In his previous post, Aaron touches on one of the most fundamental points in our discussion: modern German history is a compression of all of modern Western history. But, there is one point I must add which makes German history even richer than its dramatic events already are by themselves: Germans not only made history, but they have also written history.
On the one hand, Germans have excelled at researching the minutiae of history. Although textual criticism had been around for some time (the Renaissance, for example, witnessed an upsurge in interest), it really took off in 19th-century Germany, particularly in the field of Biblical studies. But classical philology of all sorts in the 19th-century was dominated by Germans; the texts we use for reading the ancient Greek and Latin authors are in large part the texts we have inherited from German philologists. Without their painstaking scholarship, we would lack basic knowledge about many basic aspects of the ancient world.
Of course, this focus on the minutiae of ancient texts, as necessary as it may be to produce an accurate text, led to a kind of scientific myopia in the German academy. Professors did not necessarily read ancient authors for their inherent interest or historical importance, but rather so they could resolve technical questions of text criticism. As a result, German professors were caricatured as pedants writing preposterously impenetrable prose both at home (e.g., Heine’s dream professor in Die Harzreise) and abroad (e.g., Carlyle’s Teufelsdröckh and Henry Adams in Democracy).
But, there are other voices in the 19th-century German academic tradition. For instance, Nietzsche, whose essay on the Use and Abuse of History we have cited before, rebelled against this academic tradition by focusing on the literary and philosophical problems posed by the Greek authors he was ready. The Birth of Tragedy was an audacious essay for a young professor to write—instead of writing a technically correct but boring essay for specialists, he dared to reinterpret the Greek spirit. On a more theoretical level, Wilhelm Dilthey initiated much of German philosophy’s interest in hermeneutics.
Outside of the academy (at least partly so), German Romanticism brought a sense of history—and a sense of historical loss—to the common people. The work of Clemens Brentanto and Achim von Arnim in compiling the folk songs contained in Des Knaben Wunderhorn, or the Grimm Brothers’ collection of folk tales—following Herder’s and Goethe’s lead—highlighted to the German people that their medieval past was still alive, yet in danger of being lost. Indeed, German Romanticism is one of the reasons for the widespread neo-medievalism throughout 19th-century Europe.
Most importantly, Germans have loved to theorize about history more than any other nation, and they have loved to apply their grand theories to the writing of history. They are the ones who taught us how to theorize about history at all. Some of the first great historians of the modern era came from the German lands, such as Leopold von Ranke and Jacob Burckhardt (who was Swiss but studied in Germany). No matter what one’s opinion of Hegel is, no one can deny that his focus on history led us to look at historical processes and their “world-historical” meaning more carefully.
But the mention of Hegel inevitably leads to the dark side of German theorizing. Germany is the heartland of modern ideology. Marxism and Nazism in particular inflicted immense suffering on the 20th century. In Germany, ideology was more than just the occupation of a small coterie of fanatical professors and revolutionaries; it spread to the educated classes as a whole. Eric Voegelin, in one of his autobiographical notes, recalls how the students he taught in Munich in the 1950’s, were usually much better academically prepared for university students than the Americans he had met in the 1940’s (e.g., they read more languages), but they were also far more ideological than American students; because they were already exposed to competing theories of history, they could not keep an open mind when studying history.
Yet, in the end, Voegelin, who reacted against the German tradition, was in so many ways the finest product of that very tradition. He was an immensely learned man in many fields, who did not shrink from dirtying his hands with detailed textual criticism, but was also intimately familiar with philosophy throughout the ages. He combined the love of minutiae with the love of theory.
The enduring interest of Germany for the modern American, then, lies not necessarily in the lessons its recent history can teach us. Dictatorships of the masses are a danger even in America. But, Germany has not only given us exciting history to learn about and extremely relevant history to learn from, but it has also given us the lenses through which to view history.