The German Genius: Europe's Third Renaissance,

The German Genius: Europe's Third Renaissance,

Peter Watson
ARRSE Rating
5 Mushroom Heads
Review by Metellus Cimber II

This review comes with a spoiler: The German Genius is not everyone's ideal holiday reading. It is as thick as War and Peace and requires the same level of concentration. It is a complete history of Germany from 1750 to the present day. The author's erudition is tremendous: he writes with authority about politics, economics, philosophy, music, military matters, painters, physicists, Bach, Max Planck, Freud, the Kaiser, Hitler and Adenauer. Originally published in 2011, The German Genius is now available in a revised paperback edition, but it is still a hefty tome.

Having said that, once you have got into the narrative, it is a fascinating read, from which I have learned an enormous amount. The author, Peter Watson, conceived the book as a corrective to modern British attitudes to Germany: our obsession with Nazism and World War II has blinded us to German achievements; even now we tend to see them as “Nazis who steal sunbeds”. But Germany possesses a long and interesting history that stretches back for centuries before Nazism.

From the end of the Baroque age to the rise of Hitler, Germany was transformed from being a poor relation among Western nations to the dominant intellectual and cultural force in the Western world. By 1933 Germany had won more Nobel Prizes than any other nation, including the UK and USA combined. It was German thinking, from Beethoven and Kant to Diesel and Nietzsche, from Goethe and Wagner to Mendel and Planck, from Hegel and Marx to Freud and Schonberg that has done more than anything else to create the modern West. You may ask: “What about Greece and Rome?” The answer is that, from the time of Winckelmann in the eighteenth century, Germany led in classical studies, too.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the undergraduate population of Oxford and Cambridge was at most 5,000 each. Meanwhile, which is far less-well-known, a further 5,000 young British men – and a few women – travelled to Germany every autumn to start or resume their studies at German universities, especially Heidelberg, Gottingen and Berlin. The reason was that it was in Germany (and in Austria, which the author treats as part of greater Germany) that the most exciting advances were being made. German had already become the language of science and would remain so until the mid-twentieth century. British scientists had to learn German to stay abreast of their subjects. It was the same in archaeology, technology, historical research and classical studies. If the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries -the American Revolution notwithstanding – had been the “British centuries”, the twentieth seemed likely to be the German century.

That might indeed have been the case, had Germany not plunged enthusiastically into two great wars, in 1914 and 1945. Without them, German might still be an international language; it might still be being spoken in Danzig (Gdansk), Konigsberg (Kaliningrad), Breslau (Wroclaw), Lemberg (Lviv) and other lost cities.

Where I would differ from the author is that he attributes the blame for driving this brilliant culture mad mainly to the Nazis. It is clear that militarism and and extreme nationalism, coupled with a kind of “social Darwinism” were influencing Germany in alarming ways before Hitler's birth, although the Brits took a long time to recognise this. Some German philosophers, politicians and Kaiser Wilhelm II himself had espoused what we would call “Nazi ideas” long before Hitler.

Although the author does not spell this out, the causes both of Germany's intellectual distinction and its later militarism and nationalism lie in its history. Until 1871 there was no unified German State. Instead, there was a loose patchwork of princely States of varying sizes, loosely federated first under the Holy Roman Germanic Empire, later the Confederation of the Rhine and the German Confederation. This made for excellence: each Prince fostered his personal university, academies, State orchestra, opera house and museums in a spirit of competition with his rivals. But Germany's disunity also made for military weakness; again and again Germany was attacked and large areas devastated or annexed, usually by France. Henri IV annexed the Prince-Bishoprics of Metz, Toul and Verdun. Louis XIV annexed part of Alsace, including Strassburg (Strasbourg) and despoiled the Palatinate; Louis XV took Lorraine; Napoleon annexed everything up to the Rhine; in some places well beyond it, and reduced the rest of Germany to dependent territories. At this surprisingly late point the German worm began to turn and developed an appetite for revenge: the elite stopped being francophile; nationalism awoke; militarism became respectable, with what result we all know, in 1870, 1914 and 1939.

The author, Peter Watson, has been a senior editor of The Sunday Times and has written regularly for The Times and The Spectator.

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