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.

This perceived old French, new American, connection has moved some German intellectuals to suggest that their "revolution"--the reunification of Germany in 1989-90--by virtue of its lack of Terror, morally tops that of the French in 1789 and, by extension, morally lifts it above the American and the Russian as well. Unfortunately, prominent German intellectuals have trashed that argument, while other critics have insisted that "real" revolutions shed blood. However, the very existence of such reasoning by postwar Germans suggests the longing and confusion of their cultural-political woes.

The irony of Bloom's having studied with the German émigré Leo Strauss is also not lost on Lepenies, whose partisan defense of the new cultural Fatherland, while correctly couched (he does not directly use the "N" word [Nazi]), here goes a step too far. Although known in America as the father of neoconservatism and a brain-trustee of a Republican administration that wages a cultural war against "Old Europe," Strauss in his real professional life was a leading classical scholar whose studies "epitomized classical European thought."

Because that ancient thought respected "the natural and divine foundations of the rights of man," Strauss was shaken when he discovered in America what Lepenies calls "the influence of a certain strand of German thought" that denied those rights. That deplorable strand was, of course, the pernicious foreign policy of wartime Germany, which Lepenies would have his reader believe also to be that of the present-day White House. As he paraphrases Strauss: "victorious in defeat, German culture had proved [in America that] it could still take its revenge on politics."

Lepenies also regrets Bloom's lack of respect for Thomas Mann's struggle to exorcise his own apolitical demons. Despite American citizenship, an honorary degree from Harvard, and New York celebrity, Mann righteously returned to Switzerland (1952), declaring America "a land of gangsters . . . an air-conditioned nightmare," with references to its rising military power and McCarthyism. Enamored of America's operas, libraries, and museums, but not of its political traditions and institutions, Mann becomes the premier example of the wall between culture and politics in modern Germany. Among German intellectuals, Goethe, who in the early 19th century praised the United States as an "antidote to European misery [and its] hope for rejuvenation," remains the more reliable America-booster.

On the German home front, Lepenies recounts telling cultural-political clashes among German intellectuals. There is Hannah Arendt's poetic protest during the days of the Nuremberg trials, when she insisted that Nazi crimes and guilt were beyond all law. Her teacher, Karl Jaspers, responded with the plea that she not endow human evil with "greatness," but rather confront it in its "total banality," thereby giving her a phrase she would later make famous in the subtitle of her book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.

There are the running debates between "inner" and "outer" émigrés, those who stayed in Nazi Germany, and professedly remained aloof from Nazi politics, and those who fled Germany for good--each side claiming to have contributed more to "the survival of the German spirit" than the other.

And then there is the clash between Weber and Friedrich Meineke--the one insisting that the German problem cannot be solved by looking back to the past ("the Weimar classics are not political advice"), while the other urges postwar Germans to form "Goethe [study] groups," in which they may develop their inner German spirit with the assistance of "the noblest music and poetry."

Speaking for a brave, new modern generation of German intellectuals, Lepenies believes their destiny is no longer behind them, but now firmly in their hands. He dismisses Meineke's "Goethe groups" as a continuation of Nazi aestheticism when, in fairness, they promise some needed perspective on the positive heritage of German history.

Looking back, Lepenies generally evaluates postwar Germans harshly. Ordinary Germans are said to have responded to the war not with a sense of responsibility, or any regret, but with self-pity. Among intellectuals, "blurring past moral options became the prerequisite for mastering the present and planning for the future." German academics and pundits found a bonanza in the moral scrutiny of Nazi-era historians, philosophers, and sociologists. Here, they have been joined by an international community of foreign intellectuals, who also incessantly revisit and memorialize the war and its atrocities, keeping the rise of National Socialism and the Holocaust at the forefront of German history, whatever the latter's present-day state.

Having written to this point with a "bang," Lepenies concludes his study of modern German intellectual history with a modest status report on German culture and politics. Disappointingly, he cites, of all possible persons, Günter Grass's dual role as political campaigner for Willy Brandt and novelist to the world as the best illustration of the "normalization" of German culture and politics. Charmed by Grass's ability "to practice everyday politics without a certain disdain and arrogance," he virtually ignores the writer's condemnation of political reunification in 1989-90, which is surely a stunning example of utopian culture impeding vital politics.

Playing Jaspers to Arendt, Lepenies ends his rambling and riveting book with refreshing praise for "small Holocaust monuments" that eschew the brutal aesthetic politics of the ever larger ones. Among his examples is the touching diary of Victor von Klemperer. Here, Lepenies points out, is a personal mirror for "normal ordinary Germans," who may freely and privately behold the "indecency [and] small civil courage" that was shown to Jews and other victims of National Socialism in the everyday life of the past.

Now there's a real normalization of culture and politics!

Steven Ozment, the McLean Professor of Ancient and Modern History at Harvard, is the author, most recently, of A Mighty Fortress: A New History of the German People.