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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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.