“An unqualified cultural success”
Historian and author Peter Watson on the “German genius”
Category: Culture, Government and Society, Germany, Western Europe, Europe
Peter Watson’s recent book, The German Genius, explores Germany’s rich cultural and intellectual contributions. But what does Germany have to offer today? And does it have enough soft power to make up for its military deficiencies? He sat down with IP to discuss German soft power and why it is time to look beyond its spotted political history.
Watson: I am fascinated by the fact that, so far as I know, there is no theory, or book, which explores in a systematic way the link—if there is one—between cultural history and political history. Maybe the link just doesn’t exist. My attention was drawn to this by Isaiah Berlin who noted that he had lived a long, happy, and productive life throughout the twentieth century while political mayhem was going on all around him. He was right. You can say this a fortiori about Germany. Since 1750, the death of Bach and the birth of the modern age, Germany has been an unqualified success culturally but hardly so politically. Look at the Weimar period: as Walter Laqueur and Fritz Stern say, it was wonderful culturally, a disaster politically. I can’t explain it and I don’t know who can.
IP: As someone who has written extensively about the “German genius,” could you explain what it is and what makes it specifically German?
Watson: I did not set out to explain the German genius but to describe it. However, some elements seem plain. The pietistic background, a form of high seriousness. This high seriousness was adopted by many sons of pastors, who became cultural figures of one sort or another (but not pastors). The fact that Germany was an agglomeration of many small states mattered too, in that it meant she had fifty universities when England had two. Many of these were small but the large number created competition and was helped by the practice of courts sponsoring poor but bright boys. Germany had far more intellectual mobility than anywhere else for at least the first 50 years of the 19th century, and maybe longer. This meant three good things, at least: a highly educated civil service; the appeal of the new sciences was more enthusiastically received early on; a public for high culture, which is our word for middle class culture. Amazingly, this still exists more in Germany than anywhere, even after all that has happened. Another disjunction between politics and culture. I think German inwardness really comes from Kant and Nietzsche; their achievements, looking in, were so massive that none of us have quite gotten over them. But of course it had very unhealthy aspects later on, not just Fichte but Schopenhauer and people like Paul Lagarde. I don’t think inwardness is a good thing in the long run—empiricism has been more fruitful—and it is certainly not good for a people to think of themselves as “more inward” than others. As I say in the book, the stereotypes we have of ourselves can be as dangerous as those we have of others.
But Germany wasn’t only inward. Marx and Engels weren’t inward, or all the scientists that made the 19th century their own. The poets and musicians were, but then all poets and musicians are inward, of whatever nationality. Gordon Craig and Heinrich Mann both had a point when they criticized German intellectuals for putting inward culture before outward politics (the old Kultur/Zivilisation division).
IP: After World War II, Germany had a unique international “image problem,” to put it very mildly. In the aftermath of the Holocaust and other atrocities committed during the war, West Germany reinvented itself as a civilian power that relies on soft power as opposed to military might.
Watson: I don’t actually think that Germany has much soft power. It has no military power but it does have economic power, and I wouldn’t call that “soft.” I don’t think many people in Britain are knowledgeable about German soft power—otherwise there would not have been the need to hold a “branding Germany” conference at the Goethe Institute in London a few years ago. I think the whole point—and hence my book—is that the “new” Germany has not yet broken through to the general public, beyond its sheer economic strength.
IP: What makes Germany culturally and politically attractive? How would you describe Germany’s “cultural charisma”?
Watson: I don’t think many people do think it is culturally attractive—this is why ambassador Thomas Matussek went on about it so much when he was in London. I think the German Green Party is attractive, because it is the only party in the world devoted to these issues and most people know, deep down, that this is the big issue of the future, bigger even than terrorism. Similarly, I don’t think Germany has cultural charisma, beyond its economic strength: this too is the problem and again, hence my book.
Its cultural power is limited by two factors, I would say. The first factor is history. Because of two world wars, people simply don’t know German history in enough detail to recognize what German culture is. The second is language. For example, there is a widespread view that the Germans aren’t funny. But since only 1 per cent of British pupils are fluent in German (as opposed to 25 per cent of German pupils who are fluent in English) how on earth can they possibly know what German wit is when they can’t understand it?
