"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.
on 20 November 2010
This book exceeded my expectations, despite already knowing quite a bit about Germany and the Germans, having studied the language at school and university, and travelled to or through the country regularly for the past 50 years, and even having a German grandmother.
It is not a book to 'read', but neither is it exactly a reference book, although it can be used as such. Rather, it's a book to dip into, to browse, and to come back to again and again.
The author, Peter Watson, was a distinguished foreign correspondent and editor, not professions usually known for high scholarship, so this must be an exception that proves the rule.
I shall treasure this book for many years to come, or at least as long as I live!
Highly recommended to students and scholars in many different fields, from history and literature to science and politics; it is incredibly well referenced, so leads naturally to further reading and research. Its amazon price also makes it surprisingly affordable.
on 16 December 2010
I agree with the other "five-star" reviews of this excellent book. Apart from emphasizing my admiration of the author's grasp of a astonishing range of disciplines, I will not repeat what they have said. However, I would add that the book will be just as useful for Germans as for non-Germans. Ignorance of the impressive and unparalleled German achievements prior to 1933, as a baleful consequence of the Nazi catastrophe, is not something which is limited to the English-speaking or Anglo-Saxon world. The Germans themselves have also been similarly blinded, possibly even more so. I think that they could also greatly profit from reading this book, which I see is also available in German translation.
This leads me to one small criticism, which is that the citations from German sources are mostly directly translated into English. The exceptions I noted were the extracts from poems of the Great War, which appear in both languages. This approach should have been generally followed; this would have benefited readers with some knowledge of German. It would also have been useful to have had graphics or illustrations to complement the discussions of e.g. fine art, architecture, film and photographic art, but it is perhaps unreasonable to demand this in a book which is already over 900 pages long!
Peter Watson says that our continuing preoccupation with the Nazi period - even in school syllabuses - has prevented the general public in Britain and the United States from doing justice to - and sometimes even to being aware of - the huge contributions that Germans have made in every cultural fields in pre- and post-Nazi times.
Watson covers them all. That is a monumental undertaking, but one cannot be a master of it all, and of necessity some of his summaries are knowledgeable and illuminating, while others are more superficial; occasionally we have lists of names about whom nothing else is mentioned other than that they belonged to a particular group of people. But it would be churlish, I think, on these accounts to give such an encyclopaedic treasure-house less than five stars. Often Watson draws our attention to German achievements, little known to the British general public, which, important as they are, do not in themselves have a specifically German character. For example, German scientists made enormous contributions (about which there is a great deal in this book), but science is international and there nothing GERMAN about its character. (Only when the Nazis denounced relativity theory as unscientific and took racial "science" to new excesses could one speak of the peculiarities of German science.) In this short review I would like to single out some of the features which are uniquely German.
The first is the nature, role and self-conscious mission of German universities. Already in the early 18th century there were some 50 universities in Germany, when England had only two. Among the most important were Halle in Prussia and Göttingen in Hanover. These were pervaded with the spirit of Pietism, a form of Protestantism which taught the duty to develop what is best in you, but also the obligation to make this world a better place by active service, hard work, efficiency and incorruptibility. Frederick William I of Prussia (1713 to 1740) had become a convert to Pietism in 1708. Like the other German princes, he controlled the universities and staffed them with pietist teachers, and promoted pietists in the civil service and the army.
Deeply religious though they were, the Pietists broke the hold of the theological faculties on the universities and promoted philosophy and secular subjects. They created and developed the concept of Bildung, the notion that you should not only be the recipient of education, but should undertake the task to engage in continual inner self-development, including doing your own research and submitting it to the discussion of fellow-students. The importance attached to universities by the state (which, authoritarian though it was in so many ways, yet encouraged the intellectual freedom of scholars) and the ways in which these methodically organized themselves for research is surely the foundation for the pre-eminence of German scholarship in the 19th century. During the 1860s and 1870s the Technische Hochschulen (unlike the English polytechnics) acquired the prestige of the universities as centres of research, and their diploma winners could use the title of Doctor to symbolize this. This, too, contributed to the successes of innovative German industries.
