- 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: 4.3 out of 5 stars See all reviews (55 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #625,342 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The German Genius: Europe's Third Renaissance, the Second Scientific Revolution, and the Twentieth Century Hardcover – June 22, 2010
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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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Top Customer Reviews
Having finished the book, I changed my rating to four stars. The author pulls a lot of things together toward the end, particularly how Germany reinvented itself after WWII, even rehabilitates Heidegger to some extent and shows how Habermas demonstrates the pickle we're currently in and possible approaches toward dealing with it. Very comprehensive(encyclopedic?), the philosophy emphasis remains a challenge but overall quite good.
The story begins with the father of Frederick the Great, who began to institute a more comprehensive educational system. He was a pietist, the Prussian version of the Puritans, with a great belief in education as a way to improve one's character and, by implication, the nation; this was called the Bildung, a grounding in general culture in the humanities with an emphasis on classical antiquity. Frederick the Great expanded his father's policies, but in the tradition of the Enlightenment, his were more secular and skeptical. This led to the emergence of an educated middle class, the largest in Europe, with rates of literacy far beyond all other nations. They were to be the employees in the bureaucracy as well as replace clerics and pastors as the intellectuals in the society. This also culminated in the establishment of the modern research university in the 19C, complete with PhDs, specialized publications, and research institutes that far surpassed those in other western countries in both quantity and quality.
In addition to this, given the autocratic nature of the Prussian state, the Bildung was largely inward-oriented - encouraging introspection and self betterment rather than political reform or activism. This created a serious tension within the society, a kind of top-down imposition of policies by the state for which there was little alternative. Nonetheless, to fill the void that secularism was opening in German hearts and minds, Watson argues that philosophy rose to take Christianity's place with the idealist concepts of Kant and Hegel, to mention only two; this makes for some pretty turgid reading and cannot really serve as an introduction to the complex and often obscure contribution to western thought. Beyond philosophy, there was an extraordinary flowering in all the arts, from writers and painters to composers. That being said, the population apparently persisted in placing a significantly larger amount of unquestioning trust in the authorities, who "knew better" and had their "interests at heart"; this left the German political culture stunted and undemocratic until after WWII.
During the 19C, the innovators themselves, though too numerous to cover in any depth, are sketched out in context, often showing their inter-relationships. For example, the great German symphonies were regarded as philosophical works, mirroring their counterparts in the academy; this astonished me. Innovators included Nietzsche, who opened the way to post-modernism, essentially denying that any meaning or truth can be taken as absolute or categorical, but is only relative and uncertain. (He summed this up as "God is dead.") In the economic realm, of course, there was Marx, whose revolutionary philosophy was one of the most consequential of the 20C. Freud introduced new concepts as well, leading to a therapeutic approach that attempted to make sense of one's life as a meaningful narrative, i.e. a new kind of introspection that quickly spread to the rest of the world and remains a mainstay of the modern mindset. While the thumbnail portraits are fascinating, they are of necessity rather superficial and vary in quality. (For example, Watson makes some pretty glib claims about Freud's accomplishments, dismissing them as "wrong" or arrived at under "faulty" methods without offering sufficient proof.) I often found this frustrating.
According to Watson, it was at the dawn of the German industrial revolution that the balance of power began to change in Germany: manufacturers, managers, technologists, and financiers began to displace the cultured bourgeoisie, whose humanistic Bildung could no longer monopolize elite status outside of royalty and the aristocracy. Furthermore, scientists were also gaining in influence, again without the introspective underpinnings of the Bildung. With the lack of political reform, Watson argues, this left less and less space for the middle classes, who when the economy collapsed could offer little effective political opposition to the fascists.
To his credit, Watson acknowledges that the rise of the Nazis and their apocalyptic excesses may never be fully understood. Nonetheless, he shows how they transmogrified many of the innovations credited to the great German intellectuals, such as Nietzsche's superman concept, social darwinist racism and eugenics, and the concept of a superior "Volksgeist" or "spirit" of the German people, which was always a nebulous notion to me. Watson also covers how the Nazis and those willing to unquestioningly follow them, including Heidegger and many other intellectuals, destroyed much of the educational and research systems that had grown over the previous 200 years. As everyone know, it is a sad chapter from which Germany is still recovering.
Finally, Watson argues, once the western allies created the Federal Republic, the break with a past of political authoritarianism is at last accomplished. With the institutional groundwork imposed from outside, the protests of 1968 set off a transformation towards modern democracy, according to which the younger generation asks questions that the older one was unable to do, in particular when addressing the Nazi past. This was the least convincing to me, kind of thrown in at the end. Having lived in Germany near to this time, I still found students rather rigid in their ideologies and arrogant as to the superiority of the German culture over American capitalism ("Die Amerikaner sind alle kulturlos.") That being said, I completely agree with the author that Germany has created a decent society that has grown beyond the Nazi catastrophe.
I cannot do justice to the breadth of Watson's coverage. For example, towards the end, he abruptly gets into Heidegger's warnings about technology, which (he argues) the age of genetic engineering has proven "relevant"; I was left unconvinced and feel that Heidegger is over-rated for nationalistic reasons. Nonetheless, in terms of content, this is an exquisite sketch of the basics. I am not sure if what he claims is true - that the intellectual movements actually meant what he says they did - but the connections often made sense to me and put things in a new light. This is a great intellectual adventure and it left me very hungry for more, a sure sign of the book's success.
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. Watson plies his deep knowledge of the German character in his concluding chapter with five traits of German culture worthy of thoughtful consideration; an educated middle class inhabiting the world of scholarship (and by scholarship, he includes research), the arts (music, film, stage and literature), science, the legal, medical, and religious professions based not on the acquisition of knowledge but "as a process of character development;" a personal reflective character "inwardness" leading one to observe "new structures of our minds;" the German concept of "Bildung," being the primary achievement of the central driving force of inwardness, resulting in a harmonization of research with scholarship leading as " a defining phenomenun of modernity;" and a redemptive community "sustaining a moral community in the face of rampant individualism." These are thought provoking concepts for a people as controversial - and consequential - as the Germans have been for the last century.
Watson offers a fascinating take on the cultural pessimism of German middle class society post World War One and its relationship to Hannah Arendt's theory of "a temporary alliance between the educated elite and the mob" leading to a "constant murderous arbitrariness." This is a view one might not readily read about.
This wide ranging examination of German culture invites the American reader to contrast our American culture with German culture. Writers like Thomas Mann and other emigres to this country shine a caustic light on our culture; in Mann's words, he commented on "the American tendency to oversimplify . . . the `barbarous infantilism' of American life." This is not intended to provocate but to evaluate our culture and how the German literary elite saw us over time. It deserves our attention.
As I write this, the Wall Street Journal leads with a commentary by one of their business writers about the importance of the present day decisions of Angela Merkel on the 2012 elections prospects in this country. It is about time German society and culture is examined more carefully then it has been in the past. Peter Watson's book is a good starting point.