IP: Does it matter that fewer people are learning German as a foreign language today? Can the German genius continue to enrich intellectual life in the West if no one speaks German?
Watson: Of course it matters that people aren’t learning German. It matters aesthetically, economically, politically; you can’t be a proper cosmopolitan without speaking at least one other language.
Because people don’t speak German, they are not aware of the enormous caesura that took place in Germany in 1968, when Germany changed, when the younger generation took on the older generation and really began to complete what Winkler calls “its long road west.” People outside Germany, especially in the Anglophone countries, are aware of the Green movement but have no real idea of how important it is, how much it sets Germany apart.
But Germany is in many ways more comfortable with itself these days than, say, France, on the question of language. While the French fret about the invasion of anglicisms into their language, the Germans have taken a more pragmatic view. For example, since English is incontrovertibly the language of science, some German universities now teach PhD programs in English. This is very self-confident and means that, if the German language doesn’t spread, at least German people will across the intellectual world, especially in science. And the statistics are international: take a look at the recent publication of the leading universities in the world—Germany has more universities in the top 200 than France (and there are still more German-speaking Swiss universities in the top 200). People who matter are aware of these figures.
IP: Is German nationalism a bad thing? And do you feel that Germany has moved beyond its Nazi past?
Watson: I think all nationalism is a bad thing. Now is the time to embrace cosmopolitanism. American pragmatists, like Richard Rorty, are right: we must expand the human community, to make it as inclusive as possible. That is why the mullahs are going against the tide of history.
Of course I feel that Germany has moved beyond its Nazi past—well beyond. As I have written, Germany has embraced the postwar realities more than, say, Britain or France. I am not sure many Britons want to acknowledge or face this fact. You can divide Britons (and other Europeans and Americans) into two: those that have direct dealings with Germany and know all this; and those who don’t know Germany and remain stuck more or less in the past. The very point of my book is that we need to know more about Germany and we need to go beyond the stereotypes. The object of soft power, in my view, is for Germany to confound the expectations which the rest of the world has of her (determined by history) and which she has of herself.
IP: Germany spends less on its military than other European powers such as France and Great Britain. The recent reforms to the Bundeswehr suggest that Germany will continue on this course. Is this model sustainable for Germany?
Watson: I think Germany will eventually have to expand its military budget but in a context where other Europeans are anyway reducing theirs. In the next ten years or so people who fought in World War II will all be dead, and attitudes to German militarism will soften even more. In any case, as I show in the book, the statistics reveal that Germany in the early 20th century was not the most militaristic country: France and the US were. Two world wars have simply played havoc with knowledge levels and it takes time to go back and clean up.
IP: In the 19th century, Germany’s technical universities were world-renowned. In the early 20th century, Germany boasted some of the world’s most influential philosophers and social scientists. What do you see as Germany’s predominant contribution to the world in the 21st century?
Watson: In the 21st century the German Max Planck institutes will consolidate their growing role in science, in genetics, in biology generally, in physics. In philosophy, people like Axel Honneth will take over from where Habermas leaves off. Habermas is a good case in point. He is probably the best contemporary philosopher—vastly prolific—but is unknown generally in comparison to the pope, with whom he has written a book.
IP: Has Germany played its cards right? Is there anything missing from its cultural approach on the world stage?
Watson: I don’t think Germany has played its cards badly. It could probably do more in the field of popular entertainment, to help spread its soft power. The Berlin Philharmonic comes to London and New York. Is there any way Bayreuth could come? Or a version of the Munich Oktoberfest? Martin Roth has just arrived from Dresden at the V&A in London, but no song and dance has been made. The White Ribbon, The Lives of Others, and Goodbye Lenin went down very well in Britain. More please.
Interview conducted by Colin M. Adams and Henning Hoff.
PETER WATSON is an intellectual historian and the author of several books. His most recent work, The German Genius, was published in 2010.