The selfish part of me hopes that nobody is reading this, and that, to paraphrase the words of the 70s TV programme Why Don’t You, you’ve all just switched off your television sets / hard drives and gone out to do something less boring instead. I know that’s what I’ve been doing and it’s a very happy-making thing. Re-reading that first sentence, in fact, I’ve forgiven myself any feeling of selfishness and decided that it actually reveals an altruism I didn’t think myself capable of expressing. Anyway, the combination of guilt and loquaciousness means that I’ll be trying to update this more frequently.
By the way, does anyone else find it peculiar that on Friday night broadband went down all over the place – just as a new terror plot was uncovered?
Heriot continues to be idyllic. We had guisers last night, and compared to the “extortion with menaces” I was familiar with in Leith, it was picture-postcard cute. We’ve had the in-laws to stay and cooked a Sunday lunch for eleven people, all of whom managed to get round the kitchen table. The Major Work on the garden has commenced, in enthusiasm if not in earnest, with bulbs and a long hard look at the mountains of clinker in what will be the composter. I discovered I can watch a nuthatch for twenty nine minutes and that a pheasant looks strikingly like an Chinese print version of itself in the dawn light. This morning, we looked down on the valley and saw it swathed in fog. It felt rather High Romantic.
Even the commute is enjoyable, and has led to a minor psychogeographic intrigue. For a while, we’d been seeing what I called the Ghost Bus – a bus with the number zero instead of a route designation. I cooked up all kinds of schemes about rogue buses that deviate from their established circuits and go native, hiding out on B roads and conducting clandestine meetings. Then we saw the real Ghost Bus – a bus with no number whatsoever, not even a zero, and all its lights switched off. A kind of Spartacus or Scarlet Pimpernel of the omnibus world. Now finding buses awry from their usual routes has become a hobby, and I’ve spent far too long looking at route maps, finding the areas furthest from the bus comfort zones, and wondering far too much about how the routes come into being. There are also odd gaps in the numbering sequences: so in Edinburgh there’s no number six, nine, thirteen, seventeen, twenty-eight, thirty-nine or forty. I think I might resurrect some of these cursed routes: who knows, they might even pass straight through buildings nowadays.
This week’s review: a book everyone should read. And I don’t say that often.
THIS is the kind of book that restores my faith in publishing. It is serious, erudite, weighty (just shy of 1,000 pages long), ambitious and successful in all those categories. Peter Watson attempts nothing less than a complete survey of the intellectual, scientific and cultural life of Germany and German-speaking peoples from the 18th century to the present day.
At its heart is a simple question. Imagine a pair of scales. On one side place Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Mahler and Wagner; Goethe, Schiller, Hoffmann, Heine, Thomas Mann and the Grimm Brothers; Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Marx and Freud; Euler, Gauss, Reimann, and Gödel; Einstein, Heisenberg, Planck and Bohr; Brecht, Fritz Lang, Otto Preminger and Billy Wilder; Paul Klee, Caspar Friedrich, Gustav Klimt, Joseph Beuys, Theodor Adorno, Hannah Arendt, Walter Gropius, Herbert Marcuse, Dietrich Boenhoffer and Paul Tillich. On the other place Adolf Hitler. Do the achievements of these philosophers, writers, artists, physicists, mathematicians, film-makers, theologians and thinkers weigh more heavily towards the popular conception of “German-ness” than the achievements of an Austrian demagogue and failed water-colourist?
Watson is clear that the contribution of Germany – he refers to it as the Second Scientific Revolution and the Third European Renaissance – has been overshadowed by the horrors of the Nazi regime, and that the British remain stubbornly and pompously dismissive of German culture (he cites a German academic lamenting the lack of an English equivalent for the word Kultur and being rebuked by an Oxford academic that there was a perfectly good English word for one obsessed with the “high arts”: a prig). He is, however, shrewd enough to realise that the question won’t disappear under a flurry of facts and enthusiasms. Indeed, it is a question that vexes contemporary Germany. Was there a Sonderweg, a “special path” unique to Germany, as first advanced by the historian von Ranke in 1833, and did this special path lead inevitably to Auschwitz?
Watson ingeniously argues that the very predispositions that allowed for such an intense cultural flowering were identical with the preconditions for the rise of the fascists. He identifies features such as a disdain for the public sphere, the cultivation of Innerlichkeit, or “inwardness”, and a deep-rooted sense of intrinsic purpose: the personal Bildung, or self-realisation, transformed to national manifest destiny.
In the period that he calls “between doubt and Darwin”, different approaches to determining what humans were for were advanced by artists, scientists and philosophers, and the key theme was inwardness. Nazism was not inevitable, but it became more probable, yoked to factors such as Germany’s rapid and belated industrialisation.
It is a book where the gathering night brings the reader up sharply. As we move from the heady days of Weimar Classicism and Beethoven’s Ode To Joy there is a perceptible darkening. From Heine, insisting he was German first and Jewish second, to the rise of Bismarck (“the solution of the great problems of these days is not to be found in speeches and revolutions, but in blood and iron”: 1862) and his armourer, the “cannon king” Alfred Krupp, to the philistine posturing of Wilhelm II (who said Liebermann’s art was “poisoning the soul of the German nation”), the scene is gradually set. Watson brilliantly evokes the exodus of intellectuals – and not just in terms of the apocryphal American claim to the Soviets, “our German scientists were better than your German scientists”. Their influence was as great in Britain: think of the architectural guides by Nikolaus Pevsner, the Story Of Art by Ernst Gombrich, the liberal thinking of Karl Popper, the publishing magnate George Weidenfeld, or the Hungarian Germanophile Emeric Pressburger, who lauded the RAF in The Lion Has Wings.
About those who stayed behind, Watson is almost embarrassed. There is a fascinating section on Hans Baumann, who wrote Tomorrow Belongs To Me (originally a Catholic Youth Movement song) and over 150 songs lauding Hitler as the saviour of the nation, who became a children’s novelist after the war (Barnabas The Dancing Bear was one of his). But the career of Ernst Jünger is sketchy; and Hanns Johst, Hitler’s poet laureate, is mentioned only for Thomas Paine, his anti-Brecht drama of 1927. He died in 1978. Although IG Farben’s ambiguous war record – Zyklon B and aspirin – is mentioned, the book is silent on IBM’s equally tainted stance.
A book such as this will have to sacrifice some detail to the broad scope, and in general Watson’s choices are judicious and apt. In the post-war period he has an interesting line on Cardinal Ratzinger’s theology; but the brush strokes, in general, are more hasty. Part of this may be that the literature of Austria and Switzerland has been more interesting; boasting such figures as Thomas Bernhard, Gert Jonke, Elfriede Jelinek, Thomas Glavinic and Christian Kracht. Nor is there room for extensive discussion of the curious phenomenon of Östalgie – nostalgia for the old GDR.
Watson amply proves his case that German Kultur is both rich and deep, and the British stereotypes of Herr Flick do not do justice to this vein of intellectual history. He concludes with “35 Under-rated Germans”, a list I fear was demanded by the publishers, since the book must have at least 350 such case studies.