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.

In a memorable chapter titled “German Culture At Home: A Moral Failure Turned to Intellectual Advantage,” Lepenies conjures up the intense cultural flowering in the brief transitional period between the fall of the Third Reich and the foundation of the two German states in 1949. It was a time in which a vital theater and musical culture emerged among the ruins and new magazines were taking off, but the appetite for cultural renewal was laced with political apathy and cynicism. Theodor Adorno, who returned to Germany after the war, argued powerfully against the delusion that German culture could simply be “resurrected” at a time that called for a thoroughgoing questioning of culture’s complicity in the Third Reich and the Holocaust.

As Lepenies reminds us, the postwar encounter between the returning exiles and the representatives of the so-called inner emigration–those who had withdrawn into mute inwardness, seeking consolation in traditional notions of German culture rather than resisting the Nazi regime politically–was conflicted and resentful. Some of the inner emigrants had the gall to accuse the exiles, particularly Thomas Mann, of having watched German suffering during the Allied bombing campaign from the luxury and safe distance of their homes abroad. This public denunciation reinforced Mann’s reluctance to move back to Germany. Another source of tension between the returning exiles and the inner emigrants concerned the nature and extent of German responsibility for the crimes of the Nazi state. In 1946 philosopher Karl Jaspers, who had stayed in Germany during the war, argued against the thesis of collective responsibility and called for legal prosecution of the perpetrators, while his student Hannah Arendt, who had been exiled during the war, claimed that Nazi crimes were so enormous, and responsibility so widely shared, that they exceeded the realm of any legal prosecution.

But the “moral failure” Lepenies primarily has in mind is exemplified by Friedrich Meinecke, who in his widely discussed and influential book The German Catastrophe claimed that Nazism had been imposed on the Germans from the outside and that salvation lay in an intensified development of German inwardness without regard to denazification and re-education. The solution to Germany’s problems, he suggested, lay in the creation of Goethe communities across the Fatherland. Absurd as this was, Meinecke’s proposal revealed that German Kultur, in the minds of many, had survived the war and could now be deployed to forget the atrocities committed and benefits reaped by the Germans and not just by the Nazi regime. In Lepenies’s pithy formulation, “Meinecke’s book became a symbol of the German catastrophe it claimed to analyze.” As Arendt, Jaspers and Adorno all observed, culture, once surgically separated from politics, provided an escape from reality in the immediate postwar years–as well as a flight from responsibility, from feelings of guilt and shame.

What Adorno called “the resurrection of culture,” nurtured between 1945 and 1949 especially but not only by the self-serving inner emigration, is what Lepenies calls “a moral failure turned to intellectual advantage.” But was it an advantage? Wasn’t it rather just another chapter in the seduction of culture in German history, with both exiles and émigrés once again giving too much weight to culture at the expense of politics, and thus setting the stage for the 1950s? For the decade of West Germany’s “economic miracle” was a time in which intellectuals still lived off the separation of culture from politics, shunning any ideology, fascist or communist, under the protective mantle of cold war antitotalitarianism. One wishes that Lepenies had written another chapter on what the cold war did to German notions of Kultur, how it restored much-maligned Modernism and “degenerate art” to West Germany, while anti-Modernism and socialist notions of classicism and realism, the so-called bourgeois heritage, ruled in East Germany. It seems that Kultur survived longer in the Stalinist East than in the capitalist West.

Lepenies might also have offered a more probing treatment of the German-Jewish intellectuals who embraced Goethe, the Enlightenment and secular humanism as a counterweight to the political pressures that since the late nineteenth century had increasingly marginalized Jews in the national state. I don’t think that their common attraction to Kultur makes these groups resemble each other quite as much as Lepenies suggests. On the contrary, the German appeal to Kultur tended to exclude the seminal German-Jewish poet and writer Heine as un-German (despite his conversion to Christianity), a trend that prefigured the Nazi campaign against “degenerate” Modernism.

Certainly, Lepenies is right to say that the traditional notion of German Kultur re-emerged in the immediate post-World War II period. The retreat into cultural identity after military defeat is understandable, and by no means confined to the German experience. Politics of whatever kind–fascist, communist, democratic–had become deeply suspect. But Lepenies goes further, claiming that nowhere did the seduction of culture survive to the same degree as in Germany, “though now in considerably weaker form.”

This is where we part company. In public debate Germans may still focus more on literary, philosophical and artistic figures than Americans do. After all, there are no founding fathers to celebrate, no Lincoln, no Roosevelt. But the aura of Kultur–which rested on its opposition to the West, its hostility to mass culture, its anti-Enlightenment and often banal Romantic ideology, its celebration of inwardness and classical music–has waned dramatically since West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer’s program of “Westintegration” in the 1950s. And with the cultural upheaval of the sixties, nationalist German opposition to the West all but disappeared, apart from some expressions of anti-Americanism that are not peculiar to Germany. Indeed, the death knell for the older idea of German Kultur was sounded when the young people embraced American rock and roll, pop, jazz and the movies. Even as young Germans turned increasingly against US policy in Vietnam and throughout the Third World, they drew their lessons in civil disobedience from American protest movements and never once turned back to national Kultur. Alternative German traditions (German Jacobins, the 48ers, the left Weimar avant-garde) were rediscovered, and a new and no longer nationally bound understanding of culture and politics emerged that shaped a left-liberal consensus dominant in German intellectual life until 1989 and beyond.

