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, 0 19 509499 9
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‘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.

This is familiar terrain for Gordon Craig. Born a year before the First World War, Craig first visited Germany in 1935, to research an undergraduate thesis on the Weimar Republic. He made his name as a historian in the Fifties, with an important work on the Prussian Army in politics, and has long enjoyed a reputation as one of the leading Anglo-Saxon historians of modern Germany. Much of his work has been concerned with political power and decision-makers, but Craig’s writing has always shown a deep knowledge of German literature. The present book unites these interests. First published in Germany, where he is also a popular author, it contains ten essays linked by the theme of the subtitle. Most were originally written in the late Sixties and early Seventies, although they have been updated to take note of more recent literature. Three – on Goethe, Hölderlin and Heine – are new.

Craig believes that writers should reject the stance of superior detachment towards politics. He argues in the Introduction that contempt was commonplace in Imperial and Weimar Germany, with dire results. But the same cannot be said of writers in (West) Germany after 1945 – a subject on which he has written elsewhere, extolling the commitment of figures such as Hans-Magnus Enzensberger, Günter Grass and Heinrich Böll. And what became true later had, according to Craig, also been true earlier. The Politics of the Unpolitical performs a balancing act, praising the chosen writers of the decades before unification by criticising the apolitical stance that most of them rejected.

At the most general level, these essays present political engagement as a good thing. But what exactly does Craig mean by it? On the evidence here, several different things. Three of his studies look at men who accepted ministerial responsibility. Two are well known: Excellency Goethe, who served Carl August of Saxe-Weimar for almost forty years, and Wilhelm von Humboldt, brother of the famous explorer, a notable Prussian minister of education who served as ambassador to Vienna after 1810. The third and least familiar is Johann Müller, a Swiss-born scholar whose multi-volume history begun in 1780 established the modern epic version of the freedom-loving Swiss people, complete with oath on the Rütli and the exploits of Wilhelm Tell. But Müller wanted more than academic fame. Craig’s essay expertly plots his peregrinations around the German courts in search of a position, before he ended his public career as a frustrated, unappreciated servant of Napoleon’s puppet regime in Westphalia.

No single moral is drawn from these vignettes of the intellectual in politics. Craig presents Humboldt, reasonably enough, as a success in the role. There is a whiff of the author-as-seasoned-clubman in the praise bestowed on Humboldt’s tact, judgment and administrative skills in the tricky Vienna posting. Craig delivers a very different verdict on Müller, whose ‘capacity for simple wonder’ was an endearing quality in a historian but a liability in the world of politics, where he was easily exploited. The moral tagged onto the essay is also different: Müller’s search for a hero becomes a foretaste of German political immaturity in the 19th and 20th centuries. So where does this leave Goethe? The first half of Craig’s essay is an appreciative account of the great man at work on highways, mines, taxes and the numerous other matters entrusted to him by the Duke. This is ‘Goethe the Statesman’ (Craig’s title). But the closing pages underline the well-known disillusion and sense of resignation that coloured his reactions to the French Revolution and the prospect of disorder. Goethe’s aversion to party and popular politics grew during his last years, and he reacted with alarm to the revolutions of 1830.

Reading these pieces, one feels the tug of rival sympathies within Gordon Craig. He admires the practical, commonsensical and statesmanlike, characteristically glossing Goethe’s Campagne in Frankreich as ‘an argument against adventurism and unrealistic foreign policy’. This is the worldly Craig, who shares Henry Kissinger’s admiration for sound chaps, and views history as a sort of universal stage on which statesmanship is displayed (or not). But there is another, more rebellious Gordon Craig, drawn to oppositional spirits, who wants to contrast Goethe unfavourably with more politically activist contemporaries. And the second author, Citizen Craig, mostly has the upper hand in this collection.

