"Germany is the most grown-up country in the world today"

A conversation with Peter Watson, the author of "The German Genius"

In these days of specialization, Peter Watson is a rare generalist; in 2008, he published Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention, from Fire to Freud, and his more recent book is The German Genius: Europe's Third Renaissance, the Second Scientific Revolution and the Twentieth Century. Craig Morris, an American, spoke with Watson, an Englishman, about how impressed they are with Germany.

In the 1990s, I taught at the University of Freiburg, and in one of my courses we discussed the influence of Germans on the United States. A student from Scandinavia asked me why Germans were leaders in practically every field you could think of - not only in economics and the sciences, but also in music, literature, etc. I didn't have an answer, but I also realized that the question itself is based on a correct assumption. A decade and a half later, you answered his question for me - over 1,000 pages. How would you answer him today?
Peter Watson: Germany really represents the age of educated middle-class culture. What I was really struck with in researching my book was the number of creative individuals - philosophers and so forth - who were the sons and daughters of pastors. Angela Merkel herself is the daughter of a pastor. They may no longer themselves have any religious belief, but their upbringing means that they are well-educated and serious. It is the pietistic background that Germany had in the 17th and 18th centuries.
This underlying seriousness in Germany proved very successful in the 19th century in the creation of modern scholarship and science. Look not only at the books written the 19th century, but also the economic progress - the inventions, the patents - that Germany had to its name. Combined with an educated civil service, this approach had the blessings of the government. Germany was far out in front on all of these matters, and all of this came out in the wash between around 1850 and 1933. To some extent, it's on its way back again, not just since 1945, but also since 1989.
Go to a big bookstore in Germany, and you may find a whole room of philosophy books and a wall of philosophy books on tape - three volumes of Adorno, seven discs of Kant. This is unthinkable in America or Britain or France. Yes, we have our philosophy sections, but they are the size of a window. Historian Heinrich Winkler said that Germany has completed its long road west, and I agree, but this underlying greater seriousness is what makes the real difference. And I think you see this when you look at the German impact on America. America may speak English, but it thinks German. This is down to the people of German heritage in America. The whole public culture there, the universities - it's much more like Germany than like British entities. I think this is the explanation for your Scandinavian student.
You write of a "German Renaissance." The Renaissance everyone thinks of is the one that started in Italy, and I wonder if the German and Italian Renaissances don't have something in common in structural terms. Like Germany, the Italy that produced the Renaissance consisted of strong principalities and cities with weak central authority. You point out that Germany had 47 universities around 1800, whereas Britain only had four. If we just compare Germany to Britain and France, would you say the centralist histories in those two countries - compared to the more distributed sharing of power across German - led to a small number of elite universities, whereas Germany/Italy was splintered, so its principalities, etc. had to compete with each other, which produced a much different outcome - with literacy rates being extremely high in Germany far earlier than anywhere else?
Peter Watson: I actually say that there have been three Renaissances, the first one having begun in France in the 12th century, which saw the invention of the University and the development of cities. Then you get the Italian one, which we call the Renaissance, so in my view the German one is the Third Renaissance starting in the late 18th century.
But your point is a good one, for it implies that there are these entities within a country that can compete. I certainly think that happened. France and Britain have these dominant capitals of Paris and London, whereas even today Germany has probably seven or eight major cities with their economic hinterlands, publishers, and so forth. I think that's much healthier and helps maintain a country at the forefront. To digress slightly, I do feel that London - where I live - is the best place to live, but I also feel that London has been achieved at the cost of the rest of the country. The other cities are hopeless in terms of theaters, intellectual lives, etc. and once again, America is more like Germany here with five, six, seven, or eight decent cities that are competing cultural centers. So the element of competition is important. Some of those 47 German universities in 1800 were very small, but they stepped up competition.
You also had the influence of the courts, who would sponsor poor, but bright boys - very often, the sons of pastors - and send them to university. So all that time, you had intellectual and social mobility in Germany. You had a mechanism whereby you spotted the poor, bright boy and gave him a shot. Herder is a case in point. And this had a fantastic effect on German culture.
