A review of The German Genius: Europe's Third Renaissance, the Second Scientific Revolution, and the Twentieth Century, by Peter Watson

Peter Watson's The German Genius may be for our day what Madame de Staël's De l'Allemagne was for hers: a searching inquiry into the nature of the German mind. A survey of Germany's intellectual and spiritual culture during the last three centuries, the book is an attempt to come to terms with an extraordinary phenomenon. "Kant, Humboldt, Marx, Clausius, Mendel, Nietzsche, Planck, Freud, Einstein, Weber, Hitler," Watson writes, "for good or ill, can any other nation boast a collection of eleven (or even more) individuals who compare with these figures in regard to the enduring influence they have had on modern ways of thought? I suggest not."

One might question whether "boast" is the right word to use in connection with a catalog that culminates in Hitler. But the larger problem with the book is that, grateful though one is to Watson—a former senior editor of the London Sunday Times—for executing a vast commission in a masterly fashion, one is perplexed by his failure to address, in anything more than a cursory way, the most obvious question his subject raises: What begot the genius he describes? Was it the result of cultural circumstances? If so, why did the Germans develop a culture richer in genius (as Watson would have it) than the English or the French? Or is genius merely a question of numbers? There are more Germans than Frenchmen or Englishmen; and in genius no less than in industrial capacity the Germans might be supposed to have a per capita advantage. Watson, however, rejects such an explanation: "German genius is not just a matter of numbers."

What, then? Watson toys with the possibility that nature, not nurture, is the heart of the matter, and for "what it is worth" he points to a biological or genetic cause. "In a survey reported in 2006," he writes,

It was found that the average brain size of northern and central Europeans was larger than that of southern Europeans (1320 cc compared with 1312 cc). This translated into higher intelligence, with Germany and the Netherlands coming in on top (107 IQ points), Austria and Switzerland at 101, while Britain (where the research was done) scored 100, and France 94.


That way danger lies, and Watson does not press the point. Indeed his list of high geniuses (quoted above) directly contradicts it: more than a quarter of the figures cited are German Jews, whose genetic makeup would presumably have differed from that which produced the (supposedly) larger craniums of the Teutons. Yet if Watson cannot tell us why Germans are more ingenious than other people (if indeed they are), he persuasively describes the circumstances that favored the kind of genius they did develop.

Watson finds one source of this genius in fallen Protestantism. The Pietism that grew up in the north of Germany in the 17th century taught the individual to follow his own "inner light": in doing so he could achieve an inward freedom impervious to the vicissitudes of worldly fortune. The Pietist vision found a sanctuary in the universities which trained the German pastorate, and over time the religious notion of interior light evolved into the secular ideal of Innerlichkeit—inwardness. Inwardness, in turn, became a distinctive note of Bildung, "a belief that spiritual emancipation through education in the humanities" is the "path to (inner) freedom."

In England the radical Protestant "inner light" nourished, not only an inward culture of the soul, but a practical political sensibility as well, one that played a part in the creation of the modern constitutional state. In Germany, however, Protestantism never developed political nerve and sinew; in a fragmented land surrounded by larger kingdoms and empires, standing armies and rigid regimes kept the peace, and were a stumbling block to any who sought to emulate the republican saints of England. Inwardness became an adjunct of authoritarian rule, and professors and bureaucrats madeBildung a cornerstone of the state. The Kulturstaat (culture state) and Erziehungsstaat (tutelary state) the clerisy sought to build, historian Thomas Albert Howard has written, "numbered among its paternalistic duties the goal of inspiring and educating" Germans to "become ‘appropriate citizens'…who understood that their aspirations should coincide with the high and morally serious purposes of the emergent nation-state."

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For the garden-variety German genius it was almost an article of faith that the politically passive attributes of inwardness were an antidote to the "soulless" modernity that was disfiguring the culture of the West. The energy that in England, France, and the United States was consumed in politics was in Germany devoted to the maintenance of an ancient spiritual heritage and to the recovery of the cultural ideals of Greece. Watson shows that one of the fruits of the union of inwardness and education was the modern university. New educational techniques—among them the seminar and the research dissertation—opened a fresh perspective on ancient civilization. The revelation of Greece did much to inspire what Watson calls the German renaissance—Europe's third, he says, the earlier ones being Jacob Burckhardt's Italian renaissance and Charles Homer Haskins's 12th-century one.

It is open to question whether Watson's notion of rebirth is faithful to the spirit of the cultural achievement he describes. The German humanists were pierced by the beauty of the Hellenic city, a wholeness they found quite unlike the fragmented humanity of the modern world. But it may be doubted whether they discovered a satisfactory means of giving the older vision new life in Germany. A large part of the genius Watson describes was devoted to embalming the relics. The scrupulously edited texts of the philologists, the cherished fragments on display in the museums, even the art created, like Schinkel's Konzerthaus in Berlin and Goethe's Iphigenia in Tauris, in enthusiastic homage to the ancient models were rather a feasting on carrion than a reanimation of culture. The advent of the mausoleum impulse is a symptom not of regeneration but of petrification; Nietzsche's "Culture-Philistine" is not far off. Upon being told by a German that there was "no word in English equivalent to ‘gelehrt' (cultivated)," utilitarian philosopher Henry Sidgwick replied, "Oh yes there is, we call it a prig."