Activism comes in different forms. None was more overt than the course followed by Georg Forster. Born in 1754, Forster accompanied James Cook on his second voyage and wrote an account of the trip in 1777 that found an enthusiastic response in Britain and Germany. After posts in Kassel and Vilna as a professor of natural sciences, he became librarian to the Elector of Mainz in 1788, and with the arrival of French Revolutionary Armies in the Rhineland, Forster emerged as the leading light in the local Jacobin Club. He was one of three commissioners who went to Paris in 1793 to request that the Mainz ‘Jacobin Republic’ be incorporated into France, and it was in the turbulent revolutionary capital of Europe that he died in January 1794, when poor health finally caught up with him. Craig’s essay contrasts Forster’s willingness to move from thought to action with the ‘wordy professions’ of other fellow-travellers. Whereas many retreated into inwardness, Forster was ‘the first modern German activist’ – that is the moral Craig punches home at the end. But in other essays he establishes a less physically exacting standard of political engagement. The defence of Friedrich Schiller against critics of his alleged passivity runs along different lines. If Schiller ‘left the emotional satisfactions of activism to others, he was no less engaged than they’. The short piece here examines the politically didactic aspect of Schiller’s dramas, especially the fragment on Die Polizei that he worked on after completing the Wallenstein trilogy in 1799.

A further essay considers the Hungarian-born Nikolaus Lenau, a lyric poet driven to write about ‘damned politics’ by Metternich’s stifling regime in the pre-1848 Habsburg Empire, which Lenau fled for Stuttgart and (briefly) the United States. The essay is notable for two things. One is Craig’s perceptiveness in handling Lenau’s verse, the other his obvious dislike of the openly political writers known as Young Germany. Elsewhere in the book political engagement is taken as a virtue in itself. Here, Craig is saying – ‘admitting’ would be too strong a term – that there can be too much of a good thing, and he criticises men like Gutzkow and his circle for a kind of political writing that was (to use Craig’s own terms) modish, shrill, noisy and self-important.

Eight of these essays are concerned with the contemporary careers of Craig’s chosen writers, whether public servants or members of the oppositional awkward squad. The odd ones out are reception studies, on Hölderlin and Heine. They are among the longer and more successful pieces. Like other young German writers, Hölderlin embraced the French Revolution with enthusiasm. In 1793 he wrote to his half-brother: ‘Freedom must come in the end, and virtue will thrive better in freedom’s warm and holy light than in the icy zone of despotism.’ Unlike many contemporaries, he did not reject these ideals under the impact of regicide and terror. He maintained ties to politically radical friends, and Craig follows Lukács in reading the great epistolary novel Hyperion as a political work, ‘a novel of the citizen’. But the writer was little appreciated at the point when he lapsed into madness in 1806. He continued to be rejected through much of the following century, although more (as Craig recognises) because a materialist age viewed him as an overly emotional poet of feeling, a ‘feminine’ genius in Friedrich Theodor Vischer’s words, than because of the political strain in his writing. Philistine neglect was followed by its opposite, the sacralisation of a mystical Hölderlin. The poet became a cult among the prominent (Rilke, Stefan George), and to many First World War soldiers. Hölderlin then suffered the sickly embrace of Heidegger, who cast him as a prophet of the new Germany, and passages from Hyperion were later read to the Führer on his 50th birthday.

Craig writes with sensitivity and a sharp moral edge about this posthumous abuse. He is equally acute in an essay on ‘Heinrich Heine and the Germans’. Heine was an object of dislike, even hatred among German conservatives and nationalists long before the Nazis burned his books, and Craig shows us why. He was thought to be frivolous, rootless, immoral, disrespectful – characteristics attributed, of course, to the Jew. If this story is generally well known, Craig still gives us a valuable sketch of Heine’s reception that includes discussion of the various debates about commemorative statues and postage stamps. He also shows us again what a good ear he has. It would be hard to better his comment on the poet’s habit of leading readers into a sentimental mood, the opening trap-doors beneath them.

Literary critics may challenge some of Craig’s readings, indeed the way he reads, making relatively straightforward links backwards and forwards between life and art Historians, while recognising his erudition and individual insights, will question some of his broad brush-work. Most, for example would probably feel that he exaggerates the ‘modern’, centralised nature of policing in the German states from the 1790s to the mid-19th century. What Craig describes was more a creation of the years after 1850. Conversely, it is odd almost to the point of perversity that ten essays about writers and politics in this period manage to say virtually nothing about religion. Craig notes Schiller’s status as a national icon, but makes no mention of the Protestant pathos in which the Schiller-cult was drenched. (Schiller himself had predicted that Germany would become the ‘capital of Protestantism’.) We learn in passing that Müiler mused about a ‘new Gustavus’, but not that Gustavus Adolphus was to enjoy the kind of idolatry among German Protestant writers (and hostility among Catholics) that Cromwell acquired in 19th-century Britain – not without significance for the ways in which educated Germans regarded Bismarck. Again, Craig might have found space, at least in the Introduction, to say something about Romantic writers who consciously cultivated the poetic aura and majesty of kingship.

