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Friday, April 20, 2012

“The German Genius: Europe's Third Renaissance, the Second Scientific Revolution, and the Twentieth Century”, by Peter Watson


992 pages, HarperCollins Publishers, ISBN-13: 978-0060760229

Irony struggles with world history in this recent Financial Times headline "Germany told to act to save Europe." Times have changed since 1945. We missed something along the way in all our readings and movies. Convenient villains for so long, the Germans are now asked to play savior. It is time to pull aside the historical blinders of World War Two, its atrocities and aftermath and open our eyes to Germany's contributions to science, philosophy, music, modern thought and their effect on our 21st Century’s sensibilities. Peter Watson's massive survey book reacquaints the reader, if "reacquainting" is the right verb, to the Germanic phenomenon with his deep research and cultural sensitivity without leaving unaddressed the twelve years of Nazi rule. Reading it is a sumptuous feast on Germanic erudition, philosophical thought and achievement by an author with a keen eye for detail and a gift for synthesis.

To paraphrase Philip Larkin, this is a serious book on serious ground; not to be consumed in one or two sittings; its complexities and intricacies are many, inviting the reader to carefully ponder the roots of Western philosophical thought, the wellsprings of nineteenth century symphonic music (mostly Germanic), the scope of Western artistic achievement, the nature of politics and political dialogue in our modern society and the engines of science in the past two hundred years. Watson plies his deep knowledge of the German character in his concluding chapter with five traits of German culture worthy of thoughtful consideration; an educated middle class inhabiting the world of scholarship (and by scholarship, he includes research), the arts (music, film, stage and literature), science, the legal, medical, and religious professions based not on the acquisition of knowledge but "as a process of character development;" a personal reflective character "inwardness" leading one to observe "new structures of our minds;" the German concept of "Bildung," being the primary achievement of the central driving force of inwardness, resulting in a harmonization of research with scholarship leading as " a defining phenomenon of modernity;" and a redemptive community "sustaining a moral community in the face of rampant individualism." These are thought provoking concepts for a people as controversial – and consequential – as the Germans have been for the last century.

The introduction alone was worth the purchase price and is what pulled me into purchasing the book. It is quite fascinating. Given that it is written by a British author/journalist who discusses England's relationship to Germany and some of his motivations for writing the book is also a plus. The German Genius is not a fast read and at times I wish for more of the synthesis of information that he displayed in the Introduction, however one realizes the problem as he appears to really be trying to bring in every German of significant contribution. And as an author he appears to be able to stand in the background. I'd have liked to have read this book faster, but it doesn't lend itself to that because of the level of detail, but I found out things about Germany I have never seen in other contexts.

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