Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The Lost German Century

"IT WAS IN April 1979 in West Berlin. Raymond Aron and I were walking to an exhibit commemorating the centenary of the births of Einstein, Max von Laue, Otto Hahn, and Lise Meitner. We were passing bombed-out squares and half-decrepit mansions of a once proud capital, our thoughts already at the exhibit, when Aron suddenly stopped at a crossing, turned to me, and said, "It could have been Germany's Century." Aron, French scholar and Jew who had studied in Berlin in the early 1930s and had seen German promise turn to nemesis, mused on what might have been. In the ensuing years I have extended my studies of German scientists, of German creativity and destruction, which I had already begun then. In preparing this work on Einstein's German world for publication twenty years later, I recognize the resonance of the theme that Aron had so casually, so memorably set."


"In the late eighteenth century a cultural renaissance erupted in the German lands; Europeans, in awe of artistic and philosophic achievements, began to speak of Germany as a land of poets and thinkers. Germans themselves referred to that period, roughly 1770-1830, as the Age of Genius, the Geniezeit. (For Germans, the word Genie has a special ring, denoting creative powers of demonic magnitude.) By the mid-nineteenth century in economic terms, after 1871 and unification in political terms, and by the end of the century in scientific-technological terms--Germany was transformed into a country of doers and innovators, of world-renowned natural scientists still steeped in Germany's humanistic culture. The very names of Einstein, Ehrlich, Planck, and Haber--and the extended and sometimes fractious family of scientists among whom they lived and worked--evoke the greatness of this period, expressed as it was also in German culture more broadly defined, when German writers and artists had the intuition of uneasy modernity. This might be called Germany's second Geniezeit, one fraught with danger."

These extracts are taken from the introduction to Fritz Stern's Einstein's German World, a book that I am now absolutely going to hunt down. Read the rest of the chapter and it does serve as a powerful reminder of the breadth of astonishing talent born to Germany at the beginning of the last century.

Germany's unfortunate abandonment of this promising future for the insanity of two great wars and mass murder passed the torch to the United States. America's list of technological and scientific achievements since 1945 has been similarly stunning. Both of these countries, along with others like Britain before them, were overflowing with scientific and cultural achievement which can be hard to explain.

America and Germany had new institutions which offered a practical education and were certainly the source of a great many significant successes; the links between German (Beer's "The emergence of the German dye industry") and US industrial research and development and scientific education has been well documented. Equally, there is some evidence that even the great inventors responded to economic conditions. However, it still seems a stretch to believe that this can be responsible for the outpourings of talent of the sort described in the extracts from Stern's work above.

Another important thing to note is that this kind of intellectual achievement has, as Stern implicity acknowledges, for quite some time been associated with political and economic pre-eminence. Will the new candidates for great power status such as India and China be able to secure for themselves the accompanying intellectual achievement?

They certainly have the brains and their education systems can probably overcome their current limitations. However, the challenge will be to overcome the tendency of scientists to seek the largest concentrations of other scientists (it makes research easier and a lot more fun) and the path dependence this creates leading research to the existing scientific centres of the West. It will probably take political intervention to overcome this handicap but that brings its own problems.

In the end, I still think there is a difficulty for historians trying to establish the source of national greatness. It almost certainly is not uniform, however, what I am trying to establish is that there is an intellectual element to becoming a great power which those looking with awe at the demographic potential of new candidates for great power status should remember.


Serf said...

I once heard a History Professor say the following.

There was no nation whose cultural depth could compete with the Germans in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Yet with one terrible decision, they went from the nation of Beethoven and Goethe, to a nation of butchers.

David Swift said...

You are in many ways. The so-called land of poets and thinkers has lost its charm over the years. In addition, it's been more than 10 years since this post has been on the internet. Talking about German authors is still important. Many of them shaped the literature and society in general.