- Seduction of Culture in German History
Wolf Lepenies is a well-known German professor of sociology at the Free University of Berlin who has spent several years at Princeton Institute for Advanced Study and contributes regularly to Die Welt. In The Seduction of Culture he critically examines the proclivity of German intellectuals to substitute high cultural ideals for an empirical and democratic politics. Culture, for them, masks civic responsibility.
For Lepenies, this a-political attitude manifested itself across the course of modern German history. With Kulturstaadt confounded with Kraftstaadt, Germany entered the twentieth century. Cultural arguments supported military goals during the First World War. Aesthetics displaced politics and civic responsibility during the Weimar Republic. The Third Reich promoted itself as a cultural restoration. The allied bombing on Dresden was considered as an atrocity against Germany cultural treasures rather than as German life.
In the aftermath of the Second World War, in exile and at home, German and German Jew continued to celebrate German high culture and its abstract philosophy. Political thought and responsibility languished, especially in East Germany where censorship ruled. East German thinkers like Gottfried Benn retreated inward. They found consolation in self-pity. They camouflaged their responsibility for past wrongs and present abuses in redundant and arcane Marxist explanation. Standard Denazification programs exonerated them. Their counterparts in the Federal Republic too evaded the past, preferring inward and subjective migrations. Brooding replaced seeing and thinking. Culture ducked the matter of civility—what citizens owe citizens, and what the German people did and what they should do. Deep concerns about culture did not prepare Germany for the coming down of the wall in 1989 or confronting the task of unification. Lepennies sees the same evasive and "culture-covers-all attitude" in recent proposals for giant monuments to commemorate the Holocaust. They substitute "a distant and abstract guilt" for the ordinary, humble, and sharp reminders of German indecency and complicity.
Lepenies utilizes, in his own words, "a kind of history of ideas approach" to depict [End Page 226] the German failure of mind. This well-written and even delightfully aphoristic collection of eleven essays, does not rest on a historical mapping of changing political, social, and economic structures. Instead, his cultural cartography highlights individual and groups of thinkers focusing on such nineteenth-and twentieth-century luminaries as Novalis, Heine, Burckhardt, Neitzche, Weber, Mannheim, Meinecke, Arendt, Jaspers, and Adorno. He uses the twin intellectual towers of eighteenth-century Goethe and twentieth-century Thomas Mann to measure the failure of German thinkers to form a true democratic and humanist bridge from the eighteenth century cosmopolitanism to twentieth century democracy. Goethe, though constantly re-interpreted and exploited anew with each successive regime, offers for Lepenies a model of a cosmopolitanism that fuses humanities and the sciences and joins Germany and France to Enlightenment Europe. He idealizes Mann's twentieth-century pilgrimage from being an apolitical advocate of German cultural uniqueness to becoming an American citizen who advocates the indispensability of democracy and republicanism for Germany. Uncomfortable himself with brooding depths or clarion declarations, Lepenies repetitiously and sincerely praises Mann for his recourse to irony.
Lepenies acknowledges that to a degree his work is only an elaboration of sociologist and émigré Nobert Elias' characterization of the German mind. In contrast to the French and English, who see the highest social goal of organized life a civilization, which includes politics, society, and technology, Germans, conversely, according to Elias, identify the end of community with Kultur, which consists of art, religion, and intellectual life. This juxtaposition of civilization and culture, which could amount to practical Rome vs. spiritual Greece, results, Lepenies writes, in "recurrent feeling among the German middle-class elites that politics and the affairs of the state represented the area of humiliation and lack of freedom, while culture represented the sphere of their freedom and their pride."
Germany, for Lepanies, was born as an idea. It, like so many of other romantically created peoples, came like Athena out of the heads of its intellectuals. Seeing only an image of France, Italy, and England...