Another specifically German aspect culture was what Watson calls "speculative philosophy". The German Aufklärung (Enlightenment) laid much stress on organic development as distinct from the external causation of Newtonian science. It was seen as the philosophical principle that was the basis of understanding not only history and the life-sciences, but of the Self and of the World as a whole; and it was best apprehended and conveyed by the genius and by the poet. The great artist raises the arts (especially music) from being vehicles of entertainment to vehicles of truth.
Watson describes the peculiarly German philosophies of Kant, Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel, where his condensation of already dense and particularly abstruse ideas is, I think, not entirely successful (and, in the case of Hegel woefully inadequate). The cult of the Will, also, is primarily associated with 19th and 20th century German thinkers. The philosophy of Heidegger, too, has elements which are uniquely German.
Nationalism, racism, antisemitism - all these can be found in countries other than Germany; but Watson describes circumstances in which these ideas acquired a peculiar force in 19th century Germany, so that, in retrospect, one can see in them the seedbed of Nazism in the 20th century. When he comes to the Nazi period, he describes in detail the full awfulness of Nazi "aesthetics" which one might call uniquely German, were it not that it mirrored so closely those of Stalinist Russia. Similarly we get a uniquely German "theology" in the German Christian Church, challenged by German theologians like Barth, Bultmann, Tillich and Bonhoeffer whose ideas will acquire international influence.
The immense contribution in every field made by German intellectuals who emigrated to the United States and to Britain during the Nazi period is also extensively chronicled in two substantial chapters.
The last two chapters deal with developments in post-war Germany. In part they deal with a group of German thinkers analyzing pre-Nazi German culture in an effort to understand why that it had been unable to stand up against the Nazis. There was the famous Historikerstreit (the debate about whether the murderous crimes of the Nazis were uniquely German - it receives only a marginal reference in this book) and the debate about the nature of Germany's so-called Sonderweg. The novels of Grass, Böll and Schlink also confronted the recent past. The events of 1968 and the decade which followed, so argued Konrad Jarausch, at last marked a decisive anti-authoritarian transformation of values in West Germany; and it is surprising how many writers in East Germany (apart from Brecht, mostly completely unknown in the West) were able to confront the regime there.
Must stop: no space to discuss, for example, the seriousness of German theatre; important post-war films; or Watson's Conclusion which draws so many threads of the book together and shows the enormous influence German thought, for good and for ill, has had on the rest of the world.
on 28 February 2012
Peter Watson has written the best biographical introduction to the glories of post-Enlightenment German history that I have found or can imagine. This is a thick book and dense with facts, but the narrative drive is relentless and the overall conclusion is convincing. Germany has done more than any other nation to shape the modern world we live in, the world in which the United States of America has taken up the flag and continued the long march into a brighter future. If the USA is the modern Rome, Germany is its Greece, its Athens and Sparta rolled into one.
Watson rolls out a pantheon of great Germans for our edification, and an impressive roll call it is. From the early days of Kant and the idealists and Goethe and the romantics, through the middle years of Nietzsche and Wagner, science and industrialization, military prowess and colonial adventures, to the glory days of Einstein and the quantum theorists, Freud and scientific medicine, Heidegger and the existentialists, to the apocalyptic horror of Hitler and the Nazis, and onward through the economic miracle to reunification and a respected place at the heart of the European Union, Germany has been there, done that, and seen it all.
This entire astonishing story is tirelessly chronicled in Watson's magnum opus. He offers potted biographies and assessments of the hundred or more prominent Germans that all educated people should be acquainted with, and sets the tales in a master narrative that takes the reader through a story like no other in the entire history of civilization. The new relevance of the story is that Germany is a lot more than the blighted source of two world wars and a holocaust. Germany was the engine of a hundred years of progress that changed the world and gave America the tools and the opening for its own world hegemony. Now, in a Europe that otherwise looks desolate, Germany is the best hope for renewal.
Peter Watson's monumental survey of German culture and thought (including the culture and thought of other neighbouring countries whose language is or is closely related to German) over the last 250 years is a formidable undertaking but don't let the scale of this book deter you, it is highly readable, stylishly written and, most important, balanced, shrewd and humane in its judgements.
