The Magazine

The German Problem

It's the conflict between culture and politics.

Jun 19, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 38 • By STEVEN OZMENT
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The Seduction of Culture in German History

by Wolf Lepenies

Princeton, 270 pp., $24.95

IN The Origins of Modern Germany (1946) the late English medievalist Geoffrey Barraclough described "the German problem" as a longstanding structural deficit: the absence of political unity and a representative form of government. From the late 11th century, when German dynasties failed to consolidate a monarchy, to the aftermath of Prussian unification (1871), when a true democratic polity remained blocked, German history has been a sad story of enlightened political development repeatedly cut short. For Barraclough, there was always only one sure remedy: "a limited democratic Germany [secure] within its historic boundaries," the unfolding of which the world has been watching since 1945.

Wolf Lepenies, a Berlin sociologist and one of Germany's foremost intellectuals, makes no mention of Barraclough, but he has an emphatic answer to why Germans have come so slowly and grudgingly to political unity and a democratic polity: "the catastrophic German habit" of valuing culture over politics, and even substituting it for politics. Beyond the structural/political problem that Barraclough definitively elaborated, Lepenies's study calls attention to an equally insidious cultural/moral problem that has also plagued Germans throughout their history. He calls it "the apolitical German soul."

For Lepenies, the apolitical German is a true universal; this is "a national attitude prevalent throughout German history." "German inwardness" and a penchant for "metaphysical flight" are its existential roots--a kind of inner Sonderweg separating the romantic German soul from the empirical Latin and the utilitarian Anglo-Saxon.

The historical roots are the stunning failures of German politics. In the two centuries Lepenies surveys, the most crippling of them came in the aftermath of Napoleon's defeat (1815). At that time a liberated Germany confronted old rulers determined to restore the political status quo ante, demanding "the submission of civil society to the state and the surrender of the individual to the community." Having been denied political participation all too long, the German bourgeoisie had scant affinity with, and respect for, the old regime and joined Goethe in the flight to a cultural national identity (Kulturstaat).

Lepenies is horrified by the paradoxical nature of the Germany he describes: On the one hand, "a community almost slavishly docile to constituted authority," on the other, "a community with a rich, critical, creative cultural life." He does not, however, search out the apolitical German to praise him, but rather to warn him away from a once and future folly. A people who discover their nation in national theater do not have their political destiny in their hands. The amateur Nazis became specialists in cultural-political extravaganzas, knowing well how to take aesthetic advantage of an apolitical post-World War I German citizenry.

Lepenies's subjects are German intellectuals of the last two centuries who either substantially addressed, or became personally entangled in, the opposed German worlds of "culture" (the inner intellectual, artistic, and religious life) and "civilization" (the surface political, economic, and social life). Among many worthies, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Thomas Mann receive the lion's share of the author's attention: Goethe for the exemplary ease with which he came to move between the two worlds, and Mann for his utter inconsistency in reconciling them.

Lepenies's American bête noire is Allan Bloom, whose The Closing of the American Mind (1987) blamed German romantics and nihilists (specifically, Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, Max Weber, Martin Heidegger, and Mann) for a perceived shifting of the American mind away from wholesome, Hellenistic rationalism to gloomy European "relativism" and neutral values.

To the extent that such a shift occurred, Lepenies pins responsibility for it on a French connection rather than a German one. He accuses Bloom of reading German philosophy second-hand through its French poachers: Edmund Husserl and Heidegger via Jean-Paul Sartre, Weber via Raymond Aron, and Nietzsche via Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. Lepenies goes on to point out a deeper and darker French connection in present-day America, one dating back to the French Revolution of 1789, namely, the shared belief that freedom and democracy may be imposed on other lands by military force, when necessary.