July 27, 2006

The High Cost of Arrogance

Publishers Weekly has an interesting review of The Seduction of Culture in German History by Wolf Lepenies:
The German obsession with high culture has no parallel elsewhere: Berlin alone has three opera houses, and Hitler was more distraught by the Allied bombing of Nazi-approved cultural monuments than the destruction of his cities. Lepenies, a leading German intellectual and journalist, examines this pride, a phenomenon he says is at odds with the status of culture in France, Britain and America. In the latter countries, the concept of "culture" includes everything from politics to sports, morality to social issues. Only in Germany does Kultur solely represent the exalted life of the mind; it opposes, "with mandarin-like scorn," everyday politics and economics, and carries a concomitant belief in the superiority of the German nation over other nations concerned with such matters. Lepenies brilliantly argues that this notion of Kultur has profoundly influenced Germany's domestic and foreign policy for centuries. According to Lepenies, the German indifference to politics partly caused the downfall of the Weimar Republic (too few could be bothered to defend it from its enemies), contributed to the rise of Nazi ideology and continues to shape Germany's sometimes troubled relations with its European neighbors and America.
Did high culture help spur the First World War? Don't laugh. A thoughtful reader sent me the following review of a new book:
As a consequence of the long intermarriage of the British and German royal families, upper-class Germans knew upper-class Britain quite intimately during the decades before the First World War. Families and businesses were intermingled and it was common for young Germans to attend school or university in Britain. In turn, the British were in awe of German high culture, its literature, music and science. British universities were even persuaded to import that strange German innovation, the research degree or PhD. As a result, many German army officers spoke perfect English and had a deep working knowledge of British society - or thought they had. They were not impressed by what they saw. Upper-class Germans thought the English had become debased by Celtic and Jewish influences, and by a selfish concentration on commerce as opposed to heroic Wagnerian values and a love of science and the arts for their own sake.

So the Germans entered the First World War with contempt for the decadence of British culture. When the first British troops taken prisoner in 1914 sportingly tried to shake hands with their captors, they were beaten up for their pains. The Germans disdainfully characterised this British national characteristic as "sportsidiotsmus" - meaning they were unserious and ignorant.

The Prussian military believed the French and Russians were brave and worthy enemies, while the Brits were only in it for the money. Ordinary rank-and-file Germans were taught to believe the British started the war out of jealousy and were paying the French and Russians to encircle the Fatherland. The German high command and ordinary German footsoldiers were impatient to come to grips with the new British conscript armies that were expected to arrive in France in 1916. They would teach the ignorant, stupid Tommies a lesson they would never forget.

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