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The German Genius: Europe's Third Renaissance, the Second Scientific Revolution, and the Twentieth Century Hardcover – June 22, 2010

4.5 out of 5 stars 53 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. We are shamefully ignorant of German culture, asserts veteran British historian Watson (The Modern Mind) in this engrossing, vast chronicle of ideas, humanists, scientists, and artists: Bach, Goethe, Hegel, Gauss, and many more. Stirred by the French Revolution, German nationalism exploded. The same era in Germany produced the modern university—in which professors are expected to discover, not just teach, knowledge, and students learn to reason, not just memorize—and new forms of scholarship. There followed a cultural renaissance as important as Italy's earlier one. Science flourished, stimulated by new university-based laboratories. Modern medicine started as German medicine (bacteriology began with Robert Koch). From Bach to Schoenberg, music became overwhelmingly German. Kant, Marx, Hegel, Nietzsche, and others dominated Western intellectual life. An ominous byproduct, though, was a growing, pugnacious sense of national superiority. This led to trouble, but until Hitler wrecked everything after 1933, Germans won more Nobel prizes than Britain and America combined. English now dominates the arts and sciences, but Watson writes an absorbing account of a time not so long ago when German ruled. (June)
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*Starred Review* As shown in The Modern Mind (2001) and Ideas (2006), Watson has an abiding interest in showing how certain “Big Ideas” have defined the trajectory of history and a gift for accessibly presenting the vast and varied material required to substantiate such claims. Both qualities are amply displayed in his latest work, a panoramic review of German cultural and intellectual development from 1750 to the present. Examining the contributions of literally hundreds of German thinkers and doers and mapping the conceptual connections between them, the author demonstrates the breadth, volume, and influence of German output in philosophy, science, industry, art, literature, and all forms of scholarly activity. But Watson's true focus is the cultural crucible, forged in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and informed by notions of Bildung and inwardness, that gave rise to such accomplishments but also set the stage for the evil actions of the Third Reich. To some extent an effort to untether our understanding of German history from the conflicts of the twentieth century, this study is also a reminder that our modern Western worldview has deep German roots. The U.S. and Great Britain, says Watson, “may speak English but, more than they know, they think German.” Comprehensive, erudite, ausgezeichnet. --Brendan Driscoll
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 992 pages
  • Publisher: Harper; 1 edition (June 22, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9780060760229
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060760229
  • ASIN: 0060760222
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 2.2 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (53 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #410,972 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The book is intended as a history of German ideas over the last 250 years or so, and specifically not a political, economic, or comprehensive "national" history of Germany. The narrative begins near the end of Bach's life (1685-1750), well prior to a German nation having been achieved (1871), and continues beyond the events of 1989 and the subsequent re-unification of what we recall as East and West Germany.

The book considers German ideas as being those of German people, which exceeds the bounds of citizenship in any German nation but instead also includes people of German cultural background from Austria, Bohemia, Moravia and other territories where German-speaking peoples lived en masse. A reader may no doubt quibble with some of the persons who are included as being "German" by the author, but a disagreement over any one person is indeed a quibble, not an indictment of the underlying premise.

The book would seem to have at least three purposes:

1) By documenting the immense fertility of German culture in generating powerful advances in the arts, science and the humanities the author attempts to restore (for those for whom it is needed) a wider, more balanced perspective on Germany than apparently currently exists. Without any attempt to minimize, dismiss, or overlook the evil of the Nazi's and the Holocaust (for which "Germany" has been stigmatized), the narrative offers a reminder of great achievements that were not accidental, but a product of German culture and society.

2) By explaining the elements of German culture that gave rise to those fertile developments, an explanation is also proposed for reasons that some of those same elements could ironically allow or make possible the barbaric (and distinctly uncultured) Third Reich.
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Format: Hardcover
Oh please, with peace to the previous reviewer. Here's my problem with the review. When one says that they are rather ignorant of German culture and history and then goes on to myopically focus in on the Nazi era and holocaust as if it were the sum of German history, I have to wonder if they had learned anything constructive from Watson's excellent survey at all.

It is as if Anglos are perpetually in the grip of wartime propaganda some 70 years after the war. Actually, the propaganda really goes back to WWI in which the UK launched the first modern state propaganda campaign against another people, using race imagery btw.

Watson's book is an attempt at a corrective to this distorted and one sided view of history, and it should be applauded in so far as it succeeds. Unfortunately, based on the previous review, I wonder if he has. Although I'm of Anglo ancestry, I have lived in Germany and speak German with intermediate ability. It is a wonderful country and people, and being a classical musician, I can say that their achievement in that sphere is unparalleled in the history of mankind. The most we Anglos can muster seems to the Beatles and other such low rent music (Elgar, who spent summers in Bavaria, excepted). What does that compare with Mozart or Bach?

What galls me in such thinking is the presumptuous, arrogant and glib superiority complex that Anglos have about themselves. We view ourselves as the world's angels, forgetting the international slave trade (which Germans had nothing to do with), the creation of concentration camps (for Boers in S.A. during the Boer War), the wholesale extermination of various native tribes in North America, and host of other crimes against humanity.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This work is compendious and detailed, indeed may be too heavy for some readers. There is a wealth, not only of facts
but also a comprehensive reporting of most aspects of society and the matrix in which modern German contributions and thinking across the spectrum of activities.
Definitely the best I've read on this subject
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Format: Hardcover
Excellent one-volume overview of the German genius from the death of J. S. Bach to the advent of the Third Reich. Obviously a well-read man, Watson gets to the heart of these geniuses and their work in a decidedly pithy way; to me, this book is the starting-point of my real research into the German genius.

But if you wanted the author to write more about Goethe, Schopenhauer, Diesel, Hegel, Schlegel, Schiller, Schubert, Mahler, Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner, Friedrich, Herder, Wolf, Fichte, Humboldt (and so on and so on), well, you ask for too much. So, I'd say start here and enjoy the journey.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Irony struggles with world history in this recent Financial Times headline "Germany told to act to save Europe." Times have changed since 1945. We missed something along the way in all our readings and movies. Convenient villains for so long, the Germans are now asked to play savior. It is time to pull aside the historical blinders of World War Two, its atrocities and aftermath and open our eyes to Germany's contributions to science, philosophy, music, modern thought and their effect on our twenty first centuries sensibilities. Peter Watson's massive survey book reacquaints the reader, if "reacquainting" is the right verb, to the Germanic phenomenon with his deep research and cultural sensitivity without leaving unaddressed the twelve years of Nazi rule. Reading it is a sumptuous feast on Germanic erudition, philosophical thought and achievement by an author with a keen eye for detail and a gift for synthesis.

To paraphrase Philip Larkin, this is a serious book on serious ground; not to be consumed in one or two sittings; its complexities and intricacies are many, inviting the reader to carefully ponder the roots of Western philosophical thought, the wellsprings of nineteenth century symphonic music (mostly Germanic), the scope of Western artistic achievement, the nature of politics and political dialogue in our modern society and the engines of science in the past two hundred years.
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