The Last Thing Said in Germany

Sheldon Rothblatt

  • War and the Image of Germany: British Academics 1914-1918 by Stuart Wallace
    John Donald, 288 pp, £20.00, March 1988, ISBN 0 85976 133 9

In the 1840s a Thomas Carlyle could mimic the German pedantic style and laugh at Herr Teufelsdröckh of Wahngasse of Weissnichtwo (a scatalogical invention worthy of Jonathan Swift), but opposites are known to attract. As the century moved on, Wisenschaft, a portmanteau word connoting the highest possible academic culture, took hold of the British academic imagination. Would be scholars, slogging away at the education of young men who behaved like boys, rose as from the dead to salute the hard-working German professors on their magic mountains who did not have to shape the characters of adolescents or affect an amusing, polished and clubbable style. In 1886 Lord Acton, a student of the great Ignatz Döllinger, defined the ‘familiar type of German scholar’ as ‘the man who complained that the public library allowed him only 13 hours a day to read, the man who spent 30 years on one volume, the man who wrote on Homer in 1806 and who still wrote on Homer in 1870, the man who discovered the 358 passages in which Dictys had imitated Sallust’.

The ‘familiar type of German scholar’ had another side too, although not the one to which Carlyle referred. In the heady days of British admiration for Wissenschaft it was easy to forget that the German professoriat rarely admitted Jews or Social Democrats to its ranks. Nor was the question of state control over German higher education and the subordination of the professoriat to national aims and purposes seriously questioned, even though such issues had been aired at the time of the Mid-Victorian reform of the English universities.

Clearly and simply, in a serious book, Wallace relates how the good opinion of things German disappeared during the First World War. Wissenschaft and German civilisation were disparaged. Memories of hikes on German mountains, of sculling on the Weser and exciting days in the laboratories and seminars of distinguished German scholars, were repressed. Only 29 years after Acton wrote his appreciation, W.F. Ridgeway, Professor of Archaeology at Cambridge, allowed himself the self-indulgence of hind-sight in an address to the Conference of the Classical Association: ‘for the last two generations British men of science ... aimed chiefly at being the first to introduce into this country the last thing said in Germany, even though that might be only the worthless thesis produced by some young candidate for his doctorate.’

Doubtless an extreme position, but heavily applauded nonetheless. In the count-down to 1914, more scrupulous statements were made, by journalists as well as academics. German scholars and scientists, it was said, were not the same breed as soldiers and politicians The warlike, ruthless, efficient inheritances and practices of a barracks state had to be distinguished from the lovers of music and philosophy and the good-humoured folk. And Germany was not to be confused with Prussia. Furthermore, surely some of the bellicosity of pre-war ‘civilised’ Germany had to be blamed on the provocations of despotic and ‘barbaric’ Russia, or even British imperialism itself? Such excuses are the first round in the familiar process of emotional detachment. It was only a question of time before the reality of war impressed itself upon disbelieving minds.

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