If religion and contemporary understandings of authority deserve more systematic attention, the same is true of the central issue of ‘inwardness’, which carries a heavy explanatory burden as the negative counter-point to Craig’s politically engaged writers – the thing that was out of joint in German history. On Craig’s own evidence, there was more to it than this. It was, after all, the materialist philistines – the Spiessbürger – who did for Hölderlin in the 19th century. And it was not just Heine’s cheerful contempt for the ‘realm of dreams’ that irritated so many readers, but his barbs against the all too worldly – descriptions like ‘Göttingen, famous for its sausages and university’. Stuffy philistines rightly recognised Heine as a menace, and it was their certainties that he subverted with such genius. There is no better example than the third Heimkehr poem, where Heine paints a pastoral idyll of fisher-boy, gardens and shining mill-wheel before the final stanza closes in on a sentry patrolling the old grey tower: ‘He handles his shining rifle,/It gleams in the sunlight’s red,/He shoulders arms, presents arms –/ I wish he would shoot me dead.’ There is something rotten here in the sate of Germany and its name is not Innerlichkeit but Gemütlichkeit.

There are hints in the essays on Hölderlin, Heine and Gervinus of a German mental set more complex and probably more politically damaging in the long term than inwardness, at least in the way the latter has usually been written about. This was an unstable compound of materialist bombast, philistine rage and provincial sentimentality – the true intellectual roots of National Socialism. To penetrate this cast of mind and its political implications, one would need to look at its characteristic literary products – the second and third-rate writers, or a family magazine like Die Gartenlaube. It is no criticism of Craig to say that his book is not the ideal vehicle for doing this. He is concerned with Germany’s ‘most widely respected writers’; there is no time to spare for hacks. But one can still regret that his discussion of canonical writers, sure-footed as it is, was not thickened by some attention to the contexts in which they wrote. Publishers, patrons, impresarios, print-runs, the literary market, the reading public and its tastes – these are missing.

To give a small example of why this matters: the discussion of Forster (who made his name with Voyage around the World) would have gained from some account of the extraordinary boom in travel literature at the end of the 18th century. For travel (taught as a subject at the University of Göttingen) raised major questions about how Germans defined themselves against others, with implications for contemporary ideas about civic virtue and political engagement. A more important example concerns the way we understand the German literary reception of the French Revolution. No one would guess from Craig’s book that a major debate has raged for decades over the ‘German Jacobins’, or that some of the most innovative work in modern German history has been done by scholars examining the ‘cultural transfers’ between France and Germany in the 1790s. We now know much more about German literary ‘pilgrims’ to Revolutionary France; we also have detailed evidence about which Revolutionary texts were translated, what was available in German reading rooms, and how the storming of the Bastille entered German writing as a powerful symbol or organising metaphor.

Like many similar collections, this one is uneven. The later pieces tend to be longer and meatier, although there is also a substantial older essay on Heinrich von Kleist. Other chapters are more slight – just seven pages on Schiller. The essay on Müiller still bears traces of its delivery as an address, with references to ‘our discipline’ and ‘an audience of historians’ that might have been edited out. (This cannot compete with an article I once refereed, by a distinguished historian, that began with the words: ‘As we look out tonight over Lake Geneva’.) The book adds up to more than a string of occasional pieces, however. The essays offer variations on a single, important theme, and share many common virtues.

Gordon Craig is a liberal historian of the old school, and an exceptional one. In the final essay, a perceptive and affectionate account of another liberal historian, Gervinus, he wonders ‘whether his kind of history was not, all things considered, rather better than Ranke’s’. I don’t think – alas! – that it was, but Gervinus did represent a vial alternative conception of the historian’s role, one that was in many ways less hidebound and more generous. On this, as on many other issues, it is possible to disagree with Craig’s interpretation, but few will read this book and not sense the presence of a historian who offers a rare combination of learning and belief in the moral value of his subject.

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