The German humanists sought to revivify German culture, which had lost its primal force, but in identifying the new order so closely with the Kulturstaat they unwittingly sterilized it. The living German culture that found expression in the mysticism of Meister Eckhart, in the poetry of the Minnesänger, and in the art of Nürnberg (the Athens of old Germany) developed in spheres smaller, less regimented, and more intimate than that of the modern state. This Germanic Ur-culture grew up in the market squares of the free cities, in aristocratic courts, and among the monastic brotherhoods. As late as the 18th century it survived in the market towns, though the frost was already upon it: its artistry forms an important part of the education of the hero in Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship, and it flowers, an autumn rose, in the St. Matthew Passion of Bach. Had the avatars of Watson's third renaissance built on these quaint but sturdy foundations, they might have wrought a revival; as it was, their labors culminated in the sapless culture and Reichsdeutsch chauvinism of the Bismarckian superstate, the epitaph of German humanism.

Watson thinks that a good deal of the German genius he describes was provoked by the ambiguities of a world caught "between the advent of [theological] doubt and the arrival of Darwin's theory of natural selection." Not a few of his sages are perplexed by the "sheer intellectual difficulty" of discovering "what man is and should become in the absence of a traditional creator or a clear biological understanding" of existence.

The trouble with Watson's eschatology is that it turns the achievements he describes into way stations on the temporal road to Darwin. What he calls Beethoven's faith that music can "be a bridge between the earthly and the divine" becomes simply another curiosity on the path to natural selection; we who have reached the certitude of On the Origin of Species may enjoy the song but can only smile at the naïveté of the singer. Yet if Watson's embrace of natural selection as an historical bookend—a kind of Hegelian ultimate destination—divides us from Bach and Beethoven, it illuminates the test of genius he proposes in The German Genius. Can "any other nation boast a collection of eleven (or even more) individuals who compare with these figures in regard to the enduring influence they have had on modern ways of thought?" The test of genius is finally influence—that is, power over others.

Watson has in a curious way succumbed to the German problem he would solve. His geniuses break free from "the 2,000-year domination of the theory of natural law." "There is no higher purpose," Wilhelm von Humboldt exclaimed, "no super-pattern." Nor are there self-evident truths: "man's values are not discovered but created." There is no law but power and the state: and the state, Leopold von Ranke averred, "cannot sin when it follows its own higher interests." The tragedy of German genius lies in the temptation to which it succumbed; in going beyond good and evil, it became untethered from truth, and came to adore mere power. Goethe, tellingly, gave his Faust a happy ending: but it was otherwise in Germany.

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This is the essence of Germany's German problem—and our own. Echoing Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind (1987), Watson argues that "the climate of opinion under which we live our differing lives is, much more than we like to think, German." It is true that, outside of the academy, Nietzsche's exaltation of amoral power is suspect. But the tenets of Darwin, translated from the biological to the moral sphere, have given the Nietzschean Machtkampf (power struggle) new authority. "Thou, Nature, art my goddess," Edmund says in King Lear. Darwinian nature, English critic Sir Leslie Stephen observed, has "but one precept, ‘Be Strong,'" and "but one punishment, decay, culminating in death and extirpation." By making power rather than truth the test of genius, Watson perpetuates the fallacy he would expose.

It is a blindness that leads him to misread the significance of "the social revolution of 1968," which he regards as a turning point in Germany's effort to solve the German problem and create a humane free state. Watson endorses sociologist Ralf Dahrendorf's thesis that not until 1968 did Germans begin to "internalize democratic values." Yet if, as Princeton political scientist Jan-Werner Müller has argued, the student rebels fed largely on "Marxism and psychoanalysis," the democracy their revolt inspired can be little more than a revised version of the relativist carnival. Far from solving the German problem, the upheavals of 1968 seem to have given the Federal Republic the kind of delusory romance Lionel Trilling found the marriage of Marx and Freud in Herbert Marcuse's Eros and Civilization (1955) to be—a fairy tale in which a "general relaxation of moral restriction" and the obsolescence of "repression" lead to the "end of ‘alienation'" and to the "realization of the young Marx's envisioned state of freedom in which all human activity is gratuitous."

Germany has not yet solved the German problem—and neither, to judge from The German Genius, have we. That Watson seems to have lost his way in the labyrinth he sought to elucidate does not, however, detract from the excellence of his book, which is an extraordinarily illuminating one; possibly the error has made it more poignant.