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The German Genius

Meic Pearse

Europe's third renaissance, the second scientific revolution, and the 20th century
Peter Watson
Simon & Schuster, 992pp, ISBN: 9781416526155

The German Genius.jpg Peter Watson's excellent, if hefty, new offering  describes the massive contribution of Germany to our intellectual life, especially from the 1760s to the 20th century. And a jolly fine job he makes of it. Even now, he insists, 'The United States and Great Britain may speak English but, more than they know, they think German'. He backs that up: the Germans invented the modern university, the seminar, the PhD, a whole slew of modern academic disciplines, even the idea of separate disciplines in the first place. By 1933, 'Germans had won more Nobel Prizes than anyone else and more than the British and Americans put together'.

Ah, yes, by 1933. Err, wasn't that the year...? Yes, that was the year. No German would ever forget it, and no non-German would ever let them.

And that, insists Watson, is our problem. Hitler and the Holocaust stand like a vast roadblock in our way, rendering invisible the pre-Nazi German past - not merely to foreigners, but to the Germans themselves. It even affects perceptions of our own past. Look at the imbalance in our school curricula and popular publications. Visit a popular bookshop-that-isn't-really near you, and check out its so-called 'History' section. World War II battle stuff, all of it. Because of this fixation, if we look at pre-Hitler German history at all, everything is misread as a sort of inevitable lead-up to You Know What. Watson has given himself a tough sell.

So he spends a lengthy - and utterly masterful - introduction removing the roadblock. He spares nobody's blushes, and does not give even the tiniest hint of minimising the horrors of 1933-45. As a piece of both popular and academic historiography, those first 38 pages are a master class. Before Hitler, there was a Germany that was truly worth the having - and we both can and should try to recover it.

Watson is clearly a Germanophile, and I can relate to that too, though I wish Germany could have been frozen into its early 1970s model (except the East, of course!), when it was still remorselessly efficient, obsessed with cleanliness, and merely in the apolitical stage of its recoil from the atrocities of the Nazi period. Since then, as Watson points out, that apoliticism has metamorphosed into a new dogmatism: the stain of the Nazi past is now to be repudiated by rejecting everything of which Nazism made a fetish. Muscular masculinity; motherhood; hearth-and-home domesticity; customs and symbols by which one Volk could be distinguished from another; honour; duty; respectability: all are now held to reek of fascism. Even the traditions to which Nazism (being itself a modernist creed) sat very cautiously - culture, classical conceptions of beauty, and ancient norms of every kind (including religion and morality) - of which it was occasionally prepared to pose as defender against the onslaughts of capitalism and communism, have come for that very reason to be held as oppressive. Those who defend them now are apparently but a step away from Holocaust-denial.

To the generations that know no history but the Holocaust, our very civilisation is not a legacy from ancestors that we should pass on to future generations, but a catalogue of oppressions and cruelties of which genocide is the logical concomitant, and from which we must therefore release ourselves and everyone else.

No wonder Germany was the first country in Europe to register catastrophic, below-replacement birthrates. People who do not believe in the value of their civilisation and way of life lose the urge to reproduce it.

Now we are all following. The historians of the early 22nd century (if there are any) might well conclude that Hitler was the ironic victor of World War II, though not in any sense that he might have recognised. For the very virulence of the reaction against his poisonous legacy had itself led to the suicide of the societies he fought against. And of his own. Every defence of the past against the encroachments of modernity had come to be seen as somehow hopelessly contaminated by fascistic yearnings - and so simply had to be set aside. In consequence, the very mechanisms whereby Western civilisation had always reproduced itself - artistically, culturally, and even physically - as a bequest to the future simply fell away, following the German lead.

Watson begins the book proper with important cultural changes in Germany during the 18th century. He highlights the emergence of Prussia as a remarkable state, contending that 'Germanness, as we now understand it' emerged then 'and cannot be understood without a firm grasp of Pietism', which was connected with the Prussian ethos of state service, and with the terrifying conscientiousness of its bureaucrats.

Now this information had me salivating; as a church historian, I've long suspected something like this to be true, but have never managed to take the time out to verify it. So I was eager to see how Watson would make the connections for me. But this is where he let me down. Pages 45-47 are a small desert of mis-steps, mis-connections and mis-construals. And then, suddenly, theology out of the way, we are back to erudition and brilliance.

This is so sad! Watson is no 38-year-old with a PhD in Grievance Studies from Brighton. He had his schooling in the 1950s when the secularist bent of education was rather more low-key than now. Yet for three pages, this brilliant man appears to be speaking in tongues about a thought world utterly alien to him. He describes Pietist theology as 'radical' while his explication of its contents leaves it sounding like a confused mish-mash, hardly distinguishable from an indolent schoolboy's generic description of 'religion'. The Reformed churches, apparently, emphasised the 'inner light', which made them more amenable to political control by princes than 'the older, more orthodox, and more organized churches'. Goodness! Where to begin? Oh, and Protestantism's pessimism about human nature 'made it conservative and set against modernity'; if we wish to overturn overwhelming academic consensus in this fashion, we'll need more than this passing phrase in which to do it.

Despite this sudden tornado of incomprehension, The German Genius remains a work of, well, genius. As a guide - and for many readers, an initiation - to the immense contributions of Germans to our intellectual and cultural life, it is an entertaining and enlightening read. Just skip pages 45-47.

Meic Pearse