Peter Watson’s The German Genius is a comprehensive study of German intellectual history. The author does a superb job of marshalling secondary historical resources to present an informative chronology. However, a reader is required to overcome some retrograde editorializing by the author.
The first area of difficulty appears in his introduction. Watson states “Hitler and the Holocaust are preoccupying the world to such an extent, I suggest, that we are denying ourselves important aspects elsewhere in German history. We must not forget the Holocaust…but at the same time we must learn to look past it.” (Watson, p. 28). To explore German history beyond the period of 1933 to 1945 is a perfectly reasonable suggestion. If one is to understand a culture, focusing only upon the period of its greatest atrocities does not offer a complete picture. If Watson had stopped there, few would have opposed his plea for balance. Unfortunately, he begins to employ a not so subtle technique used by conservative US political organizations. Often, when conservatives wish to argue against voting laws that benefit minorities, they use a minority spokesperson; when they wish to oppose abortion legislation, they use a female spokesperson. Similarly, Watson employs Jews where he wishes to make some of his more unjust points: When he wants to say that he wishes the Holocaust would just go away, he uses Charles Maier saying “[keeping the Holocaust alive] has disadvantages” (Watson’s brackets) and “It is possible to make a fetish of Auschwitz.” (Watson, p. 28). When he wishes to smear Holocaust victims to reduce sympathy and interest, he uses Peter Novick saying “those who have survived are not the fittest…but are largely the lowest Jewish elements, who by cunning and animal instincts have been able to escape the terrible fate of the more refined and better elements who succumbed.” (Watson, p. 8). Watson does not recognize that Germany and the rest of the world have chosen to carefully examine the Holocaust because there is value in that study; value that is specifically related to an important concept that runs throughout his book: “bildung.” Bildung “refers to the inner development of the individual, a process of fulfillment through education and knowledge, in effect a secular search for perfection, representing progress and refinement both in knowledge and in moral terms, an amalgam of wisdom and self-realization.” (Watson, pp. 53-4). Examination of the Holocaust has greatly contributed to international and German bildung. Internationally, knowledge of this period has expanded Holocaust studies into genocide studies and contributed to efforts to prevent genocides. In Germany, required study of the Holocaust in the schools has given that nation one of the most humane outlooks in the world. Compare Austria, who killed Jews but did not take responsibility through education, with Germany, who did, and one sees a tremendous difference: When Austria elected ex-Nazi Kurt Waldheim as its leader; Germany elected Nobel laureate Willy Brandt. Austria’s minority party is the racist “Freedom Party;” Germany’s is the “Green Party.” Perhaps it is more useful and healthy for the world to have Holocaust education than to have knowledge of the great German poets and composers. But there is no reason why we cannot have both. Who among us couldn’t benefit from learning a little more? In Watson’s defense, he does spend more than 100 pages upon the Nazi period and its destruction of German intellectual life. In addition, he includes numerous Jews in his tome, representing them, as they would have wished, as German citizens.
Another area of difficulty is misleading chauvinism. Among the more easily debunked claims of Watson’s are: 1) “The Italian Renaissance was a German idea.” (Watson, p. 91). Jules Michelet would disagree as he is the individual who coined the term. 2) “Only in 1885 did Karl Benz, in Mannheim, construct a machine that would lead to the automobile age.” (Watson, p. 375). This statement ignores the 25 years of automobile construction prior to Benz. 3) Germany created “the first coherent school of sociology.” (Watson, p. 441). One would have to overlook August Comte, who is widely regarded as the founder of this field. These are just a few examples of chauvinism. A writer’s identification with his subject is one thing; but exaggeration to the point where history is misrepresented is quite another.
Practically every culture has had a period of cultural and educational efflorescence; of genius. Italy’s 200-year Renaissance, France’s 75-year Enlightenment, Greece’s 200-year Golden Age, India’s 300-year sultanate, China’s 300-year Tang dynasty, these are just a few of the notable long-term periods of cultural contribution to the world by a people at their best. During each of those ages, a short-sighted chronicler could have made an argument for that culture’s superiority; and many did. Germany’s chief period of cultural achievement, as elucidated by Watson, was a 185-year stretch from about 1750 to 1935. He does make a markedly weaker argument that this period continued after Hitler’s demise. Nonetheless, this is a tiny period of time in human history. Additionally, it is a mistake to pronounce a definitive value judgment on Germany, or any culture, based upon either a golden age or upon a period of atrocities. Peter Watson’s attempt to define German culture by the book’s time frame is flawed to its core exactly because of this myopia. This period, even if one were to include the post-war era, is a bubble on an ocean-long continuum.
So what can one say for Peter Watson after describing him as a short-sighted chauvinist who wants to avoid the nasty bits of history so that he can gush about Schiller? In spite of his failed perspective, his book is still worth reading. Watson will introduce one to a glittering time of brilliant minds from Herder to Nietzsche; of brilliant composers from Bach to Schubert; of brilliant scientists from Humboldt to Einstein. The contributions are magnificent and the story of this period is uplifting. Golden ages give us hope for the future of humanity and show us what a culture can accomplish with enough persistence. Watson does a thorough job of researching and elaborating this history. There is a great deal to learn and avenues for further exploration.
Watson, Peter. The German Genius. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2010.