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.