succeeding generations make it imperative that we in the Anglophone world reassess our increasingly unhelpful attitudes towards 'Germanness'. Peter Watson's book is potentially a new beginning: even-handed and thought-provoking, a fascinating read and a necessary corrective.