‘Famous for its Sausages’

David Blackbourn

  • The Politics of the Unpolitical: German Writers and the Problem of Power, 1770-1871 by Gordon A. Craig
    Oxford, 190 pp, £22.50, July 1995, ISBN 0 19 509499 9

‘Poor in deeds and rich in thoughts’ – that was Friedrich Hölderlin’s lament about his fellow Germans two hundred years ago. In one form or another the idea became familiar. Germany in the 19th century acquired a reputation as the land of poets and thinkers (the phrase was coined by Jean Paul), something that foreign observers viewed with a mixture of condescension and respect. Many Germans reacted more bitterly. Gervinus, Freiligrath and Börne were among the writers who likened Germany to Hamlet, a comparison instantly understood in a country that had come to regard Shakespeare as one of its own. Germans knew all about des Gedankens Blässe – the pale cast of thought. Others played on the same theme. For Heinrich Heine the Germans reigned supreme only ‘in the realm of dreams’; Marx sneered that they had only thought what other peoples had done. These contemporary cadences were surely in the mind of a modern historian, Rolf Engelsing, when he suggested that Britain had produced an industrial revolution, France a political revolution, Germany a mere reading revolution.

Is this a true bill, and why should it matter to us? It matters because of the presumed pay-off of all this dreamy introspection in the catastrophes of the 20th century. Impractical poets and windy metaphysicians could still be safely patronised in the era of European history that ended in 1914. What followed cast things in a very different light. German intellectuals went to war with a shrill defence of the peculiar virtues supposedly embodied in German Kultur. German inwardness and spiritual depth became ideological weapons against Russian ‘barbarism’ and the ‘superficial’ British and French. Thomas Mann’s Observations of a Non-Political Man, published in 1916, is the prize exhibit of historians concerned to pin down this pattern of thinking.

The same mental set has often been viewed as an important enabling element in the coming of National Socialism. For the celebration of German inwardness, we are told, was not just a source of national hubris: contempt for everyday political questions led in practice to subservience, and encouraged a tendency to think in terms of dramatic absolutes. A crude version of this argument can be found in William Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, a relentless piece of Nazi pedigree-hunting with some claim to be considered, despite strong competition, the worst book ever written on German history. Others have argued more subtly for the role played by naive, unworldly German intellectuals from the Enlightenment onwards. One of the most respected, Fritz Stern, coined the phrase ‘vulgar idealism’ to describe this cast of mind in the decades after unification, and wrote an influential essay on ‘the political consequences of the unpolitical German’.

All this sounds intuitively plausible, but does it stand up? A generation of research has given us a more complex picture. It is now widely accepted, for example, that the keywords of the German Enlightenment – reason, virtue, utility, harmony, patriotism – had a more political content than was once supposed. Writers and the reading public not only took an active interest in political events elsewhere, like the revolt of the American colonists, they also criticised the arbitrariness of German princes in the name of an emancipated civil society. To take another example, the hapless intellectuals and talkative professors of 1848, lampooned by Engels and held in contempt by later generations, have been treated more sympathetically in recent work on the revolution. And the historical verdict on the 1850s and 1860s, once a byword for the civic torpor of literary and academic life, has undergone similar revision.

The inward, unpolitical German of the years between Bismarck’s triumph and the First World War has also taken a few hits in the thirty years since Stern wrote his classic The Politics of Cultural Despair. That is partly because we have learned to take the counter-tendencies more seriously: critical writers and satirists, political cabaret and anti-censorship campaigns. But there is something else at least as important if we are trying to identify a German trahison des clercs. Does it make sense to focus attention on the strain of vulgar idealism, if that leads us to neglect the palpably materialist ambitions of those many German intellectuals and professors who banged the scientific drum and dreamed of conquering the skies, engineering social cohesion, or improving the racial stock? That does not mean we can ignore the tendency to political hero-worship among educated middle-class Germans; the attraction for them of the strong man, atleast from Bismarck onwards. It does suggest some reconsideration of what we mean by power and the abuse of power, among writers and intellectuals no less than among businessmen or professionals.

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