Like most people, I tend to read books I already agree with, and I don't change my mind easily - but you changed my mind on one thing. The Bologna Process is harmonizing higher education within the EU, and some German traditions have been abandoned in the process. A few Germans complain that learning by rote is replacing independent, critical thinking, and I always thought, why are they making such a fuss? After all, German universities are currently not generally ranked at the top internationally - whereas US and British universities are. But your history of the crucial role that such universities as Göttingen and Halle played really makes it clear that German universities have always operated a bit differently. You explain that Germany has not only produced leading researchers, but that the Germans actually invented a lot of the fields of study themselves - and, in a way, invented research. Do you think some of that lives on today, and if so, are we losing something by sacrificing some German university traditions in order to harmonize higher education in the EU?
Peter Watson: I'm not sure I know how to answer that. What you probably don't know is that I don't speak German. I had interpreters and translators who worked with me. But I rarely needed them - everybody I wanted to talk to spoke English. A lot of them had been to the London School of Economics, which is a wonderful window onto Germany for Britain, possibly because Dahrendorf was director there. But I think the German system served very well until 1933 and was far and away better than anywhere else. It used to be common in Britain for people to go spend a year in Germany after they got their degree.
What's coming back more than anything now in Germany is its habit of having research conducted outside of the university, such as at Max Planck institutes - these are now world-class institutions. The universities have a lot to offer in teaching, and the institutes offer research. So you don't impose research duties on those who would rather teach and vice versa. This is a system that was developed in the 19th century in Germany and was held up by the Nazis, and over the past 20 years it has re-emerged as a strong system. That's probably not what your students meant when they said they want the German system back, but this is where I see the German system's strengths.
You seem to be writing the book for a purpose. You repeatedly stress that German history cannot be reduced to 12 years - which is something I said several years ago myself (Looking at each other). But when Germans say such things, they are immediately suspected of being relativists and revisionists. Are we making progress on this front?
Peter Watson: Yes and no. When I was starting, Fritz Stern said a German couldn't write this book; they would be accused of triumphalism. And a lot of people have said that to me since. My argument is addressed to the British, who cannot get over World War II. When I give talks, I make all these points, and then we end up talking about the Third Reich. And afterwards, the Germans in the audience come up to me and say quietly, "we're so glad you wrote this book." But they won't say it in the forum.
I gave a talk recently in Birmingham, and all of the people attending were professional university teachers of German. But we ended up talking about the war. So I said, let's stop here, and I threw it back to the Germans - the German ambassador was also attending - and I asked them to comment. And they all said that this was the kind of discussion that can only happen in Britain. They said that if we had this forum in Poland or elsewhere, that discussion just wouldn't happen. So they agreed with me that the British are uniquely infatuated with the war.
I wrote the book for that reason, but I also know a lot of Germans in London, all of whom I would consider well-educated, and they tell me, "well, we don't actually look back beyond 1933 ourselves." I think that's an extraordinary thing for these modern-day Germans to say. So there seems to be another reason to write the book for Germans as well.
Polls have also recently shown that Germany is a very popular country. You argue that Germany would be a good role model for the world. Is this world ready to move beyond the Nazis and accept Germany as a role model?
Peter Watson: Yes, I think so. Some people put it down to the World Cup in 2006, but I don't. I think people are envious of Germany's economic power. And there is this stereotype in Britain that the Germans are not funny. Since only one percent of British students are fluent in German, how can they possibly know? They cannot understand German, so they simply don't know. It's time we got over that. But I think we do admire hard work - particularly those of us with a Protestant heritage.
But we are only halfway there. In my conversations, I find that people don't know that Germany exports more than America, more than China, more than anybody - at least up until 2009 http://notesfromotherside.blogspot.com/2010/01/germany-is-now-2-world-exporter.html. So there is this envy of Germany on the one hand, but then there is also this profound ignorance of even some of the most basic things. But those who understand would agree with Mark Mardell, of the BBC, who stated that "Germany is probably the most grown-up country in the world today."

Craig Morris is director of Petite Planète

. (Craig Morris)