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The German Genius: Europe’s Third Renaissance, the Second Scientific Revolution and the Twentieth Century

Giles MacDonogh tackles a lengthy survey of German intellectual achievements that highlights a cultural rebirth

Published: November 18, 2010 at 7:42 am
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Reviewed by: Giles MacDonogh
Author: Peter Watson
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Price (RRP): £30


Inevitably revisionist arguments have surfaced recently, but most historians would not deviate from the standard line that German intellectual development was effectively stymied by the Thirty Years’ War that throttled the country in the first half of the 17th century.

Now, Peter Watson has set himself the task of showing how splendidly the Germans recovered from almost total cultural annihilation.

It took more than a hundred years before there were any significant stirrings. Some of these occurred around the court of Frederick the Great, but Frederick wanted his intellectuals to speak French and the little flowering of German scholarship in the circle of the bookseller Nicolai was largely ignored by the king. His niece, Anna Amalia of Weimar, did rather better in that she established her court as the seedbed of the German literary revival by luring in Wieland, Goethe, Herder and Schiller.

The German Genius is a great hunk of a book covering every branch of endeavour from quantum physics to sexology.

I feel that Watson is right in suggesting that German ‘science’ has recovered from the Third Reich, even if it still bears the scars. The atrocious racial and medical thinking that blossomed under Adolf Hitler was present throughout the western world in the first decades of the 20th century. The German sin was to encourage it.

One of Germany’s great advantages from an intellectual point of view (a terrible disadvantage politically) was the ‘Kleinstaaterei’: the tessellation of small states that existed before unification in 1871. Each little territory had its own centre of gravity, and most a university of note.

From the late 18th century these began to encourage research and grant doctorates. Scholastic rigour of this sort did not show its face in British universities before the second half of the 19th century.

By then the news had slipped out, and in the course of the 19th century Britons, Frenchmen and Americans made pilgrimages to Germany to acquire the new knowledge. German science remained respectable until unification, when commercial rivalry rapidly led to a Teutonophobia that has yet to ebb away.

Watson overstates his case sometimes. Germans succeeded in some fields better than in others. It would be hard to argue their primacy in painting, for example, especially in contrast to France. German music abounds with geniuses, but some would argue that a few 19th-century Italians were their equals.

There are strange lacunae – probably inevitable in such an ambitious book. ETA Hoffmann, one of Germany’s greatest writers – and satirists – makes a token appearance as a pioneering music critic, which he was too but he is still best remembered for fiction.

Novelists Gustav Freytag, Wilhelm Raabe and Theodor Fontane get about three-quarters of a page between them.

Freytag’s Soll und Haben (Debit and Credit) was hugely influential. Fontane was called ‘the Prussian Zola’. His novels paint a wonderful portrait of Prussia submerging beside the flashy new empire. The most important of his books, Der Stechlin, finds no place here.

Another novelist, Carl Zuckmayer’s Fröhliche Weinberg (Merry Vineyard) is mentioned, but not Der Hauptmann von Köpenick (The Captain Köpenick), which was a much greater success.

The playwright Hermann Sudermann is left out altogether as is historian Felix Dahn, whose Kampf um Rom (Battle for Rome) reversed the standard view that the fall of Rome was a tragedy for western civilisation. And where is that rare German comic poet Joachim Ringelnatz?

The chief problem with the book is stylistic, however. It is both exhaustive and exhausting. One has the sense of reading a thousand Wikipedia entries, each one identical in structure and presenting its ‘authority’ to justify its inclusion in the survey.


Still, warts and all, I shall keep it on my shelves for the next time I am stumped to explain the achievements of an eminent German numismatist or geologist.

Giles MacDonogh is the author of After the Reich (John Murray, 2008)


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