Germany, said historian Norbert Elias, “cannot move ahead until a convincing explanation for the rise of Hitler has been given.” British journalist and scholar Watson (Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention, from Fire to Freud, 2005, etc.) offers several in this sweeping survey of German culture.
The 20th century should have belonged to the German-speaking world. Every humanist scholar was indebted to thinkers such as Hegel and Kant, every reformer to Marx and Engels, every musician to Beethoven and Mozart, every scientist to Röntgen and Einstein. All that came undone with the rise of Nazism, one result of which was a thorough disavowal of that culture. By one account, writes the author, some 60,000 writers, scientists, intellectuals, artists and musicians “were sent either into exile or to the death camps by 1939.” The infamies of Nazism are well known—so much so, in fact, that they are all that most non-Germans know of the German world today, such that, according to a recent poll, “fully 60 percent of Britons could not name a living German.” The author endeavors to make up for this generalized ignorance with this hefty tome, which begins with the death of Bach in 1750 and extends to the present, “normal” Germany. Every page is packed with names, dates and numbers, sometimes in an embarrassment of riches. Within just a few representative pages, for instance, the reader encounters capsule lives of Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse, Robert Musil, Franz Kafka, Lion Feuchtwanger and Erich Maria Remarque. Occasionally Watson’s logic seems a bit rushed, as when he suggests that without Karl Marx, 9/11 would never have happened. (Adam Smith would seem as likely a candidate.) Valuably, the author identifies several cultural seedbeds for the rise of Nazism, among them the widespread acceptance among all classes of late-19th-century society of Social Darwinism, competing strains of anti-Semitism, each more virulent than the next, and an overarching sense of pessimism and grief following World War I—attested to, among other sources, in the sorrowful poems of Rilke.
A sprawling book, but with few wasted words—a welcome resource for students of modern history, literature and cultural studies.