One or two reviewers here on Amazon have complained that it emphasises German philosophy at the expense of other aspects of intellectual and cultural activity but that is not so. Proper attention is paid to the arts, including music, and the weight given to the sciences pays off as well, especially as Watson manages to explain even the most complex ideas in physics and mathematics in terms which even I began to feel I was starting to understand them - or understand as much of them as a thoroughgoing arts person like myself is able to.
Yes, it's long and the journey is sometimes challenging. But this is a great book. Highly recommended.
on 17 February 2014
Husband had it on wish list for Christmas and nearly cried when he opened gift after gift on Christmas Day and didn't find this among them. So when his birthday came round a month later I made sure it was there in the pile of presents. Well, he started it that evening and instantly said he regretted doing so, as in his words, 'it's so good I can't bear to put it down', when in fact he had a lot of work-related reading to be getting on with. He's a discerning reader with a lot of background knowledge in this area so he gives qualified assessments and he has continued to announce almost daily how wonderful it is. I'm sure he'll write his own review once he's finished it.
on 4 January 2012
At 850 pages, this hefty book could appear pretty daunting, but to think that would be to do it a disservice. Watson's book pulls off the ultimate publishing trick - to be astonishingly comprehensive, while being engagingly reading. So, whilst he writes about German culture from 1750 onwards, no individual section is longer than about 5 pages and very often, much less, keeping the book both readable as a whole and ideal as a dipped-into reference book. Of course all the big names are covered; Goethe, Schiller, Bach, Beethoven, Wagner, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Einstein, but Watson's range is comprehensive, drawing in less obvious names like Fritz Lang (director), Werner Siemens (inventor and entrepeneur), Alexander von Humboldt (explorer and anthropologist), Samuel Hahneman (doctor and founder of homeopathy), E.T.A. Hoffman (musical writer), Heinrich Heine (poet) among literally hundreds and hundreds of others (as the additional 100+ pages of notes and index indicate).
Having studied German over many years, lived and travelled there, I thought I was pretty knowledgeable about Germany as a country and its cultural history. Although Watson writes that his aim in writing this book was to enable Britons to think about more than just the '12 year Nazi dictatorship' when they thought about Germany, he brings so much more to this book. If you are one of those who just thinks Germany equates to Nazi, then this is a book to astonish and enlighten you. If however you think that you're pretty well informed about the powerhouse of Europe, then let this book illuminate the broad range of German influence, shaping everything from the nature of University study to modern industry and politics and how that influence is felt both in Germany and right across the world.
I would recommend this book both as a history book you can't put down, full of surprising revelations and names, but also as a reference book to look up a particular subject, person or era. It's just a great book - all I would additionally advise is to have some glue to hand as my hardback binding simply struggled with a book of this size and I had to carry out some repairs mid-read!
Make no mistake, this is a challenging read, at some 850 pages and assuming a pretty decent level of general/background knowledge. However, it is very much worth the effort, slowly creating a vast and in depth picture of German development over the last 400 years, the author has clearly done a monumental amount of research. For those of us who grew up being directly, or indirectly, led to believe that Britain had invented ¾ of things worth inventing, and led almost every field from science to cultural freedoms, it is certainly an eye opening read; within the first few pages, for example, it is noted that prior to 1939 Germany had earned more Nobel prizes that Britain & America combined, which had me briefly doing a guppy fish impression, something which was repeated as numerous times throughout the book!
on 6 November 2010
A well-produced book by Peter Watson which attempts to rectify what he (rightly) considers to be a serious ignorance by the English-speaking world of what Germany has contributed to the world in the past two centuries. The long introduction which summarises various recent debates about the distinctiveness of German development in that period (eg the "Historikerstreit" of the 1980s and the later "Sonderweg" thesis) is intellectual history at its best and demonstrate the depth of Watson's reading and understanding (all referenced with incredible detail). I'm only at page 155 so far but his treatment of the 18th century musicians and dramatists brought these people alive for me. I found it difficult to get through an earlier book of his - A Terrible Beauty: The People and Ideas that Shaped the Modern Mind: A History but find myself turning the pages of this latest book very eagerly. It helps that the page layout is much better than his earlier book - and that the chapters are short. Pity that the sheer size of his books makes it difficult for a few etchings to be included - to break up the text!