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GREGORY RODRIGUEZ

Kultur uber alles

Prewar Germans disdained politics as low-brow. There's a lesson in that mistake.

September 17, 2006|GREGORY RODRIGUEZ | GREGORY RODRIGUEZ is an Irvine senior fellow at the New America Foundation. grodriguez@latimescolumnists.com

Berlin — WHEN ONE thinks of Nazism, high culture generally doesn't come to mind. But a new book by a prominent intellectual historian here argues that it was precisely the German elites' traditional adulation of culture that permitted Adolf Hitler and National Socialism to triumph in the early 1930s.

What, you ask, does the love of poetry, opera and literature have to do with imperialism and genocide? Well, according to Wolf Lepenies -- who next month will receive the Peace Prize, one of Germany's most prestigious literary awards -- in the early 20th century, German intellectuals tended to see themselves as being above politics.

It's not that the elites didn't care about the fate of the German nation but that they understood the nation to be more a cultural than a political entity. As such, they -- and the middle class that took its cues from them -- saw the creation and appreciation of high German culture as a substitute for political participation.

Unlike other Europeans, Germans still tend to make a sharp distinction between the meaning of the terms kultur and zivilization. In the German language, "civilization" refers more to material culture -- the economy and physical infrastructure and the rules that govern them -- while "culture" describes artistic endeavors that transcend the material world.

This distinction, in part, derives from the fact that German culture emerged long before the foundation of a German state. Dubbed by historians "the belated nation" because it was not founded until 1871, to this day "Germany" has existed longer as a culture and an idea than it has as a unified nation. Before 1871, in the absence of a German state that could unify an array of allied duchies and principalities, artists and intellectuals came to view culture as a more powerful means of forging German unity than politics.

In 1799, philosopher Wilhelm von Humboldt wrote in a letter to poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe that "whoever occupies himself with philosophy and art belongs to the fatherland more intimately than others." A century later, the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche went so far as to bemoan the creation of a German state, arguing that now one had to choose between politics and culture.

"One prospers at the expense of the other," Nietzsche wrote. "All the great ages of culture are ages of decline, politically speaking: What is great in the cultural sense has been unpolitical, even anti-political."

This intellectual bias was buttressed by the nation's underdeveloped civil society. Unlike, say, the French republic or the United States, Germany was not established by way of a bourgeois revolution but essentially by a kind of monarchical decree. As a result, in the first half of the 20th century, its educated elite and middle classes still had no sense of their responsibility and role within their young nation's political decision-making process.

Not surprisingly, the belief in the primacy of culture over politics also had a devastating effect on German political discourse. "Culture is the realm of the absolute," Lepenies told me. "It strives for utopia."

Politics, on the other hand, is all about compromise. Indeed, at its core, politics is the realm in which citizens seek to balance competing interests within a society. It stands to reason that an intellectual elite that viewed culture as a superior national force to politics came to disdain the narrow-minded, self-interested rhetoric of parliamentary horse-trading.

Consequently, more than a few intellectuals were drawn to the romantic national aesthetic of Nazism, and too few of those who abhorred Hitler could be bothered to stoop into the lowly realm of politics to oppose him.

In 1930, writer Thomas Mann became among the first to break with this tradition of culture over politics when he endorsed not only Germany's fledgling democracy but the Social Democratic Party as a means to stem the rise of the National Socialists (he ultimately fled Germany in 1933). He had a decade earlier called on Germans to embrace the political, in the form of their nation state. In a 1922 speech, he pressed his countrymen to lend their "still stiff and unaccustomed tongues" to the call of "Long live the republic!"

Needless to say, Mann's urgings did nothing to either subvert Germany's anti-democratic tendencies or halt the encroachment of fascism. Lepenies points again to Mann's words, this time uttered in 1941, the year the famous author moved to Los Angeles. Mann suggested in a letter that Germans should not be allowed to use romantic terms such as tiefe ("depth"); Germans needed instead to understand the meaning of anstandigkeit ("decency").

"These romantic words like 'depth' or 'soul' all have something to do with solitude," Lepenies explained to me. "Decency," on the other hand, is a social word that suggests an attitude to people around us.

In the "monumentalization" of Nazi crimes, Lepenies wrote in "The Seduction of Culture in German History," we forget that the real problem in German society was the absence of courage and the "disappearance of decency in everyday life." Because so few had been trained in democratic responsibility, and so many were fooled by the idea of culture over politics, most Germans were incapable of expressing decency and dissent in the public sphere.

The moral of the story to those of us who disdain the deceptiveness and buffoonery of the political world is that as tawdry as they are, democratic politics is still the realm in which we learn -- and are permitted -- to assert our personal notions of social decency in the public square.

It's not pretty, and it's rarely uplifting, but it's all we've got.

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