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Land of poets and thinkers

The reason Peter Watson gives for writing this long intellectual history of Germany since 1750 is a convincing one: that British obsession with Nazism has blinded many British people to the achievements of German culture.

16 October 2010

12:00 AM

16 October 2010

12:00 AM

The German Genius Peter Watson

Simon & Schuster, pp.992, 30

The reason Peter Watson gives for writing this long intellectual history of Germany since 1750 is a convincing one: that British obsession with Nazism has blinded many British people to the achievements of German culture. Watson describes the complaints of German commentators about the emphasis on Nazism even in British schooling, which were borne out by the 2005 report of the Qualification and Curriculum Authority: ‘There has been a gradual narrowing and “Hitlerisation” of post-1914 history.’

Watson also discusses the importance of Nazism to America, and his most intriguing point is that interest in the Holocaust is a comparatively recent phenomenon. A study in the 1950s found that the effect of the Holocaust on American Jews was ‘remarkably slight’. Attitudes began to change with the Eichmann trial in 1961 and, in particular, the Yom Kippur War in 1973.

So an introduction to other German history is welcome. Anglo-German relations seem to be experiencing something of a cultural moment. The popularity of Berlin is bringing far more British people to Germany than in previous decades and, during the last World Cup there was a marked absence of English goose-stepping (in contrast to Euro ’96, when the Mirror printed the infamous headline ‘Achtung Surrender!’ and the Sun ‘Let’s Blitz Fritz’.)

Watson focuses on the Germany perhaps now more accessible to Britons, the ‘land of poets and thinkers’. It would necessarily be a titanic undertaking to discuss, among others, Kant, Goethe, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Planck, Einstein, Beethoven and Wagner. However, he has made the decision to base his book almost entirely on secondary sources. This results in such oddities as his trying to explain the eminence of Schiller by offering synopses of his plays, which is rather like explaining the importance of Shakespeare by saying that one of his plays is set in Denmark. It also leads him repeatedly to call Nietzsche ‘bleak’, when he is famous for his wit, his style and his playfulness. Having described Musil’s The Man Without Qualities as being ‘for many the most brilliant literary response to developments of the early 20th century’, he seems unclear as to which is the titular character.

His account is much stronger when not talking about the arts and, in particular, when discussing education. He argues that Bildung (education) is central to German identity and was formulated at the beginning of the 19th century as a form of moral progress; that it was not, in Mandelsonian terms, intended to provide transferable skills or contribute to GDP, but was

a process of character development, during the course of which a person would learn to form critical judgements, make an original creative contribution, and learn about his or her place in society with its duties, rights and obligations.

Watson shows how universities such as Göttingen revolutionised higher education with a new emphasis on original research, resulting in the development of the seminar and the modern PhD. In consequence of that revolution, the founders of the University of London took Berlin as their model and, between 1815 and 1914, around 10,000 Americans studied in Germany, including 19 future college and university presidents. Seventy-five years later, German émigré academics and intellectuals were, in turn, welcomed to the USA, Bildung being Americanised as ‘self-realisation’.

No matter how interesting Watson’s discussion of the émigré experience in both the USA and Britain, he is badly let down by typographical errors. He also appears to imply that Friedrich Engels was able to predict 20th-century catastrophe because he spoke Portuguese, and that the Rathenau family was ‘Jewish only in name’ because ‘business wasn’t everything’. He writes near tautologies such as ‘Kant was the first great philosopher who was a university professor and who has had a great impact — on philosophy and on academic life’. Basing almost his entire account of Heinrich Heine on a book by Ritchie Robertson, he refers to him as ‘Robinson’ throughout.

This is mirrored by a vagueness of thought. Instead of writing a history, Watson has produced an assemblage of facts, failing to differentiate between the vital and the trivial. These facts are linked by the woolly language whereby everything ‘helps’ or ‘influences’ everything else, the nature of that influence never being defined. Much of what Watson covers is fascinating, but he has sacrificed insight in the interest of being exhaustive.

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