Germany’s Kultur–its music, its classic and Romantic literature and art, its philosophy, its university system and its science–has been admired and emulated, sometimes envied and feared, but always, if sometimes begrudgingly, recognized as an inalienable part of European civilization. But after the nineteenth-century “Land der Dichter und Denker” (country of poets and thinkers) became the “Land der Richter und Henker” (country of judges and executioners), as Karl Kraus famously put it, the unsettling proximity of German Kultur to barbarism became a standard trope. Auschwitz inmates forced to perform Mozart and Beethoven, Goethe’s Weimar right next to Buchenwald, Adolf Hitler’s Wagner cult and Albert Speer’s megalomaniacal architectural fantasies–this is what reminds us that German Kultur not only failed to stem the tide of fascism but was effortlessly appropriated by the Nazis and thus contributed to Hitler’s rise.
The German tendency to see in culture a legitimate, even noble substitute for parliamentary and democratic politics is the topic of Wolf Lepenies’s extended essay. The story Lepenies tells in The Seduction of Culture in German History is not new. It has been explored with great insight by an earlier generation of historians, many of them German-Jewish émigrés such as Fritz Stern, Georg Mosse and Peter Gay. But it does warrant a new look in our age of “culture wars” and the “clash of civilizations.” Even if Kultur in the sense of apolitical high culture played a greater role in Germany than anywhere else, making the country’s road to modernity unique in some respects (the so-called Sonderweg, or special path), recent historiography has done much to puncture the narrative of German exceptionalism. Culture has served as a substitute for politics in other countries as well: to a certain extent in France after the military defeat of 1871, in Spain after the Spanish-American War of 1898, even in the United States during the post-Vietnam culture wars. Lepenies, a distinguished sociologist, former rector of the Berlin Wissenschaftskolleg and an accomplished man of letters, offers us a series of brilliant vignettes, studded with memorable aphorisms and observations focusing on German, French and American intellectual life across time and disciplines.
From Herder, Weimar classicism and the Romantics on, at first by default, later by choice, Germans understood themselves as a Kulturnation, a nation unified by high culture in the absence of a central state. Once Germany achieved unity and statehood under Bismarck in 1871, this notion of Kultur took on more aggressive connotations. German elites counterposed Kultur to French civilization, German Romanticism and its cult of inwardness to the French Enlightenment and the ideal of the citoyen, German manliness and moral seriousness to French decadence and frivolity. After the failure of the 1848 attempt to bring parliamentary and constitutional rule to Germany, the embrace of Kultur often came with the dismissal of parliamentary politics as somehow un-German, and it underlay Germans’ feelings of superiority over their Western neighbors–an attitude that would merge seamlessly with Nazi racial theory and imperial aggression. It was precisely because Kultur shunned the realm of politics that the cultured elites collapsed so easily and often eagerly when the Nazis staged their rule as a cultural revolution.
In his exploratory tour of the history of an idea, Lepenies takes Thomas Mann as his leading figure, a choice that makes eminent sense. However ironic his stance, Mann always understood himself to be a representative of authentic German Kultur. Even in American exile he did not see himself as a martyr like Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz or Georg Büchner, nor did he ever embrace the role of rebel like Heinrich Heine or Bertolt Brecht–cultural figures who represent that other, oppositional strain in German literature. In Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man (1918) Mann distilled the essence of the antipolitical German Kultur that would shape much of the discourse of cultural conservatives after World War I. Those same conservatives would accuse Mann of treason four years later, when he declared his support for the Weimar Republic in his 1922 speech “The German Republic.” In a daring though not entirely convincing argument, Mann used Novalis, prime example of Romantic inwardness, and, surprisingly, Walt Whitman to prove that Romanticism and republicanism were not irreconcilable. Lepenies, who characterizes the speech as a “remarkable outburst of republicanism on romantic ground,” remarks dryly that what critics have often described as Mann’s conversion to democracy was made possible by a sleight of hand, the substitution of political interest for inwardness. In other words, Mann had found a way to embrace democracy and cosmopolitanism without letting go of a traditional notion of German culture. When Mann published the text in English translation in 1942, he followed an American friend’s advice to drop his celebratory comments about Whitman and male bonding, which were not politically correct at a time when anti-Nazi propaganda made much of the alleged perversions (read: homosexual leanings) of Hitler and his followers. This act of self-censorship proved that, for better or worse, culture and politics are always intertwined, a lesson Mann had come to learn the hard way.