The unification of 1990 may have led to a stronger appreciation of German classics like Goethe and Thomas Mann, but this revival, pace Lepenies, is in the mode of cultural preservation and identity that one finds in other European countries, rather than a reassertion of cultural exceptionalism, much less supremacy. In today’s Germany, high and low culture no longer stand in a vertical hierarchical relationship but in a horizontal live-and-let-live one. No young German today would march to war with Hölderlin’s poetry in his knapsack or identify with Faust, as earlier generations did. Postwar Germans are overwhelmingly seduced by Mephisto’s offer of the material good life, finding little echo of their experience in Faust’s metaphysical lament about the two irreconcilable souls in his breast. The Third Reich and Auschwitz continue to weigh heavily in united Germany, but the debates about Holocaust memory and its articulations in literature (Martin Walser, W.G. Sebald), the visual arts (Anselm Kiefer) and architecture (Daniel Libeskind, Peter Eisenman) that shake the German public sphere anew every few years are no more cultural than they are political. That Kultur in its traditional sense has lost its appeal is one of the consequences of the Third Reich.

But it is especially the broader idea of the war of cultures that interests Lepenies. The idea of civilizational clash is not original to Samuel Huntington but appears as early as 1927, in Julien Benda’s pamphlet “The Treason of the Intellectuals,” which described the 1812-13 Prussian war of liberation against Napoleon as a guerre des cultures. Indeed, culture wars always involve treason: treason of intellectual truth for political advantage. Benda chastised German intellectuals for embracing nationalist ideology rather than fighting for universalist values, and he warned against the dangers of German Romantic and relativist influences in France. Politically and intellectually, the 1812-13 war against French military, political and cultural hegemony fed German hostility to France, to revolution and to the Enlightenment. Here was the root of that infamous 1914 manifesto defending Kaiser and Reich and underwritten by almost 100 well-known German intellectuals–a document of “autistic arrogance,” in Fritz Stern’s words. By 1914 culture war had become a permanent fixture, with bloody consequences in the relations between France and Germany.

Benda’s polemic found an unlikely sequel sixty years later in the United States. Indeed, for American readers the most fascinating and deeply ironic chapter in Lepenies’s book will doubtless be the one on the American culture wars of the 1980s. The Reagan revolution wanted to turn back the clock on the changes of culture and lifestyle that had spread throughout the United States since the 1960s. Conservatives fretted about how to get the paste back into the tube and how to reassert a basic sense of the opposition of good and evil. In his 1987 bestseller The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom took Reagan’s “evil empire” approach to the Soviet Union as a call to cultural arms. In retrospect, Bloom’s book–more symptom than accurate analysis, as Lepenies says–reads like a cultural prelude to the neoconservative political doctrines of today. Bloom, a student of neoconservatism’s German godfather, Leo Strauss, warned that American cultural standards had declined because of a sinister “German Connection,” an allusion to the postwar invasion of German thought in US universities. “To the dismay of Bloom,” Lepenies writes, “not only the defeated Germans but also the victorious Americans underwent a reeducation program after the Second World War.” German Romanticism, relativism and nihilism had allegedly destroyed the classical humanist and universalist basis of American rational thought. The old canard of German irrationalism being irreconcilably opposed to Western rationalism had its last flight of fancy. Bloom’s culprits were not only Nietzsche and Heidegger and their French descendants like Derrida but also, implausibly, rationalists like Marx, Weber and Freud–even Thomas Mann, whom Bloom improbably characterized as a proponent of (homo)sexual liberation.

For Bloom, German culture was a system of thought and belief that did not travel, exactly what German cultural conservatives had always claimed before German armies took to the road. In fact, German culture has traveled well, and for good reason. German philosophy, political economy, psychoanalysis and sociology influenced scholars and writers throughout the world not because they were German but because they provided crucial insights into the contradictions, seductions and stresses of Western modernity. They nurtured critical self-reflection of enlightened modernity, something as necessary today as it was 100 years ago. This is where cultural and political analysis still has to begin to avoid the treason of the intellect that invariably follows when Kultur is held to trump politics or when politics is staged as culture in some fundamentalist form.

Lepenies’s reflections on French-German and American-German culture wars suggest that cultural interpretation is as much a part of the social world as any social or political fact. Indeed, his history of an idea is not just “an ornament on the building of social and political history,” as he says somewhat too defensively. It contains important political lessons for both Europe and the United States. The substitution of culture for politics is a dangerous road to travel. After the failure of the constitutional vote in France and the Netherlands, Europeans are in danger of deluding themselves that European cultural identity can compensate for the absence of a European Constitution or a European foreign policy. Turkey and Islamic immigration are increasingly identified as the cultural enemy. But the dangers are much more real in the United States. The intense focus on cultural issues like sex in the movies, evolution and creationism, even academic curriculums, distracts from the hollowing out of constitutional checks and balances, the dismantling of international law and domestic threats to civil rights. Even more ominous, the “war on terror” and the “march of democracy” have increasingly taken on shadings of a war of cultures. As German historian Heinrich von Treitschke argued more than a century ago, once war becomes war of cultures, there is no end to it.